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.
August 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
The opioid crisis that has taken root across North America exposes several ugly truths. The first is racial. The use of drugs is treated differently in the United States, depending on the race of the victims of addiction. When they are African American and/or Latinx, they are criminalized. But when it is white people using drugs, it becomes a crisis. To a degree. The important disclaimer here is class. When poor white people are using, it remains a criminal issue. But when middle- or upper- class white people are using, it becomes a public health issue. Thus, this is the second truth: class.
I think of all the jokes I have heard about ‘white trash’ and meth labs in trailer homes since I moved to the South. But, on the flip side, there is the criminalization and demonization of poor white people, and nearly all African American and Latinx drug addicts. Addiction, I remind, is a public health issue. Addiction is a question of psychology. It is not a matter of criminality.
Addiction is something very real in my world. It is something I grew up with in my family. When I was a university student in Vancouver in the early-to-mid-90s, the city was in the midst of a heroin epidemic. Walking through the fringes of the Downtown Eastside one afternoon, I passed the back alley on Carrall St., between East Hastings and East Pender, and saw a young woman, around my age, with a needle in her arm, foaming at the mouth and her fingertips going blue. There was no one around. And she was dying. I went into the alley, she was unresponsive, and her pulse was very faint. There was no one around. No police, no other pedestrians on Carrall St. All the doors in the back alley were closed, some of them barred from the outside. There was no one looking out the windows onto the alley. She was completely alone. And then she died. I don’t know how many people died in Vancouver of heroin overdoses in 1997. But I know she was someone’s daughter, sister, grand-daughter, girlfriend. I did find a police patrol on East Pender about two blocks away, and I told them. I told them everything I saw. I was very shaken, of course. I went home, they went to the back alley to deal with her body.
Vancouver is the site of a long-term heroin crisis. This crisis has been made worse by the addition of fetanyl to nearly every drug on the market on the West Coast. My mother is an addictions counsellor in Vancouver. Every time I talk to her, she says that her recovery centre has lost 2, 3, 4, 5, or more, guys in the past week or however long it has been since I last talked to her. Nonetheless, at least Vancouver has engaged in harm-reduction, which at the very least, makes it safer for heroin addicts, in terms of needle exchanges and safe-places for injection.
Vancouver is home to the only heroin-injection clinic in North America. It has been in operation for eight years now, operates at capacity (130 people, only a fraction of the addicts on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of the city), and is controversial, not surprisingly. In 2013, the then-Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, tried to shut it down, claiming that it enabled addicts. But it survived.
In Gloucester, Massachusetts, a sea-side town about an hour north of Boston, police there decided to begin treating the opioid crisis as a public health issue in May 2015. Police Chief Leonard Campanello notes, as many others have, that there has been a failure to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country (be it Canada or the US), and that, ultimately, we have lost the war on drugs. Campanello thinks, rather, that it’s a war on addiction.
The important thing to note in both Vancouver and Gloucester is that the police and other agencies there treat addicts as human beings in crisis. And they treat all addicts as such, class and race are not part of the calculus. And Vancouver and Gloucester are just two examples of many across both the United States and Canada where jurisdictions have sought to treat addiction as a public health issue in order to engage in harm reduction.
Last month, in Philadelphia, news broke that the staff at the public library branch on McPherson Square in the Kensington neighbourhood had become first-line responders to heroin overdoses in the park. Several times a day, librarians were rushing out to administer Narcan to people overdosing. Volunteers scoured the park daily for used needles and other paraphernalia of addiction. Librarians referred to the addicts out in the park as ‘drug tourists,’ as Philadelphia, as a port city, has a particularly pure form of heroin on its streets.
But, within a couple of weeks, McPherson Square was nearly devoid of addicts. The police had descended onto the park and pushed them away. Thus, the addicts were back in the shadows, living and shooting up in abandoned homes, in back alleys, hiding in the dark corners of the city. And while some community organizations continued their work of trying to help the addicts, it appears that the police in Philadelphia have not turned to a new model, but, rather, to the old model of scaring off drug addicts, criminalizing them and sending them into the shadows.
I don’t think there is anything new or revelatory in what I’ve said here. Drug addiction is a public health crisis, first and foremost. Harm reduction in locations like Vancouver and Gloucester have made a difference, they have made positive changes in addicts’ lives, including saving lives and getting people off the streets. And harm reduction programmes have got addicts into rehab and off drugs entirely. The criminalization of drug addicts does not have such results.
More to the point, society’s response to drug addiction amongst marginal populations (poor white people) and ethnic and racial minorities (marginalized in their own ways) speaks to how we see some people as disposable. The morality of such a view is beyond my comprehension, it is something I just fundamentally do not understand.
December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments
An interesting thing has occurred in the realm of Canadian sports journalism in the past few weeks. For those of you who don’t know, the English-language Canadian media is centred in Toronto, which every media outlet will remind you is “Canada’s largest city.” The much smaller French-language media is centred in Montréal, which is Canada’s second largest city. Toronto’s got a population of around 4.7 million, compared to Montréal’s 3.8 million. Vancouver is third, closing in on 2 million. And Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa are all around 1 million. So we’re not looking at the situation in the UK, where London is the largest city and about 5 times larger than the second city, Birmingham.
But, reading Canadian sports media these days, and you’d be convinced that Toronto is the only city in Canada and that its sports teams are all wondrous, virtuous conquering heroes. Never mind the fact that Toronto teams don’t really win much of anything ever. The basketball Raptors and soccer Toronto FC have never won anything. The hockey Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. And the Blue Jays last won in 1993. The Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are the really the only continually successful Toronto sports team, having last won the Grey Cup in 2012 (but, the CFL is a 9-team league, so law of averages…).
Toronto FC was engaged in a tense two-leg Eastern Conference final in the MLS Cup Playoffs against the Impact de Montréal, or IMFC. An all-Canadian conference final should be one of those things that grip the nation, or at least get the media to recognize its import. And while Sportsnet, the second of Canada’s sports networks, largely has, TSN, the largest sports network and MLS rights holder, has not. It has openly and blatantly cheered for a TFC victory, and its coverage has exclusively treated IMFC as an interloper in TFC’s eventual, wondrous assent to the top of the North American soccer world. On Wednesday afternoon, in advance of the second leg of the series, to be played at BMO Field in Toronto, TSN posted this article about the five keys to the match as its headline on TSN.ca. Note that it’s all about what TFC needs to do to win. This is just the most egregious example. The rest of the coverage on TSN.ca Wednesday afternoon was all slanted towards TFC: its mindset heading into the match, which players it needs to excel, and so on. Not a word from IMFC’s perspective, except for a feel-good story about the club’s 38-year old captain, and Montréal native, Patrice Bernier.
In the aftermath of the TFC’s victory Wednesday night, in a tense 5-2 match that went to Extra Time, allowing TFC to advance 7-5 on aggregate, TSN’s homepage was a torrent of TFC. And while this is a good thing, and deserved, TFC won, it’s also still one-sided. This was especially true of the headline that said “TFC MAKES CANADIAN SOCCER HISTORY.” Factually, yes, it did. It made the finals of the MLS Cup for the first time and is the first Canadian club to do so. But, it did so after making history in an all-Canadian conference final. And there was not a single story about IMFC and its own very improbable run to the conference finals. TSN has continually picked against IMFC all season. It predicted the Montréal side would miss the playoffs. Then it wouldn’t get past DC United in the first round, or New York Red Bulls in the second round. And so on.
On Thursday morning, TSN.ca’s home page featured no fewer than 12 features and stories about TFC out of the 28 in total. Of the remaining 16 stories and features, 10 were about the Maples Leafs (7), Raptors (2), and Blue Jays (1). One story was about how the Calgary Flames pummeled the Maple Leafs Wednesday night and another mocked Montréal Canadiens winger Andrew Shaw and his bad temper. There’s a reason why Canadians in the Rest of Canada tend to dismiss TSN as Toronto’s Sports Network.
Meanwhile: Hockey. The top team in the NHL right now is the Montréal Canadiens. But, TSN’s coverage is almost exclusively about the amazing, wondrous Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a collection of burgeoning young stars and actually look like they might be a good team again one day. There are also, you might note, five more Canadian teams in the NHL. Sucks to be a fan of one of them: TSN just doesn’t care, other than to note the ways in which they’re failing.
And then Sportsnet. Sportsnet is the rights holder for the NHL in Canada. And while its coverage tends to be more national in nature, in that it notes that there are indeed teams in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montréal, besides Toronto, how about them kids in the T-Dot, y’all? But Sportsnet can even out-do TSN. On Wednesday, the American-based Forbes published its annual list of NHL teams ranked by value. As always, the New York Rangers are the most valuable hockey team. The Rangers are worth $1.25 billion USD. But Sportsnet’s headline reads: “Maple Leafs Rank Third in Forbes’ Annual Most Valuable Team List.” So, you think, well, that makes sense. But, wait, what’s the second most valuable team in the National Hockey League? Chicago? Los Angeles? The New York Islanders? Nope. It’s the Montréal Canadiens.
Now, I know we Quebecers had ourselves a couple of referenda on leaving the country, and we still harbour a pretty strong separatist movement; at any given time, around 35% of us want out of Canada. But, in both 1980 and 1995, we chose to stay. And 65% of us at any given time want to stick around in Canada. And we keep giving Canada Prime Ministers. In my lifetime, five of 9 prime ministers have been Quebecers.
So, in other words, my dear TSN and Sportsnet, Québec is part of Canada. And Montréal remains one of the largest cities in North America, and also remains a major centre of global commerce. And its soccer team isn’t that bad, even if its appearance in the Conference Finals is a surprise. And its hockey team, which is, after all, the most decorated hockey team in the world, is the most valuable Canadian team.
And, if you just so happen to be one of those provincials from the rest of the country, well, as we say back home, tant pis.
September 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
I’m reading a book that is, for the lack of a better term, a biography of the Kremlin. I am at the part where the Kremlin, and Moscow itself, gets rebuilt after Napoléon’s attempt at conquering Russia. Moscow had been, until it was torched during the French occupation, a haphazard city; visitors complained it was Medieval and dirty. And it smelled. And not just visitors from Paris and Florence, but from St. Petersburg, too.
In the aftermath, Moscow was rebuilt along Western European lines, in a rational manner. And the city gentrified, the Kremlin especially:
This was definitely a landscape that belonged to the rich and the educated, to noblemen and ladies of the better sort. It is through the artists’ eyes that we glimpse the well-dressed crowds: the gentlemen with their top hats and shiny canes, the ladies in their bonnets, gloves, and crinolines. They could be leading citizens of any European state, and there is little sense of Russia (let alone romantic Muscovy) in their world.
Leaving aside the fact that there were no citizens of any European state in 1814, this sounds remarkably familiar. This is the same critique I have written many times about Griffintown and Montreal: as Montreal gentrifies, it is becoming much like any other major North American city.
But it is also true of gentrification in general. There is a part on the North Shore of Chattanooga, Tennessee, I really like. It finally dawned on me that it is because it reminds of me Vancouver architecturally, culturally, aesthetically, and in the ways in which the water (in this case the Tennessee River, not False Creek) is used by the redevelopment of this historically downtrodden neighbourhood. But. I could also be dropped into pretty much any North American city and see similarities: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville. These are all cities (amongst others) where I have seen the same tendencies.
And, obviously, one aspect of gentrification is the cleansing of the city of danger and vice. Just like Moscow was cleaned up in the aftermath of 1812.
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.
January 8, 2016 § 7 Comments
I’m reading a bit about theories of place right now. And I’m struck by geographers who bemoan the mobility of the world we live, as it degrades place in their eyes. It makes our connections to place inauthentic and not real. We spend all this time in what they call un-places: airports, highways, trains, cars, waiting rooms. And we move around, we travel, we relocate. All of this, they say, is degrading the idea of place, which is a location we are attached to and inhabit in an authentic manner.
I see where these kinds of geographers come from. I have spent a fair amount of my adult life in un-places. I have moved around a lot. In my adult life, I have lived in Vancouver, Ottawa, Vancouver again, Ottawa again, Montreal, Western Massachusetts, Boston, and now, Alabama. If I were to count the number of flats I have called home, I would probably get dizzy.
And yet, I have a strong connection to place. I am writing this in my living room, which is the room I occupy the most (at least whilst awake and conscious) in my home. It is my favourite room and it is carefully curated to make it a comfortable, inviting place for me. It is indeed a place. And yet, I have only lived here for six months. In fact, today is six months sine I moved into this house. I have a similar connection to the small college town I live in. And the same goes for my university campus.
So am I different than the people these geographers imagine flitting about the world in all these un-places, experiencing inauthentic connections to their locales? Am I fooled into an inauthentic connection to my places? I don’t think so. And I think I am like most people. Place can be a transferrable idea, it can be mobile. Our place is not necessarily sterile. It seems to me that a lot of these geographers are also overlooking the things that make a place a place: our belongings, our personal relationships to those who surround us, or own selves and our orientation to the world.
Sure, place is mobile in our world, but that does not mean that place is becoming irrelevant as these geographers seem to be saying. Rather, it means that place is mobile. Place is by nature a mutable space. Someone else called this house home before me. This house has been here since 1948. But that doesn’t mean that this is any less a place to me.
September 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Sometimes I’m shocked by segregation, in that it still exists. It exists in Canada. Don’t believe me? Look at East Vancouver, the North Side of Winnipeg, the Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto, or Saint-Michel in Montreal. But, in the US it is even more shocking. Boston was the most racist place I’ve ever seen, the casual racism of Bostonians towards black people, the comments on BostonGlobe.com. Or the fact that people told me that The Point, an immigrant neighbourhood of Salem, MA, was a place where “you can get shot.” Or the simple fact that residential segregation was very obvious in and around Boston. Unless you take public transit (as in the bus or the subway), you could live your entire life in Boston without noticing people of colour there.
Down here in Alabama, though, it’s not a simple question of race, class is also central to residential segregation. I live in a small city (so small, in fact, that my neighbourhood in Montreal is about the same size as this city in terms of population). I live in a neighbourhood that is comfortably middle-class, veering towards upper-middle class the closer you get to the university. But, in the midst of this, there are a few blocks that look like something you’d expect to see in the 1920s in a Southern city. These images below are from one of these streets, a block behind my house. These houses are essentially a version of a shotgun house. The block behind me is about 70% black, 30% white. It is also full of abandoned houses, empty lots, and lots with the ruins of homes. The street itself is about a car-width wide, and where I come from, would be called a back alley.
What is perhaps most shocking to me is how an apartment complex (which my neighbours all eye suspiciously) ensures this segregation with fencing designed to keep the riff raff out. To me, the very clear segregation of this block is shocking. Almost as surprising and shocking this block is in the midst of my neighbourhood. For example, the final photo is of the next block over from this street.