November 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
One of the wonderful things about growing up in Canada was official bilingualism. This meant, for example, that growing up in Vancouver, I could see my beloved Habs every Saturday night on La Soirée du Hockey on Radio-Canada. It also meant that the French-language version of MuchMusic, MusiquePlus, was broadcast across cable in Vancouver, direct from Montréal.
For the adventuresome young music fan, there was this whole other world out there from France, Belgium, Québec, and French Africa. Musiqueplus is how I first heard a whole raft of great French artists, from Youssou N’Dour to Noir Désire to Jean Leloup to Niagara to Serge Gainsbourg, and beyond. It is also how I first heard Céline Dion, so there’s that to take into account. But it is also how I first came across the great Parisienne band, Les Négresses Vertes.
In high school, French music wasn’t exactly something I could share with my friends. Sure, I was part of the alternative music crowd, but that only extended to the Anglophone world. I hunt out with some of the theatre kids, but this was a bridge too far even for them. It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa, with its proximity to Montréal, that I found the freedom to enjoy French music publicly.
Most of the Anglo world first came across Les Négresses Vertes through their presence on the Red Hot + Blue album in 1990. They covered Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris.’ But, by then, I had already dug on their début album, Mlah, which came out in 1988. They were unlike anything I had ever heard in English. They mixed French traditional music with world beat and punk. They were complicated. Their melodies and beats owed more to the French Empire than France. And they had a strong sense of musicality, which bubbled up to the surface in surprising ways sometimes. Front man Noël Rota, better known as Helno, sounded a bit like Joe Strummer of the Clash, at least sometimes (this also made Strummer’s late life foray into acoustic punks and Latin beats somewhat bizarre to me, since it sounded more like Helno fronting Mano Negra).
The Vertes were a collection of misfits and punks from Paris, originating around Les Halles. They were a united nation of the former French empire; their name came from an insult hurled at them at one of their earliest. I don’t get romantic about the past and locations often, but, c’mon, this is Paris. Paris in the 80s must’ve been an amazing place. And Les Négresses Vertes arose out of this, the cosmopolitan nature of the French metropole, plus the distinct French qualities of the city, and the inner city at that. And the music! Aside from Les Négresses Vertes there was Noir Désir, Bérurier Noir, Mano Negra, amongst others.
Their first two albums, Mlah and Famille Nombreuse, teetered on complete chaos, an eight-piece orchestra. Helno was this tiny, kind of funny looking freak. He had a pompadour and looked like something that stepped out of the 1950s. But, in front of his band, he became something else. He held this chaos together. He was both the primary song writer and the vocalist. He sounded a bit like Strummer, yes, but he also sounded world-weary. All of this when he was in his late 20s. He’d done copious amounts of drugs, but he still more or less lived in his mother’s flat in a poor part of northern Paris. People all around him were dying, of suicide, drug overdoses, and AIDs. He once told a journalist that he through that if there was a Hell, it was on Earth. He also claimed that he wrote his lyrics whilst riding his bike around Paris, singing out loud as he rode. Hindsight says he was damned from the getgo. But I doubt it looked that way at the time.
His lyrics were riddled with slang and dark humour, stories of love and the gritty city (”Zobi La Mouche‘ and ‘Voila l’été‘) mixed with the occasional beautiful love song (‘Homme de marais‘, seriously one of my favourite songs ever) and dirge (‘Face à la mer‘). ‘Face à la mer’ was remixed by Massive Attack and became a huge club hit after Helno’s death (perhaps the most unlikely club raver ever).
It’s been a long time since I listened to the Vertes, probably close to a decade. But for some reason, I put them on last weekend. Nothing has changed, even though their first album was released almost 30 years ago. Helno himself has been dead for almost 25 years; he died of a heroin overdose in January 1993, at the age of 29. Their music is still immediate, still that beautiful concoction of chaos, danger, and beauty.
Les Négresses Vertes carried on after Helno’s death, eventually evolving more into a dub fusion band. But something was lost. Helno seemed to be the one who kept the chaos from falling off the rails, from ensuring the danger remained in the background. After his death, the band was never as exuberant and full of life again. They mellowed. And as much as I like the post-Helno era, for me, Les Négresses Vertes were at their best between 1987 and 1993.
As far as I know, they’ve never broken up, but they haven’t released any new music since 2001. They don’t have a web page. They don’t have a Twitter or a Facebook page. And career-spanning retrospectives were released in the early 2000s.
November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
Last week, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette gave a speech at what the Canadian Broadcast Corporation calls ‘a science conference‘ in Ottawa. There, she expressed incredulity in creationism and climate change denial, and called for a greater acceptance of scientific fact in Canada. Payette is a former astronaut, holds an MSc in computer engineering, and has worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence. In other words, when she speaks on this matter, we should listen.
Her comments ignited a storm of controversy in Canada. Some people are upset at her comments. Some people are upset the Governor General has an opinion on something. With respect to the first, Payette spoke to scientific fact. Full stop. Not opinion. Fact. With respect to the second, Governors General and opinions, I will point out that our former Governor General, David Johnston, also freely expressed his opinions. But, oddly, this did not lead to massive controversy. What is the difference between Payette and Johnston? I’ll let one of my tweeps, author Shireen Jeejeebhoy answer:
But then I found a particularly interesting tweet. The tweet claimed that for the very reason that Canada has the monarchy, the country cannot have democratic elections.
Um, what? There is no logic to this tweet. I asked the author of the tweet what he meant. In between a series of insults, he said that he thinks the Governor General, which he mistakenly called an ‘important position,’ should be an elected post. That gives some clarity to his original post, but he’s still wrong.
Canada is a democracy, full stop. Elections in Canada are democratic, full stop.
Canada is a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State. The Governor General is her representative in Canada (each province also has a Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen’s representatives in the provincial capitals). The Queen does appoint the GG (and Lt-Govs), but she does so after the prime minister (or provincial premiers) tell her who is going to be appointed. In other words, Payette has her position because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected her.
Canada, unlike the United States, did not gain ‘independence’ in one fell swoop. In 1848, Queen Victoria granted the United Province of Canada, then a colony, responsible government. This gave it (present-day Ontario and Québec) control over its internal affairs. All legislation passed by the colonial assembly would gain royal assent via the Governor General. Following Confederation in 1867, the new Dominion of Canada enjoyed responsible government (which the other colonies that became Canada also had). But Canada did not control its external affairs, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland did. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which granted control over foreign affairs to the Dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand). In 1947, Canadian citizenship was created. Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the monarchy. In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land. Prior to that, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was. In 1982, the Canadian Constitution, which had been an act of the London Parliament (the British North America Act, 1867) was patriated and became an act of the Parliament in Ottawa. So, choosing when Canada became independent is dicey. You can pick anyone of 1848, 1931, 1947, 1949, or 1982 and be correct, at least in part. We tend to celebrate 1867, our national holiday, July 1, marks the day the BNA Act came into affect. That is the day Canada became a nation, but it is not the date of independence.
Either way, Canada is an independent nation. Lamarche’s claim that, because we are a constitutional monarchy, we do not have free elections is ridiculous. The role of the monarchy in Canada is entirely symbolic. The Queen (or the Governor General or Lieutenants Governors) have absolutely no policy input. They have no role in Canadian government beyond the symbolic. None.
I’m not even sure how someone could come to this conclusion other than through sheer ignorance.
October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.'”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.
October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
‘Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs,’ Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. She has a point, sort of. We expect photographs to represent reality back to us. But they don’t, of course, or they don’t necessarily. For example, she discusses an exhibit of photographs of September 11, 2001, that opened in Manhattan in late September of that year, Here is New York. The exhibit was a wall of photographs showing the atrocity of that day. The organizers received thousands of submissions, and at least one photo from each was included. Visitors could chose and purchase a laser printed version of a photo, but only then did they learn whether it was a photo from a professional or an amateur hanging out their window as the atrocity occurred. Sontag talks about the fact that none of these photos required captions, the visitors will have known exactly what they depicted. But she also notes that one day, the photos will require captions. Because the cultural knowledge of that morning will disappear. 9/11 is already a historical event for today’s young adults.
So we return to the veracity of photos, our expectation of a documentary image of the past. For me, the first time I was seriously arrested by a photograph was in my Grade 12 history textbook, in the section on the Second World War. There was a photograph of an American soldier lying dead on a beach somewhere in the Pacific. I don’t remember where or which battle. I don’t remember the image all that well, actually, I don’t think the viewer could see the soldier’s face. I remember just a crumpled body, in black and white. And for the first time, I understood the devastating power of war and the fragility of the human body.
Later, in grad school, I read Ian McKay’s The Quest of the Folk, about how Nova Scotia’s Scottish history was carefully constructed and curated by folklorists at the turn of the 20th century. At the start of the book is a photograph of a family next to their cottage on a hard scrabble stretch of land on the Cape Breton coast. McKay plays around with captions of the photo, both the official one in the Nova Scotia archives in Halifax, and alternative ones. I realized that photographs are not really necessarily a true and authentic vision of the past.
And so, in reading Sontag’s words I opened this essay with, I thought of the fact that we do like to think of ourselves as literalists when it comes to photography, we expect a ‘picture to say a thousand words,’ and so on. Just prior to this comment, Sontag discussed Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of plates that weren’t published until several decades after Goya’s death. The disasters were the Napoléonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. These plates are vicious. And Goya narrates each, claiming each one is worse than the other, and so on. He also claims that this is the truth, he saw it. Of course, they aren’t the documentary truth, they instead represent the kinds of events that happened. That does not, however, lessen their power and brutality. But they are also not photographs.
This led me to Alexander Gardner, the pre-eminint photographer of the US Civil War. In fact, war photography in general owes a huge debt to Gardner. Gardner worked for the more famous Mathew B. Brady, but it was Gardner who took the majority of the more famous photographer’s photos. Gardner shot some of the most iconic images of the Civil War, including the dead at Gettysburg. His most famous is this one:
This photograph is staged. Gardner and his assistants dragged the body of this dead Confederate soldier from where he fell to this more photogenic locale. They also staged his body. And yet, given our insistence on literalism in photography, the viewing public took this photo for what it’s worth and accepted it as a literal representation of the Battle of Gettysburg.
It was over 100 years later, in 1975, when a historian, Willian Frassantino, realized that all was not as it seems. Of course, what Gardner, et al. did in staging the photos of the Civil War seems abhorrent to us, unethical, even. But it was not so in the mid-19th century at the literal birth of this new medium of representation.
Nonetheless, what is the lesson from Gardner’s photograph? Do we dismiss it for its staginess? Do we thus conclude that the photos of the Civil War are fake? Of course not. Gardner’s photos, like Goya’s Disasters of War, are representations of what happened. They are signifiers that things like this happened (I am paraphrasing Sontag here). It does not make these representations any less valuable. Young men did die by the thousands in the Civil War. They died at places like Gettysburg, and they died like the staged body of this unfortunate soul. The horrors of war remain intact in our minds. We have a representation of what happened, and this one in particular (like Goya’s Disasters) has been replicated countless times since 1863, we have seen countless other images like this, including for me, the one in my Grade 12 history textbook when I was all of 17 years of age. The image is still real.
October 24, 2017 § 5 Comments
A few weeks ago, I posted this picture on Instagram. Immediately, my more smart-arsed friends began to chatter. I used the hashtag #nofilter, meaning that I did not use an Instagram filter. Not good enough for the commentariat, though. They commented on the mental filters, frame filters, and so on as I framed the photo and so on. They’re not wrong. (The photo, if you are wondering, is of a creek about a mile from my home in Western Massachusetts).
Of course this photo was filtered, from the way the creek caught my eye as I walked the dogs, to the way I framed the photo as I took it, choosing what to get into the photo and what to leave out. All photos are filtered and framed. Duh. I’ve been mulling over this since.
Then I saw the obligatory article in the Washington Post about where to go to see fall foliage colours. The first photograph in the article is from another locale in New England, Albany, NH. It’s a stunning photo of rushing water and brilliant reds. Meanwhile, my friend Matthew Friedman has been running around New York and New Jersey with a real camera of late, taking some absolutely stunning photos that he develops himself, as he is a man of many skills. Taken together with my apparent addiction to Instagram, a lightbulb went off in my head when I posted this picture in my feed:
This is a heavily filtered and edited photo showing the brilliant autumn colours on my street. But notice how the oranges and yellows and greens, and the auburn of the dead leaves, pop in this photo. Not unlike the reds of the leaves and the white of the rushing waters in the photo from Albany, NH, in the Post article.
The differences between the heavily edited and filtered photo I posted and the original are striking, I think.
This is still a beautiful shot, I think. But the colours aren’t as gripping, they don’t pop. And the lighting is much darker than in my Instagram post. So what did the original of the Albany, NH, photo in The Post look like? I presume Jim Cole, the AP photographer, shot it with a digital camera and ended up with an original that looks like mine. But then he edited it with editing software until the reds and yellows of the leaves and the white of the rushing water and the blacks of the stones in the river popped like that. The photo is glossy. And it’s beautiful. It’s an arresting image, and it is no surprise it is the lead photo in the article.
Photography as we think about it is filtered and edited, oftentimes heavily. It is often also staged. Or consider the fact that Robert Doisneau’s famous photos of lovers kissing outside Hôtel de Ville in Paris was staged. This is one of the most iconic photos of all-time, and has been used for any range of purposes, almost all of which have to deal with the romanticization of Paris. But these were not two lovers. They were two models Doisneau hired for the day. Does that lessen the impact of the photo? No. It doesn’t. In fact, Doinseau was unapologetic, noting that he did not photograph life as it is, but as we wish it to be.
So, yes. Almost ALL photos are filtered, beyond the mental filters and the framing of the photo. They are filtered via the production process, whether in a darkroom as Doisneau and Friedman work, or digitally, as Cole and I have done.
Kind of obvious, no?
October 18, 2017 § 32 Comments
Gord Downie is dead. This is a sad day. For better or worse, the Tragically Hip have been the soundtrack of my life. They have been the soundtrack for almost all Canadians’ lives.
In 1989, I worked as a line cook at an IHOP in suburban Vancouver. There was this dishwasher there, Greg. He was around my age, maybe a bit older. But he got me onto the Hip. I had seen the video for ‘New Orleans is Sinking‘, of course, it was on heavy rotation on MuchMusic. But Greg got me into the band, and that brilliant début album, Up To Here.
Downie’s lyrics were what kept me hooked on the Hip. Sure, the music was great, but Downie’s lyrics. He wrote songs that seethed and snarled with energy. He and his band also wrote some pretty ballads, one of which is the title of this post.
Live, Gord Downie was something else entirely. He was a madman. All this energy, whirling about the stage, singing and screaming and moaning his lyrics out. In between songs, he told us, the audience, weird things. He told us stories. At Another Roadside Attraction, on Seabird Island in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, he stopped in between songs. He stopped still on the stage, crouched, looking out at the audience, his hand shielding his eyes from the light. It was hot in the crowd, I was right down front with my man, Mike. And Downie looked at us and said, ‘You’re a fine looking crowd. But I wouldn’t get up in the air on any airplanes with any politicians if I were you. Because if that plane goes down, YOU’RE the first ones they’re gonna eat.’ I have no idea what he meant. But that was the point.
Gord Downie was the front man of a pretty straight-ahead rock’n’roll band. And yet, he was a mystic, a poet, a shaman in front of us. He sang Canada back to us. He told us of cheap beer and highballs in a bar. He told us of lake fevers. He told us about the Legend of Bill Barilko. We learned stories of the North from him.
I’ve never been able to explain what it was about the Hip that made them so important to Canada. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what it was that made them our rock band. It wasn’t the time they told fellow Canadian Lorne Michaels that they wouldn’t shorten their song ‘Nautical Disaster’ for Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t the fact that they could fill hockey arenas and football stadia in Canada, but played bars and concert halls in the US. It was none of that.
I have been thinking about this since the night of the Hip’s last concert in Kingston, ON, last summer. The CBC broadcast and streamed it around the world. And so we were able to watch it in our living room in the mountains of Tennessee, where we lived at the time. Today, with Downie’s death, I realized what it was that made the Hip so quintessentially Canadian in a way other Canadian artists aren’t: They made us proud to be Canadian. We are not a proud nation, we are rather humble (and occasionally annoyingly smug). We don’t really do patriotism, and when we do, it’s kind of sad and forced. We don’t have the great stories of nation formation other countries have. No ‘Chanson de Roland.’ No King Arthur. No Paul Revere. We just kind of evolved into place. But, in telling us our stories back to us in a way no one ever had, Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip made us proud to be Canadian.
At that Hip-curated travelling festival, Another Roadside Attraction, in 1993, they picked some pretty incendiary live bands to play with them. Pere Ubu were absolutely nuts on stage. And then Midnight Oil were the penultimate band. The Oils might be the greatest live band in the history of rock’n’roll. Frontman Peter Garrett is something like 6’7″, rail thin, and a wild man on the stage. And his band are louder, more aggressive, more prone to shrieking feedback and punk speeds live than on record. I remember the end of their gig, the audience was exhausted. We were spent. Surely no band in the world could ever top that.
And then, the Tragically Hip wandered on stage. And let ‘er rip. I could see Peter Garrett in the wings stage right. At first he looked shocked and then he had a big grin on his face. The Oils had been blown off the stage by the Hip.
The early 90s were my hardcore punk days. And yet, the Hip was something even us punks could agree on. Our allegiance to the Tragically Hip was manifest at that festival. Me and my main man Mike went. But in the crowd, we came across all kinds of our people from Vancouver.
Losing Gord Downie hurts in a way that losing Leonard Cohen last year hurt. Like Cohen, Downie and his band were the stars of my firmament. They were the nighttime sky and the lights, distant in the darkness.
Unlike Cohen, whom I met, I never met Downie. I did see him once on a streetcar in Toronto, though. And this is what I always loved about Canada. And still do. I met Leonard Cohen in a laundromat in Calgary. I saw Downie on a streetcar. I talked to Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics once on a downtown street in Ottawa. When he was the Leader of the Official Opposition, I saw Stéphane Dion walking down the rue Saint-Denis with his wife, shopping, one Sunday morning. Our stars are our own, they live and work amongst us.
The sky is going to be a bit dimmer tonight.
October 17, 2017 § Leave a comment
Since around Sunday afternoon, women have been posting on social media that they have been victims of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment. My Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of these brave posts, with the hashtag #MeToo. But, almost immediately, the backlash came. From men.
Yes, men are the victims of sexual assault, too. Around 10% of rape victims are male, and around 3% of men in the United States have been sexually assaulted. This is a very real problem. And the sexual assault of men does not get much coverage in our world. To be a male survivor of sexual assault is alienating and lonely. In fact, many of the same things women experience, men experience in the aftermath of being sexually assaulted.
But. This male backlash to #MeToo smacks of an attempt to deny women their experiences. It also smacks of ‘All Lives Matter.’
A couple of years ago, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, white conservatives began the counterpoint: All Lives Matter. Well, duh. Of course all lives matter. That was never open for debate. No one ever said that because Black Lives Matter, other lives don’t. But the simple fact was that the discussion was about black lives, which were much more likely to be terminated at the hands of the police than other types of lives.
In effect, saying ‘All Lives Matter’ was an attempt to equate the African American experience with the white American experience, and to say they were both equal. They’re not. This nation was founded upon exploiting the labour and bodies of African Americans, and even though slavery ended 152 years ago, the cost for black bodies has not ended. And even though the Civil Rights Era was half a century ago, the cost for black bodies has not ended. To suggest the white and black experience is the same is a false equivalence.
Not all men who are speaking out right now are attempting to deny women’s experiences. They are speaking out of of the same, or similar place. But, this is already being used to silence women. Some men are using these men’s experiences to claim an equivalence of the male and female experience. This is already being used to deny the experience of women. A few years ago, during another heightened consciousness over the experience of women, #YesAllWomen was a social media activist campaign. Because almost all women have experienced this. So, to claim that the male and female experience of sexual violence is the same is wrong. It is not. It is a false equivalence.