I’ve finished this film-like thing that digs into the making of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK (and a whole lot of other things too). For a minute there I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say that.
A few days ago, when I was getting deep into the home stretch, I tried to join a bunch of WMV files with Steeper so I could see how things were shaping up. While everything worked fine when there were seven or eight things I was trying to glue together, it didn’t go so well now that I had twelve of them. The command-line interface would show the joining process progressing without a hitch until the very end. Then it would hang on “indexing output file” forever. If I tried to save the file at this stage, the program would freeze up. If I tried to save the file at some earlier point in the process, the same thing would happen. If I was lucky I’d come away with a file that was partially playable but incomplete.
When a program freezes up on me and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to unfreeze, my impulse has always been to force it to close so I can get on with my life. Johnny Smith suggested leaving it alone and waiting to see what would happen. It took five or ten minutes, but eventually the indexing process finished. So then I tried saving, thinking the indexing couldn’t happen until Steeper knew where to put the file. The program froze up on me again.
I thought I’d try one more time and let it freeze during the saving process. Maybe if I didn’t force the program to quit I’d get lucky and it would take pity on me and unfreeze at some point. And wouldn’t you know it — that’s just what happened.
The output file I was asking Steeper to deal with was much larger by now than it was when I was putting together rough assemblies a week or two ago. What was once a few hundred megabytes had grown to a few gigs. It makes sense that it would take a little longer to index and save all that information. I could have saved myself a bit of anxiety if I’d allowed that simple idea to make its way into my head.
Maybe it’s a good lesson to learn about impatience creating the illusion of a problem when there isn’t one.
As I like to say, all’s well that ends with sixteen files joined together as one. I spent a good chunk of yesterday combing through the whole thing and making a few last-minute changes. It’s funny what you miss when your head is buried in something so involved. Most of the time it was a messy edit here and there, but in one case I forgot to insert a bit of text letting the viewer know who a musician was. Pretty glad I caught that little oversight before it was too late.
I’m supposed to be finished by now. I’ve been working on this every day for the past few weeks. I was doing preliminary editing work on some of the musical segments as far back as 2014. And still I can’t escape the feeling that the end has snuck up on me a little. It’s going to be strange to wrap my head around not having any more editing to do.
In a lot of ways this little homemade documentary completes the work done on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. The two things are meant to live together and illuminate each other. There’s a ton of music on the album that isn’t represented in the film, but that’s because it wasn’t feasible to film every piece of music I recorded, and I wanted to be able to put together a final assembly that was less than ten hours long (which I managed to do!). I also wanted the film to emphasize the work that involved other singers and musicians. I think that’s the most interesting stuff to watch, even if it might create the impression that the album was less of a solitary mission than it really was. I can set up a camera and film myself constructing songs on my own any time. Bringing other people into my music like this isn’t likely to happen again. I’m glad I was able to document some of that as it happened.
I couldn’t fit in everything I wanted to. I had an embarrassment of raw material to work with — more than fifty hours of self-shot footage, fifteen hours of archival footage filmed by a handful of friends over the years, hundreds if not thousands of photographs, and I made use of twenty-seven different public domain films ranging from experimental animation to unintentionally hilarious educational films, vintage cartoons, and even a cigarette commercial from the 1940s. I had to make countless small and large decisions about what to show, how much of it to show, how to cut it, and where to put it.
It took well over a thousand edits to suture all those choices. I know this because I counted them.
One of the things I enjoyed most about constructing this thing was working out what music to use and how to employ it. Even when the music isn’t the focus, there’s very little narration that doesn’t have music behind it. With only a few exceptions, everything you hear is period-correct. When I’m talking about the early cassette recordings, almost all the music on the soundtrack is sourced from those recordings. Same deal when I’m talking about Papa Ghostface, GWD, and any number of solo adventures. I knew I’d recorded a lot of instrumental pieces, but it was pretty neat to discover I had access to any mood I wanted without having to reach outside of my own catalogue. I managed to incorporate more than sixty songs, from one of the first things I ever recorded in 1994 to some piano noodling I recorded last week. I even got to pull out a handful of things that haven’t been released in any official form.
It was a challenge to shape all of this into something with some amount of rhythm and cohesion. It was also great fun, and more emotional and cathartic than I thought it would be. I’ve never put so much thought or work into any video-related thing I’ve done, and I think it shows in the final assembly. It ain’t a high-definition experience, and it won’t be screened at any film festivals, but if I start to feel self-conscious about that I remember the Daniel Lanois film Here Is What Is. Some of the footage in that documentary looks like it was filmed with a potato. It doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to watch.
Just as there’s a lot of music that’s specific to the album, the film touches on a number of things that aren’t SLEEPWALK-related. In a way it serves as the last word on what I do and why I do it the way I do. I wasn’t expecting to dig into all of that. It just happened. One thing I was expecting: you get to see my expanding waistline in all its glory, along with vivid evidence of Maximum Beardage (2017-2019) and Maximum Beardage Jr. (2014-2015). The relative gauntness of my face in a few bits I filmed breaking down some song elements at the mixer over the last week or two is pretty striking. I don’t miss carrying that spare tire around, either.
You know you’ve lost more than a bit of weight when you can wear a sweatshirt that hasn’t fit you since 2008.
Here’s how old this hoodie is — it’s from a time when CJAM was still situated at 91.5 on the FM dial. Pretty freaky.
And here’s something else that’s freaky. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK has a total running time of two hours, thirty-three minutes, and thirty-five seconds. Its video accomplice? Two hours, thirty-three minutes, and thirty-one seconds. They’re within four seconds of being the exact same length. That’s a margin so thin it almost doesn’t exist. And it’s pure coincidence.
Once I figured that out, I was tempted to make a few fades or transitions a little longer so the length of the video would match the length of the album stroke for stroke. But it felt a little too cheeky.
Working on this video project has been engrossing, and I’ve been surprised almost every step of the way. I’m a little sad it’s over now. One of the most amusing surprises came from my eleven-year-old Acer laptop, of all things.
The S key stopped working years ago. I was able to squeeze a bit more life out of it by ripping off the plastic key cover and pressing down on the sensor, but that only worked for a few weeks, and then it was dead. After that, whenever I needed an S I had to copy it from an existing document or a file and then paste it where I wanted it to be. This is the computer I use for duplicating CDs too, so you can imagine what a treat it was when I had to input the song information for SLEEPWALK. I found the only way to avoid losing my mind was to copy and paste a lowercase and uppercase S next to each other so I’d have easy access to whichever one was necessary at a given time.
While I was messing with all of this video stuff, the laptop started coming out of sleep mode on its own at random times. A single letter kept repeating over and over again in the field for my login password, as if an invisible finger was pressing down on it. It wouldn’t stop until I hit the backspace. It was the letter S.
This happened maybe half a dozen times. Then it didn’t happen anymore, and the S key started working again. I guess it wanted to announce its rebirth to me.
I have to hand it to this laptop. I’ve asked an awful lot of it over the past few weeks, and I’ve worked it hard. Aside from Vegas crashing on me a few times, it’s been pretty smooth sailing ever since I stopped trying to edit it as one big project and broke it up into smaller pieces. Acer the Aceman took everything I threw at him and held up just fine. If anything, he seems to run a little better now. Try figuring that out.
It’ll be at least a few days before the video shows up here. I need to add some more content to the blog post it’s going to be attached to. But it’s a-comin’. I’m going to try to have that all squared away by Monday at the latest.
John Prine beat cancer twice, but he couldn’t fight off the coronavirus and the pneumonia it brought with it. He was seventy-three.
I have a bad habit of not discovering the work of some of my favourite artists until long after they’re gone. It’s happened with Nick Drake, Laura Nyro, Tim Buckley, and too many others to mention. I got lucky with John Prine and had the chance to appreciate him while he was still here.
For a long time I knew his name without knowing his music. I didn’t know anything about him. All I had to go on was his amiable, weathered face with its mop of hair that looked like it just fell out of bed along with the rest of him. One day I saw this pop up on my YouTube sidebar and thought, “Why not?” I clicked on it. Within a few minutes I’d become a fan.
John could make you laugh one minute and rip your heart out the next. A blessed few writers have that gift. I think it comes from a deep reservoir of empathy and an understanding of human nature in all its awful and wonderful contradictions. Harry Nilsson had it. Randy Newman and Lyle Lovett have it. Rickie Lee Jones has it. Tom Waits too. Springsteen has it, sometimes, when he feels like dusting it off. Not many others do.
John had it right from the start. He released his debut album in 1971. Some of the songs on it: “Sam Stone”. “Angel from Montgomery”. “Paradise”. “Hello in There”. “Six O’Clock News”. “Donald and Lydia”. “Far from Me”.
How you can write songs like that, full of the weight of living, when you’re only twenty-four years old is beyond me. The words only grew more resonant as he and his voice grew older. You could say he aged into the songs he wrote as a young man.
If there’s some comfort to take from something like this, it’s the knowledge that he’s probably somewhere smoking a nine-mile-long cigarette right now, grinning with abandon. Trying to write your own epitaph is a fool’s errand most of the time, but you’d be hard-pressed to write one for John Prine that’s any better than the last song on the last album he made.
Add this to the list of things I never thought I’d live long enough to witness: people selling single rolls of toilet paper on eBay, with everyone outbidding one another in an effort to snag a bit of precious bum Kleenex, driving the cost into oblivion.
Everyone’s been hoarding supplies in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. I understand it, even if I think it’s a little selfish to take more than you need, leaving nothing for the next person. I know it’s about fear, self-preservation, and trying to prepare in the event of a government-enforced lockdown or the need to self-quarantine. As for the soulless cretins who have seized the opportunity to profit off of this pandemic, buying up as much hand sanitizer and toilet paper as they can and then selling it back to the people they’ve deprived at exorbitant prices, well…leave it to a global crisis to bring out both the best and worst humanity has to offer.
In this skittish new world of self-isolation and social distancing, I find myself in a pretty strange position. I get to stand back and marvel at how much has changed while recognizing how little my own life has been impacted. My heart goes out to those who are struggling without the human contact they’re accustomed to. For me it’s been business as usual. Few people cared enough to engage with me in any meaningful way when there wasn’t any reason to keep their distance. It’s not as if my social life has taken a hit.
As far as the music is concerned, the work I was getting recording other artists had already dried up, and I’ve been looking forward to operating in solitude for the rest of my days after what I went through making the most recent album. So nothing has changed there either.
With CJAM being closed to the public until further notice, I assumed my days of charting were over. I assumed wrong. A number of DJs have found a way to go on producing new content without access to the station, and after hanging around the top ten for a few weeks I somehow find myself back at #1.
You have to understand — even with every live event being cancelled for the foreseeable future, it’s a pretty busy time for local music right now. There are a number of new albums that have just been released by people who (unlike me) are a significant part of this city’s music scene. They’re active on social media. They put a concerted effort into calling attention to their work. They’re a part of the club. I’m not. I deactivated my Facebook page a while back and never said anything there about my new album. Even if I did, no one would have cared. I’m not on Twitter or Instagram. I don’t promote what I do in any way, outside of maintaining a blog doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m about as close as you can get to being invisible without turning into Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man. Throw the world’s current preoccupation with the coronavirus into the mix, and I would expect my music to be the last thing on anyone’s mind right now. So to hit #1 at a time like this might be the most surprising and meaningful chart entry of my life, all things considered. I have no idea who’s been playing me at CJAM. Thank you, whoever you may be.
I was able to get copies of the album to most of the people I wanted to share it with back when we were living in more carefree times and canned tuna wasn’t so hard to come by. I think there are only two packages I haven’t sent out yet — one for a friend in Montreal and another for a producer of adult films in California.
You think I’m kidding.
I sure picked a good time to get healthy and fortify my immune system. And I think Windsor is one of the safer cities a person could hope to live in right now. Most civilians and businesses appear to be taking the necessary protective measures, and we don’t have an orange-coloured hairpiece adding to everyone’s unease by spouting a bunch of contradictory hot air that has no basis in reality.
I don’t envy you if you live on the other side of the border. But here’s something sure to put a smile on your face: a Portland strip club has reacted to the pandemic by diversifying their business and offering a topless food delivery service.
What’s a little spooky to me is what a timely album YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK has suddenly become. I look at some of the song titles now and see this:
Cure for the Uncommon Cold My Inflamed Lung Buying Time at the End of the World When the Bottom Drops Out
Then I look at some of the lyrics. The first words in the very first song are, “What you call a trench I call a home, if home is where the hope you had eats itself alive to keep from starving.” In “Lullaby for Unborn Child” an expectant mother struggles to find language to encapsulate all the death and destruction she’s seen. “Vector” ends with a phrase that becomes a mantra: “For the first time in a long time, I’m talking to myself.” The key line in “Your Dishrag Soul” is, “So much to see, so much to back away from now.” Before that: “Don’t trust the air.”
The first verse in “The Stillness of Us” goes:
All rise in fragility, and hope for something nourishing our bodies can metabolize — nutrients from the government. We break bread with the weaker ones. There’s a stillness in the heart that dissipates as it gathers strength and turns the mind against itself.
“Dark and weird” has always kind of been what I do. But that’s a whole lot of unintended symmetry right there. It’s almost disconcerting.
You might be wondering, “Whatever happened to the homemade documentary-thing that was supposed to act as a companion piece to the album?” I should have finished editing it a few weeks ago. I’ve had more than enough time to get it done. I’ve just been lazy.
If you want to know the truth, I’ve also been a little intimidated. Making a video progress report that’s twenty or thirty minutes long is one thing. This is a much more ambitious undertaking, incorporating almost twenty years worth of self-shot footage, a wide variety of public domain films, voiceover material, archival footage that was shot by others, text, music, and photographs. The final runtime is probably going to be somewhere between two and three hours.
I’ve started to chip away at it in earnest. I’ve been making good progress. But I wasn’t prepared for the trouble my video editing program has been giving me.
I’ve been running Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 9.0 on an Acer laptop since 2010. Ten years ago the laptop and the program were both new. Today it’s a minor miracle the laptop still functions, and the latest iteration of Vegas is eight versions removed from what I have. Running Final Cut Pro on my Macbook would probably make me never want to touch Vegas again, but I’ve been using the program long enough to get comfortable with it. It’s always done the job for me.
The problem now is the amount of media I’m working with. Apparently Vegas can only accommodate so many items on the editing screen at a time before it says, “No mas,” and crashes. I’ve never tried to do anything this crazy before, so I wasn’t aware of that quirk. I made the decision early on to shun the usual “talking to the camera” approach for the most part, presenting the bulk of what I want to say as narration. It’s freed me up to get a lot more creative with the visual side of things. It’s also the main reason Vegas has been on the fritz. The number of clips I’m working with has gone through the roof.
There’s one thing I’ve got going for me. I was going to break everything down into segments even before Vegas went goofy on me. Given the trouble I was having, I thought I could edit each segment as a standalone piece and use MPEG Streamclip to combine them all into the larger thing they’re supposed to be without any re-encoding.
To make this work, I would need to render the videos as MP4 or MOV files. Vegas has decided to crash every time I try to do that. MPEG Streamclip won’t recognize the WMV files I usually favour. I thought I’d work around that by rendering each segment as a massive uncompressed AVI file. Then I would stitch them all together in Vegas. Every time I tried to make an AVI file, Vegas would freeze up about halfway through and never finish the rendering process.
I’m nothing if not stubborn. I managed to find a program called Steeper. It’s an outgrowth of the commandline utility ASFCut. It allows you to combine WMV files into one all-encompassing file with no additional compression.
Beef be braised. Saints be praised.
As irritating as this technical hiccup has been, it’s a blessing in disguise. Rendering the video as a single project was going to take about twelve hours. Now I’m able to separate it into smaller pieces that only take half an hour or forty-five minutes to finalize.
It’s been fun to see things start to come together. The first few segments are finished now. The early passages need a fair bit of exposition to fill in some blanks and provide some backstory. Once that’s out of the way I’ll be able to let the visual content do more of the talking for me. Then I won’t need to have as many video clips on the go at once and Vegas should unclench its bowels a little.
My goal is to have the whole thing finished by the end of next week. I’m not sure how realistic that is, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Good things are bound to happen with Elliott riding shotgun.
The plan is to tie the video in with a giant blog post that breaks down every song on the album. The rough draft is at about sixteen thousand words right now, and it’s nowhere near finished. It’ll probably end up being the longest thing I’ve ever written here. I’ve come to enjoy digging into every aspect of an album’s making instead of just trying to provide an overview.
A lot of musicians have been holding live streaming events as a way of staying connected to their fans. I don’t have the equipment or the technical know-how to do something like that. Consider this humble homemade documentary my contribution to the “keep ’em busy with art” movement. I doubt anyone will have the interest or stamina to sit through the whole thing, but hopefully those who do will find something of value in it.
I usually get a generous amount of airplay when I have something new to share, but it’s not something I expect or take for granted. It’s always a heartening feeling when people I have good feelings for respond to something I’ve done in a positive way. And I don’t think seeing yourself on the charts ever stops feeling good.
I’m always curious to hear which songs the DJs are going to gravitate toward. This time — and I don’t remember hearing this happen with any other album I’ve made — one specific song was played at least three times in succession, on three different shows, on three different days. You never really know what’s going to grab people. That’s part of the fun. In this case I blame Kelly Grace, who has a featured vocal spot on the song that got so much action early on. There’s something uniquely beautiful about the sound of her voice. “Quiet power” is the only way I can think of to describe what comes across when she sings.
In a part of the house I guess you’d call our living room (we’re alive, and we relax in there, so I think it meets the criteria) we have this old radio that used to belong to my Bubi. It’s probably sixty or seventy years old by now. It’s powered by tubes. It doesn’t look too imposing, but music comes roaring out of its mono speaker with a power that belies its size. I’ve been around this radio for most of my life. I still can’t get over how rich and full it sounds.
Last week, Brady devoted a segment of his show Music From Planet Earth to a whole chunk of songs from the first disc of the album. Pause with me for a moment to admire this great art Greg Maxwell made for the show’s Facebook page.
Gotta say I’m a little envious of the dude performing in that image. I’ve always wanted fans with tentacles and antennae.
I listened to Brady’s show on Bubi’s radio. The sound of my own songs coming through that mono speaker almost parted my hair. And there were no audible phase issues! Hooray! That was a treat in itself, but what was really fascinating was getting to hear five or six songs out of sequence, arranged in a way that was unfamiliar to me.
Something that simple allowed me to step back and listen with some small amount of objectivity for the first time. Since I’ve finished this album, the main thing I’ve felt is relief that the whole ordeal is over. I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish, but it’s been difficult to untangle the music from everything that went into making it. It felt pretty great to be able to forget about all of that and just enjoy the songs.
Was it an easy album to make? Not hardly. But as much as I might grumble about the frustrations and indignities I had to endure along the way, I think the juice was worth the pulp. It’s beginning to dawn on me just how proud I am of this one. You never want any statement to be your last, and I intend to make a lot more music, but if I got flattened by cartwheeling bears tomorrow I’d feel pretty good about going out on a note like this.
There have always been two impulses inside of me standing in direct opposition to each other, struggling for supremacy. There’s the desire to share my music and connect with people. And there’s the desire to keep it to myself and operate in total obscurity.
At one point I told myself I wasn’t going to give anyone a copy of this album when it was finished. I changed my mind. Already some of the contributing musicians have ignored my messages. I could go on harassing them until I get their attention for a few seconds, but having to beg someone to accept a free copy of something they played a part in is a bit too much for me. All it does is prove how little they cared to begin with. They never had any skin in the game.
Of the thirty-four singers, musicians, and visual artists who contributed to the album, there are at least fifteen I can’t share it with because they won’t acknowledge me. If I’m not in a great frame of mind, this is the sort of thing that makes me want to wall myself off from the rest of the world and start living up to the “reclusive” label I used to get tagged with by idiot writers who had no interest in learning anything about who I really was.
But the battle between those two oppositional impulses rages on. Hot on the heels of that latest disappointment, I gave some serious thought to sending the album out to a bunch of different radio stations.
Every now and then, one well-meaning friend or another has told me I should consider sending my music to different campus/community radio stations outside of Windsor. Other local artists have done this and had some amount of success. Why not me?
Tempted as I’ve sometimes been to give it a shot, the only way I’ve ever felt I could offer someone a decent introduction to my music was by giving them a stack of my last six or eight albums. If I sent a package that size to a radio station’s music director, I think they would roll their eyes and chuck the CDs straight into the “rejected music” bin.
I wouldn’t hold it against them. That’s a lot of music to dump on anyone.
One radio station playing my noise has always been more than enough for me. I have a relationship with CJAM that spans almost twenty years. I think it means something to the people there when I give them a new album and a handwritten note. It means something to me when they play my music. I know it’s a personal choice they’ve made — not something they’ve been instructed to do. My music would mean nothing to a music director who’s never heard of me or a host of DJs in another city.
I know it sounds like I’ve got the whole thing backwards. Local support is often taken as a given. You’re supposed to have some desire to expand your reach and gain new listeners outside of your own city. I’ve heard the expression “hometown heroes” used to belittle artists who don’t have any interest in building their brand.
My brain doesn’t work that way. I don’t have a brand. I make music. I share it with the people I care about. That’s about as far as the promotional game goes for me.
I’ve always wondered, though…would any music director or DJ at a station outside of Windsor have any interest in the noises I make? If I’ve ever had an album I could let stand on its own as a showcase for what I’m capable of, this is the one. I’ve learned I could send my packages through CJAM, eliminating shipping expenses and increasing my chances of being taken seriously. Why not give it a try? At least I’d be able to say I put myself out there. I’ve cracked the !earshot Top 200 a few times on the strength of CJAM’s support alone. You never know. If I scared up a bit of airplay at a few other stations, I might be able to make a real run at the Top 50. It would almost be worth doing just to piss a few people off.
I’ve given all of this a lot of consideration over the last few weeks. The more considering I’ve done, the less appealing the idea has become.
There’s a protocol you’re meant to follow when sending your music to a radio station. Along with a copy of your album, you need to include something called a one-sheet. This is a single-page overview of your music, usually geared toward whatever your current album is. You provide a brief bio and praise yourself in the third person. Maybe you include a few quotes from local journalists to make yourself sound important. You offer a list of three or four suggested tracks, since no one is going to take the time to listen to your album all the way through. You specify what genre your music falls into. You include a RIYL (Recommended If You Like) subsection, noting what your music sounds like or who your influences are.
There are some music directors who are receptive to a more unique or less formal approach. But ask anyone how to run a successful radio mailing campaign and they’ll tell you the one-sheet is a must. It’s all most people have the time to read, and it gives them the information they need in a form that’s easy to digest.
There’s no polite way to say this, so I’m just going to say it: I think one-sheets are bullshit. I think they should be renamed “one-shits”. I understand why artists make them and why radio stations request them, but this idea that some semblance of who you are and what you do can be condensed onto a single piece of paper is absurd to me. It’s impersonal. It’s reductive. It’s worthless. It’s like handing someone a business card on your first date and assuming they now have a good understanding of what you’re all about based on that little laminated piece of nothing.
I’ve never made a one-sheet. I’ve tried once or twice just to see if I could do it. I can’t. It’s an affront to everything I believe in. Even trying to put together a parody of a one-sheet for the purpose of this post felt like a colossal waste of time. I lasted all of three minutes before throwing in the towel.
I don’t know what genre I fit into. I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. If I tell you I’m a progressive alternative folk artist, I fail on two fronts — it’s not really what I am at all, and contorting myself to fit inside that box doesn’t begin to capture how my music sounds, what it does, or where it goes. If I invent my own genre like “kaleidoscopic anti-pop” or “homespun sonic archery”, I come off as being pretentious. There’s no way for you to know I’m slapping those words together with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Singling out a few choice tracks? Ha! There are no singles on the album. It’s an album. And writing about myself in the third person always makes me feel kind of ridiculous.
(Note: if you’re an artist who’s made a one-sheet as part of a radio mailing campaign or a music director who finds them helpful, I’m not criticizing you. My disdain is reserved for the one-sheet itself. It’s the concept of the thing I object to.)
I’ve also learned a number of stations no longer accept physical albums. They’ll only consider digital submissions.
I refuse to digitize this album. Forget about losing the precise spacing I programmed between the songs to create the rhythm of the listening experience. I won’t separate the music from the lyrics and the artwork. I didn’t work to make this a meaningful tactile experience so I could turn around and flatten it out into a one-dimensional online magazine.
After mulling it over, I decided I can live without solving the mystery of what would happen if I sent my music to different radio stations across Canada. At best, I’d gain nothing but some bragging rights, and I’d deplete my already limited supplies. At worst, I’d deplete those supplies for nothing.
Here’s what I did instead. I sent copies of the album to three specific DJs who have shows on CJSW (Calgary), CBFX (Montreal), and KEXP (Seattle). I wrote each of them a handwritten letter. I did it because I like what they do and my gut tells me they might be open-minded enough to get something out of the music. I’m bypassing the music directors of these stations altogether, making it clear I’m not after any airplay or attention, and kicking an inherently impersonal undertaking in the ribs with everything I’ve got until it passes out from the pain.
Believe it or not, this is how I first gained some traction at CJAM. I tried to get the attention of two different music directors in 2002 and 2003. Or maybe they were station managers. I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. The first guy wouldn’t give me the time of day. The second guy was nice enough but didn’t do anything. He was gone within a few months. I was later told he was incompetent and nothing ever got done on his watch.
After respecting the chain of command and getting nowhere, I found a few shows I liked, with DJs who had eclectic enough taste that I thought they might at least be willing to listen to a song or two instead of dismissing me out of hand. I dropped a few CDs and letters in their mail slots. Most of them ignored me, but one person started playing my music. Because of her I got the attention of the station manager and the music director, my albums made it into the on-air library, and the rest is lobster ravioli.
Today I’m not trying to get anyone to notice me. I don’t expect any of those three people to play anything of mine on their shows. I don’t expect any of them to even acknowledge me. But if just one of them happens to find something of value in the music and they take the time to convey that to me, it’ll mean more than any amount of airplay in another city ever would.
In the meantime, I’m enjoying hearing myself on the radio right here at home. Who could ask for anything more?
A little bird told me Brady is going to be playing some selections from the second disc of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK on his show this Friday. If you’re expecting a copy of the album but haven’t received it yet, you can get a bit of a preview of what’s on the way by listening to Music From Planet Earth on CJAM tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. If you’re so inclined, you can stream the live feed here (or peruse the MP3 archives later on).
Unrelated, but kind of fun:
A few days ago I was listening to the 2003 CD remaster of Synchronicity by The Police. I pulled out the lyric booklet for a read-through. When I got to “Walking in Your Footsteps”, I did a double-take. There’s a glaring typo in the chorus. It reads, “Walking in YOU footsteps.” The R is nowhere to be found.
What’s incredible to me is that this wasn’t missed once or twice. It was missed five times in succession in the same song. There isn’t a single error-free iteration of the phrase in the body text.
These typos don’t exist in the lyric sheet that came with the vinyl record or the original CD. So someone fell asleep at the wheel when they were putting the reissue together. This was a major label project with (I assume) some serious money behind it.
After seeing that, I feel a whole lot better about the two minor typos I missed in the initial run of SLEEPWALK booklets. I guess we all miss a letter, a word, or a bit of punctuation sooner or later.
I got the chance to record a real drum set for the first time in late 1999. I piled most of my gear into the car one afternoon and brought it over to Gord’s friend Andrew’s place. The three of us became “Papa Ghostface and Friend” for a day and recorded two songs that found a home on the HERE COMES TROUBLE EP. I stuck a Shure SM57 in front of Andrew’s kick drum, put up another SM57 as a mono overhead, and that was it.
My next experiment in drum recording came in early 2000 while working on what was supposed to be a full-length Soul Crossing album. This time I used four mics — an SM57 on the kick, another pointing at the bottom of the snare, and two more dynamic mics serving as stereo overheads (an SM58 and a cheap RadioShack mic). I couldn’t believe how much more depth the sound had with just a few more microphones added to the mix.
I bought my own drum set in the summer of 2000 and started using a similar four-microphone setup, with the snare mic’d from the top and the kick mic leaning against the shell of the resonant head. I only had three mic stands, so I had to improvise. One overhead mic came in from above the high-hat. The other was situated near the ride cymbal. I had no preamps, no compression, and no idea what I was doing, but the results sounded pretty good to me.
Things got more chaotic when I found myself in band situations. For a few years those four dynamic microphones were all I had. I was recording everything live off-the-floor, with only the occasional overdub. When I needed something to sing into, the drums had to take a hit. Sometimes I would stick a single SM57 in front of the kit and hope for the best. Sometimes I could spare another mic or two. When I recorded someone else’s band, I used anywhere from two to six microphones. It was always changing depending on the nature of the music, how many extra mics they had to lend to the cause, and whatever limitations were imposed by the space we were recording in.
After trying out a few different two-mic configurations with Tyson in the GWD days, I settled on one SM57 for an overhead (we called it the “crotch mic” for obvious reasons) and another on the beater side of the kick drum. The trick was not pointing the second mic at the kick. Instead, I placed it at a ninety-degree angle so it picked up some snap from the snare. Those two mics captured a surprisingly balanced sound with a lot of character.
That wonky setup lasted longer than most, carrying over to the three solo albums I made after the band broke up. By the time of OH YOU THIS I felt it was time to start using a few more microphones again. I picked up a Rode NT1 and an NT4 stereo mic. The ART preamps and Aphex compressor I’d been using for the two-mic approach were usurped by two DBX 576 preamps and a 1046 compressor. I recorded acoustic guitar tracks with the NT4 and sang into the NT1. Then I moved the NT1 across the room, aimed it at the kick drum, used the NT4 as an overhead mic, and stuck an SM57 on the snare.
With just a touch of EQ and compression, I felt like this was the tightest drum sound I’d ever managed to get. The best part was how easy it was to dial in, with the stereo overhead mic eliminating phase issues. The sound got even tighter when I picked up an AKG D112 before recording BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, removed the resonant head from my kick drum, stuck a blanket inside, and messed with the tuning a little. Having a dedicated kick mic made my life a little simpler, and I got more “air” in the overheads when I moved the NT4 to the other side of the drum kit so it was pointed at me, where before I had it looking down at the drums from my perspective.
I was content with all of this until I upgraded my mic preamps again after finishing THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET and started hearing what was really going on. All at once those Rode mics stopped doing it for me. I bought an AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic without knowing much about it, since I liked the convenience of being able to stick a single mic in front of the drums, filling in the rest by spot-mic’ing the kick and snare.
Before I could try out my new three-microphone setup, a trio of drug dealers moved in next door and partied nonstop for seven months, robbing me of my ability to record anything. The R88 sat in its carrying case, wrestling with troubling existential questions. I didn’t unsheathe it for the first time until after we moved into this house.
When the R88 finally did come out of its case, I learned the swivel mount attachment it came with was defective. I screwed the mic into a heavy duty boom stand, tried it in front of the drum kit, and almost fell over. I heard the sound of my drums in my room, with a three-dimensional quality that didn’t exist in any recording I’d made before. There was no need for a close mic to reinforce anything. I took the SM57 off the snare and sold my AKG D112.
It took me an album or two to get a good handle on how I needed to play if I wanted to get the most out of using just a stereo front-of-kit mic. A lot of the drumming habits I developed over the years weren’t going to work anymore. I had to lay off the cymbals and simplify my approach. I was always a quiet drummer, but now I found the softer I played the more the tone seemed to open up. I got some of my best sounds using brushes. When I did play with sticks, I started keeping a brush or a mallet in one hand so I could hit the crash with a lighter touch.
The Great River MP-2NV gave me all the gain I needed to drive the R88. I added some high frequency EQ on my mixer to compensate for the ribbon mic’s rolloff at 8k and 20k. Then I got an A-Designs Hammer tube EQ in the middle of recording CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, started using that in place of the digital EQ, and almost fell over a second time.
I’ve been recording my drums this way for twelve years now. Every once in a while I’ll put up a large diaphragm condenser as a distant room mic if I want to add some extra ambience or a weird effect, and I’ve recorded a few brushed snare parts with an LDC up close, but that doesn’t happen often. Most of what you hear on every album I’ve made since 2008 is just the stereo ribbon mic in front of the drums. I’ve stuck with the same approach on albums I’ve recorded for other artists. I wouldn’t have a problem putting more microphones on the kit if someone wanted me to, but no one’s ever asked.
I’m the only person who’s played drums on any of those albums, which is pretty funny to me. This way of recording forces you to “mix” your own playing, since there are no close mics to compensate for whatever might be off. A surprising amount of people seem to have trouble controlling their dynamics. But that isn’t the reason no one else has sat on the drum throne for anything I’ve recorded since 2002.
It’s because I’m the only one who shows up to play.
When I was making final adjustments to a few mixes for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I started thinking the drums sounded kind of anemic. It was a strange thing to experience after being happy with the sound I was getting for so long. It wasn’t even based on anything I was hearing. It was my brain’s way of trying to find something wrong with the album. I was having a hard time processing the idea of finishing something I’d been working on for almost a fifth of my life.
That lasted about two days. Then I came to my senses. I think I’ve heard too many soulless modern recordings where the drums are pumped-up and sound-replaced to within an inch of their lives. Sometimes you get it in your head that drums are supposed to sound that way all the time, even when you know better.
Before that weird little brain blip, I was thinking about making a change. After twelve years of recording drums this way — by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach — maybe it wouldn’t hurt me to put a few more mics in front of the kit again. The single-mic method has taught me a lot about subtlety, and I’m a big fan of the naturalistic approach, but sometimes you want a harder-hitting sound.
I did some experimenting on Wednesday. I tried out a few different things before settling on an over-the-shoulder position for the R88. I pointed an SM57 at the snare drum for the first time in fifteen years. In the absence of an AKG D112, I tried a Sennheiser 421 on the kick.
The first thing I noticed was how much sound I was getting from the R88. It was insane how vividly it captured every part of the drum kit no matter where I put it. Once I brought the snare and kick mics into the mix, it started sounding like a record.
And I hated it.
I wasn’t expecting that. The bigger, punchier sound was what I thought I wanted. As soon as the close mics came into play, I felt all the great dynamics the overheads captured starting to get choked and flattened out. More than anything, I missed all the space that lives in the sound when the R88 is out in front of the drums. This more traditional configuration sounded artificial in a way that didn’t appeal to me at all. I could have moved the mics around some more, but it wouldn’t have made much difference. I found out what I needed to know.
I moved the R88 back where it belonged.
Conclusions? I’ve got a few.
The AEA R88 is one serious microphone. Easily one of the best recording-related investments I’ve ever made. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of its potential by limiting it to drum-recording applications, but no other combination of mics I’ve used has ever done a better, more honest job of reproducing the sound of my drum set.
A conventional, “produced” drum sound doesn’t work for my music anymore. It isn’t what I want to hear. I’m not sure if it’s because of what my ears have grown accustomed to or the specific aesthetic I’ve developed, but it’s inescapable. My drum sound has become — quite literally — the sound of my drums.
Okay, so I’m holding it in one hand between my thumb and a few fingers. And I’m not holding it right now. But I was holding it when I took this picture with my free hand.
I’ve been designing my own CD inserts and booklets for seventeen years. While I wouldn’t call myself a professional graphic designer, by now I have a pretty good handle on how to get the most out of the format. I’ve even taken care of the layout side of things for a few of the albums I’ve recorded for other people (Ron’s album is the most recent example). You only need to look at the first-issued versions of OH YOU THIS and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE to understand how unlikely it was that anyone else would ever trust me to do this for them. I have no idea how I got here.
I enjoy this stuff. I enjoyed it even before I knew what I was doing. I know a lot of people don’t bother to read album liner notes or lyric booklets anymore. I know sometimes you just want to let the music wash over you with your eyes closed in the dark, shutting out the rest of the world. But having something visual to explore can add another layer to the listening experience. A lot of my favourite music was first absorbed while reading the lyrics so my eyes could follow along with what I was hearing. I’m not sure if the music would have had the same impact on me if I’d listened to it in a different way.
This is one of the reasons the whole digital distribution thing doesn’t cut it for me. Bandcamp allows you to include collapsible lyrics for each song you upload, but it isn’t the same as holding a physical album in your hands and digging into its guts for whatever secrets it might contain. I have no idea how many listeners bother to read my lyric booklets. Maybe no one does. It doesn’t really matter. I like making them for selfish reasons.
I can’t say I’ve ever made a lyric booklet quite like this one. It’s full of art that plays off of the words. Putting it together was a real challenge. I had to find a way to fit all the words and images into a booklet that wouldn’t be too thick to get inside of a jewel case. The number of pages had to be divisible by four. My first finished draft ran thirty-two pages. With a little massaging, I was able to get it down to twenty-eight. The text couldn’t be too large, but it had to be easy enough to read. Some images needed to bleed right through to the edges of the page, with no white space around them. There needed to be musician credits after each song. I used one font for the outer layer and another for the body text in the booklet. Those two fonts needed to be able to play off of each other. I had to get creative with the spacing to make everything work.
You can make something look good on a computer screen, but you never know how it’s going to translate until you see it on a bunch of pages stapled together. I was a little worried this one would come out looking like a lumpy mess until Joe (who has become my main man at Herald Press) called on Thursday to tell me the proof was ready.
“How does it look?” I asked him. “Do you think I laid everything out okay?”
“I think it looks pretty damn good,” he said.
He was right. It’s pretty powerful to see everything put together. This is going to sound strange, but reading the booklet hammers home for me just how much time and care went into making this thing in a way listening to it doesn’t. It isn’t just a bunch of music and words. It’s something more than that.
I made some boneheaded typos. My brain has this habit of compensating for the odd missing word, and sometimes it causes me to miss what’s missing. I wish there was a switch I could flip to turn that off. It’s a convenient cerebral function when you’re reading someone else’s words. Not so much when you want to make sure your own work is solid. More than once I’ve had to pay for a booklet to be printed twice when I failed to catch a mistake until it was too late. I’m hoping to avoid that this time.
One of the nice things about having a proof is getting another chance to catch what’s amiss. I might have been able to live with giving myself credit for playing tambourine on a song that doesn’t feature any tambourine in the final mix or forgetting to credit myself with playing shaker on a song that does feature the instrument, but it would have been pretty embarrassing if I never noticed how I somehow managed to list two songs on the back insert in reverse order.
As impatient as I am, I’d rather have things put together a day or two later than planned instead of rushing the process and letting these mistakes slip through the cracks. I have to say I’m usually a lot better at catching most of these stragglers before a proof is even made. Then again, I’ve rarely dealt with anything close to this amount of text in a lyric booklet. It’s beyond tedious to go through each page over and over again at a snail’s pace, but it’ll all be worth it when I’ve got a stack of error-free booklets and inserts in front of me a week or so from now.
As a rule, the end of a year doesn’t register for me beyond a few thoughts about the perceived acceleration of time and a few minutes spent taking stock of what I did or didn’t accomplish over the preceding twelve months. It’s a little different this time. It isn’t just the end of a year. It’s the end of a whole decade.
This hasn’t been my most productive ten-year period.
In the years that spanned 2000 to 2009, I made sixteen full-length solo albums (plus four EPs and two out-takes collections), nine full-length GWD albums (plus one EP, a few “best-of” compilations, and an out-takes collection), four full-length Papa Ghostface albums, a Mr. Sinister album, a West/Smith album and EP, the long belch that was The Adam Russell Project, the silliness I cooked up with Matt Malanka for grade eleven English class, various other odds and ends, and somewhere in there I found time to record albums for a few friends and appear as an unpaid, sometimes uncredited session musician on a few albums other people were recording.
From 2010 to 2019, I managed only four solo albums (the last of them released in 2011, so I started out on pace to match my output from the previous decade), two Papa Ghostface albums, and an O-L West album. I also did a few quickie mastering jobs, made a few musical cameo appearances, and recorded nine albums for other artists — ten if you count an album that was scrapped after the basic tracks were recorded because I found out the frontman was a piece of human garbage and I didn’t want my name associated with his music (I gave the band their money back). Eleven if you count another album that I don’t think got a proper release.
There have been valid reasons for slowing down so much. As my approach to making an album has grown more considered, it’s taken me longer to finish things. I’ve been getting an unprecedented amount of work recording other people over the last five years, and it’s taken an incredible amount of time away from my own music. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK and THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE are not a normal albums, whatever constitutes “normal” for me, and they were always going to be long-range projects.
Still. That’s a pretty staggering drop-off in activity.
2019 has been one of the more topsy-turvy years I can remember having. It started out on a serious high. I managed to turn my dream of an ambitious multi-platform live show into a reality, thanks in no small part to a grant I received. Then the show fell apart when almost no one felt like honouring the commitments they made to me, I got sick from the stress, and I gave the grant money back.
That kind of summarizes my year — bouncing from hope and excitement to rejection and indifference on a level unlike anything I’d experienced before. Having that show disintegrate after putting five years of work into making it happen was one of the worst experiences of my life. Then I had to watch as some of the same people who didn’t care enough to show up for me turned around and showed up for the Wards of Windsor Music Project — at the same venue I booked for my show, with promotional material showcasing the same insect that was on my handbills — while the local “journalists” who wouldn’t give me the time of day when I reached out to them fell all over themselves to hype it up.
I don’t begrudge anyone their success. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that the whole thing was designed by the universe just to shove my face in the mud. People will be talking about that show for a long time. No one will ever talk about what I tried to do, or how a group of musicians who are celebrated for their talent and professionalism screwed me over and revealed how pathetic, lazy, and superficial they really are.
I had to eat that and find a way to live with the taste. It didn’t go down easy.
In the seventeen years I’ve spent trying to find a place to plug into this artistic community, I’ve been treated as a novelty, a trouble-maker, an aberration to be ignored, a whimsical distraction, a tool to be used and then discarded once I’ve served my purpose and injected some credibility or unpredictability into someone else’s music, a figure of ridicule, a subject of absurd speculation, and no end of other things. Outside of a handful of people who decided they liked my music based on its own merits, I’ve never been embraced as an artist or seen as a human being. I was never really accepted. I just made so much music for so long, it became impossible for an entire city to go on ignoring me.
My brief time spent as a partially-tolerated guest in The Club made it clear this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of. Even so, I thought I managed to carve out my own place and create my own community in miniature. I thought I paid my dues and then some, putting my heart and soul into what I did regardless of whether or not anyone else was interested in hearing the results, putting my money where my mouth was, seeking out collaborative situations when I didn’t have to, and going out of my way to help other artists in whatever capacity I could. I thought I accrued some amount of stature and respect. I thought I found some people I could count on.
I was wrong on every count. There isn’t a place for me. There never was. There isn’t ever going to be. Nothing I’ve done has meant much of anything to anyone. And in the end, the only person I can count on is myself.
It hasn’t been a fun lesson to learn, but I’ve learned it. Repeatedly. The difference this time is there’s no way to put a positive spin on it, and no way to delude myself into believing I’m a part of something when I’m not. Call it a rude awakening if you like. I call it a violent forced bowel movement of truth. I wish I wasn’t the human toilet bowl in the equation, but hey, you can’t have it all.
You don’t go through a thing like that without doing some serious soul-searching in the aftermath. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last few months. Here are the conclusions I’ve come to.
I’m not going to stop making music. I couldn’t do that any more than I could stop myself from breathing. What I am going to stop doing, with a few exceptions, is sharing it. Having the stuff heard has never been what gives it value for me. Creating it is what I care about. Putting CDs together by hand and writing letters for people who can’t take five seconds out of their busy lives to acknowledge the effort has caused me too much frustration for too long. There won’t be any more of that.
I’ve deleted the page on this blog that provided contact information (though you can still find my email address if you care to dig a little), and I’m only making a very small number of copies of SLEEPWALK. Just enough to give to a few good friends. Anything beyond that feels like a complete waste of time. I know this is the kind of album you’re supposed to spread far and wide and scream about from the rooftops. Almost forty different people contributed to it, and by the time I’m finished I’ll have spent almost six years putting it together. It’s a massive Artistic Statement, in capital letters.
I’m going to do my best to make sure it sinks like a heavy stone. If anyone wants to swim deep enough to find it, that’s up to them. Even some of the musicians who contributed to the thing won’t be getting a copy. If you’re going to force me to hound you in order to share some music with you, you’re not all that interested in hearing it, are you?
A lot of artists don’t care about any of this stuff. I know that. They farm the majority of the work off to other people, from recording, to mixing, to mastering, to graphic design, to the physical packaging of their albums (assuming they don’t go the online-only route to save some money). If they bother to write their own songs, they’re often concerned with little more than tapping into whatever sound is popular at the moment and hitting on some mindless, heartless, gutless universal platitudes so whoever is listening will be able to stare into the massive ink blob of nothingness and hallucinate some bullshit they believe is applicable to them. The writer has no interest in expressing something or working to develop a voice that’s their own. Their music is a product, with all the emptiness and cynicism that implies. As long as they sell some albums and get a linguistic blowjob from a would-be writer somewhere along the line, they couldn’t care less about creating art or connecting with anyone. Listeners are seen as consumers.
If that’s what you’re all about, knock yourself out. What you do with what you make is no one’s business but your own, and I’ve got no quarrel with anyone who treats music as a job. I’m coming at it from a different angle because I don’t have a choice. Music isn’t something I create for money, or to generate attention, or because I think it’s going to get me laid or make me look cool. It’s something I do because if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t be a healthy person. I’ve spent my life eating, sleeping, and dreaming music — literally. It’s what defines me as a human being. When you get one of my albums, it’s something I’ve put together myself by hand, one piece at a time, with the specific intention of giving it to you. As stupid as this might sound, what I’m offering you is more than just a recording. It’s a piece of myself.
For too long I’ve been sharing these pieces of myself with people who accept them because they’re free and think nothing more of it. The music doesn’t mean anything to them. Well, it means something to me. I would rather share it with no one and at least know it holds some value for the person who created it than go on devaluing it this way.
I thought I found a way around this issue when I stopped distributing the albums in public places and forced anyone who wanted access to the music to communicate with me. It seems to be inescapable. Most of the people who’ve emailed me asking for music don’t respond when I follow up asking for an address or a convenient place to drop off some CDs (which begs the question: why waste your time contacting me in the first place?). The few who do respond almost never let me know when they get what I send them, offer nothing in the way of feedback or gratitude, and never communicate with me again in any form.
I’m done dancing this dance. I’m not going to beg anyone to let me share my music with them after they’ve expressed an interest in it. And if someone doesn’t care enough to fire off a six-word email letting me know they got what I sent them in the mail or delivered to their doorstep, they’re not going to get music from me anymore. I get nothing out of hemorrhaging time and money in order to send CDs to people who as far as I can tell don’t even listen to them.
I’ve gone to great lengths to prove I’m not in this for money. Some people seem to appreciate what I do for some odd reason. So what? That’s not enough for me. I want a dialogue with my listeners. Not some silent, faceless transaction. I know I’m asking for the moon here, but if I can’t have that, I’m not going to waste any more of my life chasing something that will never exist because I’m the only one who cares about cultivating it.
(If you’re reading this and you’re one of the few people who does take the time to acknowledge what I share with you, this doesn’t apply to you. You can expect to keep getting music from me until the end of time.)
You might think this is all sounding kind of negative and self-defeating. I don’t see it that way. What I’m doing isn’t shutting down, though it might sound like I am, and it isn’t an effort to punish anyone for not giving me what I want. I’m simplifying things and refocusing my energy. The happiest times in my life have come when I’ve gone about my business, made my music in a vacuum, pretty much kept it to myself, and paid little or no attention to what anyone else is doing. I think it’s time to get back to that. It’s served me well in the past. Maybe it’s selfish. I think I can live with that. Let the folks who don’t like what I do think they’ve “won” and I’ve stopped making music altogether. Let anyone think whatever they want.
Believe me, the people who won’t be getting CDs from me anymore aren’t going to sit around feeling sad about it. They’re not going to miss my music. They never cared about it to begin with. It was little more than background noise to them. When you think about it, I’m doing them a favour. They won’t have as much junk they need to find a place to stash so they can forget all about it.
I’m helping to fight the battle against clutter so we can all have a brighter tomorrow. I think it’s pretty commendable.
Two of the best things I did this year, meanwhile, had nothing to do with music.
I’ve struggled with my sleep for a long time. The trouble started in high school, with a lot of late nights and groggy mornings. I worked around the loss of sleep by taking naps and sleeping in on the weekends. I was able to keep things from getting out of hand until 2007, when a merry trio of crackheads moved into the other half of the duplex we called home. After seven months of being unable to sleep at any sane time thanks to their nonstop partying, I no longer knew what a healthy schedule looked like. I moved into this house with a broken body clock.
For the next eleven years I fell into a holding pattern. It was impossible for me to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, so I would stay up late and sleep in until I was getting to bed after the sun came up and waking up in the dark. The only effective way I found to turn it around was to go without sleep for thirty hours or so, crash at seven or eight at night, and get up at four in the morning the next day, forcing my sleep clock to reset itself. I would switch over to farmhand hours for a week. Then I’d start to have trouble getting to sleep again, things would shift, and after another week or two I’d be back on vampire hours.
I lost an unfathomable amount of time. I had to cancel plans I made with friends when my sleep got in the way. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of good recording time went to waste. My dream journal took some serious hits when I didn’t have the energy to get down more than vague impressions of what I remembered dreaming some days and nights — and that thing is well over six thousand pages long, so who knows how much more epic it might be by now if my commitment to it never wavered. Even when I managed to get a good amount of sleep, I almost never felt rested. Most of the time I woke up feeling like my head was gummed up with motor oil.
It can take a while for the body to recover from just one all-nighter. The sleep loss messes with your ability to store memories, your brain’s overall performance, your circadian rhythm, and your metabolism. Long-term sleep problems can contribute to the development of diabetes, depression, obesity, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
On average, I went without sleep to shock things back into shape every three weeks. There are seventeen three-week intervals in a year. That means from 2007 to 2018 I had close to two hundred self-imposed sleepless nights.
No wonder I felt like wet garbage all the time. That’s horrifying.
Kind of casts a new light on the decline in my productivity over the last decade. Viewed through this prism, I’m amazed I got anything done at all in that time, and a little surprised I’m not dead or in a state of complete putrefaction.
It wasn’t a whole lot of fun to live through that. The worst part was feeling powerless to change it. Nothing I did would break the cycle. A sleep clinic wouldn’t have done me any good. I wouldn’t have been able to get any sleep in that environment. Sleeping pills weren’t the answer either. With the leftover anxiety I had from the 2008 home invasion, I probably would have had a meltdown if I couldn’t pull myself out of sleep that felt like it was about to take a bad turn.
I made a bit of progress in 2018. I only had to pull one all-nighter early in the year. My sleep started to shift, as it always did, and then it stopped shifting. I settled into a rhythm of getting to bed at one or two in the morning and getting up at noon. It wasn’t perfect, and it started to drift at the end of the year, but I was able to make it work. I ate at more reasonable times, even if lunch was my first meal of the day and breakfast was a distant memory. I saw some consistent daylight. I felt a little better. I was able to get out of the house more often and get more done.
By the beginning of this year my new schedule wasn’t working so well anymore. It was getting too close to the vampire territory of old. In February I went without sleep to recalibrate things one more time. I told myself having to do this once a year was a serious improvement over having to do it every few weeks.
I don’t think I’ll ever have to do it again.
For the last ten months I’ve been on a healthy, stable sleep schedule. I’m in bed before eight and up around five-thirty. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I see a whole lot of daylight. I can’t remember the last time I woke up with that motor-oil-in-the-brain feeling. I feel rested and clear-headed every day.
I feel like I got my life back. The last time my sleep was in this kind of shape, I looked like this:
There were a few rough nights early on when I couldn’t get to sleep until around midnight. I didn’t let myself sleep in, and my body and brain got the message. They’ve been programmed so well now, I don’t need to set my alarm anymore. I can trust myself to wake up when I’m supposed to. Having trouble falling asleep is no longer a concern. The sleep demons that dogged me for so long have been decapitated and set on fire.
There are drawbacks, if you can call them that. Late nights aren’t an option for me anymore. There are events I’m not able to attend or participate in. One deviation from the schedule could throw everything off, and I won’t risk it. I’m rigid with the time I go to bed and the time I get up.
There isn’t too much going on around here at night I’d want to be around for anyway. So it’s a small price to pay.
I also lost some weight this year, though the exact amount is a mystery to me (and I think I might leave it a mystery).
For a very long time, I weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds. I was probably underweight. I went through such a protracted growth spurt during my adolescence, I didn’t start to grow into my body until I was in my early twenties. I didn’t exercise much, and I ate like a horse, but my metabolism always kept things in check.
I started putting on a bit of weight around the time we moved into this house. It was such a cumulative process, I didn’t notice it was happening until it became impossible not to notice. If I had to guess, I’d say every year I probably put on another ten pounds. Given how skinny I was for so many years, I figured this was me “filling out”.
Earlier this year I was at the walk-in clinic with a case of bronchitis. I was curious, so I weighed myself. The scale told me I weighed two hundred and sixty-five pounds.
I’m a large person by design. I’m six-foot-three, give or take half an inch, and my frame is not small. I think I carried that weight pretty well. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t starting to bother me. By this time I had a pretty serious gut and more than the suggestion of man boobs. I was down to a rotation of five or six shirts that were loose-fitting enough to hide the excess baggage. I found myself sweating sometimes when I was working on something in the studio, even when it didn’t involve any significant physical activity.
According to the Body Mass Index, I was obese. The BMI is about as reliable as a bunch of Windsor musicians who’ve signed on to play a show with you at Mackenzie Hall. I wasn’t obese. I was overweight, though. I could see it. I could feel it.
I’d been on Johnny Smith’s case to start walking for a while. In August, around the time of my birthday, I asked if he thought it might help if I walked with him. He said it would. I thought he could use the motivation and I could use the exercise. We decided on the Devonshire Mall as a convenient weather-proof place to walk. He drew up a schedule and we started walking every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. I didn’t expect much to come of it.
A few weeks in, it hit me that I was still eating a whole lot of junk. Having that stuff in the house wasn’t going to help the Smithster get healthy. I decided if he was going to give it an honest try, I might as well give it a shot too. The junk food went in the garbage, and I started augmenting our walks with burpees, planks, and crunches twice a day.
I had no idea just how many unnecessary calories I was putting into my body. I used to have a muffin or a bagel with my breakfast every morning. I’d have a bunch of potato chips or Doritos with a sandwich for lunch, a pop or an iced tea to drink, and I’d follow that with a chocolate bar or a plate of cookies. I’d have another high-calorie drink with dinner, and for dessert I’d have a piece of cake, a piece of pie, or a bowl of ice cream. Sometimes I’d make myself a banana split. The meals I was eating were all pretty healthy. The problem was everything around them. Once I started looking at how many calories were in those cookies and chocolate bars and carbonated beverages, it made me want to weep.
I started having an apple with my breakfast instead of a muffin. I substituted a healthier low-calorie iced tea for my usual Snapple iced tea at lunch. Every Snapple product tastes like mud ever since they switched over to plastic bottles, so that was no great loss. I started making myself a small salad to go with my lunch instead of greasy potato chips, using a low-calorie dressing and being a little more judicious in how I applied it. If I wanted a snack, I’d eat a peach or a slice of watermelon. I started drinking water with dinner and following it with another slice of watermelon, or a handful of grapes, or nothing at all.
When we started walking in late August we averaged about thirty minutes. Now we’re averaging more than an hour and a half every walk. We haven’t missed a day. We even walked on Boxing Day. It was a bit of a nightmare, but we made it work.
After trying to stay away from the mall for a number of years, walking there on a regular basis has been an eye-opening experience. I knew a lot of people had been zombified by their cell phones, but I had no idea it was this bad. We see masses of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities with their eyes glued to their phones, oblivious to their surroundings. Many of them are parents who are ignoring their offspring because whatever is on their phone is more important to them than their children. Some of those parents act more like children than the kids do. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the thirty-something dad in a toque who whined to his young daughter, “We can never like go anywhere because you always have to go to the bathroom!”
(You’ve failed as a parent and as a speaker of words. Good job, dude.)
The androids, as Johnny Smith calls them, will walk right into you if you don’t get out of their way in time. Most parents don’t even hold hands with their children anymore. If they bother to tear themselves away from their cell phones long enough to notice their kid is still present, they shout at them like a disobedient dog. “Come! Come on! Get out of there! Stop that! Catch up!” Then they walk on as the distance between them grows, not looking back at the child, assuming they’ll follow. I’m amazed there isn’t an abduction every five minutes. And I’ve lost track of how many mothers I’ve seen pushing strollers, ignoring the child inside in favour of a texting session.
This is child abuse. Plain and simple. These people are sending the message to their children that an electronic device is more important than they are. They should be thrown in some pit of a prison and kept there until they see the stupidity of their ways.
You know what else I’ve noticed about the cell phone zombies? Whatever games they’re playing or whoever they’re texting, the expressions on their faces are always flat and emotionless. There’s no smiling. No laughter. No grimacing. Nothing. Just one dispassionate dead-eyed stare after another. I wonder if they have any feelings left, or if the totality of their reliance on this soul-deadening technology has sucked all of their emotions out of them like a giant cosmic turkey baster. They’d be more upset about someone stealing their phone than they would if their child got hurt. It’s disturbing.
One image seemed to capture the startling inhumanity of it all. I couldn’t have invented it if I tried. One morning we saw a bicycle flipped upside down so it was supported by the seat. There was an iPhone wedged between the spokes of the front wheel, sucking juice from a wall outlet to recharge its battery.
Back to that weight loss thing for a minute —
I was wearing a 42″ pair of jeans when our walking adventures began. A few weeks in, I noticed they were getting loose. I dug through a closet and saw I’d saved almost every pair of jeans I outgrew over the years. I forgot to get rid of them. I found a pair of 38″ jeans, hung them in my bedroom, wrote GOAL JEANS on a Post-it note, and stuck it on the ass of those pants. I decided if I could somehow get into them by the end of the year, I’d be a very happy guy.
In October I was wearing my goal jeans. I found two more old pairs with a 38″ waist in the same closet. They were much tighter and less forgiving. By November I was wearing those in place of the goal jeans, and I couldn’t use my belt anymore. It was too big for me.
I kind of wish I’d taken some “before” and “after” photos, as embarrassing as they would be. I didn’t think to do that. I’ve never consciously tried to lose weight before, and I didn’t think anything noteworthy was going to happen.
What I can share is this:
Those are my 42″ jeans. That dark cavern is the gulf that’s grown between their waistline and my stomach. That’s…not nothing.
I have no idea how much I weigh now. Again, I’m not sure I want to know. If the number that shows up on the scale isn’t close enough to the number I have in my head, it would be a little discouraging. The number doesn’t even matter. And it doesn’t bother me if no one notices or asks me if I’ve lost weight. What matters is I know I have, and I feel better than I have in years. I also have a whole new wardrobe now. There’s a pile of shirts I had to stop wearing because they were too tight or unflattering. Some of them haven’t seen the outside of the closet in close to a decade. Now I can wash all the dust off and wear them again. It’s pretty neat.
Most diets don’t stick, and most people gain back all or most of the weight they’ve lost within a short period of time. I think this happens because you end up eating things you don’t like when you’re on a health kick, and once you lose some weight you convince yourself the hard work is done and revert to unhealthy eating habits. What I’ve tried to do here is not go on a diet at all. It’s more about making some lasting lifestyle changes. I don’t miss the junk food for a second. I’ve always loved fruits and vegetables. A good peach (when peaches are in season) or some watermelon satisfies my craving for something sweet in a way a chocolate bar never did. I still eat like a horse, but I’m a much healthier horse now. Neigh.
Here’s the secret to my modest success: I love the things I’m eating. I have no desire to go back to the way I was eating before. And instead of dreading walking days, I look forward to them, cell phone zombies and all.
Sure, I could go the extra mile and cut out my morning orange juice and my afternoon iced tea to drop even more calories. I could weigh my portions and count calories. Many people find that an effective approach to getting healthy. It’s not the way for me. Food is one of the great joys of my life. I’m not going to drain all the fun out of it with a scale and a measuring cup, and I’m not going to deny myself the occasional vegan donut or piece of pecan pie as a special treat. I’ve made some healthy changes that are going to be permanent, and they’ve made a world of difference. If I plateau around here and don’t lose much more weight, I’m good with that. I don’t want or need to be as skinny as I used to be. That would be too weird for words.
So that’s my story. I leave the house almost every day (pretty bold for an enigmatic recluse, eh?). I’m out in the world more than I’ve been since I was a teenager. At the same time, I have less to do with people than I ever have. Most of them are full of shit anyway.
Here’s to inhabiting a new level of obscurity in 2020 and learning how to disappear completely.
I spent a memorable chunk of the summer of 1996 reading Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. I started reading that biography in a movie theatre before the coming attractions. I still had my nose in it during a weekend spent in Toronto with Johnny Smith. I was mesmerized by the train-wreck that was Jim’s life.
I remember confusing a fancy packet of blue hotel room liquid soap with hair gel that weekend. I massaged some of it into my hair and watched it start to froth. Then I wiped the foam away and used enough of my own gel in its place to fashion a small animal into a weapon.
There was a homeless girl sitting outside the lip of a store that afternoon or the next. I can still see her face and her hooded sweatshirt. In a small, frightened-sounding voice, she asked a few people if they had any spare change. No one looked at her. They just kept walking.
I think I had some vague notion of what a homeless person was, but the reality of homelessness didn’t hit me until that moment. I was twelve years old, going on thirteen. This girl didn’t look any older than me. It shook me up a little.
I wish I could tell you I sat down and had a conversation with her, if only to offer a moment of human connection and let her know someone saw her. I didn’t have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had anything to say that would help her anyway. I was just a kid. What did I know about anything?
I still think about her every once in a while. I wonder what her name was, if she ran away because things were bad at home, if she found a safe place to stay.
All these years later, I thought I’d dust off Break on Through and skim it a little to see how it’s held up. It might still be the definitive Jim Morrison biography. There isn’t as much of the hero worship some of the other books about Jim get bogged down in, and I think this was the first published piece of writing to reveal how he really died. He didn’t have a heart attack in the bathtub at the age of twenty-seven. He got into his girlfriend’s heroin stash and overdosed.
The other day I was reading about the last months of Jim’s life. He thought he might be able to sort himself out in Paris, but he couldn’t stop drinking, and while he never stopped writing poetry, he felt he’d hit a creative wall he couldn’t scale or chisel his way through.
I read this (not Jim’s words, but James and Jerry’s):
“…being an artist for the long haul means more than harnessing sudden and terrible inspirations. It means being able to study and grow in one’s character as well as one’s art. It means overcoming toil and trouble and mastering that enemy of all creative forces — doubt. In the end, the race doesn’t belong to the swift, but to the one who has the tenacity and the belief in himself or in something greater in order to hang in there the longest. When you come right down to it, it’s much easier to be a genius at twenty-two than it is to sustain it at forty-two — or even twenty-seven.”
And it went through me like a bullet.
I have no memory of reading those words twenty-three years ago. I’m sure I read them. I’m just as sure they meant nothing to me at the time. Today they couldn’t be more pertinent.
Reading that passage helped me to see how I’ve been looking at this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing the wrong way. I’ve been working on finishing this album more out of a sense of duty than anything when that isn’t the way I operate. Even the most miserable music I’ve made has always been driven by a deep-seated need to express something — not an attitude of, “Well, I guess I need to finish this stuff so I can forget about it and move on to something else.”
I’ve been calling the experience of making the album “one of the great artistic adventures of my life”. I still feel that way, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a difficult, somewhat soul-destroying experience on a personal level. Finishing it on my own after spending years chasing a lot of my musical guests in order to get them over here has become a more emotionally complicated process after a number of those guests caused the collapse of an event I put an incredible amount of time, thought, and work into constructing.
For the most part I’ve been able to separate my feelings of disappointment from the music. I haven’t gone around erasing the contributions of everyone who let me down. It helps that none of these people contributed to the actual writing of any of the songs they appear on. In many cases I wrote their parts for them and they brought none of their own musical ideas to the table. I’m able to look at them less as human beings who failed me when I was counting on them and more as tools I used to bring my creative vision to life.
I’ve been picking away at this album for more than five years now. I was getting a lot of unanticipated work recording other people for a while there, and it took time away from my own music. It took me years to get some musicians to commit to showing up, and I had a very hard time finding people to fill certain instrumental and vocal roles. Many people ignored me or led me on only to jump ship at the last possible second. I lost huge chunks of recording time thanks to unnecessary construction work that dragged on forever (it didn’t help that the people doing the work were lazy and borderline incompetent) and thoughtless neighbours. I tried to commission a number of filmmakers to make me some sort of artistic music video. I wasn’t a high-profile enough artist for any of them to even consider working with me.
All of this is true. There’s been a lot of unpleasant shit to deal with. But instead of looking at the different ways I’ve managed to absorb it, repurpose it, and transcend it, I’ve been fixated on the stink.
Yes, the album has been half a decade in the making. That’s an eternity for me. But one of the benefits of a long-range process like this is the amount of time everything is given to settle into itself. These songs represent the absolute best work I felt I was capable of doing during this specific period of time. Some of my favourite songs have been written pretty late in the game. They wouldn’t be on the album if I’d finished it a few years earlier, and I think it would be a weaker collection without them.
Yes, it’s been an immense amount of work, between writing, arranging, producing, recording, mixing, and mastering all the songs, curating the supporting cast, writing parts for other musicians or setting up structured frameworks for them to improvise inside of, playing all of the instruments myself on most of the songs, and finding a way to fit some pretty textured arrangements onto the sixteen tracks available on my mixer. But I’ve learned a lot about myself as a producer along the way and stretched myself in ways I never thought I could.
Yes, a staggering amount of people have flaked out on me, lied to me, or rejected me in one way or another. Even some of the people who did show up forced me to pursue them with a determination that bordered on insanity. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that musicians tend to be a pretty flaky bunch. I learned “flaky” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Some of them were a nightmare to deal with. I know that’s not a very diplomatic thing to say, but I’ve never bullshitted here, and I’m not about to start now.
And yet…I got all of these people to sing and play on a Johnny West album:
That’s a substantial accomplishment any way you look at it. Especially for a supposed “enigmatic recluse” like me.
My goal was to cobble together a cast of thirty players and singers. I got as far as twenty-nine. So close. Then I kicked a few folks off the album for being douchebags, bringing the final tally down to twenty-six (twenty-seven if you count me). Even here there’s a silver lining, somehow: I got rid of a song that wasn’t really album material, and another song was made stronger by my own voice replacing a guest’s somewhat listless performance.
I got more than a dozen visual artists to contribute to the lyric booklet, though a few pieces didn’t make the final cut. And I’ve been able to grab a lot of great video footage of the music being created and craft some pretty neat DIY music videos all on my own.
Almost everyone declined my offer of payment, making it clear they were happy just to be a part of the album. I’ll always be grateful for that. One person bucked the trend, though, and he was happy to empty my pockets. All of my post-production costs combined won’t begin to approach the amount of money I had to pay him.
He’s a great musician. I’m happy with the performances he gave me. But I had to fight with myself not to remove them from the album out of spite once I found out he was only in it for the money. This is someone who wouldn’t even speak to me unless he was sure the conversation would lead to another payday. Someone like that has no business being a part of my music.
I guess I can chalk it up to a learning experience. I thought I was making a lot of new friends along the way. I came to find out in a pretty brutal way that I was wrong. I feel like this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again. It’s getting a little old now. I did build a few new friendships that have endured past the honeymoon stage, but I don’t ever want to go through anything like this again. I’ve spent most of my life reaching out. My arms are tired. In the future, if someone wants to work with me they can do the reaching. I’m not a difficult person to find, and I’m through with chasing people. There are more enjoyable ways of getting exercise.
There’s a part of me that would be glad to have those five years back so I could pump out a bunch of pure solo albums in the place of this one, trading all the string and horn parts and guest vocalists for a little less grey in my hair and a better opinion of people. I’m proud of these songs and the performances I’ve captured, and I’ve put everything I have into making this album the strongest musical statement it can be, but in some ways I’ve had to gut it out through stubbornness and determination.
To wit: I have a ninety-eight-page Word document cataloguing all one hundred and one singers and musicians, all forty-five visual artists, and all seventeen filmmakers I tried to involve in one way or another. It’s quite the saga.
I’d like to say I’m able to take the long view and appreciate the ride in spite of all the turbulence. I’m not sure how true that is right now, but I think I’ll get there. I’m working on it.
Things have been downright tumultuous around here.
I wanted to get in the habit of blogging more often so I could hold myself accountable on the recording side of things. I haven’t managed to do that. I havebeen making good progress with the album. I’ve also had to accept this sad truth: there’s no way to get it finished in time for the show. It’s turned into too tight a race. I can get it close, but not all the way there.
This is a handbill the wonderful Katie Schram designed for me.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
It would be great if I could print a bunch of these and start handing them out to people. I can’t. For the first time in my life I have promotional material I can’t use, because the show it’s supposed to promote isn’t going to happen.
First my trombonist pulled out after committing to the show. Then my cellist stopped talking to me with no explanation. Before long my drummer was out of commission and unreachable, the only person I could get to agree to show up for a rehearsal was the bassist, and many of the most important musicians either wouldn’t acknowledge me at all or were pretty vague about when and if they might grace me with their presence.
Sounds a bit like a lame comedy sketch.
You might say, “Well, the musicians involved in this are talented enough that they don’t need much preparation. They could turn up the night of the show with a single rehearsal under their belt and fake their way through it just fine.”
Even if that’s true, the whole “rehearse very little and pray for a miracle” approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. It would be one thing if we were a band with some history. We’re not. I’ve only worked with these people one-on-one in a recording situation. Playing live as a group is a very different beast. You need time to build chemistry and work out arrangements.
I’ve played as a supporting musician in bands that half-assed everything and hoped for the music to glue itself together in the ninth hour. None of those performances were anything to write home about, and I was always a nervous wreck onstage. Why would I want to put myself through that when the music is my own?
The last time I played at Mackenzie Hall I had a three-piece band. We only had six or seven songs we needed to learn as a group. The rest of the show was made up of me doing solo pieces. We must have rehearsed a dozen times over a period of three months. The idea was to get to a place where we were comfortable enough with one another to take off on an improvised tangent in the middle of a song and navigate whatever twists and turns it took with confidence — to be able to pick up on tiny physical cues and execute pin-point dynamic shifts.
We put the work in to toughen ourselves up until we were a real band, and it paid off big time at the show.
That isn’t going to happen this time. Even if every necessary piece of the musical puzzle showed up to rehearse for every Saturday that’s left between now and August 17th, I don’t think there would be enough time for us to get good. At best we would be okay. And that’s not going to cut it.
I may go out of my way to leave mistakes and human moments in my recordings, but I care a great deal about what I do. I’m not going to half-ass my first serious live performance in eight years and the biggest show of my life to accommodate the absent asses of others. If people can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work, there’s no point in losing my mind trying to salvage something out of the chaos. I won’t march into a public humiliation out of some misguided sense of duty, and I didn’t work to get that grant so I could pay people for being a bunch of fucking deadbeats.
I wouldn’t be able to rehearse now anyway. All the stress has caught up with me and made me sick. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts?
I already had my mind pretty much made up about cancelling the show before I got sick, but I took some time to think it over. During my thinking-it-over time, the ghostly cellist popped up to say she’d be available to rehearse about three weeks before the show. As if that would somehow be enough time to get up to speed when she’s never played any of these songs before. The person who was supposed to be my main backup vocalist and a fill-in lead singer for other absent vocalists said she wouldn’t have any time to rehearse with me until the end of July — this after telling me she’d be available to start getting together in early June. Better yet, after letting me believe for months that she was going to be an integral part of the show and one of the main performers, she changed her mind. Now I could only choose three songs I really wanted her to sing on. That was all the material she felt like learning.
There’s no putting a good face on this — she lied to me. She misled me about the role she was prepared to play and how much time she was willing to set aside for me. She’s second-billed on that handbill up there. Someone who’s a glorified walk-on guest doesn’t deserve to be second-billed. And I don’t care how busy you are. If you’re not going to be honest with me, I don’t want to know you.
Any doubts I had about cancelling the show died a violent death right there.
The singer who didn’t want to do much singing wasn’t the only person who was full of shit. Not by a long shot. It’s as if some of these people believed the simple act of attaching their names to my show should have been satisfaction enough for me, and whatever near-nonexistent amount of effort I could get out of them beyond that was supposed to be a bonus.
Someone told me, “You have to understand…most musicians don’t operate the way you do. They have their heads perpetually stuck up their own asses, and their main concern is themselves. That’s just the way they are. You can’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.”
How am I not supposed to take it personally? What other way is there to take it? “Laziness” is not a valid excuse to me. You don’t get to treat your so-called friends like dirt just because you’re talented.
Actually, let me correct that: in most cases you do get to treat your so-called friends like dirt. A lot of people get away with being pretty awful human beings because they have some amount of talent — or at least the ability to convince others they do — and they can be charming and ingratiating when they feel like it. I don’t swim in that ditch. A talented piece of shit is still a piece of shit.
You can make all the excuses you want. My music is who I am. You blow that off and you’re blowing me off. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
I understand now that I made the tactical error of devising a show that relied on a large supporting cast of characters in order to succeed. Many of the most important players let me down. My dream was to give a multi-faceted gift to the community through music and visual art. The indifference of my peers has decimated that dream.
So I’ve cancelled the dates at Mackenzie Hall (dress rehearsal and performance), and a week ago I gave the grant money back to the city. I refuse to compromise my vision to the point that the show no longer resembles what it was supposed to be. This was going to be something special. It was the culmination of more than five years of work. I put it together a specific way and worked my ass off to make it a reality. Limping into Mackenzie Hall with some half-formed version of what could have been would feel even more like defeat than pulling the plug and walking away.
Could I have done something with just a rhythm section? Sure. Could I have done a one-man show? Yeah. But I’ve already done both of those things at Mackenzie Hall (and I think I did them pretty well). I have no desire to repeat myself.
Most of the people who were going to be my “special guests” were great at communicating with me. I didn’t have to chase them. I’m grateful for that. Darryl and Christy Litster, Ron Leary, Jess O’Neil, Jim Meloche, Dave Dubois, Natalie Westfall — all these folks have been wonderful every step of the way.
In the end, it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I had one big show left in me. This was it. Now it’s dead.
Lesson learned — I won’t try to do anything like this again. And if anyone accuses me of being a weirdo recluse who doesn’t play well with others after this, I will bite their head off and spit it back into their jagged blood-spurting neck hole.
You might think this is an extreme overreaction to a situation that wasn’t beyond help. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something like this only to watch it collapse in slow-motion. You can’t force people to show up. You can’t force them to care.
I’m told I’m the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money. It felt like the right thing to do. The event as I pitched it to the jury ceased to exist, and I didn’t want to abuse the system. I know there are people who do that and get away with it. I would rather be honest.
Maybe someone else with better luck will be able to use the money to realize a dream that’s more realistic than mine was. I hope so.
I’m not as disheartened as all of this might make me sound. I’ve gone through the grieving process and more or less made my peace with things not working out. As a wise woman once said, “[You] can’t hug every cat.” I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, though. I was pretty proud of the set list and supporting cast I put together. I think it could have been a night to remember.
We’ll never know now.
On a lighter note, the J, K, and L keys on my MacBook stopped working a few weeks ago. Every once in a while I could mash the other keys around them and trick them into cooperating with me for a little bit. After a few days my subterfuge no longer did any good. I was hoping it was just some dirt on one of the contacts. Nope. Had to get the whole keyboard replaced. That was a $200 expense I could have done without. At least the people at Experimax were great to deal with and they fixed it the same day I brought it in.
You don’t notice how much you rely on certain letters until they’re no longer accessible to you. The S key on my crusty old video-editing laptop died years ago, but it’s easy to work around. All I have to do is copy an S from an existing document or file and paste it whenever I need it. When you have to do that with three different letters it becomes much more frustrating and time-consuming, turning what should be a two-minute email into fifteen minutes of tediousness. It’s nice to be able to type freely again.
It hasn’t all been janky laptop keys and crumbling dreams of ambitious live shows over here.
For the better part of twenty years I’ve been trying to track down video footage of my March 2000 performance at the Air Jam (Walkerville’s quirky name for a talent show). I’ve mentioned this a few times before.
I knew of two tapes — the one Gord’s high school girlfriend Amanda filmed, and the one the school filmed. I saw both of them in the summer of 2000. Then I never saw anything that was on either tape again.
I started trying to talk Amanda into letting me borrow her tape so I could make myself a copy when we were still in school. I kept trying after we graduated. Nothing happened. When Facebook came into our lives I started pestering her over there. I tried to get Gord to help. After a lot of false starts, in 2010 Amanda said she had the tape I was after. I rejoiced.
My rejoicing didn’t last long. I spent a month or two trying to arrange to get that tape from her. I offered to pay her just for showing up. It didn’t do any good. She was either noncommittal in her responses to my messages or she ignored me. She wouldn’t give me her phone number or her address, so I couldn’t go to her. I was stuck in limbo.
I nudged Gord into sending her some messages in 2014 and 2015 when we were working on STEW. He said he thought there might be some kinky business on the tape, explaining Amanda’s apparent reluctance to share it with either one of us. I told him to tell her I would give her the money to have a video place transfer the tape into a digital format herself, allowing her to snip out anything she didn’t want me to see. That didn’t do the trick either.
In 2017 I sent Amanda one last heartfelt message. I told her this was a piece of my musical history I felt incomplete without. I explained how much it would mean to me if I could somehow see it again. I also wanted to try and incorporate whatever archival material I could into the DIY documentary I was — and still am — making about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This stuff was the Holy Grail of archival material.
She wrote back and apologized for the long silence. She said she wasn’t sure what tapes I was on, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. Years ago she bought some equipment so she could transfer the tapes at home. Then her camera stopped working and she gave up. If I was willing to transfer the tapes myself, I could have all of them. All she asked for in return was that I make her copies of the digital files.
Gord was supposed to swing by her place and grab the tapes before bringing them to me. He couldn’t do a thing with them, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to help pay to have them transferred. He was just another barrier between them and me. It would have made a lot more sense for me to pick them up myself. I couldn’t do that. Amanda still wouldn’t give me her address or phone number.
I don’t like relying on other people for things like this, but I left it in Gord’s hands. He rewarded my trust by almost ruining what looked like my one real shot at a happy ending. The night he was supposed to pick up the tapes, he blew it off.
This is a guy who’s known me since I was fifteen years old. He knew how long I’d been trying to gain access to this material. He knew what it meant to me. And he couldn’t even take five minutes out of his beer-drinking time to make good on what he told me he was going to do. He didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything to him.
I was ready to end our friendship right there. Lucky for him, Amanda took time out of packing for a vacation to bring the tapes to his door, and he was forced to pass them on to me.
Victory at last? No. Not quite.
I paid Unique Video Systems to convert all those 8mm tapes into MP4 files. I found some great footage I didn’t know existed — some of it featuring a skinny, beardless teenage version of me. But the Air Jam footage wasn’t there.
I told Amanda. She dug up some more tapes. This time I wasn’t on any of them.
I was discouraged but not defeated. There was still the matter of the second tape — the one filmed by the school.
I emailed John Vacratsis. He was a teacher involved in all kinds of art and media-related things at Walkerville during my time there. If anyone was going to know anything about the tape or its whereabouts, it was probably going to be him.
This was the crappiest of crapshoots. I didn’t have a great relationship with Vacratsis when I was a student. He seemed to resent me for not taking any of the music classes he taught, going my own way instead of letting him develop me into another talent Walkerville could be proud of, and he once chewed me out for some material he found offensive on a collage I made for grade twelve English class.
(That our English teacher, who was really a transplanted drama teacher, would have us making collages like children and answering questions about movies untethered to anything in the curriculum so he would have something to base our grades on without having to teach anything that resembled an English class — that was the more alarming issue to me than some goofy thing I put on a collage. But never mind.)
I expected Mr. V to remember me as a troublemaker if he remembered me at all. It didn’t matter. I would play nice in an email and see if it got me anywhere.
To my amazement, it did. He sent me a very kind response and tried to help as much as he could. He gave me the names of media students who might have been operating cameras on that day, he gave me the name of a media teacher who was still teaching at Walkerville, and he wished me luck in my epic quest.
I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I had something solid to work with.
One film student said he remembered my performance but didn’t know where the tape might be. The others ignored me. I wrote a letter to the media teacher outlining my plight, with a few albums included as thanks, and left it for him at the front desk.
Stepping inside my high school for the first time in almost nineteen years was a bizarre experience. I was happy to see they now had an upright piano in the hall and anyone was welcome to play it. I sat down and noodled a little. There wasn’t much volume or tone there, but hey, a real piano is a real piano.
Something about being there made me angry. No one was unpleasant. No one ogled at the long-haired bearded guy who was way too old to be a student. I don’t even have that many bad memories from high school, so it wasn’t a matter of old hurts coming back to haunt me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t an outcast or a loner. I was one of those odd students who managed to become popular and well-liked by refusing to be anything other than myself.
Maybe it was just one of those days.
Mr. Allison — the media teacher — sent a very thoughtful email in response to my letter. A lot of people probably would have blown me off, but he did some detective work on my behalf. What he found out wasn’t encouraging. In the days before they had digital video equipment, the school would routinely reuse and record over existing tapes instead of buying new stock. Everything pointed to the Air Jam tape being one of many victims of this recycling program.
This was it. The end of the road. There was no one left to talk to, no lead left to follow, and there were no tapes left to digitize. I was a few hundred bucks poorer and no closer to that Holy Grail footage. There was no reason left to believe it still existed. I had to accept that maybe I just wasn’t meant to ever see it again. Maybe all my efforts had been for nothing.
A few weeks ago I got a message from Amanda. She told me some things that did a lot to explain her apparent standoffishness over the years (I always assumed she never liked me; turns out it had nothing to do with me). She also told me she found three more tapes while going through some things in her basement. She didn’t know what was on them, and she thought it was mostly personal stuff, but she figured it was worth sharing them with me just in case.
I brought those tapes to Unique Video Systems and got my MP4 files. I went through them at home. The first tape had footage from Amanda’s trip to visit a post-high school boyfriend in 2002. The second tape was full of video messages she made for that same boyfriend and some bits of her hanging out with a few friends. I took a look at what was on the third tape and braced myself for more disappointment.
I saw some chunks of what looked like high school performances. I jumped to a random place in the video and landed on an image of myself seated at a digital piano, wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and I knew at once what this was.
The 2000 Air Jam. The Holy Grail.
This is what I’ve been chasing for my entire adult life. There was no reason to believe I would ever find it. Now I have it on my hard drive. The absurdity of it all is still sinking in.
I’d chalk that up to the best $61 I’ve ever spent.
Some backstory might help explain why this footage means so much to me, and why unearthing it feels a bit like winning the lottery.
Gord and I tried out for the Air Jam for the first time when we were in grade ten. The “brain” of my very tiny home studio was a Roland VS-880 digital mixer/hard disk recorder. I didn’t have a CD burner that was compatible with the mixer. We recorded a few passes at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I dubbed the best takes onto a cassette tape. A friend’s sister was part of the group of students organizing the show. I gave the tape to him to give to her.
We didn’t get in.
Later that same school year, a few other students announced they were putting together something they called an Arts Night. It was really just an after-hours Air Jam. Gord and I auditioned in the music room. We did a rowdy version of “Sweet Jane” (the original Velvet Underground arrangement, not the Cowboy Junkies remake) and I did John Cale’s “Paris 1919” alone at the upright piano.
In those days I had this idea that playing cover songs was a better bet than playing my own material live. I’m not sure why. At least I had good taste in covers (I think). Before settling on those two songs, the Talking Heads track “Drugs” was another consideration.
We passed the audition with flying colours, but the students in charge didn’t feel like putting in the necessary work to make the show happen (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). It died before it even got off the ground.
In grade eleven, Christian Masotti was one of the head organizers of the Air Jam. We were good friends. We respected each other as musicians. This time I knew I would make the cut. Auditioning would be little more than a formality.
My idea was to flesh Papa Ghostface out with another member or two. I had some classes with a guy named Isaac Osmer. I got the chance to jam with him a little when I played another John Cale song in the music room one day before the morning bell. Mr. Ross kicked me out before the song could really get going, but Isaac seemed like a solid drummer and a nice person. When I suggested we do something together sometime, he said he was into it.
Then Christian and my pal Jesse almost sabotaged the whole thing.
Jesse wanted to put a band of his own together for the Air Jam. He wanted Adam Cohen on drums, Max Marshall on lead guitar, and me on bass. He had a song about a young boy losing his mind called “Something in the Attic”. After recording a whole slew of songs with Jesse that didn’t stray far from acoustic love song territory, I was kind of looking forward to being his bassist and rocking out a little on something dark and moody.
Jesse wanted more time to prepare. He had friends on Agora — Walkerville’s student council, named for the public square built in Athens in 500 BC. He pulled some strings and convinced Christian and the other Air Jam organizers to put on two shows instead of one. He claimed he needed the extra time to study and get some of his grades up.
No one believed that story for a second, but he got what he wanted.
Two shows didn’t sound like such a bad idea at first. Christian told me the plan was to have the first show at the end of March. The focus would be on solo performers — students strumming acoustic guitars and wailing cover songs, Faith Hill clones singing to pre-recorded country music on cassette tape, and the like. Two months down the road, the second show would be for full bands and performers who wrote original material. This way everyone would have a chance to shine.
With that kind of structure, it seemed to me the first show would be boring beyond belief and all the good stuff would land in the second one. I told Christian I was putting a band together and had no problem pulling double duty in the second show, backing Jesse up in his band before stepping into the spotlight with mine. Even if we didn’t get anyone aside from Isaac to play with us, Gord could move over to bass and I could play guitar or keyboard. I thought a drummer would give our music a whole new punch.
When the lineups for both shows were posted on the bulletin board in the hall, I did a mental double-take. It wasn’t at all what Christian told me to expect. Neither show had any real theme or focus. Bands, karaoke singers, and solo acoustic performers were thrown together with no apparent thought given to who went where.
Jesse was in the second show. I got bumped to the first one against my will. I didn’t have Jesse’s connections. There were no strings for me to pull. And it was March already, so there would be no time to get tight with Isaac now.
Hot on the heels of that foul-smelling revelation, I learned I wasn’t going to be playing bass with Jesse anymore. Max never showed up for rehearsals. Instead of moving forward with a three-piece band, Jesse decided he would go it alone with an acoustic guitar.
My first impulse was to drop out of the Air Jam as an act of protest. Between Jesse’s machinations and Christian’s shitty organizational skills, I felt like I’d been painted into a corner for no good reason. Then I got a better idea. I would repurpose my frustration and blow it out of my system during our performance. Maybe it would just be the two of us on the stage, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull out all the stops.
“Fuck ‘em,” I said to Gord. “If they’re going to screw up our plans, we’ll give them something to remember us by.”
The song we chose to perform was “Pacing the Cage”. It was the first song Gord and I ever wrote together. We ran through it once and knew we wouldn’t have to run through it again. It was in our blood.
There was one mini-rehearsal at school. Everyone played truncated versions of the songs they were going to play at the show. They cut us off halfway through “Pacing the Cage”, just as I was starting to ramp up my voice.
The day of the first Air Jam show, Gord and I slipped into the auditorium after lunch to see how things were going. There was only one mic stand on the stage. I asked Christian if they had any more. He said no. That wasn’t going to work with Gord playing acoustic guitar and me singing at the same time, and I was pretty sure there were other performers who would need more than one mic stand. I walked home and grabbed a few SM57s and mic stands of my own to lend to the cause. It was one of the many times living a two-minute walk away from school came in handy. I also grabbed my acoustic guitar, my harmonica, and my harmonica holder, though I had no idea what I might need them for.
There was no keyboard on the stage. Christian told me I would probably be able to borrow one from one of the music classes. A few teachers turned me away before someone told me I could use one of the two keyboards collecting dust in the back of their classroom. Jesse saw me and wished me luck in the show. Then he asked me what I was doing in his class. I told him I needed a digital piano for my performance.
“One of those is no good,” he said. “It’s got sticky keys.”
I thought I’d try them both. Neither keyboard had any internal speakers, so Jesse grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we carried them to the auditorium along with a keyboard stand.
The one with sticky keys wouldn’t make a sound. The other one worked, but it only had sixty-one keys. It felt like a toy. The piano sound was thin and one-dimensional.
I tried to set it at a good volume so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later. Jesse climbed up on the stage, sat down at a drum kit that was set up behind me, and started playing. He noticed my harmonica.
“Can you play that thing?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I just play chords on it most of the time.”
“Play something, man!”
I blew a few chords into a microphone. Jesse laughed. “Is that all you can play?”
“It makes more sense when I’m playing the guitar or the piano at the same time.”
“Is it just you and Gord playing?” he asked me.
“Yeah, just the two of us. We were gonna get a drummer to play with us, but we were moved from the second show to the first. That threw things off a little.”
“I could have played drums for you. Why didn’t you ask me?”
“I never even thought to ask.”
“What’s your song like?”
I played a bit of “Pacing the Cage” for him. He hammered out a steady 4/4 rhythm. It was all wrong for the song. I tried to explain how I needed something more along the lines of a polyrhythmic funk beat, where the snare didn’t fall on the two and the four. He asked me to give him an example. I took his place behind the drums for a minute and showed him what I meant.
I moved back over to the keyboard. Jesse started playing the same 4/4 beat again.
“The song’s okay without drums,” I said. “It’s way too late to figure it out now anyway, and it wouldn’t sound right without bass. But thanks for the offer.”
When it was time for the show to start, I met up with Gord in a hallway that led to the stage wings. It dawned on me that I left my leather jacket on one of the chairs in the front row of the auditorium. I waited until Cerah Steele’s band finished their three-song set and made my move during the brief lull between acts.
Then this happened.
I’m almost positive that’s Matt Strukelj screaming, “John West!”
What you don’t see, because the camera didn’t catch it, is me approaching a guy who was sitting on my jacket and asking him if he could stand up for a second so I could grab it. He didn’t move. I asked him again. He looked at me like he didn’t know what words were. The people around him had to liberate it from beneath his uncomprehending body.
Back out in the hall, Christian was trying to get a handle on the chaos swirling around him. No one knew when they were going to get their turn to perform. A tentative list was taped to the door, but it was incomplete and subject to revision. First we were supposed to be the third-last act. Then we got pushed to second-last. We would have been dead last, but Steve Mitchell was slated to close the show.
All along we were told to prepare one song. Now Christian was telling me we might have five minutes, and we might have ten. He couldn’t offer a definitive answer one way or another.
“Pacing the Cage” was good for four or five minutes. There was no way to stretch it out to ten. Gord and I took our acoustic guitars to the outside of the front entrance of the auditorium where things were quieter, tuned up, and tried to figure something out. We had four full-length Papa Ghostface albums to draw from by now, plus the in-progress SHOEBOX PARADISE, but a lot of our songs were improvisations that were never revisited after we recorded them, and nothing jumped out at me as being appropriate for a school performance. What could we pull off with no time to practice?
We could do “Fatties”. That would be a hit with all the pot-smokers. But the vicious impressions of a few well-known teachers wouldn’t go over so well, nor would the sex talk. We’d be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
There was “Ballad of Bob and Marie”. It was simple enough. Just a few chords. I wasn’t sure how many students would appreciate a song that was little more than a vehicle for my Bob Dylan impression, but I thought I remembered most of the words from the initial improvisation.
We recorded this song for the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) on August 17, 1999. It was the day after my sixteenth birthday, and twenty years to the day before the doomed Mackenzie Hall show was supposed to happen. We started out with a little live instrumental improv. I got a drum loop going on the Yamaha W-5, ran it through a distortion effect built into the synth, and played synth bass with my left hand and an atmospheric synth pad with my right. Gord made barking dog sounds with his electric guitar and a wah pedal. He brought over an old harmonica he had in the key of C, so I strapped it on and blew into it a little.
My grandfather was supposed to call me to wish me a happy belated birthday. I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing, so we would stop recording mid-improv only for me to discover it was the sound of the harmonica’s wheeze tricking my ears. After the third or fourth fake-out he really did call. Once our conversation was over, I thought it would be fun to treat the little instrumental jam as an intro and cut straight to a song that had nothing to do with it. I swapped out Gord’s harmonica for my own and did my best shouty young Bob Dylan impression. After we got down a live performance with me on acoustic guitar and Gord on electric, I overdubbed some shaker and shouted some distant backup vocals. Gord overdubbed acoustic bass.
I remixed this song about a week ago, just before I got sick. It had some serious issues, and if I was going to post it here I wanted it to sound as good as possible. Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing about mic placement, and I knew less than nothing about things like EQ and compression. I would stick an SM57 in front of anything with strings and hope for the best. No surprise then that the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass tracks were muddier than mud, and my vocal track got pretty out of control during some of the more forceful passages with nothing to tame it.
It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a VS-1680 to fix up a mediocre recording. “Ballad of Bob and Marie” was recorded on a VS-880-EX before I upgraded to the sixteen-track machine, so I had to import it into the 1680. Everything past that was smooth sailing. I was able to carve out all the low end mud with EQ. Some limiting got the acoustic guitar and bass sounding pretty crisp and controlled. A little EQ and compression on the vocal and it was sitting right in the pocket.
Everything was done “in the box”, and I left all the original effects intact. The chorus and delay on the lead vocal felt essential. I didn’t want to do anything to alter the spirit or soul of the song. I just wanted to undo some old mistakes.
I can hardly believe how good I was able to make the acoustic guitar sound. It was a crappy instrument to begin with, even before my half-assed recording job. But the real shocker for me is the electric guitar. That’s not a real amp you’re hearing, and this was before the Digitech guitar effects box came into the picture. I plugged Gord’s B.C. Rich Virgin straight into the mixer and used one of the 1680’s built-in guitar amp modelling effects called “Vin.Tweed” (it’s supposed to emulate an overdriven 1950s tube amp). Everyone will tell you Roland’s speaker-modelling technology is beyond outdated now, but to me it sounds a lot more realistic than anything I ever got out of a POD.
I wish I’d thought to start backing up whole albums earlier in the game. I could give some of the early solo and Papa Ghostface CDs a whole new lease on life with just a little tasteful remixing. I did at least back up a few other songs from HORSEMOUTH. Though some of them are things I considered borderline filler at the time, it might be fun to revisit them and see if I can clean them up in a similar way.
I digress. We decided “Ballad of Bob and Marie” would be our second song if we needed one. Just in time, too, because few minutes later Christian told me we were up next. We walked through the wings. Christian asked if we had enough material for ten minutes. I told him we did. We made our way onto the stage. I laid my guitar on the floor and sat down at the crummy keyboard I was stuck with. Gord sat down beside me. Christian helped us both set up our microphones. After making sure my vocal mic was working, I went off.
“All right!” I screamed. The audience screamed back. I felt like a psychotic low-rent preacher.
“I’d like to tell you something before we start,” I said. “Originally we wanted to put a band together, but because of time constraints and being shifted around and shifted around, we weren’t able to do so. That makes me angry! But maybe I’m not the only person in here who’s angry right now. Maybe some of you are angry. Maybe your boyfriend left you. Maybe your girlfriend left you. Maybe things aren’t going too well for you in general, ’cause ain’t life stink? And so, I want you to scream when I tell you to let it out at the end of this song. All right?”
We launched into a version of “Pacing the Cage” that made the original recording sound like a lullaby. I slipped into the skin of the character narrating the song — an unrepentant killer who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, relating the tale from prison not with pride or remorse, but with the belief that he was hardwired from birth to do something horrible and in committing these crimes he found his true purpose in life. My hands were shaking. Every time I hit a bad note, I mashed the keys and went out of my way to hit every bad note I could. I twisted my voice into a guttural groan when I wasn’t screaming, pounding on the keyboard I hated until I was punching it more than I was playing it. In the absence of a music stand I balanced my lyric sheet on top of the keyboard. All the turbulence sent it flying to the floor.
When the lyrics ran out I addressed the audience again. “LET IT OUT!” I screamed, and a sea of voices screamed back at me. The song dissolved into dissonance and everyone went nuts. We got a standing ovation.
The Bob Dylan piss-take was a little anticlimactic after that, but I felt invincible even with my voice half-shot from the vocal cord brutality of the first song. If anything, the diminished vocal range probably helped my Dylan impression. I lost my pick inside the sound hole of my guitar mid-song and kept going, improvising new lyrics when the adrenaline wiped my brain clean. We got another standing ovation (well, half of one this time) and left the stage to thunderous applause.
Jesse appeared in the wings with a look of bewilderment on his face.
“THAT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!” he shouted at me, giving me a bear hug, my harmonica holder coming between our chests. “I love the way you play guitar! I love it!”
This was almost as shocking as the audience’s response to our performance, coming from someone who just a few months earlier was belittling my “fucking lap guitar” playing as if it was the lowest form of musical expression. For all of our musical differences and the tug-of-war we waged as collaborators (with Jesse trying to get me to write more conventional songs like him, and me trying to get him to let go and get a little weird), it felt like he finally got what I was doing and I managed to bring him over to the dark side, even if it was only for an afternoon.
“I gotta go,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to come back here and see you guys. Fuckin’ amazing.”
Then he was gone, and I was left with a buzz that wouldn’t go away. The afterglow seemed to extend throughout the entire school. Even Steve Mitchell got on board. He closed the show with Steph Sarafianos backing him up on guitar for a version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that was rewritten as “Blue-Eyed Girl” in Steph’s honour.
The first thing he said when he got onstage was, “How about that John West?” and everyone went crazy all over again.
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember jumping up and down like a manic kangaroo in the hallway with Max and Paul Clairmont (at least I think it was them), feeling a natural high I didn’t know what to do with. I remember walking back to my house with Gord and talking for a minute to Amber Hughes, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass. I remember Gord saying, “She digs you, man.” I don’t think she did. She was just friendly.
That’s about it. The rest is gone, including the weekend that followed.
I wasn’t unpopular before that performance, but it seemed to catapult me once and for all into the realm of “those who are considered cool”. The thing that strikes me now is what an out-there performance it was. There’s no guarantee an audience is going to stick with you when you do something that confrontational and unconventional. It wasn’t even a great musical display from a technical standpoint. It was more about the energy. And to the great credit of that group of students, they were with me every step of the way. I could feel it. Maybe I tapped into some universal angst pretty much everyone feels at that age. I don’t know.
Even some of the teachers got into it. On the Monday after the show, Mr. Zawadski — my math teacher in grades nine and ten — pulled me aside on my way to society class and said, “I have to tell you, John, I really enjoyed your performance. There’s a market for that, you know. It’s avant-garde!”
Along with the grade eight talent show, it was one of the formative musical events of my life. To play your own material live, to do nothing to compromise it or make it more palatable for an audience, and to have a bunch of teenagers — in some ways the most difficult age group to impress — respond like that…there’s nothing quite like it.
I see now that everything going wrong was a blessing in disguise. If things had gone my way and we’d been able to put a larger band together, I’m sure we would have given a good performance. But it probably wouldn’t have turned into interactive musical theatre. It took a perfect storm of inconveniences and injustices to get me pissed off enough to take command of the room the way I did. People still remember that Air Jam performance to this day, which is insane to me.
The second Air Jam show in May was a complete disaster. Half the scheduled performers skipped out on the event, forcing the few who did show up to stretch themselves pretty thin as the emcees improvised lame banter to fill up time. It made the March show look like the best-organized event in the universe. The audience got bored, with a lot of students shuffling out of the auditorium while the show was still going on. Best of all, Jesse — the guy who pressured the organizers into putting on a second show in the first place — didn’t even show up.
I was able to put a full band together for the 2001 Air Jam. But that’s another story for another time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If you can see the value of turning adversity to your advantage in a situation like that, why didn’t you do the same thing with the Mackenzie Hall show?”
I’m not the same person I was in March of 2000. I watch that footage now and the raw energy on the screen almost scares me. I had a lot of anger taking up space inside of me, most of which stemmed from hearing what a piece of shit I was all the time from certain family members who have been dead to me for a number of years now. I used it as creative fuel on a regular basis. And I was fearless on a stage. You could have chopped off one of my fingers and I would have kept on going and incorporated it into the performance.
I don’t have that wellspring of boundless energy anymore. I also feel like I’ve been fighting against one form of bullshit or another in this city’s music scene ever since I got out of high school, from complete indifference, to being treated as a novelty, to being misrepresented, misunderstood, and lied about by talentless coattail-riding douchebags with agendas.
Even this album I’ve been working on forever has had its share of setbacks. Sure, it’s been a grand adventure. It’s also been another thing: a profound test of my patience, my resilience, and my ability to absorb one rejection after another. You know how many people in this city ignored me, blew me off, flaked out on me, or stood me up on my way to getting almost thirty singers/musicians and a dozen visual artists to contribute to the album?
Many of those eighty-two people claim to have an immense amount of respect for me and what I do. And that’s just Windsor people. I tried to bend my own self-imposed rule and involve some talented folks from Detroit and other not-so-far-flung places, with disastrous results.
For every singer I got to show up and sing on something, another ten either never acknowledged me or made a commitment to work with me only to come up with some bogus excuse to use as a last-minute escape clause. My favourite, though it’s hard to choose, is probably the singer who spent more than half a year sitting with a song and telling me it was right in her wheelhouse, only to claim she forgot her own vocal range the day we were supposed to record. It takes a special kind of idiot to come up with a story like that. It must have taken me twenty horn players to find two or three who would talk to me. And I lost count of how many visual artists said they were enthusiastic about contributing to the lyric booklet and then never spoke to me again no matter how many times I tried to follow up with them.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that for all the guests appearing on the album, more than half the songs still feature me doing everything on my own. If I’d been crazy enough to put an actual band together to play on every song, there wouldn’t be an album. You can’t work with people who won’t show up.
I’m proud of the songs I’ve written and the performances I’ve been able to get out of a colourful cast of characters. It might end up being one of my best albums when all is played and sung. And I won’t ever do anything like it again. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to banging out a guest-free album inside of a few months, the way I used to do it, once this thing is out of the way.
Really, it comes down to a very simple thing — I’m tired. Tired of fighting an uphill battle against a music community that, for the most part, never wanted me around in the first place. Tired of eating shit. Tired of a lifetime of rejection from people who are too apathetic or self-important to have a conversation with someone who isn’t already a part of their selective inner circle.
I want to make music and live my life. That’s it. I don’t have any energy left for the other garbage.
I hope cancelling the show sends a message to the musicians who forced my hand. I take this stuff seriously. I always have. I always will. If you can’t come to the table with at least some degree of reverence, you have no business pulling up a chair.
On Tuesday we paid a visit to Mackenzie Hall to take a few pictures and shoot a bit of test footage in preparation for the August extravaganza. I wanted to see how the Canon T5i would do in the Court Auditorium with whatever light was available.
It turned out to be a bit of a wasted experiment. We had no access to the pot lights we’ll have the night of the show, and there was little to work with outside of the sunlight leaking in through the windows. Even in these conditions the camera’s stock lens acquitted itself better than I expected it to, and Johnny Smith was kind enough to take some pictures of me pretending to sleep in various different positions. Stretching out on a row of chairs and making them into an improvised bed is more comfortable than you might think.
It was surreal being in that room again. I guess eight years of distance will do that to you. It’s more spacious than I remembered. Fitting a whole lot of musicians in there isn’t going to be a problem. And it’s pretty neat to hear your voice halfway disappear into the natural reverb when there are no other bodies filling the room and soaking up some of the sound.
I’ve been searching for someone to film this show since 2015. I wasn’t even sure the show was going to happen back then, but I wanted to get that side of things squared away just in case.
What I’ve learned and experienced in that time doesn’t flatter this city’s filmmaking community at all. My main takeaway has been this: almost everyone is all about the money. Not making art. Not having an opportunity to collaborate with other artists. Not building a unique body of work. Just money. If they don’t think they’re going to be able to squeeze as much out of you as they want, you’re nothing to them but a waste of time.
How bad is it? Make yourself a bowl of popcorn and I’ll tell you. I’m not going to name any names, but some of these interactions need to be preserved. You know, for the history books.
At first I couldn’t get most of the filmmakers I contacted to acknowledge me at all. One of the few people who did respond to an email told me he refused to film anything at Mackenzie Hall because it didn’t look exciting enough on camera. He wouldn’t quote me a price. He told me if I grew a brain and decided to put on the show at a cooler place like The Olde Walkerville Theatre maybe he’d be interested. Otherwise, there was no point in the two of us having a conversation. The condescension was so thick my internet connection almost gagged on it.
And yet…in 2012 this same person directed a five-minute “film” documenting the making of the first album by now-defunct Windsor group The Walkervilles. Guess where it was filmed?
I had to guess at the amount of money I would need to pay a filmmaker when I was putting my grant proposal together. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was finally able to get people to start talking to me with some level of consistency, and when that happened it made me miss those glorious years of being ignored by everyone.
One guy wanted all of the grant money and a few thousand more. He did offer to cut me a deal, though. For $1,500 he said he would film the show and give me a final edit that was two minutes long.
That would be like me recording an album for someone and then giving them a CD not with full songs on it, but three-second snippets of each track. The end result wouldn’t be worth $15, never mind $1,500.
You can probably guess what I wanted to say to that guy. I bit my tongue and swallowed a river of blood instead. It wasn’t worth it.
Another person showed up at the house and told me he had no idea who I was, had never heard of me, hadn’t heard a lick of my music, and only knew what a few friends told him when he mentioned my name, which amounted to, “Johnny’s a genius and you’re lucky to have an audience with him” (their words, not mine).
This is how he made use of that audience. First he bragged about big money jobs he was involved in and B-list celebrities he knew. Then, when I handed him a stack of CDs and it struck him that I wasn’t some clueless hobbyist, the gloves came off. For three hours he lectured me on what I should be doing with my music and why everything I do is wrong. He told me I was selfish for hiding it from the world. He told me no one was going to knock on my door and ask for some of my CDs (someone really did do that once, but he wasn’t going to be distracted by details like that). He said making all of this music and sharing it with so few people was akin to having a massive library of books that was inaccessible to the public. He said the work had no intrinsic value if it wasn’t available for everyone to hear.
The best part came when he brought up Martin Shkreli — the hunk of human waste who paid two million dollars for the one existing copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (don’t even get me started on the idiocy of that whole enterprise).
“Let’s say someone came here,” filmmaker dude said, “and offered you two million dollars to buy this album you’ve been working on for the last five years with all these different people on it. The catch was, once they gave you the money the album was going to be locked away forever and no one would ever hear it. What would you do?”
Two million dollars is a life-changing amount of money. But an incredible amount of work has gone into this album. I think it’s home to some of the best songs I’ve written and some of the best work I’ve done as a singer, musician, producer, arranger, and recording engineer.
It’s been a profound test of my resilience. A staggering amount of people ignored, rejected, or flaked out on me on my way to assembling the supporting cast. More than once I wrote a song for a specific person to sing, only to find myself forced to find someone else to sing it in their place when they came up with some bogus last-minute excuse to get out of doing what they told me they would do. The frustration has been worth wading through, though, because a lot of great people have contributed some beautiful musical performances and pieces of visual art, and almost all of them have done it for no renumeration.
The whole thing has been one of the great artistic adventures of my life. And while sharing my music isn’t what gives it value for me, a lot of friends have been looking forward to absorbing the culmination of all of this work for a long time now.
If I took that money and threw the album in the garbage — because that’s what I’d really be doing — I would probably be set for the rest of my life if I played it smart. I would also be miserable. I would feel like the world’s biggest sellout, flushing five years of my life down the toilet in exchange for some smelly paper. I imagine I’d fall into a deep creative slump. I might stop making music altogether.
So, as stupid as it might sound, I would say no to the massive payday offered to me by this hypothetical stranger. My artistic integrity is worth more to me than any amount of money, and as I’m so fond of reminding everyone in my album liner notes, my music is not for sale.
All of this is what I told him, more or less.
“That’s a beautiful answer,” he said. “And it’s a fucking lie. You’d take the money, and then you’d go in that fucking room and you’d make another fucking album, because that’s what you fucking do.”
At this point he was shouting at me. I mean full-on belting, on the edge of screaming. Words can’t convey the unique horror of having a stranger yell at you in your own home, claiming to know everything about you after admitting they don’t know the first thing about you.
Around the fourth hour of our visit he brought up filming the show for the first time. We talked a bit about it, but by then he’d talked himself out of the job several times over.
I started thinking there were only two scenarios that would work out in my favour. I either had to find someone who was so passionate about the idea of the show that they were willing to set aside their ego and cut me a deal, or I had to find someone who was inexperienced enough that they would look at this as a portfolio-building opportunity and charge a more reasonable amount of money to reflect that.
I found both of those people. Not that it did me any good.
Option A arrived in the form of a filmmaker who said he would be willing to film the show for free if I didn’t get the grant, and if the grant did come through, he would do it for an amount of money that wasn’t grotesque. He said all the right things. Then he went home, checked his calendar, and said, “Uh…it looks like I’m not going to be in town the day of your show or the dress rehearsal, so I can’t do this after all. Sorry.”
(Maybe you could have checked your schedule before you sat down with me and all but committed to the project, huh?)
Option B was a guy my friend Rob Fraser found. He said he would film and edit the show for such a low price it made my head spin. Then he disappeared. We came to find out he sold all of his film equipment and decided he no longer had any interest in filmmaking as a career or a creative pursuit.
It looked like my best bet was going to be investing in another good camera and filming the show myself.
Then Dave Konstantino, who was trying to help me find someone sane and interested in filming the show, said, “You know what…this is ridiculous. I’ll just film it for you myself.”
Unlike all of the other people I talked to (or tried to talk to), I’ve known Dave for a long time. I know he understands and respects what I do. From the work he’s done with Greg Maxwell for the CJAM Sessions video series, I know he knows what he’s doing. And he’s got extra lighting if we end up needing it.
Talk about a relief. It’s so much easier dealing with someone you know you can trust, instead of hoping someone who has no real interest or emotional investment in what you’re doing won’t screw it up. And if I have to, I’ll just edit the raw footage myself. I’ve done enough video editing over the years to get a pretty good handle on that side of things.
Now I need to start looking at putting a setlist together so we’ve got something well-defined to work on during rehearsals. Good luck with that, self.