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.
A lovely memory, well worth sharing.
“Soul In Isolation” popped up on my iPod random the other day and, as always, I marvelled at John’s exceptional drum performance. Many drum highlights in the Cham catalogue, of course, but for me that’s the standout.
Funnily, for quite some time, I was under the very, very mistaken impression that “Up the Down Escalator” was… Men Without Hats. Basically, I had heard it on the radio with no DJ context provided, and I had never heard of The Chameleons at that point, so, I assumed. In my defense, I would point out that Mark’s vox there are very Ivan!
Must also add: A Toronto-based friend of ours owns one of Mark’s old guitars.