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Whatever It Takes

Whatever It Takes

Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television
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My heart sank as I put down the phone and wondered what to do next. After thirty-five years and nearly five hundred episodes, Degrassi had been cancelled.

I’d had brave words for the network executive at Viacom in reply to his almost nonchalant, “We’ve decided to move in a different direction. Degrassi is over, but we’d like you to come back to us with some ideas on how to celebrate the fourteen years you’ve been the top show on our network — something fitting to end the series.”

“It’s not ending,” I’d said. “We believe in what we’re doing. We thought you did, too. Our plans for this coming season are just too good to let go. Degrassi is going to continue. If not with you, then somewhere else.”

He ignored me. “I’ll look forward to hearing what you come up with to finish the show. Something grand. A special episode, maybe? Or … how ’bout you talk Drake into doing a two-hour concert special to end it all? Think about it and get back to me.”

Click. And that was it. A complete shock. We’d been sure the upcoming season was in the bag. But the television business can be brutal. Despite my confident words, it appeared this was indeed the end. Mute, I stared out the window and recalled the day thirty-five years earlier when, as a newly minted entertainment lawyer, I had first met my future wife, Linda Schuyler. It was a quick meeting, made quicker by the advice I had given her: “Don’t hire me!”

She was holding a small book entitled Ida Makes a Movie, and she wanted to buy the rights to turn it into a short television film. The book was out of print, and I suggested that buying the rights should be very straightforward; however, if lawyers got involved it could get unnecessarily complicated. “Here’s a form for an assignment of all audiovisual rights of whatsoever nature or kind, now or hereafter known, in perpetuity, throughout the universe,” I said (as a young lawyer I couldn’t help talking in legal mumbo-jumbo). “Take it yourself to the publisher in New York, offer them a small cash payment, and see what happens.” I added that by the time I opened a file for her and issued a bill, the internal cost would be greater than any fee I would charge for the small time involved, so my advice was for free.

I actually didn’t hear from Linda again for several years. She had indeed travelled to New York and met with the publisher. Her small payment was accepted, and she had become the proud owner of the necessary rights. She then scrounged five thousand dollars from family and friends, and, with her partner, Kit Hood, proceeded to make the film. It turned out well enough that she was encouraged to make another, Cookie Goes to the Hospital; then another, Irene Moves In; and then a fourth, Noel Buys a Suit. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) agreed to license the four films for broadcast. The licence fees were modest, but Linda’s production costs were even more modest, so it was a great fit.

The one question CBC had was: “What do we call the series?” There were four films, each with a different protagonist, and CBC needed one title to market them. Linda had mused in reply, “Well, each film is about kids, and we shot them in and around my friend Bruce Mackey’s house while he was at work during the days. He lives on Degrassi Street, so why don’t we call the series The Kids of Degrassi Street.” A total of twenty-six episodes of Kids of Degrassi Street were produced by the time CBC suggested aging up to a tween audience by creating a spinoff series called Degrassi Junior High. This would require much higher budgets and more complex financing, and Linda realized that she needed an entertainment lawyer to help guide her through it all. She remembered that nice young lawyer who had given her free legal advice back at the beginning of it all.

From then until now we’ve worked together, with me at first as the lawyer for the production company until, by 1995, Linda and I had also become producing partners and husband and wife. And as the years have unfolded, Degrassi has become the longest-running teen television drama in North America.*

I snapped out of my reverie and back into the present moment. It was mid-March 2015 and Degrassi was ending. The winter in Toronto had been especially cold that year, and snow drifts still piled high outside our television studios — studios that had been an empty warehouse until twenty years earlier when Linda and I had bought that warehouse, fulfilling a dream and slowly turning it into seven interior stages and an exterior backlot of sets, all spread out over two buildings and five acres we called Epitome Pictures. For more than a decade we had produced the most recent iteration of the Degrassi television franchise in those studios, where nearly a hundred cast and crew members were currently standing by, waiting for their work to begin for the year.

How would I tell Linda, and the cast and crew, it was all over?

I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and imagined myself surrounded by a globe of light, a trick I used to keep calm. Eyes still closed, but still not completely calm by any means, I started to realize there might be a small chance to move forward — to manifest a possible strategy we had already been contemplating for the future.

Could the future be accelerated to now?

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Bad Singer

Bad Singer

The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Skinheads, Fur Traders, and DJs


“That bloke’s screwing me. There’s gonna be bovver,” said Mick, with a worried voice. It was Saturday night at the Hammersmith Palais, one of the premier discos in London, a huge old ballroom that attracted the toughest lads and the cutest girls. Mick was shouting over the DJ’s music, ironically, “Love Train” by the O’Jays. I wasn’t paying attention, as I was standing by the music booth watching the DJ skilfully cue the next single on the turntable, hoping I might learn something. This was 1972 — a period in the United Kingdom when “screwing” meant someone was staring you down. The “screw” usually happened just before the bovver boy walked over and cracked you with a Glasgow kiss. With the victim on the floor, Jack the Lad would then stick the boot in, usually Doc Martens, aiming for the goolies, leaving the victim writhing in agony with his future fatherhood in question. No Love Train for these hooligans.
I knew what was coming next. It wasn’t that Mick had done anything wrong, in particular; it was just that the bloke in question wanted to fight. This was an era of recreational violence. It was A Clockwork Orange for real. As fun-loving eighteen-year-olds, we were used to trouble. Not that we ever went looking for it, but on our tours around the discotheques of southwest England in search of the best nightclubs, we would usually be involved in a fight, witness one, or be running away from one. It just went with the action. And if you were walking home at night, you had to stay clear of certain street corners where the skinhead gangs congregated, particularly outside fish and chip shops; or if you caught the last bus home, you didn’t sit on the upper deck of the red Routemasters but found a seat downstairs close to the conductor, who offered a hint of security.
Mick was always getting into trouble. He used to say he had all the bad luck and I had all the good luck. I used to tell him you made your own luck. But bad luck was true of Mick. Maybe it was his confidence or sly smile; whatever the reason, bad luck always seemed to dog him. He would pull some bird, and then the next minute some unknown bloke would jump him. So we left the Palais, its soul music and its packed dance floor, and hurried out into the cold December night air of Hammersmith Broadway, thankful we had given Trouble the slip.
As we were walking up to the heart of the Broadway, one of the busiest intersections in all of London, with a multitude of roads all converging in one central area, and a hub for the London tube, a half a dozen guys turned the corner, headed toward us. They were older, in their mid-twenties, and looked like dockers from the east end. We braced ourselves for certain trouble, so we kept our heads down, hoping to avoid eye contact. But as they drew near, we could see they had already been in a fight. Two of them had blood running down their faces. They were holding their heads, trying to ease the pain, and it looked like one had been stabbed. They walked right by us. “Wow. I wonder who did that,” I said. We soon found out.  As we rounded the corner, there was a gang of black lads about six to eight strong. They were bragging to each other with thick Jamaican accents about the fight. Two of them were holding steel rat tail combs, with the sharp ends deliberately pointed out like switchblades. These combs were popular among some skinheads at the time. They could plead innocence if the cops stopped and searched them for weapons. Unfortunately, this time we made eye contact. They took one look at us and sensed our fear. The chase was on. We ran for our lives — literally.
Hammersmith Broadway has a labyrinth of pedestrian under¬passes. Not only do they allow people to get to the other side of the street by going under the continually busy roads, but they also link with the various entrances to the London Underground subway system. Mick and I dashed down the steps of one of these tunnels to make our escape. But when we got to the end, the gang was charging down the stairs to meet us head-on, shouting obscenities: “Get the fuckers!” They had jumped over the roadside railings and dodged through the busy traffic in an attempt to cut us off. Frightened, we immediately doubled back as fast as we could and took another tunnel, and then another one, and then another one.
Now this wasn’t the first time I had been chased around Hammersmith Broadway. The football team I supported, Fulham FC, was just a mile or so away, so on game days, having caught the 267 bus to the Broadway, I would walk to and from the ground along Fulham Palace Road, proudly wearing my black-and-white club scarf. The problem was that there were also two other football grounds close by: Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers. Sometimes after a game, the warring factions of supporters — the Shed from Chelsea and the Loftus Road Boys from QPR — would meet at Hammersmith and there would be a rumble. And it wouldn’t be just large packs causing trouble. Groups of threes and fours would pick on a lone supporter of the opposing team and steal his football scarf as a trophy. The leader would then knot the scarf in the belt loop of his Levi’s jeans and let it dangle like a scalp claimed in a Wild West massacre. It was not unusual to see individuals with three or four scarves of various colours hanging from their waists, proudly claiming how hard they were as they strut¬ted down the street in their Doc Martens and turned-up Levi’s.
Knowing the various entrances to Hammersmith tube station allowed Mick and me to dodge the gang and make it back to my dad’s Triumph 2000 that we had borrowed for the night. We were scared and out of breath, our hearts beating fast, but we were safe. We quickly drove off, full of false bravado, talking excitedly about how we had managed, once again, to give Trouble the slip.
We headed to our base of operations, and relative safety, the Bird’s Nest in Twickenham. This is where I had originally met Mick. Two teenagers, both under legal age, who, in their love for music and nightlife, had ventured into this local discotheque of dubious reputation by themselves. We had met at the bar, both visibly young, both visibly out of our depth in this “adult” club, and both on our own. We became a team. Within a year, we had become not only legal but also known to all the other regulars in the club. We could drink, dance, meet girls, expand our group of friends, and revel in the delight of walking into the club and having the bouncers, the bartenders, and the DJs know us by name. It was teenage heaven. On one particular night, Mick had lost his stylish tam-o’-shanter cap while dancing. The DJ, with whom we had become friends, particularly me, as I hung out in his booth trying to learn his skills, took to the microphone and, over the James Brown tune “Sex Machine,” had the crowd chanting, “Where’s Mick’s hat? Where’s Mick’s hat?” It was Saturday Night Fever five years before that movie became a cultural reference point. That night after our scare at the Palais, we danced and flirted with the girls and forgot about our daytime realities.

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Poor Little Bitch Girl

Unapologetic memoirs from the Queen of raunchy rock 'n' roll
edited by Michael B Davie
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