I guess I owe Vimeo an apology. Come to find out the problem with the video wasn’t their doing after all.
Sorry Vimeo. (Your bedside manner still kind of stinks, though.)
It’s pretty funny to me that the only really human response I was able to get from anyone didn’t come from either of the websites I’ve spent years paying for, but from someone affiliated with a site I’ve never given a dime. A dude named Falcon (is that a great name or what?) told me — again — that my best bet would probably be to re-encode my video as an MP4 file, but he said HandBrake would probably take care of that without any noticeable dip in quality.
He was right. And after converting my WMV file into an MP4, I discovered those same stuttering issues were present in the very same spots they showed up on Vimeo.
I thought if I re-encoded each video segment from scratch on Vegas and made them all MP4s I could just stitch those files together to make one big MP4 file and we’d all live happily ever after. I spent two days doing that, only to learn Vegas is incapable of spitting out a reasonable-looking MP4 file. It doesn’t matter how high you set the resolution. The results are unusable. So that was a complete waste of time.
Then I thought Steeper was the culprit. Maybe when it joined all those smaller WMV files together it created a larger file that wasn’t very agreeable to the MPEG-4 codec. If I used HandBrake to re-encode each individual WMV file and then joined all those MP4s together with a program like Avidemux, I assumed I would have a single glitch-free MP4 ready to upload to Vimeo, or Wistia, or wherever I wanted to put it. So I started re-rendering each segment from scratch again — this time as higher quality WMV files to minimize whatever small amount of degradation the re-encoding stage might introduce. The first time around I rendered everything at 640×480 to keep the file sizes down. This time I opted for a frame rate of 1280×720 and doubled the video and audio quality.
It was going pretty well. The occasional stutter was still showing up even in the smaller individual files after I converted them into MP4s, but there weren’t nearly as many of them, and they were pretty unobtrusive. Just when I thought I’d turned a corner, HandBrake decided a few 1280×720 videos weren’t 1280×720 at all because some of the Mini-DV and public domain footage didn’t satisfy those dimensions. There was no way to work around that, which made fusing those MP4 files together impossible, since their aspect ratios no longer matched.
All this for something only twelve people will ever see.
Back to the drawing board again, then. I thought I found another potential solution in the JWPlayer (those are my initials, for crying out loud!). It sounded like just what I needed. You pay ten bucks a month for a bunch of server space and an embeddable player, and they support WMV files. Beautiful. All I need is to be able to upload this file somewhere that will allow me to connect it with an embeddable player, and if I can somehow bypass the re-encoding stage this stuttering issue will no longer exist.
I did a little more reading and found out they re-encode anything you send them as an MP4. Of course they do. For the low price of $2,400 a year you can pay them for “customized video solutions”, but I’m not willing to go that far.
It doesn’t help that no one will tell me what a timestamp overlap is or how to fix it. The best I’ve been able to get in the way of constructive advice is the very useful information that WMV is a shitty format and I should use something else. IT’S ALMOST AS IF I CAN’T RENDER TO ANY OTHER FORMAT AND I’M STUCK WITH THIS ONE.
I would be happy to pay someone to take my WMV file, perform some technological wizardry, and make it into an MP4 file that isn’t buggy. No one seems to have any interest in offering any serious assistance. So I persist, coming up with one idea after another, and each idea leads nowhere.
If I knew this was going to happen, I would have set Sony Vegas on fire, pissed on its charred remains, bought Final Cut Pro, learned how to use it, and saved myself a whole lot of grief. I’d go ahead and do that now if I thought I could re-edit the whole thing from the ground up and render the results as a nice-looking MP4. But I refuse to believe there isn’t some way to pivot around this. If two pieces of something are overlapping, you should be able to pull them apart so they line up the way they’re supposed to. And if there’s nothing wrong with your original file(s), the re-encoding process shouldn’t be fraught with so much difficulty.
One thing’s for sure — however it plays out, I won’t be working on anything video-related for a good long time after this.
There are two reasons my DIY documentary hasn’t gone live on the blog yet. The first is pretty innocuous. I underestimated how long it would take me to put together the giant blog post that’s supposed to accompany the video content. I’m still working on it here and there. The second reason is a good deal more frustrating, and part of the reason I haven’t finished the blog post yet. Distractions: they’re what’s for brunch.
I started using Vimeo to host some of my videos a few years ago. The maximum file size I’m allowed to upload here is about one gigabyte, which is a little strange since I’m paying for 38 GB of storage space. I’ve been able to work around this for the most part, but back when I still hung around Facebook there were times when I wanted to embed a video over there without having to link to a blog post. Vimeo allowed me to do that. When they removed the functionality of the embeddable video player for users with basic accounts, I upgraded to a Plus account and got on with my business. Then Facebook stopped supporting Vimeo’s player and I couldn’t embed anything there anymore.
It didn’t bother me a whole lot. I grew to like Vimeo. It was fast, it was easy, and it didn’t blink at files the WordPress server didn’t want to play ball with. The weekly 5 GB upload limit wasn’t very generous, but it was far more than I would ever need. Even the re-encoding process was pretty invisible.
My feelings for Vimeo have soured over the last week or two. It’s not me. It’s them. I’ve been trying and failing to upload a version of this documentary that isn’t glitchy. If I upload a shorter segment, everything’s fine. When I upload the whole thing, the video and sound stutter in some places. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to happen if your internet connection wasn’t able to handle the video you were trying to watch and it kept buffering. But buffering isn’t the issue here.
I re-edited a segment or two where the stuttering was really noticeable, thinking maybe there was too much visual information in those parts for Vimeo to handle. It didn’t make any difference. I updated my MacBook’s operating system — something I’ve resisted doing for years — and made sure my browser was up to date. I made sure no other programs were open during the uploading process and there was nothing else hogging any of the browser’s resources. I must have tried uploading the same video seven or eight different times. It kept stuttering in the same places. It didn’t help that I could only do this so many times in a week, since you’re only allowed to replace an existing video with a new file once or twice before it starts to count toward your weekly limit.
The size of the file I’m working with is a hair over 3 GB. It takes almost twelve hours to upload. I can’t close my browser or allow my computer to slip into sleep mode at any point throughout that twelve-hour period. A whole day disappears every time I try to fix a problem I didn’t create. As a point of comparison, it took me about four hours to back up more than 450 GB of stuff from my MacBook’s hard drive when I updated my macOS to High Sierra (and that’s as far as I’m willing to go, because too many programs I rely on are no longer supported by Mojave).
I couldn’t figure it out. I’ve asked Vimeo to deal with a ton of WMV files before this. I never had a problem with any of them. One of those files was about half the size of this one. It took six or seven hours to upload (oh, the joys of having a slow internet connection), but there was none of this stuttering junk when it was done. My original file plays all the way through without any issues on a 2009 Acer laptop that runs like a slug and should be dead by now. It’s also glitch-free on my MacBook, which is no spring chicken itself. It isn’t 4K or HD. It’s not a huge or complex file. And yet Vimeo can’t seem to handle it.
I had to pester Vimeo Support to get them to acknowledge me, and what I got was little more than a brush off. I was told the issue was a timestamp overlap, which I assume was created at the re-encoding stage. I was told to try uploading an MP4 file instead. And that was it. I don’t know what causes a timestamp overlap or how you fix it, but I know I didn’t create it, and when you pay for the privilege of receiving assistance in a situation like this only to get a curt “change your file format and stop wasting my time” when you ask for help, well…let’s just say I won’t be recommending you to any of my friends after this, Vimeo.
I tried appealing to WordPress. I explained the situation. I’ve never needed to upload a file this large before. I’ll never need to do it again. All I want is to be able to host this file somewhere so I can embed it in a blog post. I told them I would be willing to pay for some temporary WordPress superpowers that would allow me to upload a larger file. After paying for this blog’s server space for twelve years running, I thought I might have built up enough goodwill for them to give me a pass this one time.
The response I got was a little more detailed than what I was able to squeeze out of Vimeo, but it wasn’t any more helpful. The guy who wrote back told me there was no way to get around the maximum upload file size. He said WMV wasn’t a great format anyway and I should consider re-encoding my video as an MP4 file and splitting it into two or three parts.
Here’s the problem with that. I tried making MP4 files when I was editing this film. Sony Vegas crashed on me every time. The only format I could get it to spit out with any reliability was WMV. Could I take my WMV file and re-encode it as an MP4? Sure, if I wanted it to look like it was filmed with a piece of charcoal. The quality wouldn’t just take one hit — it would be degraded a second time when whatever hosting service I uploaded it to re-encoded it again. It isn’t a slick, professional film, but I’m not prepared to live with that level of visual atrophy.
Nothing connected to this album can be straightforward. It’s almost comical.
I found a website called Wistia that allowed me to upload my file for free. It took another twelve hours, but I thought I might fare better over there. No dice. There must be something in the file that doesn’t respond well to being reprocessed as an MP4 (which is what every video hosting site on the planet does no matter what kind of file you give them). I don’t know what it is. The stuttering didn’t seem quite as bad over there, and there are things about Wistia that appeal to me. The quality of their 360p streaming video is as good or better than Vimeo’s 480p. You’re allowed to get into quite a bit of customization, too. You can insert chapter markers into your video, for example — something Vimeo doesn’t allow you to do unless you pony up the dough for a Pro account.
I sent them a message asking if they could do anything to compensate for the timestamp overlaps on their end. I told them I was prepared to migrate over to Wistia and sign up for a paid account if they were willing to help me out. We’ll see what kind of response I get.
Don’t think the absurdity of all of this is lost on me. I know I’ve put a lot of time and energy into trying to solve a problem no one else would care about. The stuttering hasn’t bothered the small group of people I’ve shared the video with so far, and I’ve been getting some pretty incredible feedback. But it isn’t about how small the issue is. I put a lot of work into this thing. I’m not okay with the idea of presenting it in a compromised form. I want it to play from beginning to end without getting buggy.
Spending a few hundred dollars a month for a video hosting service that’s geared toward commercial businesses isn’t an option. YouTube isn’t an option either. They’ll hammer the video quality into oblivion. Dailymotion won’t let me sign up for an account because of some glitch in their website. There are other sites out there like Vidyard, but I doubt their server would handle my file any better than Vimeo’s has, and I’d have to pay for a year’s subscription if I wanted to give them a try.
With all the advances that have been made in computer technology, you’d think by now it would be the easiest thing in the world to upload uncompressed video to the internet and stream it at the speed of light, regardless of the format. But no. That would be too simple.
Whatever response I get from Wistia, I might have found a solution. And you’re going to laugh. Because all of the sudden, for no apparent reason, Vegas is letting me render MP4 files. I don’t know what changed. Maybe clearing some debris off of the Acer laptop’s hard drive shook something loose. I’ve had to break one or two of the individual segments into even smaller pieces in order to get them to render, but there are enough existing transitions in the film for me to do that pretty seamlessly, and MPEG StreamClip should allow me to glue all those pieces together without any transcoding.
If that works, and if the gaps between the joined files are as nonexistent as they were when I did the same thing with Steeper, I might be in business. Logic would dictate that Vimeo shouldn’t introduce any stuttering into a file that’s already in their preferred format.
So far I’ve been able to render about two-thirds of the segments I need without any serious trouble. There doesn’t appear to be any discernible difference in quality from the WMV files I was working with before, and the file sizes are about the same. It’s probably going to take me the better part of tomorrow to finish all of this, and then it’ll take another day to upload the results, but with a little luck I just might have a version of this video I can share without gritting my teeth by the end of the week.
It’s a long walk to make for some peace of mind, but I’ve come this far. I’m far too stubborn to give up now. And hey, this debacle got me to update my operating system to something a little less archaic. Everything seems to run a little smoother now. Microsoft Word doesn’t freeze up on me anymore! Getting the computer out of sleep mode in the morning takes ten seconds instead of ten minutes! Rejoice!
A few other quick things that have nothing to do with any of this:
YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is at #7 on the CJAM charts right now. It’s lived inside the top twenty for eleven weeks in a row now, and in that time it’s hit #1 more than once. CJAM has been very good to me for a very long time, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one of my albums get this kind of extended consistent airplay. It’s nuts. Thanks, as always, to everyone who’s playing my noise, whoever you might be.
You’ll be shocked — shocked! — to learn none of the DJs I sent the album to outside of Windsor have acknowledged the gesture in any way. At least I only wasted three copies. That’s better than wasting thirty, right?
As a rule, the end of a year doesn’t register for me beyond a few thoughts about the perceived acceleration of time and a few minutes spent taking stock of what I did or didn’t accomplish over the preceding twelve months. It’s a little different this time. It isn’t just the end of a year. It’s the end of a whole decade.
This hasn’t been my most productive ten-year period.
In the years that spanned 2000 to 2009, I made sixteen full-length solo albums (plus four EPs and two out-takes collections), nine full-length GWD albums (plus one EP, a few “best-of” compilations, and an out-takes collection), four full-length Papa Ghostface albums, a Mr. Sinister album, a West/Smith album and EP, the long belch that was The Adam Russell Project, the silliness I cooked up with Matt Malanka for grade eleven English class, various other odds and ends, and somewhere in there I found time to record albums for a few friends and appear as an unpaid, sometimes uncredited session musician on a few albums other people were recording.
From 2010 to 2019, I managed only four solo albums (the last of them released in 2011, so I started out on pace to match my output from the previous decade), two Papa Ghostface albums, and an O-L West album. I also did a few quickie mastering jobs, made a few musical cameo appearances, and recorded nine albums for other artists — ten if you count an album that was scrapped after the basic tracks were recorded because I found out the frontman was a piece of human garbage and I didn’t want my name associated with his music (I gave the band their money back). Eleven if you count another album that I don’t think got a proper release.
There have been valid reasons for slowing down so much. As my approach to making an album has grown more considered, it’s taken me longer to finish things. I’ve been getting an unprecedented amount of work recording other people over the last five years, and it’s taken an incredible amount of time away from my own music. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK and THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE are not a normal albums, whatever constitutes “normal” for me, and they were always going to be long-range projects.
Still. That’s a pretty staggering drop-off in activity.
2019 has been one of the more topsy-turvy years I can remember having. It started out on a serious high. I managed to turn my dream of an ambitious multi-platform live show into a reality, thanks in no small part to a grant I received. Then the show fell apart when almost no one felt like honouring the commitments they made to me, I got sick from the stress, and I gave the grant money back.
That kind of summarizes my year — bouncing from hope and excitement to rejection and indifference on a level unlike anything I’d experienced before. Having that show disintegrate after putting five years of work into making it happen was one of the worst experiences of my life. Then I had to watch as some of the same people who didn’t care enough to show up for me turned around and showed up for the Wards of Windsor Music Project — at the same venue I booked for my show, with promotional material showcasing the same insect that was on my handbills — while the local “journalists” who wouldn’t give me the time of day when I reached out to them fell all over themselves to hype it up.
I don’t begrudge anyone their success. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that the whole thing was designed by the universe just to shove my face in the mud. People will be talking about that show for a long time. No one will ever talk about what I tried to do, or how a group of musicians who are celebrated for their talent and professionalism screwed me over and revealed how pathetic, lazy, and superficial they really are.
I had to eat that and find a way to live with the taste. It didn’t go down easy.
In the seventeen years I’ve spent trying to find a place to plug into this artistic community, I’ve been treated as a novelty, a trouble-maker, an aberration to be ignored, a whimsical distraction, a tool to be used and then discarded once I’ve served my purpose and injected some credibility or unpredictability into someone else’s music, a figure of ridicule, a subject of absurd speculation, and no end of other things. Outside of a handful of people who decided they liked my music based on its own merits, I’ve never been embraced as an artist or seen as a human being. I was never really accepted. I just made so much music for so long, it became impossible for an entire city to go on ignoring me.
My brief time spent as a partially-tolerated guest in The Club made it clear this wasn’t a world I wanted any part of. Even so, I thought I managed to carve out my own place and create my own community in miniature. I thought I paid my dues and then some, putting my heart and soul into what I did regardless of whether or not anyone else was interested in hearing the results, putting my money where my mouth was, seeking out collaborative situations when I didn’t have to, and going out of my way to help other artists in whatever capacity I could. I thought I accrued some amount of stature and respect. I thought I found some people I could count on.
I was wrong on every count. There isn’t a place for me. There never was. There isn’t ever going to be. Nothing I’ve done has meant much of anything to anyone. And in the end, the only person I can count on is myself.
It hasn’t been a fun lesson to learn, but I’ve learned it. Repeatedly. The difference this time is there’s no way to put a positive spin on it, and no way to delude myself into believing I’m a part of something when I’m not. Call it a rude awakening if you like. I call it a violent forced bowel movement of truth. I wish I wasn’t the human toilet bowl in the equation, but hey, you can’t have it all.
You don’t go through a thing like that without doing some serious soul-searching in the aftermath. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last few months. Here are the conclusions I’ve come to.
I’m not going to stop making music. I couldn’t do that any more than I could stop myself from breathing. What I am going to stop doing, with a few exceptions, is sharing it. Having the stuff heard has never been what gives it value for me. Creating it is what I care about. Putting CDs together by hand and writing letters for people who can’t take five seconds out of their busy lives to acknowledge the effort has caused me too much frustration for too long. There won’t be any more of that.
I’ve deleted the page on this blog that provided contact information (though you can still find my email address if you care to dig a little), and I’m only making a very small number of copies of SLEEPWALK. Just enough to give to a few good friends. Anything beyond that feels like a complete waste of time. I know this is the kind of album you’re supposed to spread far and wide and scream about from the rooftops. Almost forty different people contributed to it, and by the time I’m finished I’ll have spent almost six years putting it together. It’s a massive Artistic Statement, in capital letters.
I’m going to do my best to make sure it sinks like a heavy stone. If anyone wants to swim deep enough to find it, that’s up to them. Even some of the musicians who contributed to the thing won’t be getting a copy. If you’re going to force me to hound you in order to share some music with you, you’re not all that interested in hearing it, are you?
A lot of artists don’t care about any of this stuff. I know that. They farm the majority of the work off to other people, from recording, to mixing, to mastering, to graphic design, to the physical packaging of their albums (assuming they don’t go the online-only route to save some money). If they bother to write their own songs, they’re often concerned with little more than tapping into whatever sound is popular at the moment and hitting on some mindless, heartless, gutless universal platitudes so whoever is listening will be able to stare into the massive ink blob of nothingness and hallucinate some bullshit they believe is applicable to them. The writer has no interest in expressing something or working to develop a voice that’s their own. Their music is a product, with all the emptiness and cynicism that implies. As long as they sell some albums and get a linguistic blowjob from a would-be writer somewhere along the line, they couldn’t care less about creating art or connecting with anyone. Listeners are seen as consumers.
If that’s what you’re all about, knock yourself out. What you do with what you make is no one’s business but your own, and I’ve got no quarrel with anyone who treats music as a job. I’m coming at it from a different angle because I don’t have a choice. Music isn’t something I create for money, or to generate attention, or because I think it’s going to get me laid or make me look cool. It’s something I do because if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t be a healthy person. I’ve spent my life eating, sleeping, and dreaming music — literally. It’s what defines me as a human being. When you get one of my albums, it’s something I’ve put together myself by hand, one piece at a time, with the specific intention of giving it to you. As stupid as this might sound, what I’m offering you is more than just a recording. It’s a piece of myself.
For too long I’ve been sharing these pieces of myself with people who accept them because they’re free and think nothing more of it. The music doesn’t mean anything to them. Well, it means something to me. I would rather share it with no one and at least know it holds some value for the person who created it than go on devaluing it this way.
I thought I found a way around this issue when I stopped distributing the albums in public places and forced anyone who wanted access to the music to communicate with me. It seems to be inescapable. Most of the people who’ve emailed me asking for music don’t respond when I follow up asking for an address or a convenient place to drop off some CDs (which begs the question: why waste your time contacting me in the first place?). The few who do respond almost never let me know when they get what I send them, offer nothing in the way of feedback or gratitude, and never communicate with me again in any form.
I’m done dancing this dance. I’m not going to beg anyone to let me share my music with them after they’ve expressed an interest in it. And if someone doesn’t care enough to fire off a six-word email letting me know they got what I sent them in the mail or delivered to their doorstep, they’re not going to get music from me anymore. I get nothing out of hemorrhaging time and money in order to send CDs to people who as far as I can tell don’t even listen to them.
I’ve gone to great lengths to prove I’m not in this for money. Some people seem to appreciate what I do for some odd reason. So what? That’s not enough for me. I want a dialogue with my listeners. Not some silent, faceless transaction. I know I’m asking for the moon here, but if I can’t have that, I’m not going to waste any more of my life chasing something that will never exist because I’m the only one who cares about cultivating it.
(If you’re reading this and you’re one of the few people who does take the time to acknowledge what I share with you, this doesn’t apply to you. You can expect to keep getting music from me until the end of time.)
You might think this is all sounding kind of negative and self-defeating. I don’t see it that way. What I’m doing isn’t shutting down, though it might sound like I am, and it isn’t an effort to punish anyone for not giving me what I want. I’m simplifying things and refocusing my energy. The happiest times in my life have come when I’ve gone about my business, made my music in a vacuum, pretty much kept it to myself, and paid little or no attention to what anyone else is doing. I think it’s time to get back to that. It’s served me well in the past. Maybe it’s selfish. I think I can live with that. Let the folks who don’t like what I do think they’ve “won” and I’ve stopped making music altogether. Let anyone think whatever they want.
Believe me, the people who won’t be getting CDs from me anymore aren’t going to sit around feeling sad about it. They’re not going to miss my music. They never cared about it to begin with. It was little more than background noise to them. When you think about it, I’m doing them a favour. They won’t have as much junk they need to find a place to stash so they can forget all about it.
I’m helping to fight the battle against clutter so we can all have a brighter tomorrow. I think it’s pretty commendable.
Two of the best things I did this year, meanwhile, had nothing to do with music.
I’ve struggled with my sleep for a long time. The trouble started in high school, with a lot of late nights and groggy mornings. I worked around the loss of sleep by taking naps and sleeping in on the weekends. I was able to keep things from getting out of hand until 2007, when a merry trio of crackheads moved into the other half of the duplex we called home. After seven months of being unable to sleep at any sane time thanks to their nonstop partying, I no longer knew what a healthy schedule looked like. I moved into this house with a broken body clock.
For the next eleven years I fell into a holding pattern. It was impossible for me to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, so I would stay up late and sleep in until I was getting to bed after the sun came up and waking up in the dark. The only effective way I found to turn it around was to go without sleep for thirty hours or so, crash at seven or eight at night, and get up at four in the morning the next day, forcing my sleep clock to reset itself. I would switch over to farmhand hours for a week. Then I’d start to have trouble getting to sleep again, things would shift, and after another week or two I’d be back on vampire hours.
I lost an unfathomable amount of time. I had to cancel plans I made with friends when my sleep got in the way. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of good recording time went to waste. My dream journal took some serious hits when I didn’t have the energy to get down more than vague impressions of what I remembered dreaming some days and nights — and that thing is well over six thousand pages long, so who knows how much more epic it might be by now if my commitment to it never wavered. Even when I managed to get a good amount of sleep, I almost never felt rested. Most of the time I woke up feeling like my head was gummed up with motor oil.
It can take a while for the body to recover from just one all-nighter. The sleep loss messes with your ability to store memories, your brain’s overall performance, your circadian rhythm, and your metabolism. Long-term sleep problems can contribute to the development of diabetes, depression, obesity, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
On average, I went without sleep to shock things back into shape every three weeks. There are seventeen three-week intervals in a year. That means from 2007 to 2018 I had close to two hundred self-imposed sleepless nights.
No wonder I felt like wet garbage all the time. That’s horrifying.
Kind of casts a new light on the decline in my productivity over the last decade. Viewed through this prism, I’m amazed I got anything done at all in that time, and a little surprised I’m not dead or in a state of complete putrefaction.
It wasn’t a whole lot of fun to live through that. The worst part was feeling powerless to change it. Nothing I did would break the cycle. A sleep clinic wouldn’t have done me any good. I wouldn’t have been able to get any sleep in that environment. Sleeping pills weren’t the answer either. With the leftover anxiety I had from the 2008 home invasion, I probably would have had a meltdown if I couldn’t pull myself out of sleep that felt like it was about to take a bad turn.
I made a bit of progress in 2018. I only had to pull one all-nighter early in the year. My sleep started to shift, as it always did, and then it stopped shifting. I settled into a rhythm of getting to bed at one or two in the morning and getting up at noon. It wasn’t perfect, and it started to drift at the end of the year, but I was able to make it work. I ate at more reasonable times, even if lunch was my first meal of the day and breakfast was a distant memory. I saw some consistent daylight. I felt a little better. I was able to get out of the house more often and get more done.
By the beginning of this year my new schedule wasn’t working so well anymore. It was getting too close to the vampire territory of old. In February I went without sleep to recalibrate things one more time. I told myself having to do this once a year was a serious improvement over having to do it every few weeks.
I don’t think I’ll ever have to do it again.
For the last ten months I’ve been on a healthy, stable sleep schedule. I’m in bed before eight and up around five-thirty. I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I see a whole lot of daylight. I can’t remember the last time I woke up with that motor-oil-in-the-brain feeling. I feel rested and clear-headed every day.
I feel like I got my life back. The last time my sleep was in this kind of shape, I looked like this:
There were a few rough nights early on when I couldn’t get to sleep until around midnight. I didn’t let myself sleep in, and my body and brain got the message. They’ve been programmed so well now, I don’t need to set my alarm anymore. I can trust myself to wake up when I’m supposed to. Having trouble falling asleep is no longer a concern. The sleep demons that dogged me for so long have been decapitated and set on fire.
There are drawbacks, if you can call them that. Late nights aren’t an option for me anymore. There are events I’m not able to attend or participate in. One deviation from the schedule could throw everything off, and I won’t risk it. I’m rigid with the time I go to bed and the time I get up.
There isn’t too much going on around here at night I’d want to be around for anyway. So it’s a small price to pay.
I also lost some weight this year, though the exact amount is a mystery to me (and I think I might leave it a mystery).
For a very long time, I weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds. I was probably underweight. I went through such a protracted growth spurt during my adolescence, I didn’t start to grow into my body until I was in my early twenties. I didn’t exercise much, and I ate like a horse, but my metabolism always kept things in check.
I started putting on a bit of weight around the time we moved into this house. It was such a cumulative process, I didn’t notice it was happening until it became impossible not to notice. If I had to guess, I’d say every year I probably put on another ten pounds. Given how skinny I was for so many years, I figured this was me “filling out”.
Earlier this year I was at the walk-in clinic with a case of bronchitis. I was curious, so I weighed myself. The scale told me I weighed two hundred and sixty-five pounds.
I’m a large person by design. I’m six-foot-three, give or take half an inch, and my frame is not small. I think I carried that weight pretty well. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t starting to bother me. By this time I had a pretty serious gut and more than the suggestion of man boobs. I was down to a rotation of five or six shirts that were loose-fitting enough to hide the excess baggage. I found myself sweating sometimes when I was working on something in the studio, even when it didn’t involve any significant physical activity.
According to the Body Mass Index, I was obese. The BMI is about as reliable as a bunch of Windsor musicians who’ve signed on to play a show with you at Mackenzie Hall. I wasn’t obese. I was overweight, though. I could see it. I could feel it.
I’d been on Johnny Smith’s case to start walking for a while. In August, around the time of my birthday, I asked if he thought it might help if I walked with him. He said it would. I thought he could use the motivation and I could use the exercise. We decided on the Devonshire Mall as a convenient weather-proof place to walk. He drew up a schedule and we started walking every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. I didn’t expect much to come of it.
A few weeks in, it hit me that I was still eating a whole lot of junk. Having that stuff in the house wasn’t going to help the Smithster get healthy. I decided if he was going to give it an honest try, I might as well give it a shot too. The junk food went in the garbage, and I started augmenting our walks with burpees, planks, and crunches twice a day.
I had no idea just how many unnecessary calories I was putting into my body. I used to have a muffin or a bagel with my breakfast every morning. I’d have a bunch of potato chips or Doritos with a sandwich for lunch, a pop or an iced tea to drink, and I’d follow that with a chocolate bar or a plate of cookies. I’d have another high-calorie drink with dinner, and for dessert I’d have a piece of cake, a piece of pie, or a bowl of ice cream. Sometimes I’d make myself a banana split. The meals I was eating were all pretty healthy. The problem was everything around them. Once I started looking at how many calories were in those cookies and chocolate bars and carbonated beverages, it made me want to weep.
I started having an apple with my breakfast instead of a muffin. I substituted a healthier low-calorie iced tea for my usual Snapple iced tea at lunch. Every Snapple product tastes like mud ever since they switched over to plastic bottles, so that was no great loss. I started making myself a small salad to go with my lunch instead of greasy potato chips, using a low-calorie dressing and being a little more judicious in how I applied it. If I wanted a snack, I’d eat a peach or a slice of watermelon. I started drinking water with dinner and following it with another slice of watermelon, or a handful of grapes, or nothing at all.
When we started walking in late August we averaged about thirty minutes. Now we’re averaging more than an hour and a half every walk. We haven’t missed a day. We even walked on Boxing Day. It was a bit of a nightmare, but we made it work.
After trying to stay away from the mall for a number of years, walking there on a regular basis has been an eye-opening experience. I knew a lot of people had been zombified by their cell phones, but I had no idea it was this bad. We see masses of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities with their eyes glued to their phones, oblivious to their surroundings. Many of them are parents who are ignoring their offspring because whatever is on their phone is more important to them than their children. Some of those parents act more like children than the kids do. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the thirty-something dad in a toque who whined to his young daughter, “We can never like go anywhere because you always have to go to the bathroom!”
(You’ve failed as a parent and as a speaker of words. Good job, dude.)
The androids, as Johnny Smith calls them, will walk right into you if you don’t get out of their way in time. Most parents don’t even hold hands with their children anymore. If they bother to tear themselves away from their cell phones long enough to notice their kid is still present, they shout at them like a disobedient dog. “Come! Come on! Get out of there! Stop that! Catch up!” Then they walk on as the distance between them grows, not looking back at the child, assuming they’ll follow. I’m amazed there isn’t an abduction every five minutes. And I’ve lost track of how many mothers I’ve seen pushing strollers, ignoring the child inside in favour of a texting session.
This is child abuse. Plain and simple. These people are sending the message to their children that an electronic device is more important than they are. They should be thrown in some pit of a prison and kept there until they see the stupidity of their ways.
You know what else I’ve noticed about the cell phone zombies? Whatever games they’re playing or whoever they’re texting, the expressions on their faces are always flat and emotionless. There’s no smiling. No laughter. No grimacing. Nothing. Just one dispassionate dead-eyed stare after another. I wonder if they have any feelings left, or if the totality of their reliance on this soul-deadening technology has sucked all of their emotions out of them like a giant cosmic turkey baster. They’d be more upset about someone stealing their phone than they would if their child got hurt. It’s disturbing.
One image seemed to capture the startling inhumanity of it all. I couldn’t have invented it if I tried. One morning we saw a bicycle flipped upside down so it was supported by the seat. There was an iPhone wedged between the spokes of the front wheel, sucking juice from a wall outlet to recharge its battery.
Back to that weight loss thing for a minute —
I was wearing a 42″ pair of jeans when our walking adventures began. A few weeks in, I noticed they were getting loose. I dug through a closet and saw I’d saved almost every pair of jeans I outgrew over the years. I forgot to get rid of them. I found a pair of 38″ jeans, hung them in my bedroom, wrote GOAL JEANS on a Post-it note, and stuck it on the ass of those pants. I decided if I could somehow get into them by the end of the year, I’d be a very happy guy.
In October I was wearing my goal jeans. I found two more old pairs with a 38″ waist in the same closet. They were much tighter and less forgiving. By November I was wearing those in place of the goal jeans, and I couldn’t use my belt anymore. It was too big for me.
I kind of wish I’d taken some “before” and “after” photos, as embarrassing as they would be. I didn’t think to do that. I’ve never consciously tried to lose weight before, and I didn’t think anything noteworthy was going to happen.
What I can share is this:
Those are my 42″ jeans. That dark cavern is the gulf that’s grown between their waistline and my stomach. That’s…not nothing.
I have no idea how much I weigh now. Again, I’m not sure I want to know. If the number that shows up on the scale isn’t close enough to the number I have in my head, it would be a little discouraging. The number doesn’t even matter. And it doesn’t bother me if no one notices or asks me if I’ve lost weight. What matters is I know I have, and I feel better than I have in years. I also have a whole new wardrobe now. There’s a pile of shirts I had to stop wearing because they were too tight or unflattering. Some of them haven’t seen the outside of the closet in close to a decade. Now I can wash all the dust off and wear them again. It’s pretty neat.
Most diets don’t stick, and most people gain back all or most of the weight they’ve lost within a short period of time. I think this happens because you end up eating things you don’t like when you’re on a health kick, and once you lose some weight you convince yourself the hard work is done and revert to unhealthy eating habits. What I’ve tried to do here is not go on a diet at all. It’s more about making some lasting lifestyle changes. I don’t miss the junk food for a second. I’ve always loved fruits and vegetables. A good peach (when peaches are in season) or some watermelon satisfies my craving for something sweet in a way a chocolate bar never did. I still eat like a horse, but I’m a much healthier horse now. Neigh.
Here’s the secret to my modest success: I love the things I’m eating. I have no desire to go back to the way I was eating before. And instead of dreading walking days, I look forward to them, cell phone zombies and all.
Sure, I could go the extra mile and cut out my morning orange juice and my afternoon iced tea to drop even more calories. I could weigh my portions and count calories. Many people find that an effective approach to getting healthy. It’s not the way for me. Food is one of the great joys of my life. I’m not going to drain all the fun out of it with a scale and a measuring cup, and I’m not going to deny myself the occasional vegan donut or piece of pecan pie as a special treat. I’ve made some healthy changes that are going to be permanent, and they’ve made a world of difference. If I plateau around here and don’t lose much more weight, I’m good with that. I don’t want or need to be as skinny as I used to be. That would be too weird for words.
So that’s my story. I leave the house almost every day (pretty bold for an enigmatic recluse, eh?). I’m out in the world more than I’ve been since I was a teenager. At the same time, I have less to do with people than I ever have. Most of them are full of shit anyway.
Here’s to inhabiting a new level of obscurity in 2020 and learning how to disappear completely.
Things have been downright tumultuous around here.
I wanted to get in the habit of blogging more often so I could hold myself accountable on the recording side of things. I haven’t managed to do that. I havebeen making good progress with the album. I’ve also had to accept this sad truth: there’s no way to get it finished in time for the show. It’s turned into too tight a race. I can get it close, but not all the way there.
This is a handbill the wonderful Katie Schram designed for me.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
It would be great if I could print a bunch of these and start handing them out to people. I can’t. For the first time in my life I have promotional material I can’t use, because the show it’s supposed to promote isn’t going to happen.
First my trombonist pulled out after committing to the show. Then my cellist stopped talking to me with no explanation. Before long my drummer was out of commission and unreachable, the only person I could get to agree to show up for a rehearsal was the bassist, and many of the most important musicians either wouldn’t acknowledge me at all or were pretty vague about when and if they might grace me with their presence.
Sounds a bit like a lame comedy sketch.
You might say, “Well, the musicians involved in this are talented enough that they don’t need much preparation. They could turn up the night of the show with a single rehearsal under their belt and fake their way through it just fine.”
Even if that’s true, the whole “rehearse very little and pray for a miracle” approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. It would be one thing if we were a band with some history. We’re not. I’ve only worked with these people one-on-one in a recording situation. Playing live as a group is a very different beast. You need time to build chemistry and work out arrangements.
I’ve played as a supporting musician in bands that half-assed everything and hoped for the music to glue itself together in the ninth hour. None of those performances were anything to write home about, and I was always a nervous wreck onstage. Why would I want to put myself through that when the music is my own?
The last time I played at Mackenzie Hall I had a three-piece band. We only had six or seven songs we needed to learn as a group. The rest of the show was made up of me doing solo pieces. We must have rehearsed a dozen times over a period of three months. The idea was to get to a place where we were comfortable enough with one another to take off on an improvised tangent in the middle of a song and navigate whatever twists and turns it took with confidence — to be able to pick up on tiny physical cues and execute pin-point dynamic shifts.
We put the work in to toughen ourselves up until we were a real band, and it paid off big time at the show.
That isn’t going to happen this time. Even if every necessary piece of the musical puzzle showed up to rehearse for every Saturday that’s left between now and August 17th, I don’t think there would be enough time for us to get good. At best we would be okay. And that’s not going to cut it.
I may go out of my way to leave mistakes and human moments in my recordings, but I care a great deal about what I do. I’m not going to half-ass my first serious live performance in eight years and the biggest show of my life to accommodate the absent asses of others. If people can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work, there’s no point in losing my mind trying to salvage something out of the chaos. I won’t march into a public humiliation out of some misguided sense of duty, and I didn’t work to get that grant so I could pay people for being a bunch of fucking deadbeats.
I wouldn’t be able to rehearse now anyway. All the stress has caught up with me and made me sick. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts?
I already had my mind pretty much made up about cancelling the show before I got sick, but I took some time to think it over. During my thinking-it-over time, the ghostly cellist popped up to say she’d be available to rehearse about three weeks before the show. As if that would somehow be enough time to get up to speed when she’s never played any of these songs before. The person who was supposed to be my main backup vocalist and a fill-in lead singer for other absent vocalists said she wouldn’t have any time to rehearse with me until the end of July — this after telling me she’d be available to start getting together in early June. Better yet, after letting me believe for months that she was going to be an integral part of the show and one of the main performers, she changed her mind. Now I could only choose three songs I really wanted her to sing on. That was all the material she felt like learning.
There’s no putting a good face on this — she lied to me. She misled me about the role she was prepared to play and how much time she was willing to set aside for me. She’s second-billed on that handbill up there. Someone who’s a glorified walk-on guest doesn’t deserve to be second-billed. And I don’t care how busy you are. If you’re not going to be honest with me, I don’t want to know you.
Any doubts I had about cancelling the show died a violent death right there.
The singer who didn’t want to do much singing wasn’t the only person who was full of shit. Not by a long shot. It’s as if some of these people believed the simple act of attaching their names to my show should have been satisfaction enough for me, and whatever near-nonexistent amount of effort I could get out of them beyond that was supposed to be a bonus.
Someone told me, “You have to understand…most musicians don’t operate the way you do. They have their heads perpetually stuck up their own asses, and their main concern is themselves. That’s just the way they are. You can’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.”
How am I not supposed to take it personally? What other way is there to take it? “Laziness” is not a valid excuse to me. You don’t get to treat your so-called friends like dirt just because you’re talented.
Actually, let me correct that: in most cases you do get to treat your so-called friends like dirt. A lot of people get away with being pretty awful human beings because they have some amount of talent — or at least the ability to convince others they do — and they can be charming and ingratiating when they feel like it. I don’t swim in that ditch. A talented piece of shit is still a piece of shit.
You can make all the excuses you want. My music is who I am. You blow that off and you’re blowing me off. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
I understand now that I made the tactical error of devising a show that relied on a large supporting cast of characters in order to succeed. Many of the most important players let me down. My dream was to give a multi-faceted gift to the community through music and visual art. The indifference of my peers has decimated that dream.
So I’ve cancelled the dates at Mackenzie Hall (dress rehearsal and performance), and a week ago I gave the grant money back to the city. I refuse to compromise my vision to the point that the show no longer resembles what it was supposed to be. This was going to be something special. It was the culmination of more than five years of work. I put it together a specific way and worked my ass off to make it a reality. Limping into Mackenzie Hall with some half-formed version of what could have been would feel even more like defeat than pulling the plug and walking away.
Could I have done something with just a rhythm section? Sure. Could I have done a one-man show? Yeah. But I’ve already done both of those things at Mackenzie Hall (and I think I did them pretty well). I have no desire to repeat myself.
Most of the people who were going to be my “special guests” were great at communicating with me. I didn’t have to chase them. I’m grateful for that. Darryl and Christy Litster, Ron Leary, Jess O’Neil, Jim Meloche, Dave Dubois, Natalie Westfall — all these folks have been wonderful every step of the way.
In the end, it just wasn’t enough. I felt like I had one big show left in me. This was it. Now it’s dead.
Lesson learned — I won’t try to do anything like this again. And if anyone accuses me of being a weirdo recluse who doesn’t play well with others after this, I will bite their head off and spit it back into their jagged blood-spurting neck hole.
You might think this is an extreme overreaction to a situation that wasn’t beyond help. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something like this only to watch it collapse in slow-motion. You can’t force people to show up. You can’t force them to care.
I’m told I’m the first person in the history of the ACHF to refund their grant money. It felt like the right thing to do. The event as I pitched it to the jury ceased to exist, and I didn’t want to abuse the system. I know there are people who do that and get away with it. I would rather be honest.
Maybe someone else with better luck will be able to use the money to realize a dream that’s more realistic than mine was. I hope so.
I’m not as disheartened as all of this might make me sound. I’ve gone through the grieving process and more or less made my peace with things not working out. As a wise woman once said, “[You] can’t hug every cat.” I won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing, though. I was pretty proud of the set list and supporting cast I put together. I think it could have been a night to remember.
We’ll never know now.
On a lighter note, the J, K, and L keys on my MacBook stopped working a few weeks ago. Every once in a while I could mash the other keys around them and trick them into cooperating with me for a little bit. After a few days my subterfuge no longer did any good. I was hoping it was just some dirt on one of the contacts. Nope. Had to get the whole keyboard replaced. That was a $200 expense I could have done without. At least the people at Experimax were great to deal with and they fixed it the same day I brought it in.
You don’t notice how much you rely on certain letters until they’re no longer accessible to you. The S key on my crusty old video-editing laptop died years ago, but it’s easy to work around. All I have to do is copy an S from an existing document or file and paste it whenever I need it. When you have to do that with three different letters it becomes much more frustrating and time-consuming, turning what should be a two-minute email into fifteen minutes of tediousness. It’s nice to be able to type freely again.
It hasn’t all been janky laptop keys and crumbling dreams of ambitious live shows over here.
For the better part of twenty years I’ve been trying to track down video footage of my March 2000 performance at the Air Jam (Walkerville’s quirky name for a talent show). I’ve mentioned this a few times before.
I knew of two tapes — the one Gord’s high school girlfriend Amanda filmed, and the one the school filmed. I saw both of them in the summer of 2000. Then I never saw anything that was on either tape again.
I started trying to talk Amanda into letting me borrow her tape so I could make myself a copy when we were still in school. I kept trying after we graduated. Nothing happened. When Facebook came into our lives I started pestering her over there. I tried to get Gord to help. After a lot of false starts, in 2010 Amanda said she had the tape I was after. I rejoiced.
My rejoicing didn’t last long. I spent a month or two trying to arrange to get that tape from her. I offered to pay her just for showing up. It didn’t do any good. She was either noncommittal in her responses to my messages or she ignored me. She wouldn’t give me her phone number or her address, so I couldn’t go to her. I was stuck in limbo.
I nudged Gord into sending her some messages in 2014 and 2015 when we were working on STEW. He said he thought there might be some kinky business on the tape, explaining Amanda’s apparent reluctance to share it with either one of us. I told him to tell her I would give her the money to have a video place transfer the tape into a digital format herself, allowing her to snip out anything she didn’t want me to see. That didn’t do the trick either.
In 2017 I sent Amanda one last heartfelt message. I told her this was a piece of my musical history I felt incomplete without. I explained how much it would mean to me if I could somehow see it again. I also wanted to try and incorporate whatever archival material I could into the DIY documentary I was — and still am — making about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. This stuff was the Holy Grail of archival material.
She wrote back and apologized for the long silence. She said she wasn’t sure what tapes I was on, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. Years ago she bought some equipment so she could transfer the tapes at home. Then her camera stopped working and she gave up. If I was willing to transfer the tapes myself, I could have all of them. All she asked for in return was that I make her copies of the digital files.
Gord was supposed to swing by her place and grab the tapes before bringing them to me. He couldn’t do a thing with them, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to help pay to have them transferred. He was just another barrier between them and me. It would have made a lot more sense for me to pick them up myself. I couldn’t do that. Amanda still wouldn’t give me her address or phone number.
I don’t like relying on other people for things like this, but I left it in Gord’s hands. He rewarded my trust by almost ruining what looked like my one real shot at a happy ending. The night he was supposed to pick up the tapes, he blew it off.
This is a guy who’s known me since I was fifteen years old. He knew how long I’d been trying to gain access to this material. He knew what it meant to me. And he couldn’t even take five minutes out of his beer-drinking time to make good on what he told me he was going to do. He didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything to him.
I was ready to end our friendship right there. Lucky for him, Amanda took time out of packing for a vacation to bring the tapes to his door, and he was forced to pass them on to me.
Victory at last? No. Not quite.
I paid Unique Video Systems to convert all those 8mm tapes into MP4 files. I found some great footage I didn’t know existed — some of it featuring a skinny, beardless teenage version of me. But the Air Jam footage wasn’t there.
I told Amanda. She dug up some more tapes. This time I wasn’t on any of them.
I was discouraged but not defeated. There was still the matter of the second tape — the one filmed by the school.
I emailed John Vacratsis. He was a teacher involved in all kinds of art and media-related things at Walkerville during my time there. If anyone was going to know anything about the tape or its whereabouts, it was probably going to be him.
This was the crappiest of crapshoots. I didn’t have a great relationship with Vacratsis when I was a student. He seemed to resent me for not taking any of the music classes he taught, going my own way instead of letting him develop me into another talent Walkerville could be proud of, and he once chewed me out for some material he found offensive on a collage I made for grade twelve English class.
(That our English teacher, who was really a transplanted drama teacher, would have us making collages like children and answering questions about movies untethered to anything in the curriculum so he would have something to base our grades on without having to teach anything that resembled an English class — that was the more alarming issue to me than some goofy thing I put on a collage. But never mind.)
I expected Mr. V to remember me as a troublemaker if he remembered me at all. It didn’t matter. I would play nice in an email and see if it got me anywhere.
To my amazement, it did. He sent me a very kind response and tried to help as much as he could. He gave me the names of media students who might have been operating cameras on that day, he gave me the name of a media teacher who was still teaching at Walkerville, and he wished me luck in my epic quest.
I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I had something solid to work with.
One film student said he remembered my performance but didn’t know where the tape might be. The others ignored me. I wrote a letter to the media teacher outlining my plight, with a few albums included as thanks, and left it for him at the front desk.
Stepping inside my high school for the first time in almost nineteen years was a bizarre experience. I was happy to see they now had an upright piano in the hall and anyone was welcome to play it. I sat down and noodled a little. There wasn’t much volume or tone there, but hey, a real piano is a real piano.
Something about being there made me angry. No one was unpleasant. No one ogled at the long-haired bearded guy who was way too old to be a student. I don’t even have that many bad memories from high school, so it wasn’t a matter of old hurts coming back to haunt me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t an outcast or a loner. I was one of those odd students who managed to become popular and well-liked by refusing to be anything other than myself.
Maybe it was just one of those days.
Mr. Allison — the media teacher — sent a very thoughtful email in response to my letter. A lot of people probably would have blown me off, but he did some detective work on my behalf. What he found out wasn’t encouraging. In the days before they had digital video equipment, the school would routinely reuse and record over existing tapes instead of buying new stock. Everything pointed to the Air Jam tape being one of many victims of this recycling program.
This was it. The end of the road. There was no one left to talk to, no lead left to follow, and there were no tapes left to digitize. I was a few hundred bucks poorer and no closer to that Holy Grail footage. There was no reason left to believe it still existed. I had to accept that maybe I just wasn’t meant to ever see it again. Maybe all my efforts had been for nothing.
A few weeks ago I got a message from Amanda. She told me some things that did a lot to explain her apparent standoffishness over the years (I always assumed she never liked me; turns out it had nothing to do with me). She also told me she found three more tapes while going through some things in her basement. She didn’t know what was on them, and she thought it was mostly personal stuff, but she figured it was worth sharing them with me just in case.
I brought those tapes to Unique Video Systems and got my MP4 files. I went through them at home. The first tape had footage from Amanda’s trip to visit a post-high school boyfriend in 2002. The second tape was full of video messages she made for that same boyfriend and some bits of her hanging out with a few friends. I took a look at what was on the third tape and braced myself for more disappointment.
I saw some chunks of what looked like high school performances. I jumped to a random place in the video and landed on an image of myself seated at a digital piano, wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and I knew at once what this was.
The 2000 Air Jam. The Holy Grail.
This is what I’ve been chasing for my entire adult life. There was no reason to believe I would ever find it. Now I have it on my hard drive. The absurdity of it all is still sinking in.
I’d chalk that up to the best $61 I’ve ever spent.
Some backstory might help explain why this footage means so much to me, and why unearthing it feels a bit like winning the lottery.
Gord and I tried out for the Air Jam for the first time when we were in grade ten. The “brain” of my very tiny home studio was a Roland VS-880 digital mixer/hard disk recorder. I didn’t have a CD burner that was compatible with the mixer. We recorded a few passes at John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I dubbed the best takes onto a cassette tape. A friend’s sister was part of the group of students organizing the show. I gave the tape to him to give to her.
We didn’t get in.
Later that same school year, a few other students announced they were putting together something they called an Arts Night. It was really just an after-hours Air Jam. Gord and I auditioned in the music room. We did a rowdy version of “Sweet Jane” (the original Velvet Underground arrangement, not the Cowboy Junkies remake) and I did John Cale’s “Paris 1919” alone at the upright piano.
In those days I had this idea that playing cover songs was a better bet than playing my own material live. I’m not sure why. At least I had good taste in covers (I think). Before settling on those two songs, the Talking Heads track “Drugs” was another consideration.
We passed the audition with flying colours, but the students in charge didn’t feel like putting in the necessary work to make the show happen (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). It died before it even got off the ground.
In grade eleven, Christian Masotti was one of the head organizers of the Air Jam. We were good friends. We respected each other as musicians. This time I knew I would make the cut. Auditioning would be little more than a formality.
My idea was to flesh Papa Ghostface out with another member or two. I had some classes with a guy named Isaac Osmer. I got the chance to jam with him a little when I played another John Cale song in the music room one day before the morning bell. Mr. Ross kicked me out before the song could really get going, but Isaac seemed like a solid drummer and a nice person. When I suggested we do something together sometime, he said he was into it.
Then Christian and my pal Jesse almost sabotaged the whole thing.
Jesse wanted to put a band of his own together for the Air Jam. He wanted Adam Cohen on drums, Max Marshall on lead guitar, and me on bass. He had a song about a young boy losing his mind called “Something in the Attic”. After recording a whole slew of songs with Jesse that didn’t stray far from acoustic love song territory, I was kind of looking forward to being his bassist and rocking out a little on something dark and moody.
Jesse wanted more time to prepare. He had friends on Agora — Walkerville’s student council, named for the public square built in Athens in 500 BC. He pulled some strings and convinced Christian and the other Air Jam organizers to put on two shows instead of one. He claimed he needed the extra time to study and get some of his grades up.
No one believed that story for a second, but he got what he wanted.
Two shows didn’t sound like such a bad idea at first. Christian told me the plan was to have the first show at the end of March. The focus would be on solo performers — students strumming acoustic guitars and wailing cover songs, Faith Hill clones singing to pre-recorded country music on cassette tape, and the like. Two months down the road, the second show would be for full bands and performers who wrote original material. This way everyone would have a chance to shine.
With that kind of structure, it seemed to me the first show would be boring beyond belief and all the good stuff would land in the second one. I told Christian I was putting a band together and had no problem pulling double duty in the second show, backing Jesse up in his band before stepping into the spotlight with mine. Even if we didn’t get anyone aside from Isaac to play with us, Gord could move over to bass and I could play guitar or keyboard. I thought a drummer would give our music a whole new punch.
When the lineups for both shows were posted on the bulletin board in the hall, I did a mental double-take. It wasn’t at all what Christian told me to expect. Neither show had any real theme or focus. Bands, karaoke singers, and solo acoustic performers were thrown together with no apparent thought given to who went where.
Jesse was in the second show. I got bumped to the first one against my will. I didn’t have Jesse’s connections. There were no strings for me to pull. And it was March already, so there would be no time to get tight with Isaac now.
Hot on the heels of that foul-smelling revelation, I learned I wasn’t going to be playing bass with Jesse anymore. Max never showed up for rehearsals. Instead of moving forward with a three-piece band, Jesse decided he would go it alone with an acoustic guitar.
My first impulse was to drop out of the Air Jam as an act of protest. Between Jesse’s machinations and Christian’s shitty organizational skills, I felt like I’d been painted into a corner for no good reason. Then I got a better idea. I would repurpose my frustration and blow it out of my system during our performance. Maybe it would just be the two of us on the stage, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull out all the stops.
“Fuck ‘em,” I said to Gord. “If they’re going to screw up our plans, we’ll give them something to remember us by.”
The song we chose to perform was “Pacing the Cage”. It was the first song Gord and I ever wrote together. We ran through it once and knew we wouldn’t have to run through it again. It was in our blood.
There was one mini-rehearsal at school. Everyone played truncated versions of the songs they were going to play at the show. They cut us off halfway through “Pacing the Cage”, just as I was starting to ramp up my voice.
The day of the first Air Jam show, Gord and I slipped into the auditorium after lunch to see how things were going. There was only one mic stand on the stage. I asked Christian if they had any more. He said no. That wasn’t going to work with Gord playing acoustic guitar and me singing at the same time, and I was pretty sure there were other performers who would need more than one mic stand. I walked home and grabbed a few SM57s and mic stands of my own to lend to the cause. It was one of the many times living a two-minute walk away from school came in handy. I also grabbed my acoustic guitar, my harmonica, and my harmonica holder, though I had no idea what I might need them for.
There was no keyboard on the stage. Christian told me I would probably be able to borrow one from one of the music classes. A few teachers turned me away before someone told me I could use one of the two keyboards collecting dust in the back of their classroom. Jesse saw me and wished me luck in the show. Then he asked me what I was doing in his class. I told him I needed a digital piano for my performance.
“One of those is no good,” he said. “It’s got sticky keys.”
I thought I’d try them both. Neither keyboard had any internal speakers, so Jesse grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we carried them to the auditorium along with a keyboard stand.
The one with sticky keys wouldn’t make a sound. The other one worked, but it only had sixty-one keys. It felt like a toy. The piano sound was thin and one-dimensional.
I tried to set it at a good volume so I wouldn’t have to mess with it later. Jesse climbed up on the stage, sat down at a drum kit that was set up behind me, and started playing. He noticed my harmonica.
“Can you play that thing?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I just play chords on it most of the time.”
“Play something, man!”
I blew a few chords into a microphone. Jesse laughed. “Is that all you can play?”
“It makes more sense when I’m playing the guitar or the piano at the same time.”
“Is it just you and Gord playing?” he asked me.
“Yeah, just the two of us. We were gonna get a drummer to play with us, but we were moved from the second show to the first. That threw things off a little.”
“I could have played drums for you. Why didn’t you ask me?”
“I never even thought to ask.”
“What’s your song like?”
I played a bit of “Pacing the Cage” for him. He hammered out a steady 4/4 rhythm. It was all wrong for the song. I tried to explain how I needed something more along the lines of a polyrhythmic funk beat, where the snare didn’t fall on the two and the four. He asked me to give him an example. I took his place behind the drums for a minute and showed him what I meant.
I moved back over to the keyboard. Jesse started playing the same 4/4 beat again.
“The song’s okay without drums,” I said. “It’s way too late to figure it out now anyway, and it wouldn’t sound right without bass. But thanks for the offer.”
When it was time for the show to start, I met up with Gord in a hallway that led to the stage wings. It dawned on me that I left my leather jacket on one of the chairs in the front row of the auditorium. I waited until Cerah Steele’s band finished their three-song set and made my move during the brief lull between acts.
Then this happened.
I’m almost positive that’s Matt Strukelj screaming, “John West!”
What you don’t see, because the camera didn’t catch it, is me approaching a guy who was sitting on my jacket and asking him if he could stand up for a second so I could grab it. He didn’t move. I asked him again. He looked at me like he didn’t know what words were. The people around him had to liberate it from beneath his uncomprehending body.
Back out in the hall, Christian was trying to get a handle on the chaos swirling around him. No one knew when they were going to get their turn to perform. A tentative list was taped to the door, but it was incomplete and subject to revision. First we were supposed to be the third-last act. Then we got pushed to second-last. We would have been dead last, but Steve Mitchell was slated to close the show.
All along we were told to prepare one song. Now Christian was telling me we might have five minutes, and we might have ten. He couldn’t offer a definitive answer one way or another.
“Pacing the Cage” was good for four or five minutes. There was no way to stretch it out to ten. Gord and I took our acoustic guitars to the outside of the front entrance of the auditorium where things were quieter, tuned up, and tried to figure something out. We had four full-length Papa Ghostface albums to draw from by now, plus the in-progress SHOEBOX PARADISE, but a lot of our songs were improvisations that were never revisited after we recorded them, and nothing jumped out at me as being appropriate for a school performance. What could we pull off with no time to practice?
We could do “Fatties”. That would be a hit with all the pot-smokers. But the vicious impressions of a few well-known teachers wouldn’t go over so well, nor would the sex talk. We’d be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
There was “Ballad of Bob and Marie”. It was simple enough. Just a few chords. I wasn’t sure how many students would appreciate a song that was little more than a vehicle for my Bob Dylan impression, but I thought I remembered most of the words from the initial improvisation.
We recorded this song for the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) on August 17, 1999. It was the day after my sixteenth birthday, and twenty years to the day before the doomed Mackenzie Hall show was supposed to happen. We started out with a little live instrumental improv. I got a drum loop going on the Yamaha W-5, ran it through a distortion effect built into the synth, and played synth bass with my left hand and an atmospheric synth pad with my right. Gord made barking dog sounds with his electric guitar and a wah pedal. He brought over an old harmonica he had in the key of C, so I strapped it on and blew into it a little.
My grandfather was supposed to call me to wish me a happy belated birthday. I kept thinking I heard the phone ringing, so we would stop recording mid-improv only for me to discover it was the sound of the harmonica’s wheeze tricking my ears. After the third or fourth fake-out he really did call. Once our conversation was over, I thought it would be fun to treat the little instrumental jam as an intro and cut straight to a song that had nothing to do with it. I swapped out Gord’s harmonica for my own and did my best shouty young Bob Dylan impression. After we got down a live performance with me on acoustic guitar and Gord on electric, I overdubbed some shaker and shouted some distant backup vocals. Gord overdubbed acoustic bass.
I remixed this song about a week ago, just before I got sick. It had some serious issues, and if I was going to post it here I wanted it to sound as good as possible. Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing about mic placement, and I knew less than nothing about things like EQ and compression. I would stick an SM57 in front of anything with strings and hope for the best. No surprise then that the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass tracks were muddier than mud, and my vocal track got pretty out of control during some of the more forceful passages with nothing to tame it.
It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a VS-1680 to fix up a mediocre recording. “Ballad of Bob and Marie” was recorded on a VS-880-EX before I upgraded to the sixteen-track machine, so I had to import it into the 1680. Everything past that was smooth sailing. I was able to carve out all the low end mud with EQ. Some limiting got the acoustic guitar and bass sounding pretty crisp and controlled. A little EQ and compression on the vocal and it was sitting right in the pocket.
Everything was done “in the box”, and I left all the original effects intact. The chorus and delay on the lead vocal felt essential. I didn’t want to do anything to alter the spirit or soul of the song. I just wanted to undo some old mistakes.
I can hardly believe how good I was able to make the acoustic guitar sound. It was a crappy instrument to begin with, even before my half-assed recording job. But the real shocker for me is the electric guitar. That’s not a real amp you’re hearing, and this was before the Digitech guitar effects box came into the picture. I plugged Gord’s B.C. Rich Virgin straight into the mixer and used one of the 1680’s built-in guitar amp modelling effects called “Vin.Tweed” (it’s supposed to emulate an overdriven 1950s tube amp). Everyone will tell you Roland’s speaker-modelling technology is beyond outdated now, but to me it sounds a lot more realistic than anything I ever got out of a POD.
I wish I’d thought to start backing up whole albums earlier in the game. I could give some of the early solo and Papa Ghostface CDs a whole new lease on life with just a little tasteful remixing. I did at least back up a few other songs from HORSEMOUTH. Though some of them are things I considered borderline filler at the time, it might be fun to revisit them and see if I can clean them up in a similar way.
I digress. We decided “Ballad of Bob and Marie” would be our second song if we needed one. Just in time, too, because few minutes later Christian told me we were up next. We walked through the wings. Christian asked if we had enough material for ten minutes. I told him we did. We made our way onto the stage. I laid my guitar on the floor and sat down at the crummy keyboard I was stuck with. Gord sat down beside me. Christian helped us both set up our microphones. After making sure my vocal mic was working, I went off.
“All right!” I screamed. The audience screamed back. I felt like a psychotic low-rent preacher.
“I’d like to tell you something before we start,” I said. “Originally we wanted to put a band together, but because of time constraints and being shifted around and shifted around, we weren’t able to do so. That makes me angry! But maybe I’m not the only person in here who’s angry right now. Maybe some of you are angry. Maybe your boyfriend left you. Maybe your girlfriend left you. Maybe things aren’t going too well for you in general, ’cause ain’t life stink? And so, I want you to scream when I tell you to let it out at the end of this song. All right?”
We launched into a version of “Pacing the Cage” that made the original recording sound like a lullaby. I slipped into the skin of the character narrating the song — an unrepentant killer who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, relating the tale from prison not with pride or remorse, but with the belief that he was hardwired from birth to do something horrible and in committing these crimes he found his true purpose in life. My hands were shaking. Every time I hit a bad note, I mashed the keys and went out of my way to hit every bad note I could. I twisted my voice into a guttural groan when I wasn’t screaming, pounding on the keyboard I hated until I was punching it more than I was playing it. In the absence of a music stand I balanced my lyric sheet on top of the keyboard. All the turbulence sent it flying to the floor.
When the lyrics ran out I addressed the audience again. “LET IT OUT!” I screamed, and a sea of voices screamed back at me. The song dissolved into dissonance and everyone went nuts. We got a standing ovation.
The Bob Dylan piss-take was a little anticlimactic after that, but I felt invincible even with my voice half-shot from the vocal cord brutality of the first song. If anything, the diminished vocal range probably helped my Dylan impression. I lost my pick inside the sound hole of my guitar mid-song and kept going, improvising new lyrics when the adrenaline wiped my brain clean. We got another standing ovation (well, half of one this time) and left the stage to thunderous applause.
Jesse appeared in the wings with a look of bewilderment on his face.
“THAT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!” he shouted at me, giving me a bear hug, my harmonica holder coming between our chests. “I love the way you play guitar! I love it!”
This was almost as shocking as the audience’s response to our performance, coming from someone who just a few months earlier was belittling my “fucking lap guitar” playing as if it was the lowest form of musical expression. For all of our musical differences and the tug-of-war we waged as collaborators (with Jesse trying to get me to write more conventional songs like him, and me trying to get him to let go and get a little weird), it felt like he finally got what I was doing and I managed to bring him over to the dark side, even if it was only for an afternoon.
“I gotta go,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to come back here and see you guys. Fuckin’ amazing.”
Then he was gone, and I was left with a buzz that wouldn’t go away. The afterglow seemed to extend throughout the entire school. Even Steve Mitchell got on board. He closed the show with Steph Sarafianos backing him up on guitar for a version of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that was rewritten as “Blue-Eyed Girl” in Steph’s honour.
The first thing he said when he got onstage was, “How about that John West?” and everyone went crazy all over again.
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur to me now. I remember jumping up and down like a manic kangaroo in the hallway with Max and Paul Clairmont (at least I think it was them), feeling a natural high I didn’t know what to do with. I remember walking back to my house with Gord and talking for a minute to Amber Hughes, who was sitting cross-legged on the grass. I remember Gord saying, “She digs you, man.” I don’t think she did. She was just friendly.
That’s about it. The rest is gone, including the weekend that followed.
I wasn’t unpopular before that performance, but it seemed to catapult me once and for all into the realm of “those who are considered cool”. The thing that strikes me now is what an out-there performance it was. There’s no guarantee an audience is going to stick with you when you do something that confrontational and unconventional. It wasn’t even a great musical display from a technical standpoint. It was more about the energy. And to the great credit of that group of students, they were with me every step of the way. I could feel it. Maybe I tapped into some universal angst pretty much everyone feels at that age. I don’t know.
Even some of the teachers got into it. On the Monday after the show, Mr. Zawadski — my math teacher in grades nine and ten — pulled me aside on my way to society class and said, “I have to tell you, John, I really enjoyed your performance. There’s a market for that, you know. It’s avant-garde!”
Along with the grade eight talent show, it was one of the formative musical events of my life. To play your own material live, to do nothing to compromise it or make it more palatable for an audience, and to have a bunch of teenagers — in some ways the most difficult age group to impress — respond like that…there’s nothing quite like it.
I see now that everything going wrong was a blessing in disguise. If things had gone my way and we’d been able to put a larger band together, I’m sure we would have given a good performance. But it probably wouldn’t have turned into interactive musical theatre. It took a perfect storm of inconveniences and injustices to get me pissed off enough to take command of the room the way I did. People still remember that Air Jam performance to this day, which is insane to me.
The second Air Jam show in May was a complete disaster. Half the scheduled performers skipped out on the event, forcing the few who did show up to stretch themselves pretty thin as the emcees improvised lame banter to fill up time. It made the March show look like the best-organized event in the universe. The audience got bored, with a lot of students shuffling out of the auditorium while the show was still going on. Best of all, Jesse — the guy who pressured the organizers into putting on a second show in the first place — didn’t even show up.
I was able to put a full band together for the 2001 Air Jam, but that’s another story for another time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “If you can see the value of turning adversity to your advantage in a situation like that, why didn’t you do the same thing with the Mackenzie Hall show?”
I’m not the same person I was in March of 2000. I watch that footage now and the raw energy on the screen almost scares me. I had a lot of anger taking up space inside of me, most of which stemmed from hearing what a piece of shit I was all the time from certain family members who have been dead to me for a number of years now. I used it as creative fuel on a regular basis. And I was fearless on a stage. You could have chopped off one of my fingers and I would have kept on going and incorporated it into the performance.
I don’t have that wellspring of boundless energy anymore. I also feel like I’ve been fighting against one form of bullshit or another in this city’s music scene ever since I got out of high school, from complete indifference, to being treated as a novelty, to being misrepresented, misunderstood, and lied about by talentless coattail-riding douchebags with agendas.
Even this album I’ve been working on forever has had its share of setbacks. Sure, it’s been a grand adventure. It’s also been another thing: a profound test of my patience, my resilience, and my ability to absorb one rejection after another. You know how many people in this city ignored me, blew me off, flaked out on me, or stood me up on my way to getting almost thirty singers/musicians and a dozen visual artists to contribute to the album?
Many of those eighty-two people claim to have an immense amount of respect for me and what I do. And that’s just Windsor people. I tried to bend my own self-imposed rule and involve some talented folks from Detroit and other not-so-far-flung places, with disastrous results.
For every singer I got to show up and sing on something, another ten either never acknowledged me or made a commitment to work with me only to come up with some bogus excuse to use as a last-minute escape clause. My favourite, though it’s hard to choose, is probably the singer who spent more than half a year sitting with a song and telling me it was right in her wheelhouse, only to claim she forgot her own vocal range the day we were supposed to record. It takes a special kind of idiot to come up with a story like that. It must have taken me twenty horn players to find two or three who would talk to me. And I lost count of how many visual artists said they were enthusiastic about contributing to the lyric booklet and then never spoke to me again no matter how many times I tried to follow up with them.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that for all the guests appearing on the album, more than half the songs still feature me doing everything on my own. If I’d been crazy enough to put an actual band together to play on every song, there wouldn’t be an album. You can’t work with people who won’t show up.
I’m proud of the songs I’ve written and the performances I’ve been able to get out of a colourful cast of characters. It might end up being one of my best albums when all is played and sung. And I won’t ever do anything like it again. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to banging out a guest-free album inside of a few months, the way I used to do it, once this thing is out of the way.
Really, it comes down to a very simple thing — I’m tired. Tired of fighting an uphill battle against a music community that, for the most part, never wanted me around in the first place. Tired of eating shit. Tired of a lifetime of rejection from people who are too apathetic or self-important to have a conversation with someone who isn’t already a part of their selective inner circle.
I want to make music and live my life. That’s it. I don’t have any energy left for the other garbage.
I hope cancelling the show sends a message to the musicians who forced my hand. I take this stuff seriously. I always have. I always will. If you can’t come to the table with at least some degree of reverence, you have no business pulling up a chair.
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.
On Tuesday we paid a visit to Mackenzie Hall to take a few pictures and shoot a bit of test footage in preparation for the August extravaganza. I wanted to see how the Canon T5i would do in the Court Auditorium with whatever light was available.
It turned out to be a bit of a wasted experiment. We had no access to the pot lights we’ll have the night of the show, and there was little to work with outside of the sunlight leaking in through the windows. Even in these conditions the camera’s stock lens acquitted itself better than I expected it to, and Johnny Smith was kind enough to take some pictures of me pretending to sleep in various different positions. Stretching out on a row of chairs and making them into an improvised bed is more comfortable than you might think.
It was surreal being in that room again. I guess eight years of distance will do that to you. It’s more spacious than I remembered. Fitting a whole lot of musicians in there isn’t going to be a problem. And it’s pretty neat to hear your voice halfway disappear into the natural reverb when there are no other bodies filling the room and soaking up some of the sound.
I’ve been searching for someone to film this show since 2015. I wasn’t even sure the show was going to happen back then, but I wanted to get that side of things squared away just in case.
What I’ve learned and experienced in that time doesn’t flatter this city’s filmmaking community at all. My main takeaway has been this: almost everyone is all about the money. Not making art. Not having an opportunity to collaborate with other artists. Not building a unique body of work. Just money. If they don’t think they’re going to be able to squeeze as much out of you as they want, you’re nothing to them but a waste of time.
How bad is it? Make yourself a bowl of popcorn and I’ll tell you. I’m not going to name any names, but some of these interactions need to be preserved. You know, for the history books.
At first I couldn’t get most of the filmmakers I contacted to acknowledge me at all. One of the few people who did respond to an email told me he refused to film anything at Mackenzie Hall because it didn’t look exciting enough on camera. He wouldn’t quote me a price. He told me if I grew a brain and decided to put on the show at a cooler place like The Olde Walkerville Theatre maybe he’d be interested. Otherwise, there was no point in the two of us having a conversation. The condescension was so thick my internet connection almost gagged on it.
And yet…in 2012 this same person directed a five-minute “film” documenting the making of the first album by now-defunct Windsor group The Walkervilles. Guess where it was filmed?
I had to guess at the amount of money I would need to pay a filmmaker when I was putting my grant proposal together. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was finally able to get people to start talking to me with some level of consistency, and when that happened it made me miss those glorious years of being ignored by everyone.
One guy wanted all of the grant money and a few thousand more. He did offer to cut me a deal, though. For $1,500 he said he would film the show and give me a final edit that was two minutes long.
That would be like me recording an album for someone and then giving them a CD not with full songs on it, but three-second snippets of each track. The end result wouldn’t be worth $15, never mind $1,500.
You can probably guess what I wanted to say to that guy. I bit my tongue and swallowed a river of blood instead. It wasn’t worth it.
Another person showed up at the house and told me he had no idea who I was, had never heard of me, hadn’t heard a lick of my music, and only knew what a few friends told him when he mentioned my name, which amounted to, “Johnny’s a genius and you’re lucky to have an audience with him” (their words, not mine).
This is how he made use of that audience. First he bragged about big money jobs he was involved in and B-list celebrities he knew. Then, when I handed him a stack of CDs and it struck him that I wasn’t some clueless hobbyist, the gloves came off. For three hours he lectured me on what I should be doing with my music and why everything I do is wrong. He told me I was selfish for hiding it from the world. He told me no one was going to knock on my door and ask for some of my CDs (someone really did do that once, but he wasn’t going to be distracted by details like that). He said making all of this music and sharing it with so few people was akin to having a massive library of books that was inaccessible to the public. He said the work had no intrinsic value if it wasn’t available for everyone to hear.
The best part came when he brought up Martin Shkreli — the hunk of human waste who paid two million dollars for the one existing copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (don’t even get me started on the idiocy of that whole enterprise).
“Let’s say someone came here,” filmmaker dude said, “and offered you two million dollars to buy this album you’ve been working on for the last five years with all these different people on it. The catch was, once they gave you the money the album was going to be locked away forever and no one would ever hear it. What would you do?”
Two million dollars is a life-changing amount of money. But an incredible amount of work has gone into this album. I think it’s home to some of the best songs I’ve written and some of the best work I’ve done as a singer, musician, producer, arranger, and recording engineer.
It’s been a profound test of my resilience. A staggering amount of people ignored, rejected, or flaked out on me on my way to assembling the supporting cast. More than once I wrote a song for a specific person to sing, only to find myself forced to find someone else to sing it in their place when they came up with some bogus last-minute excuse to get out of doing what they told me they would do. The frustration has been worth wading through, though, because a lot of great people have contributed some beautiful musical performances and pieces of visual art, and almost all of them have done it for no renumeration.
The whole thing has been one of the great artistic adventures of my life. And while sharing my music isn’t what gives it value for me, a lot of friends have been looking forward to absorbing the culmination of all of this work for a long time now.
If I took that money and threw the album in the garbage — because that’s what I’d really be doing — I would probably be set for the rest of my life if I played it smart. I would also be miserable. I would feel like the world’s biggest sellout, flushing five years of my life down the toilet in exchange for some smelly paper. I imagine I’d fall into a deep creative slump. I might stop making music altogether.
So, as stupid as it might sound, I would say no to the massive payday offered to me by this hypothetical stranger. My artistic integrity is worth more to me than any amount of money, and as I’m so fond of reminding everyone in my album liner notes, my music is not for sale.
All of this is what I told him, more or less.
“That’s a beautiful answer,” he said. “And it’s a fucking lie. You’d take the money, and then you’d go in that fucking room and you’d make another fucking album, because that’s what you fucking do.”
At this point he was shouting at me. I mean full-on belting, on the edge of screaming. Words can’t convey the unique horror of having a stranger yell at you in your own home, claiming to know everything about you after admitting they don’t know the first thing about you.
Around the fourth hour of our visit he brought up filming the show for the first time. We talked a bit about it, but by then he’d talked himself out of the job several times over.
I started thinking there were only two scenarios that would work out in my favour. I either had to find someone who was so passionate about the idea of the show that they were willing to set aside their ego and cut me a deal, or I had to find someone who was inexperienced enough that they would look at this as a portfolio-building opportunity and charge a more reasonable amount of money to reflect that.
I found both of those people. Not that it did me any good.
Option A arrived in the form of a filmmaker who said he would be willing to film the show for free if I didn’t get the grant, and if the grant did come through, he would do it for an amount of money that wasn’t grotesque. He said all the right things. Then he went home, checked his calendar, and said, “Uh…it looks like I’m not going to be in town the day of your show or the dress rehearsal, so I can’t do this after all. Sorry.”
(Maybe you could have checked your schedule before you sat down with me and all but committed to the project, huh?)
Option B was a guy my friend Rob Fraser found. He said he would film and edit the show for such a low price it made my head spin. Then he disappeared. We came to find out he sold all of his film equipment and decided he no longer had any interest in filmmaking as a career or a creative pursuit.
It looked like my best bet was going to be investing in another good camera and filming the show myself.
Then Dave Konstantino, who was trying to help me find someone sane and interested in filming the show, said, “You know what…this is ridiculous. I’ll just film it for you myself.”
Unlike all of the other people I talked to (or tried to talk to), I’ve known Dave for a long time. I know he understands and respects what I do. From the work he’s done with Greg Maxwell for the CJAM Sessions video series, I know he knows what he’s doing. And he’s got extra lighting if we end up needing it.
Talk about a relief. It’s so much easier dealing with someone you know you can trust, instead of hoping someone who has no real interest or emotional investment in what you’re doing won’t screw it up. And if I have to, I’ll just edit the raw footage myself. I’ve done enough video editing over the years to get a pretty good handle on that side of things.
Now I need to start looking at putting a setlist together so we’ve got something well-defined to work on during rehearsals. Good luck with that, self.
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:
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.
Yes. It’s like because the format we were like given. We can only like play with it so much.
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.
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.
My event is a few days away. I can’t use this. This is no good.
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.
When I first made the switch from cassette tapes to digital recording — a transition fraught with both growing pains and excitement — I never imagined I would someday be operating as my own DIY record label. The thought of making more than a single copy of a given album and sharing the music with anyone outside of my home was still a foreign concept to me.
The second proper song I recorded on my spiffy new eight-track mixer in the summer of 1999 was a twelve-minute improvised piece about the hypothetical death and unwanted resurrection of a bully I would pretend to kill off in a few more songs down the road. This was their first imagined death. Things were going well until a little past the nine minute mark, when I threw in a little spoken word passage.
“From the corner of the swing set, someone was watching,” I said in a faux-British accent. “Someone was watching very closely. What they were watching was unclear, but it was indeed something.”
What I wanted to say next was, “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know was what it was.”
Instead, I tripped over my self-made tongue twister, and what came out was this: “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know what was it was. That was was t’was tos tosteestostas. Teestostas. Tosteestostas.”
I have no idea how the song would have ended if I didn’t accidentally reverse the order of “was” and “what”, turning my mistake into an excuse to do away with intelligible words altogether. There’s no way to know. There’s only what happened in the moment, and it’s preserved on CD for as long as CDs continue to function. Over my best synthesized impression of a string section, I repeated this nonsense word “tosteestostas” dozens of times, wailing it, screaming it, moaning it, turning it into the climax (and unexpected title) of the song.
When I was finished recording it, I thought, “That’s it. There’s my imaginary publishing company and record label wrapped up in a neat little bow. Tosteestostas Music.” I can’t explain why it felt so right. I think it was the absurdity of it that appealed to me. I could have spent months trying to come up with something meaningful, and I never would have found a phrase that grabbed me as much as this one word that wasn’t a word at all, that came out of a moment of tongue-tied silliness.
Even before I knew anything about album packaging, when my idea of liner notes was turning whatever inserts came with a CD-R inside-out and writing whatever information I could fit in the available space, copyright information was always attributed to Tosteestostas Music. Once I figured out I could have proper inserts printed without too much trouble, it started appearing on album spines along with the name of the album and the catalogue number.
Somewhere along the line Tosteestostas became something like a real record label, albeit a very low-key one. If you really think about it, I do everything a label would do for me if we lived in an alternate universe in which I sold my music and some A&R person was insane enough to want to sign me, from the recording and production of an album, to working out cover art and designing the packaging, to getting inserts and booklets printed, to duplicating the CDs myself, to “distributing” them (which now involves little more than giving them to a handful of friends, but used to be a much more involved process) and “promoting” them (which I don’t do at all anymore aside from writing about what I’m working on here, but again, promotion used to be a thing I flirted with, sometimes, sort of). I even make my own music videos, if you can call them that, and book my own shows when I play live every century or two.
So what began as a made-up thing isn’t so made-up at all anymore.
I came within a cough and a sneeze of registering it as an official business the other day. The nudge to do that came from the strangest place.
There’s this thing called the Canadian Private Copying Collective (CPCC, if you like acronyms). In the interest of education, here’s some of the information they offer on their website:
Established in 1999, the CPCC is a non-profit umbrella organization whose member collectives represent songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies. It is responsible for collecting and distributing private copying levies.
A “private copy” is a copy of a recorded track of music, or of a substantial part of such a track, that is made by an individual for his or her own personal use. A personal compilation of favourite tracks is a good example of how people typically create private copies.
Part VIII of the Copyright Act allows consumers to copy recorded music for their own personal use. In exchange, the private copying levy was created to compensate music rights holders for private copies made of their music. Similar levies are collected in over forty countries around the world. Copies of music have value — if they didn’t, people wouldn’t make them. In a public opinion poll conducted by Praxicus Public Strategies Inc., 67% responded that music rights holders should be paid when copies are made of their music.
The private copying levy is a royalty that exists to provide compensation to songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies for private copies made of their music. It is applied to the kinds of media that are ordinarily used for private copying. The media that the levy applies to and the rates that are charged are determined by the Copyright Board of Canada, based upon evidence presented in a formal hearing.
The private copying levy is not a tax. It is a royalty paid to music rights holders. Unlike a tax, which is collected by the government, the private copying levy is collected by the CPCC to provide remuneration to rights holders for private copying. The private copying levy is earned income for rights holders and helps them to continue to create music.
Private copying royalties are distributed to music authors, music publishers, recording artists, and record companies through the CPCC’s member collectives. While music authors and publishers may qualify regardless of their nationality, only Canadian performers and Canadian record companies qualify to receive the private copying levy.
I first noticed this levy around 2012 or 2013 when I ordered some recordable CDs and the price was higher than usual. I paid the levy and didn’t think much of it. I went on paying every time I had to stock up on CDs.
Long before that, when I got serious about taking care of the duplication side of things myself, I tried a lot of different brands of so-called high-end recordable media, settling on inkjet printer-friendly Taiyo Yuden CDs after a whole lot of over-thinking and hair-splitting. These were touted as being just about the best CD-Rs money could buy, and it turned out the touting was justified. In all my years of buying recordable CDs, these have by far been the most reliable for both archival and musical purposes.
At some point JVC took over production. The quality stayed pretty much the same. Then JVC/Taiyo Yuden announced they would be ceasing production of all optical media at the end of 2015. A company called CMC Pro bought all the necessary rights and dyes to continue producing the very same CDs, just under a different name. But things haven’t been the same at all.
In spite of their stated commitment to uphold the same standards of quality set by Taiyo Yuden, once CMC Pro took over the failure rate of their CDs jumped from almost nonexistent to somewhere around 30%. That’s atrocious. I’ve probably gone through a few thousand of the JVC-branded TY CDs over the years, and in that time I think maybe there have been two discs that failed on me.
Word on the street is CMC Pro have finally sorted things out and are now producing CDs more or less on par with the Taiyo Yuden media of old. But to go on making and distributing a product they knew was defective for years before deciding to do something about it…that’s not great business acumen. I’d rather not take a chance when everything I’ve read screams at me to run far away from what these once-great CDs have become.
My workaround was to buy up as much of the leftover JVC stock as I could. Sadly, eBay was the only place I had any luck, and I was only able to buy a few stacks of a hundred before they all seemed to disappear. I’ve only got a little more than a hundred of those trusted TY CDs left now.
Time to switch to another brand, then. Looks like some people in my position have had good results with Falcon Media CDs. From all the information I can gather, they seem to be a solid choice.
I was about to pull the trigger on a hundred of these discs when I noticed that pesky levy again. I don’t know if it’s increased over the last few years, but it effectively doubled the price, and I don’t remember that being the case before.
This got me to read up about just what this levy was designed to do. And it pissed me off a little.
I am a songwriter, a musician, a recording artist, and a record company. This “royalty” is supposed to reimburse me for others privately copying my music without my knowledge. And yet I get nothing. It isn’t a royalty at all. It is a tax, and I’m the one paying it. As an independent artist, I’m being penalized for something I don’t do, when I only use any of this recordable media to make sound recordings of my own music — which I own the rights to and choose to distribute for free — and to back up data that pertains to…you guessed it…my music.
It’s pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but I still think it’s ridiculous. I mean, technically, the CPCC owes me money. I’ve been paying for a few years now for something I’ve never done.
The only way around this stupidity is to apply through the CPCC to have the levy waived. In order to do this, I either need to be a member of a recognized musician’s organization (no thanks), or I need to be the owner of a registered business. Registering my record company as a business made the most sense here, as far as I could see…until I read a sample of one of the CPCC’s application forms and learned I would need to keep meticulous books documenting how many recordable CDs I bought, where I bought them from, and what each disc was used for. I would have to agree to make myself available for an audit if the CPCC ever decided they wanted to check up on me. And I would need to pay a $60 application fee (plus tax), on top of the separate $60 fee to register my business, plus whatever “administrative fees” they decided to add on top. And then every year I would need to pay to renew my “membership”, if you can call it that.
I can understand this kind of policing when you’re dealing with distributors who buy and sell hundreds of thousands of recordable CDs and DVDs. Plenty of people in those positions have tried to screw the system, and there are court decisions documenting their startling lack of ingenuity. But by assuming everyone is using recordable media for the same thing, we all end up paying for something only a select group of people do. Does anyone even make “mix CDs” anymore when you can make a playlist on the internet much easier and full albums are made available to listen to for free on YouTube the moment they’re released?
Besides, do you know how many recordable CDs I buy in a year? Two, maybe three hundred. At the peak of my infamy, when I was making my albums as accessible to the public as I could, I probably went through a few hundred more. Even then, I doubt I ever bought more than five hundred CDs in a year, and every one of those discs was either used for backup purposes, for rough mixes, or to facilitate the free, independent distribution of my own music.
It’s outrageous that these people would have the right to audit me. Not that they’d find anything incriminating. I have very little to gain by cheating, and I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try. The whole thing is just goofy to me.
In the end, I decided it’s simpler to pay this absurd levy that again claims to be designed to benefit me when it does no such thing, eat the small bowl of liquid shit being served to me by the CPCC while they claim to have my best interests in mind, and live with it. It’s a little irritating to have to spend an extra $30 every time I want to buy a hundred CDs, but at least I don’t need to jump through hoops to satisfy an organization that couldn’t care less about someone like me.
On a happier note, here’s a song off the forthcoming final Papa Ghostface album. I’m not sure if this is a final mix, but it feels pretty good at the moment.
Maybe call it a sneak peak instead of an advance single. I think singles tend to either be about putting your poppiest foot forward or offering a pretty clear idea of what the rest of the album sounds like in microcosm, and this does neither of those things (though the dark alt-folky flavour is an indication that some of the songs do have that taste to them). It isn’t any bold musical statement, it doesn’t begin to hint at some of the weirdness that transpires elsewhere on the album, and it’ll probably show up somewhere around the halfway mark. So it’s pretty much the definition of a “deep album cut”.
I think I just felt like sharing it because I was working on tidying up the mix and thought it was a neat little song.
All the electric guitar tracks were amplified care of this old friend:
Most of the time I use this amp for grittier moments when I want some natural tube breakup. Lately I’ve been trying something different, turning it down just past the point of being turned on — there’s very little headroom, which has always been part of the amp’s charm — and getting some nice clean sounds. There’s still a throaty quality that sets it apart from the Fender Twin, but I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness of some of the tones I’ve been getting.
Not bad for an amp I got for free as an add-on when I bought my first electric guitar many moons ago.
All the guitar tracks were mic’d in stereo with an SM57 and a Sennheiser 421. The initial rhythm part was played on the Telecaster I’ve been neglecting for a while. I added a bunch of fiddly bits on acoustic guitar, but it didn’t quite feel right, so I replaced all those parts with more electric guitar, this time playing the newer Jazzmaster that’s become one of my go-to guitars. It’s got this nice chiming thing going on in the middle pickup position, and that seemed to play well off of the Telecaster’s rounder sound.
Recording the leg slaps was, as usual, pretty tedious. When you want to create the illusion of a bunch of people smacking their thighs and it’s just you in front of the microphone, it takes a while to build up a decent bed of body percussion. I did six or eight tracks and then made a stereo sub-mix to free up most of those tracks for other things. Thought about adding drums, but I liked the feeling the song had with just the leg slaps.
I seem to gravitate toward this sound over handclaps a lot of the time. There’s a softness to it I like. Clapping is a more confrontational sound, and it doesn’t always work in a mix.
The last thing I added was the six-string banjo. I could feel something was missing, but I had no idea what it was. Since the main guitar riff almost felt like something I should have played on a banjo in the first place, it was the sensible thing to try, and once I worked out a few little counter-melodies it felt like the void had been filled. It’s funny how you can introduce a single acoustic instrument into a mix that’s swimming with electric guitars, and all at once everything opens up in a subtle way.
Technically this is a solo song, but Gord expressed some enthusiasm when I played him the music before it had any words to go with it, so there’s a good chance it would have ended up on the album even if things didn’t fall apart, and I probably would have ended up playing most or all of the instruments anyway. I guess the main difference, now that I’m going it alone the rest of the way, is the freedom to include whatever songs I want and arrange them however I like without being second-guessed, which is always nice.
I’m going to try and get this album finished — mixed, mastered, packaged, and everything — in the next month or two. Not sure I can pull it off, but I’m going to give it my best shot. When STEW was about as close to being finished as this one is now, I had a lot more on my plate and started doubting my ability to mix the songs to my satisfaction. Too much time was spent thinking about the work I needed to do instead of sitting down and doing it. I don’t want to let that happen again.
I know I’ve said this sort of thing in recent years and then failed to stick with it. I’ve been better over the past six or seven months — still prone to the occasional crummy lethargy lapse, but a lot more productive. Finishing things continues to be my achilles’ heel, when it used to be one of my strengths. Hopefully some sort of regression to the mean will happen one of these days and I’ll revert to my old routine of putting out at least a few albums a year.
Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.
I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.
So I decided to go for it.
I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.
By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.
This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.
A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.
The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.
It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.
If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:
For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know that keeps my temperament even during times of snow. I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow. It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low. Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do. But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.
We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.
There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.
Sufjan had this to say about his decision:
“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”
I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.
As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.
It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.
At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.
Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.
Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.
The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.
A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.
Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.
I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.
I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.
(As for how to describe the scent ofself-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)
About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.
I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.
Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.
Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).
“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.
I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.
If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?
Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.
The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in North America — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.
Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEntire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.
When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
Last year the CRTC decided the folks at CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.
A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.
For some of us, this is what hell looks like.
Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.
Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think I was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — people like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.
In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned (and it’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I always seem to want to hear a little more grit or weirdness or something that isn’t quite there).
I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). And every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.
One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.
We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.
But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.
In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.
There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.
There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.
I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.
Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.
Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.
Every once in a while it’s fun to type one of your own album or song titles into a search engine to see what pops up. Sometimes you find out someone played one of your songs on their college radio show six years ago without you ever knowing. Or maybe someone wrote about your music on their blog.
You find other things as well.
As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, I’ve been slowly picking away at remastering a whole slew of albums. At the moment I’m working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
For years I’ve been meaning to tweak the packaging for this one. On the tray insert, beneath the place where the CD sits, there are several links to internet places that no longer exist, like my now-long-dead Myspace and CBC Radio 3 pages. The formatting of the booklet also came out a little wonky the first time around (that was my doing) and I wouldn’t mind fixing it now that I know a bit more about the whole graphic design thing.
I was just finishing up one last read-through of the redesigned booklet to try and catch any lingering typos before bringing the art files to Minuteman Press when I thought I’d punch the album title into Google for no real reason. I don’t know what I thought I’d find. I know I wasn’texpecting this.
The best way I can figure it, a few years ago this dude did an internet search to see if there were any albums out there with the name he wanted to give his EP. He must have ended up here, must have seen I’d already made an album with the same name, and then he must have decided not only was he going to keep the name, but he was going to steal my cover art while he was at it to save himself the trouble of making his own.
Either that, or he found his way here some other way, didn’t have that album title in his head to begin with, and decided he liked the name and the cover image enough to appropriate both of them.
Here’s what the cover of my album looks like.
I’m the first one to admit it’s not some of my more creative work in the design department. I had the title kicking around for years but could never come up with an idea for an image that made sense with it. I was writing and recording the songs that make up this record in the middle of a pretty strange emotional time in my life, and when it came down to it, simple white text on a black background felt about right.
Now here’s his album cover art.
I don’t claim ownership of any phrases in the English language. There are tons of albums and songs out there that share names, themes, chord progressions, lyrics…you name it. So if someone puts out an album or song that happens to have the same name as one of mine, even if it isn’t a straight coincidence, that doesn’t bother me. It’s bound to happen sooner or later.
This is another thing altogether. To rip off my existing cover art and then just slap your own name on it in a font that doesn’t begin to make sense with the one I used, with no credit given and no permission asked…that’s pretty lame. Why the hell would anyone do that? It’s not even an interesting album cover to steal! It’s just text.
If you really feel a need to have cover art that looks similar to mine, at least use your own font and make something yourself that’s inspired by what i did. It would take you all of fifteen seconds. Invest a minute or two of your life and you could probably come up with something better than what I did back in 2010.
I’m sure there are some people in the world who would find a way to interpret something like this as a warped compliment. I’m not one of them. I don’t like it when someone steals my shit. It’s not like he stole my songs, so I’m not livid about it. But I have to say the whole thing is a little weird to me. I don’t understand why anyone would go to the trouble of doing a thing like this. You steal an image that has nothing for the eyes to get lost in, you can’t even be bothered to copy it at a reasonable resolution, and then you type your name beneath the title and pretend it’s yours? Really?
If I’d included my name on the cover along with the title of the album, I imagine he would have crossed it out and penciled his in above it, thinking no one would notice.
It’s a whole lot more rewarding to put a little thought and effort into creating a visual component to your music that’s yours — or even to ask a talented friend to make you some art — than it is to steal something someone else has already done. Believe me.
Try coming up with your own stuff. The rest of us do.