Now here’s a blast from the past.
Ten years ago I got a summer job working at WOHIS with two other young ‘uns as part of a United Way-funded program called SPEEC (Student Program to Eliminate Environmental Cancers). Our job was to create an original video examining environmental cancers, and also to put together a gigantic package of research material to accompany the video. We all contributed pretty much equally, doing research, amassing material, typing endlessly, transcribing video interviews, filming at various locations, and interviewing cancer survivors and friends, learning as we went.
We called the resulting video Fish out of Water. It’s not the most professional thing ever made, to put it kindly, but it was fun to do. It even made the rounds at some schools for a hot minute and was shown a few times on local television.
I was the youngest of the three. Greg and Libby had both been driving for a good few years, while I didn’t turn sixteen until the program was just about finished. I could write a book about the strangeness of my first proper summer job. Libby and Greg had this bizarre rivalry that seemed to disguise some grudging attraction, and I doubled as spectator and occasional co-conspirator. Both of them got along pretty well with me but showed open contempt for each other.
We didn’t say much to one another for the first few days. It was kind of awkward. We were three strangers who felt way out of our depth. None of us had ever done anything like this before.
One day I brought the first album I was ever able to put on a CD instead of a cassette tape with me to work along with my DiscMan, and somehow that insane, lo-fi, sex-drenched album broke the ice. Greg and Libby both listened to it and liked it. That blew my mind. Stranger still was the sight of Libby with headphones on listening to “Foreign Waste”, keeping a stone-cold straight face as she worked while listening to me sing about penises that were too wide to hold inside and wretched skylines caressing themselves.
“Damn you, John,” Greg said before we went home that day. “I’ve got that song ‘Yer Boobs’ stuck in my head now.”
I was able to break up all the research and writing by sneaking in some songwriting time, typing up a lot of twisted lyrics at one computer or another. And my mock interview with Peter Infante will forever live on as the man’s greatest tribute.
There was the time Libby told me all my songs were about sex, and we joked about the immaturity of my lyrics as I drew a doodle of a naked dude saying in French, “Yes, Libby — it’s true! I am a nymphomaniac!” on a large easel pad of paper we used to jot down ideas, with her laughing and egging me on.
Imagine my surprise when our nominal “boss” found that drawing and gave me a savage dressing-down for being such a horrible human being and insulting my coworker’s womanhood in such a disgusting way. I was so caught off guard, it never occurred to me to explain that there was an audience for the whole thing (Greg was present for the drawing’s creation, along with a few others) and it was made at her request. By the time I thought to do that, I decided to leave it alone. Given what a humourless power-tripping hypocrite the boss was, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.
There was the day Libby and I had some fun recording ridiculous voiceover material that was never used, improvising insane things and inventing funny voices. I wish I had the rap song about cancer I delivered in the voice of a dog.
There was the time I brought a bunch of equipment with me outside of the workplace to interview Gord and dropped the camera on the sidewalk. My heart was in my throat for a second. It didn’t end up incurring any damage.
There was the time a French-African man was helping out with some technical stuff. He spoke very little English. When I thanked him in French for helping me figure out how to use a tricky camera tripod, he started yelling at me for not thanking him in English. He was pissed.
There were lots of good conversations with Mike Lawson about music. Mike paid me a great compliment one day when I gave him DON’T TALK LIKE A BABY to listen to and asked him what he thought.
“I hear a bit of Lou Reed and Neil Young in there,” he said. “But I also hear a lot of Johnny West.”
I miss that guy.
There was the time I was filming random goofy things to try and figure out how to work the camera early on. Everything I filmed was silent, because there was no microphone connected to the camera. I captured myself throwing my body around an empty office and holding an empty jug of water over my head.
There was the time Greg captured the iconic “dead fish out of water” shot and said, “Oh yeah…oh yeah! That’s the money shot right there!”
(Sadly his voice was removed from the soundtrack in post-production.)
And then there’s my goofy “what is cancer?” educational segment — the introduction to which was just me goofing off on-mic before getting down to serious voiceover business, and yet for some reason everyone else liked it enough to keep it and add a touch of irreverence to a video about a pretty serious subject.
You see what I mean. I could keep going.
One of the most interesting parts of the job for me was having the opportunity to create the soundtrack. I assumed I would go home some days and work on putting it together in the tiny studio I was working out of at the time. Maybe I’d ask Gord to help a bit too.
I even had a little jingle worked out with some pretty deep, thought-provoking lyrics. Check it out.
Turned out I didn’t have the luxury of working with anything like conventional musical equipment. The boss who chewed me out for drawing the Libby-approved naked picture and made me throw it in the garbage while glaring at me bought some weird computer program for me to use. There would be no real instruments involved.
I’d never worked with a program like that before, and I never would again. I forget the name of it now. It was something like a primitive form of Adobe Music Maker.
I don’t think it even offered the ability to choose what notes you wanted to play. You had a bunch of pre-recorded samples to choose from, and arrange, and stack on top of one another, and that was it. Working with canned sounds was not my thing, but after a day or two of messing around I started to get the hang of it. A lot of it was trial and error. Choosing between fifty different bass lines and figuring out which notes/patterns to use. Then trying to figure out which drum beat, guitar part, and keyboard part would fit with that. Then doing it again from scratch for every additional measure I wanted a “song” to have.
It was slow going, and most of the provided sounds were pretty abysmal shit. There wasn’t much there to get inspired about.
I got some encouragement from Mike when I played him some bits of things I was working on, and went off in search of the video’s theme song. The first piece I thought had some potential was a riff-heavy electric guitar thing with some ridiculous solos. No one else was feeling that one. A strange piece with some interesting organ chords got a better response, but it wasn’t considered catchy enough. I got access to some CDs of additional sound effects I could import into the program. I liked a dark guitar-driven piece I came up with, but when I imported some “baby crying” sounds into the song they got sped up and sounded bizarre.
Then I hit on a synth string riff and started building a weird little dance song around it, dropping in funky bass lines and sax sounds. I messed with reversing and manipulating some of the sounds and made the second half a little wilder, with dissonant sax harmonies, backwards canned vocals, and a bit of backwards piano.
Finally, I felt like I was able to warp some pretty ridiculous limitations into something interesting and come up with a piece of music that felt like me.
I didn’t expect anyone else to like it. The first time I played it for Greg he said, “You started out strong, but it’s all downhill once the sax comes in.” Everyone else went nuts and said this was just the theme song our little video needed.
We recorded it from the computer onto cassette in mono and then converted that back into digital form so it could be dumped onto the designated video editing computer. Talk about degradation of sound quality.
Very little of the other music I came up with was used. One brief bit of that first electric guitar song was inserted at one point, but for the most part all you hear is the theme song looped and repeated now and then before coming back with a vengeance at the end. Most of the other incidental music isn’t mine at all (though I got credit for it), but fragments of stock tracks that came with the program as examples of what you could create with it. The cheesy dance organ bit around the three-minute mark is one of these.
Seemed like a waste to not only not allow me to construct the music in any natural way but to ignore most of what I was able to do. Still, it was an interesting challenge, and I did manage to wrestle one interesting piece of music out of it.
I made a pretty good amount of money for working at my first real job while I was still in high school, so that was nice. I used the money to buy a drum set. Those are the same drums you hear on my albums today, so I’d say it was money well spent.
Haven’t heard a thing from Greg or Libby since then. All three of us were presented with a Health & Safety Award of Recognition from WOHIS at the 2000 Clifton Grant Award banquet for the work we did, but I was the only member of our ragtag trio who bothered to show up. I found an email address for Libby not long ago and sent her an email for fun. She never responded. No big surprise there.
I also found an online resume in which she claims she “directed all aspects” of Fish out of Water on her own. I seem to remember it a little differently, and when you get to the credits there are some other names in there aside from hers.
You gotta love revisionist history.
Anyway. Check out the dude with short hair and no facial hair smiling at the beginning of the first clip. I haven’t changed a bit since then, have I?