Fiddler’s Green: RIP Gord Downie

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.

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Even the Losers

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.

 

What the Hell?

August 22, 2016 § 4 Comments

UPDATE: I thought this rhetoric about the Prime Minister couldn’t get worse. Turns out I was wrong; it can. And it has been for some time.

As every Canadian knows, the Tragically Hip held their last ever concert in their hometown of Kingston, ON, on Saturday night. Something like 11 million TV sets in Canada were tuned to the gig, broadcast coast-to-coast-to-coast on the CBC.  For those of you who don’t know, that’s about 1/3 of the population of the entire country. I haven’t seen numbers for how many of us watched on YouTube, as the CBC streamed the show worldwide.  Social media was full of pics, remembrances, stories about The Hip, a quintessentially Canadian band.  If you’re not Canadian, I simply cannot explain the importance of this band to most Canadians.  It’s something non-quantifiable.

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was there in Kingston, one of the lucky 7,000 people inside the unfortunately named K-Rock Centre.  Gord Downie, the frontman who is dying of cancer, gave the PM a couple of shoutouts, particularly insofar as Canada’s abysmal record vis-à-vis our First Nations.  In the aftermath, a picture of Downie and Trudeau sharing a hug made the rounds on social media.  It’s a particularly touching image, and it shows Downie’s frailty.

o-JUSTIN-TRUDEAU-GORD-DOWNIE-570

But then Twitter happened.  A series of tweets from bitter, and mostly anonymous, Canadian conservatives attacked Trudeau for a variety of reasons, most of them just a sad bit of bitterness.  For example:

or,

These were relatively mild, however.  Others wished personal ill on the Prime Minister.  But the worst tweet I saw was this one:

What kind of person says something like this?  What has happened to the Canadian conservative movement that this can even happen?  FACLC’s tweet is simply the most egregious example that came through my timeline in the past few days.

While I can certainly understand a deep-seated dislike, even hatred, for a Prime Minister (i.e.: Stephen Harper), I do not know anyone who tweeted vileness like this, who wished personal ill on the Prime Minister of Canada  FACLC and anyone who supports such viciousness should be deeply ashamed of themselves.  So should anyone who posted such vileness in the first place.  This is not Canada, this is not who we are.

The Five Foot Assassin

March 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

Phife Dawg, also known as Malik Taylor, died a couple of days ago.  He was only 45.  Phife is a hip hop legend, one of my favourite MCs of all-time.  His music as a member of A Tribe Called Quest and his single solo album from 2000 have long been part of the soundtrack of my life.  The Five-Foot Assassin was a perfect foil to Q-Tip’s smooth delivery, with his guttural growl and ability to drop a patois.  He also wrote wicked rhymes, tougher and more menacing than Tip.

Tip was the unquestioned leader of Tribe.  And eventually, egos got in the way of old friends.  Phife always said that he felt especially excluded because both Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ, had both converted to Islam and he had not.  And he was largely absent from the 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life as Tip’s cousin, Consequence, was featured (why, I have no idea, he couldn’t hold a flame to Phife’s abilities).  I remember buying Midnight Marauders in the fall of 1993 at Zulu Records on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver.  I was with my friend, Tanya.  It was one of the first CDs I ever bought.  I still have it.  The fall of 1993 was when I moved back to Vancouver from Ottawa, transferring to the University of British Columbia.  I lived in the Mötördöme, with three other guys I didn’t know all that well. I worked with Steve at the Cactus Club (or the Carcass Club, as we called it) on Robson St.  We also lived with Skippy, who had a law degree, but preferred to play in punk bands, and J., who was also in a punk band.  That was the fall when I took the #22 bus to work on weekend mornings, I rode with Chi-Pig, legendary front-man of SNFU.  Punk was the regular soundtrack at the Mötördöme; Fugazi and Jesus Lizard were our favourites.  But we also played a lot of Fishbone and Faith No More.  And when we were in reflective moods, we dropped some Tom Waits on.  Skip, Steve, and J. were not fans of hip hop.  But I insisted on playing Midnight Marauders as well.  And when me and my main man Mike rode around Vancouver and its environs in the Mikemobile, a 1982 Mercury Lynx, Midnight Marauders was amongst the albums we rotated.  I listened to the album on my long bus ride to UBC on the #9 Broadway bus.

Everytime I listen to that album, I am immediately dropped back into Vancouver in 1993.  Similarly, their last album, 1998’s The Love Movement came out the year Christine and I moved to Ottawa, so she could begin law school.  I had just graduated from Simon Fraser with my MA in History and would soon begin a long run at Public History Inc., which launched me back into academia.  I got to Ottawa a month earlier than her.  And in a small flat, in a very hot Ottawa summer, I listened to The Love Movement almost obsessively.  It’s generally not regarded as Tribe’s best, but Phife’s rhymes, especially on “Find A Way” and “Da Booty,” made the album.

I got backstage at a couple of Tribe shows back in the day.  I got to meet them.  Phife was unfailingly the nicest, most polite dude you could imagine.  He was just a genuinely nice guy.  He was always humble, he also seemed kind of surprised he was a big deal.

I am listening to Midnight Marauders right now.  Hip hop has lost one of the greatest MCs of all-time.  And he was too young to go.

The Dangers of the Internet of Everything

April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments

Courtney Barnett is this week’s sensation.  She’s an indie rocker from Sydney, Australia, and she’s making it big in the UK, and even here in the US.  She plays retro 90s guitar rock, for the most part.  Close your eyes and it’s 1996 still.  That’s not a bad thing, she also writes great songs, she tells stories, most of them autobiographical, and mostly funny.  Her music is catchy as all get out.  Rolling Stone is drooling, giving her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, 4.5 stars.  But RS‘s review also steps a bit off the deep end in this 90s revivalist kick.  In the loudest song on the album, Barnett plays around with gender stereotypes and her frustrating life pre-stardom.  The chorus goes:

Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me that I’m special/And I promise to exploit you
Gimme all your money/And I’ll make origami, honey.

RS calls this “so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics.”  Fat load of good the alleged anti-corporate tenor of the 90s did.  On Sunday, Evgeny Morozov commented on a new app, FitCoin, in The Guardian.  FitCoin, based on BitCoin, seeks to monetize our visits to the gym and other attempts at fitness.  FitCoin “is the first Proof of Human Work digital currency,” in the words of the app’s designers.  That’s right, using FitCoin, you can earn digital currency, which you can then use with participating sponsors like Adidas for discounts on gear, etc.

As Morozov argues:

FitCoin might fail but the principle behind it is indicative of the broader transformation of social life under conditions of permanent connectivity and instant commodification: what was previously done for pleasure or merely to conform to social norms is now firmly guided by the logic of the market. The other logics don’t disappear but they become secondary to the monetary incentive.

The ability to measure all our activities remotely is opening up new avenues for speculation, as anyone – from corporations to insurance firms to governments – can now design sly compensatory schemes to elicit desired behaviour from consumers chasing a quick buck. As a result, even the most mundane of daily activities can be linked to global financial markets. Eventually, we’ll all be trading in derivatives that link our entitlement to receive specific medical services to our physical behaviour. This is how fitness and health are gradually subsumed by the realm of money and finance.

Wonderful.  Sign me up.  Morozov rightly notes the dangers of this, though I think anyone with a pulse would recognize the inherent dangers in the commodification of basic human behaviour such as working out.  Or whatever.  This works, in many ways, on the same principle as newspaper websites.  Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe.  I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, and is capable of making complex arguments.  But he doesn’t any more.  His descent is tied to the larger descent of The Globe into irrelevance for anyone with a working brain.  This is made all the more bizarre when one remembers that Boston is also served by the populist, right-wing tabloid, The Boston Herald.  I guess The Globe wants to be a liberal tabloid.  In this descent to stupid, The Globe has realized which columnists and stories get the most clicks, and therefore make the most revenue. Jacoby works, because he riles people up.  And then there’s Kevin Cullen, who likes to use words like “punk” to describe Whitey Bulger (yes, he’s still carping on Bulger).

Thus, The Globe continues its race to the bottom because people want tabloid-level articles on the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, or the murder trial of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.  Real news gets pushed deeper and deeper down the webpage.  In the physical newspaper, real news is buried deeper and deeper as the front page is dominated by these two trials, as well as Cullen’s vapidity and Jacoby’s cage-rattling.  The Globe makes more money off this than real news.

Human behaviour in terms of a newspaper is commodified, but we, the humans who follow the clickbait do not benefit economically.  FitCoin, on the other hand, takes that economic benefit and puts it into our digital wallet.  And many people will think this is a great thing.  But it is not.  Tying all human behaviour into ‘the internet of things’ will necessarily lead to the monetization of our behaviour, and this will lead to the “triumph of market logic” in all aspects into our social lives.  As Morozov argues,

[I]f permanent connectivity is essential for that logic to exercise control over our lives, then the only autonomy worth fighting for – both for individuals and institutions – would be an autonomy that thrives on opacity, ignorance and disconnection. A right to connect is important – so is the right to disconnect.

In other words, we enter into the type of world imagined by Dave Eggers in his 2013 best-seller, The Circle.  In it, Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle, an internet of things corporation, thanks to the fact her college roommate is an executive there.  Mae, as she climbs up the corporate ladder, is seduced by The Circle and its various apps that allow her to track every single aspect of her life in the cloud and on social media, from her health, to her late night escapes to kayak in San Francisco Bay, to her sex life and her parents’ health.  Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, is a craftsman and objects to Mae’s attempts to popularize his hand-crafted woodwork and wants nothing more than exist outside the all-seeing eye of The Circle and the internet.   Meanwhile, first politicians, then nearly everyone wears body cameras for transparency.  Then cameras are embedded everywhere, in the eyes of The Circle’s CEOs, this is good, because, like with Google Street View, people can travel the world without leaving their living room.  But, cameras everywhere lead to a surveillance state.  Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly embedded, and loses her critical ability to see what is happening.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, complete with the slogan, “The More We Connect, The Better It Gets.”  The TV ads for Internet.org are what I would call creepy.  They are set in the Developing World, and focus on people, usually young people or children, who build things like windmills, effectively inventing it for their part of the world.  Then the narrator of the video informs us that they don’t have the internet, and asks us to imagine what we lose globally because Mehtar and Mostek don’t have the internet.

And while certainly, the internet can be a good thing.  It can democratize.  It can get news out of places like Egypt during the Revolution there in 2011, which I watched unfold in real time on Twitter.  Or with the Ferguson protests last summer, which I also watched in real time on Twitter.  And it can bring knowledge to Mehtar and Mostek.  And maybe Zuckerberg really just wants to bring the internet to everyone.  But the internet also Americanizes the world. And it commodifies the world.  And there is a sniff of imperialism in these ads.

Belgian rapper Stromae has a brand new video for his track “Carmen.” In it, Stromae is caught in a hell of internet addiction, driven by love and consumer culture (you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the video)

Eggers’ dystopia is fiction.  The FitCoin future and commodification of everything is very real.  And why should we be surprised?  As Tony Judt argues in his brilliant Ill Fares the Landsometime in the 1980s, during the era of Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics, western society became completely and totally obsessed with money.  The end result of this is that, despite the alleged anti-corporatism of the 90s (honestly, I am not entirely sure what this is about, even counter-culture superstars like Nirvana were on major labels), is the monetization of everything.  Greed drives us.  And as the game proceeds, it will be harder and harder to opt out.  Morozov’s “right to disconnect” will disappear.

Reflections on Feminism and Class

February 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

I watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, the other night.  Hanna was, essentially, the founder of the Riot Grrrl movement back in 1992; she wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto.  I’ve always been a fan, and I remember going to Bikini Kill shows back in the day.  Hanna would insist the boys move to the back of the crowd and the girls come down to the front.  And we listened to her.  She was an intimidating presence on a stage.  The girls came down front so they could dance and mosh and not get beaten to a pulp by the boys.  Early 90s mosh pits were violent places, and they got worse as they got invaded by the jocks after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a few other bands went mainstream.  Bikini Kill never did, but their shows, as well as those of L7 and Babes in Toyland, still attracted these wider audiences, at least the gigs I went to.  Hanna and Bikini Kill were unabashedly feminist.  If you didn’t like, you could just fuck off.

Yesterday in class, in a very gender-segregated room (women on the left, men on the right), we had an interesting discussion.  We were discussing Delores Hayden’s The Power of Place, about attempts to forge a public history on the landscape of Los Angeles that gives credence to the stories of women and minorities.  So.  I asked my students if women were a minority.  To a person, they all knew that women are not a minority, at least not in demographic terms.  Women are the majority; right now in the United States and Canada, around 51% of the population.  But.  Women are a minority in terms how they are treated in our culture, how they are second-class citizens, essentially.  The women in my class all knew this, they were all adamant about it.  The men stayed silent, though they nodded approvingly at what the women were saying.

Despite the fact that close to nothing has changed in the mainstream of our culture, that we still live in a rape culture that is designed to keep women de-centred and unbalanced, I was so happy that my students knew what was what in our world, and I was so happy that the men knew to keep their mouth shut.

In The Punk Singer, Lynn Breedlove, a queer feminist writer, singer, and punk, noted that feminism is about the struggle of the sub-altern, about the struggle of the oppressed.  And feminism should fight for the oppressed, no matter the fight, be it race, sexuality, or class.  And I had this lightning bolt moment.  This is why I have always been pro-feminist.  I had a prof in undergrad who argued that men cannot be feminists; feminism is a movement for and by women.  Men could be allies, in fact, they were welcomed, but it was a women’s movement.  Hanna reflects this, she has always worked to create a space and a voice for women, and men were welcome, but in a supporting role.  I like that.

I was raised by women, and my mother instilled this pro-feminism in me at a young age (thanks, Ma!).  But, feminism (along with punk) helped give me the tools I need to emancipate myself from the oppression of class.  From these two movements, I gained a language of emancipation.  To recover from being told by my high school guidance counsellor that “People like you don’t go to university,” because I was working-class and poor.  Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, in a 1993 book, talk about the ‘hidden injuries of class.”  Hidden, yes, but still very real.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Stunning ‘Oops’ Moment

August 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

Malcolm Gladwell was on the BBC recently picking his Desert Island Discs.  For the most part, it’s hard to argue with Gladwell’s choices, given his age and his Canadianness.  I’m about a decade younger than him, and his choices look like the selections of someone’s cool older brother c. 1989, there’s BIlly Bragg, and Gillian Welch. Brian Eno’s there, so is Marvin Gaye.  Gaye actually appears twice, with Gladwell choosing the classic deep cut, ‘Piece of Clay.’  But he also picked Gaye’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, which was allegedly the reference point for Bleeding Gums Murphy’s 45-minute version on The Simpsons.  But, none of this really matters so much as Gladwell’s sheer, utter ignorance in introducing The Star Spangled Banner.

He claims that the American national anthem is an ‘insight into the heart of the American soul.’ Why?  Because ‘[t]hey’re blowing stuff up. This is their national anthem, it’s about rockets and bombs.’

Gladwell is referring to the first verse of the song:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

See?  There’s the red glare of the rockets, bombs bursting in the air?  All that nasty stuff, this deep insight into “the heart of the American soul.”  Except.  Gladwell is so wrong it’s embarrassing.  The Star Spangled Banner is about the British attempting to level Baltimore the night of 13-14 September 1814 during the War of 1812.  The author of this song was a lawyer named Frances Scott Key, who was stuck on a British frigate that night, watching the British attempt to reduce Baltimore’s defences to rubble.  He was there because he had negotiated a prisoner swap with the British.  The next morning, he was shocked to see Old Glory in the ‘dawn’s early light.’  Somehow, Fort McHenry survived the night and the flag still flew.

Scott was so overcome with emotion, he wrote The Star Spangled Banner almost on the spot.  He set the lyrics to a common British drinking song that every American knew.  Understand the irony: The Star Spangled Banner arose from the War of 1812, when the enemy was the British.  It also had three more verses that, thankfully, have long since been forgotten.

There are many problems with The Star Spangled Banner.  The major one is that anthem singers in the United States think that they must stretch their vocal chords to the breaking point (or quite often beyond) in singing the song.  Interestingly, when the campaign to make the song the official American national anthem picked up steam in the era around the First World War (it finally happened in 1931), newspaper editors complained the song was ‘unsingable.’

But this is all beside the point of Gladwell’s stunning mis-step here, as he descends down into stupid, knee-jerk anti-Americanness.  He should know better.

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