I’m just gonna leave this here.
I’m just gonna leave this here.
The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in north america — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.
Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEentire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.
When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
Last year the CRTC decided CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.
A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.
For some of us, this is what hell looks like.
Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.
Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think i was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — folks like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.
In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned.
I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got).Aand every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.
One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.
We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.
But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.
In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.
There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.
There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.
I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.
Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.
Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.
This is a Takeharu WTK-65H twelve-string acoustic guitar. It was built in Japan in 1977.
Gord found it at Value Village seventeen years ago. He left it at my house not long after getting it, for at least a day or two, so I could try it out. I remember putting it in an open tuning and strumming the chords to “The Ballad of El Goodo” and John Lennon’s version of “Be My Baby”, feeling the sound fill up the room. It wasn’t anything fancy as guitars go, but it had soul, and it showed up on a handful of Papa Ghostface and early Guys with Dicks songs.
If it came with a case, I don’t think Gord ever used it. He left the guitar leaning against a wall wherever he was living at any given time for anyone to play. Some drunk person would always pick it up and break a string.
It became a running joke: the twelve-string that never lived up to its name. Sometimes it was an eleven-string. Sometimes a ten-string.
For Gord’s nineteenth birthday I bought him a new set of strings, and for a moment the guitar was whole again. That lasted about a week before someone got drunk and careless and broke another string.
At some point in its life it either fell or was thrown into the Detroit river. I’m pretty sure it also caught some embers from a bonfire one night.
When Gord brought it over a few weeks ago for a long overdue visit, he left it here for me to borrow again. I think he just couldn’t get much use out of it anymore and thought maybe I’d be able to pull something out of its dust-covered guts because of the way I play. A thumb that’s spent years dancing across fretboards might be more forgiving than the other fingers.
The pickguard was hanging on through sheer force of will, the glue or adhesive solution having lost most of its hold a long time ago. It was so sucked-in it made the whole guitar look warped. The action was so high, about all you could do was play with a slide. Fretting a chord was almost impossible. When i tried, it felt like I was going to break my thumb off. The intonation up the neck was about the worst I’ve ever heard on a stringed instrument. Two strings and a bridge pin were missing. There were cobwebs inside the soundhole.
There’s neglecting a guitar, and then there’s this.
I brought it to Stephen Chapman, because he’s the guy I bring guitars to when they need work.
“Who gave you this guitar?” he asked.
“A friend,” I said.
“This is not a good friend. Give it back.”
You know it’s bad when someone who can find a way to fix a broken pair of studio headphones tells you a derelict guitar is a lost cause. He lowered the action as much as he could and said that was all he could do. “Don’t even try to tune it,” he told me. “You’ll just start snapping strings. Take it out back and shoot it.”
I’m nothing if not stubborn. Back at home I lowered the tuning so there’d be less stress on the neck and the messed-up bridge. I took it slow. None of the strings broke. It was pretty comfortable to play now, but one string was buzzing something awful. We raised the action back up just enough to get rid of the buzz. I found some extra bridge pins I had sitting around and replaced the one that was missing.
I have three almost-complete sets of strings for acoustic twelve-string guitars. They’re all incomplete because every time I’ve broken a string on my own twelve-string, it’s always one of the high E strings that goes. It never fails. And I never feel like restringing the whole thing.
Wouldn’t you know it — one of the missing strings on Mr. Takeharu was a high E. I had none of those left.
I improvised. I stole a high E from a spare set of strings for a six-string guitar. The gauge looked about right. It worked. Then I replaced the other missing string with one that was meant to live in that place. You wouldn’t think two strings would make much difference on a guitar that’s got twelve of them, but the change was striking and immediate. The sound went from just sort of being there to filling up the room again.
Johnny Smith peeled off the dying pickguard and tried to scrub away the ugly scar the glue on its underside left behind. It was slow going. We decided it made more sense to get a replacement pickguard and cover up the ugliness. But it turns out Hummingbird style pickguards are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The new one I ordered was too small.
It was too bad. I liked the look of it.
I got rid of the cobwebs, rescued a blue pick with a skull on it that had been living inside the guitar for who knows how long, and we picked up some of this stuff.
That crazy tape gave the old pickguard a new lease on life.
Now it’s almost unrecognizable from the mess of a guitar it was when it landed here.
Somewhere along the line I realized I was in a tuning not far off from the one I used seventeen years ago when I first met this guitar. I started playing “The Ballad of El Goodo” again. It felt like making a full turn. Then I played some other things.
On a technical level, it’s still not a great guitar. I’m not sure it ever was, even forty years ago when it was brand new. But it’s got its soul back. All it needed was a little bit of affection and double-sided tape.
The first musical instrument I was able to call my own was a Casio SK-10. I had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. My finest moment was probably warping “Heigh Ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.
I can still hear the intro in my head:
I got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.
When I started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. Through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to Johnny Smith. First there was a Roland EP-9. Then a Kawai X40-D. Then a few Yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.
(You don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when I never made a note of any of them at the time.)
The first musical instrument I ever fell in love with was that Kawai X40-D.
Its “Super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. Better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. While I was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.
Without the manual or any music theory knowledge, I didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. Most of the songs I recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.
The song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. A few favourites: “Kiss Me Honey, Don’t Sting Me”, “The Underwater Jellyfish (They Jump More Than You Think)”, and “Beyond Modern Temptation”.
The other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. They forced me to get a little better at playing without help. At the end of the year we stopped renting and I got my very first “serious” keyboard as a christmas present — a Yamaha PSR-210.
A huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). For a full year I recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without Johnny Smith as my musical other half. Little by little, I figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on an instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.
Early in 1996 we got a Clavinova CVP-59S. The week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. There are few things I’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. I have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — I couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. I sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all I could think was, “Clavinova. Clavinova. Clavinova.”
The PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. But the Clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. I couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. The piano sounds were meaty and robust. And it just felt good to play. Like a real piano, only better (or so I thought).
A few synthesizers would join the fray later. The Clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. Even when I started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.
For a long time I thought, “What would I ever need a real acoustic piano for? I’ve got the Clavinova. It doesn’t need any maintenance.” It was always in tune. When I wanted to record, I didn’t need to worry about mic placement. All I had to do was plug it in. And it allowed me to record on its internal memory when I had an idea I wanted to get down fast.
Here’s a small piece of “The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave)” that was captured in this way, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
When I was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, the Clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional next to the other more organic sounds I was recording. I worked around it by using either a Wurlitzer or a Fender Rhodes in all the places I wanted the piano to go.
Then I fell in love with a Yamaha C5 grand at Ouellette’s Pianos.
I’d played acoustic pianos before. Usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. This piano was different. It inspired me. It sang. For the very first time, I understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.
For about five days I was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive, and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. You’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.
I was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. But I thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm I got from playing the C5.
In the late summer of 2008, operation Find a Good Upright Instead was set in motion. I played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. The one I liked best was a YUS series Yamaha. The price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights I was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. The Pearl River pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny to me. This one had class.
When I told Bob I was interested, he said, “Can I give you some advice? Wait about a week. I’ve got some new Yamaha U1s coming in. That’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”
I’ve never been the most patient person. When I want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, I want it last year. Bob convinced me to sit tight.
That week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when I waited for my Clavinova to come in. I was looking forward to trying out some pianos. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.
When the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. I must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. There were subtle differences. Hard stuff to put into words.
The upright I was going to buy before Bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. For not much more money, these were on another level. He was right. Holding off was the right move.
After a lot of waffling, I settled on the U1 I wanted. My grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will I was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. I inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. It was surreal.
My U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. Somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. It was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument I developed any kind of proficiency on. It isn’t an accident that the first album i recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty two songs.
That was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. If you grow up playing keyboards, I don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. Just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. There’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. A real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.
Nine years later, I’m still in love with this piano. It’s never felt like a compromise. As much as I lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano I was meant to end up with. It’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.
Ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty seventh time in its life. I snuck a picture as he was finishing up. Even its guts look like art.
When I told him I still sometimes feel like I’m on my honeymoon with the piano, and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, Ric said, “It’s at its peak. It’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”
That got me thinking about the first song I recorded with the U1 — not the first song I wrote on it, but the first one I wrote specifically for it.
When I knew I was a few days away from getting my black and white beast, I wrote one last song on the Clavinova so I’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.
(I wasn’t kidding when I said I never gave much thought to whether or not my face and hands were visible when I was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)
The difference in sound when I was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.
You know that thing I said about being impatient? I couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before I started recording with it. The factory tuning held up well enough that I didn’t mind a bit of drift. I propped the lid open, moved two Neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. I’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.
Technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. I made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. I almost never do that. Most of the time I’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.
In this case every mix was different. The first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. None of them felt definitive. They all had elements I liked and didn’t like.
Three years later I took another crack at it. I always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. I was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, meatier drum track seemed to be all the song needed. I thought I was done.
About a month later, I listened again. All at once, everything sounded wrong. The drumming was too aggressive. I went back and tried it a lot of different ways. Something more intricate with brushes. Something more subdued with mallets. Something more skeletal with sticks.
I thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. I tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. I thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals.
I didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. The more I tried to change, the less sure I was of where I was supposed to go.
The thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the Alesis Micron and playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. I got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (I always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).
After three years and far too many different mixes, at long last, the song felt just right.
It’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. That’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.
Work continues on the next Papa Ghostface album, though my sleep issues and Gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.
Yesterday was our first session in a while. The last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. Then I started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, Gord joined in, I started singing the lyrics for “Be Sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.
“Be Sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. It had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have almost sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. It was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.
Whatever high school class I was pretending to pay attention in when I wrote the words, I had Joe Cocker’s version of “Feelin’ Alright” in my head. I thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.
But songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. The day I pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on Kildare, I started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “All Along the Watchtower” than Joe Cocker. Gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little Zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now. I found an appropriate drum pattern on the Clavinova, and we got down to business.
I ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:
Popsicle head in a European convict’s mind.
You don’t pay attention.
Blood red blush in a rush of amputated loveless fear.
You don’t pay attention.
So kiss my head — my hairless head.
Kiss my head, or I’ll make you pay.
Kiss my head. Kiss my head.
Number five — your creation is terminated
What that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. I sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.
Slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. It was just one of those happy accidents. The new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words I ever wrote. Defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.
We got down the acoustic guitars. I added some bass. Then we left it alone. I meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. I still haven’t done that.
When Gord came over yesterday, he brought his old acoustic twelve-string with him. The idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. There was one problem: his axe is in much rougher shape than I thought it was. The intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.
My own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. I gave it to Gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “Be Sorry” in a few different places.
I’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. Still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap Washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. All I did here was aim a single Pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.
I still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. This was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. I think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. So it came out a little grainy.
But I have to say I’m enjoying this camera a lot. The autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus, and there’s no way I could ever shoot handheld with either of the Flip cameras and get movement this smooth.
All through high school, I wrote songs for assignments every chance I got. It made life more fun and kept me on my toes. I had the most success doing this when Mrs. Gilham — one of the few great high school teachers I had — was teaching English or French, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.
One time I stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in French about celebrity endorsements. The song was called “Les Atheletes qui Chante”. “Je suis Michael Jordan,” went one bit. “J’aime les Ball Park Franks.” Another time, for a group assignment, I played the part of Bill Clinton. I was very attached to my pet pig, Oinky, played by Matt Strukelj. When Oinky died, I hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music I recorded at home the night before.
I liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.
In grade eleven one of the books my English class dug into was The Catcher in the Rye. We were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. I asked if I could write a song from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. Mrs. Gilham gave me the go-ahead.
I wrote a song called “Holden On”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. It was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.
I brought my crummy Vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period English class, and sang my song. It went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if I could play it again at the end of the period. That blew my mind a little. I went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that I was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “Henry the Horny Hamster” from my X-rated Christmas album before Mrs. Gilham shot me a look that said, “That’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”
The guitar came with me to my second period society class. Sean Lauria was one of the guys I shared that class with. He asked me what the deal was with the axe. I told him about my English assignment and “Holden On”. He asked if he could hear it. I told him I’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.
He stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. I almost fell over. I handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. He wasn’t giving up, though. He talked Ms. Davis into letting me play the song for the class. So I sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.
I only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was Gord. It seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. The same year my English class was analyzing The Catcher in the Rye, his was reading Animal Farm. He wrote a song in the voice of Boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.
For a while I only heard bits and pieces of the song. Brodie Johnston, who was in Gord’s class when he debuted his ode to Boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. Gord played part of it for me outside of school. But I didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.
Most of the songs I wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “Holden On” was never documented in any meaningful way. Gord’s Boxer song was another story.
In late 1999, Amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. It has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.
Three years later, I asked Gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. He wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. We got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, Gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.
And then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.
When we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the Boxer song came up. I learned Gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.
I finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since I didn’t think it added much.
We both felt this was the version to build on. It lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with Gord improvising some words at the end about a sugarcane mountain that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.
We sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and I recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.
Gord first had Benjamin the donkey predicting Boxer’s fate. A quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig Old Major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. I tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.
We picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. An instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. Brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.
Recording it was pretty straightforward. We got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. There’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. In the past we never talked much about what we were doing. We just did it. Now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.
When Gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “Situations” on STEW is a good example. The bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. It dances.
With this song, I thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 “sugarcane mountain” section if it wasn’t so busy. I asked Gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. As for me, after I recorded a rough drum track Gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. I tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.
We were both right.
It’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.
A great example of this philosophy in action: I assumed Gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. He asked me to sing it instead. I did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.
I really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies I came up with for my demo. When it came right down to it, including them in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. So that fell by the wayside. But there was still room for banjo and piano. As for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” Magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. This might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.
I thought it was about time I performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because I’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. The moving pictures come to you from John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s animated film version of Animal Farm from 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! The last time I saw it was when my own English class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so I couldn’t remember how much of Boxer was in there. As it turned out, there was more than enough material for what I wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than I was expecting them to be.
And there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.
Amanda dug up another four tapes. After spending more than two hundred bucks having her whole collection transferred, I’m no closer to having that Papa Ghostface footage I’ve been chasing than I was a little less than twenty years ago when I started chasing it. I would bet anything it isn’t lost or dead, but buried somewhere in a garage or at the bottom of a box of random things, waiting to be rediscovered in the next century when human cloning is all the rage and no one knows which generation of themselves they are anymore.
There is one last hope. It’s the longest of long shots, but I know a second video recording exists — or used to exist — of the same live performance I thought we’d unearth somewhere on one of Amanda’s tapes. I know because I sat in a classroom a month or two after it was filmed and watched it. I just don’t know who made the tape.
I do know who might be able to answer that question. As unlikely as it is that they would remember who was manning the camera seventeen years ago, and as even-more-unlikely as it is that the tape is sitting around waiting for me to find it with its head crowned by a halo of heavenly light, it’s worth a try.
I have a realistic view of the situation. I’m pretty sure all of this has been for nothing. I just don’t want to give up until I’ve exhausted every possibility.
Like I said before, I did end up getting my hands on some great archival material. So it hasn’t really been a pointless effort. It’s just that the footage I want most of all continues to elude me, as if the whole thing is a sick little cosmic joke designed to make me swear even more than I usually do.
What else is new? The remastering thing keeps moving along, sort of. 121 songs done now. 67 left to do. If I really dig in, I can probably have it all done inside of a few weeks. It’d be nice to get that taken care of so I can devote all my brainpower to this album I’m supposed to be finishing.
Here, for no real reason, is a little song that was filmed ten years ago at the old house and then never recorded or revisited. I miss that shirt. It kept getting rattier and rattier, until by 2011 I don’t think the sleeves existed anymore. Check out my dresser mirror reflecting all those empty water bottles lined up like soldiers on a bookshelf.
Sometimes, after chasing something for a very long time, you think you’ve managed to catch up to it and dig your fingers into its shoulder blades. Then you press down a little harder and notice what you thought were shoulders are your own kneecaps, and you’re not wearing any pants.
This is one of those times.
Pretty much nothing I thought was going to be on that stack of 8mm tapes was there. That’s both good and bad.
As I was expecting, there’s footage here I never knew existed. What I thought was going to be a party at gord’s from 2002 is instead a triple-header of a house show from late 2001, with a set from punk band Kanada sitting right in the middle of the musical sandwich. It always felt like they were kind of given short shrift in the music scene, so it was a great surprise to stumble onto some video of them doing their thing back when we were all skinny teenagers.
A tape I thought was going to have random high school footage on it instead has some moments from the night of our graduation. Another tape I was positive would be a recording of a bar show is instead a ton of footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded at the old Walker Power building. I remember a camera being there, but I only ever saw about two minutes of video and assumed not much more than that was filmed.
There’s enough raw footage to put together a grimy documentary about the making of the album from start to finish, if I wanted to do a thing like that. There are a lot of fun moments in there, including the revelation that recording the guitar and bass tracks direct instead of mic’ing up the amps wasn’t the plan all along. I’ve been remembering that wrong all these years. Instead, it was a last-minute move made to counteract too much bleed and not enough microphones. And the band didn’t record piecemeal, but together as a unit, live-off-the floor, with the exception of the vocals and some guitar overdubs that were added later. I’ve been remembering that wrong too.
But then there’s this: none of those Papa Ghostface performances are included in any of the eight hours of footage culled from these tapes. There are some pretty amusing bits from me, with some non-sequiturs I don’t remember ever dishing out, but there’s almost no footage of me playing music in any capacity. For the most part I’m only recording it, or sitting in the audience watching it happen.
I say “almost” because one of the surprise finds on these tapes is a casual little jam session with me and Tyson running through bits and pieces of about half a dozen different GWD songs. It isn’t true band footage, because Gord is filming instead of playing bass, and what little singing I do is not trying very hard to be serious. Still, I was pretty sure this stuff was filmed on Tyson’s camera and I’d never get to see it again. I’m happy to be proven wrong, and ecstatic to have another small piece of video documentation from that musical period fall into my lap.
After the fifteen-year chase and the money I spent having the tapes transferred, finding out the things I most wanted to see weren’t there was a bit of a kick in the teeth. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for what I’ve got here. There’s some great archival material I never thought I’d get my hands on, a lot of it looks and sounds better than I thought it would, and I’ll be able to do some fun things with it. But it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
To Amanda’s credit, she’s said she’ll take another look at her collection of tapes and see if there are any others she thinks I might be on. So it isn’t an “all hope is lost” situation yet. There’s still a chance.
Whatever happens, I can’t thank her enough for opening up the archives and allowing me to travel back in time about sixteen years. Thank Jack Russell Terriers she was either around for these adventures or willing to let someone borrow her camera so they could be documented. Some of this stuff is absolute gold.
In the meantime, please enjoy Kanada testing the limits of how much volume a camcorder’s built-in microphone is capable of handling while raising your glass of ginger ale to my clean-shaven bandana-wearing cameo and a black-haired, near-unrecognizable Joey Desroches on drums.
Wherever you are now, Christine Kowala, I want you to know I still love you and your Batman shirt.
Another bittersweet hindsight moment here: everyone who was in my band at the time was at this show. We wrapped up the last full band recording session for GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE earlier that same day. We could have easily played a set and made the house show a quadruple-header.
While our music might not have fit in with the punk, metal, and hardcore grind, I’m pretty sure the people we were hanging out with would have been open-minded enough to give what we were doing a fair shake. And then we’d have a full GWD live set on video, with me doing more than just reacting to some guitar feedback during someone else’s soundcheck.
Failing that, I could have at least recorded some of these shows. My rig was pretty portable in those days and more than adequate for capturing loud live music. Then I’d be able to sync this video, and others like it, with some high quality audio.
The idea never entered my mind.
I’ve had about all the smelly not-to-be potpourri I can handle lately. I need a time machine already, so I can confront some of these oversights, punch ’em in the mouth, and give ’em overbites.
Since my brain moves in strange ways, when I was navigating the initial disappointment of realizing the footage I most wanted to see wasn’t on these tapes, I thought I’d really wallow in it by revisiting some past disappointment. Double your displeasure, double your pun.
In the late summer of 2011 I played a set at the Shores of Erie Wine Festival. To date, it’s the last time I’ve played a solo show. It was such a horrible experience it kind of made me never want to do it again.
Everything that could have gone wrong that day did go wrong. I found out the sustain pedal for my rented keyboard was dead minutes before my set started. The one person I knew who had a sustain pedal I might be able to borrow was also playing that day, but she’d just made it pretty clear she didn’t care about me at all when I thought we’d spent the better part of that summer becoming close friends.
You could say there was some tension there. And I wasn’t about to try and break it by asking for a favour.
If that wasn’t enough to set an ominous tone, I wasn’t used to playing on a stage that big, cut off from the audience to the point that it barely felt like they were there. I couldn’t hear any of their applause. It didn’t feel like I could interact with them. Not that there were many people to interact with anyway. There wasn’t much of a turnout that early in the day. But losing that feeling of intimacy threw me off.
Add to that the people shovelling mulch in front of the stage while we played (I thought it was manure at first) and the feeling that it was too early for my voice or my fingers to be awake enough to cooperate with me, and it was a recipe for a bad time all the way around.
The worst part was having to perform without a sustain pedal. I had no idea how integral that little thing was to the way I played piano until it wasn’t there anymore. As it was, playing a digital piano live when I’d been spoiled by the grand piano at Mackenzie Hall and my upright at home was a little uninspiring, with all the sensitivity I was losing. But I could have dealt with that just fine if I had a working sustain pedal. Without it, I had to rethink every song on the fly, everything I’d rehearsed went out the window, and my piano-playing became more of a reluctant intellectual exercise than anything, testing what I could and couldn’t do with no margin for error.
It was one of those shows where nothing feels like it’s working, you don’t enjoy being up there, and when it’s over you’re glad you forgot to tell the audience what your name was, because it would be embarrassing if anyone thought what they heard was an accurate representation of what you sound like when things are going well.
There’s video of the whole performance. I ignored it for years, not wanting to relive the experience. Almost six years later, when I was feeling low about the lack of 8mm Papa Ghostface glory, I decided to subject myself to it for the first time.
I listened to the audio on its own so I wouldn’t have to see the mulch flying around. I didn’t cringe. In some places, against all the odds, I found myself thinking, “For feeling on the day like my singing and playing was garbage, this isn’t all that bad.”
Then I got to the last song of the set.
I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but after being pretty positive the Mackenzie Hall performance of “A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods” from earlier the same summer was always going to be the definitive version of the song, I think this one might give it a run for its money.
It’s a little more far-reaching, with bits of “Here Comes the Rain Again”, “Out of Touch”, and “State Trooper” getting tossed into the blender, along with a brief callback to the “I Put a Spell on You” section first improvised at Mackenzie Hall (only the first of these musical inserts was rehearsed; the rest were spontaneous). Some of the melodic ideas from the long improv section in that version are revisited here, including another quote from “Rondo Alla Turca”. There’s also a whole lot of improvised stuff unique to this performance that I don’t remember ever playing. and the line I forgot to sing in the first verse at Mack Hall doesn’t get dropped this time.
All I know is, I’m liking it, when I never thought I would — never thought I’d even want to hear it again. If for whatever reason I don’t end up ever playing another solo gig, I don’t think this was such a bad note to end on after all.
Out of great disappointment a mound of focaccia bread sometimes rises, I guess is what I’m trying to say here.
I imagine most people who owned tape-based camcorders during their heyday filmed things like family get-togethers, live music, home movies, class projects, and documentaries.
I used mine to record demos, and almost nothing else.
Until I got my MacBook in late 2013 and thought to give GarageBand a try, I didn’t record “normal” demos of anything. I either recorded for keeps or I didn’t record at all. The little Sony Handycam I had — and later, the two Flip Mino cameras that would usurp it — became a useful way to get down ideas when they were fresh so I wouldn’t forget them.
We got this camera in 2003. It felt like it was time. I was frustrated that there was a good amount of video different people had shot of me over the years, sometimes playing music, sometimes acting in plays, sometimes just being a goofball, and it was almost all inaccessible to me.
A shopping list, on the off chance some filmmaker discovers my music after I die and wants to make a documentary about me in which people who never knew me pretend they understand me since I’m no longer around to speak for myself or shut them down:
I have the video of my first birthday party (at least I think I still do), I recorded the appearance my grade twelve drama class made on The New WI on my VCR, and I’ve got the tape of the two live GWD songs from 2002 that were posted here long ago. That’s about it for things that were filmed before 2003. Whatever else survives, I don’t have it.
We probably should have picked up a video camera a little sooner than we did. If I had access to one even a year or two earlier, I would have been the one to film all that teenage band footage myself, and I’d be able to incorporate the best bits here, instead of wondering if I’ll ever get to see those tapes again (I’m pretty sure I won’t, because there’s a good chance they’ve all been lost or recorded over). I think I remember any kind of decent video camera being prohibitively expensive for amateur home use for quite a while. These were the days before you could shoot video on your cell phone, and before the advent of cheap digital video recorders small enough to fit in your pocket.
By the time we went looking for something, the prices had come down a bit, and we were able to buy a Sony DCR-TRV19 without having to rob a bank. I didn’t know anything about cameras. We just grabbed one that looked nice and was affordable.
Turns out 2003 was the last year Sony made MiniDV camcorders with a 1/4-inch image sensor. This is one of the last models they produced with such good low light sensitivity, headphone and external microphone connections, and a hotshoe adapter for a light or mic, before they started cheaping out.
Talk about having good timing.
I’d like to say once I had a camera of my own I made it count. I did have ideas. I thought about making a DIY documentary following the making of an album, filming myself recording different elements of songs, talking to the camera about the music, breaking things up with random puppet shows and stuffed animal interludes.
I talked myself out of it before I got started. I told myself I wouldn’t be able to make it visually interesting enough to appeal to anyone. Watching one guy do everything on his own would get boring after a while. And how was I going to edit the raw footage — by dumping it onto VHS?
After filming a few random things I leant out the camera in 2005 and didn’t think to ask for it back until the summer of 2007. By then I had a different idea: I would start making a video diary. The crackheads had established themselves in the other half of the duplex we were living in, I couldn’t record any music or sleep in my own home thanks to their twenty-four-hour wall-shaking parties, and I was bitter about romance and the almost violent indifference I was coming up against while trying to get gigs and get my music heard.
I had a bit to say. Talking to the camera seemed as viable a form of self-expression as anything else. It was therapeutic for a while. And it wasn’t just an excuse for me to vomit up a nonstop litany of complaints. I talked about Orson Welles and Keith Urban and the Rocky movies too.
Then we moved, and my motivation went missing. Moving into a new house when it’s something you want to do and you’ve found the perfect place can be exciting — even energizing. Doing it out of necessity, when calling the police nineteen times and documenting more than forty pages of noise complaints and drug buys won’t get anyone to do anything because it isn’t happening next door to any of the cops or politicians or people working at Crime Stoppers or “writers” for the Windsor Star, so they don’t care, and finding out your box spring won’t fit up the stairs at the new place, and the landlord neglected to tell you the central air only works on the bottom two floors, and the furnace is dead…that’s demoralizing.
I kept using the camera, but I stopped talking to it. Now it became my idea-capturing device.
When the first little Flip camera came along and transferring videos onto the computer became as easy as flipping out a built-in USB connector and plugging it in, my old camcorder friend and all the tapes I’d filmed with it got shoved into a dresser drawer and more or less forgotten about. Aside from picking up some slack at the first Mackenzie Hall show I played in 2010 when the Flip camera ran out of recording time, it wasn’t used again.
I dug it out of the dresser a year or two later to have another listen to some of those old musical ideas I recorded. There were lines through the image when I tried to play a tape and the sound was distorted. I tried again some months down the road and didn’t even get the distorted sound. There was no sound at all, and the screen showed nothing but an impenetrable blue square.
I tried different tapes. It wasn’t a tape issue. I tried slamming the camera on a tabletop repeatedly to intimidate it into working (I never claimed to make good decisions all the time). No joy.
I assumed the camera was dead, tossed it back in the dresser drawer of lost souls, and got on with recording my not-quite-demos with the Flip fellas.
Lately I’ve been thinking it would be kind of nice to have access to those ideas again. Maybe I could figure out a way to get all the tapes onto the computer. Worst case scenario, if the camera really was toast, I could buy another DCR-TRV19 for a hundred bucks or less on eBay.
I did some research and learned iMovie has a spotty record when it comes to importing camcorder footage. I’ve never been a big fan of that program. I almost never use it for anything. It gobbles up resources on my MacBook, turns it into an oven, and either freezes up for ten minutes at a time or is so sluggish it’s impossible to get much done. Reading about some of the problems people have had with audio and video coming out unsynchronized was all I needed to dissuade me from trying to tame the savage beast.
I’m pretty sure the old Acer laptop I use for video editing has FireWire ports, but even though it’s been a lot friendlier to me since a nice dude at PC Outfitters blew an ocean of dust out of its cooling fans, I’d rather not push my luck with that aging computer. It’s still slower than mud. At this point, asking it to do anything more strenuous than running Sony Vegas and a few other programs is probably a nightmare waiting to happen.
My online travels led me to a program called LifeFlix. It was created with the sole purpose of transferring MiniDV tapes onto a computer or an external hard drive. The more I read about it, the more it seemed like the smart way to go. I bought it, bought a FireWire cable and a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, bought a cleaning tape for my camcorder, and hoped for the best.
The cleaning tape worked brilliantly. I let it play for all of ten seconds and went from the blue screen of death to being able to play all my old tapes again. No artifacts, no lines through the screen, nothing. I was almost expecting at least a bit of that to stick around, because this camera is fourteen years old now. Nope.
Best twenty five bucks I’ve spent in recent memory.
The FireWire-to-Thunderbolt connector Apple makes is stupidly expensive, and there are no real alternatives, but it works. LifeFlix recognized the camera right away and went to work importing video. It works in realtime, so an hour-long tape will take an hour to digitize (at least in theory…more on this in a minute).
The program does a great job of breaking up video into scenes based on where the recording originally stopped and started, saving you the hassle of separating things into individual clips later. The user interface is simple but intuitive. Getting files onto your computer after they’ve finished importing is as easy as two clicks of the mouse or trackpad. If you want to trim a little dead space out of the beginning or end of any given clip, you can do that too.
The video compression LifeFlix uses is all but invisible. I can’t detect any loss of visual or audio quality compared to the uncompressed video. Not that this footage was pristine or pro-shot to begin with, but I’m pretty picky when it comes to these things. Being able to keep the file sizes reasonable is a nice bonus when you’re dealing with a lot of footage.
That’s all the good stuff. Now for the things that are a little irritating.
I don’t know if it’s just me and my computer, but the “combine clips” function has been hit-or-miss. It works about half the time. The rest of the time the progress bar will stop moving around the halfway point, assuming it starts moving in the first place, and then it’ll hang there forever, not frozen but with all functions locked up. The only option when that happens is to force the program to quit.
The good news is I haven’t lost anything doing this. LifeFlix saves all the work you’ve done no matter how it shuts down. Clips don’t disappear unless you delete them yourself. But when a certain group of clips decide they don’t want to be combined, you’ll never be able to join them together. Doesn’t matter how many times you try. Doesn’t matter how many mean names you call the computer. And these are not long clips I’ve been working with. In most cases I’m trying to combine two or three snippets that are each a minute long or less.
Another thing I’ve noticed: I can’t set the program up to import a tape and leave it to do its business. I need to stay at the computer the whole time, because the best I’ve been able to get is five or ten minutes of uninterrupted importing. At some point a clip will freeze up within the program, or there will be a glitch, and while the camera itself will be playing just fine, when that happens I have to stop the importing process, rewind the tape to the beginning of the last clip, and start again. Otherwise I’ll get flawed video on the computer.
Sometimes I can get another five or ten minutes before I have to do it all again. Sometimes I need to keep going back to the same spot a few times before it manages to import without any issues, and I’m lucky to get one or two clips at a time. With the tape I’m working on right now, it’s taken me more than forty tries just to get eleven short clips totalling about fifteen minutes of footage to import glitch-free.
These are minor complaints. This is taking a little longer than it would if there were no glitches, and there have been a few frustrating moments, but all things considered it’s been pretty easy and pain-free. In the space of a few days I’ve managed to get the full contents of almost half of those tapes onto the computer. Who knows how long I’d be waiting and how much I’d have to pay if I got someone else to transfer the tapes for me.
With my luck, they’d all get lost, or some freak accident would send them off to MiniDV tape heaven.
Now for the part that made me swear so much I had to start wearing a parental advisory sticker on my face.
I’ve been using Sony Vegas as my video editing program for years now. The learning curve was a little weird at first, but once I got past the initial feelings of bewilderment after Windows Movie Maker spoiled me a little with its insane simplicity, I grew to really enjoy using it.
Vegas has been fine with MOV files over the years, until now. It doesn’t like the ones LifeFlix makes. Whether they’re compressed or not, all that shows up when I import one of these clips is the audio. There’s no video. Any media player on the planet will play them no problem, so the issue isn’t with the clips themselves. it’s Vegas being a douchebag.
If I wanted to have any control over assembling individual clips into something more meaningful, I was going to have to find a way to convert the MOV files into something Vegas was less prejudiced against without the quality taking too much of a hit in the process.
Rewrapping them as MP4 files would be the ideal thing. But no way was I spending more money on yet another program to do that.
I tried downloading a few free programs that claimed to offer video rewrapping, only to find all the relevant functions were disabled and if I wanted to do more than open and close files I was going to have to pay for the privilege. I found something called FFmpeg that was supposed to make rewrapping easy, but I’m not all that tech-savvy, I don’t know anything about UNIX or Linux, and I haven’t for the life of me been able to figure out how to use the program. It doesn’t help that every online tutorial seems to assume you already know what you’re doing. I tried using the VLC media player to save the videos in a different container. That worked, but Vegas still wouldn’t budge.
This is the workaround I’ve come up with:
First I go back and import the specific clips I want to edit again, this time with the compression turned off. Then I use a free program called MPEG Streamclip to rebrand the uncompressed MOV files as MP4s. There has to be some re-encoding happening, because the conversion takes a lot longer than straight rewrapping does, but if the quality is taking a hit it’s so subtle my eyes and ears can’t tell.
Any given MP4 file is about ten times the size of the MOV file it started out as. I save as many of these as I can fit onto a flash drive. From there, I transfer them onto the external hard drive I use with the laptop that has Vegas on it (my Mac external hard drive isn’t recognized by that computer, while the external hard drive I use for that one becomes read-only once it’s plugged into the MacBook). Then I go back and do it all again, and again, and again, until I’ve got all the files I need on the external hard drive. Then I import them into Vegas, and at last I can start editing.
It’s a pain in the ass, but it works.
It’s been an interesting, schizophrenic emotional experience sifting through all this old footage.
There’s regret. I wish I could say I’ve been sitting on a treasure trove of footage from the time of BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. I had my chance to film elements of those songs being recorded and to talk to the camera about the thought process behind trying to short-circuit my own musical language and writing impulses in an effort to get somewhere I’d never been before, and I let it blow by. Even past that, I went to the trouble of testing out different camera angles in the studio when I was recording CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and then did nothing with what I learned from it. I didn’t start to think it was worthwhile to document some of these things in the process of happening until much later.
Hard not to feel like there were some missed opportunities.
There’s the strangeness of seeing in black and white just how much was here the whole time. There were twenty MiniDV tapes in that dresser drawer. I found another two in a different dresser drawer after I took the picture at the top of this post. They’re all full to the brim, recorded in one-hour SP mode for the best quality. Take away everything that isn’t music-related, and that’s at least twenty hours of ideas, almost all of them recorded between 2007 and 2009, many of them things I have no memory of ever coming up with. So many sketches that never turned into finished songs. So many finished songs that were left unrecorded. So many unused alternate sections for songs that did show up on official albums.
If there’s anyone out there who still thinks I throw every idea I ever come up with on my albums, I’d kind of like to sit them down with these tapes for a day. I knew I was going through something of a creative purple patch at the time, but I don’t think it ever hit me just how much I threw away. It’s going to be fun to dig back into these ideas and work out which ones deserve a fresh look.
And there have been some surprises along the way. There’s an acoustic version of “Last of the Two-Finger Typists” filmed in 2003, minutes after I finished writing it. I recorded a song called “Electric Teeth” three times in 2007, from three different angles, almost like I was anticipating someday being able to edit the best bits together. There are some brainstorming sessions where I took the time to make sure my face and my hands were both visible, when framing was usually an afterthought. And those video diaries are surreal to experience now. It’s me talking, but I’m not the same person.
I might not have been able to stick the landing, but I wasn’t without ambition. The plan with the short-lived video diary was to break up the rants with songs and song ideas. I started throwing in an absurd comedy sketch called Grandpa the Russian Jew. An old man who sounded half-Russian, half-Jewish (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), played by me, would go on a short tirade about something ridiculous. He would always begin by saying, “You know, when I was your age…” and he would always end with, “…and that is the story of my life,” before passing out snoring. Only instead of talking about technological advances or respecting your elders, he’d insult Julia Roberts in some nonsensical way or muse about having sexual intercourse with a ceiling fan.
In a way, I’ve made good on a lot of what I was trying to do there with the video progress reports, and now on a deeper level with the semi-documentary-thing I’m piecing together about the last few years of musical insanity. I’m still talking to the camera about what’s on my mind, and if it’s a little less personal than the video diaries of yore, well…there is such a thing as over-sharing. The talking is broken up with musical segments and absurd bits featuring stuffed animals and re-contextualized public domain films. And when I started filming entire songs being recorded piece by piece, I discovered it wasn’t so difficult to stitch all the elements together after all, with a little help from some video editing software I didn’t have access to in the beginning.
So maybe I didn’t fail at it after all. I was just a slow starter. And there are things on these tapes I’m realizing I can slip into the larger video I’m making.
Though I might not have any actual recording footage from the house before this one, I have some good shots of my studio space in that house before I dismantled it. I have footage of my current studio space in complete chaos after moving in, and footage of it slowly starting to come together. I filmed myself recording the banjo part for “Blue Cheese Necklace” and then for some reason I’ll never understand didn’t film any other elements of the song being recorded (I want to kick myself now). I can take footage of a song being played at its inception to get the music and vocal melodies down, and segue into a piece of the finished recording. I can even slip in some video diary moments where they make sense, breaking up footage of myself with older footage of myself.
Which brings me to this.
In January of 2008, at exactly the halfway point of the Papa Ghostface hiatus that lasted twelve years, Gord came over and we recorded a song that’s never seen any release outside of an MP3 that’s long since sunk deep into the archives. This was one of the few times I went to the trouble of filming a recording session during the Handycam days. I didn’t have any way to get the raw footage on the computer back then. Now, nine years later, I’m able to do that and edit it into something a little more concise.
The song lives in its own little space, separate from the work we did before and the work we would go on to do later. At the time it felt like a potential first step toward making a new album. It was really a one-off, and it would be another six years before we started working toward a shared goal again with some real commitment.
It’s more a mood in search of a song, though there are moments I’ve always liked. I think “Speed the Truth”, the first track on STEW, is a good measuring stick. Both are dreamy things grounded in the key of A minor, but “Speed the Truth” is a layered soundscape that’s very sure of its identity. This one’s more half-baked. For every interesting turn of phrase (“You’re looking through one bloodshot tier” is one — sounds like “tear”, but it’s not) there are two that either make no sense or are little more than random nothingness (“Anomanomahee…hatred, smoke and…” won’t be showing up in a discussion of my best moments as a lyricist anytime soon).
Such is the danger of improvised lyrics. Sometimes you hit. Sometimes you miss.
Of course, I didn’t think to film myself recording the vocal and guitar tracks. I went through a rough mix on-camera instead. And because I only had the one camera, without even a tripod to screw it into, it was tough to get good shots of the two of us together. There’s a bit where I’m playing chords on the Arp-Omni 2 with one hand and synth drums on the Yamaha W-5 with the other, and because of the crummy framing, you’ve got Gord in the foreground and you can’t see a thing my hands are doing.
I gotta be honest about my 2008 mix, too. It’s not very good. The vocals are way too upfront, everything is swimming in about 600% more reverb than necessary, and I was going through that lame “clipping is okay because it means I can make things louder” stage when it came to the mastering process.
What I’m playing on the monitors is an unmastered rough mix, so the occasional moments of distortion in the video have nothing to do with mastering. They’re present in the original soundtrack, burned into the video, impossible to repair now. The Sony camcorder’s built-in mic is really good for what it is, but I found out the hard way it wasn’t built to handle volume past a certain point.
The instrumental fragment that ends the video, meanwhile, is a mix I did just the other day, stripping away the vocals, dialling down the reverb, and tightening everything up a little. It’s got me thinking about remixing the whole thing just for fun.
This segment will get trimmed down quite a bit when it appears in the epic video of stuff. Here I let it run a little longer. And I still left some things out. I filmed about twenty minutes of us jamming on acoustic guitars, playing pieces of old songs and riffing on new ideas during a break in recording. The first half of the jam felt pretty aimless, so I recorded over it a week or two later.
A funny thing happened there. A few snippets survived between the song ideas I replaced the bulk of the footage with, all of them about three seconds long. It felt like they worked well as random little bits thrown in without warning between the “On Your Life” footage, so I chucked a few of them into the mix.
The last ten minutes of the acoustic jam are still on tape. None of that made much sense in the context of this video, but I’m sure I’ll find a place for it one of these days.
Completely unrelated: Zara just released her new album. If you liked UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one too.
For a year now I’ve had somewhere around half an hour of raw footage collecting digital dust on a hard drive from the day Ron and Dean came over to record the piano part for Ron’s song “Tattooed Lady”. I figured it was time I got around to editing it.
The finished segment came out shorter and snappier than I expected, but I think it works as a little slice of studio life. What kept me from making it longer was the lack of visual movement. I didn’t set up a second camera to grab Ron and Dean, so while there’s a good bit of dialogue between the three of us, you would only see my headless torso no matter who was talking at any given time. That would get old pretty fast.
Better to keep it brief. In a minute and-a-half you still get a bit of banter, a pretty decent idea of the feel of the song and what I played on it, and a few moments from takes that weren’t used in the final mix (as far as I can tell, what’s on the album is about 80% of my penultimate take, with the rest flown in from the very last take we did right after the camera ran out of recording time).
I’m trying not to share too many more video-related things before the big beefy “this has been the last few years of my musical life” video is finished, but I don’t think this little bit is giving anything away, and I kind of like the way it turned out.