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.
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.
November 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
Leonard Cohen has died. He was 82.
A few weeks ago, he released his last album, You Want It Darker. I haven’t been able to listen to it, because I knew this was coming. He has been preparing us for his death for some time. In July, his first muse, Marianne Ilhen, died at the age of 81 in Norway. He wrote her a final letter. In it he said:
Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.
And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.
Earlier this fall, his son, Adam, told us his father wasn’t doing so well physically. So we knew.
But that doesn’t prepare us for his death. Leonard Cohen is dead.
My mother introduced me to Cohen when I was a child. He played alongside Bob Dylan on our stereo. When I really got into music as a teenager, Leonard Cohen was waiting for me then, too. He resumed his place on the soundtrack to my life. His music, his poetry, his literature, have all been a constant in my world for nearly 40 years. It has soothed me, challenged me, inspired me, and sheltered me.
I chanced to meet him once, in Calgary, 20-some years ago. I told him this. He looked a little stunned, and then blushed deeply. He thanked me. We talked of other things for a bit. And then we parted.
Like him, I am from Montreal. He wrote that one never leaves Montreal. It is always with us. And he was right. He was a wanderer. Like him, I have wandered and now live far from home. He has always been out there, wandering somewhere in the universe, comforting me. And now he is dead.