Thursday, April 30, 2009

Chris Towers of The New Creation: Witness Testimony

Chris Towers normally shuns the spotlight (photo by Femke van Delft. All photos on this blog are used by permission of the photographer and not to be reproduced without the same).

I didn't tell many people who my musical guest for my belated birthday event at the Vancity Theatre was last week, and not just because I wanted it to be a surprise: Chris Towers of The New Creation had agreed to perform at least one song - "Wind," my favourite tune off The New Creation's debut, Troubled - but I knew he was nervous, not having performed publicly for something like forty years; and there were other complicating factors. For one, the audience was comprised in part of punks who might object to the content of Chris' music - since all of The New Creation's material is explicitly Christian; further - sadly - Lorna Towers, Chris' mother and one third of the band, now in her mid-80's, had taken ill (and is still, to my understanding, not doing so well); there was a chance her condition could turn for the worse, and I wanted Chris to have the option of cancelling without feeling he'd let anyone down.

Chris did not cancel, nor did he let anyone down. Guests can attest that he could be seen pacing and practicing in the concession area of the theatre right up to soundcheck; when people were finally let in to the auditorium, I briefly introduced him. The backstory bears repeating: The New Creation's first album, released in Vancouver in a run of 100 circa 1970, was completely neglected, until it was recovered from oblivion by the late Ty Scammel of the Vancouver Flea Market, who found a copy in a thrift store some time in the late 80's. This sole copy, which Ty, an expert in psychedelic rock, thought had some very promising moments, would be played for hip customers, and thus came to the attention of an "outsider music" scout, James Brouwer. This led to the album being re-released on CD some thirty years after it was recorded, as the debut release on Companion Records - a rediscovery that shocked the Vancouver-based band and brought them, for the first time, to the attention of music geeks worldwide.

Chris Towers (photo by Femke van Delft. All photos are used by permission of the photographer and not to be reproduced without the same).

There's more to the story, too: as I wrote for the Straight, a single copy of their debut LP surfaced last year in England, apparently part of a collection belonging to Sir Cliff Richard; it sold on eBay for over $1700 US, being finally snapped up by a Belgian collector, showing that some people indeed value The New Creation's music a great deal. In 2003, the band got back together and recorded a follow-up CD, themed around the Rapture, mostly as conceived by Lorna Towers; I interviewed the Towers about the album for The Nerve Magazine a couple of years ago - an article you can read online here. Despite a Catholic upbringing and an admiration for aspects of Christ's life and teachings, I am not, myself, a Christian, and am highly suspect of the concept of the Rapture and what I regard as the pernicious, non-Christian right-wing fantasies of the Left Behind series, which I discussed briefly with Ms. Towers in the interview (without, I admit, challenging her much; Lorna Towers is a strong-minded, outspoken individual and certainly the most intimidating senior citizen *I've* ever met, and I didn't want to get into a fight with her -- particularly since there seemed no likelihood either of us would sway the other in the slightest). All the same I can appreciate creative music, and in some cases (the song "Wind" off Troubled, in particular, but also "Calamity World" off A Unique Disaster), can find myself very much moved by the band's music and message. I was delighted at the idea of introducing at least one of their songs to a select crowd of Vancouverites.

Erin, guitarist of Vancouver's The Rebel Spell, described Chris' appearance as a "slightly less dramatic Susan Boyle moment," referring to the somewhat frumpy British spinster who shocked TV audiences this April by proving to have a golden voice. (It was so perfectly apt a comment, which she emailed to me, that I didn't chase her down for more). The Rebel Spell's new album, which they are busy putting together even now, has a working title of It's a Beautiful Future, and probably won't be released until the fall; anyone interested in smart, fast, tuneful political punk should come see their May 22nd show at the Cobalt ("a book release for Chris Walter's latest opus Wrong," Erin reports). Members and fans of the band might be interested to know that Chris Towers currently has my copy of Walter's East Van, and that a few years ago, he attended my screening of Glen Sanford's film about Gerry Hannah, Useless, part of an old Blim triple bill I did also featuring two films about Christian activists the Berrigan brothers - The Trial of the Catonsville Nine and In The King of Prussia, both of which I heartily recommend for people interested in the anti-war or anti-nuclear movements or in non-violent models of direct action. The Berrigans can be seen torching draft records on Youtube with the Catonsville Nine; there's also a documentary, Investigation of Flame, that can be found. I hadn't realized there was even such a thing as Christian direct action until I heard about the Berrigans, who have been a topic of conversation between Chris and I on more than one occasion (though I won't presume to represent his views here!). (Photo of Erin by Femke, at Under the Volcano a few years ago; again, not to be used without permission).

Anyhow, Erin's sentiment re: Chris is reflected by Tony Bardach of the Pointed Sticks (who have new demos here and a new album in June) and Slowpoke and the Smoke (gig notices here). He says, "at first I listened with my eyes closed - the voice was beautiful. When I finally looked around there was still just a slightly ungainly middle aged man singing alone on the stage. Great!"

Femke, like Tony, has done some very interesting and provocative work in the fine arts, and will be curating a show this summer that I will give her press for at a later date; in addition to those on view here, she has provided the majority of pictures that have accompanied my writing over the years and has proven a tireless and insightful compatriot. Femke says of the April 24th performance, "I watched Chris pacing and practicing. It was obvious that this was a difficult thing for him to do... Chris' story and music force me to face my own prejudices born out of my 'born again atheist' up-bringing." This is not all that unsettles Femke about phenomenon like the popularity, among some, of bands like The New Creation, however. "This is the music equivalent to the cool and recent obsession in the art world with Outsider or Art Brut," she writes, "which has spawned magazines, exhibitions, curatorial statements using any/all of the following words : discovered, raw, naive, pure, untrained, genius, insane. I really don't trust what motivates this outsider movement. It's a 21st century freak show." Nonetheless, Femke says "it was a privilege to witness (Chris') first performance in years." By the way, the pic of Femke above is by Adam PW Smith, and, once again, is not to be used without his permission, or Femke's!

Racan of Scratch Records, says, echoing Femke's sentiment, that he "definitely felt privileged to be able to witness a member of the New Creation perform in any capacity - especially in such a great venue (the perfect movie theatre). Even getting to hear a single song was probably a bit of a miracle. Chris was soft-spoken, but charming and quite moving. Most of the staff at Scratch are fans, particularly Keith Parry. I hadn't listened to either of the albums in quite a while, and didn't realize the extent of the band's early obscurity. Frankly I'm still shocked that an album that began with an initial pressing of a mere 100 copies could eventually find itself in the right hands and get reissued. I only wish Chris had played longer, but hopefully that will happen eventually." Racan, a filmmaker, has completed what he describes as "a silly movie" that will have a screening as part of Khan Con, a Star Trek mini-con at the Rio Theatre on Saturday, May 16th. Info about the film can be found here, with more info on Facebook; I'm told you can rent Racan's film for free at both Black Dog locations, and Happy Bats on Main. (Photo of Scratch by Femke van Delft).

Local musician and man of mystery Michael Carrothers - who performs live around town with slightly more frequency than Chris Towers, but has no Myspace or Facebook page that I might link to, and no shows upcoming (though I gather he has a stellar songwriting partner urging him on), reports of seeing Chris that "what still sticks out in my mind now, is that it was one of the most honest performances that I've ever seen, he was genuine and sincere from the moment he walked up to the mic, and it was easy to see that he was really pushing himself past his nervousness after such a long period of not performing. He even commented that he was there out of his desire to play a song as you'd asked him to, out of gratitude for the help you've given him and other artists through your writing. I think his words were 'when Allan MacInnis asks you to play a song, you play a song.' I don't think I've heard such honest and humble stage patter before. I was genuinely surprised when he started to play, I got goosebumps listening to him perform, and found myself singing the chorus for days afterwards (it's running through my head as I'm typing now.) His guitar playing and voice may not have been perfect and precise, but his sincerity, songcraft and the delivery of the song itself were inspiring, not to mention the courage it took to get up there alone, without his band and play in public after such a long absence. I never thought I would actually be inspired by, or go out of my way to see someone play Christian-themed music, it's just not really my thing, but I'd be the first person in line if he ever decided to play a full show, or even if he just were to sing one more song at next years birthday celebration."

Michael does a good job of summing up what I felt, listening to Chris Towers; Chris' sincerity and humility are moving things - rare qualities indeed in the so-called music biz. I wonder if everyone would agree that these qualities alone make The New Creation's songs remarkable or worthwhile, though? Dissenting rumbles about what transpired before the film last week have been heard among the people that I've contacted for this article - though they didn't want to go into it publicly. Chris' guitar playing was certainly below the standard that any professional performing musician would aspire to; he himself - his own harshest critic, of course - admits that he was dissatisfied with his playing. Then again, the musicianship on Troubled itself, the album The New Creation is most famous for, is not perfect by far; he even bungles a lyric on the recorded version of "Wind," attentive listeners will note (which he got right live!). Similarly, I personally find/ found his singing voice beautiful, even if his delivery wasn't without its "rough edges," and perhaps indeed because of them. Might it seem the standard of beauty that I'm using - which deals in sincerity of expression - may not in fact hold Chris accountable to any sort of technical standard at all, though? In what sense am I praising him, then? Femke's comment about outsider art as a "21st century freakshow" starts to echo in the back of my mind; am I guilty of exploiting Chris - taking advantage of his lack of guile and desire to please and encouraging him to embarrass himself in front of people? (Don't I kind of get a back-of-the-hand chuckle out of some of The New Creation's more outlandishly odd songs, like their creationist pop tune, "Dig," off Troubled, or "From the Roman Shores," off A Unique Disaster, which has Lorna Towers describing the rise of the Antichrist with Chris providing a catchy, singalong chorus of "666?" I mean, "Wind" moves me as much as any old-timey gospel tune, but that's not the case with all of The New Creation's output; at least some of it appeals because of its bizarre novelty value. I've got nowhere else to put it).

If this is a freakshow, then - am I the barker? "Step right up, folks - see this touching artefact of old-school Christian worship! Be amazed at his sincere unrefined passionate expression! Vicariously revel in his lack of ironic distance! Watch him try to play guitar after 40 years of non-performance!" ...I mean, I don't think that that's what I'm doing, and I don't think it's why the people who provided their comments above generally seem pretty positive. I'd go see Chris again in a second, if he had a show lined up, which most people I spoke to said they'd do. Frankly, I'd love it if he put together a whole set of music. I'd bring friends. I'd enthuse. I'd give him press.

And then again, I really dug Daniel Johnston's show here, too...

In any event, I figure the final word for tonight should go to Nathan Holiday of Tunnel Canary - my second-favourite Vancouver comeback story, after The New Creation's (and topping even that of the Pointed Sticks, at number three). (Pic of Nathan and the reconfigured TC at the Shitstorm Noise Festival by Dan Kibke - again, not to be used without permission). "I thought it was interesting, first of all," Nathan told me over the phone, "because it was a religious song, or a spiritual song, and it took a lot of guts to just get up there with a guitar and no backing and do the thing... but it was very short, and it was pretty simple. I didn't know if the album was like that or not; I guess it's more flushed out, because there's a drummer - I don't know if the other woman plays. I was waiting for something more 'psychedelic,' because you had mentioned the album was psychedelic. But I kind of listened to it and thought, 'That was interesting,' and then that was it! The song was there, and he actually presented it well; and I thought the guy was very humble and very genuine in his presentation. Apart from noticing the song was well-crafted and apart from his personality, I didn't really have any other thoughts about it!" Nathan has, however, expressed interest in hearing The New Creation's CDs sometime, which I will definitely facilitate. I wonder if Nathan - whom I would describe as a very spiritual man - would be able to find much common ground with Chris? (What would the world make of a Chris Towers/ Nathan Holiday collaboration, I wonder...? Good Lord, what a thought...)

Chris Towers (photo by Femke van Delft. All photos are used by permission of the photographer and not to be reproduced without the same).

Chris, whatever else may be said, I think the above sampling of my audience reveals that another live set by you would be welcome in this town, if you wanted to do it. Readers are welcome to make offers or suggestions in the comment section below; if you were there for Chris' song and have anything to add - or wish you had been there - do chime in. Meanwhile, I'm already scheming on what to do for next year's b-day film event (last year, Cassavetes, this year Phase IV... must do something completely unrelated next year. I've got a pretty good idea, I think - and I know just who I'm going to ask to perform in front of it). Thanks to everyone who came out, and congratulations to those who won the prize draw!
Photo by Femke! (I do kind of look like some sort of barker, or tout, or something. Hmm...)

1 comment:

Robert Dayton, Junior said...

Sounds like a perfect eve! New Creation then Phase IV: WOW! And Happy Birthday!
Man, those are two amazing things that people need to see and you did it!
Personally I hate the phrase "Outsider Music", I find it condescending and was named by a smug jerk, but maybe one needs to be an "Insider" to make it in the music biz, have famous parents or something.
That said, I often seek out music for a window into someone's world and The New Creation certainly qualifies. I may not agree with its' message but it is like little other, they are definitely making their own thing! And do you know how hard that is in Toronto? Members of the Metric flood Quintron after his set because they liked it and probably because he is doing his own thing unfettered by market forces and he entertains (a rarity in the here and now). He's a friend making unique music, am I exploiting him? In fact, his show provided me with comfort.

I get the idea that Chris Towers would be a pretty easy guy to have a conversation with.

I do understand the charge of exploitation, especially in terms of people who suffer from mental illnesses. I do projects with people with illnesses- am I exploiting them? Well, they may laugh and say yes but it was long before me or they knew they had any such illness.
So long as people's needs are being taken properly and aren't being laughed at as some sort of joke....
there should be no argument about how much of an incredible songwriter Daniel Johnston is, illness or no- tho it is completely entwined in his talent.

I was at a community centre last week to see a concert featuring some TO musicians and people with autism, Down Syndrome, and other special needs. I laughed a lot. Laughing WITH...lots of jokes were told, it was nice laughter. at times the concert felt like Jandek but in well-lit community centre. It was mostly families in attendance.
There was an incredible amount of support. Why was it done? Probably for a few well intended reasons.
But the value of creative expression is one that should never be taken lightly and allowing people the keys to create unfettered is so important.