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The Big Note

The Big Note

A Guide to the Recordings of Frank Zappa
edition:Paperback
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The Never-Ending Present

The Never-Ending Present

The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

Day for Night

Jimmy McDonough: “Did you want destroy your audience as soon as you got it?”

Neil Young: “Turnover. Like in clubs where they turn over the audience. Did you ever notice that if the same audience stays, the second set usually isn’t as good as the first set? But if they turn the audience over, the second set could be better than the first set? Because with me that’s the way it is.”

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Rock’n’roll should make you scared. It’d kinda what it does. Scared with the thrill of intoxication, of sexuality, of danger, of staring into either the darkest abyss or the most blinding light.

If you’re the money man, however, your greatest fear is that the record just won’t sell.

When Allan Gregg first heard Day for Night, he called Jake Gold. He told him, “Look, ‘Nautical Disaster’ is a radio hit. The rest is almost unlistenable. They’re not finished. They have to go back into the studio.” Gold brought this news to the band. It did not go over well. A meeting was called. “This is the finished record,” the band insisted. Then, being Canadian, they offered Gregg a gentle out: “We think it might be better to have you as a friend than as a manager.”

Gregg was ready for this news. He’d had a hell of a year, during which the Hip’s ascension was the only good thing going for him. In the fall of 1992, he led the failed referendum campaign in favour of the Charlottetown Accord. One year later, he was campaign manager for prime minister Kim Campbell’s election campaign, in which the governing Progressive Conservatives were driven to a fifth-place finish in the general election, threatening to wipe the founding political party of the country off the map. On top of that, he was surrounded by cancer: both his father and his best friend died of it, and his wife was diagnosed. He wasn’t totally happy with recent band decisions, either: they had gone to Australia and filmed a video for “At the Hundredth Meridian” that Gregg thought was a “fucking abomination.”

He was exhausted. So when the Tragically Hip dropped off a mysterious, murky album on his desk with no obvious singles, he was less than receptive. “Look,” he told them at the band meeting, “at the end of the day, your fucking name is on this record—not mine. If you can live with this shit, that’s up to you. But I won’t have any part of it.” Though he remained a financial partner with Jake Gold in the Management Trust, Gregg receded into the background and didn’t have any direct involvement with the Tragically Hip again.

Day For Night sold 300,000 copies in the first four days of its release on Sept. 6, 1994. It went on to sell 300,000 more. (Fully Completely, by comparison, took three months to sell its first 200,000 copies.) It spawned six radio singles and four videos. In February 1995, it allowed the band to launch the biggest-ever tour of Canada by a homegrown band, playing the arenas in ever major market, sometimes with multiple dates; it was a feat they would repeat two years later.

It was by no means a sure bet; Allan Gregg had every reason to be antsy. The Tragically Hip had gone dark. It’s right there in the title. They left the radio-ready ways of Fully Completely behind and made a sludgy record that was more Eric’s Trip than Tom Cochrane. They could have gone bright pop. They could have cashed in and gone grunge, playing catch-up with Pearl Jam. They could have wrapped themselves in the flag. They didn’t. Because of Fully Completely’s blockbuster status, the Hip found themselves in a position to indulge. For the first time in their career, they were not eager to please. It was time to roll the dice.

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An artist’s first album after a massive success is always tricky. Do you try to climb the same mountain? Do you try to climb a similar mountain? Or do you try deep-sea diving instead? Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Prince’s Around the World in a Day. Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. REM’s Automatic for the People. Nirvana’s In Utero. Radiohead’s Kid A. All those records rejected a formula that had reaped considerable commercial reward just a few years before, a formula that made all those artists household names. All those records were welcomed by a collective WTF, only to embraced as classics, some sooner than later.

The Hip didn’t necessarily know what they wanted, but they knew what they didn’t: a repeat of the Fully Completely experience. Downie had described the London studio where it was made as a “fairly sterile environment,” and that they “were lucky enough to pull a record out of it that we liked and had some sense of atmosphere. We vowed never to do that again.” They knew who they wanted to help them shake up their sound. The choice was obvious: Daniel Lanois, with whom they’d toured on the 1993 Another Roadside Attraction tour. His first two solo albums, Acadie and For the Beauty of Wynona, were Hip favourites. And, obviously, he’d made three of the biggest international records of the last 10 years: Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Not to mention Robbie Robertson’s solo album, the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, and a slew of great Canadian new wave records in the early ’80s (Martha and the Muffins, Parachute Club, Luba), as well as his work with Brian Eno on ambient music. The biggest new rock band in Canada working with the country’s most internationally acclaimed producer: it seemed like a perfect fit.

Except that Lanois turned them down. But the Hip were also friendly with Lanois’s right-hand man, engineer Mark Howard, who was responsible for helping Lanois translate his ideas to tape, and also assisted in setting up studios in wonderfully weird parts of North America. It was Howard who, during the first Another Roadside Attraction, recorded the “Land” single in Calgary, featuring Midnight Oil, Crash Vegas, Lanois and the Hip. Watching him work was a revelation after Fully Completely, which Howard says, “was just a common way of making records. They hated it so much. When they saw how I made that song with them on the road, it opened their eyes to thinking, ‘Wow, we could make a whole record like this.’ ”

The Hip decided to go back to New Orleans and hire Howard as co-producer. After years under Lanois’s wing, this was his first production credit for a major client. Lanois wasn’t around; he and Howard had just finished setting up shop in a Mexican mountain cave. “The walls were all natural rock and there was a grass roof over it and it looked over the Sea of Cortez,” says Howard. After making that new studio functional, Howard flew back to New Orleans and started work on what would be Day For Night.

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Painting the Stage

Painting the Stage

Opera and Art
edition:Hardcover
tagged : opera
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The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern
Excerpt

Since 1947, except for a few blips and lean years best forgotten, the Horseshoe Tavern has stood guard just around the corner from Queen and Spadina. While other North American landmarks such as New York’s CBGB and the Bottom Line now exist only as commemorative plaques and music memories in people’s minds, the Horseshoe has somehow survived for more than seventy years. The more the landscape changes around 370 Queen Street West, the more the tavern remains the same. From the sidewalk, the facade is nondescript; it’s no architectural marvel. Inside, the dirty old lady is cramped, cozy and rough around the edges. For music lovers, though, the building, more affectionately known as the ’Shoe, is a shrine. It’s a place of firsts: One of the first places in Toronto where you could order liquor. One of the first places you could hear live music. And, one of the first bars to have a TV set. For the long-time staff members who have called the bar home — some for almost three decades — the timeless tavern means family. For many, bonds that became marriages — musical and otherwise — were first formed here. Their memories, along with the list of bands that have played the ’Shoe, are what make the venue so legendary. While some may call it a dive, it’s a beautiful dive.
Take a journey with me now. Dive into this icon’s past. Begin with a stroll through the ’Shoe’s front bar. Stop to peruse the posters, framed autographed photographs, newspaper clippings, and scrawled set lists that line the walls across from the pool table, where most nights you’ll find the regulars, who show little interest in the live music coming from the back bar as they shoot a game of stripes and solids. These artifacts tell only some of the stories from the past twenty-five years. Unfortunately, much of the memorabilia from the first half-century of the tavern’s existence were either lost or destroyed during the early 1980s. Only a few fragments from those early days remain, such as the huge movie poster advertising the 1963 musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie, plastered to the ceiling and peeling away but, like the venue itself, still hanging on near the stage in the back bar. Fortunately, thanks to newspaper reports and memories of those still around to recount their time spent there, there was much research to draw upon for this labour-of-love project.
The Horseshoe is a beacon for music lovers, a pilgrimage destination for those who understand its significance as part of Toronto’s rich musical history. One word sums up why it has survived: passion. Almost all the owners shared this passion — for the music and for the patrons. As original owner Jack Starr once told Toronto Star writer John Goddard, “It was family. I don’t mean we had kids there. I mean everyone seemed to know everyone.” More important, from the moment Starr booked music in his home away from home in the downtown core, he cared for — and showed congeniality toward — the musicians he booked. They, too, were like family. There are stories of Starr packing picnic lunches for Loretta Lynn and her band to take as they boarded their tour bus. Another famed story you can read about in more detail later in this book is about how Starr’s offer to give Stompin’ Tom Connors a raise made the late, great Canadian country outlaw cry.
Over the years, thanks to the ’Shoe and its owners, hundreds of Canadian bands have had their starts or have been helped to take that needed step to the next level in their careers. The list is endless: from Dick Nolan and other rising Canadian country stars in the 1960s to Stompin’ Tom Connors in the 1970s, to Blue Rodeo in the 1980s, to Nickelback, Rheostatics, Skydiggers, the Lowest of the Low, and the Watchmen in the 1990s. As most Canadian musicians attest, you’d “arrived” if you played the Horseshoe Tavern. Starr began this bequest to the Canadian music industry in the 1950s; today, current majority owner and music aficionado Jeff Cohen, along with his partner Craig Laskey, continue this tradition for the next generation of rising Canadian stars.
That same passion is what led me to write this book. For me, music is the elixir of life. A jolt of live music is always the best medicine when I’m feeling low. The thousands of ticket stubs I’ve saved over the years — and the lack of funds in my bank account — attest to my love of attending concerts. I came to the Horseshoe Tavern later than most. Like all the musicians I interviewed for this project, I felt its soul, its historical significance, and its pull from the first time I walked through those doors. A spirit lives there. The musicians feel it. So do the regulars. Even first-timers catch a whiff of these ghosts.
I watched my first show, the Old 97’s, in this cavernous, low-ceilinged room more than twenty years ago. Immediately I was hooked. Later, I recall seeing a young Serena Ryder summon the ghost of Etta James — who also once graced that storied stage — with an a cappella version of “At Last” that left the room stunned. I once drank Jack Daniel’s from the bottle with the Drive-By Truckers in their dressing room, and did tequila shots on the checkerboard dance floor with singer Jesse Malin following his set on a night the place was packed, fuelled by rumours The Boss was going to join the ex–D Generation singer. People often say about the ’Shoe, “If only these walls could talk.” Yes, the stories they would tell. Crazy shit happened inside the dimly lit, blue-collar tavern over the years. I share a few of those tales in these pages, but what this story is really about is a place, a Toronto institution seven decades young that has acquired a personality and mythology all its own. It’s part of the social fabric and the history of the city. While much of the Queen Street West strip surrounding the ’Shoe has changed and undergone gentrification, transformed from a desolate street surrounded by factories to a yuppie hangout with high-end fashion stores, the Horseshoe and its raison d’être has remained relatively intact.
Even though the Horseshoe Tavern has always been isolated musically and socially from its surroundings, this venue remains a cultural icon in the Canadian music landscape.
This project combines my love of music with my love of history. Through first-person interviews with musicians who have played the venue to extensive secondary source research, I’ve dug deep to unearth what has led to the bar’s longevity and to discover what makes the ’Shoe so legendary. I hope I’ve succeeded in bottling this passion and distilling it for your enjoyment.
Come with me now, dear reader, on this journey. Find out why this dame has survived when so many others, like the Beverley Tavern, the Ultrasound, the BamBoo, and the Silver Dollar Room, have come and gone.
Here’s to another seventy years of the Horseshoe Tavern. I hope one day my grandkids will walk through those fabled doors at 370 Queen Street West as I once did to hear the latest band on the rise, share a moment in time with fellow music lovers, and discover the ghosts and the soul of the place that are forever etched into the tavern’s walls.

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