Happy Halloween from this unmasked ninja and his gallant posse.
I want to say this picture was taken in 1991? Maybe? A lot of pictures of me from the pre-teen years are hard to date, because in most of them I look older than my actual age. I was one of those kids who never seemed to stop growing.
I remember this party, but I have no idea who any of the other kids are or what they might be up to now. The main thing is, all these years later I still have my plastic ninja sword, safely sheathed in the garage, just in case there’s ever a need to use it.
If you were a child of the ’80s, you might remember this cassette tape.
It was the soundtrack to every Halloween at my house growing up. Whether I was handing out candy with the tape blaring from stereo speakers inside the house or coming back from trick-or-treating to hear it moaning in the distance, it never failed to creep me out.
That tape popped back into my head today for the first time in years. I had no memory of what it was called, so I did a search for “Halloween cassette tape” and hoped for the best. The very first result was the exact tape I was looking for. Its familiar orange face all on its own is still almost enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Listening to it now is total nostalgia overload. Even if it’s mostly made up of bootleg recordings lifted from other sources, there’s still something unnerving about its lo-fi ambience.
Twenty years ago today, the mother person asked me if I could record some eerie background music so we’d have something different to play on Halloween. It caught me off guard. She never did much to support my interest in music — it was the opposite, really. But I was game.
I wrote down the name of every sinister-sounding patch I could find on my Yamaha W-5 synthesizer, soaked the Clavinova in built-in effects (piano with reverb and a Leslie speaker approximation seemed to be the most unnerving combination), switched to a pipe organ sound every once in a while, and improvised for about half an hour, trying to come up with the spookiest and most discordant sounds I could. I called the finished product Walking Down Fear Street. In every way it was my attempt at making something similar in spirit to Horror Sounds of the Night.
I don’t think she was a big fan of what I came up with. And the hi-fi system threw the limitations of the recording into stark relief, captured as it was on the little Sony stereo/tape recorder of yore with its tiny built-in microphone. None of that ever bothered me much. I had fun trying something different, and it’s pretty amusing to listen to today.
Join me, if you will, in laughing at my fourteen-year-old self trying to scare trick-or-treaters. It’s tough to work out what some of the individual songs are now without the use of a stopwatch, since everything was recorded as one continuous performance. I think this is part of a track called “Time Stands Still”, and all or most of “Sour Grapes”. While it’s only a small segment (I’m not about to subject you to the whole thing!), it gives you a pretty decent idea of the atmosphere I was aiming for.
You make a thing. You decide how you feel about the thing. Sometimes you know while you’re making it. Sometimes it takes a while before you know. Sometimes you think you know, and then your feelings shift.
I like to say it takes me a year or two before I can stand back and really see where an album fits into the bigger picture. That isn’t always so. There have been albums that felt like some of my best work when I was recording them and still feel that way today, albums I thought were shaping up to be great only to find they sounded like garbage to me not long after they were finished, and albums that felt kind of slight or sub-par at first but have grown on me over the years — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
Since the world didn’t end the other day, in spite of all those doomsday theorists doing their best to convince us all that this time they were right and everything was gonna go kaboomy-bye, I thought it was time to revisit this album. Plus, I was doing some final level-matching tweaks as part of the remastering process and had to listen to it from start to finish to make sure I got it right anyway.
I was never sure how I felt about this one. I was waist-deep in the making of another (still unreleased) album when the need to do something different bubbled up because I found myself with some serious butterflies in my stomach about someone when I didn’t think butterflies were something I would feel again after some of the soul-destroying romantic adventures of yore. I got all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs written before it all went to hell, and suddenly instead of making my first true album of love songs for a living, breathing human, I was making a breakup album when I didn’t think I’d ever have a reason to make one of those again.
There’s no clearer illustration of the jarring shift in tone than “Nightside”, where you get to hear the change happen in the space of one three-minute song.
The words and music were written when I thought the burgeoning relationship had a great future ahead of it. I’d just finished spending the better part of a weekend with the person I was pretty sure was my new girlfriend, and it felt like I was gliding with my feet a few inches off of the floor when I walked. She really did jump sideways on the bed to get to me. It was a fun moment.
The spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.
I liked the songs but couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. A lot of them were coming less from craftsmanship than a need for catharsis. I had such a difficult time sequencing everything in a way that felt like it made sense, I got a headache trying to suss out the order of the songs.
In all the years I’ve been making music, I can’t say any other album I’ve worked on has ever done that to me. And I’ve made double and triple CDs that have been packed with as much music as the media could handle.
When it was done, it just felt too raw to hang out with for any length of time. It wasn’t one of those cloying, maudlin breakup albums full of self-indulgent exercises in self-pity. It had sharp teeth. It had a goofy rap song and some insane slowed-down scream-coughing in-between songs of love and post-love. It was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. But it took a lot out of me, taking all the mixed feelings I had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaping them into songs. It isn’t a coincidence that I haven’t made a solo album since (though that’ll change soon enough).
I listened to it once or twice to make sure everything felt like it flowed okay. I played some of the songs live at the second Mackenzie Hall show (though not very many of them, which is pretty funny in hindsight, since that was the only proper “album release show” of my own I’ve ever played). After that, I kind of wanted to keep my distance. The last time I gave it a listen all the way through was about five years ago at Kevin Kavanaugh’s studio space, when I was knocked out by how good it sounded on his mega hi-fi system, even with my too-hot mastering job. Those speakers of his meant serious business.
Listening to the album now, it’s not so raw anymore. It’s amazing what some moisturizer and half a decade away from something can do for you. And I’ve gained enough emotional distance from what inspired the songs to realize something: I like this album.
“Some Things Are Better Left Buried” felt a bit like filler at the time. It doesn’t anymore, especially now that all the stupid distorted vocal peaks are gone. I really enjoy the way some of the catchiest, most uptempo music on the album is juxtaposed against some pretty morbid lyrics. I liked “A Puppet Playing Possum” fine back then. Now it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. “Light Sleeper” remains the bruised heart of the album for me. I can still feel the hope and uncertainty that went into that one.
Part of me still wishes the last section of “Different Degrees of Wrong” wasn’t such a tease. The segue from a rare venom-free love song into the violent lunacy of “Surrender to Thee” will probably always crack me up. And a fresh, saner mastering job allows me to hear that I did a pretty solid job with the recording and mixing side of things, when I wasn’t so sure at the time.
The album title was one I had kicking around for years before I knew what to do with it. At the house before this one, for a while there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom. I started to think of him as something close to a pet. I wondered what to get him for christmas, if he stuck around that long.
He didn’t. He came out of nowhere and bit me on the back of the leg while i was sitting on the toilet one night. I don’t like to kill any living thing if I can help it, aside from mosquitos (fuck those guys), but biting me when I’m dropping off some kids at the pool…that ain’t right.
I’m sad to say I didn’t develop any Spiderman-like super powers.
There’s also the whole “partner as a spider trapping you in their web” thing I lucked into as a useful accidental metaphor for a breakup album.
Finding cover art to play off of the title was always going to be tricky. But around the time of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, Johnny Smith hired Bree Gaudette for a photo shoot and she captured a bunch of evocative images out in the county. I kept coming back to a few shots of a dilapidated barn. They just happened to feature a pretty prominent spiderweb.
As much as I liked the original colour version of the picture that became the cover image (seen above), there was something about the black and white edit I couldn’t shake. Something in there felt right.
There’s another accidental meaning behind the album title — something I never knew it meant until just recently.
There’s something called a nuptial gift. “Food items or inedible tokens that are transferred to females by males during courtship or copulation,” trusty old Wikipedia says.
It isn’t specific to insects by any means, but in certain species of spiders the male will offer the female a gift wrapped in silk as a way of enticing them to mate. As a rule, what’s being offered is prey caught by the male. If the female accepts the gift, she eats it while the male hops on and does his little sex dance.
Some spiders are crafty, evil little shits. Because of their ability to wrap and obscure the gift they’re offering, the female has no way of knowing what’s inside until she removes the proverbial wrapping paper. Two specific species have been known to wrap plant seeds and insect exoskeletons devoid of any edible parts. By the time the female figures out what she’s been given and realizes how useless it is, the male has already done his business.
That an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed would think to do something so duplicitous is kind of amazing. I wish I could say I knew about this and it was in my head when I was deciding to dust off that old title for this group of songs, but I had no idea.
What’s strange about relationships as doomed and damaging as the one that fed into this album is the way the passage of time seems to dull some of the bad feelings while shining a light on the little pockets of happiness.
One unexpected bit of common ground I shared with the person a lot of these songs are about was a still-strong affection for the animated disney films we loved as kids. We watched Oliver & Company and The Aristocats while she leaned back on me and ashed her cigarette in a coffee mug. I felt like I was five years old again, only now I was a five-year-old in a grownup body with my hands cupping someone’s breasts through the thin fabric of a thing they called a shirt.
All five-year-olds in grownup bodies should be so lucky.
The suits at Disney have marketing down to a fine art. They take these classic movies everyone loves, the ones that helped shape your childhood, and they deny you access to them for years. Decades, even. Then they make a big show of releasing one of them on home media, letting you know it’s only going to be a limited release before the movie goes “back in the vault”.
It allows them to charge a ridiculous amount of money for something people will be glad to shell out for, given its scarcity and sentimental value. And if the movie you’re after is out of print by the time you show up, well, you can always find someone generous enough to sell you their used copy on the internet for a week’s pay.
The one she wanted most but couldn’t find was The Lion King. Disney had put it back in the vault. I wanted to surprise her. I found someone selling it on DVD for a pretty decent price and bought it.
With a perverse sense of timing the best fiction couldn’t invent, it showed up in my mailbox the day after we broke up. I chucked it in a dresser drawer and made myself forget about it.
Six years later, I’m doing some long-overdue cleaning and reorganizing when I dig The Lion King out of the bottom of its wooden tomb, still in the bubble bag that has my address written on the front. Now it’s nothing but a relic from a few weeks spent trying to pry love or something like love from the mouth of indifferent animal instinct. Now it’s a little bit funny.
It’s good when you get to a place where you can laugh about the things that used to sting.
The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in north america — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.
Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEentire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.
When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
Last year the CRTC decided CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.
A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.
For some of us, this is what hell looks like.
Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.
Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think i was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — folks like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.
In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned.
I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got).Aand every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.
One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.
We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.
But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.
In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.
There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.
There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.
I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.
Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.
Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.
This is a Takeharu WTK-65H twelve-string acoustic guitar. It was built in Japan in 1977.
Gord found it at Value Village seventeen years ago. He left it at my house not long after getting it, for at least a day or two, so I could try it out. I remember putting it in an open tuning and strumming the chords to “The Ballad of El Goodo” and John Lennon’s version of “Be My Baby”, feeling the sound fill up the room. It wasn’t anything fancy as guitars go, but it had soul, and it showed up on a handful of Papa Ghostface and early Guys with Dicks songs.
If it came with a case, I don’t think Gord ever used it. He left the guitar leaning against a wall wherever he was living at any given time for anyone to play. Some drunk person would always pick it up and break a string.
It became a running joke: the twelve-string that never lived up to its name. Sometimes it was an eleven-string. Sometimes a ten-string.
For Gord’s nineteenth birthday I bought him a new set of strings, and for a moment the guitar was whole again. That lasted about a week before someone got drunk and careless and broke another string.
At some point in its life it either fell or was thrown into the Detroit river. I’m pretty sure it also caught some embers from a bonfire one night.
When Gord brought it over a few weeks ago for a long overdue visit, he left it here for me to borrow again. I think he just couldn’t get much use out of it anymore and thought maybe I’d be able to pull something out of its dust-covered guts because of the way I play. A thumb that’s spent years dancing across fretboards might be more forgiving than the other fingers.
The pickguard was hanging on through sheer force of will, the glue or adhesive solution having lost most of its hold a long time ago. It was so sucked-in it made the whole guitar look warped. The action was so high, about all you could do was play with a slide. Fretting a chord was almost impossible. When i tried, it felt like I was going to break my thumb off. The intonation up the neck was about the worst I’ve ever heard on a stringed instrument. Two strings and a bridge pin were missing. There were cobwebs inside the soundhole.
There’s neglecting a guitar, and then there’s this.
I brought it to Stephen Chapman, because he’s the guy I bring guitars to when they need work.
“Who gave you this guitar?” he asked.
“A friend,” I said.
“This is not a good friend. Give it back.”
You know it’s bad when someone who can find a way to fix a broken pair of studio headphones tells you a derelict guitar is a lost cause. He lowered the action as much as he could and said that was all he could do. “Don’t even try to tune it,” he told me. “You’ll just start snapping strings. Take it out back and shoot it.”
I’m nothing if not stubborn. Back at home I lowered the tuning so there’d be less stress on the neck and the messed-up bridge. I took it slow. None of the strings broke. It was pretty comfortable to play now, but one string was buzzing something awful. We raised the action back up just enough to get rid of the buzz. I found some extra bridge pins I had sitting around and replaced the one that was missing.
I have three almost-complete sets of strings for acoustic twelve-string guitars. They’re all incomplete because every time I’ve broken a string on my own twelve-string, it’s always one of the high E strings that goes. It never fails. And I never feel like restringing the whole thing.
Wouldn’t you know it — one of the missing strings on Mr. Takeharu was a high E. I had none of those left.
I improvised. I stole a high E from a spare set of strings for a six-string guitar. The gauge looked about right. It worked. Then I replaced the other missing string with one that was meant to live in that place. You wouldn’t think two strings would make much difference on a guitar that’s got twelve of them, but the change was striking and immediate. The sound went from just sort of being there to filling up the room again.
Johnny Smith peeled off the dying pickguard and tried to scrub away the ugly scar the glue on its underside left behind. It was slow going. We decided it made more sense to get a replacement pickguard and cover up the ugliness. But it turns out Hummingbird style pickguards are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The new one I ordered was too small.
It was too bad. I liked the look of it.
I got rid of the cobwebs, rescued a blue pick with a skull on it that had been living inside the guitar for who knows how long, and we picked up some of this stuff.
That crazy tape gave the old pickguard a new lease on life.
Now it’s almost unrecognizable from the mess of a guitar it was when it landed here.
Somewhere along the line I realized I was in a tuning not far off from the one I used seventeen years ago when I first met this guitar. I started playing “The Ballad of El Goodo” again. It felt like making a full turn. Then I played some other things.
On a technical level, it’s still not a great guitar. I’m not sure it ever was, even forty years ago when it was brand new. But it’s got its soul back. All it needed was a little bit of affection and double-sided tape.
Work continues on the next Papa Ghostface album, though my sleep issues and Gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.
Yesterday was our first session in a while. The last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. Then I started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, Gord joined in, I started singing the lyrics for “Be Sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.
“Be Sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. It had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have almost sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. It was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.
Whatever high school class I was pretending to pay attention in when I wrote the words, I had Joe Cocker’s version of “Feelin’ Alright” in my head. I thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.
But songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. The day I pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on Kildare, I started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “All Along the Watchtower” than Joe Cocker. Gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little Zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now. I found an appropriate drum pattern on the Clavinova, and we got down to business.
I ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:
Popsicle head in a European convict’s mind. You don’t pay attention. Blood red blush in a rush of amputated loveless fear. You don’t pay attention. So kiss my head — my hairless head. Kiss my head, or I’ll make you pay. Kiss my head. Kiss my head. Number five — your creation is terminated
What that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. I sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.
Slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. It was just one of those happy accidents. The new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words I ever wrote. Defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.
We got down the acoustic guitars. I added some bass. Then we left it alone. I meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. I still haven’t done that.
When Gord came over yesterday, he brought his old acoustic twelve-string with him. The idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. There was one problem: his axe is in much rougher shape than I thought it was. The intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.
My own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. I gave it to Gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “Be Sorry” in a few different places.
I’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. Still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap Washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. All I did here was aim a single Pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.
I still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. This was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. I think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. So it came out a little grainy.
But I have to say I’m enjoying this camera a lot. The autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus, and there’s no way I could ever shoot handheld with either of the Flip cameras and get movement this smooth.
Smells like the homestretch to me. If I can keep tackling at least a few songs a day, in about two weeks I should be finished. Then I can finally make good on some packages I’ve been meaning to send to a few people for about six million years.
By now the number of unused and alternate tracks I’ve found for these songs is getting a little crazy. There are even a few alternate mixes I don’t remember making. Here’s one of those.
I knew there was a percussion track I didn’t end up using for this little electronic mood piece, because it felt like it worked better as more of an ambient thing. I didn’t realize I went to the trouble of making a mix that included the beat just in case I decided to use it, though.
I still think the right version ended up on the album, but it’s kind of neat to hear it like this. The Aphex Twin influence might be a little more pronounced in this mix.
All through high school, I wrote songs for assignments every chance I got. It made life more fun and kept me on my toes. I had the most success doing this when Mrs. Gilham — one of the few great high school teachers I had — was teaching English or French, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.
One time I stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in French about celebrity endorsements. The song was called “Les Atheletes qui Chante”. “Je suis Michael Jordan,” went one bit. “J’aime les Ball Park Franks.” Another time, for a group assignment, I played the part of Bill Clinton. I was very attached to my pet pig, Oinky, played by Matt Strukelj. When Oinky died, I hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music I recorded at home the night before.
I liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.
In grade eleven one of the books my English class dug into was The Catcher in the Rye. We were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. I asked if I could write a song from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. Mrs. Gilham gave me the go-ahead.
I wrote a song called “Holden On”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. It was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.
I brought my crummy Vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period English class, and sang my song. It went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if I could play it again at the end of the period. That blew my mind a little. I went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that I was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “Henry the Horny Hamster” from my X-rated Christmas album before Mrs. Gilham shot me a look that said, “That’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”
The guitar came with me to my second period society class. Sean Lauria was one of the guys I shared that class with. He asked me what the deal was with the axe. I told him about my English assignment and “Holden On”. He asked if he could hear it. I told him I’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.
He stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. I almost fell over. I handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. He wasn’t giving up, though. He talked Ms. Davis into letting me play the song for the class. So I sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.
I only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was Gord. It seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. The same year my English class was analyzing The Catcher in the Rye,his was reading Animal Farm. He wrote a song in the voice of Boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.
For a while I only heard bits and pieces of the song. Brodie Johnston, who was in Gord’s class when he debuted his ode to Boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. Gord played part of it for me outside of school. But I didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.
Most of the songs I wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “Holden On” was never documented in any meaningful way. Gord’s Boxer song was another story.
In late 1999, Amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. It has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.
Three years later, I asked gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. He wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. We got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, Gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.
And then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.
When we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the Boxer song came up. I learned Gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.
I finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since I didn’t think it added much.
We both felt this was the version to build on. It lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with Gord improvising some words at the end about a sugarcane mountain that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.
We sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and I recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.
Gord first had Benjamin the donkey predicting Boxer’s fate. A quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig Old Major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. I tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.
We picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. An instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. Brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.
Recording it was pretty straightforward. We got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. There’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. In the past we never talked much about what we were doing. We just did it. Now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.
When Gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “Situations” on STEW is a good example. The bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. It dances.
With this song, I thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 “sugarcane mountain” section if it wasn’t so busy. I asked Gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. As for me, after I recorded a rough drum track Gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. I tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.
We were both right.
It’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.
A great example of this philosophy in action: I assumed Gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. He asked me to sing it instead. I did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.
I really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies I came up with for my demo. When it came right down to it, including them in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. So that fell by the wayside. But there was still room for banjo and piano. As for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” Magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. This might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.
I thought it was about time I performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because I’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. The moving pictures come to you from John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s animated film version of Animal Farmfrom 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! The last time I saw it was when my own English class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so I couldn’t remember how much of Boxer was in there. As it turned out, there was more than enough material for what I wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than I was expecting them to be.
And there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.
Sometimes, after chasing something for a very long time, you think you’ve managed to catch up to it and dig your fingers into its shoulder blades. Then you press down a little harder and notice what you thought were shoulders are your own kneecaps, and you’re not wearing any pants.
This is one of those times.
Pretty much nothing I thought was going to be on that stack of 8mm tapes was there. That’s both good and bad.
As I was expecting, there’s footage here I never knew existed. What I thought was going to be a party at gord’s from 2002 is instead a triple-header of a house show from late 2001, with a set from punk band Kanada sitting right in the middle of the musical sandwich. It always felt like they were kind of given short shrift in the music scene, so it was a great surprise to stumble onto some video of them doing their thing back when we were all skinny teenagers.
A tape I thought was going to have random high school footage on it instead has some moments from the night of our graduation. Another tape I was positive would be a recording of a bar show is instead a ton of footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded at the old Walker Power building. I remember a camera being there, but I only ever saw about two minutes of video and assumed not much more than that was filmed.
There’s enough raw footage to put together a grimy documentary about the making of the album from start to finish, if I wanted to do a thing like that. There are a lot of fun moments in there, including the revelation that recording the guitar and bass tracks direct instead of mic’ing up the amps wasn’t the plan all along. I’ve been remembering that wrong all these years. Instead, it was a last-minute move made to counteract too much bleed and not enough microphones. And the band didn’t record piecemeal, but together as a unit, live-off-the floor, with the exception of the vocals and some guitar overdubs that were added later. I’ve been remembering that wrong too.
But then there’s this: none of those Papa Ghostface performances are included in any of the eight hours of footage culled from these tapes. There are some pretty amusing bits from me, with some non-sequiturs I don’t remember ever dishing out, but there’s almost no footage of me playing music in any capacity. For the most part I’m only recording it, or sitting in the audience watching it happen.
I say “almost” because one of the surprise finds on these tapes is a casual little jam session with me and Tyson running through bits and pieces of about half a dozen different GWD songs. It isn’t true band footage, because Gord is filming instead of playing bass, and what little singing I do is not trying very hard to be serious. Still, I was pretty sure this stuff was filmed on Tyson’s camera and I’d never get to see it again. I’m happy to be proven wrong, and ecstatic to have another small piece of video documentation from that musical period fall into my lap.
After the fifteen-year chase and the money I spent having the tapes transferred, finding out the things I most wanted to see weren’t there was a bit of a kick in the teeth. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for what I’ve got here. There’s some great archival material I never thought I’d get my hands on, a lot of it looks and sounds better than I thought it would, and I’ll be able to do some fun things with it. But it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
To Amanda’s credit, she’s said she’ll take another look at her collection of tapes and see if there are any others she thinks I might be on. So it isn’t an “all hope is lost” situation yet. There’s still a chance.
Whatever happens, I can’t thank her enough for opening up the archives and allowing me to travel back in time about sixteen years. Thank Jack Russell Terriers she was either around for these adventures or willing to let someone borrow her camera so they could be documented. Some of this stuff is absolute gold.
In the meantime, please enjoy Kanada testing the limits of how much volume a camcorder’s built-in microphone is capable of handling while raising your glass of ginger ale to my clean-shaven bandana-wearing cameo and a black-haired, near-unrecognizable Joey Desroches on drums.
Wherever you are now, Christine Kowala, I want you to know I still love you and your Batman shirt.
Another bittersweet hindsight moment here: everyone who was in my band at the time was at this show. We wrapped up the last full band recording session for GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE earlier that same day. We could have easily played a set and made the house show a quadruple-header.
While our music might not have fit in with the punk, metal, and hardcore grind, I’m pretty sure the people we were hanging out with would have been open-minded enough to give what we were doing a fair shake. And then we’d have a full GWD live set on video, with me doing more than just reacting to some guitar feedback during someone else’s soundcheck.
Failing that, I could have at least recorded some of these shows. My rig was pretty portable in those days and more than adequate for capturing loud live music. Then I’d be able to sync this video, and others like it, with some high quality audio.
The idea never entered my mind.
I’ve had about all the smelly not-to-be potpourri I can handle lately. I need a time machine already, so I can confront some of these oversights, punch ’em in the mouth, and give ’em overbites.
Since my brain moves in strange ways, when I was navigating the initial disappointment of realizing the footage I most wanted to see wasn’t on these tapes, I thought I’d really wallow in it by revisiting some past disappointment. Double your displeasure, double your pun.
In the late summer of 2011 I played a set at the Shores of Erie Wine Festival. To date, it’s the last time I’ve played a solo show. It was such a horrible experience it kind of made me never want to do it again.
Everything that could have gone wrong that day didgo wrong. I found out the sustain pedal for my rented keyboard was dead minutes before my set started. The one person I knew who had a sustain pedal I might be able to borrow was also playing that day, but she’d just made it pretty clear she didn’t care about me at all when I thought we’d spent the better part of that summer becoming close friends.
You could say there was some tension there. And I wasn’t about to try and break it by asking for a favour.
If that wasn’t enough to set an ominous tone, I wasn’t used to playing on a stage that big, cut off from the audience to the point that it barely felt like they were there. I couldn’t hear any of their applause. It didn’t feel like I could interact with them. Not that there were many people to interact with anyway. There wasn’t much of a turnout that early in the day. But losing that feeling of intimacy threw me off.
Add to that the people shovelling mulch in front of the stage while we played (I thought it was manure at first) and the feeling that it was too early for my voice or my fingers to be awake enough to cooperate with me, and it was a recipe for a bad time all the way around.
The worst part was having to perform without a sustain pedal. I had no idea how integral that little thing was to the way I played piano until it wasn’t there anymore. As it was, playing a digital piano live when I’d been spoiled by the grand piano at Mackenzie Hall and my upright at home was a little uninspiring, with all the sensitivity I was losing. But I could have dealt with that just fine if I had a working sustain pedal. Without it, I had to rethink every song on the fly, everything I’d rehearsed went out the window, and my piano-playing became more of a reluctant intellectual exercise than anything, testing what I could and couldn’t do with no margin for error.
It was one of those shows where nothing feels like it’s working, you don’t enjoy being up there, and when it’s over you’re glad you forgot to tell the audience what your name was, because it would be embarrassing if anyone thought what they heard was an accurate representation of what you sound like when things are going well.
There’s video of the whole performance. I ignored it for years, not wanting to relive the experience. Almost six years later, when I was feeling low about the lack of 8mm Papa Ghostface glory, I decided to subject myself to it for the first time.
I listened to the audio on its own so I wouldn’t have to see the mulch flying around. I didn’t cringe. In some places, against all the odds, I found myself thinking, “For feeling on the day like my singing and playing was garbage, this isn’t all that bad.”
I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but after being pretty positive the Mackenzie Hall performance of “A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods” from earlier the same summer was always going to be the definitive version of the song, I think this one might give it a run for its money.
It’s a little more far-reaching, with bits of “Here Comes the Rain Again”, “Out of Touch”, and “State Trooper” getting tossed into the blender, along with a brief callback to the “I Put a Spell on You” section first improvised at Mackenzie Hall (only the first of these musical inserts was rehearsed; the rest were spontaneous). Some of the melodic ideas from the long improv section in that version are revisited here, including another quote from “Rondo Alla Turca”. There’s also a whole lot of improvised stuff unique to this performance that I don’t remember ever playing. and the line I forgot to sing in the first verse at Mack Hall doesn’t get dropped this time.
All I know is, I’m liking it, when I never thought I would — never thought I’d even want to hear it again. If for whatever reason I don’t end up ever playing another solo gig, I don’t think this was such a bad note to end on after all.
Out of great disappointment a mound of focaccia bread sometimes rises, I guess is what I’m trying to say here.
This is what a MiniDV tape looks like after its casing has been disassembled and the guts pulled out.
When I was just getting started importing all these old tapes, one of them decided to jam up on me after being rewound to the beginning. I was able to get it out of the camera, but there was no way to get it to play after that.
Bob at Unique Video Systems took the thing apart, transferred the tape into a new casing, made a splice to fix the part at the beginning that went janky, and all the ideas preserved therein got to live to fight another day.
If you need any video-related work or repairs done in Windsor, Bob is your guy. To say he knows his stuff would be a bit like saying the sun is hot and if you got close enough to touch it you might lose a finger.
Now, this righthere…this is the holy grail.
You know how a few posts ago I broke down a list of video footage different people shot of me over the years that I didn’t have in my possession? And you know how I mentioned some early Papa Ghostface footage filmed back in our high school days?
This is that, and a whole lot more.
I’ve been trying here and there for fifteen years now to gain access to this material. A few days ago I thought I’d give it one last shot. I reached out to Amanda, Gord’s high school girlfriend. She’s the one who filmed this stuff.
I wasn’t even sure the tapes still existed. It’s been almost two decades since the earliest of them was filmed. Things get lost or thrown out over that period of time. It just happens.
She sent me a picture so I could see she’d kept the tapes and they were still intact. She said she wasn’t positive which ones we were on, because her camera didn’t work anymore and she never really documented the contents of her tapes, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. If I was willing to share copies of the digital transfers with her, she’d be glad to let me have them.
As of today, I have those seven tapes. There isn’t just vintage Papa Ghostface footage on them from a time when I had short hair and a beard was nothing but a distant hope in my head. There are house shows Fetal Pulp and ADHD played at. There are candid moments from the times Amanda brought her camera to school. There’s…I don’t even know what, to be honest with you. There could be footage of me and people I went to Walkerville with in here that I didn’t know existed. There probably is.
It goes without saying that I’d love to have the video Tyson shot of the band in late 2001 and early 2002. Knowing how easy it would have been to pop a tape in my VCR and hit record each time he hooked his camera up to my TV so we could watch what he’d filmed makes me want to go back in time and throttle myself for not thinking to do that when it counted.
In a way this is even better. Beyond a few things I’m pretty positive are here, I don’t know what I’m going to see. I get to be surprised.
After spending a good few years getting used to the idea that I’d never get to see any of this again, I get to go see Bob on Monday and talk to him about transferring all the tapes onto DVD (I’d make the transfers myself, but these are 8mm tapes and I don’t have the necessary equipment). I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. I thought I was doomed, and here I am waiting for the weekend to disappear so I can dive even deeper into the past than my own camcorder tapes have allowed me to.
Never underestimate the power of dogged persistence, right?
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 father of a fugitive played by Matt Brown. But playing the main antagonist in that 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 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 Tyrannosaurus 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 a line like, “Temptation overcomes common sense,” with a bit 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:
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.
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 school’s 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 productionsin 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.
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 his dad. Hey man, don’t knock “Glory to God” until you’ve heard it. That stuff gets stuck in your head.
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.