It was just a few weeks ago, wasn’t it, that I said I was sick of writing RIP posts. I actually had a different post planned for today, and I still plan to write it. But this one needs to be written first. Because this time, it’s personal. This is a post mourning someone I actually met, spent time with, sat and talked to.

15 years ago, some friends and I formed a event promotion company. To say that this business venture was problematic and short-lived is putting it mildly, but is also a story for another time. The very first shows we produced were The Chameleons; two shows in Montreal – one acoustic and one full on, a show in Toronto and a private meet and greet in Toronto. They contacted us, believe it or not. They had reformed and decided to tour again, and since they didn’t have a record company, they were organizing the tour themselves.

You know who The Chameleons are, right? You’ve heard Swamp Thing. Everybody has heard Swamp Thing. It’s a moody, plangent and yet insistently catchy bit of post-punk brilliance that still fills dancefloors 31 years after it was released.

 

And yet that’s just the tip of the iceberg with The Chameleons. Their first three albums are sheer post-punk brilliance. A perfect marriage of Mark Burgess’s lyrics that always spoke to the need to connect and belong, the soaring and shimmering guitar lines of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding, and the insistent, driving rhythms of John Lever’s drums. They broke up in 1987, reformed in 2000 and it was 2002 when we put on the only Canadian dates on their North American tour. I took a week’s vacation from my day job to travel to the shows in Montreal and Toronto. I did everything from setting up media interviews and sending out news releases to shopping for the band’s rider and setting up their backstage food and drink.

When the band arrived, I did my best to be professional and not fangirl all over them. It turns out I had nothing to worry about.  They were all fucking sweethearts, every last one of them. They were all working class Manchester lads, no posturing or pretense allowed. John was shy, but over the course of the week, I got to know him a bit. He had a delightfully dry sense of humour. He had me in stitches one day with a monologue about how we’d all be able to connect to the internet with our toasters any time now. On their last night in Toronto, we held a private meet and greet at a local bistro. John spent most of the evening out on the patio. “It’s too posh in there” he said. “I don’t like posh.” He was more comfortable sitting outside with a pint in his hand, chatting to anyone who was out there.

Near the end of the week, he emerged from the tour bus with a stack of CDs. He handed them to me and said “These are for you for taking such good care of us.” I still have them all. It’s been 15 years, but I still remember that whirlwind, chaotic week. Our promotion company struggled along for a couple more years and then imploded. It all seems like a lifetime ago, and yet it all came roaring back so vividly when the news of John’s passing broke a couple of weeks ago.

Thank you for the music John. Thank you for being part of one of my life’s many crazy episodes. I hope you’re enjoying a pint in the afterlife.


I was introduced to Viv Albertine’s autobiography by a friend of mine who raved about it. Viv Albertine is, of course, the guitarist for The Slits, the seminal all-girl punk band. I confess that I wasn’t hugely familiar with The Slits when I started reading Viv’s book. I knew of them, but had heard very little of their music. The Slits were right on the front lines, formed in 1976 and supporting The Clash on their White Riot tour in 1977.

Viv Albertine were there for it all, right there on the ground floor. Names that are now household names among music geeks everywhere are dropped casually into conversation throughout her book because to her, they were just her mates. Her fellow art school attendees. The people she ran into at the pub and parties. The people she snogged and shagged and fell in love with. I’m tempted to list them all, but I’d rather you stumble upon them as you read your way through the book, like I did. Marvelling at just what a tight-knit community of musicians and provocateurs and artists she came from.

Viv’s story is divided into two distinct parts – her childhood and youth, up to the demise of The Slits, and then her life post-Slits, as she forges a life for herself outside of music and works to discover who she is now that she’s no longer in a band. That may sound odd, but back then, everyone she knew was in a band. Music was the force that drove everyone and she captures with stark honesty how it felt to be cut loose from that world and then struggle to find her footing again.

Her voice is entirely her own. There’s a hilarious section near the end of the book where her manager tries to talk her into a using a ghost writer and she tells him to fuck off, resulting in her being asked to leave a public cafe due to her unladylike profanity. She writes with unflinching honesty about being in an all-female band and facing open hostility and abuse, about facing infertility, cancer and the end of her marriage. My own life story is in a distinct rocky patch as I write this, and I need heroes and inspirations more than ever. I need strong women who have striven and overcome to tell me to keep fighting. I need women like Viv Albertine.

 

It’s taken me two months to write about Leonard Cohen. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was sick of the fact that every blog post I wrote last year was about the death of one of my heroes. Maybe it was that Cohen died the same week that the most unheroic cowardly man possible was elected to power, and my mind was reeling. Whatever the reason, I am writing about him now.

You don’t always remember when an artist enters your life. Some of them, it just seems like they were always there. I remember exactly when and where I discovered Leonard Cohen. I was 15 and babysitting for a family that lived across the street from mine. I spent most weekends babysitting, truth be told. I was shy and awkward, and didn’t have much of a social life. I was always happy to earn some spending money, but I must confess that there were certain families that I preferred babysitting for. Namely, the ones with cable TV, comfy couches and tasty snacks.

This family had none of those things. Their tiny black and white TV was in the chilly basement, and they didn’t have cable. The whole house was chilly – freezing, in fact – because they believed in keeping their thermostat as low as possible. They were also big into health food, which meant that forays into the pantry for a snack yielded up bags of bran and wheat germ. The one thing they did have was books. One night, after I’d put the kids to bed, I curled up on the hard living room couch with a scratchy blanket over my legs and started inspecting the book shelves. There must be something I can entertain myself with for the next couple of hours! Hey, Leonard Cohen. I’d heard of him.

I picked out a volume of poetry, Flowers for Hitler, and started reading. My eyes grew wide and my mouth dropped open. This  unlike any poetry I’d ever read before. There were poems about sex! He even wrote a poem about getting a blow job! And no, it wasn’t Chelsea Hotel that I read. It was another poem. Cohen was apparently the poet laureate of oral sex. I didn’t know you could write poetry about things like that, and that poems could be both dirty and beautiful. There was a short one-act play in there as well, called The New Step, and I was so fascinated by it that I read it every time I babysat for that family.

I developed a fascination with Cohen and devoured his poetry. His novels were less accessible to me. It was his poetry that I read over and over until I could recite entire poems by heart. I discovered his records and fell instantly in love with that impossibly deep, rich voice. I babysat for another couple, Ken and Judy, who were both huge Cohen fans and told me stories of having seen him live. He disappeared into a monastery in 1994, when I was just finishing university. I figured I would never get to see him live. I kept listening and reading and wrote a paper on him for my Canadian Literature course, even though my prof hated Cohen and was guaranteed to give me a low mark.

I watched documentaries about Cohen. When Phillip Glass set Cohen’s latest collection of poems to music for a multimedia spectacle at Luminato, I went and almost imploded when Cohen himself slipped into the theatre just before the lights went down and sat two rows behind me. I went to a live Q&A to listen to Cohen and Glass talk about working together. I watched as Lou Reed inducted Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then something unbelievable happened. Cohen emerged from several years of seclusion to find that his manager had misappropriated most of his money. To make it back, he went out on tour. My husband and I splurged on the best tickets possible and saw him twice in Toronto, both times within the first 10 rows. The second night, tears started pouring down my face while he sang. We saw him again a few years later, this time the tickets were a birthday gift from me to my husband.

He was 82 when he died. That’s a good long run. His time had come and he knew it. He was ready. It’s the rest of us who weren’t ready yet.

I like to think of him hanging out in the afterlife with Lou and Lemmy and Bowie. Like all of them, he was an outsider and he spoke for us with wisdom, dark wit, bawdiness, and stunning beauty. We are ugly, but we have the music.

It was the late 80s when I first heard The Tragically Hip. There was a family I babysat for often and the dad had a massive record collection. Ken would often send me home with mixed tapes full of music, and on one of those tapes was the Tragically Hip’s self-titled debut album.

Now, you have to understand that the Hip was not at all my usual musical fare. It was the late 80s and I was a new wave kid through and through. I bought my clothes at vintage stores, dressed mostly in black and bleached my bangs so I could look like Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran. Bluesy twangy rock ‘n roll wasn’t really on my radar.

And yet, I was hooked. There was something wild and slightly unhinged about the way the band played. It felt like the wind in my face on long car rides during long, hot Ontario summers. It felt like the endless expanse of highway on the way out of Toronto and the gravel roads that made it clear we had left the big city behind. Gord Downie wrote songs about Canada the way that Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood wrote stories about Canada. Evoking that vastness and loneliness and wild beauty with seeming effortlessness, but always with a twist at the end. A sharpness and a bite. Last American Exit was the first song that grabbed me and it has stayed with me ever since.

First time I saw The Hip live was when they played frosh week at Western. I was a frosh leader and so had to stay sober while trying to keep track of a bunch of kids drunk on freedom and cheap beer. Our frosh week theme that year was Ghostbusters and all the frosh were dressed in white ghost-themed outfits. Gord Downie looked out at the crowd, said “You all look like a bunch of sperm running around out there” and then launched into one of his stream-of-consciousness stories while the band jammed.

The next time, it was 1997 and I had tickets to Another Roadside Attraction. One of those tickets was for my boyfriend, until he dumped me. I ended going with a guy that I was good friends with, not having any clue at the time that I would end up marrying him. Many years passed until saw The Hip again, and then it was 2009 and they were doing a 6 -night stand at Massey Hall and there we were again, watching The Hip, this time longtime married.

And then last week, one of the final Toronto shows at the ACC. Hearing the mighty echo off the rafters as the entire crowd sang along to “Little Bones”. Watching Gord Downie in his hot pink metallic leather suit, thinking that he sure as hell doesn’t look like a man with a terminal illness. Marvelling at the big smile on his face, at how much fun he seemed to be having. And then crying at the end when he stood onstage by himself as the crowd cheered, none of us wanting the moment to end.

In a couple of hours, we’re going to head to a local pub and meet up with a good friend to watch The Tragically Hip’s final show of the tour from Kingston, their home town. Will this be their final show ever? No one knows. Gord has brain cancer, and he could have anything from a few months to a couple of years left. This is all too sudden and much too cruel, and like so many others, I’m not ready to say goodbye. 2016 has been a year of such loss. So many heroes gone.

There are Tragically Hip viewing parties across Canada tonight. People are gathering in pubs, parks, movie theatres and public squares, coming together to watch a band that was always unashamedly, eccentrically and poetically Canadian.

Thank you Gord. I could always count on you to tell me what the poets are doing.

Turn and face the strange

Posted: January 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

I started to write this post yesterday as part of my ongoing attempt to deal with and understand my grief over Bowie’s death. Then I woke up this morning to the news of Alan Rickman’s death.

Another hero gone. Also just 69 years old. Cancer, again. Fuck cancer. Fuck it straight to hell. First Lemmy, then Bowie, now Rickman.

Many us watched Lemmy’s memorial live last weekend, raising our glasses of Jack and Coke (now officially called The Lemmy) in honour of a man who lived by no rules but his own. He found what he loved and did it until the day he died. His rallying cry at the start of every show was “We are Motorhead, and we play rock ‘n roll!” Two weeks before he died, sick and frail as he was, he was still performing, churning out those thundering bass chords.

Accolades and tributes continue to pour in for Bowie. His influence was so far-ranging that it’s almost unfathomable. A world that had never had Bowie in it would have been a world without punk and glam and goth and new wave. A world that might well have eaten someone like me alive. Like Lemmy, Bowie was very ill towards the end of his life. And like Lemmy, he worked up until the very end. Knowing that he was dying, he created a beautiful, haunting, mournful masterpiece of an album as a parting gift to his fans. He turned his death into a work of art. My fervent hope is that being able to create new art helped him his cope with the knowledge of his impending death.

Alan Rickman’s death is almost as much of a shock as Bowie’s. Like Bowie, no one knew he was ill. I loved so much about Rickman. That voice, with its depth and richness. That excruciatingly precise diction, which could sound cuttingly sarcastic or unbearably tender. His presence could redeem a mediocre film (Robin Hood, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and elevate a good film into a masterpiece (Truly, Madly, Deeply). As Professor Snape, he enchanted a whole generation. He was a late bloomer in some ways, not breaking into film until he was 41. And yet he never stopped trying.

Rickman said once that he admired the Toronto theatre company Soulpepper, and would love to appear in one of their productions. I clung to the hope that this would happen and I would get to see Rickman live onstage.

And now that dream has died, along with my dream of Bowie booking a 5 night run at Massey Hall. With me in the front row every night.

These are strange and scary times, my friends. I’m trying to figure what, if anything, there is to learn from all of us. Is it all just another cruel reminder that life is deeply unfair? That there is no justice or kindness?

Or is it that art is worth pursuing, no matter what anyone else tells you? That when you find something that you’re passionate about, to immerse yourself in it will lead you to know yourself in ways you never imagined.  That there is something healing and transformative in the arts and the passion they inspire. This past year has been hell for me, and I’ve lost touch with a lot of my passion and creativity. I’ve felt like I don’t deserve to take the time to nurture them. If there’s any lesson I’m learning from the deaths of Lemmy, Bowie and Rickman, it’s to make time for art. Starting now.

Remembering David Bowie

Posted: January 11, 2016 in Uncategorized
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David Bowie is dead.

Those words don’t seem real yet. I can’t make myself believe them.

My husband sat on the edge of the bed this morning and told me to stay in bed as long as I could. I asked why. He said today was a day I would want to put off as long as possible. Again, I asked why.

“David Bowie is dead” he said.

I didn’t believe him at first. Then I came downstairs, opened up Facebook and the tears haven’t stopped flowing since. I’ve never cried over a celebrity death before. I’ve been deeply saddened by the deaths of people whose work moved me, but never to the point of tears. So why am I crying over Bowie?

Because David Bowie wasn’t just a celebrity. He was so much more. It feels like there aren’t words enough to express what he was and what he meant, but I’m a writer and so I have to try. It’s the only way I have to make sense out of this.

I discovered Bowie when I was 16. Oh, I’d heard his music before then. Modern Love, China Girl. It was the 80s and he was into his commercial dance music period. I didn’t find it all that interesting – still don’t, in fact – so I didn’t pay much attention.

When I was 16, I saw Bowie live for the first time. It was 1987’s Glass Spider Tour and here’s where I must stop and make a confession. I went mainly to see Duran Duran, who were opening. I was desperately in love with John Taylor. Bowie wasn’t even on my radar. I walked out of that concert a complete and utter Bowie convert.

The stage was designed to look like a huge spider. The legs glowed different colours. Bowie had brought a modern dance troupe on tour with him and everywhere I looked, there was someone climbing on the scaffolding, or enacting some intricate dance steps. Bowie himself made his entrance by descending from the ceiling, seated on a swing while singing into an oversize telephone. I had never seen anything like it.

davidbowie-w500

From then on, I immersed myself in all things Bowie. He wasn’t just a brilliant musician. He was a screen and stage actor who trained as a mime. He was a painter and visual artist who created painstaking dioramas and whiteboards for his elaborate stage shows. He seemed so utterly fearless, throwing himself into new mediums, new artistic personas and not caring if they failed.

But still, none of that explains why I’m crying. I loved Bowie because he was a freak. A glamourous, glitter-covered, queer, gender-bending freak. An unapologetic hedonist and experimenter who thrived on taking risks. He was everything that I wasn’t then and wasn’t sure I ever could be. I was shy, awkward and desperately uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt like I had to hide who I really was under an unconvincing and ill-fitting disguise of normality.

Bowie made it OK for the freaks, the outcasts and the misfits to be who they were. The permission he gave himself to let his freak flag wave strong and proud was permission given to all of us, and we loved him for it. The punks, the goths, the glam kids, the queers, the ones who reject any kind of label at all. Without him, many of us might not be here. Because to go through life feeling rejected and invisible is a deep and unique kind of pain, and far too many succumb to it.

And that’s why I’m crying. Because he gave me so much strength and courage and hope. Thank you David, for my life.

 

It’s been interesting watching Riot Fest evolve over the three years I’ve been attending. The first year, it was still at Fort York. The past two years, it’s been held at Downsview. Last year, we got four stages instead of two and a corresponding larger number of bands. Toronto still lacked a lot of the pizazz of the Chicago and Denver Riot Fest shows though, and this year, the festival made up for it. This year’s festival boasted carnival rides, games of chances and a circus sideshow.

And those weren’t the only changes. The layout of the festival was much improved over last year. The stages were all in the same places, but the food, beverage  and water refill stations were set up in two distinct locations instead of all being clustered near the entrance. I may be wrong, but I think there were also way more portapotties than last year. I made a point of using the ones the farthest from the entrance all weekend long, and it paid off. They were clean, well-stocked and there was never a line-up.

So, how was the music you ask? Let’s start with Saturday. I hightailed it up there in time for D.O.A’s mid-afternoon set. The B.C. punk legends did not disappoint, putting on a tight, perfectly executed set of classic, hard hitting, political punk. It took no time for a pit to form, sending showers of dust over the crowd. I wish I had gotten a picture of the guy in the pit, in full kilt, jean vest and Docs, with a little boy sporting a trihawk on his shoulders. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth was clearly visible side stage, watching the band. My only beef is that D.O.A’s set was just 30 minutes long instead of the promised 45 minutes.  On the bright side, that did allow me to catch the end of the Dead Milkmen’s set and I got there just in time to hear “Bitchin’ Camaro”.

That was also my last dry moment of Riot Fest that day. Rain had been forecast, but I don’t think many of were expecting the torrential downpour that soaked Downsview Park for 45 minutes straight. Confession time – I was in a portapotty when the worst of the rain hit and I wondered briefly if it would be a total asshole move to stay there until the rain stopped.

The rain caused GWAR to cancel, and cut the Eagles of Death Metal’s set down to just 15 minutes. I almost forgot about Thurston Moore’s set and got to the Rock Stage in time to hear the last couple of songs. Then it was time for one of my favourite bands, Echo & The Bunnymen. Their mournful and yet poppy sound was a perfect accompaniment to the still-overcast skies, and having them end the set with “Lips Like Sugar”, “Bring On The Dancing Horses” and “The Killing Moon” was pure joy. Dancing had warmed me up a bit, but even so, the sun was setting and the wind had picked up. My friends and I were still soaked to the skin, and we unanimously agreed to leave early. We all desperately wanted to see Motorhead, but the thought of standing around for 2.5 hours getting colder was deeply unappealing. When I got home, I poured impressive quantities of water out of my rain boots and then took an epically long hot shower.

Sunday was bright, sunny and scorching hot. Perfect festival weather. I got there in barely enough time to catch the end of The Joy Formidable, who are always wonderful. Then it was time for riot grrl legends Babes in Toyland. I had just seen the equally legendary L7 a couple of weeks ago, so getting to see the Babes felt extra special. Kat Bjelland is easily one of the fiercest and most uncompromising performers I’ve ever seen. I had some downtime after that to chill, check out the vendors and get acquainted with some bands I wasn’t familiar with, including Airborne Toxic Event and Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls. The latter were my big discovery of the weekend – great live rock act with tons of energy.

And then it was time for Rancid, playing And Out Come The Wolves in its entirety. I confess that my mental image of Rancid was of the band of skinny young punks there were 20 years ago. When a large, bald, bearded man came out onstage, my first thought was “Where the heck is Tim Armstrong?” Turns out that was Tim. Ooops! The turn-out for Rancid was huge and the energy from both the band and crowd was electric. Best moment was when their set ended and crowd started to disperse. Then they came back for an quick encore and I raced back and almost got up to the front.

Rap and hip-hop really aren’t my thing, but I took in some of Wu Tang Clan’s set while sitting on the grass inhaling some excellent fish tacos for dinner. Then I played an amusing game of phone tag with my friends as we attempted to meet up for The Prodigy.

I’m not sure words can do justice to how good The Prodigy was. After a long intro, the band emerged into a blinding haze of strobe lights and lasers that lit up the ecstatic crowd into a sweaty dancing mass. An all-too-soon 75 minutes later, the noise-drunk crowd wandered out of Riot Fest looking dazed and delirious. Mission accomplished, Riot Fest, mission accomplished.