Saturday, August 12, 2017

Yet another night where I didn't get to see the Still Spirits

Well, that was an oddly unproductive evening. I have been wanting to see the Still Spirits live for some time now. I interviewed them for the Westender awhile back, and have seen Jonny Bones' other band, the Bone Daddies, on a couple of occasions. I've really liked the recordings of the Still Spirits that I've heard, and am very curious about this development in the punk scene where suddenly 20something year old punks are playing ragtime, jigs and reels, country swing and other not-very-hardcore forms of music. It is somehow a pleasing dissonance to hear, at a show, canned recordings of the Descendents, Minor Threat and Husker Du between sets with bands featuring mandolins, fiddles, washboards and the like (but played with punk speed and energy). And I really like what Bones does onstage; I also like that he hosts midnight movie cult film screenings out in the boonies where I grew up, too, though I don't make it to a lot of those, either (one so far, to be honest). He seems like he's doing great stuff for his community, which I would be eating up if I were growing up there now, and I've enjoyed chatting with him at Haney Place Mall, where he works sometimes. But with the various complexities of life I haven't been able to catch the band as yet.

I made my best ever stab at it tonight at Pub 340. The place feels pretty much unchanged from its previous incarnation as a live music venue - I know I caught the Subhumans there at least once, some ten years ago, and a couple of other shows as well. It goes against the grain of wendythirteen's rather beautiful and true Subculture rant this month, about how venue attendance has dropped because of people being priced out of the city, but it was pleasing and interesting to see that the place was in fact pretty full, with the local drinkers gradually clearing out and being replaced by twentysomethings, mostly cute, mostly snazzily dressed, and all of them apparently having a really good time. I parked myself at a table and - once I learned there were no servers coming arround - went to the bar and attempted to order a pitcher of beer to myself.... which I quickly discovered is against BC Bylaws, which seemed kind of foolish, since I was stone cold sober and just didn't want to keep getting up and ordering fresh pints. Luckily an older carpenter/ drinker was on hand to volunteer to drink a bit with me. Bands started at nine, with Devil in the Wood Shack being first on the bill...

I had enjoyed interviewing Josh of that band around the time of their split EP with Still Spirits, but I had one misgiving in that first year of the band, which I didn't mention at the time: I didn't like that he was affecting an unnaturally Tom-Waits-y growl on several of the songs. Tom Waits is fine but his influence can aggravate me; he himself is so derivative - creatively, but still derivative - of so many other kinds of music that it's odd to hear him being taken as a primary source by people and borrowed from in turn. It was great to hear that Josh has dropped all that, that he's found his own singing voice, which works quite nicely with the material, and it was a relief to confess all that to him and discover that the band, too, has misgivings about aspects of that first split EP.  Despite their own apparent dissatisfactions with how they played this evening - Josh quipping that the band was called "Devil in the Shit Shack" at one point - I enjoyed their set a lot, which was high energy and tuneful and seemed mostly tight and all right to me, even if they were to their own ears struggling (it's only the second time I've seen them live and I was mostly happy that I liked Josh's voice so much better than the previous...). There were even a few familiar songs, like "Devil Does Do," which I see has been re-recorded for their vinyl LP (which I bought, and which Josh liberally gave a couple copies away of to people who rushed to the stage at the offer).

I would have probably left then if I'd realized that seeing Devil in the Wood Shack and talking about North Korea with the drunken carpenter dude were going to be the high points of the night.

Don't get me wrong: the Staggers and Jaggs gave a great performance. I bought their CD, too, and was pleasantly surprised that there was much more of the Hot Club of Paris - thanks largely to their violin player, a female whom I took to thinking of as "Stephanie Grappelli" - than Maritime folk in their music (I'd been expecting the latter, since their name is from Stan Rogers and "Barrett's Privateers"). The band had other surprises, too, including being half composed of women: having expected sea shanties, I also expected that it would be men singing them, since sea shanties are a pretty masculine form in my experience. I had actually crossed paths with the band before - serving as an extra in a short Clay Holmes film with the guitarist - but again, I'd never seen them and was glad I did; but by that point - they must have gone on around ten thirty or so - I was getting tired, having been up since seven, working and walking around all day, and I was finding the venue pretty hot. Plus my phone battery was long since dead, and though there is no table service at Pub 340 these days, there are definitely people who at one point in the evening come and clear AWAY the tables, including the one I was sitting at, to make room on the dance floor, so I wasn't as comfortably settled in as I'd thought I was.

I was no longer in the mood to be at a club at this point, to be honest. I would rather have gone home and listened to the Staggers and Jaggs on CD than stayed out, good as they were. But I wanted to hear the Still Spirits and I hadn't given up hope that I might.

Then next act came on, a touring band from Kelowna called Crowd the Joanna (not "Clouds of Joanna" as I'd previously written, suggesting perhaps that Joanna has been eating beans). By that point, I was starting to fall asleep in my new chair on the margins of the venue. (Thankfully no one was so bylaw-happy as to intrude into my night and tell me sleeping wasn't allowed; I have had that happen once at a Wolves in the Throne Room gig at the Venue where I nearly lost it on the security dude who "woke me up", since my "sleeping" was really more a matter, that night, of intensely trancing out with my eyes closed while listening to the band's rather meditative brand of metal, and his "waking me up" was more along the lines of "disturbing me:" grrr). I could see, between nods and jolts, that Jonny Bones was walking around in a pork pie hat and white shirt and half-considered apologizing to him and explaining that I was wiped out and had to go, but I hoped - though again, Clouds of Joanna or whatever were quite good - that they would get off the stage fairly soon so at least I could see ONE OR TWO Still Spirits songs, and still make the last fucking Skytrain back to Burnaby at 1:15 AM.

Nope. Crowd the Joanna, I guess enthusiastic to be addressing a Vancouver audience, kind of hogged the stage, playing four songs after their "just a couple more songs" announcement, and getting just a bit 1970's for their closer, like they figured they were the main act and could make a dramatic exit (actually, all three bands that I saw seemed to do that, playing longish, fullsome sets: there didn't seem any concern at all for wrapping up early on anyone's part - unless the Still Spirits found themselves butt-up against a curfew bylaw; I wouldn't know). They were good, they were good, I'm not pissed at them - but at that point I was (phone dead) in a state of "aggravated waiting," and I was starting to get worried about the time. I asked another older drinker I'd chatted with what time it was. At that point, Jonny was finally just taking the stage to begin setting up instruments and do soundcheck.

It was 12:35. Which meant if soundcheck went quickly, I MIGHT be able to see one song by the Still Spirits before having to run for the Skytrain station. But I also might not. More likely, it would take twenty minutes or so to set up. The bus service is unreliable at night, and I figured it would take ten minutes at best to get to Waterfront on foot. I spent a few minutes doing the math: if I left (by that point at 12:40, with Crowd the Joanna's drumkit still on the stage and only Jonny of the Spirits in evidence up there), I could definitely catch the train, but if I stayed any later, I still might not see a single song by the band, and end up on the dread drunk bus back to Burnaby.

There are few experiences in Vancouver I will try to avoid more determinedly than being on the drunk bus back to Burnaby.

So fuckit. Sorry, Jonny. I bought your new CD, too (and LOVE that it comes in a brown paper bag, though that's going to be a bitch to keep having to re-fold). I paid full price for everything, didn't cadge, tipped for my beer, tipped for my chips, and did everything a music fan is supposed to do to support his scene. I even washed my hands after I peed and, when a girl in an Alien Boys t-shirt asked me if I'd dropped five bucks, told her, since I couldn't be sure, that she should just buy herself a beer. I did every damn thing the way a scene-supporting music fan should.

I still didn't get to see the band I came to see.

My enthusiasm for experiences like this is running pretty low, to be honest. The scene might not actually be quite as wendythirteen describes in that column, but I sure am. It's nice that there were a lot of young people out at the show tonight. I hope they had a good time. But it might be awhile before I attempt another such gig.

(See my new Pill Squad interview in the Straight online for news about a show tonight, though).

Thursday, August 03, 2017

RIP Sam Shepard: Cold in July, Bright Angel

Always was a fan of Sam Shepard's. I've only seen a couple of film adaptations of his plays - True West and Fool For Love, and neither recently - but I've seen a few films he was involved in writing, most notably Zabriskie Point and Paris, Texas; seen at least one of two films he directed, Far North (if I have seen the other, Silent Tongue, it was on VHS thirty years ago and can't recall with certainty); own two freak-folk albums by the Holy Modal Rounders that he drums or plays tamourine on (Indian War Whoop and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, both delightful); and I have Bob Dylan's Knocked Out Loaded around somewhere - one of Dylan's shittiest-ever records, worse even than his Christian period, except for one ten-minute-long narrative, "Brownsville Girl," which he and Shepard wrote about a great old Gregory Peck western, The Gunfighter, which, after I fell in love with that song, I subsequently sought out and also fell in love with (thanks, guys!).

And then, of course, I have watched Sam Shepard as an actor more times than I can count, often in films I have great affection for, including some obvious ones like Schlondorff's Voyager or Apted's Thunderheart.  These films have gotten their due, critically (though if you haven't seen either, do seek them out). There are two films he's in that I particularly want to mention here, by way of paying my respects - Bright Angel and Cold in July - which you may NOT have seen, that I want to consider at some slight length.

Bright Angel is, I admit, a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it's one I can't shake, kinda like one of those really great songs that Bruce Springsteen has written, that make it impossible to dismiss him, no matter how much you want to (and I do, I do: cf. Richard Meltzer's "One Commie Wrong About Bruce" in  A Whore Just Like the Rest, if you're unclear why, but I bet Meltzer likes a couple of Bruce's songs, too). First off, Bright Angel is glaringly overwritten - by novelist Richard Ford, who gets no excuses from me for the screenplay's excesses, since he was in his 40's at the time the film was made (he might get absolved if he wrote it when he was 20; it feels like the work of a man in his 20's, actually). Said excesses begin with the title, a reference to Lucifer, the "bringer of light," who manifests in the film - not literally; there is no actual occult content - in the form of a character played by Lily Taylor. She's a young woman in trouble who comes into a small hick town and involves a young man (Dermot Mulroney) in a quest that brings him both an ordeal and a rich but thankless payoff in "experience." Of course, Taylor's character could only be named "Lucy," to cement the Biblical reference (maybe this seemed subtle and clever at the time, who knows?). The dialogue is a sort of philosophically-laced cowboy poetry with nuggets of, um, wisdom at every turn, served forth with great gravitas. Some of these have stuck in my mind for decades (including a line of Sam's, early on, that the meaning of all harsh words is "what about me?") It's the sort of film that makes a father washing his son's hands in the sink into a metaphor for something, but you're never quite sure what. I'm pretty sure, in short, that it is, all things considered, a BAD FILM; but it is a GREAT bad film, and an extremely actorly one, with one of the most jam-packed talent-laden character-actor-rich casts of 1990, which, besides Mulroney and Taylor and Shepard, also includes Will Patton, Valerie Perrine, Burt Young, Bill Pullman, Benjamin Bratt, Kevin Tighe, Delroy Lindo, Mary Kay Place and Sheila McCarthy (whew!). Lindo and Pullman in particular are given memorably unhinged, scenery-threatening roles and whopper lines of dialogue - but they pull them off (!). It's one of the most jam-packed actin' extravaganzas you've never heard of, available on DVD, and well-worth looking at, especially if all my above caveats make it seem more intriguing than horrible.

But Erika and I saw Bright Angel not too long ago. When Sam passed last week, it seemed appropriate to at the least watch a film he is in, as a way of paying respects, but it wasn't immediately obvious to me which to play (I don't have Voyager, and Thunderheart also is something we have seen not too long ago; she doesn't like to repeat films as often as I do). Erika and I after some discussion - choosing between a possibly boring visual masterpiece from when Sam was young and beautiful (surely everyone knows exactly which film I am talking about) or a lesser but more exciting crime film from his craggier final decade - settled on the latter course, and I got to see Cold in July for the second time. (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford never entered the equation because it was too long for the allotted viewing time; we like to be in bed by midnight at the latest.  It's also great, though it's more for Casey Affleck - or Nick Cave - fans than Sam's).

Truth be known, the genre machinations of Cold in July didn't really work for me the first time around, when I watched it with my Mom when it first came out on DVD. I had been badly prepped for the film, perhaps, since it had appeared on all these "best movies of 2014" lists; the high expectations led, as they often do, to a letdown. After an extremely fresh beginning, where Michael C. Hall - Dexter, here in an everyman role - shoots an intruder in his home, and has to come to terms with the changes this brings, both to his relations with his family, his community, and his sense of himself as a man, the film raises a huge red flag that it is going to turn into a Cape Fear knockoff, maybe with a bit of A History of Violence in the wings. This is initially disappointing - seeing a movie that looked like it was going to be totally original suddenly settling into an apparent formula - but it leaves you struggling with that for just long enough to force you to come to terms with it: "okay, I'll watch a Cape Fear knockoff, what the hell... I like Cape Fear..." Anyhow, you're gearing up to enjoy Sam Shepard as the bad guy, for a change, and just starting to get excited about the prospect - because Sam has some really menacing moments, early on in the film, including a bit as "the dark shape standing above the bed of a sleeping child" where he is absolutely terrifying, the stuff of nightmares. Then suddenly the film works pretty much a 180 degree turn - you can stop reading now if spoilers affect you - and before your eyes, turns ALMOST into a buddy movie, with the arrival of Don Johnson as a pig-farmin', hat-wearin' private detective, who unites with Sam and Dexter - sorry, Michael C. Hall - to investigate and right a wrong, turning the whole affair into a sort of "vigilante justice" meta-film and meditation on what it means to be a man (or something like that - I'll leave further plot details aside to not spoil too much but it would be a worthy addition to the book Killing for Culture if it ever gets updated again). Sam isn't a bad guy after all! It is still not a great film, I don't think - I preferred director Jim Mickle's Stakeland and We Are What We Are, which is probably his greatest accomplishment so far (though lacks Sam Shepard, so I won't discuss it much here; I think I blogged about it awhile back, when considering Southern Gothic horror). Cold in July tries to get away with too much, and while it has some very fresh and exceptionally engaging moments, it also has a few pretty silly plot devices ("how do we get them to discover the videotapes? Hmm..."). There's lots to like, don't get me wrong - it IS worth watching. But there is only one thing to absolutely love in the movie: Sam Shepard.

Not just because he's Sam, either. The film allows him to do some remarkable things as an actor - it boasts one of his best performances in any film ever. He plays a man whose backstory includes saving lives in the Korean war, who now - the film is set in the late 1980's - is an ex-con with an estranged criminal son, possibly dead. Sam's character is so disappointed and disgusted by what his life has become, from how his country and the justice system have treated him to what his own progeny have evolved into, most of which is left unstated or implied - that his coping mechanism is basically to just sit there looking off into the distance hopelessly, rage and sorrow flickering dimly in his face as he tries to decide who should be punished for everything he's experienced. (The above photo reveals SOME of that; it's the best example I could find online). It is a great performance in a film with many great moments; and while I'm still not sure it adds up into a perfect unity, it is well worth looking at, and better on second viewing, when you're not being too distracted by its various shifts in plot and genre. There is a Sundance interview with Mickle - mis-identified in half of the article as Jeff, weirdly - where the interviewer discovers that in fact Sam Shepard helped write one scene in the movie, but then doesn't follow through and ask Mickle which scene. But now I want to know!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Party at the Rickshaw! Plus Pickwick interview NEW PHOTOS ADDED

Galen Disston of Pickwick. All photos by Bob Hanham (added after the gig, from the night this article was promoting). Not to be reused without permission!

The Rickshaw celebrates its eighth anniversary tonight, with a headlining appearance from Seattle's Pickwick, on the occasion of the release of their second LP LoveJoys (current Georgia Straight feature here, and see my former interview with Galen Disston here). Venue owner/ operator Mo Tarmohamed hand-picked tonight's support acts, Cobra Ramone and Rich Hope and his Evil Doers, explaining that he chose them because "they both know how to bring the house down. I wanted to make the show celebratory, and both of them have been very supportive of what I have been doing (trying to do?) at the Rickshaw."

Cobra Ramone sounds like she does sultry, slithery blues-based rock, though I am not sure which of those elements comes to the fore in concert. It's going to be fun to "discover" her tonight; I'm purposefully keeping myself ignorant - against my usual grain - so as to encounter her more or less fresh.

Cobra Ramone by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

Cobra Ramone at the Rickshaw on the night in question, singing into her guitar! (note reflection). By Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

However, if I don't really know Cobra Ramone's music (yet), I've seen Rich Hope and his Evil Doers' kickass brand of soulful/ molten blues rock a number of times, and heard some demos from their upcoming, Muscle-Shoals-inflected new album ("garage-rock 'n' soul," is how Rich describes it). Rich says that the Rickshaw is his favourite venue to play in town - and indeed is the last place I caught him, when the Evil Doers opened for the Flamin' Groovies a year or so ago.

The first time I saw Rich Hope, however, was over ten years ago, at Richards on Richards, opening for the Modernettes (or one of John Armstrong's newfangled versions of the same). I don't think that I had any idea that Adrian Mack, in those days my editor at the Nerve Magazine, was the drummer until he took the stage. There are lots of photos from that night, courtesy of Cindy LeGrier. Rich has more tattoos now, and his voice may be a bit more gravelly, but he has no more or less energy than he had back then. He seems to be a 100% "on" kind of guy, an indefatigable, irrepressible, and relentlessly energetic born showman.

Rich Hope and His Evil Doers, circa 2007 (?), photos by Cindy LeGrier, not to be reused without permission.    

Rich Hope by Bob Hanham on the night in question, photo by Bob Hanham: "Rich in action - solar powered laser beam guitar in evidence..." Not to be reused without permission! 

The Evil Doers - often having appeared in the form of Rich and Adrian, on guitar and drums, has now grown to four members. Adrian Mack says "we'll be doing a bunch of stuff from the new album, which is being mixed right now, leaning on the garagey-er stuff. We'll be joined by Brad Ferguson on bass and Darryl Havers on keys - two guys out of the army of musicians Rich has in his speed dial."

Also apropos of tonight's show, Mo and I got to discussing the differences between Seattle and Vancouver's scens. Mo emailed me that everyone, including him, "has always looked at Seattle as an exemplary city for supporting a live music culture. The state of live music in Vancouver is well documented - that it is becoming increasingly difficult for small independent venue owners like myself, as attendance to shows keep dwindling, but it's a bit depressing to read that even the almighty Seattle is having trouble with their scene," he wrote. "Is live music slowly dying?"

Mo suggested I put the question to Pickwick vocalist Galen Disston. I didn't get a chance to use Disston's answer in the Straight feature (which ended up being a few hundred words shorter than I thought it was going to be), but here are some outtakes (I'm using a couple of old photos of Pickwick below but hope to augment this with newer pics tomorrow).  

Pickwick at the Rickshaw by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

Allan: A lot of venue owners are really feeling it in Vancouver lately. Rents have gotten so high that there's this mass exodus to the suburbs, which means that people don't always want to come into the city for shows, plus there are lots of shows to choose from. So I've gone to shows that I've been really excited to see, and there's, like, ten people there. 

Galen: Right.

Whereas you're hoping 200 would show up, you know? ...So is that happening in Seattle, too?

No, I mean - from our perspective, we're incredibly fortunate here in Seattle, because it does seem like there are a lot of bands that are working really hard and getting pretty good results. I started a podcast called From the Green Room where I interview musicians and talk about what's going on in the city. And I think that - at least from what we've experienced - it's not that people aren't showing up, it's that there are different people that are showing up now, compared to the people that we came up with. And in a lot of ways that's great, because these are ideally, hopefully, the next generation of fans. But it's also strange, because the people - the bloggers, the weekly freelance writers and artists and other bands that we came up with, a lot of them have been priced out of the city. So they're playing less, doing less, and that's sort of strange to witness. I think that's a big part of the uncertainty that we're trying to capture on the record.

I haven't gotten deeply into the lyric sheet yet, but it seemed like the lyrics might be a bit darker than the music might suggest. The music is this ethereal, dreamlike plenitude, where you're kind of floating in space at times, but there are also lots of mentions of loss, and in the "Turncoat" video there's a tattered American flag hanging that seems to be significant...

That's always kind of been a theme of our band. We have this sorta poppy exterior. And even the title of the record has it; we have this fun, kinda upbeat, disco-y stuff. But the lyrics... they're not just about loss, they're also really paranoid and full of anxiety. I think you're right to identify that, and I think that is something that has always been a theme of our band, lyrically, that we deal with all of our subconscious fears in a sort of 'fun' way.

I mentioned in the email I sent that "Light It Up (Let It Burn)," just because of the title, brought to mind this horrible documentary - well, a great documentary, but really angry - about African-American activists being allowed to burn to death by police. I'm assuming that's not where the title is from, but... what's the song about...?

Well, no, that wasn't my inspiration, but I am pretty inspired by those kinds of documentaries. There's the guy who wrote the book Just Mercy, who headed this whole legal campaign focused on trying to get kids of death row off death row, and to also abolish solitary, especially for kids who are in prison. But no... that entire song is me alternate-dimension-searching for my wife, because she's missing.

It seemed to me that there were other references on the album to people being missing.

No, like I hinted at before, that is, like, my greatest subconscious fear. I think the uncertainty of being a musician right now, being a normal human that works a dayjob and has a family, and trying to maintain all of that... I think my musical output is a place for me to work out those uncertainties and those deep subconscious fears. So yeah, there's a lot of that all over the record... 

I'm always curious if anything has been written from a dream - or a nightmare?

Just the real life nightmare of, like, the landlord saying he's going to move back into the house that we're renting. Just stuff like that!

I think people in Vancouver will be able to identify with that. Out of curiosity - you've played the Rickshaw before, and you've been up here a few times. Are you getting a sense of the city, of the do's and don'ts - any life lessons from playing in Vancouver?

Honestly, we've only ever come to Vancouver - I think we opened for the New Pornographers one time, at a bigger venue that had a crepe store connected to it. [Not exactly, but we know what he means!]. But every other time, we've only come to the Rickshaw, and I feel like Mo is this uniting, friendly presence, in the midst of this "East Hastings" vibe. Which I feel very comfortable in now. We know [...] the transient zombies behind the venue carrying a 2X4...

Sorry, did you say you know them or you know about them?

Well - it's the same archetype. We've seen them every time, so they're familiar to us.

Yeah. Is there anything else I should add?

Just make sure people are aware of the record, and that we're playing Vancouver and Victoria this weekend...! And that we hope to come back to Canada soon.

The album is on coloured vinyl, right?

Purple vinyl!

Let me ask one last question - the textures of background vocals on the album, and the way they float and mesh with the keyboards, is kind of complex - it's really texturally rich. Is it going to be difficult to replicate live?

Actually, no, because - the horns we obviously can't afford to bring, or the strings that are on the record, when we play Vancouver this weekend - but I did all the vocals. On "Turncoat" there's some background vocals but otherwise I did all the harmonies and vocal effects live. I'm touching buttons as I'm singing in the studio, and the producer Erik Blood used a blend of those with a dry signal, or maybe a reverbed-out signal of my voice. A lot of the effects, they may not succeed as well as they do on the record, but I'll be playing them live as well. That's kind of part of what gave this new incarnation of the band a bit more life, which was me fucking around with vocal effects. I had always kind of relied on the raw voice. It was nice to expand on that with other vocal effects.

Cobra Ramone, Rich Hope and his Evil Doers, and Pickwick play the Rickshaw TONIGHT! Show starts in a couple hours! Skip the fuckin' fireworks and come see some seriously pleasurable music...!

PS: photos will be updated with live shots tomorrow, I hope...

Monday, July 24, 2017

The odd cult of David M: Lilith for Dudes and more - two free shows!

There is a weird phenomenon around David M. There is a small group of people who seem to turn up at his shows, over and over again. There are newcomers, too - for instance, at the Small Salute to David Bowie at Music Madhouse Records, which I shot footage of here and here, where some thirty or forty people I did not recognize complemented the four or five I did. But go to the Princeton, say (this Monday, July 24th, also known as tonight), or the Heritage Grill (on July 31st), and there's a fair chance you will see, besides performers (Dave Dedrick, Lester Interest, and Pete Campbell), and ignoring the incidental drunks and the newcomers, about ten people you might ALSO have seen there one of the last couple of times David played there - like Erika and I, Tim Chan and his wife Sarah, or Bob Hanham (recently glimpsed at the wiener dog races in a NO FUN shirt) and his wife Beth. There's sometimes a Judith Beeman, of late, and maybe a Pep Kay or Norah Holtby (hope y'all don't mind my naming names). There are a few other semi-regulars whose names I don't know, like "the guy with the impressive 60's beard" who made it across town to the Bowie event, or "the clean-cut bespecacled guy" who sits nearer the main tables than Erika and I do. Everyone probably saw NO FUN at least a few times back in the day, owned a cassette or two, and permanently associates the words "calico gingerbread" with "poo" and "Christmas." We're NO FUN fans, and there's this tiny little core club of us, intimate enough with each other and David, at this point, that once, when David couldn't find a venue for a show he wanted to do, we just met at his home and had the concert in his living room, with Ozzy, his dog, running happily amongst us, being friendly. (Ozzy left us last year, more on which later; the world is a lesser place without him).

It's all kind of strange. Never did I imagine when I got my father to pick up the Snivel box set for me at Track Records in the late 1980's, or when I was watching Gorgo ads on cable-access music TV (Soundproof), and sampling real-honest-to-god Gorgo with a friend at a Maple Ridge 7-11 - it's memorabily vile - that I'd be part of this little weird cult (not saying that we've been brainwashed, note, or that M. is in any way a "cult leader"). Though I'd seen David a few times over the years - including a few shows with Paul Leahy and even once with Pico, opening for Robyn Hitchcock at the Town Pump - the present "phase" of my fandom began around ten years ago when I attended a David M. solo concert at Chapters, and discovered myself the only member of the audience. Since I was writing for The Skinny back then, I did an article on it, riffing on the way that the audience-performer dynamic changes a little bit when the ratio is one to one. For his part, the ever-wry, unflappable David M. quipped that NO FUN was always "underground music," and that Chapters was "the New Underground." He did a full set, most of it just for me, until his then-not-yet-ex wife showed up and joined us.

David M., Dave Dedrick and Pete Campbell, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

Unusual or not, I had a very good time that day. As I remember it, David did Elvis and Beatles medleys, amidst the odd NO FUN original (or as yet unreleased solo songs like "Leonard Cohen Says Love"). He played the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" and a great Phil Ochs tune, "One Way Ticket Home." He also added some surprising covers, like Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl," which someone had requested a few shows before, and which worked surprisingly well, suiting both David's voice and body of work (it's less witty or wry than most of what David writes but it's not entirely dissimilar as popcraft; it's no "I'm Not Taking Suzy to the Be-In" but it can comfortably coexist in the same room). Later, in the context of David's Christmas shows, the song morphed, oddly enough, into "Santa's Girl," which might have made a few people raise their eyebrows. Where did this come from? they wondered - maybe two people, we're talking, but still - and I got to smile smugly and pat myself on the back for knowing the story, having been there to witness it... because those are the sorts of satisfactions you get from being in this elite, marginal group. ("Those who know," we call ourselves).

(No we don't).

David was very friendly about the whole exchange, that first day at Chapters. He asked if I had requests, and I am happy (though I would later suggest other covers that I was curious to hear him do) that the first song I asked him to do was his own, "Ambivalence," off Snivel. It remains one of my favourites of his songs, is as witty and catchy and smart a song to come out of Vancouver as anything written by the Pointed Sticks or Art Bergmann or Gerry Hannah, all of whom get a lot more respect and attention than David does. I'm pleased whenever "Ambivalence" turns up in one of his sets and give myself a little credit for recognizing its merits.

There are also times - often involving interminable and obnoxious Tributes to Elvis, which thankfully mostly remain on the recordings, unrealized in recent live sets - where I am less involved in what David is doing, and, though I own two NO FUN box sets now, I still mostly listen to my old favourite, 1894, when I break out the one, or The Five Wenceslases when I break out the other. I don't go to every show - though I do sometimes feel like I might be letting other members of "Team M" down  (or M. himself) if I skip out.

But I have no plans of stopping going to shows, either. It's kind of one of the more entertaining relationships I have with the music scene of Vancouver, and it's become it's own thing. It's not exactly like going over to a friend's house to see him play songs (even on the odd night, as mentioned above, when that's exactly the form it takes). But it's also not exactly like going to a concert, either, since it is absent so many of the features of a "normal" concert (like not knowing the other people in the audience or having to strain to ignore people who aren't there to pay attention to the show, since, the odd loud drunk who staggers through the Princeton aside, we ARE all there to hear the show - and we'll actually start heckling the drunks if they get on our nerves).

With two shows coming up, a happy memory of David performing at my wedding (singing a song we co-wrote!), and sad thoughts of the loss of both Ozzy and David's former longtime collaborator Paul Leahy, it seemed an appropriate time to do another David M. interview, this one by email. Bearing in mind that we're friends now, that the whole thing is driven by conflict of interest and nepotism, and that you may find yourself inexorably drawn into the cult yourself ("one of us! one of us!")... there are still many, many less entertaining things you could do tonight than head to the Princeton to see David M. play. (Or Heritage Grill next week, if you're out in New West).

(David M and Ozzy, by Erika Lax)

Allan: I feel sad and worried for you whenever you post a photo of Ozzy on Facebook, have you adjusted at all to not having him around? How many years was Ozzy your companion? Do you have any favourite Ozzy stories you want to share?

David: Not adjusted AT ALL, and I don't really want to be. I still talk to him as much as usual. He was my constant companion for 14 years, and that is my favourite Ozzy story.

What is the history of Lilith for Dudes? I recall you doing this a few years ago during "the Chapters years" but I don't know when you first did it, if it was originally a NO FUN thing, or...

"Lilith For Dudes" was only done once previously, on August 10, 2010, with Ed Hurrell, Pete Campbell, and Jim Cummins. Pete and Jim each did solo sets, as well as things with me. The 2017 version is different, with a real theme song and more of a through line. But I'm no judge.

Tell us about the Toys cover in the set? Are there other songs of Paul's present?

"Music Of Men," the first song/theme song of the show, is based on a Toys song that Paul wrote, and the band stretched out into something guaranteed to annoy bar audiences. I suggested recording it for "Snivel" ("Direction" was a Toys song that bar audiences loved because they liked The Paul Show) but Paul didn't want to, and I couldn't suggest a way to do it that seemed like an improvement. But thinking about it in terms of "Lilith For Dudes" helped, so it's Paul's basic idea tarted up and amplified in a way I think he'd have wanted to record for "Snivel". It will be on Leahy Stardust.

David M at the January tribute to Paul Leahy at the Rickshaw, photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

When is that coming out, by the way? What should we know about it?

Leahy Stardust, which just had three new songs added to it (two of which will be in the show tomorrow night), is a CD/DVD set. It will be available when I stop adding to it (which may have happened). I'll also be playing it as a live "small David Bowie salute" style set.

[As for other Paul Leahy-related songs,] "Cosmic Planet Rock" is in this show, along with "Father To Son/All The Young Dudes", "WDFD 2016", and something called "NO FUN Song", all of which are from Leahy Stardust. Lester and I will also be doing a variation on something that Paul and I used to do as a medley, and beat poems a la Paul are also in the show.

Can you tell the story of "You Need Your Tongue to Stand Up?" This stands as the final collaboration between you and Paul, right? I found it particularly interesting hearing that song during my tongue cancer debacle from last March.

As you might already know, Paul said "actually, it turns out You Need Your Tongue To Stand Up" as his reason for not being able to play back in 1997, a few days before a Friday, November 28th show at Chapters Langley that I ended up doing by myself. It was a striking turn of phrase, turned ominous 19 years later of course, but I played him the chorus of the song just as it ended up within days of him saying what he said. And he liked it.

My favourite recent 'discovery' of yours was "Robert Johnson Box Set." Will that be played at Lilith? Can you recount the history of that song? Did you record the original performance, or did you have to "reconstruct" any of the verses that you might not have remembered... or do you play it pretty much as Paul did?

"Robert Johnson Box Set" is a reconstruction, reconstructed to be as close to the original as possible. Paul's Robert Johnson-style guitar playing was much more accurate than mine, and for my version I came up with some of the words, but we collaborated that way all the time. "Big Boys" was something he played for me on his little keyboard, and when we went to record it, it wasn't as I remembered him playing it, so I played it for him as I remembered it, and that's what we recorded. So what was that? I don't know either, but that's how we did things. People would sometimes be there when we'd be recording guitar parts, and they'd find it odd that we weren't talking much, just recording takes until we'd stop. You could ask Dave Dedrick about that, as he was around for a bunch of that kind of thing.

Speaking of Lilith Fair, for posterity, could you tell the story about NO FUN introducing/ sharing a stage with Sarah McLachlan? Did you or Paul personally interact with her? Have you ever covered one of her songs? (Bear in mind that I have never seen a Lilith for Dudes show and don't quite know what to expect). What songs can we expect at Lilith for Dudes that haven't been at your recent Paul-themed shows?

This should answer most of your Sarah Mac questions. The songs in the "Lilith For Dudes" show are songs by, of, and for men and the women who put up with them. I count 14 previously-unperformed selections on tomorrow night's set list, including the first two new Gorgo ads since "I've Gorgo Bar the Eighth, I 'Ave" a decade or so ago. Keep ragging on Gorgo and see what happens!

While I understand Paul wanting to be known more for his own music than NO FUN, it seems like there's been some real weirdness in writing NO FUN out of his history at times, from some quarters, which must be hurtful to you. Have you ever figured out what was driving that? (Is there someone you need to make peace with, since you seem not to have had a problem with Paul himself...?). You've never mentioned a particular falling out the two of you might have had, so this seems to be coming from somewhere OTHER than Paul, but...

No comment, but I think you know what I'm not commenting on. Three people gave your video of my song at the Paul Rickshaw thing thumbs down within 24 hours of you posting it. What kind of person would do that? I could name them, and you probably could too, but grief is what it is. My own grief is also what it is, so to hell with them. They should get a grip. For what it's worth, I'm very proud of that video and I think it makes an appropriate statement in an impossible situation. Paul would absolutely have appreciated it, and been mortified by it.

A few other things... thoughts on seeing Robyn Hitchcock the other night?
The set was great, and I was surprised and pleased that he did "My Wife And My Dead Wife". Not taking the easy way out, very good. We played with him & the Egyptians twice, and him solo once, and he seemed like a nice man every time. He's based in Nashville now, and the new album (great, thanks again) has Gillian Welch on it. There's a kind of nouveau, ad hoc Fairport Convention thing going on in Nashville, with Alison Krauss, Welch/Rawlings, Jerry Douglas, etc. that you probably want to check out. These are country/bluegrass people who are also fans of 70's rock, and I'm not surprised that Robyn Hitchcock has gravitated to them.

By the way, what's your history with Jim Cummins? I realize he is not on the bill, but since he played the last event in 2010, do you have any favourite stories or interactions with him? (I believe I saw him get hit with a beer bottle when performing at the first ever punk gig I went to, the Dead Kennedys at the York Theatre, and keep on playing without so much as blinking, but when I chatted with him about it he didn't recall the specific moment).

Jim Cummins is a guy from Langley, who I've known casually for a long time, but we became friends at Chapters, where he'd drop in all the time. We had the shared experience of supporting elderly parents because the art weirdos in families stick around while the responsible siblings fuck off. I believe you understand the concept. Jim is a top-quality guy; Ozzy agreed.

How will the sets at the Princeton and the Heritage Grill be different?

They'll start and end the same; everything else is up for grabs, and there's so much stuff that could go into the show that there's bound to be a lot of grabbing.

Anything else I've missed?

It's free.

Todd Serious, The Poseidon Adventure and a trail of disturbing breadcrumbs...

(The Rebel Spell at 333 for the Last Run album release, photo by me)

I never figured George Strombolopolous for being a punk rocker. 

The other night, my wife and I were driving back from an ill-fated attempt to glimpse the Northern Lights from a dark road off Belcarra when her CD player began to crap out. It doesn't like it if we use it too much - it overheats and refuses to load and then, digital display flashing, it spits the CD out. So we flipped on the radio; Jack FM was playing something crappy, so we punched the preset for the CBC. 

Strombo was playing John K. Samson, on a repeated show from, presumably, last February. 

Apparently Samson was the bassist from Propagandhi - a band I don't really follow - so after a couple of (very enjoyable) solo tracks and urgings to catch Samson on tour - a tour long since completed - Strombo put on Propagandhi's cover of the Rebel Spell's "I am a Rifle."

It was nice to hear. I remember hearing what I think might have been a debut performance of that song at Under the Volcano, maybe the third or fourth time I saw the Rebel Spell, about ten years ago. Strombo made a little speech afterwards about Todd Serious - "a true punk with a true heart," he said, I believe, quoting someone from Propagandhi. He didn't get it all right: he mis-stated that the song had been covered in honour of Todd after he died, when if memory serves, Propagandhi recorded their version of the tune while Todd was very much still with us, though it does pop up on that posthumous Rebels Sing album, as well, in Todd’s tribute. But it was pretty cool to have Todd mentioned on the CBC, even if Strombo didn't do the next obvious cool thing and follow up by playing an actual song by the Rebel Spell.

It was also fun for my wife: Erika had helped prepare a giant vegan feast for the Rebel Spell when they played Adstock in Maple Ridge, the summer before Todd died, debuting a couple of songs off Last Run (I shot video that you can find on Youtube - the "last chance to hurt yourself" footage, with Todd himself wincing a bit, having injured his back in a previous rock climbing accident). Even though she doesn't really care for punk rock in any form - she vastly prefers Bell and Watchtower's reading of "Pride and Prejudice," for instance – and even though Todd was mostly concerned that day with hanging out with Gerry Hannah, also in town, than socializing with us, Erika admitted that it was pretty cool to have someone she had met and cooked for mentioned on her car radio. It was a little less unusual for me, but was still a nice moment.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about Todd again. As we drove, I played, from my phone, Jesse Lebourdais' song "You Were a Rifle," written in Todd's honour, and obviously referencing "I am a Rifle." (I haven't really come to terms with the whole of Jesse's striking new album but it is super-flattering that Jesse took the title of the album – Grief, Intensity, Friendship - from an interview I did with him awhile back, having asked my permission to do so, for the record; I often will try, as a writer, to reference someone's songs or album titles in my own titles for pieces, but this is the first time that my title influenced the title of a record not yet released). Erika and I got to talking about all the weird intimations of mortality that crop up on Last Run and on other albums by the Rebel Spell, previously discussed in conversation with Erin and Elliott from that group during an interview with West Ender, before one of those Todd-less concerts with various guest vocalists singing Todd’s songs. There are multiple references to death and dying and the brevity of life throughout the album, and elsewhere in Todd's body of work. There's even the album cover - which shows a man dying on a mountainside - and title (Todd told me in the last interview I did with him that it was, more than anything, a reference to the likelihood that their veggie oil van was going to crap out soon but it always had seemed more significant than that...).

By far, however, the creepiest discovery came after I revisited The Poseidon Adventure, awhile ago, playing it for Erika one night.

For those who haven't seen it, The Poseidon Adventure is a 1970's disaster movie - ignore the remake! - about a group of passengers on a cruise ship who have to try to find a way to survive and escape the ship after it is capsized in a freak storm. The leader of the group - also featuring Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell and Shelley Winters - ends up being an action-oriented, dynamic young priest, Reverend Scott, as played by Gene Hackman. He’s not much the type for sitting around waiting for God to intervene, as is made the explicit subject of an early sermon he gives, before the ship even capsizes (this is not a film shy about overt declarations of its theme). “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way.”

The Rebel Spell's song "Not a Prayer" abundantly of fits with this attitude. Hackman later lectures people who elect to stay where they are, praying for help and rescue, rather than trying to climb "up" and out before the ship sinks completely. “Sitting on our butts is not going to help us.... Maybe by climbing out of here, we can save ourselves. If you've got any sense, you'll come along with us.” He even gets into an argument with a colleague who elects to stay and comfort those who have decided not to try to climb out. He's pretty hostile to prayer, for a priest, but he's absolutely right that sitting and praying doesn't make a lot of sense, as the action of the film soon demonstrates: the people who elect to do it are soon drowned, while only those who try to climb up and out are eventually (for the most part) saved.

But there's a more disturbing parallel between the film and the song "Last Run." Having successfully led a small group of survivors through the bowels of the ship, to exit from a hatch near the propeller, Hackman finds that in order to open the hatch, he has to leap from a walkway and likely fall to his death, to turn a valve. He does so - but he also issues a final, angry prayer to God. I am trusting IMDB on the transcription, here:

"What more do you want of us? We've come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don't fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many more lives?"

Hackman hangs from the valve, about to fall, angrily accusing God for having taken a young girl's life just minutes before. Then - just as the valve turns, signaling rescue for everyone else, he shouts: "You want another life? Then take me!"

Then he lets go and falls to his death - just as Todd fell, on my birthday, March 7th, just over two years ago, in 2015. And that final “take me” gets a really creepy echo in the final verse of the song "Last Run": 
Blame the war on nature, blame the fear of green, blame the lazy cowards in huge machines,
Blame us all together as we poison the sea, blame the way we consume and breed and breed
or pesticides and the GMO wheat, the water you waste for the taste of meat
Blame acid rain, yes it’s still a thing, clear-cuts you can see from space
reactor leaks, open pits, massive dams and their floods of death
Blame our anthropocentric mind disease, science dragged out back and forced to its knees
Blame your own inaction while the world bleeds, blame that on the distractions of your silly scene
I know you need a sacrifice to your god of greed if it will help you can take me  blame me blame me blame me
It could, of course, be a coincidence. Todd may never have even seen The Poseidon Adventure. I would kind of prefer it if he hadn't, if this was all just some phantom in my film buff's head  I'm writing here of a guy who called me at least once, in that above-linked final interview, on overemphasizing the "distractions" of my silly film geek scene. I would much rather my head be up my ass on this one, because I don't really want to think of the implications of this: that maybe all the intimations of mortality in the Rebel Spell's lyrics, and especially on that last album, weren't actually part of some creepy supernatural coincidence, but had - sorry! - some active design behind them...?

Has anyone else ever speculated along these lines? I haven't encountered it in public, if so, and was too afraid to bring it up during the interview with Erin, Elliott, and Travis that I spoke of earlier, because I actually figure thinking this way might offend or hurt someone. During that conversation, we only got so far as to agree that the whole "cosmic coincidence" reading of events would have pissed Todd off to no end. If he had any tolerance for superstition, religion, or spirituality I never encountered it, not that I knew him that well. I tried, that last time I spoke to him at length, to tease out some possible inclinations of a mystical or spiritual streak in him and found nothing, even with songs like "I Heard You Singing" suggesting what CS Lewis would have called an encounter with the numinous.  I had actually presumed that he WAS describing, in that song, what I would comfortably call a "spiritual experience," but somewhat to my surprise, he would have none of it, seemed flatly disinterested in the angle. 

But how would Todd feel about people thinking the presumed accident that claimed his life was actually not an accident at all?

From time to time, a story starts to assemble itself in my head, proving - I'm sure Todd would glower at me here - that I have way too much free time: a story of an outwardly rationalist, action-oriented, materialist with no tolerance for mysticism at all, who nonetheless becomes convinced somehow that through sacrificing himself he can set a chain of actions in motion that will alter the world in some meaningful way, perhaps even moreso than by remaining alive. I think of Mishima, too, and Runaway Horses - which ends with a young, very pure-spirited Japanese insurgent choosing to commit hara-kiri, in the hopes that it will spur revolutionary change, than undergo the diminishments and compromises of aging. (I have even less reason to think Todd ever read Mishima). And of course, there was nothing of accident in Mishima's death...

I wonder about these things, and I look at the intimations of mortality on Last Run alone: the title of the album, sure, the cover art.

Then there’s the lyrics.

From "Hopeless:" "It hurts to be here but I can't leave/ And if I found a way to walk away, well where then what would I be? / I’d be useless to you and worse to me and I don’t get any better on self-pity/ I don’t get anything else just this bit of time..."

"Breathe" talks about drawing in a "last breath" before it's too late, talks about cheating death, and closes on the line that there's "nothing after death."

"Last Run" has the verse mentioned before, as well as another chorus inviting us to blame Todd, to take him as a sacrificial scapegoat if we need one so badly.

"Pride and Prejudice" seems mostly political, but ends on the exhortation to "scream and scream like you’re the one dying / And don’t stop screaming until your heartbeat stops."

There are a few songs, mostly on side two, that don’t fit the theme. "Grass Rat," the song Todd and Stepha co-wrote about Stepha's daughter, doesn't have that much to do with mortality, though it does have a lyric about sacrificing yourself for those you love. "Ten Thousand Years," "All This Costs," and "Fight for the Sun" also have little to do with what starts to emerge as a sort of theme on the album - of offering oneself as a sacrifice to help create a just world, of allowing oneself to become the scapegoat.

But some of that seems to inform "Let's Roll a Storm." Travis pointed out that he actually contributed some of these images, but there’s a verse about “standing on the edge of a cliff… One more step and you’ll be smashed to bits… the wind is at our back but we still refuse to jump.” The song also makes frequent mentions of sacrifice in the chorus (giving up “a piece of your bread.”)

There are also multiple references to "leaving"  - first in "Hopeless," above, but also in “I Heard You Singing," which has Todd imagining disappearing into nature, escaping the world, being tempted to heed “a call to be free.” It touches on the language of “leaving” in “Hopeless."

And then “TheT’silhqotin War” returns to imagery of dying in sacrifice so that the greater good might flourish, tabled also in “Last Run,” with Todd and collaborator Jeff Andrew singing, “climb the gallows/ take the blame,” referring to martyred warriors in an action to stop the building of a road.

I feel guilty speculating, but there's too much of this to seem a coincidence. I hope I don't offend anyone here, but - especially after having re-watched The Poseidon Adventure - it's kind of hard for me to shake all this. My mind finds myself drawn to it at unexpected times. I feel a bit bad that I've neglected both Alien Boys and Freak Dream shows to linger on thoughts of a band that is no more, of someone who is no longer with us. But it kind of haunts me, you know? I'm not saying he took his own life - I'm avoiding that actual formula - but when the above things align themselves, it's really hard to see his fall as accidental.

Sorry, folks.  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

RIP George A. Romero, John Heard

I love several of George A. Romero's films. Cronenbreg is richer, Carpenter is more surprising, but Romero gets closer to the heart, you know? I ranked my favourite films of his on Facebook shortly after he died. My favourite by far is Knightriders, followed by Day of the Dead (the cliche "contrarian" move, to rank Day above Dawn, but really, really - I do love that film more. Say hello to your Aunt Alicia!). But my "tribute" screening in his honour - the film I insisted Erika see, that she pay respects beside me - was "The Crate" from the anthology film Creepshow. 

What a fun little film: male rage imagined as a killer monkey that has been locked in a box for hundreds of years. I hope Hal Holbrook has fond memories of doing it; I am sure Adrienne Barbeau does. (Fritz Weaver died last year but he gets to cut loose a bit in his performance for this film, getting to emote a bit more than his roles usually require him to, so I'm sure he was proud of his work here, too). It's the standout episode of Creepshow but if you haven't seen that film in awhile, it really is fun, with Stephen King and Romero paying homage to vintage EC Comics (not part of my childhood, actually, but I had Creepy and Eerie and such so I can still identify utterly). It sells on blu for 2/ $20 at Sunrise Records, incidentally, and is a considerable upgrade from the old DVD, which doesn't look so hot in hi-def.

Also, though he only did two roles I cared about, I want to tip my hat briefly to the late John Heard, who passed earlier today (or yesterday?) at the age of 72. You might know him as the star of C.H.U.D., if you're a horror fan - and his line reading for "what ugly fuckers" is pretty delightful - but there's also a fantastic, gritty 1970's crime film called Cutter's Way that has a performance that must be seen to be believed. Heard plays a bitter, hard-living, irrepressibly angry Vietnam vet, missing one arm, one leg, and one eye, who develops a vendetta against a rich oilman after Heard's beach-bum friend, played by Jeff Bridges, sees him commit a murder (or something like that). The film is sort of about the "revenge of the downtrodden" on the wealthy, and Heard's performance demonstrates like none other in his career just how GOOD an actor he was. It's something you'd be forgiven for not noticing, otherwise, since he's seldom cast in roles that ask him to do much. He's not bad, ever - I guess he's okay in Paul Schrader's Cat People, too - but Cutter's Way is the film that really lets him act to the outer ranges of his acting ability; it stands to his career as Prince of the City does to Treat Williams'. It's a must-see, if you've missed it.

I have one other death-themed thing I'm working on, but I'm not sure how I feel about it... I've been kind of "too busy to blog," but I had to come here and pay my respects, briefly. RIP John Heard and George A. Romero.

Of Robyn Hitchcock, John Fogerty, and the Age of the Selfie

Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, by the great bev davies, not to be reused without permission. Note: I make almost no mention of the Psychedelic Furs below, but there are some vintage bev davies photos of the band in Vancouver here!

Sometimes, I don't enjoy a concert for reasons that make no sense to the people I tell about it (and which have very little to do with the artist in question). I don't always write about these experiences, because there's always a strong feeling of "maybe it's just me," and it seems like bad form to put the blame on any artist associated with the show.

Take John Fogerty at Deer Lake Park some ten years ago (almost exactly, in fact). I brought my uncle, who had come to town to visit his brother, my father, who was slowly dying of cancer. An ex (one I am on good terms with and was glad to see) was there with her new man. Esteemed colleague Adrian Mack was there. Hell, a whole park full of people were there, all of them apparently having a great time - certainly everyone I talked to did. And I cannot really fault Fogerty at all for my not being one of them: he smiled and played a long and energetic set (including unexpected tunes like "Ramble Tamble," the inclusion of which I recall impressed Mack a bunch). He looked great (are those his real teeth?), and said "how y'all doin'" to us a few times (which the Reverend Horton Heat - AKA Jim Heath - had once coached Vancouver audiences into responding to with a big "fuck you," since - he explained - it's one of the laziest ways to get applause you can resort to; Jim actually DRILLED us in this response one night at the Commodore some time ago, rather to my delight, so much so that I considered whipping it out myself that day at Deer Lake. I was pretty sure doing so would get me in trouble, though). Fogerty maybe didn't seem to be that SINCERE in his engagement with the event - for all I knew he was growling inside himself the whole time, because we gather he's a somewhat growly guy, about wanting to get off the stage or how applause is bullshit or blah blah; he could have been hating the whole experience, for all I knew. But if he was, he didn't let it show: he worked hard as hell and played his hits and some surprises and did it all well, and if he was maybe faking it a little - he did seem to be - it wasn't glaringly obvious. So I couldn't really justify the bad taste it left in my mouth, or my grumpy mood when it was all over.

In the end, I decided it wasn't on Fogerty at all. It was the fault of the audience. Though it was, properly speaking, not "the age of the selfie," back in July 2007, there was already a sort of narcissism that wafted off the crowd that day: the event, for them, seemed to be not about the music, but about themselves, being there to experience it. That's my theory, anyhow: going to the show was about standing in the aura of stardom, and more than that, the aura of 1960's rockstardom, and celebrating their own beauty and significance, their own participation in the lineage of that music, their being dressed up and seen and sharing the experience with their peers looking good amongst them, which the music and the artist only existed to facilitate. I couldn't help but think to myself how DIFFERENT the context of reception was from that in which the music of CCR had initially functioned (I presume; maybe rock music always has a bit of narcissism in it, but it's hard not to view the 1960's as some time very other, more sincere, authentic, engaged).

That same sort of narcissism, ten years later, could do something to explain why, a couple of nights ago at the Commodore - and very much in the age of the selfie - several hundred people, perhaps the majority of the audience, talked ceaselessly through Robyn Hitchcock's set, creating a background din of considerable depth and thickness (though because it was a bigger and better-attended venue, it was nothing akin to the wince-fest of the Wreckless Eric show at the Astoria which I wrote about here last year, then removed from the blog at Eric's request). "Why pay money to go to a show if you're going to talk all the way through it?" my wife observed, afterwards - a thought I've often had myself - but the sad answer is that a lot of people, in fact, don't pay money to go to a show to hear the music, these days; they go to be there, to be seen there, to partake in the "significance" of the event, and to have some of it conferred upon them, they hope. It is all about celebrating yourself; it has absolutely nothing to do with hearing music, which is a secondary, inconsequential aspect of the evening. You don't need to pay attention to anything external to you at all in order to pose for a selfie, it is just you and the camera and the thousands of people you imagine looking at the photo afterwards and being impressed. 

I don't remember it being like that, at all, when I saw Mr. Hitchcock at the Town Pump back in the 1990's, with NO FUN opening. It was a more intimate venue - as indeed RH acknowledged between songs, suggesting the next time he comes to town it will be at a "place like the Town Pump." (It prompted me to shout "Jimi Hendrix," riffing on my favourite memory of one of his shows there, but if he heard me or recalled the moment, he didn't let it show; some wag that night had called exactly that out when Robyn asked if we had any requests, and after drily retorting on the extreme unlikelihood that Hendrix would manifest on stage, Hitchcock proceeded to play an impromptu version of "And the Wind Cries Mary," which he obviously only half-knew, such that the audience occasionally shouted out chords to him when he couldn't recall them - one of the funniest, most inspired, and most memorable bits of "interactive performance" I have ever witnessed). Thinking back to the other night - I guess the past is always subject to idealization - it seemed to me that people knew how to listen better then; that they wanted to listen, that in fact, THEY HAD COME (mostly) to listen. Maybe it was never thus, maybe narcissism and "I was there"-ism have always been present in the rock transaction, but it seems to me now that it wasn't like that so much then.

It sure was like that last night

Of course, Hitchcock, going on mostly solo around 9pm (with some vocal support from a "Garfunkel" named Sean, I think) was blameless. He played brilliantly; there were some unfortunate loud pops from his guitar plug in, but he soldiered through and in fact kind of blew me away with his guitarcraft, which is not something I'd ever paid much attention to before (I'm more interested in him as a songwriter than player, but I was quite impressed by his flying fingers and his raga-moments; he had seemed a bit creaky when playing the opening tune, "I Pray When I'm Drunk," the most Merle Haggard-y song on the new album, but he warmed up really fast). Hitchcock was perhaps less chatty than he is at one of his own shows - I gather he was quite warm and friendly at the Biltmore last year, a show I missed due to illness - and his set was relatively short, but he sang songs that he obviously has a great investment in (a few of which I did not know, but there were three or four off the new album, plus a lovely reading of "Madonna of the Wasps," and a surprise inclusion of "Balloon Man" - a song we gather he is tired of, but which made perfect sense as a crowd-pleaser for a crowd running on nostalgia, since it is one of his bigger hits, and which I didn't mind hearing at all, since I am not tired of it). For me the high point was that he played "My Wife and My Dead Wife," which my living wife (I don't have a dead wife) knows from having heard David M. perform it a few years ago at Slickity Jim's; it was an even bigger treat in that David M. was standing with us last night, watching the same show. I'd bought him a ticket to thank him for performing at our wedding. Of course, it was doubly fitting that I had first seen David play live (with NO FUN) opening for Robyn Hitchcock at that very Town Pump show I mentioned (I gather Pico was in the house last night, too, since her boyfriend apparently was).

No, there was nothing that Hitchcock did that bothered me. He maybe was working hard to please - he spent nearly as much time as he was onstage at the merch table signing CDs, afterwards including one for me (The Man Upstairs, with him doing covers of the Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, and the Doors among his originals; I'm really glad to have it!). He was quite generous with fans, posing with total strangers for selfies. It seems to be increasingly an expectation of artists that they do that, that they break down the barrier with fans and meet them; Michael Gira, Lee Ranaldo, Pere Ubu and a ton of other bands I've seen come through town have made a point of making themselves available. In fact, one of the few shows I've been at in years where the artist wasn't hanging out to sign things or such - who actually declined the request - was Richard Thompson, who somehow impressed me for going against the grain (even though I had brought a Shoot Out the Lights LP to ask him to sign it; go figure).

In any event: I didn't really enjoy the night, and on consideration, once again, I think it comes down to the audience. There was a standout, telltale moment when I knew I was in the wrong place, in fact. I had gone back to the front of the stage to try to seek out David M., having left him there to go get a CD. As I weaved my way to the front of the crowd - seeing no M. anywhere - the house speakers started in with Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." And the crowd cheered (cheered for CANNED MUSIC, more loudly than they'd cheered for Robyn Hitchcock) and some of them began to dance enthusiastically, gyrating to that bass riff...

...And suddenly I was back in Deer Lake Park, grumpy all over again. Surely some of the people dancing to Depeche Mode had been the same people who talked through Hitchcock's set. And suddenly I really, really, really didn't want to be among them. 

By the time the Psychedelic Furs took the stage, I was in no mood. It wasn't improved at all by them looking EXACTLY like I'd imagined they would look; but they sounded fine, and hey, now I can say I've seen them, too (for half a song). Again, no judgment is implied: I'm glad to have reevaluated the band - an underrated group with some fantastic popcraft, even in their hits (though check out that first album sometime if you haven't, it's quite a bit darker and edgier than songs like "Heaven" or "Love My Way," more of an undergound new wave kind of thing, and just fantastic). As they delivered "Dumb Waiters," I think it was, I gave up my attempts to get Mr. Hitchcock's attention. I'd wanted to tell him that David M was in the house, ask if he remembered NO FUN, but he was, it seemed, uncomfortable with the "I want to talk to you" vibe I was projecting, had made eye contact with me a couple of times and looked away. I wasn't going to press the matter and add to his stressors. Plus Erika and I were both sore and tired after a long day at work, and both of us having to get up at 7am. We left; it was fine. The evening was worth it insofar as I closed a circle that began when I saw NO FUN open for Robyn Hitchcock some 25 or 30 years ago, by bringing David to the show. It was further worth it for Erika getting to hear Robyn sing a song she knew from David. And it was worth it, I suppose, to confirm once again that I really don't enjoy rock concerts that much anymore, and need to choose the ones I go to carefully. 

It did help me in appreciating the new Robyn Hitchcock album, mind you. I have now progressed past the obvious and immediate favourites on the album - "I Want to Tell You What I Want" and "I Pray When I'm Drunk," both on the set last night - and now am fascinated by the suicide-themed "Virginia Woolf" and the more elusive "Sayonara, Judge," one of the more haunting and ethereal tunes on the disc. Seeing a few of these songs performed live also helped me understand a couple of lyrics I'd been mishearing - that he sings about competing to shoot blood "furthest" into "the mouths of our cannibal overlords" rather than "first," and that in fact it is "Mad Shelley's Letterbox," not "My Chinese Letterbox," as I'd been mishearing it. There are still songs that are wholly mysterious to me on the album, that haven't given up their riches yet, but I fully intend to keep listening to it until I love every minute of it equally.

Finally, an amusing note: having thought cynical thoughts the whole time I was at the merch table about people wanting to take photos with a total stranger, and having resisted the urge to take a single photograph myself of the night - let alone a video - it turns out that Erika, while I briefly interacted with Robyn Hitchcock, was snapping photos of her own, of the two of us, as he signed my CD. Here are my favourites:

What is funnier still is that on David M's Facebook page, photographer Dan Harbord also posted a photo of Robyn Hitchcock where, if you look to the right, it is unmistakeably me, standing next to David M. (whose head is identified as Erika's, but I believe she is either not visible or visible as a glimpse of cheek on the far side of me). I didn't ASK for a single photo of myself at this show! I was trying to feel SUPERIOR to the people who were asking for photos of themselves at this show, for fucksake! And now I have more photos of me at this show than I have of me at any other concert I've been to in years. I have so many photos of me at this show I feel like the Pointed Sticks should have been taking some, too.

Photo by Dan Harbord, hope he doesn't mind my using it!

Speaking of being seen, I didn't see the Pointed Sticks, but I did see Tim Chan, Danny Nowak, and Dave Bowes in the audience. Hi to all of them. Hope you enjoyed yourselves, and I'd be very curious to hear how the rest of the evening went, as I grumped off home, muttering about "audiences these days." The nice thing about seeing local shows - like David M's upcoming Lilith for Dudes dates! - is that the people who aren't there to hear the music are usually just drunks who didn't pay to to get in, who are fair game for heckling and sometimes bring their own unusual dynamic to the event. I'd much rather see a show amongs a bunch of drunk working guys who don't give a shit about the band than a bunch of self-important selfie-takers, actually (though I'll take a devoted and attentive audience over either, any time).

Note: David M. has TWO SHOWS coming up this week, one in Vancouver, with added drunks, and one in New West, with no one but his friends and collaborators! Come see them! I will be at at least one of them! And they're probably even FREE!