Almost everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard A-ha’s breathless pop classic “Take on Me”.
Post Malone was in his parents’ basement, tattooing a portrait of Louis Althusser on his left ass cheek with the aid of a stolen compact mirror. Willie Nelson was alone in the back of his tour bus, trying to smoke a breadstick after burning through his entire stash of pot. Britney Spears was giving her sister’s Barbie Doll the evil eye and contemplating drowning it in the bathtub.
Someone you might not expect to be a fan is Gordon Lightfoot. In a little-known interview with Canadian Tire Magazine, Gordon once opined, “It really is the quintessential love song. It grabs you by the throat and forces you to eat a pile of hummus, whether you’re hungry or not.”
Dive deep enough into the Dark Web, past the secret Fifth Harmony porn films and the failed standup comedy of Donald Trump, and you’ll find a bootleg recording of an intimate show Gordon played for a small but appreciative audience in the mid-1990s, backed only by a pianist. For the only time in the great man’s long and storied career, he chose to put his stamp on a number of obscure covers, from Sepultura’s “Ratamahatta” to Swing Out Sister’s “Breakout”. Tucked away at the very beginning of the show like a quiet prayer is a song that has touched the lives of so many, written by some very photogenic Norwegian dudes.
Most of this one was recorded over two days in April. Zara played my Gibson LG-2 for the first time since her first album and brought along her own ukulele. I tried recording her playing and singing at the same time for a song or two, but that approach was abandoned pretty fast. There was too much bleed. I still haven’t found a way to record someone playing acoustic guitar and singing live off the floor that satisfies me. The microphones I use now are too sensitive to get enough separation, and the dynamic mics I used to pull out for live guitar/vocal recordings sound a little too thin now that they’re not plugged into a low-end mic preamp.
Funny how that works.
There was a lot of laughter and joking around between the songs. I mixed one of the silly moments and included it in the WAV files I sent Zara just for fun. I had no idea she was going to keep it on the album, but I’m glad she did.
I also captured her playing a bit of an idea that wasn’t yet a proper song. There were a few ukulele chords, there was an improvised vocal melody, and that was it. Something about that little sixty-second sketch really grabbed me. I thought it was kind of perfect just as it was. I sent that one along too, and it’s also on the album.
I’ve grown so used to people stamping out anything that resembles a human or random moment in their music, it’s almost a shock when someone wants to hold onto these things as much as I do. It’s a good kind of shock, though. Like waking up to discover they’ve started making Choclairs chocolate bars again.
Damn you for discontinuing those sticks of deliciousness, Neilson.
At the top of this post is a video for one of the songs on the album. My plan was to open the blinds and flood the room with some nice natural light, but every time Zara came over it was a grey, rainy day, so it wouldn’t have done much good. Even in a less than ideal lighting situation, I’m enjoying how much better this camera makes everything look. There’s a lot less grain than I was getting with the Flip cameras, and everything feels more vivid and real somehow.
Imagine what I could do if I got some decent lighting happening in that room for a change…
Mixing these songs was a bit of a challenge, just because of how dynamic the performances were. I had to get creative with compression settings and riding some faders to control things without squashing them. I think I found the right balance in the end.
Who wants a “set it and forget it” mixing job anyway? That stuff’s no fun.
Things have been downright tumultuous around here.
I wanted to get in the habit of blogging more often so I could hold myself accountable on the recording side of things. I haven’t managed to do that. I havebeen making good progress with the album. I’ve also had to accept this sad truth: there’s no way to get it finished in time for the show. It’s turned into too tight a race. I can get it close, but not all the way there.
This is a handbill the wonderful Katie Schram designed for me.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
It would be great if I could print a bunch of these and start handing them out to people. I can’t. For the first time in my life I have promotional material I can’t use, because the show it’s supposed to promote isn’t going to happen.
First my trombonist pulled out after committing to the show. Then my cellist stopped talking to me with no explanation. Before long my drummer was out of commission and unreachable, the only person I could get to agree to show up for a rehearsal was the bassist, and many of the most important musicians either wouldn’t acknowledge me at all or were pretty vague about when and if they might grace me with their presence.
Sounds a bit like a lame comedy sketch.
You might say, “Well, the musicians involved in this are talented enough that they don’t need much preparation. They could turn up the night of the show with a single rehearsal under their belt and fake their way through it just fine.”
Even if that’s true, the whole “rehearse very little and pray for a miracle” approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. It would be one thing if we were a band with some history. We’re not. I’ve only worked with these people one-on-one in a recording situation. Playing live as a group is a very different beast. You need time to build chemistry and work out arrangements.
I’ve played as a supporting musician in bands that half-assed everything and hoped for the music to glue itself together in the ninth hour. None of those performances were anything to write home about, and I was always a nervous wreck onstage. Why would I want to put myself through that when the music is my own?
The last time I played at Mackenzie Hall I had a three-piece band. We only had six or seven songs we needed to learn as a group. The rest of the show was made up of me doing solo pieces. We must have rehearsed a dozen times over a period of three months. The idea was to get to a place where we were comfortable enough with one another to take off on an improvised tangent in the middle of a song and navigate whatever twists and turns it took with confidence — to be able to pick up on tiny physical cues and execute pin-point dynamic shifts.
We put the work in to toughen ourselves up until we were a real band, and it paid off big time at the show.
That isn’t going to happen this time. Even if every necessary piece of the musical puzzle showed up to rehearse for every Saturday that’s left between now and August 17th, I don’t think there would be enough time for us to get good. At best we would be okay. And that’s not going to cut it.
I may go out of my way to leave mistakes and human moments in my recordings, but I care a great deal about what I do. I’m not going to half-ass my first serious live performance in eight years and the biggest show of my life to accommodate the absent asses of others. If people can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work, there’s no point in losing my mind trying to salvage something out of the chaos. I won’t march into a public humiliation out of some misguided sense of duty, and I didn’t work to get that grant so I could pay people for being a bunch of fucking deadbeats.
I wouldn’t be able to rehearse now anyway. All the stress has caught up with me and made me sick. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts?
I already had my mind pretty much made up about cancelling the show before I got sick, but I took some time to think it over. During my thinking-it-over time, the ghostly cellist popped up to say she’d be available to rehearse about three weeks before the show. As if that would somehow be enough time to get up to speed when she’s never played any of these songs before. The person who was supposed to be my main backup vocalist and a fill-in lead singer for other absent vocalists said she wouldn’t have any time to rehearse with me until the end of July — this after telling me she’d be available to start getting together in early June. Better yet, after letting me believe for months that she was going to be an integral part of the show and one of the main performers, she changed her mind. Now I could only choose three songs I really wanted her to sing on. That was all the material she felt like learning.
There’s no putting a good face on this — she lied to me. She misled me about the role she was prepared to play and how much time she was willing to set aside for me. She’s second-billed on that handbill up there. Someone who’s a glorified walk-on guest doesn’t deserve to be second-billed. And I don’t care how busy you are. If you’re not going to be honest with me, I don’t want to know you.
Any doubts I had about cancelling the show died a violent death right there.
The singer who didn’t want to do much singing wasn’t the only person who was full of shit. Not by a long shot. It’s as if some of these people believed the simple act of attaching their names to my show should have been satisfaction enough for me, and whatever near-nonexistent amount of effort I could get out of them beyond that was supposed to be a bonus.
Someone told me, “You have to understand…most musicians don’t operate the way you do. They have their heads perpetually stuck up their own asses, and their main concern is themselves. That’s just the way they are. You can’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.”
How am I not supposed to take it personally? What other way is there to take it? “Laziness” is not a valid excuse to me. You don’t get to treat your so-called friends like dirt just because you’re talented.
Actually, let me correct that: in most cases you do get to treat your so-called friends like dirt. A lot of people get away with being pretty awful human beings because they have some amount of talent — or at least the ability to convince others they do — and they can be charming and ingratiating when they feel like it. I don’t swim in that ditch. A talented piece of shit is still a piece of shit.
You can make all the excuses you want. My music is who I am. You blow that off and you’re blowing me off. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
I understand now that I made the tactical error of devising a show that relied on a large supporting cast of characters in order to succeed. Many of the most important players let me down. My dream was to give a multi-faceted gift to the community through music and visual art. The indifference of my peers has decimated that dream.
So I’ve cancelled the dates at Mackenzie Hall (dress rehearsal and performance), and a week ago I gave the grant money back to the city. I refuse to compromise my vision to the point that the show no longer resembles what it was supposed to be. This was going to be something special. It was the culmination of more than five years of work. I put it together a specific way and worked my ass off to make it a reality. Limping into Mackenzie Hall with some half-formed version of what could have been would feel even more like defeat than pulling the plug and walking away.
Could I have done something with just a rhythm section? Sure. Could I have done a one-man show? Yeah. But I’ve already done both of those things at Mackenzie Hall (and I think I did them pretty well). I have no desire to repeat myself.
Most of the people who were going to be my “special guests” were great at communicating with me. I didn’t have to chase them. I’m grateful for that. Darryl and Christy Litster, Ron Leary, Jess O’Neil, Jim Meloche, Dave Dubois, Natalie Westfall — all these folks have been wonderful every step of the way.
In the end, it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I had one big show left in me. This was it. Now it’s dead.
Lesson learned — I won’t try to do anything like this again. And if anyone accuses me of being a weirdo recluse who doesn’t play well with others after this, I will bite their head off and spit it back into their jagged blood-spurting neck hole.
You might think this is an extreme overreaction to a situation that wasn’t beyond help. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something like this only to watch it collapse in slow-motion. You can’t force people to show up. You can’t force them to care.
I’m told I’m the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money. It felt like the right thing to do. The event as I pitched it to the jury ceased to exist, and I didn’t want to abuse the system. I know there are people who do that and get away with it. I would rather be honest.
Maybe someone else with better luck will be able to use the money to realize a dream that’s more realistic than mine was. I hope so.
I’m not as disheartened as all of this might make me sound. I’ve gone through the grieving process and more or less made my peace with things not working out. As a wise woman once said, “[You] can’t hug every cat.” I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, though. I was pretty proud of the set list and supporting cast I put together. I think it could have been a night to remember.
We’ll never know now.
On a lighter note, the J, K, and L keys on my MacBook stopped working a few weeks ago. Every once in a while I could mash the other keys around them and trick them into cooperating with me for a little bit. After a few days my subterfuge no longer did any good. I was hoping it was just some dirt on one of the contacts. Nope. Had to get the whole keyboard replaced. That was a $200 expense I could have done without. At least the people at Experimax were great to deal with and they fixed it the same day I brought it in.
You don’t notice how much you rely on certain letters until they’re no longer accessible to you. The S key on my crusty old video-editing laptop died years ago, but it’s easy to work around. All I have to do is copy an S from an existing document or file and paste it whenever I need it. When you have to do that with three different letters it becomes much more frustrating and time-consuming, turning what should be a two-minute email into fifteen minutes of tediousness. It’s nice to be able to type freely again.
It hasn’t all been janky laptop keys and crumbling dreams of ambitious live shows over here.
For the better part of twenty years I’ve been trying to track down video footage of my March 2000 performance at the Air Jam (Walkerville’s quirky name for a talent show). I’ve mentioned this a few times before.
I knew of two tapes — the one Gord’s high school girlfriend Amanda filmed, and the one the school filmed. I saw both of them in the summer of 2000. Then I never saw anything that was on either tape again.
I started trying to talk Amanda into letting me borrow her tape so I could make myself a copy when we were still in school. I kept trying after we graduated. Nothing happened. When Facebook came into our lives I started pestering her over there. I tried to get Gord to help. After a lot of false starts, in 2010 Amanda said she had the tape I was after. I rejoiced.
My rejoicing didn’t last long. I spent a month or two trying to arrange to get that tape from her. I offered to pay her just for showing up. It didn’t do any good. She was either noncommittal in her responses to my messages or she ignored me. She wouldn’t give me her phone number or her address, so I couldn’t go to her. I was stuck in limbo.
I nudged Gord into sending her some messages in 2014 and 2015 when we were working on STEW. He said he thought there might be some kinky business on the tape, explaining Amanda’s apparent reluctance to share it with either one of us. I told him to tell her I would give her the money to have a video place transfer the tape into a digital format herself, allowing her to snip out anything she didn’t want me to see. That didn’t do the trick either.
In 2017 I sent Amanda one last heartfelt message. I told her this was a piece of my musical history I felt incomplete without. I explained how much it would mean to me if I could somehow see it again. I also wanted to try and incorporate whatever archival material I could into the DIY documentary I was — and still am — making about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This stuff was the Holy Grail of archival material.
She wrote back and apologized for the long silence. She said she wasn’t sure what tapes I was on, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. Years ago she bought some equipment so she could transfer the tapes at home. Then her camera stopped working and she gave up. If I was willing to transfer the tapes myself, I could have all of them. All she asked for in return was that I make her copies of the digital files.
Gord was supposed to swing by her place and grab the tapes before bringing them to me. He couldn’t do a thing with them, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to help pay to have them transferred. He was just another barrier between them and me. It would have made a lot more sense for me to pick them up myself. I couldn’t do that. Amanda still wouldn’t give me her address or phone number.
I don’t like relying on other people for things like this, but I left it in Gord’s hands. He rewarded my trust by almost ruining what looked like my one real shot at a happy ending. The night he was supposed to pick up the tapes, he blew it off.
This is a guy who’s known me since I was fifteen years old. He knew how long I’d been trying to gain access to this material. He knew what it meant to me. And he couldn’t even take five minutes out of his beer-drinking time to make good on what he told me he was going to do. He didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything to him.
I was ready to end our friendship right there. Lucky for him, Amanda took time out of packing for a vacation to bring the tapes to his door, and he was forced to pass them on to me.
Victory at last? No. Not quite.
I paid Unique Video Systems to convert all those 8mm tapes into MP4 files. I found some great footage I didn’t know existed — some of it featuring a skinny, beardless teenage version of me. But the Air Jam footage wasn’t there.
I told Amanda. She dug up some more tapes. This time I wasn’t on any of them.
I was discouraged but not defeated. There was still the matter of the second tape — the one filmed by the school.
I emailed John Vacratsis. He was a teacher involved in all kinds of art and media-related things at Walkerville during my time there. If anyone was going to know anything about the tape or its whereabouts, it was probably going to be him.
This was the crappiest of crapshoots. I didn’t have a great relationship with Vacratsis when I was a student. He seemed to resent me for not taking any of the music classes he taught, going my own way instead of letting him develop me into another talent Walkerville could be proud of, and he once chewed me out for some material he found offensive on a collage I made for grade twelve English class.
(That our English teacher, who was really a transplanted drama teacher, would have us making collages like children and answering questions about movies untethered to anything in the curriculum so he would have something to base our grades on without having to teach anything that resembled an English class — that was the more alarming issue to me than some goofy thing I put on a collage. But never mind.)
I expected Mr. V to remember me as a troublemaker if he remembered me at all. It didn’t matter. I would play nice in an email and see if it got me anywhere.
To my amazement, it did. He sent me a very kind response and tried to help as much as he could. He gave me the names of media students who might have been operating cameras on that day, he gave me the name of a media teacher who was still teaching at Walkerville, and he wished me luck in my epic quest.
I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I had something solid to work with.
One film student said he remembered my performance but didn’t know where the tape might be. The others ignored me. I wrote a letter to the media teacher outlining my plight, with a few albums included as thanks, and left it for him at the front desk.
Stepping inside my high school for the first time in almost nineteen years was a bizarre experience. I was happy to see they now had an upright piano in the hall and anyone was welcome to play it. I sat down and noodled a little. There wasn’t much volume or tone there, but hey, a real piano is a real piano.
Something about being there made me angry. No one was unpleasant. No one ogled at the long-haired bearded guy who was way too old to be a student. I don’t even have that many bad memories from high school, so it wasn’t a matter of old hurts coming back to haunt me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t an outcast or a loner. I was one of those odd students who managed to become popular and well-liked by refusing to be anything other than myself.
Maybe it was just one of those days.
Mr. Allison — the media teacher — sent a very thoughtful email in response to my letter. A lot of people probably would have blown me off, but he did some detective work on my behalf. What he found out wasn’t encouraging. In the days before they had digital video equipment, the school would routinely reuse and record over existing tapes instead of buying new stock. Everything pointed to the Air Jam tape being one of many victims of this recycling program.
This was it. The end of the road. There was no one left to talk to, no lead left to follow, and there were no tapes left to digitize. I was a few hundred bucks poorer and no closer to that Holy Grail footage. There was no reason left to believe it still existed. I had to accept that maybe I just wasn’t meant to ever see it again. Maybe all my efforts had been for nothing.
A few weeks ago I got a message from Amanda. She told me some things that did a lot to explain her apparent standoffishness over the years (I always assumed she never liked me; turns out it had nothing to do with me). She also told me she found three more tapes while going through some things in her basement. She didn’t know what was on them, and she thought it was mostly personal stuff, but she figured it was worth sharing them with me just in case.
I brought those tapes to Unique Video Systems and got my MP4 files. I went through them at home. The first tape had footage from Amanda’s trip to visit a post-high school boyfriend in 2002. The second tape was full of video messages she made for that same boyfriend and some bits of her hanging out with a few friends. I took a look at what was on the third tape and braced myself for more disappointment.
I saw some chunks of what looked like high school performances. I jumped to a random place in the video and landed on an image of myself seated at a digital piano, wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and I knew at once what this was.
The 2000 Air Jam. The Holy Grail.
This is what I’ve been chasing for my entire adult life. There was no reason to believe I would ever find it. Now I have it on my hard drive. The absurdity of it all is still sinking in.
I’d chalk that up to the best $61 I’ve ever spent.
Some backstory might help explain why this footage means so much to me, and why unearthing it feels a bit like winning the lottery.
Gord and I tried out for the Air Jam for the first time when we were in grade ten. The “brain” of my very tiny home studio was a Roland VS-880 digital mixer/hard disk recorder. I didn’t have a CD burner that was compatible with the mixer. We recorded a few passes at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I dubbed the best takes onto a cassette tape. A friend’s sister was part of the group of students organizing the show. I gave the tape to him to give to her.
We didn’t get in.
Later that same school year, a few other students announced they were putting together something they called an Arts Night. It was really just an after-hours Air Jam. Gord and I auditioned in the music room. We did a rowdy version of “Sweet Jane” (the original Velvet Underground arrangement, not the Cowboy Junkies remake) and I did John Cale’s “Paris 1919” alone at the upright piano.
In those days I had this idea that playing cover songs was a better bet than playing my own material live. I’m not sure why. At least I had good taste in covers (I think). Before settling on those two songs, the Talking Heads track “Drugs” was another consideration.
We passed the audition with flying colours, but the students in charge didn’t feel like putting in the necessary work to make the show happen (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). It died before it even got off the ground.
In grade eleven, Christian Masotti was one of the head organizers of the Air Jam. We were good friends. We respected each other as musicians. This time I knew I would make the cut. Auditioning would be little more than a formality.
My idea was to flesh Papa Ghostface out with another member or two. I had some classes with a guy named Isaac Osmer. I got the chance to jam with him a little when I played another John Cale song in the music room one day before the morning bell. Mr. Ross kicked me out before the song could really get going, but Isaac seemed like a solid drummer and a nice person. When I suggested we do something together sometime, he said he was into it.
Then Christian and my pal Jesse almost sabotaged the whole thing.
Jesse wanted to put a band of his own together for the Air Jam. He wanted Adam Cohen on drums, Max Marshall on lead guitar, and me on bass. He had a song about a young boy losing his mind called “Something in the Attic”. After recording a whole slew of songs with Jesse that didn’t stray far from acoustic love song territory, I was kind of looking forward to being his bassist and rocking out a little on something dark and moody.
Jesse wanted more time to prepare. He had friends on Agora — Walkerville’s student council, named for the public square built in Athens in 500 BC. He pulled some strings and convinced Christian and the other Air Jam organizers to put on two shows instead of one. He claimed he needed the extra time to study and get some of his grades up.
No one believed that story for a second, but he got what he wanted.
Two shows didn’t sound like such a bad idea at first. Christian told me the plan was to have the first show at the end of March. The focus would be on solo performers — students strumming acoustic guitars and wailing cover songs, Faith Hill clones singing to pre-recorded country music on cassette tape, and the like. Two months down the road, the second show would be for full bands and performers who wrote original material. This way everyone would have a chance to shine.
With that kind of structure, it seemed to me the first show would be boring beyond belief and all the good stuff would land in the second one. I told Christian I was putting a band together and had no problem pulling double duty in the second show, backing Jesse up in his band before stepping into the spotlight with mine. Even if we didn’t get anyone aside from Isaac to play with us, Gord could move over to bass and I could play guitar or keyboard. I thought a drummer would give our music a whole new punch.
When the lineups for both shows were posted on the bulletin board in the hall, I did a mental double-take. It wasn’t at all what Christian told me to expect. Neither show had any real theme or focus. Bands, karaoke singers, and solo acoustic performers were thrown together with no apparent thought given to who went where.
Jesse was in the second show. I got bumped to the first one against my will. I didn’t have Jesse’s connections. There were no strings for me to pull. And it was March already, so there would be no time to get tight with Isaac now.
Hot on the heels of that foul-smelling revelation, I learned I wasn’t going to be playing bass with Jesse anymore. Max never showed up for rehearsals. Instead of moving forward with a three-piece band, Jesse decided he would go it alone with an acoustic guitar.
My first impulse was to drop out of the Air Jam as an act of protest. Between Jesse’s machinations and Christian’s shitty organizational skills, I felt like I’d been painted into a corner for no good reason. Then I got a better idea. I would repurpose my frustration and blow it out of my system during our performance. Maybe it would just be the two of us on the stage, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull out all the stops.
“Fuck ‘em,” I said to Gord. “If they’re going to screw up our plans, we’ll give them something to remember us by.”
The song we chose to perform was “Pacing the Cage”. It was the first song Gord and I ever wrote together. We ran through it once and knew we wouldn’t have to run through it again. It was in our blood.
There was one mini-rehearsal at school. Everyone played truncated versions of the songs they were going to play at the show. They cut us off halfway through “Pacing the Cage”, just as I was starting to ramp up my voice.
The day of the first Air Jam show, Gord and I slipped into the auditorium after lunch to see how things were going. There was only one mic stand on the stage. I asked Christian if they had any more. He said no. That wasn’t going to work with Gord playing acoustic guitar and me singing at the same time, and I was pretty sure there were other performers who would need more than one mic stand. I walked home and grabbed a few SM57s and mic stands of my own to lend to the cause. It was one of the many times living a two-minute walk away from school came in handy. I also grabbed my acoustic guitar, my harmonica, and my harmonica holder, though I had no idea what I might need them for.
There was no keyboard on the stage. Christian told me I would probably be able to borrow one from one of the music classes. A few teachers turned me away before someone told me I could use one of the two keyboards collecting dust in the back of their classroom. Jesse saw me and wished me luck in the show. Then he asked me what I was doing in his class. I told him I needed a digital piano for my performance.
“One of those is no good,” he said. “It’s got sticky keys.”
I thought I’d try them both. Neither keyboard had any internal speakers, so Jesse grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we carried them to the auditorium along with a keyboard stand.
The one with sticky keys wouldn’t make a sound. The other one worked, but it only had sixty-one keys. It felt like a toy. The piano sound was thin and one-dimensional.
I tried to set it at a good volume so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later. Jesse climbed up on the stage, sat down at a drum kit that was set up behind me, and started playing. He noticed my harmonica.
“Can you play that thing?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I just play chords on it most of the time.”
“Play something, man!”
I blew a few chords into a microphone. Jesse laughed. “Is that all you can play?”
“It makes more sense when I’m playing the guitar or the piano at the same time.”
“Is it just you and Gord playing?” he asked me.
“Yeah, just the two of us. We were gonna get a drummer to play with us, but we were moved from the second show to the first. That threw things off a little.”
“I could have played drums for you. Why didn’t you ask me?”
“I never even thought to ask.”
“What’s your song like?”
I played a bit of “Pacing the Cage” for him. He hammered out a steady 4/4 rhythm. It was all wrong for the song. I tried to explain how I needed something more along the lines of a polyrhythmic funk beat, where the snare didn’t fall on the two and the four. He asked me to give him an example. I took his place behind the drums for a minute and showed him what I meant.
I moved back over to the keyboard. Jesse started playing the same 4/4 beat again.
“The song’s okay without drums,” I said. “It’s way too late to figure it out now anyway, and it wouldn’t sound right without bass. But thanks for the offer.”
When it was time for the show to start, I met up with Gord in a hallway that led to the stage wings. It dawned on me that I left my leather jacket on one of the chairs in the front row of the auditorium. I waited until Cerah Steele’s band finished their three-song set and made my move during the brief lull between acts.
Then this happened.
I’m almost positive that’s Matt Strukelj screaming, “John West!”
What you don’t see, because the camera didn’t catch it, is me approaching a guy who was sitting on my jacket and asking him if he could stand up for a second so I could grab it. He didn’t move. I asked him again. He looked at me like he didn’t know what words were. The people around him had to liberate it from beneath his uncomprehending body.
Back out in the hall, Christian was trying to get a handle on the chaos swirling around him. No one knew when they were going to get their turn to perform. A tentative list was taped to the door, but it was incomplete and subject to revision. First we were supposed to be the third-last act. Then we got pushed to second-last. We would have been dead last, but Steve Mitchell was slated to close the show.
All along we were told to prepare one song. Now Christian was telling me we might have five minutes, and we might have ten. He couldn’t offer a definitive answer one way or another.
“Pacing the Cage” was good for four or five minutes. There was no way to stretch it out to ten. Gord and I took our acoustic guitars to the outside of the front entrance of the auditorium where things were quieter, tuned up, and tried to figure something out. We had four full-length Papa Ghostface albums to draw from by now, plus the in-progress SHOEBOX PARADISE, but a lot of our songs were improvisations that were never revisited after we recorded them, and nothing jumped out at me as being appropriate for a school performance. What could we pull off with no time to practice?
We could do “Fatties”. That would be a hit with all the pot-smokers. But the vicious impressions of a few well-known teachers wouldn’t go over so well, nor would the sex talk. We’d be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
There was “Ballad of Bob and Marie”. It was simple enough. Just a few chords. I wasn’t sure how many students would appreciate a song that was little more than a vehicle for my Bob Dylan impression, but I thought I remembered most of the words from the initial improvisation.
We recorded this song for the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) on August 17, 1999. It was the day after my sixteenth birthday, and twenty years to the day before the doomed Mackenzie Hall show was supposed to happen. We started out with a little live instrumental improv. I got a drum loop going on the Yamaha W-5, ran it through a distortion effect built into the synth, and played synth bass with my left hand and an atmospheric synth pad with my right. Gord made barking dog sounds with his electric guitar and a wah pedal. He brought over an old harmonica he had in the key of C, so I strapped it on and blew into it a little.
My grandfather was supposed to call me to wish me a happy belated birthday. I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing, so we would stop recording mid-improv only for me to discover it was the sound of the harmonica’s wheeze tricking my ears. After the third or fourth fake-out he really did call. Once our conversation was over, I thought it would be fun to treat the little instrumental jam as an intro and cut straight to a song that had nothing to do with it. I swapped out Gord’s harmonica for my own and did my best shouty young Bob Dylan impression. After we got down a live performance with me on acoustic guitar and Gord on electric, I overdubbed some shaker and shouted some distant backup vocals. Gord overdubbed acoustic bass.
I remixed this song about a week ago, just before I got sick. It had some serious issues, and if I was going to post it here I wanted it to sound as good as possible. Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing about mic placement, and I knew less than nothing about things like EQ and compression. I would stick an SM57 in front of anything with strings and hope for the best. No surprise then that the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass tracks were muddier than mud, and my vocal track got pretty out of control during some of the more forceful passages with nothing to tame it.
It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a VS-1680 to fix up a mediocre recording. “Ballad of Bob and Marie” was recorded on a VS-880-EX before I upgraded to the sixteen-track machine, so I had to import it into the 1680. Everything past that was smooth sailing. I was able to carve out all the low end mud with EQ. Some limiting got the acoustic guitar and bass sounding pretty crisp and controlled. A little EQ and compression on the vocal and it was sitting right in the pocket.
Everything was done “in the box”, and I left all the original effects intact. The chorus and delay on the lead vocal felt essential. I didn’t want to do anything to alter the spirit or soul of the song. I just wanted to undo some old mistakes.
I can hardly believe how good I was able to make the acoustic guitar sound. It was a crappy instrument to begin with, even before my half-assed recording job. But the real shocker for me is the electric guitar. That’s not a real amp you’re hearing, and this was before the Digitech guitar effects box came into the picture. I plugged Gord’s B.C. Rich Virgin straight into the mixer and used one of the 1680’s built-in guitar amp modelling effects called “Vin.Tweed” (it’s supposed to emulate an overdriven 1950s tube amp). Everyone will tell you Roland’s speaker-modelling technology is beyond outdated now, but to me it sounds a lot more realistic than anything I ever got out of a POD.
I wish I’d thought to start backing up whole albums earlier in the game. I could give some of the early solo and Papa Ghostface CDs a whole new lease on life with just a little tasteful remixing. I did at least back up a few other songs from HORSEMOUTH. Though some of them are things I considered borderline filler at the time, it might be fun to revisit them and see if I can clean them up in a similar way.
I digress. We decided “Ballad of Bob and Marie” would be our second song if we needed one. Just in time, too, because few minutes later Christian told me we were up next. We walked through the wings. Christian asked if we had enough material for ten minutes. I told him we did. We made our way onto the stage. I laid my guitar on the floor and sat down at the crummy keyboard I was stuck with. Gord sat down beside me. Christian helped us both set up our microphones. After making sure my vocal mic was working, I went off.
“All right!” I screamed. The audience screamed back. I felt like a psychotic low-rent preacher.
“I’d like to tell you something before we start,” I said. “Originally we wanted to put a band together, but because of time constraints and being shifted around and shifted around, we weren’t able to do so. That makes me angry! But maybe I’m not the only person in here who’s angry right now. Maybe some of you are angry. Maybe your boyfriend left you. Maybe your girlfriend left you. Maybe things aren’t going too well for you in general, ’cause ain’t life stink? And so, I want you to scream when I tell you to let it out at the end of this song. All right?”
We launched into a version of “Pacing the Cage” that made the original recording sound like a lullaby. I slipped into the skin of the character narrating the song — an unrepentant killer who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, relating the tale from prison not with pride or remorse, but with the belief that he was hardwired from birth to do something horrible and in committing these crimes he found his true purpose in life. My hands were shaking. Every time I hit a bad note, I mashed the keys and went out of my way to hit every bad note I could. I twisted my voice into a guttural groan when I wasn’t screaming, pounding on the keyboard I hated until I was punching it more than I was playing it. In the absence of a music stand I balanced my lyric sheet on top of the keyboard. All the turbulence sent it flying to the floor.
When the lyrics ran out I addressed the audience again. “LET IT OUT!” I screamed, and a sea of voices screamed back at me. The song dissolved into dissonance and everyone went nuts. We got a standing ovation.
The Bob Dylan piss-take was a little anticlimactic after that, but I felt invincible even with my voice half-shot from the vocal cord brutality of the first song. If anything, the diminished vocal range probably helped my Dylan impression. I lost my pick inside the sound hole of my guitar mid-song and kept going, improvising new lyrics when the adrenaline wiped my brain clean. We got another standing ovation (well, half of one this time) and left the stage to thunderous applause.
Jesse appeared in the wings with a look of bewilderment on his face.
“THAT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!” he shouted at me, giving me a bear hug, my harmonica holder coming between our chests. “I love the way you play guitar! I love it!”
This was almost as shocking as the audience’s response to our performance, coming from someone who just a few months earlier was belittling my “fucking lap guitar” playing as if it was the lowest form of musical expression. For all of our musical differences and the tug-of-war we waged as collaborators (with Jesse trying to get me to write more conventional songs like him, and me trying to get him to let go and get a little weird), it felt like he finally got what I was doing and I managed to bring him over to the dark side, even if it was only for an afternoon.
“I gotta go,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to come back here and see you guys. Fuckin’ amazing.”
Then he was gone, and I was left with a buzz that wouldn’t go away. The afterglow seemed to extend throughout the entire school. Even Steve Mitchell got on board. He closed the show with Steph Sarafianos backing him up on guitar for a version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that was rewritten as “Blue-Eyed Girl” in Steph’s honour.
The first thing he said when got onstage was, “How about that John West?” and everyone went crazy all over again.
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember jumping up and down like a manic kangaroo in the hallway with Max and Paul Clairmont (at least I think it was them), feeling a natural high I didn’t know what to do with. I remember walking back to my house with Gord and talking for a minute to Amber Hughes, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass. I remember Gord saying, “She digs you, man.” I don’t think she did. She was just friendly.
That’s about it. The rest is gone, including the weekend that followed.
I wasn’t unpopular before that performance, but it seemed to catapult me once and for all into the realm of “those who are considered cool”. The thing that strikes me now is what an out-there performance it was. There’s no guarantee an audience is going to stick with you when you do something that confrontational and unconventional. It wasn’t even a great musical display from a technical standpoint. It was more about the energy. And to the great credit of that group of students, they were with me every step of the way. I could feel it. Maybe I tapped into some universal angst pretty much everyone feels at that age. I don’t know.
Even some of the teachers got into it. On the Monday after the show, Mr. Zawadski — my math teacher in grades nine and ten — pulled me aside on my way to society class and said, “I have to tell you, John, I really enjoyed your performance. There’s a market for that, you know. It’s avant-garde!”
Along with the grade eight talent show, it was one of the formative musical events of my life. To play your own material live, to do nothing to compromise it or make it more palatable for an audience, and to have a bunch of teenagers — in some ways the most difficult age group to impress — respond like that…there’s nothing quite like it.
I see now that everything going wrong was a blessing in disguise. If things had gone my way and we’d been able to put a larger band together, I’m sure we would have given a good performance. But it probably wouldn’t have turned into interactive musical theatre. It took a perfect storm of inconveniences and injustices to get me pissed off enough to take command of the room the way I did. People still remember that Air Jam performance to this day, which is insane to me.
The second Air Jam show in May was a complete disaster. Half the scheduled performers skipped out on the event, forcing the few who did show up to stretch themselves pretty thin as the emcees improvised lame banter to fill up time. It made the March show look like the best-organized event in the universe. The audience got bored, with a lot of students shuffling out of the auditorium while the show was still going on. Best of all, Jesse — the guy who pressured the organizers into putting on a second show in the first place — didn’t even show up.
I was able to put a full band together for the 2001 Air Jam, but that’s another story for another time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If you can see the value of turning adversity to your advantage in a situation like that, why didn’t you do the same thing with the Mackenzie Hall show?”
I’m not the same person I was in March of 2000. I watch that footage now and the raw energy on the screen almost scares me. I had a lot of anger taking up space inside of me, most of which stemmed from hearing what a piece of shit I was all the time from certain family members who have been dead to me for a number of years now. I used it as creative fuel on a regular basis. And I was fearless on a stage. You could have chopped off one of my fingers and I would have kept on going and incorporated it into the performance.
I don’t have that wellspring of boundless energy anymore. I also feel like I’ve been fighting against one form of bullshit or another in this city’s music scene ever since I got out of high school, from complete indifference, to being treated as a novelty, to being misrepresented, misunderstood, and lied about by talentless coattail-riding douchebags with agendas.
Even this album I’ve been working on forever has had its share of setbacks. Sure, it’s been a grand adventure. It’s also been another thing: a profound test of my patience, my resilience, and my ability to absorb one rejection after another. You know how many people in this city ignored me, blew me off, flaked out on me, or stood me up on my way to getting almost thirty singers/musicians and a dozen visual artists to contribute to the album?
Many of those eighty-two people claim to have an immense amount of respect for me and what I do. And that’s just Windsor people. I tried to bend my own self-imposed rule and involve some talented folks from Detroit and other not-so-far-flung places, with disastrous results.
For every singer I got to show up and sing on something, another ten either never acknowledged me or made a commitment to work with me only to come up with some bogus excuse to use as a last-minute escape clause. My favourite, though it’s hard to choose, is probably the singer who spent more than half a year sitting with a song and telling me it was right in her wheelhouse, only to claim she forgot her own vocal range the day we were supposed to record. It takes a special kind of idiot to come up with a story like that. It must have taken me twenty horn players to find two or three who would talk to me. And I lost count of how many visual artists said they were enthusiastic about contributing to the lyric booklet and then never spoke to me again no matter how many times I tried to follow up with them.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that for all the guests appearing on the album, more than half the songs still feature me doing everything on my own. If I’d been crazy enough to put an actual band together to play on every song, there wouldn’t be an album. You can’t work with people who won’t show up.
I’m proud of the songs I’ve written and the performances I’ve been able to get out of a colourful cast of characters. It might end up being one of my best albums when all is played and sung. And I won’t ever do anything like it again. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to banging out a guest-free album inside of a few months, the way I used to do it, once this thing is out of the way.
Really, it comes down to a very simple thing — I’m tired. Tired of fighting an uphill battle against a music community that, for the most part, never wanted me around in the first place. Tired of eating shit. Tired of a lifetime of rejection from people who are too apathetic or self-important to have a conversation with someone who isn’t already a part of their selective inner circle.
I want to make music and live my life. That’s it. I don’t have any energy left for the other garbage.
I hope cancelling the show sends a message to the musicians who forced my hand. I take this stuff seriously. I always have. I always will. If you can’t come to the table with at least some degree of reverence, you have no business pulling up a chair.
Note: if you’re wondering why I didn’t post the Air Jam footage, it’s because I feel I’ve already shared more bits than I should have from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing and I’d like to keep at least a few surprises up my sleeve. I’ll probably come back and put it up here once that’s done.
In early 2015 I thought I’d try submitting a song to CJAM’s Singles Club just to see what happened.
The way the Singles Club works, in brief: artists from Windsor and Detroit are invited to submit new songs every month. These songs go on a compilation CD everyone at CJAM has access to. DJs play the songs they like best, and at the end of the month the results are tabulated and the single with the most airplay gets bragging rights and a mention on the CJAM website.
The song I turned in almost five years ago was “The Devil Wants His Car Back” from STEW. The album wasn’t finished yet, but I was happy enough with the mix of the song I had (not a final mix, as it turned out) to let it go out into the world as a little sneak peak at what was coming.
In hindsight it was probably an odd thing to choose to represent the album. I don’t think anyone played it. I know for a fact it didn’t chart. Above is a picture I borrowed from someone’s Twitter archives, offering proof of an accidental GWD reunion of sorts (Tyson played drums with The Apex, making this a compilation that featured all three key members of my weird little teenage band, even if we weren’t all playing together).
All this time later, I thought it would be fun to submit the song Tara sang on and see if there was a different outcome. I knew it was getting some airplay, but I wasn’t expecting it to top the chart. Thanks to everyone at the station who’s been spinning it.
Speaking of CJAM, they’re in the middle of an emergency fundraising drive designed to offset some of the funding they stand to lose thanks to Doug Ford’s Student Choice Initiative. I’m going to be stopping by the station to hang out with Brady this afternoon at 2:30. You can listen live over here if you’re interested. You might hear the on-air debut of another unheard song from YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. If you miss it, you can always check out the MP3 archives later on.
When you make music and you work in a room that has never been the beneficiary of any kind of acoustic treatment, you sometimes find yourself subject to the whims of the world around you. Aside from the odd nightmarish situation like the D’amore Construction debacle that ate up huge chunks of 2016 and 2017, I haven’t had a lot of my recording time interrupted by outside noise in this particular house. But lately the amount of people cutting their grass on an almost daily basis has been getting a little out of control. It’s left me wondering if some of these folks have lives outside of obsessing over the incremental growth of their lawns.
I was expecting Detroit’s Movement Festival to make me almost long for the sound of renegade lawnmowers. Every year an interminable low frequency 4/4 electronic kick drum thrum carries across the river and makes it impossible for me to sleep for three days straight. I like some electronic music an awful lot, and I don’t begrudge anyone their right to listen to whatever music they want at whatever volume they prefer, but I don’t think I should have to hear it in my house. Now that I’m locked into a sleep schedule that’s both consistent and healthy for the first time in eons, I’m wary of anything that might threaten to knock things off-balance again. I don’t ever want to go back to being a vampire if I can help it.
I don’t know what on earth happened this year, but for once the residual noise from the festival was almost nonexistent. The first day I heard the usual thing.
Boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom.
It wasn’t constant, so I was at least able to get some broken sleep until it stopped a little past midnight. The next two days there was nothing. I can’t find any information online that points to a sound system failing or a power outage, so I can only guess that the organizers of the event got tired of people from Windsor complaining and decided to turn it down a little or angle the speakers so they weren’t pointed right at us. Or maybe it was a cosmic fluke. Either way, I’ll take it.
It still needs to be said: when you’re playing music loud enough for me to hear it five miles and a river away from you, something isn’t right. I can understand wanting to “feel the bass”, I guess, but how about keeping your ears in reasonable working condition? If it’s that loud over here, I don’t even want to know how loud it is in Detroit. And something tells me not a lot of people are wearing earplugs to protect themselves.
I started out talking about recording, didn’t I? Right. Here’s a pro tip for you: if you’re going to play something resembling an album release show, it’s a good idea to have the album finished before you book the date. Time is flying, August 17 isn’t so far away anymore, and there’s still a lot of work I need to do on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
I was in a position a bit like this once before with an album called GIFT FOR A SPIDER. I had to finish that one while rehearsing for a Mackenzie Hall show that ended up supporting it almost by default. It was easy enough. This album is a little more complicated, and more than twice as long. Not so easy.
The good news is I’m closer to being done than I thought I was. A few days ago I sat down and hashed the whole thing out. I’ve recorded one hundred and twenty-four songs for this album (yikes). I’ve had a pretty good idea which ones were making the cut for a while now, but the thought of trying to put them in an order that made some amount of sense was pretty intimidating. After forcing myself to take an honest stab at it, I’ve got a rough sequence that comes out to fifty-two songs spread across two CDs. I know it’s going to shift at least a little, and a few of those songs might get lopped off because of time constraints, but having a clearer picture of the album’s structure makes a huge difference. Now I feel much more focused, with a better idea of what I need to work on.
Of those fifty-two “keeper” songs, thirty-five exist as either rough mixes or mixes I feel good enough about to leave alone, sixteen need some work, and one still needs to be recorded.
There are probably at least twenty other songs I’d like to record. Given the amount of time I have to work with, it just isn’t realistic. If I let myself fall down that rabbit hole we’d be looking at a maxed-out triple-CD. The four-hour album slot has already been reserved for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I want this one to be at least a little more approachable than that behemoth.
The show is a little less than eighty days away. If I’m diligent, that’s more than enough time to get everything squared away. I’ve at least found a printing place that seems to be competent and reliable, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
Lacasse never gave me a quote, and three different people had to search the manager’s office for the booklet and insert I dropped off as a sample, with said manager nowhere to be found. They all came up empty-handed. By the time they dug up my materials I didn’t even want to know how much they would charge.
I had a much better feeling about Standard Printing. It’s a long-standing family-run business. I like supporting those places when I can. Again, it wasn’t to be. It took forever to get a proof, and when I asked if I could have the afternoon to look it over — something I’ve been doing with every printing job I’ve paid for over the last sixteen years — the woman I was dealing with got snippy and condescending with me, acting like my request was way out of line. Turned out someone working there wasn’t very good at following instructions. They went ahead and printed the whole run of booklets and inserts before I gave my go-ahead. She didn’t want me to see something I didn’t like and put her in a situation where she had to eat it.
I could have lived with their prices, which were pretty outrageous, but I’m not going to shut up and fork over my money to make up for someone else’s oversight. And if you’re going to talk to me like I’m a piece of shit when I’ve asked to be extended the same basic courtesy as any other customer, you don’t deserve my business.
A friend recommended Herald Press. On my fifth try it looks like I’ve found a place I can deal with. I got them to reprint the booklets and inserts for STEW as a test. Those turned out well, and the price was fantastic. Then I had them make a few prints of some art Greg Maxwell made for the SLEEPWALK booklet. Same story there. The plan now is to get all of the remaining album-related artwork printed in one shot so I’ve got prints of everything to display at the show. It’s pretty great to see these things at their intended size. I’ve got half a mind to put some of my favourites up on a wall in the stock room. I mean, how many people can say they’ve got a room full of (mostly) local art that was made just for them?
That’s the scoop over here. I’ll try to post a bit more often so I can hold myself accountable as the sand really starts pouring out of the hourglass.
On Tuesday we paid a visit to Mackenzie Hall to take a few pictures and shoot a bit of test footage in preparation for the August extravaganza. I wanted to see how the Canon T5i would do in the Court Auditorium with whatever light was available.
It turned out to be a bit of a wasted experiment. We had no access to the pot lights we’ll have the night of the show, and there was little to work with outside of the sunlight leaking in through the windows. Even in these conditions the camera’s stock lens acquitted itself better than I expected it to, and Johnny Smith was kind enough to take some pictures of me pretending to sleep in various different positions. Stretching out on a row of chairs and making them into an improvised bed is more comfortable than you might think.
It was surreal being in that room again. I guess eight years of distance will do that to you. It’s more spacious than I remembered. Fitting a whole lot of musicians in there isn’t going to be a problem. And it’s pretty neat to hear your voice halfway disappear into the natural reverb when there are no other bodies filling the room and soaking up some of the sound.
I’ve been searching for someone to film this show since 2015. I wasn’t even sure the show was going to happen back then, but I wanted to get that side of things squared away just in case.
What I’ve learned and experienced in that time doesn’t flatter this city’s filmmaking community at all. My main takeaway has been this: almost everyone is all about the money. Not making art. Not having an opportunity to collaborate with other artists. Not building a unique body of work. Just money. If they don’t think they’re going to be able to squeeze as much out of you as they want, you’re nothing to them but a waste of time.
How bad is it? Make yourself a bowl of popcorn and I’ll tell you. I’m not going to name any names, but some of these interactions need to be preserved. You know, for the history books.
At first I couldn’t get most of the filmmakers I contacted to acknowledge me at all. One of the few people who did respond to an email told me he refused to film anything at Mackenzie Hall because it didn’t look exciting enough on camera. He wouldn’t quote me a price. He told me if I grew a brain and decided to put on the show at a cooler place like The Olde Walkerville Theatre maybe he’d be interested. Otherwise, there was no point in the two of us having a conversation. The condescension was so thick my internet connection almost gagged on it.
And yet…in 2012 this same person directed a five-minute “film” documenting the making of the first album by now-defunct Windsor group The Walkervilles. Guess where it was filmed?
I had to guess at the amount of money I would need to pay a filmmaker when I was putting my grant proposal together. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was finally able to get people to start talking to me with some level of consistency, and when that happened it made me miss those glorious years of being ignored by everyone.
One guy wanted all of the grant money and a few thousand more. He did offer to cut me a deal, though. For $1,500 he said he would film the show and give me a final edit that was two minutes long.
That would be like me recording an album for someone and then giving them a CD not with full songs on it, but three-second snippets of each track. The end result wouldn’t be worth $15, never mind $1,500.
You can probably guess what I wanted to say to that guy. I bit my tongue and swallowed a river of blood instead. It wasn’t worth it.
Another person showed up at the house and told me he had no idea who I was, had never heard of me, hadn’t heard a lick of my music, and only knew what a few friends told him when he mentioned my name, which amounted to, “Johnny’s a genius and you’re lucky to have an audience with him” (their words, not mine).
This is how he made use of that audience. First he bragged about big money jobs he was involved in and B-list celebrities he knew. Then, when I handed him a stack of CDs and it struck him that I wasn’t some clueless hobbyist, the gloves came off. For three hours he lectured me on what I should be doing with my music and why everything I do is wrong. He told me I was selfish for hiding it from the world. He told me no one was going to knock on my door and ask for some of my CDs (someone really did do that once, but he wasn’t going to be distracted by details like that). He said making all of this music and sharing it with so few people was akin to having a massive library of books that was inaccessible to the public. He said the work had no intrinsic value if it wasn’t available for everyone to hear.
The best part came when he brought up Martin Shkreli — the hunk of human waste who paid two million dollars for the one existing copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (don’t even get me started on the idiocy of that whole enterprise).
“Let’s say someone came here,” filmmaker dude said, “and offered you two million dollars to buy this album you’ve been working on for the last five years with all these different people on it. The catch was, once they gave you the money the album was going to be locked away forever and no one would ever hear it. What would you do?”
Two million dollars is a life-changing amount of money. But an incredible amount of work has gone into this album. I think it’s home to some of the best songs I’ve written and some of the best work I’ve done as a singer, musician, producer, arranger, and recording engineer.
It’s been a profound test of my resilience. A staggering amount of people ignored, rejected, or flaked out on me on my way to assembling the supporting cast. More than once I wrote a song for a specific person to sing, only to find myself forced to find someone else to sing it in their place when they came up with some bogus last-minute excuse to get out of doing what they told me they would do. The frustration has been worth wading through, though, because a lot of great people have contributed some beautiful musical performances and pieces of visual art, and almost all of them have done it for no renumeration.
The whole thing has been one of the great artistic adventures of my life. And while sharing my music isn’t what gives it value for me, a lot of friends have been looking forward to absorbing the culmination of all of this work for a long time now.
If I took that money and threw the album in the garbage — because that’s what I’d really be doing — I would probably be set for the rest of my life if I played it smart. I would also be miserable. I would feel like the world’s biggest sellout, flushing five years of my life down the toilet in exchange for some smelly paper. I imagine I’d fall into a deep creative slump. I might stop making music altogether.
So, as stupid as it might sound, I would say no to the massive payday offered to me by this hypothetical stranger. My artistic integrity is worth more to me than any amount of money, and as I’m so fond of reminding everyone in my album liner notes, my music is not for sale.
All of this is what I told him, more or less.
“That’s a beautiful answer,” he said. “And it’s a fucking lie. You’d take the money, and then you’d go in that fucking room and you’d make another fucking album, because that’s what you fucking do.”
At this point he was shouting at me. I mean full-on belting, on the edge of screaming. Words can’t convey the unique horror of having a stranger yell at you in your own home, claiming to know everything about you after admitting they don’t know the first thing about you.
Around the fourth hour of our visit he brought up filming the show for the first time. We talked a bit about it, but by then he’d talked himself out of the job several times over.
I started thinking there were only two scenarios that would work out in my favour. I either had to find someone who was so passionate about the idea of the show that they were willing to set aside their ego and cut me a deal, or I had to find someone who was inexperienced enough that they would look at this as a portfolio-building opportunity and charge a more reasonable amount of money to reflect that.
I found both of those people. Not that it did me any good.
Option A arrived in the form of a filmmaker who said he would be willing to film the show for free if I didn’t get the grant, and if the grant did come through, he would do it for an amount of money that wasn’t grotesque. He said all the right things. Then he went home, checked his calendar, and said, “Uh…it looks like I’m not going to be in town the day of your show or the dress rehearsal, so I can’t do this after all. Sorry.”
(Maybe you could have checked your schedule before you sat down with me and all but committed to the project, huh?)
Option B was a guy my friend Rob Fraser found. He said he would film and edit the show for such a low price it made my head spin. Then he disappeared. We came to find out he sold all of his film equipment and decided he no longer had any interest in filmmaking as a career or a creative pursuit.
It looked like my best bet was going to be investing in another good camera and filming the show myself.
Then Dave Konstantino, who was trying to help me find someone sane and interested in filming the show, said, “You know what…this is ridiculous. I’ll just film it for you myself.”
Unlike all of the other people I talked to (or tried to talk to), I’ve known Dave for a long time. I know he understands and respects what I do. From the work he’s done with Greg Maxwell for the CJAM Sessions video series, I know he knows what he’s doing. And he’s got extra lighting if we end up needing it.
Talk about a relief. It’s so much easier dealing with someone you know you can trust, instead of hoping someone who has no real interest or emotional investment in what you’re doing won’t screw it up. And if I have to, I’ll just edit the raw footage myself. I’ve done enough video editing over the years to get a pretty good handle on that side of things.
Now I need to start looking at putting a setlist together so we’ve got something well-defined to work on during rehearsals. Good luck with that, self.
I’m proud and a little bewildered to share this bit of news: I’ve received a generous Arts, Culture, and Heritage Fund grant from the City of Windsor to help fund the production of an ambitious live show featuring many of the artists I’ve been fortunate enough to work with in recent years.
Ever since YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK became something more than a vague idea, I’ve had this crazy dream to release the album at a Mackenzie Hall show inspired by The Band’s Last Waltz. The idea was to have a pretty large core band in place. We would play some of my songs. At some point a guest would come up and take the spotlight for a song on the album that featured them. Maybe they would also perform a few of their own songs with me backing them up. Then someone else would come up, the same thing would happen again, and it would go on happening until everyone — or almost everyone — was sharing the performance space at the same time and making a huge communal racket.
I thought it was a pipe dream at best. I knew it would be expensive to make the show what I wanted it to be. I’d have to find someone to film it. And my chances of getting all the musicians I wanted on board were pretty slim. Still, it was fun to toy with the possibilities, and whenever I mentioned the idea to anyone they seemed excited about it.
In January I had a little unexpected brain drizzle. Ron got an ACHF grant to support the recording of his soon-to-be-released new album (the one I produced and played a bunch of stuff on). I started thinking maybe I had a shot at getting a grant to cover some of the costs involved in putting on this hypothetical show. The financial assistance would allow me to pay the musicians something fair without killing myself. It would give me a budget to get the thing filmed at a level of professionalism that would otherwise be beyond my reach. It would even help to offset some promotional expenses, like getting posters printed and planting demonic messages in the cell phone ring tones of strangers.
I only had a few weeks to work with before the deadline, so I threw myself into the process of applying for a grant for the first time in my life. I made a curriculum vitae. That was a strange experience. I dug up and scanned old newspaper articles from that brief time when The Windsor Star deemed me important enough to pay attention to. When I learned it wasn’t possible to submit any physical materials, I made a whole mini-website from scratch to serve as a preview of both the album and the show. I wrote and rewrote my proposal until it felt like it was tight as a drum. And I solicited letters of support — something the ACHF requires you to do when you’re not a corporation.
I thought I’d try to cover as many bases as I could. I asked Dale Jacobs (professor and published author), Brady Holek (CJAM station manager), Kelly Hoppe (one of the higher-profile musicians I’ve worked with), and Dan MacDonald (AM 800 and The River DJ/radio personality) if they would be willing to write letters for me. All of them said yes without any hesitation.
I was expecting to get a paragraph or two of generic back-slapping. Those expectations were obliterated. Some of the things these people wrote made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The passion and respect they expressed for me and what I do was kind of overwhelming.
Really, the outpouring of support from everyone I asked for any kind of help was pretty incredible. Rob Fraser and Johnny Smith wrote letters clarifying their roles in helping to make the show a reality (Rob is handling the audio recording side of things, and the Smithster is doing a little bit of everything). Rob, Ron, and Greg Maxwell all offered great advice that helped me to shape my proposal. Cathy Masterson, my Cultural Affairs contact, was patient and helpful beyond all reason. Merry Ellen Scully and Joey Ouellette were wonderful to deal with at Mackenzie Hall, as they always are. And I owe an immense amount of gratitude to Michelle Soullière. I asked if she had any advice to offer, knowing she had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. My proposal wouldn’t have been half as strong as it was without her help.
I had a good feeling about this from the moment I submitted all my materials online. That isn’t like me. I tried to temper the optimism with some more realistic ideas about my chances, but the good feeling would not be defeated. It didn’t make it any less surprising when I got an email telling me I got the grant. It’s a pretty cool feeling when a jury that has no vested interest in you at all determines you’re worthy of their support.
The craziest thing of all is the people I’ve managed to snag for the show. I swung for the fences and asked the musicians and singers in Windsor I would want playing and singing with me if my life was on the line. I didn’t expect everyone to say yes.
Everyone said yes.
My trombonist backed out when I sent a message to re-confirm his involvement, so my dream of a three-piece horn section is no more. But it’s no big thing. I mean, check out this lineup.
(This is a placeholder poster I made myself. I’m hoping to have a Greg Maxwell special to spread around in the next month or two so I won’t have to use this one. Still, it’ll give you an idea of what’s going down.)
I didn’t want to put a conventional band together and try to recreate album arrangements in a live setting. That would be boring. What I wanted to do was get some of my favourite people and players together in one place, and then see what kind of energy there would be. We haven’t had our first proper rehearsal yet, but I think there’s the potential for some pretty fascinating textural things to happen with two horns, violin, cello, and everything else going on there.
That’s not all. The artwork created for the album booklet will be displayed, and then the prints will be donated back to the artists who created the imagery that adorns them. It’s the least I can do to thank those people for donating their talents to the cause. Free copies of the album will be available for whoever wants them. There will be free non-alcoholic things to drink and munch on. No vodka-infused crackers, I’m sorry to say.
Free handshakes and hugs will have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. I tend to be pretty generous with that stuff. As long as you don’t try to grab my flounder fish, we shouldn’t have a problem.
Though I think this part goes without saying by now, it’s going to be a free, all-ages show. It’s happening at Mackenzie Hall on Saturday, August 17 — the day after my birthday. It felt too poetic not to snag that date.
I need to do everything I can to keep things in check now that I’ve somehow managed to convert my sleep schedule to that of a normal human being, so it’ll be a pretty early show for a Saturday evening thing. The music will start at 7:00 p.m. and we’ll probably wrap up around 9:00 at the latest. If there’s anything else you’d like to do with your Saturday night, you’ll have time leftover to make it happen. Want to go pretzel-bowling with your friends? You can still do that!
One thing I can’t stress enough: when I say the music starts at 7:00, I mean it really starts at 7:00. Not 7:30. Not 8:00. I know a lot of people are incapable of showing up on time for anything. A lot of live shows start late to account for all the latecomers. I hate that crap, and I refuse to participate in it. I can understand extreme situations, but being “fashionably late” isn’t cool anymore.
I might wait until ten or fifteen minutes past the hour to accommodate a few stragglers. That’s as far as my goodwill is going to stretch. Show up an hour late at your own peril, knowing if you do you’ll miss half the show and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
Anyway. If a wild musical extravaganza with me acting as the ringleader is something you think you’d enjoy, you might want to save the date.
Since moving into this house a little less than twelve years ago, a former bedroom has served as my stock room. It’s where I keep CD booklets and inserts, mailing supplies, spare copies of albums, and other such things.
Over the years it’s gone through a number of transformations, alternating between “more or less uncluttered” and “total chaos”. It’s probably been nine years since I last sat down and organized things in any sensible way. I’ve just been throwing more and more stuff in there, hoping it wouldn’t get too unruly.
My hope was in vain. For a while now it’s been almost impossible to take more than two steps into that room without tripping over something. It was time for a change.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
The picture at the top of this post is from somewhere around the halfway point of the room being gutted and reorganized — something I did with a whole lot of help from the indispensable Johnny Smith. I’m a little sad I wasn’t crafty enough to grab a shot of what it looked like in there before we got started. Words can’t do justice to what a horrifying mess it was.
I’ve never been any good at throwing things out. I’m a bit of an emotional packrat. I attach nostalgic value to items that should be chucked in the trash without a second thought or invent some impossible scenario in which they might prove useful at some later date. It’s not so bad that you’ll ever see me show up on a reality show about hoarding, but we filled at least four large garbage bags with stuff that served no purpose and liberated no less than half a dozen boxes full of similarly useless stuff.
There were some fun surprises along the way. I dug up a stash of random blank CDs I didn’t know I had. I found extra inserts for some albums I thought I was running low on. And there’s this thing — a homemade album display case I made for my own amusement.
One decision transformed the whole room. I’ve always used this beautiful antique coffee table to keep all my copied and printed CDs together. It found its way into the stock room because we didn’t know where else to put it. Now it felt almost criminal to keep something so unique covered up like this…and there just happened to be a huge shelf taking up space in the basement, doing nothing, feeling unloved.
Out went the table, in came the shelf, a bamboo vase I’ve always loved but never known what to do with found a home at last, I cleared everything off of the desk and the shelf that holds album artwork so I could dust and tidy things up, and what we’re left with now is a series of images that tell a tale of redemption and grape soda.
It’s a much more functional room now in every way. You can walk around in there! You can even see the cheap double-neck acoustic guitar I bought when I was working on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and have never used. I’m still waiting for a call from Robert Plant, as you might have guessed.
Zara was back in the studio this past week to record the songs that will make up her third album. We got started on Monday and wrapped up on Friday.
This time there was a pretty even division between guitar songs and ukulele songs. Zara brought her own uke but gave my wizened Gibson LG-2 some more run after playing it on UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS way back in 2014. One new wrinkle: we double-tracked her voice on a few songs. I always enjoy hearing the way a voice almost morphs into something new when it’s doubled or tripled to become an exaggerated version of itself.
As intense as Zara’s music is, she’s great fun to work with. There’s a lot of laughing, and it doesn’t feel much like work. All I really do is move a few microphones around and try to capture the way she sounds in the room, and then mix the results in such a way that the dynamics are left intact.
It feels good that she would want to keep coming back here five years after we recorded her first album. Makes me think I must be doing something right.
I should have everything mixed by the end of the month, or early May at the latest. There’s a bit of video footage to share as well. This time I used the Canon T5i instead of one of my little Flip friends. We’ll see what impact that has on the quality. The lighting in the room on the day wasn’t great, so it might still be a little grainy.
Most exciting for me — I asked Zara if she would be up for singing on another song of mine. She said yes. The trick now is writing the right song. I tried to get something ready for Friday. In a rerun of what happened with Tara, a bunch of ideas came tumbling out, and none of them quite felt like “the one”.
I would love to drape her voice over some weird ambient electronic ballad. Knowing the way my brain works, I’ll probably end up with something folky and acoustic guitar-based instead. She’s in town for another four weeks (she moved to British Columbia a while back), so there’s a bit of time to play with.
Oh yeah — yesterday was 420, the day of celebrating all things marijuana-related. To mark the occasion, here’s a grainy video still of me taking a drag from a joint in 2002.
Most of the time 420 doesn’t register for me. I haven’t smoked pot in more than twelve years now. Even if I had a debilitating illness and marijuana was the only thing that would alleviate my symptoms, I don’t think I would touch it again.
Don’t get me wrong. I used to smoke. I caught a buzz for the first time in late 2001 while working on SUBLIMINAL BILE, and it became a fun weekend thing for a while. I appreciated the way it made every conversation feel profound. Stupid things became hilarious. Music I already liked seemed to develop new dimensions, and music I had no interest in became almost tolerable.
I cut out everything a year later after getting a good amount of self-destructive energy out of my system. I tried smoking again in 2005, found it was still fun, and started using it as a substitute for going downtown and getting drunk on the weekend. Why waste my money on an aching bladder and a hangover when I could stay home, light up, and watch a Werner Herzog movie or listen to Miles Davis, waking up the next day without feeling like I got hit by a bread truck?
The first mistake I made was turning it into a solitary thing, and not something I only did once in a while in a social setting. Now that I had a consistent hookup and could smoke pot whenever I wanted, I found I liked it a little too much. It also made me lazy. It was a way to have a good time without having to do anything. Why work on music when I could sit around thinking about how great my ideas were? Why flatten them out into finished things when they were doing just fine floating around in my head?
My second mistake was buying a bong from a friend in the summer of 2006. I thought it would be an easy way to make my stash last longer. Since no one told me one toke from the bong was all I needed, I treated it like it was a pipe, got way too high, and found myself singing for my soul to two different higher powers. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. The sound of a street cleaner set me off on a dissociative loop from hell, and I became convinced I was dying and stuck in some sort of limbo.
I couldn’t make anything that sounded like music happen on a guitar, but I still had my voice. Music became my weapon and my one hope for salvation. Over the next two hours I sang almost nonstop, improvising an entire a cappella concept album in which I bartered with both Satan (arguing I could be of some use to him if he allowed me to spread his message through my music) and God (promising to be a good Christian if he would save me). I felt the strong presence of both good and evil higher powers at different moments, and I felt myself being judged by both of them. As long as I kept singing, I knew I could at least buy myself more time. Being judged was better than being taken.
Right around the time my high wore off, I saw some sunlight filtering through my bedroom window. Instead of hearing a choir of angels singing and ascending to some heavenly afterlife, I went downstairs to get myself something to drink — my throat was killing me — and then came back upstairs and watched Millennium Actress.
To this day, part of me regrets not hitting the record button on my camcorder and capturing at least some of the madness. I remember some of the bits I sang. There were some pretty catchy song fragments in there. Whenever I was singing to Satan I would slip into this exaggerated James Hetfield voice. At one point I got into some beatboxing and borderline throat singing, coming up with some pretty strange vocal sounds. A much sweeter voice came out when I sang to God.
I stopped believing in most of the Christian ideology I was taught right around the time I went through puberty, so I thought it was odd how things split themselves into such clear divisions between good and evil. The whole thing fascinated me. I found I could laugh about it. More than that, I felt a swell of something resembling joy. It was as if I’d come through some dark night of the soul and emerged a better, happier version of myself.
Reluctant to cut my strong-smelling friend out of my life altogether, I chalked up the bad experience to smoking some stuff I bought from an untested source. It must have been cut with something nasty. A week later I tried smoking some of my “normal” supply out of the bong. I should have just gone back to joints and pipes, but I was confident I knew what I was doing.
The high that followed was much more frightening than my first bong experience. This time I felt no higher powers judging me. I lost control of my body — or my mind convinced me I did — and became a vegetable trapped in my bed, unable to move, knowing I really was going to die this time and there was nowhere for me to go. No sunlight was going to save me. There was nothing waiting for me on the other side but a vast expanse of oblivion.
I like to believe there’s something beyond this level of existence after we die. There are too many preternatural happenings that can’t be explained away as simple coincidences. I don’t pretend to know what comes next, but it gives me some comfort to think there’s some kind of afterlife, and that we go on in some way. Some atheists find comfort in the idea that there’s nothing more than this, and once we die it all goes dark. That scares me more than I can tell you. I don’t even know why. I think it’s something about the finality of it all that unnerves me.
The high wore off after a while, I was able to move again, and life went on. But this time there were after-effects. I felt disconnected from myself. I developed issues with stairs. I felt anxiety that didn’t exist for me before, and there were some borderline panic attacks — though they were nothing compared to the fun I experienced after the break-in of late 2008.
After a while I felt more or less like myself again. I’m not sure if my brain eventually got rid of whatever lingering weirdness was hanging on there, or if I accepted the new normal and adjusted to it. One thing was clear: I couldn’t smoke pot anymore. It was toxic to me now.
There was one more little adventure a year later when someone I thought was a friend pressured me into smoking one last time. I should have told him to get out of my house, but I didn’t have the guts. My reward for that bit of cowardice was locking myself out of my own house a few minutes after getting high. This time the universe decided to cut me a break, and an ex-con friend who just happened to be passing by took it upon himself to help me break back in. Which we proceeded to do. In the middle of the afternoon.
You can’t make stuff like this up.
The high wasn’t as bad this last time, but there was none of the euphoria or false sense of heightened mental acuity I got from marijuana in the past. All it gave me now was a feeling of dread that fanned out over everything like a filthy blanket.
I thought I would miss it. After that last hurrah, I didn’t have any trouble leaving it behind.
I bring this up because a few weeks ago someone was over at the house to get down some piano and vocal tracks. My name might not carry much currency in the local music scene anymore (thank God for small miracles), but apparently I’ve become known as “the guy in Windsor who has a real piano in his studio that isn’t a hunk of junk and will maybe let you use it if you ask politely”. I got a message from a guy who also has a home studio, asking me what I would charge to record him playing piano and getting down some vocal tracks so I could then send those raw tracks to him and he could build around them in his own studio.
It struck me as a somewhat convoluted way of going about it — wouldn’t it be easier to record the tracks onto his rig and then have his way with them? — but I have this impulse to help people in situations like these, when what I should probably say to them is, “If you want the sound of a real piano in your songs, do what I did and buy a real piano.”
I told him if he wanted to throw me twenty bucks to put toward my next piano tuning it would be appreciated. Other than that, I felt funny charging anything. I looked at it as one producer helping out another.
I won’t get into the specifics of the recording session. The one bit I want to mention is this. Before we got started, the guy asked me if I smoked. He said when he mentioned he was paying me a visit he was told to bring a joint as a peace offering.
It seems there are still some people out there who assume I’m this massive pothead based on the amount of music I’ve made and its refusal to stay in one place. Here’s the thing about that. If I hadn’t stopped smoking pot more than a decade ago, none of the music I’ve made from 2008 to date would exist, and what little work I might have done in its place wouldn’t be any good.
Drugs inspire some artists and open them up to different ways of thinking. They never did that for me. At least not in any way that had a positive impact on my music. Pot didn’t just sap my motivation, leaving me content to brainstorm forever — the few times I did try writing or recording while under the influence, the results were unusable. When I was high I thought all my bad ideas were good and all my good ideas were great.
I would try to record a miserable song about a dying relationship with Gord and Tyson and laugh my way through the whole thing after forgetting the lyrics that were right in front of me. Like so.
Fun? You bet. Album material? Not on your life. Compare this to the version recorded two months later for BEAUTIFULLY STUPID and it’s not even a fair fight.
My point, if I have one, is this: I don’t judge anyone who smokes pot or puts any other foreign substance into their body. Their life, their choice. But I never got one good song out of being high, and I feel it does something of a disservice to the body of work I’ve built when someone assumes it’s the product of an altered state of consciousness.
Life is bizarre and maddening and inspiring enough as it is when viewed through the prism of a clear mind. If you need a drug to help you come up with your ideas, I’m not sure you’re trying hard enough.
Here’s the song Tara came by to lend her vocal magic to. I’ve spent the last few mornings picking away at editing the recording footage I grabbed along the way, and as much as I’m trying to keep things under wraps until the album is finished, I can’t resist putting this one out there as something resembling an advance single.
The thing I can’t get over is how catchy it is. I didn’t go out of my way to make that happen…it just happened. Must be the groove. I blame the djembe and the shaker that almost looks like an edible pepper. They’re always up to no good.
Editing this was a bit of a pain in the posterior, with everything I had to find a way to fit in there. It was rewarding to see it all come together, though, and I think it’s one of the better editing jobs I’ve done along these lines. It’s always fun when your cuts move in rhythm with the music. It’s a subtle thing, but I find it makes for a video that feels like it breathes a little better.
Also, dig those pyjama pants. Lately I find myself doing a fair bit of recording in the morning, before I’ve put on normal people clothes for the day. When you’re recording drums at 9:43 a.m. the last thing on your mind is throwing on some jeans. Me wearing boxer pants in a video is nothing new, but I don’t think any pair has ever been given quite this much screen time. Maybe these ones are special.
While I’m proud of all the elements that make up the thick soup of this song’s sound, the real secret sauce is the Yamaha VSS-30. I swear it keeps finding new ways to sneak its way into a song and add the texture that’s needed. It’s ridiculous how useful and versatile a little “toy” keyboard from the 1980s can be. You can get so many different sounds just out of sampling a bit of Wurlitzer and warping it (which is what I did here).
In less pleasant news, here are some words I never thought I would type, say, or even think: I won’t ever do business with Minuteman Press again. I won’t even recommend them for the simplest of jobs. If you’re in Windsor and you have any printing needs beyond what you can do yourself at home, I urge you to go somewhere — anywhere — else.
Here’s the deal. In early 2003, when I first thought it would be worthwhile to try giving my CDs a somewhat professional appearance, Johnny Smith said, “I’ll take you to Minuteman Press. That’s where I get my business cards done. I bet they’ll be able to help.” And they did help, printing a two-sided insert I slipped like an embarrassed apology into the abomination that was the initial album art for OH YOU THIS.
In short order, Minuteman Press became my go-to place for all things related to album packaging. Over a period of sixteen years they printed the booklets and inserts for fifty different albums (that’s not a typo), along with two posters and a handful of redesigns when I decided I wanted to “reissue” something or print the lyrics for an album that got slighted the first time around.
In the beginning it was pretty clear they’d never done this kind of work before. The initial inserts (or “tray cards”, if you like) for NUDGE YOU ALIVE had only one tab with the album’s name on the spine instead of the traditional two, leaving one side of the CD jewel case bereft. For my part, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to arranging text and images. We both got better in a hurry. They started producing more professional-looking results with more experience, and I taught myself how to handle the layout side of things.
By 2010 we were a well-oiled machine. I started handing in polished image files with proper bleed lines instead of asking them to set things up for me, and Heather and I almost had our own verbal shorthand. She was always great to work with. If I still sometimes got inserts that were a hair too tall to fit into a jewel case and I had to take a little off the top with my own cutting board to compensate, it was a small price to pay for being able to give my albums the visual presentation I wanted on a DIY budget.
Heather left a few years ago. The people who stayed on still did pretty reliable work. Then the ownership changed altogether in late 2017, and every familiar face was gone.
The woman who took over the business was a great surprise. Her attention to detail was incredible, and the packaging for both the long-overdue remaster of YOU’RE A NATION and the Papa Ghostface sign-off WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD came out looking better than I thought possible. It seemed safe to assume I could keep giving Minuteman Press my business forever.
Everything changed when I swung by a few weeks ago to have the booklets and inserts for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC reprinted. The woman with the great attention to detail was gone. Another woman she once referred to as her “colleague” was now running the show. I’ll call her Esmerelda, because it’s a world away from her real name and it sounds a little evil.
There was a disgruntled customer ahead of me in line, and she was giving Esmerelda the business. The conversation went something like this:
I paid a professional designer to put this flyer together. The printing is all wrong. The bleed lines are off, and there’s all this white space.
Yes. It’s like because the format we were like given. We can only like play with it so much.
No…this was done by a professional. There’s nothing wrong with it. Something went wrong with the way it was sized after I gave it to you. You’re the ones who made the mistake.
Yes. Like when you give it to us, like we can do almost nothing. You have to like give it to us in a different format.
My event is a few days away. I can’t use this. This is no good.
If you want to like give it to me in a different format maybe we can like fix it, but the way you gave it to me there’s nothing we can do.
Put that on a loop for about ten minutes and you get the idea. The Smithster and I got tired of waiting after a while and turned to leave.
“No, no,” Esmerelda said.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” I said.
“No, I can wait on you.”
She slid a smiling man with grey hair into her place and took my order. I gave her my original materials and asked for another thirty copies of each. She said she’d call me in a day or two to come look at a proof, and then she’d print it. Easy as cake.
More than a week went by. There was no phone call. I called and got Esmerelda’s son on the line. He talked to me as if he was the new graphic designer of the operation. He told me my file of sixteen years — once a monster of a thing — was now all but empty, and almost none of the work any of the previous employees had done for me was in there. I would have to give him the art files for these booklets and inserts, and they would have to be printed from scratch.
I dug up the old art files from early 2011, dumped them onto a flash drive, and brought them in. Son of Esmerelda told me he would email me a proof later that day. He did no such thing. The next day I popped in to see my proof. It wasn’t ready.
“Oh, he had some car trouble,” Esmerelda said. “He told me he’s going to send you an email tonight. Like a hundred percent, for sure he’ll do it tonight.”
He did not, like a hundred percent, for sure, email me anything.
I came back the next day.
“I was just going to call you,” Esmerelda lied.
She printed up a proof for me. The insert looked fine. The smiling man stood there staring at the song titles, looking bewildered. I like to think “Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams” gave him a brain cramp.
The booklet wasn’t fine. It was a mess. The image and text on the cover were both too small. Inside, the size of the font increased and decreased five or six points at a time from one page to another. I always make sure to keep the font size consistent through all my image files, so it was a bit of shock to see things looking so out of whack.
Esmerelda’s explanation: “Yes. You gave us JPEG, and like we can do almost nothing. If you give it to me in like a Word document, then I can like size it myself and everything will be like perfect.”
For nine years JPEG files were never an issue. All Son of Esmerelda had to do was drag and drop the image files into whatever program he was using and make sure they were the right size. Instead, he took it upon himself to increase the size of the text on every page that had any appreciable amount of white space. Of course, Esmerelda wasn’t about to admit it, and he wasn’t around to answer for his screw-up.
She said she would email me a proof once I sent her the lyrics in a Word document. I sighed, went home, and put together what she said she needed. I emailed it to her the next morning. She didn’t email me back.
Thursday was the day of reckoning. I showed up to ask what the hell was going on. Son of Esmerelda looked horrified when he saw me walk in the door. He ducked into an office as fast as he could, where I assume he watched videos of dogs slobbering in slow motion while contemplating the nature of existence.
“Our server has been down all day,” Esmerelda said. “We haven’t been able to like do anything. But we almost have it like fixed now. If you come back at 12:30, I’ll have it for you. You don’t need to call. Just come back around 2:00 and it will be ready.”
Not just anyone can make an hour-and-a-half leap like that almost in the middle of a sentence without even acknowledging it. I had to genuflect in respect.
I should pause to tell you Johnny Smith was with me for each of these visits, and he noticed Esmerelda had a habit of looking at him instead of me when we were talking to each other. It was weird.
A little after 2:00, we came back.
“I just printed it,” she said. “I’ll have it for you in a moment.”
In a virtuoso display of lying to someone’s face and assuming they’re too stupid to notice, she walked a few feet to a printer and proceeded to print what she told me was already printed.
She brought the pages over, and I saw my body text in the booklet had morphed from Bookman Old Style into Arial.
“You changed the font,” I said.
“Yes. It’s much clearer now.”
“No,” I said, opening the original booklet to show her. “This is the font I used. See? I used the same font in the Word document I sent you, because that’s the font I want.”
“Yes,” she said. “It was Times New Roman. I changed it to Arial, but I can just like change it back. I just thought it looked better like this.”
“It wasn’t Times New Roman. But you know what…let’s do this. The other part that’s fine — the insert? Let’s go ahead and print that, and forget about the booklet.”
“No,” she said. “I can change the font back.”
“I’d like my original booklet back please, and we’ll just print the one piece that doesn’t have any problems.”
“I’ll just change the font back.”
“No. It’s been one thing after another. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Yes, but I’ll just change the font.”
Right here is where Johnny Smith took it upon himself to break the loop of stupidity, slipping into what I can only call “Punisher Mode”. He told Esmerelda we were done. She tried to come up with some bullshit. He told her to give me back my original booklet and insert. She wouldn’t budge. He had to cut her off at least ten times before it sunk in for her that this was one person she wasn’t going to be able to wear down with smiling condescension. She gave me my booklet and insert back, said, “Well, I’m very sorry to hear it,” and we walked out.
I’ll never set foot in that place again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out of business a few months from now. Word spreads fast, and awe-inspiring incompetence is not something most people look for when they need something printed.
It’s a shame. Once upon a time there were some good, honest people working there who did fine work. Not anymore.
We made a list of about half a dozen other local printing businesses to try. I brought the packaging for STEW to A&A Printing so I’d have something to offer as a sample. The manager came out to talk to us and I asked a bunch of questions. He told me they had a lot of experience doing CD-related work. PDF files were the best format for them. They would have a proof for me the same day I brought in my art files, the job would be finished the day after that, and for fifty each of these two pieces of packaging I could expect to pay a little over a hundred bucks.
Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?
He said all the right things. There didn’t seem to be any need to check out any of the other places on our list. On Friday, around noon, I spoke with a woman at the front desk. I asked if I could have a lyric booklet and a separate insert made, and presented her with samples of the original pieces (again for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC) and the relevant PDF files on a flash drive. She told me she would have a proof ready for me in two hours and she would call when it was finished.
Something I’ve learned: when someone tells you they’re going to call you for anything business-related, they’re almost always lying. We came back at 4:00 and a different woman claimed she’d called us to let us know the files I provided didn’t work. When we told her we never received a phone call, she said, “Well, I was trying to call you.” That made for two lies in less than ten seconds, unless in her mind “trying” meant “thinking about maybe doing something and then not actually doing it”.
She invited us into the work area and brought me over to her computer, where she showed me the files wouldn’t work when she tried to open them.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I saved them all as PDF files. That’s what the manager told me to do. He told me that was the best format for you. Everything worked fine on my computer.”
She started laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” Johnny Smith asked her.
“Because the manager told you to do that, and the files don’t work.”
“What about that is funny?”
She didn’t have an answer.
Laughing at your customer’s misfortune isn’t a great way to get their return business. Just throwing that out there.
The woman who took my order earlier in the day tried the flash drive on her computer. She had no problem opening the files. Way to troubleshoot, people! She told us if we could wait five minutes in the other room she would print up a proof.
Half an hour later she had a sheet printed out to show me the paper stock they were going to use for the booklet. She said the binding would take three hours to do and she didn’t realize there were so many pages.
Johnny Smith told her we’d just left a printing business after sixteen years because of mishaps and miscommunications like this. She apologized and let loose with a stream of excuses. They had a lot of unexpected cutting work that day. There was more work involved in putting the proof together than she thought there would be. The printer jammed. She thought the booklet was a flyer with no pages in it (the second you touch or even look at the booklet, it becomes clear it isn’t a flyer).
She said she would work on it over the weekend and call us on Monday whether the work was done or not.
Believe it or not, on Monday there was a phone call. We came in to look at the proof with some sneaky feelings of optimism. Those feelings were dispelled soon enough.
The woman who showed me the initial printout wasn’t around. The one who laughed at us was there instead. She showed me a booklet that had the font at the right size throughout, but the print quality left something to be desired. The printout I was shown on Friday made the text look nice and smooth. Now it was bleeding all over the place. The text on both spines of the insert was way out of alignment, and instead of fixing it themselves she and the manager told me it was my job to edit the image file, guessing at where they needed it to be. I’ve been doing this long enough to know where the text is supposed to go. This was their mistake, not mine.
Worst of all was the cost. Because there were a few extra pages in this booklet, the price I was quoted on Thursday tripled.
The woman asked for a 50% deposit. I gave it to her and left feeling defeated. Over the next few minutes my attitude shifted from just wanting to get the booklets and inserts reprinted, to thinking this was more of the same garbage and I didn’t want to stand for it anymore.
We went back. When I brought up the bleeding, the laughing lady said she could try lightening the text to see if that helped. I told her the price was another sticking point. She disappeared into the back of the work area for a while, and when she came back she said the manager was willing to come down almost a hundred bucks. If you can afford to do that, either your profit margin is sickening and you’re cheating people out of their money, or your business isn’t as prosperous as you’d like your customers to believe it is. Either way, it wasn’t good enough.
I asked for my money back and we left. They still have my memory stick and original lyric booklet. I need to get those back sometime this week.
Instead of trying more local printing places I thought I’d contact a business that makes album packaging full-time. I sent an email to someone at Duplium, which is where Ron got Tobacco Fields manufactured. The lyric booklet for that album came out looking great. While I’m waiting to hear back from them, I might email another place in Canada that does similar work. I prefer to be able to go in and see a proof in person, but if I have to go through something like this again on my way to finding someone in Windsor who knows what they’re doing, I think I’m going to tear my own face off.
Hopefully something good shakes loose. I’m running low on booklets and inserts for a good half a dozen albums, and I’d like to be able to get more of them printed somewhere.