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.

Source: Rock ‘n Roll Animal – Custom Schedule for Riot Fest Toronto 2015

Yessiree, Riot Fest 2015 is almost here. I’ve got all my “must see” bands planned out, with lots of spare time built in to relax in the shade, check out new bands and take in the circus sideshow. The weather looks to be great this weekend and I’m looking forward to a couple of days in the sun with some good friends, lots of great music and new this year at Toronto’s Riot Fest, carnival rides! Yes, I am still 10 years old at heart sometimes.

I promise a full report when the weekend’s festivities are over!

Roots Stage & Riot Stage

Roots Stage & Riot Stage

Riot Fest 2013 was my first Riot Fest. I bought a single day ticket and rocked out under the sun at Iggy and The Stooges, Dinosaur Jr., Rocket From The Crypt and The Replacements. Riot Fest moved to Downsview Park for 2014, which meant 4 stages instead of one. Which meant a LOT more bands.

The Good: The fest was really well organized. Set times were almost always spot on. A band would walk off one stage and 5 seconds later, the next act would be ready to go on the stage next door. On-site locker rental and cell charging made the whole weekend much easier. Water stations meant we all stayed hydrated and the Porta Potties were pretty clean up until the last hour or two of the night.

The Bad: Lack of drink options. Bud, Bud Light, a lager of some kind and Strongbow. That’s it? And they ran out of Strongbow almost immediately. I bought a Bud – a warm one at that – took one sip, and spat it out. And then threw it away. That stuff is shit. There was also a communication breakdown between the organizers and the security, so the empty water bottles we were told we could bring in were all confiscated at the gate.

My festival pro-tip: Bring a travel pack of baby wipes and a flash light. Makes navigating the Porta Potties at night much easier.

I had a great time at Riot Fest, eventually. I didn’t sleep well the night before. I was really tired, so much so that I delayed leaving for the show to catch a quick nap which just made me feel worse. I had a late breakfast and forgot to have lunch, so my blood sugar was quite low by the time I got to Downsview Park. It was a lot colder and windier than I was expecting, and the cute sundress that had seemed like a good idea wasn’t anymore, plus the venue was very muddy and I wasn’t wearing the best shoes to deal with it. Thank goodness I didn’t wear sandals. I was cold, tired, hungry. And, since cell service was spotty, I couldn’t reach any of the many people I knew who were also there. I started to wonder if I’m too old for this, if I really can’t handle crowds and festivals anymore, and that thought made me sad.

I bought a T-shirt, which warmed me up a bit. I had grabbed some pizza when I first arrived, and it was so greasy that it made me queasy. Later on, I grabbed some water and some veggie tacos and they were so fresh and tasty that I felt much better after eating them. That veggie food truck ended up rocking my taste bugs all weekend long. The first few bands I saw were ones I like, but not ones I’m crazy about, and I really needed to get lost in music to distract me. Death From Above 1979 were excellent, and dancing to them warmed me up a bit. After their set, I grabbed my hoodie from my locker, watched The Flaming Lips utterly psychedelic set from a distance while in an endless queue for the Porta Potties, and then staked out a spot in the crowd for The Cure. A huge crowd had gathered by then and the heat from all the people around me warmed me up a lot.

At 9 o’clock sharp The Cure came on and once they started playing, everything got better and just kept getting better. Their set at Riot Fest seemed to polarize the crowd. They played all the hits – Just Like Heaven, In Between Days, Hot Hot Hot! etc. – mixed in with some really obscure tracks that even I, fan that I am, didn’t know. Mint Car? Bananafishbones? Fat Bob then really upped the ante with some classic dirges, including one of my personal favourites, One Hundred Years. A large chuck of the crowd ran for the exit at that point while the rest of the crowd pressed closer to the stage and swooned.

Here’s my take on it. The Cure have been around for 4 decades. They’ve earned the right to do what they want, including being bloody-minded with the set list. Plus I was feeling extra nostalgic that night because it was almost exactly 25 years before that I saw The Cure live for the first time. My evening ended on a high when I ran into friends in the crowd who showed me a much faster way home.

I woke up on Sunday to sun and blue skies. Just as I had underdressed for Day 1, I overdressed for Day 2, but I just stashed all my extra stuff in my locker. The weather was perfect for an outdoor festival – hot and sunny. In short, Sunday was everything that Saturday wasn’t. Most of the mud had dried up. I had a snack with protein on my way out the door, and I grabbed water and a kale salad (veggie food truck FTW!) when I got to the venue. My friend Britt texted me and I hung out with her and her boyfriend for a while. And most of all, Sunday was just one of my favourite bands after another – Bob Mould, Social Distortion, The National and The Buzzcocks. I also saw The New Pornographers, Dropkick Murphys and Die Antwoord for the first time. Holy fuck, but Die Antwoord are even weirder live than in their videos, and that’s saying something. I had to work the next day, so I skipped Metric and The City and Colour to head home. Next year, I take the Monday off work.

By the end of Riot Fest, I felt great. Happy and relaxed and belting out the words to the songs at full volume. Yeah, I can still do this. 🙂

My own private Coachella

Posted: January 26, 2014 in Uncategorized
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If I designed a music festival, it would look like this. I could have done several more of these and I may yet. It’s one hell of a fun way to kill an evening with a glass of wine. Want to create your own? Go to Create Your Lineup.

After a week of subzero temperatures, I’ve ended up with a cold. Not having a ton of energy yesterday, I spent the afternoon curled up on the couch with one of my cats while I treated myself to a viewing of Upside Down: The Creation Records Story. It’s available on the US version of Netflix right now. As in, right this very minute.

Creation Records. Home of The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Ride, The House of Love and Oasis, to name but a few. One of the truly legendary indie labels.

The documentary opens to the sounds of squealing feedback and guitar fuzz from JAMC’s glorious “Upside Down” and then we’re pulled back in time to when label founder Alan McGee and Bobby Gillespie first met, still just schoolkids in Glasgow. One of the running jokes throughout the documentary is the fact that people, particularly in America, were unable to understand most of what Alan McGee was saying most of the time, and I confess that, just 10 minutes in, I had to turn on the subtitles. Between McGee and JAMC’s Douglas Hart, I was feeling increasingly lost, and that’s from someone who has lot of friends from across the pond.

If you’re at all familiar with Creation Records and the bands associated with it, you’ll find very little in this documentary that is new or surprising, but I don’t think that’s really its goal. It’s clearly a love letter to a place and time, to a particular style of music, and most of all, to people who live and breathe music, who believe in it as a life force and a source of pure joy. Says JAMC’s Jim Reid “Everything we were and everything we had, we got from rock and roll. And it was totally heartfelt.”

At the centre of it all is Creation Records co-founder, label boss and musician Alan McGee. Various artists and business partners describe him as a “raging bull”, “one man charge of the light brigade” and capable of “starting a riot in a paper bag.” What struck me was how many interviewees mentioned that McGee didn’t sign bands, he signed people he liked and hoped that they would produce something great musically. It was also interesting to hear the truth behind some of the more notorious Creation myths, particularly the one about how the making of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless bankrupted the label and drove McGee to a nervous breakdown. To hear McGee tell the story, the myth is only partially true. The recording of Loveless did indeed turn into a death march, and McGee cheerfully admits that he used to pretend to have a breakdown by crying on the phone with Kevin Shields, anything to get him to deliver the damn album already! He attributes his breakdown in the mid-90s to several years of constant heavy drug use. When Noel Gallagher is impressed by the amount of drugs you have access to, you know you’re playing with fire.

And the music, oh the music. That feedback-laden wall of sound that shoegaze bands honed to perfection is still one of my favourite genres, and this doc is crammed full of a ridiculous amount of good great music. It reminded me that I need to pick up tickets to Primal Scream’s upcoming Toronto date, and made me wish and hope, for the millionth time, that I might yet see The House of Love and Ride live before I die.

McGee has hinted in recent interviews at the return of Creation Records. Be still my shoegaze-loving heart.

The Last Pogo was a documentary, made and released in 1978, about the supposed “last ever punk show” at The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. It’s easy to laugh about it 25 years later. I’ve been to many a punk gig at the ‘Shoe and hope to attend many more. Back in 1978, punk gigs were violent enough that the ‘Shoe were serious about banning punk bands. The Last Pogo Jumps Again is an in-depth look at the scene that spawned that infamous final concert, with original filmmaker Colin Brunton at the helm, along with Kire Paputts.

Just how in-depth it was, I had no idea. The documentary is three and a half hours long, and is clearly a labour of love for Brunton, who was on hand and chatting with attendees in the lobby on the night that I saw it. He is clearly in love with every interview and every sound bite. I get that. I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my time and I know what it’s like to talk to someone who is articulate and passionate about something that I love. Good filmmaking however, like good writing, is as much about good editing as it is about good storytelling, and editing is what The Last Pogo Jumps Again badly needed.

The film could easily have been an hour shorter. By the end, many of the interviewees were repeating themselves, and I also felt that a disproportionate amount  of the film was devoted to The Viletones. There is no question that The Viletones, led by Steven “Nazi Dog” Leckie, were influential, notorious and talented. Having Nirvana cover one of your songs is nothing to sneer at. Earlier this year, Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar) ended his show by inviting guest vocalist Sam Sutherland, author of Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk, onstage to cover The Viletones’ “Screaming Fist”. The Viletones played at the legendary CBGB’s in New York City and definitely helped put Toronto’s punk scene on the map. It just grew a bit wearying when, no matter how many other bands were interviewed and profiled, the focus always swung back to yet more footage of The Viletones and present-day interviews with Steven Leckie complaining that he’s a misunderstood genius.

On the plus side, there is a lot of great music in this film. Some bands I was already familiar with, like The Forgotten Rebels, Teenage Head, The Diodes and The Demics. Other bands were a pleasant surprise, like The Curse, an all female punk band that spit and snarled with the best of them. Interviewed today, the band members are sharp, savvy and funny, and I would love to see them reunite and record an album. All that remains of their legacy is a controversial 7″ called “Shoeshine Boy”, about the 1978 murder of Emmanuel Jacques.

The film is also one hell of a heady trip through a time in Toronto that I heard about but was a few years too young to take part in. I heard all about The Beverly Tavern, The Crash ‘n Burn and The Roxy. Is possible to feel wistful about events you never attended? Because that’s how I felt watching the footage from shows at those clubs. There’s the usual amount of bitching from the surviving punk veterans that punk these days sucks, but Joey Shithead from DOA wisely points out the dangers of waxing nostalgic about how it was all better back in the day. There were plenty of shitty bands back then, he reminds us, and there are good bands working now.

There’s a great quote near the end of the film from someone whose name I can’t recall – he pointed out that what often gets dismissed as nostalgia is a genuine and meaningful desire to revisit and re-examine something that was meaningful to a lot of people. We can’t escape the things that shape us.

So is the film worth watching? Absolutely, when you can watch it at your own pace. I’d throw it on at a party, crank it up and give everyone a raucous and irreverent history lesson.