I spent a memorable chunk of the summer of 1996 reading Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. I started reading that biography in a movie theatre before the coming attractions. I still had my nose in it during a weekend spent in Toronto with Johnny Smith. I was mesmerized by the train-wreck that was Jim’s life.
I remember confusing a fancy packet of blue hotel room liquid soap with hair gel that weekend. I massaged some of it into my hair and watched it start to froth. Then I wiped the foam away and used enough of my own gel in its place to fashion a small animal into a weapon.
There was a homeless girl sitting outside the lip of a store that afternoon or the next. I can still see her face and her hooded sweatshirt. In a small, frightened-sounding voice, she asked a few people if they had any spare change. No one looked at her. They just kept walking.
I think I had some vague notion of what a homeless person was, but the reality of homelessness didn’t hit me until that moment. I was twelve years old, going on thirteen. This girl didn’t look any older than me. It shook me up a little.
I wish I could tell you I sat down and had a conversation with her, if only to offer a moment of human connection and let her know someone saw her. I didn’t have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had anything to say that would help her anyway. I was just a kid. What did I know about anything?
I still think about her every once in a while. I wonder what her name was, if she ran away because things were bad at home, if she found a safe place to stay.
All these years later, I thought I’d dust off Break on Through and skim it a little to see how it’s held up. It might still be the definitive Jim Morrison biography. There isn’t as much of the hero worship some of the other books about Jim get bogged down in, and I think this was the first published piece of writing to reveal how he really died. He didn’t have a heart attack in the bathtub at the age of twenty-seven. He got into his girlfriend’s heroin stash and overdosed.
The other day I was reading about the last months of Jim’s life. He thought he might be able to sort himself out in Paris, but he couldn’t stop drinking, and while he never stopped writing poetry, he felt he’d hit a creative wall he couldn’t scale or chisel his way through.
I read this (not Jim’s words, but James and Jerry’s):
“…being an artist for the long haul means more than harnessing sudden and terrible inspirations. It means being able to study and grow in one’s character as well as one’s art. It means overcoming toil and trouble and mastering that enemy of all creative forces — doubt. In the end, the race doesn’t belong to the swift, but to the one who has the tenacity and the belief in himself or in something greater in order to hang in there the longest. When you come right down to it, it’s much easier to be a genius at twenty-two than it is to sustain it at forty-two — or even twenty-seven.”
And it went through me like a bullet.
I have no memory of reading those words twenty-three years ago. I’m sure I read them. I’m just as sure they meant nothing to me at the time. Today they couldn’t be more pertinent.
Reading that passage helped me to see how I’ve been looking at this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing the wrong way. I’ve been working on finishing this album more out of a sense of duty than anything when that isn’t the way I operate. Even the most miserable music I’ve made has always been driven by a deep-seated need to express something — not an attitude of, “Well, I guess I need to finish this stuff so I can forget about it and move on to something else.”
I’ve been calling the experience of making the album “one of the great artistic adventures of my life”. I still feel that way, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a difficult, somewhat soul-destroying experience on a personal level. Finishing it on my own after spending years chasing a lot of my musical guests in order to get them over here has become a more emotionally complicated process after a number of those guests caused the collapse of an event I put an incredible amount of time, thought, and work into constructing.
For the most part I’ve been able to separate my feelings of disappointment from the music. I haven’t gone around erasing the contributions of everyone who let me down. It helps that none of these people contributed to the actual writing of any of the songs they appear on. In many cases I wrote their parts for them and they brought none of their own musical ideas to the table. I’m able to look at them less as human beings who failed me when I was counting on them and more as tools I used to bring my creative vision to life.
I’ve been picking away at this album for more than five years now. I was getting a lot of unanticipated work recording other people for a while there, and it took time away from my own music. It took me years to get some musicians to commit to showing up, and I had a very hard time finding people to fill certain instrumental and vocal roles. Many people ignored me or led me on only to jump ship at the last possible second. I lost huge chunks of recording time thanks to unnecessary construction work that dragged on forever (it didn’t help that the people doing the work were lazy and borderline incompetent) and thoughtless neighbours. I tried to commission a number of filmmakers to make me some sort of artistic music video. I wasn’t a high-profile enough artist for any of them to even consider working with me.
All of this is true. There’s been a lot of unpleasant shit to deal with. But instead of looking at the different ways I’ve managed to absorb it, repurpose it, and transcend it, I’ve been fixated on the stink.
Yes, the album has been half a decade in the making. That’s an eternity for me. But one of the benefits of a long-range process like this is the amount of time everything is given to settle into itself. These songs represent the absolute best work I felt I was capable of doing during this specific period of time. Some of my favourite songs have been written pretty late in the game. They wouldn’t be on the album if I’d finished it a few years earlier, and I think it would be a weaker collection without them.
Yes, it’s been an immense amount of work, between writing, arranging, producing, recording, mixing, and mastering all the songs, curating the supporting cast, writing parts for other musicians or setting up structured frameworks for them to improvise inside of, playing all of the instruments myself on most of the songs, and finding a way to fit some pretty textured arrangements onto the sixteen tracks available on my mixer. But I’ve learned a lot about myself as a producer along the way and stretched myself in ways I never thought I could.
Yes, a staggering amount of people have flaked out on me, lied to me, or rejected me in one way or another. Even some of the people who did show up forced me to pursue them with a determination that bordered on insanity. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that musicians tend to be a pretty flaky bunch. I learned “flaky” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Some of them were a nightmare to deal with. I know that’s not a very diplomatic thing to say, but I’ve never bullshitted here, and I’m not about to start now.
And yet…I got all of these people to sing and play on a Johnny West album:
That’s a substantial accomplishment any way you look at it. Especially for a supposed “enigmatic recluse” like me.
My goal was to cobble together a cast of thirty players and singers. I got as far as twenty-nine. So close. Then I kicked a few folks off the album for being douchebags, bringing the final tally down to twenty-six (twenty-seven if you count me). Even here there’s a silver lining, somehow: I got rid of a song that wasn’t really album material, and another song was made stronger by my own voice replacing a guest’s somewhat listless performance.
I got more than a dozen visual artists to contribute to the lyric booklet, though a few pieces didn’t make the final cut. And I’ve been able to grab a lot of great video footage of the music being created and craft some pretty neat DIY music videos all on my own.
Almost everyone declined my offer of payment, making it clear they were happy just to be a part of the album. I’ll always be grateful for that. One person bucked the trend, though, and he was happy to empty my pockets. All of my post-production costs combined won’t begin to approach the amount of money I had to pay him.
He’s a great musician. I’m happy with the performances he gave me. But I had to fight with myself not to remove them from the album out of spite once I found out he was only in it for the money. This is someone who wouldn’t even speak to me unless he was sure the conversation would lead to another payday. Someone like that has no business being a part of my music.
I guess I can chalk it up to a learning experience. I thought I was making a lot of new friends along the way. I came to find out in a pretty brutal way that I was wrong. I feel like this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again. It’s getting a little old now. I did build a few new friendships that have endured past the honeymoon stage, but I don’t ever want to go through anything like this again. I’ve spent most of my life reaching out. My arms are tired. In the future, if someone wants to work with me they can do the reaching. I’m not a difficult person to find, and I’m through with chasing people. There are more enjoyable ways of getting exercise.
There’s a part of me that would be glad to have those five years back so I could pump out a bunch of pure solo albums in the place of this one, trading all the string and horn parts and guest vocalists for a little less grey in my hair and a better opinion of people. I’m proud of these songs and the performances I’ve captured, and I’ve put everything I have into making this album the strongest musical statement it can be, but in some ways I’ve had to gut it out through stubbornness and determination.
To wit: I have a ninety-eight-page Word document cataloguing all one hundred and one singers and musicians, all forty-five visual artists, and all seventeen filmmakers I tried to involve in one way or another. It’s quite the saga.
I’d like to say I’m able to take the long view and appreciate the ride in spite of all the turbulence. I’m not sure how true that is right now, but I think I’ll get there. I’m working on it.
My interest in sampling should have started with the Casio SK-10 I had as a kid. Here I had the ability to record and warp short bursts of any sound I could think of, and the best idea I could come up with was getting the built-in demonstration songs to play symphonies of armpit farts. I sampled the TV a few times, but that was as creative as I got.
In the mid-2000s I heard a Bjork song in a restaurant. I think it was right before I really got into her music. I’ve never been able to figure out which song it was, but I remember there was this sound swimming through the whole thing — something like a field of wind chimes being upended by a swarm of locusts.
“Sampling!” I thought. “Yes! I must get a sampler! I must make sounds like this! No more farting with my arms! I’m a grownup now!”
I could have had a lot of fun with the SK-10 right about then, but it was collecting dust in a house full of people I never wanted to see again. So much for an emotional, armpit fart-free reunion.
The Roland V-Synth looked like an attractive option for a while. Then I discovered I already had a synthesizer with sampling capabilities — a Korg Triton LE. For a fraction of the cost of a V-Synth I could get an EXB-SMPL sampling board, slip it into the guts of the Triton, and go nuts.
I can’t remember if the sampling board came with instructions. If it did, they weren’t very helpful. Johnny Smith helped me wedge the thing inside of the Triton, but we had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t get it to work. One of the high A# keys stopped functioning not long after that, and I’ve always wondered if it had anything to do with my little sampling misadventure.
A few days ago we opened the Triton up for the first time in close to fifteen years. I thought it was about time I got some use out of the EXB-SMPL. Thanks to a helpful YouTube tutorial, it wasn’t going to be so difficult to set up this time.
What we found was…well, this:
What you see there is an empty space where the sampling card is supposed to be. We must have taken it out when it didn’t work and chucked it back in the box. I guess that high A# stopped working all on its own.
Maybe I was never meant to sample anything with this synth. The way it worked out, I found other solutions.
In early 2014, a few months before work began on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I bought a circuit-bent Casio SK-1 off of eBay. An unbent Yamaha VSS-30 followed a little while later. For the last five years, I’ve been having a blast sampling all kinds of things. As great as the SK-1 is — and most of the time I’m not even engaging the bends — it’s the VSS-30 that’s become an indispensable sonic weapon. From here on out, I can’t imagine making an album that doesn’t feature it in a pretty integral role.
There’s one specific sound that’s always appealed to me. It’s what happens when a human voice gets chopped up and bent out of shape. You hear a lot of this in different strains of electronica-driven modern pop music.
A few examples:
That’s right. I just posted a song featuring Justin Bieber, and not in an ironic way. Be afraid. The high-pitched distorted synthesizer-sounding thing you hear during the instrumental choruses is the Biebernator’s voice, believe it or not. That’s what sampling and mangling can do.
Now, if I had access to something like this, I would be in heaven:
Disembodied voices, all primed and ready to be manipulated? Sign me up.
Alas, I don’t use a computer to record, so software like this isn’t an option for me. If I want to get sounds that live in that world, I have to create them myself.
(I know I said I was done sharing excerpts from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing. I lied. Jesus, look at all that grey hair.)
I’m loving the Zoom H1 for voice-capturing purposes when I’m recording video and my face needs to be on the screen. It’s easy to put on a mini-stand and point in my general direction, allowing me to speak freely regardless of where the camera is. Whenever I was using one of the Flip cameras, I always had to try and get my face as close as possible to the camera if I wanted to get something resembling clean, present sound out of the built-in microphone. Now it’s not an issue. Even when I point the H1 at the monitors so the playback takes precedence over my voice, what I’m saying still comes through loud and clear.
Compare the above video to something like this and I think you’ll hear what I mean. You might notice a bit of a difference in the visual quality as well. Three cheers for the Canon T5i (and for opening the blinds to let in some natural light).
Sort of related, a little bit, maybe:
For years I had this itch in the back of my brain. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what would happen if someone else produced/recorded my music. I was pretty sure I would try handing the reigns over to someone else someday, if only for a song or a quick EP, so I could satisfy that curiosity.
It’s not something I wonder about anymore.
For better or worse, I’ve developed a recording aesthetic that’s very specific to me and what I do. By now it’s as much a part of my music as my voice or the way I play piano. Strip that away, put someone else in charge of dialling in the sounds they believe are appropriate and keeping the performances they like best, and I don’t think the results would sound a whole lot like me anymore.
Very few of the sounds coming out of professional recording studios right now do anything to move or inspire me. That’s just my own personal taste. The few producers I would have an interest in working with are nowhere near Windsor, and they charge such a disgusting amount of money for their services, I’d maybe be able to afford five seconds of studio time with them. Even if I won the lottery, after all the time and work and money that’s gone into building my studio into what it is today, it would make no sense to pay someone else to bark orders at me and spend two hours getting a drum sound they’re only going to obliterate later on with samples they bought in a bundle from Waves Audio.
I want to make it clear that I’m not dumping on this way of working. I’m only saying it isn’t what I’m after as a producer. I think any way of working is valid if it gets you the results you’re after.
Earlier this year, Ryan Lewis (owner/operator of RadSouls Studio) came over to record some piano and vocal tracks. When he told me to do whatever I wanted with the basic tracks, I saw it as a unique opportunity to compare my work to another producer’s. Though the song wasn’t my own, this was the closest I was ever likely to get to hearing what someone else would do with my music. We both started with the same source material and took it in very different directions.
As dissimilar as our mixes are in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, what really stands out to me is the use of compression. In my mix the piano is allowed to breathe in a natural way and the snapping is treated as just another sound. In Ryan’s mix the snapping is emphasized, the piano is pumped up with a ton of compression, and everything is a lot louder.
I’m not sure I could come up with a much better demonstration of what I mean when I say my sensibilities are almost violently out-of-sync with what most other producers seem to want to achieve. It’s right there in black and white.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown of some of the elements I added to my take on the song, showcasing some of what the VSS-30 can do when you take the time to create your own samples.
Ever since I acquired the ability to record overdubs twenty years ago, I’ve always enjoyed layering vocal harmonies. It’s come to feel like a pretty personal thing. Even with all the vocalists I’ve managed to involve in YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, most of their work has been limited to singing lead parts or contributing to group vocals.
I did try to get other people to sing harmony on a handful of songs, just to see what would happen. Only two of those people bothered to show up. One of them was Kaitlyn Kelly, who made time for me when she was in town for the holidays a few years ago and did some beautiful singing on a song that’s going on the album. The other was Leanna, who also sang a lead part on one of the “musical dialogues” I wrote.
The first session with Leanna was great. She came in and sang that part like she owned it. She said the song brought something special out of her. The second session was…not so great.
Five times we made plans. Five times she stood me up. The sixth time she managed to make it here. I was still doing my musical barter thing at the time. I offered to record a song of hers to thank her for singing on one of mine. She brought along her then-boyfriend, who I’ll call Chocolate Bar (his stage name is something pretty close to that), and an additional guitarist I wasn’t told was coming.
We attacked the harmony part on my song first. It was slow going. She hadn’t bothered to learn the song and didn’t seem to be nearly as into it as she was the first time. We recorded it piecemeal. I would sing her a line. She would sing it back until it was good enough to move on to the next line. After about an hour we were done.
The second guitarist asked to use the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes and not hearing a flush, I took a look to see if he was dropping off some kids or something. He never set foot in the bathroom. He was hiding around the corner, taking pictures of my gear with his phone.
If you’re over here working with me and you ask to take a picture of yourself singing into a microphone, playing an instrument, or giving me bunny ears, I have no problem with that. But to lie about having to take a piss so you can catalogue my equipment without my permission…that’s some sketchy shit. It makes me think you’re casing the place so you can decide whether or not it’s worth your while to try and break in at a later date.
Johnny Smith happened to be here when this was happening. When he saw what I saw, he told the budding photographer he could delete those pictures from his phone and sit where we could see him, or he could get the hell out of the house. He did as he was told, but he seemed to find the whole thing funny.
I recorded a song Leanna and Chocolate Bar took turns singing lead on. I let Chocolate Bar play my 1951 Gibson LG-2. He hammered on the guitar like he was trying to break all the strings. It was his passive-aggressive way of shoving a middle finger in my face.
I never mixed that song.
Leanna later apologized for what happened. As for Chocolate Bar, not too long after that he had a short-lived stint as a cashier at Remark Farms. One day he had to check us out and bag our groceries. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone look more uncomfortable. Funny how people who have no problem disrespecting you in private turn into cowards when you see them in a public place. I’ve seen it happen a number of times now. All their arrogance vanishes, they try to avoid making eye contact, and they look like they want to run away.
I enjoy those moments.
A year or so ago, Chocolate Bar sent me a Facebook friend request. I ignored it. I mean, are you kidding me?
Anyway. I had a lot of trouble working out the arrangement for my own song. I couldn’t quite duplicate what I liked about the demo’s piano part. I tried some soft brushed snare, Wurlitzer, and lap steel with a backwards delay effect. None of it felt right.
In late 2016 I took another crack at it. I got rid of everything aside from my acoustic guitar and the vocal tracks, added a bit of third-part harmony, recorded brand new lap steel and piano tracks, and started to like it a bit more. I made a rough mix of what I’d done.
It still didn’t feel finished, but I didn’t know what else to do with it.
A few days ago I thought it would be fun to give it another look. I dumped it back on the mixer, only to discover I erased most of the tracks without thinking. My only option was to use an earlier backup. Hearing those original lap steel and Wurlitzer parts again, I found myself liking them more than I thought I would. I ditched the acoustic piano, didn’t bother to sing the third-part harmony again, recorded a new drum track, and added electric and acoustic twelve-string guitar.
All at once, it felt like the whole thing came to life.
I almost never use a high-pass filter on anything unless I’ve got a vocal track with some plosive sounds that are a little too powerful. Here I broke with that tradition. There was some irritating mud in the lap steel and Wurlitzer tracks. A little filtering did a nice job of cleaning it up.
I haven’t decided if this one’s an outtake or not. I like it well enough. I just don’t know if there’s a place for it on the album. If nothing else, it’s another example of the crappy twelve-string I inherited working its strange magic. That guitar may be a hunk of junk, but every once in a while it’s exactly what a song needs.
The stop button on my mixer hasn’t been working so well over the last little while. It still functions, but I have to wrestle with it now. When you’re doing vocal punch-ins or any kind of recording that requires some precise stop/start points, a sticky stop button is a huge pain in the posterior.
It got to be a little too frustrating after a while. So I dug out this foot switch I’ve probably had for close to twenty years but never used — the tank that calls itself my desk holds many forgotten and semi-hidden treasures — and plugged it into the back of the mixer. Any attached foot switch just happens to default to controlling play and stop functions, so I didn’t even have to tweak any settings on the mixer to get it to work.
I even got to make use of one of the crummy little patch cords I got when I was thinking about putting that pedal board together. I grabbed a bunch of them from Long & Delayed because they were dirt cheap, only to discover not all patch cords are created equal. I’ve accumulated a ridiculous amount of cabling over the years, and it runs the gamut from cheap no-name stuff from the mid-90s (all of which still works!) to pricey Mogami cables. I’ve never heard any difference in sound quality in any of them. That all changed when I bought these cheap Fender-branded pedal board cables. I tried them out when I got home and heard a marked loss of high frequency information. It wasn’t a pleasing warmth. It was a disconcerting dullness.
I spent quite a bit more money on some short patch cords made with Mogami 2524 cable. All those lost highs came back with a vengeance. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been shafted, regardless of how little I paid for those unusable Fender patch cords.
When you’re dealing with a foot switch that’s only performing mechanical duties, tone isn’t an issue. So there’s a bit of unexpected vindication for a little cable that didn’t really deserve it.
What else is new?
I’ve deactivated Facebook for the first time in years. The goal is to cut out some distractions and get into Merciless Album-Finishing Mode again. It seems to be helping at least a little bit. I’m still having some trouble working out the sequencing of the second disc. It’s tricky, because it needs to work as both a continuation of the first disc and a standalone musical statement.
I’ll figure it out at some point. I think. I hope.
More than half the songs now exist as mixes I like enough to call “final”. Come to think of it, almost all of the work I have left to do is mixing-related. There are only about half a dozen songs that need a bit of additional work at the recording stage. Sequencing issues aside, that’s a definite step in the right direction.
With a little elbow grease, I might get this album done before I turn to dust after all.
Almost everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard A-ha’s breathless pop classic “Take on Me”.
Post Malone was in his parents’ basement, tattooing a portrait of Louis Althusser on his left ass cheek with the aid of a stolen compact mirror. Willie Nelson was alone in the back of his tour bus, trying to smoke a breadstick after burning through his entire stash of pot. Britney Spears was giving her sister’s Barbie Doll the evil eye and contemplating drowning it in the bathtub.
Someone you might not expect to be a fan is Gordon Lightfoot. In a little-known interview with Canadian Tire Magazine, Gordon once opined, “It really is the quintessential love song. It grabs you by the throat and forces you to eat a pile of hummus, whether you’re hungry or not.”
Dive deep enough into the Dark Web, past the secret Fifth Harmony porn films and the failed standup comedy of Donald Trump, and you’ll find a bootleg recording of an intimate show Gordon played for a small but appreciative audience in the mid-1990s, backed only by a pianist. For the only time in the great man’s long and storied career, he chose to put his stamp on a number of obscure covers, from Sepultura’s “Ratamahatta” to Swing Out Sister’s “Breakout”. Tucked away at the very beginning of the show like a quiet prayer is a song that has touched the lives of so many, written by some very photogenic Norwegian dudes.
Most of this one was recorded over two days in April. Zara played my Gibson LG-2 for the first time since her first album and brought along her own ukulele. I tried recording her playing and singing at the same time for a song or two, but that approach was abandoned pretty fast. There was too much bleed. I still haven’t found a way to record someone playing acoustic guitar and singing live off the floor that satisfies me. The microphones I use now are too sensitive to get enough separation, and the dynamic mics I used to pull out for live guitar/vocal recordings sound a little too thin now that they’re not plugged into a low-end mic preamp.
Funny how that works.
There was a lot of laughter and joking around between the songs. I mixed one of the silly moments and included it in the WAV files I sent Zara just for fun. I had no idea she was going to keep it on the album, but I’m glad she did.
I also captured her playing a bit of an idea that wasn’t yet a proper song. There were a few ukulele chords, there was an improvised vocal melody, and that was it. Something about that little sixty-second sketch really grabbed me. I thought it was kind of perfect just as it was. I sent that one along too, and it’s also on the album.
I’ve grown so used to people stamping out anything that resembles a human or random moment in their music, it’s almost a shock when someone wants to hold onto these things as much as I do. It’s a good kind of shock, though. Like waking up to discover they’ve started making Choclairs chocolate bars again.
Damn you for discontinuing those sticks of deliciousness, Neilson.
At the top of this post is a video for one of the songs on the album. My plan was to open the blinds and flood the room with some nice natural light, but every time Zara came over it was a grey, rainy day, so it wouldn’t have done much good. Even in a less than ideal lighting situation, I’m enjoying how much better this camera makes everything look. There’s a lot less grain than I was getting with the Flip cameras, and everything feels more vivid and real somehow.
Imagine what I could do if I got some decent lighting happening in that room for a change…
Mixing these songs was a bit of a challenge, just because of how dynamic the performances were. I had to get creative with compression settings and riding some faders to control things without squashing them. I think I found the right balance in the end.
Who wants a “set it and forget it” mixing job anyway? That stuff’s no fun.
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.
In early 2015 I thought I’d try submitting a song to CJAM’s Singles Club just to see what happened.
The way the Singles Club works, in brief: artists from Windsor and Detroit are invited to submit new songs every month. These songs go on a compilation CD everyone at CJAM has access to. DJs play the songs they like best, and at the end of the month the results are tabulated and the single with the most airplay gets bragging rights and a mention on the CJAM website.
The song I turned in almost five years ago was “The Devil Wants His Car Back” from STEW. The album wasn’t finished yet, but I was happy enough with the mix of the song I had (not a final mix, as it turned out) to let it go out into the world as a little sneak peak at what was coming.
In hindsight it was probably an odd thing to choose to represent the album. I don’t think anyone played it. I know for a fact it didn’t chart. Above is a picture I borrowed from someone’s Twitter archives, offering proof of an accidental GWD reunion of sorts (Tyson played drums with The Apex, making this a compilation that featured all three key members of my weird little teenage band, even if we weren’t all playing together).
All this time later, I thought it would be fun to submit the song Tara sang on and see if there was a different outcome. I knew it was getting some airplay, but I wasn’t expecting it to top the chart. Thanks to everyone at the station who’s been spinning it.
Speaking of CJAM, they’re in the middle of an emergency fundraising drive designed to offset some of the funding they stand to lose thanks to Doug Ford’s Student Choice Initiative. I’m going to be stopping by the station to hang out with Brady this afternoon at 2:30. You can listen live over here if you’re interested. You might hear the on-air debut of another unheard song from YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. If you miss it, you can always check out the MP3 archives later on.
When you make music and you work in a room that has never been the beneficiary of any kind of acoustic treatment, you sometimes find yourself subject to the whims of the world around you. Aside from the odd nightmarish situation like the D’amore Construction debacle that ate up huge chunks of 2016 and 2017, I haven’t had a lot of my recording time interrupted by outside noise in this particular house. But lately the amount of people cutting their grass on an almost daily basis has been getting a little out of control. It’s left me wondering if some of these folks have lives outside of obsessing over the incremental growth of their lawns.
I was expecting Detroit’s Movement Festival to make me almost long for the sound of renegade lawnmowers. Every year an interminable low frequency 4/4 electronic kick drum thrum carries across the river and makes it impossible for me to sleep for three days straight. I like some electronic music an awful lot, and I don’t begrudge anyone their right to listen to whatever music they want at whatever volume they prefer, but I don’t think I should have to hear it in my house. Now that I’m locked into a sleep schedule that’s both consistent and healthy for the first time in eons, I’m wary of anything that might threaten to knock things off-balance again. I don’t ever want to go back to being a vampire if I can help it.
I don’t know what on earth happened this year, but for once the residual noise from the festival was almost nonexistent. The first day I heard the usual thing.
Boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom.
It wasn’t constant, so I was at least able to get some broken sleep until it stopped a little past midnight. The next two days there was nothing. I can’t find any information online that points to a sound system failing or a power outage, so I can only guess that the organizers of the event got tired of people from Windsor complaining and decided to turn it down a little or angle the speakers so they weren’t pointed right at us. Or maybe it was a cosmic fluke. Either way, I’ll take it.
It still needs to be said: when you’re playing music loud enough for me to hear it five miles and a river away from you, something isn’t right. I can understand wanting to “feel the bass”, I guess, but how about keeping your ears in reasonable working condition? If it’s that loud over here, I don’t even want to know how loud it is in Detroit. And something tells me not a lot of people are wearing earplugs to protect themselves.
I started out talking about recording, didn’t I? Right. Here’s a pro tip for you: if you’re going to play something resembling an album release show, it’s a good idea to have the album finished before you book the date. Time is flying, August 17 isn’t so far away anymore, and there’s still a lot of work I need to do on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.
I was in a position a bit like this once before with an album called GIFT FOR A SPIDER. I had to finish that one while rehearsing for a Mackenzie Hall show that ended up supporting it almost by default. It was easy enough. This album is a little more complicated, and more than twice as long. Not so easy.
The good news is I’m closer to being done than I thought I was. A few days ago I sat down and hashed the whole thing out. I’ve recorded one hundred and twenty-four songs for this album (yikes). I’ve had a pretty good idea which ones were making the cut for a while now, but the thought of trying to put them in an order that made some amount of sense was pretty intimidating. After forcing myself to take an honest stab at it, I’ve got a rough sequence that comes out to fifty-two songs spread across two CDs. I know it’s going to shift at least a little, and a few of those songs might get lopped off because of time constraints, but having a clearer picture of the album’s structure makes a huge difference. Now I feel much more focused, with a better idea of what I need to work on.
Of those fifty-two “keeper” songs, thirty-five exist as either rough mixes or mixes I feel good enough about to leave alone, sixteen need some work, and one still needs to be recorded.
There are probably at least twenty other songs I’d like to record. Given the amount of time I have to work with, it just isn’t realistic. If I let myself fall down that rabbit hole we’d be looking at a maxed-out triple-CD. The four-hour album slot has already been reserved for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I want this one to be at least a little more approachable than that behemoth.
The show is a little less than eighty days away. If I’m diligent, that’s more than enough time to get everything squared away. I’ve at least found a printing place that seems to be competent and reliable, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
Lacasse never gave me a quote, and three different people had to search the manager’s office for the booklet and insert I dropped off as a sample, with said manager nowhere to be found. They all came up empty-handed. By the time they dug up my materials I didn’t even want to know how much they would charge.
I had a much better feeling about Standard Printing. It’s a long-standing family-run business. I like supporting those places when I can. Again, it wasn’t to be. It took forever to get a proof, and when I asked if I could have the afternoon to look it over — something I’ve been doing with every printing job I’ve paid for over the last sixteen years — the woman I was dealing with got snippy and condescending with me, acting like my request was way out of line. Turned out someone working there wasn’t very good at following instructions. They went ahead and printed the whole run of booklets and inserts before I gave my go-ahead. She didn’t want me to see something I didn’t like and put her in a situation where she had to eat it.
I could have lived with their prices, which were pretty outrageous, but I’m not going to shut up and fork over my money to make up for someone else’s oversight. And if you’re going to talk to me like I’m a piece of shit when I’ve asked to be extended the same basic courtesy as any other customer, you don’t deserve my business.
A friend recommended Herald Press. On my fifth try it looks like I’ve found a place I can deal with. I got them to reprint the booklets and inserts for STEW as a test. Those turned out well, and the price was fantastic. Then I had them make a few prints of some art Greg Maxwell made for the SLEEPWALK booklet. Same story there. The plan now is to get all of the remaining album-related artwork printed in one shot so I’ve got prints of everything to display at the show. It’s pretty great to see these things at their intended size. I’ve got half a mind to put some of my favourites up on a wall in the stock room. I mean, how many people can say they’ve got a room full of (mostly) local art that was made just for them?
That’s the scoop over here. I’ll try to post a bit more often so I can hold myself accountable as the sand really starts pouring out of the hourglass.
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.