December 19, 2018 § 3 Comments
For roughly the past 25 years or so, I’ve referred to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ as the date rape song. The lyrics are creepy as all get out. And yes, I know the song was written in 1944. And I know that the lyrics actually reflect pop culture in the 1940s, including jokes about drinks being spiked (with alcohol) and young men and women were not allowed the kind of freedom depicted in the lyrics in 1944. And that the song was actually written by a married man so he and his wife could sing it at their housewarming party. I get that. But it’s not 1944, it’s 2018.
The lyrics of the song include the woman saying she ought to say no and the man complaining about his wounded pride; then she wonders what he put in her drink; and then she even says the ‘answer is no’, and he continues to badger her. In 2018, this conjures up images of rape culture, of roofies, and continues the idea that it’s romantic to badger and harass a woman until she gives in. And in the context of #MeToo, this shouldn’t be acceptable. The fact it took us until now to figure this out is something else, of course.
I posted something along these lines on Facebook earlier this month (minus the historical context) when a series of radio stations in Canada decided to stop playing the song. Personally, I see that as no major loss. There are still countless Christmas songs we can listen to in 45,000 different versions until we want to pull our hair out. The song kinda sucks anyway, I mean, aside from the rape-y feel to it.
And then the commentariat! My feed lit up with my friends arguing against me. I even got chastised for being a bad historian for failing to note the song is from the 1940s. Over and over, the context of the song was explained to me. But that’s the thing, this cuts both ways. If we want to consider historical context for things, then let’s discuss Confederate War monuments.
Historical context is a real and important factor in debates about history and artefacts from the past. And ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is an artefact. Questions of historical context and artefacts are immediately loaded. So, to take the example of the Confederate War monument, it does not belong in a public park, but on the grounds of a museum or inside the museum, where it can be historicized and explained, and put into its context. That is possible and doable. And it solves the problem of ‘erasing history,’ which gets pro-Confederates riled up. But a song is not a monument. A monument is not a a living artefact. In the past couple of years, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, from Cee-Lo to Trisha Yearwood. So in addition to being an artefact, it’s a contemporary pop song. And radio DJs can’t be expected to provide the historical context of the song, nor can we expect that in our Spotify and Apple Music playlists, or on our satellite stations on our TVs.
Something else was fascinating about my Facebook post and the blowback I got. There was a very clear disconnect between the ‘likes’ and the comments. The comments were all written by men, save for one woman, a good friend, who noted that she attempts to keep the context of the song in mind when playing it or when she hears it. As for the likes, they were 90% women.
At the end of the day, I find the song creepy. And have for a long time. And while I don’t think the song should be banned (I’m generally not a fan of this kind of censorship, having grown up in the era of Tipper Gore’s PMRC). But I am fine with radio stations refusing to play it. That’s their choice. We generally skip the song when it plays on random Christmas playlists or Apple Music Radio around here. Life goes on.
But, perhaps due to what I do for a living, having spent much of the past 20+ years in classrooms with university students, I do see very clearly the effects of pop culture on the kids. I see the effects of rape culture on both the men and women in my classes, I see the effects of misogyny, racism, classism, etc. And I see that they (like I did at their age) take their cues from pop culture as a whole first, their education second (generally-speaking).
And it is in this sense that I see the problems with ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ all the more.
July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments
Riding the metro in Beijing the other day, listening to Wolf Parade’s track ‘Valley Boy,’ I suddenly had this moment of vertigo as my mind was riding the 55 bus up blvd. St-Laurent back home in Montreal. ‘Valley Boy’ is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, our city’s patron saint of letters. Wolf Parade, though from Vancouver Island, are also a Montreal band. A few minutes later, my friend, Darryl, who is in Montreal from Alberta this week, sent me this photo.
There is nothing more alienating than to feel yourself in a city over 11,000km away from where you are. But I was in Montreal. But not the shiny Montreal of 2017, the grittier Montreal of the early 2000s, when the Main was half dug up in construction, and the rest was littered with discarded coffee cups and remnants of the weekend’s detritus. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cohen wandering around, visiting his favourite haunts, talking to the occasional person brave enough to actually approach him.
I never did. He was Leonard Cohen, He wasn’t a man for small talk, or pointless conversation. I did, though, meet Cohen once, a long time ago. It was the early 90s, he was touring behind The Future, and in a laundromat in Calgary, there he was folding his laundry as I was putting mine in the dryer. It was a random meeting and he dropped a sock, I picked it up for him. We talked for a bit, about nothing and everything and then he went on his way. I still don’t know why he was doing his own laundry on tour.
Montreal is changing, soon it have the newest infrastructure of any city that matters in North America. Every time I go home, I hear more and more English, and not just downtown, but on the Plateau, in the Mile End and in my old haunts in Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles. But even worse is the creep of major chain retailers. It used to be that Montreal was a holdout against this invasion. It was a city of small shops, mom and pop outfits, all up and down the Plateau, even downtown and in the other boroughs. I bought a stereo at a small store on Sainte-Catherine near MusiquePlus that has been shuttered for over a decade now, killed off by the Best Buy.
Montreal is losing its soul, I’m afraid. I take no pleasure in saying this, in fact, it hurts my own soul to say so. But there is a deep and dangerous cost of the gentrification of the city. My buddy Steve is a New Yorker at core, even if he long ago escaped. Each time he goes home to Queens, he is more and more appalled by what he sees in Harlem and Brooklyn and even Queens. Sure, it was a safer city and all that, but it was losing its soul. I always felt smug in the belief my city couldn’t do that. And better yet, my city was never crazy violent and it had, by the early 2010s, appeared to have recovered from the economic uncertainty of the separatist era. Hell, for a few years at the turn of the century, Montreal was actually the fastest growing city in Canada.
And so Leonard Cohen has been dead for almost two years. In ‘Valley Boy,’ Spencer Krug, one of the frontmen of the band, sings:
The radio has been playing all your songs
And talking about the way your slipped away up the stairs
Did you know it was all going to go wrong?
Did you know it would be more than you could bear?
In interviews, Wolf Parade have hinted this was about the larger geopolitical shitstorm that was engulfing the world when Cohen went to his great reward. As I was riding up the Main on the 55 bus in my head the other day, I thought differently. This was about Montreal, a city they and I have all moved on from, and one that Cohen left many times. Of course, Cohen also said that you can never leave Montreal, as it travels with you wherever you go and it calls you home. Later on the album, Krug sings, ‘Take me in time/Back to Montreal.’ And so we never do really fully leave.
December 11, 2017 § Leave a comment
Years ago, I bought Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ album, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! Because of the way iTunes downloaded the album to my MacBook and iPod, the tracks were reversed and I didn’t really notice. Thus, for me, the album began with the epic ‘More News from Nowhere‘ and ended with the raucous title track. It probably took me close to a year to realize that the song order was backwards and, really, I didn’t care. I have since re-ordered the album in my iTunes and the tracks run the way they were supposed to. But, for me, it doesn’t really sound right, though it is more sensible to start with the raucous and end with the epic.
Last week, Kendrick Lamar, the second coming of conscious hip hop (or Jesus, take your pick), re-released his most recent album, DAMN. But, here’s the thing, this is the COLLECTORS EDITION. So what did Lamar do to make this a collector’s edition? New tracks? Remixes? Remixes AND new tracks? Oh, hell no. Lamar just re-ordered the album, from last to first. And, the world has confirmed his brilliance.
Now, DAMN was a mighty fine album. And while I prefer the re-ordering of the tracks to play it back to first, all I can think is, really?!? This is brilliance? Lamar is playing us for fools.
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.
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 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
Tom Petty died this week. He was young, too, only 66. Massive heart attack. Like many other people, the soundtrack of my life has been peppered by Tom Petty, both with the Heartbreakers and solo. I remember his single with Stevie Nicks, ‘Stop Dragging My Heart Around,’ in 1981. It was an almost total radio presence as I sat in the backseat of my mom’s car driving around Victoria, BC. ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ was a staple of MuchMusic (Canada’s MTV) in the mid-1980s, and remains one of my favourite videos of all-time. ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ was on constant play in the jukebox of the restaurant I worked at in the spring of 1994. And while I haven’t followed his more recent music, his Greatest Hits package is in rotation in our house.
I can think of no greater tribute I can pay to Tom Petty than the fact that even in my hardest of hardcore days, in the early 1990s, I still dug on his music. Of course, I got gently mocked by my friends and roommates for my insistence on melody in my music. But I remained unapologetic.
In the wake of his death, I keep reading how he embodied Americana in the stories he told in his songs. I’m not so sure about that. Tom Petty’s lyrics always seemed to me to be kind of out there, the characters of his songs out of some alternative universe. He didn’t sing of white picket fences and apple pie. He didn’t sing about Ford pickups and football. In a lot of ways, he mocked this America. His songs were about the underdogs, I always thought. Like Eddie in ‘Into the Great Wide Open,’ which in many ways is a typical Hollywood success story, except for the dark undertones of the lyrics. Hell, one of his biggest hits was called ‘Even the Losers,’ and it was them that Petty seemed to champion to me.
It’s a fact of life that people get old and they die. But sometimes, the death of celebrities hits hard. Last year, it was David Bowie and Leonard Cohen whose deaths left me reeling (especially Cohen’s, I don’t like a universe without Montréal’s favourite son in it). This year, it’s Petty’s. I guess this happens when the soundtrack to our lives gets suddenly muted.
February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian. I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs. Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more. And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work. It got published today.