musings in the key of crab dip

The vanishing man.

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 outtakes collections), nine full-length GWD albums (plus one EP, a few “best-of” compilations, and an outtakes 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.

Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the veal.

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.

The good, the bad, and the bizarre.

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 have been 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.

Here’s why.

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.

I should have opted for that CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN ten-year anniversary show after all, eh?

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.

Ballad of Bob and Marie (1999)

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?

EIGHTY-TWO.

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.

Note: if you’re wondering why I didn’t post the Air Jam footage, it’s because I feel I’ve already shared more bits than I should have from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing and I’d like to keep at least a few surprises up my sleeve. I’ll probably come back and put it up here once that’s done.

There’s nobody here.

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?

Mackenzie Hall.

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.

Two minutes. 

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.

Return of the uke.

Zara was back in the studio this past week to record the songs that will make up her third album. We got started on Monday and wrapped up on Friday.

This time there was a pretty even division between guitar songs and ukulele songs. Zara brought her own uke but gave my wizened Gibson LG-2 some more run after playing it on UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS way back in 2014. One new wrinkle: we double-tracked her voice on a few songs. I always enjoy hearing the way a voice almost morphs into something new when it’s doubled or tripled to become an exaggerated version of itself.

As intense as Zara’s music is, she’s great fun to work with. There’s a lot of laughing, and it doesn’t feel much like work. All I really do is move a few microphones around and try to capture the way she sounds in the room, and then mix the results in such a way that the dynamics are left intact.

It feels good that she would want to keep coming back here five years after we recorded her first album. Makes me think I must be doing something right.

I should have everything mixed by the end of the month, or early May at the latest. There’s a bit of video footage to share as well. This time I used the Canon T5i instead of one of my little Flip friends. We’ll see what impact that has on the quality. The lighting in the room on the day wasn’t great, so it might still be a little grainy.

Most exciting for me — I asked Zara if she would be up for singing on another song of mine. She said yes. The trick now is writing the right song. I tried to get something ready for Friday. In a rerun of what happened with Tara, a bunch of ideas came tumbling out, and none of them quite felt like “the one”.

I would love to drape her voice over some weird ambient electronic ballad. Knowing the way my brain works, I’ll probably end up with something folky and acoustic guitar-based instead. She’s in town for another four weeks (she moved to British Columbia a while back), so there’s a bit of time to play with.

Oh yeah — yesterday was 420, the day of celebrating all things marijuana-related. To mark the occasion, here’s a grainy video still of me taking a drag from a joint in 2002.

Most of the time 420 doesn’t register for me. I haven’t smoked pot in more than twelve years now. Even if I had a debilitating illness and marijuana was the only thing that would alleviate my symptoms, I don’t think I would touch it again.

Don’t get me wrong. I used to smoke. I caught a buzz for the first time in late 2001 while working on SUBLIMINAL BILE, and it became a fun weekend thing for a while. I appreciated the way it made every conversation feel profound. Stupid things became hilarious. Music I already liked seemed to develop new dimensions, and music I had no interest in became almost tolerable.

I cut out everything a year later after getting a good amount of self-destructive energy out of my system. I tried smoking again in 2005, found it was still fun, and started using it as a substitute for going downtown and getting drunk on the weekend. Why waste my money on an aching bladder and a hangover when I could stay home, light up, and watch a Werner Herzog movie or listen to Miles Davis, waking up the next day without feeling like I got hit by a bread truck?

The first mistake I made was turning it into a solitary thing, and not something I only did once in a while in a social setting. Now that I had a consistent hookup and could smoke pot whenever I wanted, I found I liked it a little too much. It also made me lazy. It was a way to have a good time without having to do anything. Why work on music when I could sit around thinking about how great my ideas were? Why flatten them out into finished things when they were doing just fine floating around in my head?

My second mistake was buying a bong from a friend in the summer of 2006. I thought it would be an easy way to make my stash last longer. Since no one told me one toke from the bong was all I needed, I treated it like it was a pipe, got way too high, and found myself singing for my soul to two different higher powers. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. The sound of a street cleaner set me off on a dissociative loop from hell, and I became convinced I was dying and stuck in some sort of limbo.

I couldn’t make anything that sounded like music happen on a guitar, but I still had my voice. Music became my weapon and my one hope for salvation. Over the next two hours I sang almost nonstop, improvising an entire a cappella concept album in which I bartered with both Satan (arguing I could be of some use to him if he allowed me to spread his message through my music) and God (promising to be a good Christian if he would save me). I felt the strong presence of both good and evil higher powers at different moments, and I felt myself being judged by both of them. As long as I kept singing, I knew I could at least buy myself more time. Being judged was better than being taken.

Right around the time my high wore off, I saw some sunlight filtering through my bedroom window. Instead of hearing a choir of angels singing and ascending to some heavenly afterlife, I went downstairs to get myself something to drink — my throat was killing me — and then came back upstairs and watched Millennium Actress.

To this day, part of me regrets not hitting the record button on my camcorder and capturing at least some of the madness. I remember some of the bits I sang. There were some pretty catchy song fragments in there. Whenever I was singing to Satan I would slip into this exaggerated James Hetfield voice. At one point I got into some beatboxing and borderline throat singing, coming up with some pretty strange vocal sounds. A much sweeter voice came out when I sang to God.

I stopped believing in most of the Christian ideology I was taught right around the time I went through puberty, so I thought it was odd how things split themselves into such clear divisions between good and evil. The whole thing fascinated me. I found I could laugh about it. More than that, I felt a swell of something resembling joy. It was as if I’d come through some dark night of the soul and emerged a better, happier version of myself.

Reluctant to cut my strong-smelling friend out of my life altogether, I chalked up the bad experience to smoking some stuff I bought from an untested source. It must have been cut with something nasty. A week later I tried smoking some of my “normal” supply out of the bong. I should have just gone back to joints and pipes, but I was confident I knew what I was doing.

The high that followed was much more frightening than my first bong experience. This time I felt no higher powers judging me. I lost control of my body — or my mind convinced me I did — and became a vegetable trapped in my bed, unable to move, knowing I really was going to die this time and there was nowhere for me to go. No sunlight was going to save me. There was nothing waiting for me on the other side but a vast expanse of oblivion.

I like to believe there’s something beyond this level of existence after we die. There are too many preternatural happenings that can’t be explained away as simple coincidences. I don’t pretend to know what comes next, but it gives me some comfort to think there’s some kind of afterlife, and that we go on in some way. Some atheists find comfort in the idea that there’s nothing more than this, and once we die it all goes dark. That scares me more than I can tell you. I don’t even know why. I think it’s something about the finality of it all that unnerves me.

The high wore off after a while, I was able to move again, and life went on. But this time there were after-effects. I felt disconnected from myself. I developed issues with stairs. I felt anxiety that didn’t exist for me before, and there were some borderline panic attacks — though they were nothing compared to the fun I experienced after the break-in of late 2008.

After a while I felt more or less like myself again. I’m not sure if my brain eventually got rid of whatever lingering weirdness was hanging on there, or if I accepted the new normal and adjusted to it. One thing was clear: I couldn’t smoke pot anymore. It was toxic to me now.

There was one more little adventure a year later when someone I thought was a friend pressured me into smoking one last time. I should have told him to get out of my house, but I didn’t have the guts. My reward for that bit of cowardice was locking myself out of my own house a few minutes after getting high. This time the universe decided to cut me a break, and an ex-con friend who just happened to be passing by took it upon himself to help me break back in. Which we proceeded to do. In the middle of the afternoon.

You can’t make stuff like this up.

The high wasn’t as bad this last time, but there was none of the euphoria or false sense of heightened mental acuity I got from marijuana in the past. All it gave me now was a feeling of dread that fanned out over everything like a filthy blanket.

I thought I would miss it. After that last hurrah, I didn’t have any trouble leaving it behind.

I bring this up because a few weeks ago someone was over at the house to get down some piano and vocal tracks. My name might not carry much currency in the local music scene anymore (thank God for small miracles), but apparently I’ve become known as “the guy in Windsor who has a real piano in his studio that isn’t a hunk of junk and will maybe let you use it if you ask politely”. I got a message from a guy who also has a home studio, asking me what I would charge to record him playing piano and getting down some vocal tracks so I could then send those raw tracks to him and he could build around them in his own studio.

It struck me as a somewhat convoluted way of going about it — wouldn’t it be easier to record the tracks onto his rig and then have his way with them? — but I have this impulse to help people in situations like these, when what I should probably say to them is, “If you want the sound of a real piano in your songs, do what I did and buy a real piano.”

I told him if he wanted to throw me twenty bucks to put toward my next piano tuning it would be appreciated. Other than that, I felt funny charging anything. I looked at it as one producer helping out another.

I won’t get into the specifics of the recording session. The one bit I want to mention is this. Before we got started, the guy asked me if I smoked. He said when he mentioned he was paying me a visit he was told to bring a joint as a peace offering.

It seems there are still some people out there who assume I’m this massive pothead based on the amount of music I’ve made and its refusal to stay in one place. Here’s the thing about that. If I hadn’t stopped smoking pot more than a decade ago, none of the music I’ve made from 2008 to date would exist, and what little work I might have done in its place wouldn’t be any good.

Drugs inspire some artists and open them up to different ways of thinking. They never did that for me. At least not in any way that had a positive impact on my music. Pot didn’t just sap my motivation, leaving me content to brainstorm forever — the few times I did try writing or recording while under the influence, the results were unusable. When I was high I thought all my bad ideas were good and all my good ideas were great.

I would try to record a miserable song about a dying relationship with Gord and Tyson and laugh my way through the whole thing after forgetting the lyrics that were right in front of me. Like so.

Cottonmouth (GWD version)

Fun? You bet. Album material? Not on your life. Compare this to the version recorded two months later for BEAUTIFULLY STUPID and it’s not even a fair fight.

My point, if I have one, is this: I don’t judge anyone who smokes pot or puts any other foreign substance into their body. Their life, their choice. But I never got one good song out of being high, and I feel it does something of a disservice to the body of work I’ve built when someone assumes it’s the product of an altered state of consciousness.

Life is bizarre and maddening and inspiring enough as it is when viewed through the prism of a clear mind. If you need a drug to help you come up with your ideas, I’m not sure you’re trying hard enough.

A comedy of terrors.

Here’s the song Tara came by to lend her vocal magic to. I’ve spent the last few mornings picking away at editing the recording footage I grabbed along the way, and as much as I’m trying to keep things under wraps until the album is finished, I can’t resist putting this one out there as something resembling an advance single.

The thing I can’t get over is how catchy it is. I didn’t go out of my way to make that happen…it just happened. Must be the groove. I blame the djembe and the shaker that almost looks like an edible pepper. They’re always up to no good.

Editing this was a bit of a pain in the posterior, with everything I had to find a way to fit in there. It was rewarding to see it all come together, though, and I think it’s one of the better editing jobs I’ve done along these lines. It’s always fun when your cuts move in rhythm with the music. It’s a subtle thing, but I find it makes for a video that feels like it breathes a little better.

Also, dig those pyjama pants. Lately I find myself doing a fair bit of recording in the morning, before I’ve put on normal people clothes for the day. When you’re recording drums at 9:43 a.m. the last thing on your mind is throwing on some jeans. Me wearing boxer pants in a video is nothing new, but I don’t think any pair has ever been given quite this much screen time. Maybe these ones are special.

While I’m proud of all the elements that make up the thick soup of this song’s sound, the real secret sauce is the Yamaha VSS-30. I swear it keeps finding new ways to sneak its way into a song and add the texture that’s needed. It’s ridiculous how useful and versatile a little “toy” keyboard from the 1980s can be. You can get so many different sounds just out of sampling a bit of Wurlitzer and warping it (which is what I did here).

In less pleasant news, here are some words I never thought I would type, say, or even think: I won’t ever do business with Minuteman Press again. I won’t even recommend them for the simplest of jobs. If you’re in Windsor and you have any printing needs beyond what you can do yourself at home, I urge you to go somewhere — anywhere — else.

Here’s the deal. In early 2003, when I first thought it would be worthwhile to try giving my CDs a somewhat professional appearance, Johnny Smith said, “I’ll take you to Minuteman Press. That’s where I get my business cards done. I bet they’ll be able to help.” And they did help, printing a two-sided insert I slipped like an embarrassed apology into the abomination that was the initial album art for OH YOU THIS.

In short order, Minuteman Press became my go-to place for all things related to album packaging. Over a period of sixteen years they printed the booklets and inserts for fifty different albums (that’s not a typo), along with two posters and a handful of redesigns when I decided I wanted to “reissue” something or print the lyrics for an album that got slighted the first time around.

In the beginning it was pretty clear they’d never done this kind of work before. The initial inserts (or “tray cards”, if you like) for NUDGE YOU ALIVE had only one tab with the album’s name on the spine instead of the traditional two, leaving one side of the CD jewel case bereft. For my part, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to arranging text and images. We both got better in a hurry. They started producing more professional-looking results with more experience, and I taught myself how to handle the layout side of things.

By 2010 we were a well-oiled machine. I started handing in polished image files with proper bleed lines instead of asking them to set things up for me, and Heather and I almost had our own verbal shorthand. She was always great to work with. If I still sometimes got inserts that were a hair too tall to fit into a jewel case and I had to take a little off the top with my own cutting board to compensate, it was a small price to pay for being able to give my albums the visual presentation I wanted on a DIY budget.

Heather left a few years ago. The people who stayed on still did pretty reliable work. Then the ownership changed altogether in late 2017, and every familiar face was gone.

The woman who took over the business was a great surprise. Her attention to detail was incredible, and the packaging for both the long-overdue remaster of YOU’RE A NATION and the Papa Ghostface sign-off WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD came out looking better than I thought possible. It seemed safe to assume I could keep giving Minuteman Press my business forever.

Everything changed when I swung by a few weeks ago to have the booklets and inserts for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC reprinted. The woman with the great attention to detail was gone. Another woman she once referred to as her “colleague” was now running the show. I’ll call her Esmerelda, because it’s a world away from her real name and it sounds a little evil.

There was a disgruntled customer ahead of me in line, and she was giving Esmerelda the business. The conversation went something like this:

CUSTOMER:
I paid a professional designer to put this flyer together. The printing is all wrong. The bleed lines are off, and there’s all this white space.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. It’s like because the format we were like given. We can only like play with it so much.

CUSTOMER:
No…this was done by a professional. There’s nothing wrong with it. Something went wrong with the way it was sized after I gave it to you. You’re the ones who made the mistake.

ESMERELDA:
Yes. Like when you give it to us, like we can do almost nothing. You have to like give it to us in a different format.

CUSTOMER:
My event is a few days away. I can’t use this. This is no good.

ESMERELDA:
If you want to like give it to me in a different format maybe we can like fix it, but the way you gave it to me there’s nothing we can do.

Put that on a loop for about ten minutes and you get the idea. The Smithster and I got tired of waiting after a while and turned to leave.

“No, no,” Esmerelda said.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” I said.

“No, I can wait on you.”

She slid a smiling man with grey hair into her place and took my order. I gave her my original materials and asked for another thirty copies of each. She said she’d call me in a day or two to come look at a proof, and then she’d print it. Easy as cake.

More than a week went by. There was no phone call. I called and got Esmerelda’s son on the line. He talked to me as if he was the new graphic designer of the operation. He told me my file of sixteen years — once a monster of a thing — was now all but empty, and almost none of the work any of the previous employees had done for me was in there. I would have to give him the art files for these booklets and inserts, and they would have to be printed from scratch.

I dug up the old art files from early 2011, dumped them onto a flash drive, and brought them in. Son of Esmerelda told me he would email me a proof later that day. He did no such thing. The next day I popped in to see my proof. It wasn’t ready.

“Oh, he had some car trouble,” Esmerelda said. “He told me he’s going to send you an email tonight. Like a hundred percent, for sure he’ll do it tonight.”

He did not, like a hundred percent, for sure, email me anything.

I came back the next day.

“I was just going to call you,” Esmerelda lied.

She printed up a proof for me. The insert looked fine. The smiling man stood there staring at the song titles, looking bewildered. I like to think “Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams” gave him a brain cramp.

The booklet wasn’t fine. It was a mess. The image and text on the cover were both too small. Inside, the size of the font increased and decreased five or six points at a time from one page to another. I always make sure to keep the font size consistent through all my image files, so it was a bit of shock to see things looking so out of whack.

Esmerelda’s explanation: “Yes. You gave us JPEG, and like we can do almost nothing. If you give it to me in like a Word document, then I can like size it myself and everything will be like perfect.”

For nine years JPEG files were never an issue. All Son of Esmerelda had to do was drag and drop the image files into whatever program he was using and make sure they were the right size. Instead, he took it upon himself to increase the size of the text on every page that had any appreciable amount of white space. Of course, Esmerelda wasn’t about to admit it, and he wasn’t around to answer for his screw-up.

She said she would email me a proof once I sent her the lyrics in a Word document. I sighed, went home, and put together what she said she needed. I emailed it to her the next morning. She didn’t email me back.

Thursday was the day of reckoning. I showed up to ask what the hell was going on. Son of Esmerelda looked horrified when he saw me walk in the door. He ducked into an office as fast as he could, where I assume he watched videos of dogs slobbering in slow motion while contemplating the nature of existence.

“Our server has been down all day,” Esmerelda said. “We haven’t been able to like do anything. But we almost have it like fixed now. If you come back at 12:30, I’ll have it for you. You don’t need to call. Just come back around 2:00 and it will be ready.”

Not just anyone can make an hour-and-a-half leap like that almost in the middle of a sentence without even acknowledging it. I had to genuflect in respect.

I should pause to tell you Johnny Smith was with me for each of these visits, and he noticed Esmerelda had a habit of looking at him instead of me when we were talking to each other. It was weird.

A little after 2:00, we came back.

“I just printed it,” she said. “I’ll have it for you in a moment.”

In a virtuoso display of lying to someone’s face and assuming they’re too stupid to notice, she walked a few feet to a printer and proceeded to print what she told me was already printed.

She brought the pages over, and I saw my body text in the booklet had morphed from Bookman Old Style into Arial.

“You changed the font,” I said.

“Yes. It’s much clearer now.”

“No,” I said, opening the original booklet to show her. “This is the font I used. See? I used the same font in the Word document I sent you, because that’s the font I want.”

“Yes,” she said. “It was Times New Roman. I changed it to Arial, but I can just like change it back. I just thought it looked better like this.”

“It wasn’t Times New Roman. But you know what…let’s do this. The other part that’s fine — the insert? Let’s go ahead and print that, and forget about the booklet.”

“No,” she said. “I can change the font back.”

“I’d like my original booklet back please, and we’ll just print the one piece that doesn’t have any problems.”

“I’ll just change the font back.”

“No. It’s been one thing after another. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Yes, but I’ll just change the font.”

Right here is where Johnny Smith took it upon himself to break the loop of stupidity, slipping into what I can only call “Punisher Mode”. He told Esmerelda we were done. She tried to come up with some bullshit. He told her to give me back my original booklet and insert. She wouldn’t budge. He had to cut her off at least ten times before it sunk in for her that this was one person she wasn’t going to be able to wear down with smiling condescension. She gave me my booklet and insert back, said, “Well, I’m very sorry to hear it,” and we walked out.

I’ll never set foot in that place again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out of business a few months from now. Word spreads fast, and awe-inspiring incompetence is not something most people look for when they need something printed.

It’s a shame. Once upon a time there were some good, honest people working there who did fine work. Not anymore.

We made a list of about half a dozen other local printing businesses to try. I brought the packaging for STEW to A&A Printing so I’d have something to offer as a sample. The manager came out to talk to us and I asked a bunch of questions. He told me they had a lot of experience doing CD-related work. PDF files were the best format for them. They would have a proof for me the same day I brought in my art files, the job would be finished the day after that, and for fifty each of these two pieces of packaging I could expect to pay a little over a hundred bucks.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

He said all the right things. There didn’t seem to be any need to check out any of the other places on our list. On Friday, around noon, I spoke with a woman at the front desk. I asked if I could have a lyric booklet and a separate insert made, and presented her with samples of the original pieces (again for MEDIUM-FI MUSIC) and the relevant PDF files on a flash drive. She told me she would have a proof ready for me in two hours and she would call when it was finished.

Something I’ve learned: when someone tells you they’re going to call you for anything business-related, they’re almost always lying. We came back at 4:00 and a different woman claimed she’d called us to let us know the files I provided didn’t work. When we told her we never received a phone call, she said, “Well, I was trying to call you.” That made for two lies in less than ten seconds, unless in her mind “trying” meant “thinking about maybe doing something and then not actually doing it”.

She invited us into the work area and brought me over to her computer, where she showed me the files wouldn’t work when she tried to open them.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I saved them all as PDF files. That’s what the manager told me to do. He told me that was the best format for you. Everything worked fine on my computer.”

She started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” Johnny Smith asked her.

“Because the manager told you to do that, and the files don’t work.”

“What about that is funny?”

She didn’t have an answer.

Laughing at your customer’s misfortune isn’t a great way to get their return business. Just throwing that out there.

The woman who took my order earlier in the day tried the flash drive on her computer. She had no problem opening the files. Way to troubleshoot, people! She told us if we could wait five minutes in the other room she would print up a proof.

Half an hour later she had a sheet printed out to show me the paper stock they were going to use for the booklet. She said the binding would take three hours to do and she didn’t realize there were so many pages.

Johnny Smith told her we’d just left a printing business after sixteen years because of mishaps and miscommunications like this. She apologized and let loose with a stream of excuses. They had a lot of unexpected cutting work that day. There was more work involved in putting the proof together than she thought there would be. The printer jammed. She thought the booklet was a flyer with no pages in it (the second you touch or even look at the booklet, it becomes clear it isn’t a flyer).

She said she would work on it over the weekend and call us on Monday whether the work was done or not.

Believe it or not, on Monday there was a phone call. We came in to look at the proof with some sneaky feelings of optimism. Those feelings were dispelled soon enough.

The woman who showed me the initial printout wasn’t around. The one who laughed at us was there instead. She showed me a booklet that had the font at the right size throughout, but the print quality left something to be desired. The printout I was shown on Friday made the text look nice and smooth. Now it was bleeding all over the place. The text on both spines of the insert was way out of alignment, and instead of fixing it themselves she and the manager told me it was my job to edit the image file, guessing at where they needed it to be. I’ve been doing this long enough to know where the text is supposed to go. This was their mistake, not mine.

Worst of all was the cost. Because there were a few extra pages in this booklet, the price I was quoted on Thursday tripled.

The woman asked for a 50% deposit. I gave it to her and left feeling defeated. Over the next few minutes my attitude shifted from just wanting to get the booklets and inserts reprinted, to thinking this was more of the same garbage and I didn’t want to stand for it anymore.

We went back. When I brought up the bleeding, the laughing lady said she could try lightening the text to see if that helped. I told her the price was another sticking point. She disappeared into the back of the work area for a while, and when she came back she said the manager was willing to come down almost a hundred bucks. If you can afford to do that, either your profit margin is sickening and you’re cheating people out of their money, or your business isn’t as prosperous as you’d like your customers to believe it is. Either way, it wasn’t good enough.

I asked for my money back and we left. They still have my memory stick and original lyric booklet. I need to get those back sometime this week.

Instead of trying more local printing places I thought I’d contact a business that makes album packaging full-time. I sent an email to someone at Duplium, which is where Ron got Tobacco Fields manufactured. The lyric booklet for that album came out looking great. While I’m waiting to hear back from them, I might email another place in Canada that does similar work. I prefer to be able to go in and see a proof in person, but if I have to go through something like this again on my way to finding someone in Windsor who knows what they’re doing, I think I’m going to tear my own face off.

Hopefully something good shakes loose. I’m running low on booklets and inserts for a good half a dozen albums, and I’d like to be able to get more of them printed somewhere.

The flute of truth.

Making art and trying to involve other people can lead you down some pretty circuitous roads.

I sent Lianne Harway a Facebook message three years ago when my search for local woodwind players led me to her. She never saw it. As I’ve learned, if you send a message to someone you’re not already Facebook friends with, said message almost always gets stuffed into a secret spam folder somewhere deep in the ass crack of cyberspace.

A few months ago I asked Tara Watts if she’d be interested in singing on something. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, so I wrote something with her in mind. The more I sat with the song, the more it started to feel like second-tier material. And she deserved my best.

I wrote at least half a dozen subsequent songs, hoping to find one that shouted its rightness at me. None of them did. I thought I had a good idea for a potential duet one night when I was cooking some green beans. That didn’t go anywhere interesting either.

Then a song came out of nowhere when I wasn’t trying to make anything happen, and I thought, “This would be a good one to have Tara sing harmony on.” A lot of my songs are directed at one “you” or another, though I’m not often singing to a real person anymore. I liked how this one took a turn away from implied specificity, limiting itself to images and statements. There was no “you” at all.

I recorded the thing and sang placeholder harmonies of my own. Then I started to grow attached to those harmonies. Pretty soon I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else singing them after all — even someone with a voice as great as Tara’s.

What I really wanted was to showcase her voice in more than a supporting role. I just couldn’t seem to write something that felt like an appropriate vehicle.

As soon as I gave up on the idea of writing a song Tara might have some fun singing lead on, the right song all but wrote itself. Ain’t that the way it always goes?

I have a thing for slinky, jazzy, sensual songs with musical backdrops that are either semi-electronic or full-on trip-hop/downtempo. I’ve wanted to try doing something like that with a female singer for a long time, with no success. Whenever I reach out to a singer who lives in or near Windsor and has a voice that seems appropriate for that sort of thing, they either ignore me or feign interest before disappearing.

This time I was lucky enough to have a singer lined up and waiting in the wings. And I guess the subconscious part of my songwriting brain said, “You know that thing you keep wanting to do? Here’s an opportunity to do it. NOW DO IT.” I recorded all the music, got down a guide vocal, and sent a rough mix off to Tara. She liked that it was something a little outside of her usual musical wheelhouse. We made plans to get together so she could take a stab at singing it.

Yesterday those plans came to fruition. I felt a little awkward taking pictures while we were recording, but Tara was kind enough to pretend to sing for me in hilariously exaggerated fashion after we were finished, allowing me to capture an image that’s sure to become iconic in the years ahead.

This is not that picture. The world isn’t ready for that kind of visual intensity. Instead, this is an “accidental” shot that I thought turned out pretty nice.

Sometimes when I ask someone to play or sing on one of my songs they’ll show up having spent no time preparing, and before we can get anything useful recorded I have to teach them the song they’ve had weeks or months to sit with. It doesn’t bother me, and it’s never stopped me from getting a good performance out of anyone. It’s just a thing that happens.

It didn’t happen with Tara. She did her homework. I didn’t even have to play her my guide vocal before we started recording. She slipped right in there like she owned the song. My only regret is maxing out every track on the mixer but one (reserved for the lead vocal), because she told me she heard some potential harmony lines in there. Maybe I’ll have to write something else with her in mind and leave some space so she can harmonize all over the place. I don’t think anything bad could come of it. Tara’s a master when it comes to vocal harmony.

That other song — the one I thought I was going to ask Tara to harmonize on before I decided I liked my own harmonies enough to keep them around — had an instrumental chorus/refrain. There was almost a Celtic feeling to it, I thought. It needed to be played on a flute to really put it over the top.

I asked Facebook if anyone knew someone who played flute and might be interested in doing some session work. I didn’t expect the question to even be acknowledged. As proof that social media is about as unpredictable as a naked meteorologist, recommendations came pouring in. One Facebook friend tagged Lianne, and she said she was interested.

Three years after I sent her a message that was never seen, I sent a friend request and a new message that didn’t end up in limbo. That was a few weeks ago. This past Thursday Lianne was over at the house, replacing my wordless vocal melody with flute-shaped goodness.

I moved the Pearlman TM-1 in front of her, put it in omni, and was reminded for about the seven-hundredth time how ridiculously versatile this microphone is. You’d think a high-register wind instrument like a flute would need some EQ to tame it, but no. A little kiss of reverb and it sounded just right — bright and lively without being harsh.

Like Tara, Lianne came prepared. There were three sections of the song that wanted flute, with the first iteration of the melody subtly different from the final two. Within fifteen minutes of putting on headphones and getting the microphone in place, we were done. It would have been foolish to ask her for another take. She nailed it every time, and though the melody was already written, the way she played it glued the whole song together.

Sometimes persistence rewards you, even if you have no idea where you’re going until you get there.

An effigy blessed.

It’s an odd feeling when you get old enough that the deaths of your musical heroes are no longer isolated events.

I’ve loved a lot of music over the years, but I can’t say there are many artists who have had a profound impact on what I do. Mark Hollis belongs on the short list of those who have. As the main songwriter and voice of Talk Talk he helped to create some of the most glorious pop music of the 1980s. Then, at the peak of his success, he turned around and committed commercial suicide with music that played a large role in paving the way for what we now call post-rock, as his lyrics took on a new depth and left things like rhyming and conventional metric ideas in the dust.

I mean, how do you get from this (pre-Talk Talk, with a short-lived band called The Reaction)…

…to this…

…to this?

They’re all great songs, but all three of them live on different planets. Few musicians are open to allowing this kind of artistic evolution to happen, let alone capable of pulling it off in a way that feels not only natural, but inevitable.

Random thing: “New Grass” features what may be my all-time favourite recording of an electric guitar. There’s something so beautiful and pure about it — a sound in constant bloom.

There’s also evidence that Mark had this kind of music in him before Talk Talk existed. Maybe he needed the right people and resources to do justice to the sound in his head, and he was biding his time until everything lined up the way he wanted.

Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are albums that create an endlessly evolving world of sound for you to get lost in. They achieve this not with synthesizers or sonic trickery, but with real instruments recorded in the most organic, dynamic way possible, and with silence treated as an instrument in itself. Weaving in and out of the sounds and the spaces between them is Mark’s voice — one of the most unique in all of “pop/rock”. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand much of what he’s singing in a given song without looking at the lyric sheet. It doesn’t matter. It’s a voice that can move you even if you don’t know what it’s saying.

Those last two Talk Talk albums, along with Mark’s lone self-titled solo album, form a triptych of uncommon power. Each one grows quieter and more minimal, until there’s silence and nothing else. Few bodies of work have trailed off with such grace.

This music has taken me places little else has, moving me near to tears one minute only to scare the bejesus out of me the next. Years ago I was listening to Mark Hollis late at night. During one of the more turbulent instrumental passages I noticed a tree branch flailing against my bedroom window as if it was having a visceral reaction to something only I could hear. The song sounded like a storm, and here it was storming outside, the wind shaking that tree’s arm with almost enough force to pry it loose.

“This is music that knows the world,” I thought.

Then I wrote the thought down, because I don’t often think things that sound so poetic.

I think Mark felt he’d said all he had to say after his solo album was finished. It’s difficult to fathom where else he might have gone after those half-whispered tone poems. What was there left to strip away? He even explained his vanishing act in the songs themselves, singing about his family and the joy it gave him. He wanted to step away from the music industry and dedicate himself to being a good father and husband, making his life his art instead of the other way around. There’s a great nobility in that.

The one bit of new material to surface in recent years was a brief instrumental piece heard over the end credits of an episode of Boss. It sounded like the soundtrack to a made-for-TV horror film that had been disassembled and reinterpreted by curious robots. Whether it was the beginning of a beguiling new direction or just a one-off, we’ll probably never know. Maybe it was only a wink meant to say, “I’m still here.”

Now the man who fell off the face of the earth is gone for good. I doubt we’ll get the usual deluge of reissues and biographies to cash in on the renewed interest in his work, and that’s as it should be. In a strange way, the permanence of his absence feels like it’s brought him closer. When he sang he sounded like a fallen angel, but it turns out he was one of us after all.

My introduction to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk came in 1994. MuchMusic played the music video for “Life’s What You Make It” one Saturday morning. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen or heard before. I picked out the song’s insistent piano line on a rented keyboard, feeling proud of myself for being able to figure it out at a time when getting my fingers to play anything that sounded like music was a challenge.

You might think I’m going to start bragging about how I was hip to The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden when I was ten or eleven years old. I’m not. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t even catch the name of the band on the TV screen that day. I would read about Talk Talk a little later on when I found the book that would become my musical Bible for a while. It still took me much longer than it should have to go out and buy one of their albums. I didn’t get my hands on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock until I was in my early twenties. The first time I heard “The Rainbow” and that overdriven harmonica solo kicked in, I wanted to scream with happiness.

If there’s such a thing as perfect music, I think this stuff is about as close as it gets, but I’ve rarely tried to emulate it in any direct way. I think that would be a mistake. From the time I started banging on a tape case with a drum stick and singing in the absence of an instrument to play, my goal was always to develop my own voice without taking cues from anyone else. Besides, to take a real, honest stab at tapping into the specific magic of late-period Talk Talk would be…difficult. In a number of articles and interviews that are available online, you can read about how a lot of the songs started as nothing but a man-made click track of light percussion or a drum pattern and were then built piecemeal over a painstaking period of time. While the songs sound like continuous performances with all the musicians playing together in one space, that’s an illusion created through a lot of creative editing. A trumpet player might come into the studio to record ten improvised takes only to find what was used in the final mix was two seconds of them clearing their spit valve. Or a performance meant to sit in a certain space might find itself moved out of context to a different part of the song.

In a lot of ways it’s music as meticulous collage. That it sounds so spontaneous and untethered from time is a testament to the brilliance of all involved. The contributions of producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Green and recording engineer Phill Brown can’t be overstated here.

It might have taken me five years to finish an album I’m still not quite finished yet, and I might build things a piece at a time out of necessity (and a lack of Johnny clones), but I don’t have the patience or the technology to work the way those guys did in the studio. I don’t think I’d want to even if I could.

The inspiration I’ve taken from these albums lives somewhere deeper than the desire for mimicry, though I’m sure the way Phill Brown recorded Lee Harris’s drums on Laughing Stock — a great example of the “drums in a room being played by a human” sound we don’t hear too much of anymore — had as much to do with my decision to start recording my own drum kit in a more minimal way as laziness did.

A confession: there was this one time, in early 2008, when I did go out of my way to do something that sounded like a poor man’s version of a song that might have been recorded for Laughing Stock, just to see if I could pull it off. I played some unresolved chords on an electric guitar and gave them a lot of room to linger, without using a click track. I added a second guitar part, bouncing a pencil on the strings before playing in a more conventional way. Bass and drums followed. The vocals came last. Each part was improvised and recorded in one take without any preparation. I sang without knowing what the vocal melody was supposed to be, feeling it out along the way.

I didn’t have the assortment of instruments or the musician friends I do now. I couldn’t add piano because I didn’t yet have a real one, and it was clear something digital wasn’t going to cut it. I thought about buying a violin and trying to get something out of it before finding a cheap melodica at Belle Air Music. The melodica was the secret sauce I was looking for, and it felt like it tied everything together.

The freakout section a little over two minutes into the song is more me than Talk Talk. And I didn’t begin to try and sound like Mark Hollis. No one else can sing like that. But as homages go, I felt it was pretty successful. Eleven years later I still like it and believe there’s a place for it on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. Given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to share it here.

The Trance Lethargic

Boulevard of bokeh dreams.

I just bought this thing — a 50mm Canon lens that’s been nicknamed “the nifty fifty”. For a year or two I’ve been talking myself out of getting it for one reason or another. I’m not a professional photographer, I doubt I’ll ever progress far beyond “bearded hobbyist”, and I don’t need an assortment of lenses for what I do…but it doesn’t hurt to have a second option.

That inescapable thought was what swayed me in the end.

For less than $200, this lens is insane. It isn’t a Zeiss Makro Planar, but it isn’t trying to be. One thing it allows you to do is blur parts of the image that are out of focus in a way that’s really pleasing to the eye. This effect is called “bokeh”. It’s also called shallow depth of field, but I prefer the idea of someone trying to say “bouquet” and sneezing at the moment of truth. Best of all, it’s fast, so it doesn’t mind low light situations.

Though this isn’t a great picture, it’ll give you a bit of an idea. The light in this room is far from ideal. Most lenses would either refuse to take an in-focus picture or laugh at me while ejecting themselves from the camera body. The nifty fifty didn’t care. The shot is a little grainy, but it has no business looking this decent given the lighting situation. Notice how the floor beneath the snare drum isn’t just out of focus in a conventional way — it has a creamy quality to it.

Sneeze it with me now: bokeh!

I’m just starting to play around with it, but I’m not feeling any buyer’s remorse.

There’s a learning curve here. With no zoom, you’re forced to move around and really think about composition. I’m not sure how much I trust the autofocus when it comes to still images. I’m probably going to have to get more comfortable using manual focus to get the most out of this lens.

These are good things, and they’ll lead to better, more artistic pictures.

Even so, the nifty fifty has given me a new appreciation for the kit lens that came with my Canon T5i (an EFS 18-55mm zoom lens). Everyone craps all over this thing and says you can’t take good pictures with it, but for my modest purposes it’s been great. The autofocus is fast, quiet, and almost never seems to hunt. The image stabilization allows me to shoot video handheld without things getting too jerky. It isn’t amazing in low light, but it sure beats the pants off of the Pentax point-and-shoot of yore and shoots much cleaner, deeper-looking video than my Flip friends. It’s never prevented me from getting the shot I wanted, and sometimes that zoom really comes in handy.

My point is, it isn’t the glass in the lens, but the lass and her hens. Wait…that’s not right. Ask not what you can do for your camera, but what your camera would do if forced to watch Samurai Cop on an endless loop. No…that’s still not it.

Eh, you get my drift.

(Seriously, go watch some clips from Samurai Cop if you want to collapse in a bewildered fit of animal laughter. It has to be up there with The Room and Troll 2 in the pantheon of the most hilariously bad films ever made.)

You don’t know what you’ve got until it explodes internally.

I didn’t mean to go so long without saying anything here. Things have been busy, and my brain has been dancing to music no one else can hear.

For one thing, I’ve been consumed with putting together a proposal for the City of Windsor’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Fund in the hope of getting a grant that will help cover expenses for a monster of a summer show at Mackenzie Hall.

Bet you never thought you’d read those words on my blog.

Even if I don’t end up getting the grant, the outpouring of support from every single person I’ve asked for any kind of assistance has been overwhelming. If you’re an individual and not an organization (raises hand), you need to submit at least three letters of support with your application. The letters people have written for me…they’re not normal letters. They vibrate with a passion my brain has had a hard time processing.

And don’t even get me started on the musicians. Oh man. Wait until you hear the lineup I’ve got in place for this show.

I know. I never thought I’d get excited about the idea of playing live again either. I figured I maybe had one show left in me, and I was in no great hurry to make it happen. But here we are. And here I am. And there you are. You’re slicing ham.

More about that when matters clarify. For now, just know something pretty special is brewing.

And hey, guess what’s at #1 on the CJAM charts again after coming in at #2 again last week? I swear every time I release an album I’m pretty sure won’t get much airplay because there’s a lot to take in, the Campus Radio Gods say, “Oh yeah? We’ll show you.” And then CJAM plays it like crazy.

Thanks again to all the DJs who support the noises I make.

There have been some “technical difficulties” in the studio that have stalled my work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK behemoth. I could have worked around them, but I’ve been lazy.

See, long ago and far away, Line 6 came out with this amp modelling device they called a POD. And lo! All the recording magazines in the land said, “Give us hollowed-out dildos stuffed with cash and we will write glowing reviews of your product, overflowing with superlatives.” And all was well in the land.

I bought the hype and got a POD in the late summer of 2000. I used it on everything for a long time because it made my life easier. It wasn’t until we moved into this house in 2007 that I thought, “Maybe I should try sticking a microphone in front of an actual amplifier again.” And when I did that, all the tone I’d been missing kicked me right in the nards.

It’s a difficult thing to explain. As amp modelling technology goes, I think the POD does a fine job. I don’t listen to any of the many things I recorded with my guitar plugged into it and cringe. But there’s this three-dimensional quality you don’t notice you’re missing until you’re recording the real thing.

For a while I was a purist reborn. From CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN up to CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, for every electric guitar track I recorded I plugged my guitar straight into the amp with no effects in the signal path. If I wanted some reverb, I added it after the fact when I was mixing. I either used an SM57 on its own or I added a Sennheiser MD421 for a stereo spread, and my ears were happy.

Halfway through work on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I dusted off my POD XT — a supposed upgrade from the original POD. It had many more sounds under the hood, but I always thought the amp simulation was a step backward. So I never really used the thing. Now I started to wonder what would happen if I tried using it as a souped-up stomp box. I switched off the amp simulating effect and plugged it into the Fender Twin.

I didn’t unplug it again for almost nine years. As unhip as it probably is to say anything positive about a POD today, that red kidney-looking thing became an indispensable tool for me. It allowed me to access tremolo, delay, phaser, flanger, distortion, chorus, auto-wah, and other effects with the press of a button, without altering my clean tone in any nefarious way.

This is the main reason I had no interest in guitar pedals for so long. I didn’t feel I needed them. I had everything I could desire right there in the POD XT. And it wasn’t limited to a front end for one of my main amplifiers. If I wanted to record backwards piano, all I had to do was plug a mic into the POD, switch to the reverse delay effect, turn it up until it was 100% wet, plug it into a mic preamp, and I was golden.

Being able to do something like that when you don’t work with a computer program that allows you to reverse any sound you want with a click of your mouse is a godsend.

A few weeks ago the POD started making this awful loud buzzing sound. I messed around with some patch cords and it went away. I was able to record a few guitar tracks. Then the buzzing sound started again, and this time it wouldn’t go away. Everything seemed to be working fine electronically. The trouble was the input didn’t seem to be “hearing” anything anymore. When I turned the tuner on, it wouldn’t even recognize the guitar.

I assumed the 1/4-inch input jack must have worn out after all those years of constant use. I called up Steve Chapman and asked if he’d be willing to take a look at it. He said sure.

A few days after dropping it off, he called me up and gave me the news. Turns out the power switch broke off inside the POD somehow and there was serious heat damage obscuring some of the connections.

“Have you ever seen the inside of one of these things?” Steve said, laughing. “It’s pretty clear they weren’t designed for anyone with hands to ever work on them.”

He asked to hold onto it for a little while longer, because he doesn’t like to give up, but told me the POD was probably toast. If I wanted to replace it, I’d best start looking.

I checked out eBay.ca and found one in good shape for a very reasonable price. Best of all, it was in Canada and would get here within a week. I pulled the trigger on that and it should be showing up not too long after the weekend scurries away.

Funny how you don’t notice how much you lean on something until it’s gone. I thought I’d pull out my old first-generation POD and just use that for a while. None of those sounds are what I’m after anymore, and it doesn’t have any of the effects I need. Sure, I could simulate something close to the multitap delay effect I like to use on atmospheric lap steel tracks if I hooked up about three pedals and set them just right. It still wouldn’t quite be the sound I want.

Honestly, I think it’s been healthy to have this break. I was floundering a little, trying too hard to dig up some motivation to work on things when it wasn’t there. If you’re not feeling it, I’ve found there’s usually a good reason. In this case I think I just needed to recharge the batteries after working on one album or another almost without any significant period of inactivity since early 2008.

Putting things together for this potential grant has re-energized me. It’s allowed me to step back a bit and take a good look at just how much has been accomplished, even though there’s still work to do. I’m looking forward to getting back into it and finishing up this five-years-in-the-making album. As soon as my replacement kidney shows up, the game is afoot.

How about some random album review ramblings without any proper segue?

I’ve been an Iron & Wine fan almost since the beginning. I got on board when Our Endless Numbered Days came out in 2004. It was enthralling to hear Sam Beam start to open up his sound with the Woman King EP and the Calexico collaboration In the Reins before letting loose with the sonic explosion of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.

What I loved about that album was the way it layered a multitude of new sounds around Sam’s songs without ever disturbing the delicate quality that made his work so compelling. His musical identity was still intact, but everything was so much more vivid and colourful. It felt at once like a giant leap and a natural progression.

I lost track of his work after that. It wasn’t because I stopped being a fan. I’m not sure what happened. I think I was exploring so much music, it became impossible to keep up with everything. I would read about another album or two that delved into even more sonic experimentation, but felt no great urge to investigate.

A few days ago Iron & Wine popped back into my head. I read there was a relatively new album that was something of a return to the earlier sound, and it was getting good reviews, so I thought I’d check it out. I picked up Beast Epic (the new-ish album) along with a long overdue copy of the very first Iron & Wine album, The Creek Drank the Cradle.

I hate to say it, but I’m finding Beast Epic kind of…well…boring. All the songs seem to blur together. They’re nice enough, but they don’t feel like they really do anything or go anywhere. Very few melodies stand out.

It’s admirable to make a point of getting back to basics, recording an album mostly live off the floor with acoustic instruments in this age of over-processed everything. And Sam still has a way with words. “Jesus and his trophy wives are praying for the suicides and the orphans” is a line that sticks in your mind for a lot of different reasons. For me the songs just aren’t there, and as a result the limited sonic palette starts to grate after a while.

The only thing that stands out so far is “Last Night”, which features some welcome jolts of dissonance and can only be described as acoustic chamber reggae.

The music video was clearly inspired by this one:

(Okay, maybe not. Sam Beam probably isn’t a closet Johnny West fan.)

Maybe the album will grow on me over time. I’d be surprised if it did.

What’s interesting is falling back fifteen years and following Beast Epic with a visit to The Creek Drank the Cradle, where it all began. This is an even more limited album in terms of its sonic makeup. It was recorded on a four-track tape recorder, and the only sounds are Sam Beam’s voice, his acoustic guitar, his banjo, and some muted leg slaps in one song. Where there’s a solo, it’s usually either a simple banjo flourish or some slide guitar.

The difference is this: these songs create a sense of place. Some music is lo-fi in a harsh, confrontational way. This album is lo-fi in a comforting way. All the sharp edges have been flattened out without losing their teeth. Beast Epic is beautifully recorded but bland. The Creek Drank the Cradle is much rougher, and yet it feels alive.

Almost all of the chord progressions are pretty simple. Then the singing starts and your brain says, “Wait…what?” So many of the vocal melodies are not at all what you’re expecting to hear. But they all work beautifully.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick this one up. It’s a great album.

One out of two isn’t that bad, right?