talk about a blast from the past…
almost exactly 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. the resulting video is not the most professional thing ever made (not to blow my own bugle, but i think my narration bits come off a little better than the rest), but it was fun to do, and even made the rounds at some schools at the time and was shown a few times on local television, though i don’t know if it still does/is.
i was the youngest of the three, and didn’t turn 16 until the program was just about finished. what a strange time that was…i could write a book about the experiences i had during my first proper summer job. like how libby and greg (my teenage co-workers) had a bizarre rivalry that seemed to disguise some grudging attraction they had to one another, and how i doubled as spectator and occasional co-conspirator. or how we didn’t say much to one another for the first few days, and then i brought my first-ever proper cd (SINGIN’ THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP) with me to work one day along with a discman, and somehow that broke the ice and we all warmed up to one another. seeing libby with the headphones on, listening to me sing about penises that were too wide to hold inside and wretched skylines, while working with a deadly serious expression on her face…that was a tender moment, and something i still remember vividly, along with greg damning me later that same day for getting “yer boobs” stuck in his head. or how i managed to break up all the research and writing by typing out countless demented song lyrics at the computer, most of which were never recorded. or my mock-interview and illustration of peter infante that will forever live on as the man’s greatest tribute. the resemblance was uncanny.
there was also the time libby told me all my songs were about sex, and she commissioned me to draw a picture of a naked man who declaimed (in french, no less), “yes, libby — it’s true! i am a nymphomaniac!” only for me to end up getting savagely chewed out by the boss for being such a horrible person and insulting libby’s womanhood in such a way. i was so stunned, it didn’t even occur to me to explain that there was an audience for the whole thing and she was in on the joke until it was too late.
there was the day libby and i had fun recording ridiculous voice over material that was never used, improvising insane things and using funny voices. i wish i had the rap about cancer i did using a dog’s voice. there was the time i brought a bunch of equipment to interview gord and then dropped the camera on the ground while trying to set it up on the stand. thankfully it survived. there was the time a french/african man was helping out, and when i thanked him in french for helping me figure out a camera stand, he blew up at me for not thanking him in english instead. there were lots of good conversations with mike lawson, who paid me a great compliment when he said about the music i was making at the time: “i hear a bit of lou reed and neil young in there, but i also hear a lot of johnny west.”
there was the time, early on, when i was filming random stuff to try to figure out the workings of camera equipment, recording myself (without sound) throwing myself around an empty office and holding an empty jug of water over my head, looking like an escaped mental patient. or when greg captured the iconic “dead fish out of water” shot and said, “oh yeah…oh yeah! that’s the money shot right there!” sadly we cut that out in post-production. and then there’s my goofy “what is cancer?” educational segment—the introduction to which was just me amusing myself, and yet somehow everyone else liked my silliness enough to keep it intact and add a touch of irreverence to a video about a pretty serious subject.
you see what i mean…i could keep on going with no end in sight.
one of the most interesting things about the job for me was getting to create the music all on my own. i assumed i would go home some days and record things with my equipment, and maybe ask gord to help out, since papa ghostface was in full swing at the time. turned out i didn’t have that luxury; marg (the boss who bitched me out for drawing the libby-approved naked picture and made me throw it in the garbage) bought some weird computer music program for me to use instead of actual instruments. i had never worked with anything like that before, and never would again. i forget the name now…it was something like a primitive form of “adobe music maker”.
working with canned sounds was not my thing, but after a day or two of futzing around i started to figure it out. a lot of it was dragging and dropping different things. trial and error. choosing between fifty different bass lines and then figuring out which notes/patterns to use…then trying to figure out what drum beat/guitar part/keyboard part would fit with that. then doing it again every bar or two. it was slow going, and most of the provided sounds/patterns were abysmal shit.
i got some encouragement from mike when i played him some bits i had been working on, and we went off in search of the theme song. the first thing i thought had potential was a riff-heavy electric guitar piece with ridiculous solos. well, they sounded sort of like semi-real electric guitars. no one else was really feeling that one. i got a better response from an odd piece with some interesting organ, but it wasn’t quite catchy enough. i got access to some cds of additional sounds to import into the program and liked a dark guitar-driven piece i came up with, though when i imported some baby’s cries into the song they got sped up and sounded bizarre.
then one day i hit on a synth string riff and started building sort of a dance song around it, dropping in funky bass lines and sax sounds. then i messed with it and made the second half of the song a little crazy with dissonant sax harmonies, backwards canned voices and a brief bit of backwards piano. i was really digging this one. i figured no one else would like it and it wasn’t video material (greg said it was all downhill once the sax started wailing in a crazy way), but everyone seemed to think this was exactly what we needed. so it became the video’s theme song. we recorded it onto cassette tape in mono and then dumped it into the computer that had the video editing software in it. talk about degradation of sound quality. still, i think it came through well enough.
not much of my other music was used. one brief little guitar bit from the rock-ish song was inserted at one point, but mostly it’s just that theme song looped and recurring at a few points, and then coming back with a vengeance at the end. most of the other bits are pre-existing things that came with the program instead of things i came up with myself, like that cheesy dance organ bit around the three minute mark. seemed like a bit of a waste of what i could do musically, but it was still an interesting experience.
i made a pretty good amount of money for my first real job, and ended up buying my drums with the cash i made. i still use and record those drums today, so i’d say it was money well spent. i haven’t heard from greg or libby since the project ended…we were each presented with a “health & safety award of recognition” from WOHIS at the 2000 clifton grant award banquet for our work, but i was the only one of our ragtag trio who showed up. i found an email address for libby not long ago, but she never responded to the message i sent her. no surprise there…most people are wet noodles anyway. we knew that already. i also found an online resume where she says she “directed all aspects” of the video. that’s interesting, because i remember it a little differently, and when you get to the credits, there are some other names there aside from hers. just a few. gotta love revisionist history.
and now, video action:
check out the dude with short hair and no facial hair smiling at the beginning. i haven’t changed a bit since then, have i?