Monday, March 28, 2005

 

The OTHER 50: Day Nine

Wondering what all this is about? Before you begin, you might want to read days one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight. The List so Far: Round 1: Hockey: Jane Siberry (Mike) Helpless: Neil Young (Keith) I Go Blind: 54-40 (Peter) Nothing at All: Maestro Fresh Wes (Aaron) Tired of Waking Up Tired: The Diodes (Carol) A Case of You: Joni Mitchell (Carl) Round 2: Have Not Been The Same: Slow (Mike) Hallelujah (Live): Leonard Cohen (Keith) Wheat Kings: The Tragically Hip (Pete) Vetoed By Carol Subdivisions: Rush (Carol) Vetoed By Keith Rags and Bones: Nomeansno (Carl) Round 3: One Great City!: The Weakerthans (Mike) Westray: Weeping Tile (Keith) Vetoed By Pete Deeper Than Beauty: Sloan (Pete) Having an Average Weekend: Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (Aaron) I've Been Everywhere: Hank Snow (Carol) Illegal Bodies: Simply Saucer (Carl) Round 4: Help Me Rhonda: The Langley Schools Music Project (Mike) Vetoed By Pete Secret Heart: Ron Sexsmith (Aaron) (FC's note: This is actually Aaron's Round 2 Catch Up Pick!) In today's musical easter egg hunt: Heroin, sambuka and the committee's reaction to the CBC's list. Carl: By the way, all, the 50 Tracks' countdown on CBC just wrapped up. Didn't hear the whole list, but I know the top 10 included two Joni Mitchell and two Gordon Lightfoot songs, and that numbers 2 and 1 were "If I Had a Million Dollars" (yug!) and "Four Strong Winds" (huh). Keith: Yug, indeed. I wonder how many "Million Dollars" votes were plowed through by suburbanite members of the BNL fanclub in the states. I also caught some of the show this afternoon and was impressed with (among other things) how great a song the Crewcuts' Shaboom is. Aaron: How was the final order sorted again? was it entirely a people's choice? Mike: By vote counts - Four Strong Winds (3850 votes) beat BNL (3814). If the song choices and low vote totals weren't shocking enough, there's also this e-mail from Martha of Martha and the Muffins fame posted at the 50 tracks site: I think it's great that you are doing this show. I am very pleased to see 'Echo Beach' on the list for the 1980's as I sang the song at The Manor studio near Oxford, England 25 years ago. I derive great pleasure from other people's fond memories of this song and the fact that it continues to be popular. However, call me greedy, but I think 'Black Stations/White Stations' by M+M (another name for the Muffins), should also have been considered. I believe it is too late for this song to be entered. I didn't email my suggestion earlier as it felt a little awkward as I co-wrote the song and sang it. The lyrics did mention the 80's after all! "Black Stations/White Stations break down the doors Dance on the ceiling with us THIS IS 1984!" Martha Johnson Aaron: Is anyone willing, critically, to stand behind the Barenaked Ladies as Artists of Great Importance in the history of Canadian music? They were an important band in my ongoing (dear Globe and Mail copy editor: I'm not supposed to use that word am I?) youth. My first concert even (Bass Is/Of? Base opened). So I've always had a wee soft spot for them. They were indie heroes once, no? The cover of Bruce Cockburn's Lovers was kinda beautiful. Then what happened? Keith: I really like the cover of lovers too. I remember my first BNL show (Mike, didn't your sister go to highschool with Steve Page?) Earth Day 1991, they were an excellent, high energy live act. The recorded output just didn't happen for me in the long term, though. On another issue, is anyone else surprised by the low vote count? If all it was going to take was 4000 votes to get a song into first place, I'm surprised Avril's fan club didn't just bum-rush the process and make "Complicated" the most essential song in Canadian music history. Then again, for that to happen, the list would have to matter to anyone under 30. (Listen to Daylight) Part of me feels like I'm nominating this song because - try as I might - I can't find a way to get Paul Westerberg Canadian citizenship. The Nils were not Canada's Replacements, but there are a number of spooky similarities between the two acts. Both bands prominently featured a brother duo, and players who weren't old enough to drink at their earliest gigs, both were ruined by infighting and self destructive career and substance choices and both wrote songs that featured swagger, regret, drunken tomfoolery and hummable melody in equal measure. Sadly, and to further the parallel, both bands also lost a member to heroin related incidents (The Replacements' Bobby Stinson overdosed in 1995 and Nils singer Alex Soria died in a, reportedly, heroin- related train collision in December of last year). Daylight wouldn't necessarily be the consensus Nils pick (many devotés - including Joel Plaskett who used one of his picks on the Corp's 50 tracks to pick the Nils - would go with Scratches and Needles) but I was first introduced to Alex and the boys by Ottawa singer songwriter Jim Bryson who often closes his shows with a blazing version of Daylight that he's been playing since his days with Ottawa hardcore originals Punchbuggy. Daylight is an enigmatic listen. Lyrically it evokes the seemingly fruitless struggles of youth "Let's pretend we were joyful . . . let's pretend we had a mouthful . . . " Musically, however, it moves seamlessly from it's hard driving, cathartic (nearly arena rock) chorus to the optimism of a languid, almost droning coda. Maybe I've been spending too much time looking out the window at the dirty melting snow, but to me, the end of Daylight kinda sounds like the beginning of spring. Carl:

A terrific choice, Keith - and since Plaskett's nomination of Scratches and Needles sadly didn't survive the CBC audience vote, a dose of justice too. I think Daylight is about as popular a Nils song as S+N, and arguably a better one. Just to append to your case, the Nils were also an important influence on eastern Canadian independent music, helping stoke the fire from Ottawa to Halifax, not to mention their centrality to the strong late-1970s-to-mid-1980s Montreal punk-etc. scene, and reportedly were admired by the likes of Husker Du as well. And given the timing of this list - which, like all such exercises, is influenced by its particular moment - it's great to be able to salute the late Alex Soria in this way.

Keith: I'm glad you mentioned the influence part, Carl. I actually at one point had a paragraph in my nomination on the Nils as influences. I can't speak for my second home (Montreal) or the east coast but in Ottawa a great number of the acts that matter owe a debt to the Soria brothers. In fact, it was JJ Hardill of the Fiftymen who informed me of Alex Soria's passing in December. Pete: Anything that's good enough for Keith and Joel Plaskett is good enough for me. I truly have no idea what the response from all of you will be to this song, Barrett's Privateers, by Stan Rogers. (Listen to Barrett's Privateers) It's not obscure - indeed, it's been heard in drunken late-night singalongs so often that it may seem almost banal, simply too familiar and too common to be seen in its true glory. Rogers made it onto the CBC list with Northwest Passage, a later track of his that is also a classic, but perhaps it's my Maritime heart that always leads me back to Fogarty’s Cove, his debut album in 1976, back to Barrett's Privateers, back to the broken man on a Halifax pier. For a glorious piece of work it is. The solo vocal and chorus wrap around each other like the cords of a fisherman's rope. You barely have time to absorb the melancholy resonance of his voice through the opening verse - "The year was 1778 . . ." - when the chorus bursts in in verse two - "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now." The line that sings a sweet sound to the heart of any easterner, and perhaps any Upper Canadian or Left Coaster too, who longs for home. The chorus gives a little whoop at the end of “Sherbrooke now – uh!” a little whistle, a few seemingly impromptu hand-claps, and that’s all there is. But, of course, that’s not all there is. The soul of the song is the old, sad tale of another bluenose who went down the road (so to speak) and ended up alone with his broken dreams and unrequited hope. Not that you need to be a Easterner to feel this: it’s just a damned good story, perfectly told and passionately executed. The question is, does its beauty survive the banality of overexposure? I lived in Saint John for four years, and you’d think there was a city bylaw that required every bar show to end with a rousing singalong of THAT song. I never got tired of joining the chorus – there’s something about yelling “goddamn them all/ I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold” that never fails to satisfy when you’re liquored up. But as with the copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that hung in our basement washroom when I was a kid (I hope it was a copy), you can’t see or hear something every single day without eventually taking it for granted to some degree. You need something to remind you of the beauty in the thing. For me, it came one night in my mother-in-law’s basement in Fredericton where, after a few rounds of flaming black sambuca (don’t ask), an old j-school buddy who I hadn’t seen in a few years started to sing, in his Cape Breton French accent, the same song I’d heard so many times at last call in the bar. He infused it with such passion that he managed to remind me, and perhaps others around the table, how beautifully melancholy the song really is. Like the Antelope on the Atlantic, Barrett’s Privateers sails on a sea of melancholy, and at the end of it that night I didn’t feel broken, I felt purged, ecstatic, the way you feel when you’ve taken in a truly great piece of music. It was so good, we all had another flaming sambuca and made him sing the goddamn thing again. Keith: If Q107 played in Irish bars, do you think this track would be on heavy rotation? Pete: Ya, to break up all the Pogues tracks. Carol: I'm VERY close to vetoing this song because I've heard SO DAMN MUCH that the sentiment Pete speaks of is lost. It's become a song that you sing ONLY when you're drunk and can't remember any other songs. And you don't have to really know the words because everyone else is drunk (on booze or bravado)that any slur in a fake Irish accent will do. Plus, every acoustic/folk/country/Celtic band in Canada does a cover. It's like the Canuck Folk "Yesterday". However I recognize the merits of the lyrics historically as well as Rogers' contribution. So, I'll hold back...for now. Pete: Hola, the Antelope just took a ball across the bow. Keith: It may not be the only ball the Antelope takes this afternoon. Mike, you were saying? Mike: Sometimes a song can be so abused that it can take years before I can listen to it without feeling like I'm going to puke in my own mouth. Other times, the damage is so substantial that the song is forever ruined. I can think of no better example of the former than Ethan Hawke singing Add it Up and no better example of the latter than Barett's Privateers. Not even the best song this world has ever produced - Stairway to Heaven* - could withstand being sung by drunken idiots every night and retain any of its original beauty. Part of this veto may be the result of being forced to sing that song sober during the Alexander Keith's brewery tour (a harrowing experience). Part of it may be to do with Carol's astute observations in her earlier post. But mostly it is, as Pete would say, a shot across the bow. I fear if I don't veto this song it will only encourage someone to nominiate Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye). And we can't have that. M *not the world's greatest song Carl: All right, I think this veto is completely outrageous. The best songs in the world have always been sung over and over and over again by people when they are drunk at 3 in the morning, perhaps especially those with Celtic roots, but not only those - have you ever sat with a table of Russians around a bottle of vodka? With Spaniards? Iranians? Communists? THIS IS WHAT FOLK SONGS ARE FOR. (Among other things.) THIS IS THE MEANING OF THE WORD "BELOVED." Canada produces, what, maybe two or three songs that achieve this status, over the course of our history, and we're going to shit on them for it? Wow, talk about snob factor. Talk about tall-poppy syndrome. Pete: Excellent point, Carl. I'm getting the vodka right now. Mike: Carl - I don't like the song - spare me the full caps and condescension. Perhaps I'm reading the tone of your e-mail wrong, but if you want to get in a pissing match just let me know... Peter: Cat fight! Carl: Just being melodramatic in a spirit of passionate debate, Michael - no personal offence, at all, is intended. Please read the full-caps as a typographical representation of a cartoon character drawing himself up at a cartoon podium, tuxedo buttons bursting off his jacket. Carol: Being of Celtic extraction, I don't recall singing Stan Rogers' drunk at 3am with my peers. Drunk Canadians, however, are a different story. Then again, it IS all a blur. Second, folk songs are for telling tales. They played a huge part in oral history before literate cultures dominated. As you may recall, Carl, I recognized this song for that reason alone in my initial post. I don't like the song. It's tired. Did I veto it? No. Call me a wimp or whatever, but I recognize it's importance. Perhaps we should put it under glass with special lighting, if it's that precious. Carl: Just for the record, my objection isn't to anybody disliking the song, saying it's weak and vetoing it on that grounds. If the uncanadian hyperbole of my previous post muddled that issue, mea culpa. I just think it's odd to veto a song on the basis that people like it too much and enjoy singing it together, drunk or otherwise. (And people do sing it sober, too.) I am fond of participatory musical culture, and this song stirs some up. I also like the idea of a song about Canadian pirates stealing American gold. It's immature but delightful. Has anyone ever written a really good song about burning down the White House in the war of 1812, aside from the recent Republic of Safety song that mentions it in passing? Mike: Somehow, despite my veto and Carol's near-veto, I think that Stan Rogers' legacy will survive. Carl - given your love of participatory music culture, I look forward to your nomination of "O Canada" and "Land of the Silver Birch" in the upcoming rounds. Pete: Kumbaya, my lord, kumbaya. Carol: I think our behaviour cements his legacy, Michael. Sidebar: I assume you saw (and chuckled at) this morning's National Post front page article "US Pulls Out Cliches". The first thing I thought upon seeing it was, "Hey! They're using the same stereotypes we use to bolster our national ego!" I continued to read the reprint from The Weekly Standard, a magazine I'd never heard of until now. Keith: I'm glad I have no passionate feelings about Stan Rogers. Pete: Umm, didn't you get quite passionate about Northwest Passage a couple of weeks back, or was that just because we were between the second and third bottle o' vino russo? Keith: Northwest Passage? Yeah, I blame it on the wine. Though it is a great song, and one that I hadn't heard until J-Go played it on the corp's 50 a few weeks back. (Besides, Pete, I was just trying to play diplomatic host . . . Geez!) Aaron, can you bail me out? Aaron: (Listen to War in Peace)
When I eventually procreate, I hope I'll remember to play this record for the little ones and their friends. If only on Halloween. Alexander 'Skip' Spence will probably end up, barring a veto, being the 'least Canadian' artist on this list. He was born in Windsor, Ontario on April 18, 1946, apparently to a veteran of the Canadian Air Force. I've never been able to clarify exactly how much of his life he spent in Canada, but it seems he was very soon living in the United States. Still, given how eager we are to celebrate even the most tenuous of connections in this country (see: Naismith, Dr. James), it surprises me he's not mentioned more often. Even if only in passing. A member of both Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, Spence, when celebrated, is revered by Mojo-reading types as another of those lost souls - a casualty of excess and troubled times. Belly full of drugs. Head full of demons. Heart full of songs reflecting as much. His solo output limited to one, ragged, 'lost' bit of genius. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Such stuff tends to bore after awhile. But Skip Spence's Oar - the record, like the man, resurrected six years ago for some all-too-late glee shortly before his death - is the rare myth that actual holds up under close inspection. The nutshell backstory: Spence, drug addicted and schizophrenic, goes after mate with an axe. This earns him six months in Bellevue. While there he gives all his possessions to fellow inmates and sets to spilling his cranium into songs. Once released he hops on a motorcycle, sets off for Nashville and spends a little more than a week in early December 1969 committing everything of himself to a 3-track. Spence plays all instruments. Handles all arrangements and production. As the original liner notes explained, "Alexander Spence is the only sound you hear." From there, it - and Spence to a degree - disappeared. A year later, in a review for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus wass already making the case for it as an undiscovered gem of late 60s psychedlia and the San Francisco scene Spence was deep within. Sundazed eventually reissued it in 1999, coinciding with a tribute album that featured Beck, Robert Plant, Alejandro Escovedo, Mudhoney, The Minus 5 and others covering songs from Oar. The remastered record is bizarre and hilarious and scary and ridiculous and beautiful at equal turns. Many of the 'songs' barely qualify as such - fading out or trailing off into all the dark places. Spence, in this ghostly baritone, swoons and wails like I suppose I imagine the late 60s to have sounded. Captivating but fucked as fuck. It is surely the blackest (in the colour sense, not the racial sense) record I own. But I don't know if it's possible to walk away from it with anything but giddiness. The gem - and my nomination - comes at track six - War In Peace (though I was tempted to go with the hysterically hippie Lawrence of Euphoria). It sounds now like a White Album b-side. The R-rated version of Helter Skelter - sexier and bloodier than the Beatles' roller-coaster ride. Spence sounds like smoke. Everything behind him obscured by the murk. But out of the haze he soars and crashes on this monster guitar solo. The whole thing comes apart in the end, lasers or birds audible in the background until it all washes away. Lasts about four minutes in its entirety. Probably wouldn't even meet the scientific requirements of song. But somewhere in there is everything that is awful and perfect about so many things.
Carl: Spence, of course, is bloody brilliant amazing. But his Canadianness seems about as legitimate as if he'd been born in a plane that happened to be passing over the Northwest Territories before landing in California... I'm going to do a little more biographical research, but right now the main thing that's stopping me from vetoing is that I've let poorer music pass. It's a bit of a technicality, but the Canuck thing of claiming everybody who moves away and everybody who ever comes here - for instance, all the U.S. draft dodgers who moved here are full-fledged Canadians now but Skip Spence or, say, Frank Gehry, remain Canadian despite how American the main parts of their lives were... - always seems rather desperate on our parts, doesn't it? Not that I haven't indulged in it too. carl w., still sad about all the haterade against singalongs Aaron: Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think there's a difference between "claiming" someone and what I'm trying to do here with Spence... He's by no means worthy of his own Heritage Moment, but he was born a Canadian - to a member of our fighting forces apparently, no less. I don't want to wrap him in the Maple Leaf and declare him ours alone. But isn't it equally unfair to deny him at least some amount of Canadianness? Carol: Does Joni live in the US anymore? How about Neil? Not that we've nominated her, but Alanis how has a green card. I suppose the only differences are the songs were created while these people were resident in Canada? Of course, this brings up the whole argument of whether I should pick William Shatner's singles or not...heehee Carl: No, the difference is that those people actually grew up in Canada, actually played gigs in Canada, etc. I'm trying to get a minute to check into it, but I get the impression Spence only lived here in his infancy, which seems quite a bit more marginal than Joni or Neil's clear Canadian roots. Peter: Hey, William Shatner's cover of Common People rocks! I like it better than the original, which I always find kind of wussy. Aaron, I came to Spence a few years ago via that tribute disc you mentioned. The disc, which I believe is called More Oar, didn't exactly bowl me over. Tribute discs rarely inspire me to anything other than wanting to hear the original, which was the case here, so I sought out Spence's original stuff and enjoyed it. It's odd stuff, in the funny odd way, perhaps best demonstrated in the whistled bird call he does in the later bars of the song, a call, one can only presume by its langorous nature, intended to lure the rare yellowbellied reefersucker. Then there's the fading guitar riff, taken directly from that granddaddy of epic rock tracks, In-a-Gada-Da-Vida, which was released a year earlier. No doubt Spence, like all stoners of the day, fancied that track to be the cat's ass. Is it Canadian enough? That's a tough one. We agreed that Hank Snow's I've Been Everywhere is Canadian enough. One reason I spiked Help Me Rhonda was that I see nothing intrinsicly Canadian in it. And the issue of is-it-Canadian-enough will come up again around one of the songs to come on my list. There should be a litmus test for this sort of thing: you stick the litmus paper in, and if it's Canadian it turns the other cheek. Keith: I think Carl asks an important question (and it's one that's always bugged me about Can Con culture): When's a Canadian actually a Canadian? Neil Young has written Canadian songs (Without patting myself on the back, I think we picked a great one for our list) but I don't think "Keep On Rockin in the Free World" should count as one. In short, I think there comes a time when we lose claim to these folks. I'm not sure I'd be able to provide a definition of when exactly that is (dual citizenship? Renouncing Canadian citizenship? Living abroad for decades?) but I think a good case can be made for Spence being a lost claim. The other thing I don't understand, which Carl also mentioned, is why we as a nation so jealously guard our associations with these folks. True story, I once took a tour of the state house in Montpellier (MAUNT-pell-eee-er) Vermont. At some point in the tour we walked through some office or another and there was a picture of someone (the Governor?) shaking hands with Michael J. Fox. Who our guide pointed out as a "fellow Vermonter." I wouldn't normally remember this, but someone in our tour (a woman with a maple leaf on her backpack, if memory serves) actually took the time out to correct the tour guide. "Actually," she said as cana-politely as possible. "He's Canadian isn't he?" My only thought was: "Who cares?" If he's been in Vermont since the Reagan administration, doesn't that make him at least as much, if not more Vermonter than scion of Burnaby? I don't think it's equivilant to Hank Snow. There will be no Skip Spence museum in Windsor. I'm VERY close to spending a v-bomb, though I'll leave it to Carl seeing as he's already doing the research. (and if neither of us veto, I may nominate Richard Buckner's The Hill, recorded by an American, who at the time was living in Edmonton, married to a Canadian at the time. . . see if that confuses anyone). Peter: I'm inclined to side with Aaron on the Canadian question. If not, we get into an esoteric debate over how long a Canadian must be in Canada to be Canadian. How far do we go? Would we really suggest that any song by Neil or Joni is not Canadian enough? To do so would be very, uhh, Canadian. Aaron: Part of me feel's it's just as juvenile to play the game from the other side. I mean, yeah, the woman who insisted on Fox's Canadianness was being silly. But he is. Canadian, I mean. That doesn't need to be pointed out to every Vermont tour guide. But when assembling a list of great Canadian sitcom character actors, it would seem silly to deny Fox his place...and would this debate be any different had Spence/Fox/Young/ Mitchell decamped to, say, France or Australia? Keith: Good question. It wouldn't to me, for what it's worth. (What this means for poor old Buck 65, is anyone's guess). I suppose that's why the bureaucrats have that whole MAPL thang. Don't stop now! You'll miss out on EPISODE TEN!
Comments:
Holy shit. This is some serious music-nerd discussion right hurrr. I'm glad to see that fucking Rush got kicked off the list.

I know this is forever late, but I really think that The Demics' 'New York City' deserves to be on the list. Defining 70s punk-rock about the ever-present southward pull for Canadian bands.
 
Also:

(1) Northwest Passage is one of my all-time favourite songs, and,

(2) Listen, say what you will about the Barenaked Ladies, but I loved 'Brian Wilson' when Gordon first came out, and I love it today.
 
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