it was twenty years ago today.

when someone finds out i went to a catholic grade school, they tend to think of uniforms, jesus overload, and outstretched hands stung red by rulers.

it wasn’t really anything like that.

there were no uniforms. the christianity was there, but it wasn’t force-fed to us. we went to church sometimes. we read the bible. we were also respected as individuals and left to work out what we thought of it all for ourselves.

instead of berating us for not being better christians or trying to scare us with stories about the horrors of hell, our priest told us god wanted us to be happy and enjoy our lives. he sang harmonies to hymns instead of singing the melodies straight. he was a baritone. “lamb of god,” we would sing, “you take away the sins of the world,” and while he was tracing out a countermelody, my best friend pete would be sing-shouting the words like the hymn was a metallica song, screwing his face up into a look of exaggerated intensity that was so funny i thought i might die from trying to laugh in church without making a sound.

pete would probably still sing “agnus dei” just like that. it’s part of what makes him pete. this is a guy who slow-danced with his mother to lynyrd skynyrd’s “simple man” at his wedding, and it was one of those perfect moments you get lucky enough to witness every so often, because it was so him.

my high school was walkerville — walkerville collegiate institute, if you want to call it by its big boy name. walkerville had (and still has, as far as i know) a celebrated arts program. for eons it’s been touted as a place for musicians, actors, writers, and artists in any medium to thrive.

it had nothing on st. william catholic elementary school, where i was taught to be myself, to be inventive, to think outside the box. at walkerville i was expected to live in the box, with nothing but a few ragged holes for air and the odd muffled sound of someone walking by to remind me there was life outside the cardboard, until i got fed up and started tearing through it with my teeth. i was not a rebel by nature. high school warped me into one through the sheer force of its bullshit and my resistance to it, which was more instinct than anything.

in the fourth grade, mr. janisse told us about the family allowance — more commonly known as the “baby bonus”. he explained its history and purpose, explained how brian mulroney’s government wanted to abolish it, and then opened up the floor for all of us to weigh in with our thoughts. i don’t remember what i said, but i got pretty fired up about it, railing against mulroney’s shortsightedness.

think about that for a second. we had a political discussion in grade four, and all of the students were treated as intellectual equals. find me a catholic school — or any elementary school at all — where that happens now, and i will eat my own chin.

my sixth grade class wrote our own play about decision-making. mr. giannetti suggested a riff on the twilight zone. six or eight of us who were up for the challenge committed to it, and we created our own characters and wrote our own dialogue, workshopping out in the hall, bouncing off of one another, improvising, testing things out. i don’t know what was running through anyone else’s head. i thought it was thrilling.

mr. giannetti offered advice and ideas when we got stuck, but he left us to determine the final shape of the thing. he did make the suggestion that i could be a rod serling type character, framing the story, offering exposition, and part of my shtick could be an oral fixation. there i’d be, looking suave, clutching a lollipop.

my suit was a loaner from an adult. i was going through a growth spurt that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end, so it just about fit. the sunglasses were my own. the lollipop was a red tootsie pop.

i still don’t know how many licks it takes to get to the motherlode of chewy goodness inside.

what we came up with was a morality tale called the decision zone. there were two performances. one was during the day for the rest of the school to see. the other was an evening show for our parents.

at the late show we stretched things out, took more chances, improvised more of the dialogue, and got a little more “adult”. somewhere someone has a decaying VHS tape of that performance, with my closing narration making room for a spontaneous rant about taking my kids to the lollipop factory only to leave appalled by the mediocrity of the modern lollipop and its desecration at the hands of soulless capitalists.

the body of the story followed a court case. the finer details left my memory a long time ago. i think kyle jaques might have been a court clerk? i know ashley coulter was the judge. i’ll never forget pete walking into the “courtroom”, hiking up his pants past any sane place, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers, and slipping into a high-pitched, nasal voice to announce, “beautiful flowers for a beautiful lady!”

it took everything we had not to crack up onstage along with the audience.

in grade seven i got to be the bad guy in a christmas play called the villain and the toy shop. my character’s name was mr. glowerpuss. now there’s a name you can sink your teeth into. i borrowed someone’s cane, put on a fake moustache and a black fedora, and someone came up with the idea of massaging baby powder into my hair to make it look grey.

i acted in a lot of grade school plays. it kind of became my thing. one time i was a jamaican guru who helped a group of stranded explorers. that play ended with everyone singing rod stewart’s “sailing”. i owe ms. george a lifelong debt of gratitude for introducing me to the greatness of “i’ll take you there” by the staple singers, which served as our musical introduction if i remember right.

in another play we wrote ourselves, i did my best impersonation of mr. giannetti. jeremy head electrocuted me with jumper cables when i started choking on hard candy, shouting, “he’s blowing chunks!” as the curtain came down to end the first act. gary collins inhabited a low-rent james bond-type character named dan ger, with a soft g (“the name’s ger…dan ger”).

over the years i got to be everything from a solemn offstage narrator to the high-strung southern father of a fugitive played by matt brown. but playing the main antagonist in that one christmas play was my proudest moment. i got to chew scenery and cackle the most evil, maniacal laugh i could come up with. i loved it.

when you’re a kid you tend to look forward to your time away from school. for me, school was the escape. i wasn’t living with the father person yet. things at home were…well, i’ll just tell you i was breaking out in hives and developing the beginning of an ulcer when i was thirteen because of the emotional strain, and let you fill in the blanks.

on the days i didn’t get to see my padre and musical other half, school let me forget about what i was afraid to go home to for a little while. it gave me a place where i could be as weird as i wanted to be without being made to feel like there was something wrong with me.

in grade eight i showed up for school every day dressed like a stockbroker. by then the way i looked was the only thing in my life i felt i had any control over. i liked to dress up. it made me feel good about myself. that my self-imposed dress code and emphasis on immaculate grooming would somehow become an act of rebellion tells you all you need to know about the absurd atmosphere i was living in.

some days i walked around with a bulky old cassette recorder, documenting snatches of conversation, amusing moments from other students, and song ideas. no one ever told me to put it away. no one at school made fun of me for the way i dressed. about the only thing i ever heard about it was, “you look nice today, john.”

brandi rivait wrote in my yearbook, “johnny, don’t wear dress pants and a suit in ninety degree weather! please! you’ll get sunstroke!” but i think she was only looking out for me.

i showed up dressed the same way for my first day at walkerville. before the end of lunch recess someone outside my field of vision whipped a glass bottle at me that just missed my head and screamed, “FUCKING FAG!”

welcome to your new liberal arts school.

i went into high school thinking it wouldn’t be too much different from grade school, where in the sixth grade we listened to the o.j. simpson verdict being read live on the radio and talked about it after, where i made great friends and scared one of the few borderline bullies stupid when i slammed his head against a brick wall after he stole my winter hat one time too many, where i learned how to snap my fingers but not how to whistle, where i cheated on a test just once and the look of disappointment on my french teacher’s face when she caught me was all the punishment i needed (i never thought about cheating again), where i learned CPR only to forget most of the salient bits in a matter of days, where i said something dirty to a girl who was going through a mean phase in front of my entire class and won the student of the month award for politeness a week or two later, where we were educated about grammar, racism, sex, and everything in-between.

in stark contrast to that, high school taught me only one real thing, and i don’t think it was the intended lesson: there’s a lot of stupidity and hypocrisy in the world, and if you choose not to buy into it, you become an insurgent in spite of yourself.

all of my st. william brethren moved on to st. anne’s after graduation. i went from knowing every soul in my school in the eighth grade to knowing no one my freshman year of high school. it was disconcerting, and a little lonely. i settled in and made friends after a while, and i had some twisted adventures, but out of the forty or so different teachers i must have had at walkerville, i can count the good ones on one hand. a few were wonderful. most of them were just kind of there. a few were incompetent, abusive, and so negligent i was amazed they managed to hold onto their jobs.

at st. william it was different. i don’t know if the teachers had a tacit agreement with the principal, or if they were all just left to do their own thing, but i don’t think more than one or two of them paid too much attention to whatever the curriculum was supposed to be, or else they created it themselves. they seemed to tailor their lessons to us. almost every one of them felt like a friend, and the feeling hung around long after they’d stopped teaching me. the few times i came back to visit after graduating, it felt like coming home.

our teachers were interested in who we were and who we were going to be. they wanted to do what they could to help us grow in whatever direction we wanted to grow. i don’t remember ever being condescended to, or anyone telling me, “you know, this passion you have for music isn’t all that realistic.”

walkerville even managed to kill my love of acting. it was a ninth grade production of peter pan that did it. during rehearsals a lot of the actors and dancers would talk and joke around with me. sometimes when nothing was going on a group of us would walk to tim hortons to get some coffee or something to eat. i felt there was something there to grab onto.

when we were finished with the play, all the camaraderie evaporated. i would see one of the dancers or one of my acting buddies in the hall, i would say hello to them, and they would look at me for a moment like i was a door-to-door salesman with some awful, disfiguring infectious disease. after registering their disgust, they would ignore me.

the message was clear: i wasn’t cool enough for them to acknowledge once they were no longer obligated to.

a little later, when i started sharing my CDs and performing music at assemblies, all those people decided i was cool enough to talk to after all. funny how that works.

i guess you could say grade school showed me what people were capable of when they were committed to being the best versions of themselves, and then high school tore all that down and introduced me to the fickleness and mixed messages i would have to navigate throughout my adult life.

instructive? yeah, sort of. fun? not so much.

this isn’t really about all that, though. i have too many stories to tell, and you have a finite amount of time left in your life. this is about one afternoon in grade eight when i felt i knew, if only for an instant, what it was like to be one of the beatles during the crazed height of their fame.

for a long time i pretty much kept my music to myself. i think there were two things behind that. the first thing was not giving a whole lot of thought to sharing it. i made it because there was something inside that needed to be expressed, and because it gave me joy. using it as a means of generating attention was never a consideration. the second thing was maybe being a little shy about it, not thinking i was good enough to get anyone interested in what i was doing even if i wanted to try.

i almost went out for the talent show in grade seven, but playing a song out of a book didn’t hold much appeal, and i was still in the early stages of the on/off piano lessons that would do little more than force me to get a lot better at picking things up by ear to make up for my lack of facility when it came to trying to make sense of all those dots and dashes and squiggles on the page. so whatever i might have done had i gathered up the courage to go through with it, it wouldn’t have been too impressive. and it wouldn’t have really been me.

in grade eight the urgency of the moment convinced me to swallow my nerves and grab the mechanical bull by the plastic junk. high school and the unknown were right around the corner. i wasn’t going to get many more chances to perform in front of all these people i’d grown up with — to share this part of myself with them.

the music i was making had grown a little more refined and conventional by now. maybe in hindsight it was sometimes, in some ways, a little less compelling than what i was doing back when i was still trying to suss out things like harmony and structure, stumbling onto unorthodox chord voicings, twisting my limitations into idiosyncratic strengths without having any idea what i was doing most of the time.

the music would get consistently weird again soon enough. in the meantime, i had more confidence now that i felt i knew my way around the piano better. that made all the difference.

the culmination of this surge in confidence was bringing a pile of home-recorded tapes with me on our week-long grade eight year-end field trip that took us to ottawa and toronto. i’d be playing one of those tapes with johnny smith himself sitting next to me on the bus (a handful of parents acted as chaperones/group leaders), someone would ask what i was listening to, they’d perk up when i told them it was me, and the walkman would get passed around all over the place.

the most memorable moment came when the headphones made their way to victoria gunn. i asked what song she was listening to. “all i know,” she said, “is your dad’s singing something about a t-rex.”

(that would have been “no luck”, a deep album cut on return to innocence.)

but before the field trip, there was the talent show. mrs. howell was running the thing. i auditioned for her in a room with a dozen other students, playing the school’s old upright piano, belting out “evil woman”. i was a bit of an electric light orchestra nut at the time.

i asked if it would be alright if i played two songs at the show. she said that was fine. only about half as many kids had come out to audition as the year before, so there was some room to play with.

my second song would be an original, and the one i chose to play was something called “duty-free”, which was…not very representative of the music johnny smith and i were making as the west team. almost all our songs were improvised as they were recorded. “duty-free” was something i wrote, with the words on paper and the music mapped out and hammered down. i can’t remember why i went for that tune. maybe it was a simple case of recognizing that it had some pep and was fun to play.

agnes wnek provided the initial spark. i had a crush on her the size of a small country. one day she said to me, “we should write a song together. i’ve got some words for you.”

they went like this:

i’m duty-free
they can’t sell me alky
i’m underage
and besides, i can’t afford it
i’m on minimum wage

i took the first line and ran with it, treating it as a punchline before the joke and an excuse for some wordplay over a pretty simple bluesy vamp. while the result wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, following up “temptation overcomes common sense” with a line about michigan’s public spitting laws is the kind of oddball turn that still appeals to me today. and all the talk of one-night stands is sort of hilarious, coming from someone who didn’t even know what first base was.

it says something that i never gave “duty-free” another serious thought after its one live performance, and it only got something close to a proper recording when “dust in the wind” (the on/off piano teacher) wanted to record me playing one of my songs with his DAT machine as an experiment and i thought it would be fun to revisit it. it was more of a novelty song to me than a meaningful piece of music.

i think you need to hear a little bit of what constituted “serious” music for me at the time to understand what i mean. so here are two songs that were recorded a few weeks before the talent show, from an album called kaput.

our west team songs were an unpredictable stew that mixed up events and characters from our lives, toilet humour, philosophy, and pure fiction. though there were some solo pieces here and there, most of what we did involved a tag-team dynamic. one of us would start singing, setting the scene, and then we’d take turns filling in the finer details. i’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating: the thing that never stops being surprising to me every time i pull out an old tape, even just to hear a song or two, is how varied this music is. the songs go a lot of different places.

my favourite go-to song shape in those days was the dark psychodrama. there’s some pitch black music on these tapes that wrestles with madness, isolation, and broken relationships, at a time when you’d probably expect to hear me singing about crushes on girls and hating homework. there is a little bit of that in the odd song like “my dad ate my homework”, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

some of our best songs were the ballads, and very few of them were typical love songs.

here’s the thing: pubescent me did not like to play it straight when hanging out in ballad territory. at all. in any given song you’d get johnny smith singing something tender and sweet, and then i’d come in and start wailing about dirty bras in laundry baskets (“julie, are you listening?”), the lonesome plight of a vacuum cleaner salesman (“just a dream”), or escaping the pain of a failed romance through prostitution (“caroline”).

there were plenty of songs that didn’t take themselves too seriously to begin with. take the third track on the kaput cassette, for example:

dozy but cozy

early in 1997 i discovered the auto-accompaniment built into the clavinova keyboard that served as my main creative workstation at the time. before that, if i wanted drums in a song, i would set up a split mode and have piano or whatever keyboard sound i wanted on the right side and bass or strings on the left to fill in the low end. then i would trigger a drum pattern and go to town.

with the auto-accompaniment engaged, i could play chords with my left hand and lead an invisible band. those drum patterns i thought i knew so well developed all kinds of new wrinkles, and all at once i had access to musical backdrops that were much more fleshed-out.

it got a little stale once i’d gone through every available style and all its variations. eventually i started stripping away most of the extra sounds aside from bass and put the keyboard in a different mode that would allow me to play without using a split, the invisible bassist following me wherever i went, freeing up both of my hands to do whatever they wanted. but for a good few months there i revelled in all the new sounds.

here i went for an imaginary dixieland jazz band, alternating between playing what was supposed to sound like a clean, tremolo-kissed electric guitar with the right hand and messing with the new (to me, at the time) arp omni-2 that was sitting on top of the clavinova.

on songs like this we could both let loose with whatever random weirdness popped into our heads. when it came to the ballads, things were a little different. johnny smith became the resident straight man, and i became more of the resident basket case.

there were exceptions. one of them came near the end of the first side of the same tape. i came up with an idea using another sound that was meant to emulate a guitar. this time it was supposed to be a steel-string acoustic.

“we should start recording this,” johnny smith said. “don’t change a thing,” he added, knowing i had a hard-on for those auto-accompaniment sounds, knowing too that the virtual band wasn’t needed here.

“no strings attached,” i said, and we had a title before we had a song. he hit the record button while i was still playing. then this happened.

no strings attached

what you have here is an example of something i listen to now, after not hearing it for twenty years, and think, “how on earth did we improvise that?” this was at a time in my life when i thought lyrics were always supposed to rhyme. so there’s that. but the song tells the story of a life seen in snapshots through someone else’s eyes. the music moves through different sections and shifts in intensity.

none of it was written. i had the little lick that introduces the song and recurs through the verses, and that was it. beyond that, it was all made up on the spot, like almost all of our music was. we took turns picking up the thread of the narrative as we were both discovering what it was.

we were both excited about what we came up with when we were finished recording it. it was one of a number of songs that felt like catching lightning in a bottle. but time and distance have a way of making some things seem better than they really were. you return to something like this hoping the music lives up to your memory of it, not knowing how reliable that memory is given all the dust caked into its face.

i was not expecting to be as affected by this one as i am two decades after the fact. there are well over a thousand west team songs on tape, and not too many outright stinkers in my opinion, but songs like this are special. i mean, if someone wanted to play this at my funeral, my well-dressed ghost would not object — though i think just as strong a case could be made for “the sack of symphony”.

(and if you’re wondering, yes, the sack in question is a scrotum.)

see, this is why i’ve resisted listening to too much of this stuff until i commit to digitizing every tape we ever made. there’s so much there, most of it is music i haven’t heard since it was recorded, and a lot of it has the capacity to surprise me and move me and crack my shit up even now. if i step too far into the musical past, i might get lost in there and not want to come back to work on all the things i’m excited about in the present.

anyway, back to the talent show.

i don’t know why i didn’t play the old upright like everyone else who played piano did that day. we rented a fancy yamaha keyboard from ouellette’s and i played that thing instead. i would give half the hair on my legs and maybe a toe or two in exchange for some video footage i could share here now. i don’t think any exists. i don’t remember seeing anyone in the audience, parent or teacher, with a video camera.

there was someone taking photographs. here’s one that ended up in the yearbook.

if the school had a mic stand, it was either missing in action that day or i couldn’t get it positioned right. michael greff stood in front of the rented keyboard and held a microphone in the place a stand would have kept it fixed in an ideal world. if you’re out there somewhere, mike, i owe you one for going beyond the call of duty and doing it with a smile on your face.

i at least had the foresight to ask johnny smith to bring that bulky old tape recorder with him (different from the one we used to record our albums). he sat in the gym with the other parents and captured the whole show on cassette, dance numbers, announcements and all.

it needs to be said: the recording is very lo-fi. it makes our albums from the same period — themselves captured using the invisible microphone built into a consumer-grade tape recorder — sound like million dollar studio productions in comparison. the mic i was singing into was patched into the PA system. for some reason the keyboard didn’t get the same treatment, left to sink or swim on the strength of its built-in speakers. so my singing is a lot louder than my playing, and it’s not one of the more pristine audience recordings you’ll ever hear by a long shot.

still, i’m grateful to have an audio record of that day.

i played my first song pretty early in the show. i was sitting on the floor at the back of the gym with my classmates, trying to ignore the butterflies eating at the inside of my stomach, when mrs. howell said this and i did a mental double-take.

mrs. howell’s introduction

the first thing that stunned me was the way she was talking about me. this was not someone given to doling out praise. i had no idea she had that kind of respect for me as a musician. it really threw me.

the second thing that stunned me was the way everyone went nuts as soon as she said my name. she had to shush them to finish introducing me.

i went up there, played “evil woman”, got the whole school to sing along, and when i was finished the applause was so loud, i’m convinced it would have parted my hair if i hadn’t put enough gel in it that morning to keep it frozen in place through a hurricane. it was insane.

i came back later to close out the “talent” portion of the show before mrs. hale got up onstage with her praise group to sing catchy songs about jesus and stuff. hey man, don’t knock “glory to god” until you’ve heard it. that stuff gets stuck in your head.

duty-free (live at the talent show)

i grafted my little intro/interview with johnny smith to the beginning of the song, even though that bit was recorded before any of the talent show performances happened, because i’m weird. dig the faux-british accent that develops and then disappears with no fanfare. and then dig the sound of everyone going apeshit. you can’t even hear the end of the song. it gets swallowed up by the screaming, and then the tape cuts out, almost making it seem like the audience went on making that sound forever.

i’ve had a few surreal moments playing live in the years since then. i’ve given better performances of better songs. but i’ve never felt anything like the collective explosion of sound that room packed with about four hundred people made twenty years ago when i was thirteen years old.

i think it’s kind of like your first kiss. if everything falls into place just right and you get the meeting of lips you deserve, the first one sears itself into your brain and never really leaves, and all the others that come after are judged against it.

i haven’t had a better kiss yet. i’m not sure i ever will.

2 comments

  1. Holy crap, that’s awesome! Dig how Johnny Smith is trying to keep No Strings Attached optimistic, while young West is bringing in the violence and isolation.

    Duty Free! Massive contrast to my first performance at school, me playing Eleanor Rigby, which involved kids looking at me with expressions of faux confusion and genuine disgust, and finally some dork from a one year above saying about the third verse, “oh no, he’s going to play it through again!”

    1. i never noticed that before, but you’re right! seems i was a cynical bugger even back then. and school-age lucas had some fine taste in music. pity the other students couldn’t appreciate it. a pox upon their popsicle sticks, i say.

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