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Top 100 Canadian Albums

Top 100 Canadian Albums

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

Back by popular demand, here is the encore edition of the ultimate guide to Canadian music, featuring the best albums that Canadian musicians ever produced and some new interviews not included in the original hardcover edition. An unprecedented book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums includes the finest albums in Canadian music history chosen by a blue-ribbon panel. The results from 1 to 100 have sparked passionate debate among Canada's music aficionados.

This book is jam-packed with incredible behind- …

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Top 100 Canadian Singles

Top 100 Canadian Singles

edition:Hardcover

Shortlisted, Independent Publishers Book Award, Performing Arts

A book that gets to the heart of the matter! Whether you're a professional musician or an air guitarist, a collector or a true amateur, this book will shake things up!

The Top 100 Canadian Singles — brought to you by Bob Mersereau and Goose Lane Editions, the team that assembled the controversial, much discussed, best-selling volume, The Top 100 Canadian Albums. The Top 100 Canadian Singles will undoubtedly stir the souls, ears, and …

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Writing Gordon Lightfoot

Writing Gordon Lightfoot

The Man, the Music, and the World in 1972
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback

From acclaimed musician and author Dave Bidini comes a brilliantly original look at a folk-rock legend and the momentous week in 1972 that culminated in the Mariposa Folk Festival.

July, 1972. As musicians across Canada prepare for the nation's biggest folk festival, held on Toronto Island, a series of events unfold that will transform the country politically, psychologically--and musically. As Bidini explores the remarkable week leading up to Mariposa, he also explores the life and times of one …

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Excerpt

Hey, Gord. Or Gordon. Or Mr. Lightfoot. No, I’m going to call you Gord, and I hope that’s okay. You don’t know me, but I know you. We all know you. You’re in our heads. You’re in the walls of our hearts. Your melodies hang and swerve over the great open skies and soupy lakes and long highways and your lyrics are printed in old history and geography and humanities textbooks that get passed down from grade to grade to grade. When people say “Lightfoot,” it’s like saying “Muskoka” or “Gretzky” or “Trudeau.” I dunno. “Lightfoot.”
 
Your name says as much as these things, maybe more. Gord, I am writing this book even though you won’t talk to me. It’s a long story, but this is a long book, so here goes. You won’t talk to me because of a song that my old band covered, a version of your nautical epic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Back in 1989, we contacted your late manager, Barry Harvey – a good guy; at least he was to us – to ask for approval, and he gave us his blessing. But then he said that he probably wouldn’t play our version of the song for you. What he actually said was, “If I play it for him, it’ll just piss him off.”
 
A few months later, something else happened, which is maybe the real reason why you won’t talk to me. You see, after coming home from a tour of Ireland – an ill-fated tour; we broke up there, only to re-form and record your song, though you probably wish we’d stayed broken up – a music writer asked about our rendition. Because I was young and dumb and feeling disappointed that you – one of my heroes – refused to recognize our interpretation of what is surely one of Canada’s most famous, and best, songs, I punked out. I told him that, “well, everyone knows that it’s based on an old Irish melody. It’s not his, not really.” What I didn’t tell the writer was that a guy in a bar in Cork had told me this, nor did I tell him that there were several beers involved – in Cork, Gord, this is a given. Later on, when Barry Harvey read what I’d said, he asked me to recant my statement. I might have just grunted and hung up the phone. Barry asked again and again, and, having grown a little older and less punked-out, I said I would, but then the story appeared on the Internet (the goddamned Internet). Barry was gentlemanly about the whole thing, but he said that I’d upset you, which is what I’d wanted to do, at least in the beginning, but not anymore. You were mad and I don’t begrudge you that feeling. After all, the same guy who’d desecrated your song had called you a phony, even if he hadn’t really meant it (Cork plus beer plus being rejected by one’s hero plus an encounter with a drunken storyteller equals impetuous rant. It’s a weak defence, I know, but it’s all I’ve got). I tried taking the story down, then forgot about it. Barry called a third time, then a fourth time, asking nicely. Then he passed away. And now I am writing a book about you. And you won’t talk to me.
 
Last year, when my publisher asked if I wanted to do this book, I explained the situation. He said, “Do it anyway,” and so we proceeded to figure out a way to create a book without the contribution of its central figure, which is you. At first, I thought about using stories that other people had told about you, but the biographical holes were too great (turns out you’re a bit of a mystery, Gord, although it’s not like you don’t know that). Then, as I started to look back through your life, I came across an event that I remembered reading about years ago in a Peter Goddard-edited seventies Toronto pop magazine called Touch. The event was Mariposa ’72. Because it was a great event – maybe one of the most important in Canadian musical and cultural history – I was given a starting point from which to talk about your life, without actually talking to you. I also thought it might be a way of telling the story of Canada. But I tried not to think too much about it. Instead, I just sat down and started writing.
 
Gord, I know you know all of this, but, at this point, I should tell the readers a few things. Okay. Readers: the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival (the sixteenth year of the event) was unlike any that came before it. It took place on a small isthmus at the bottom of Toronto, on Centre Island, now the site of a popular kids’ amusement park. At the time, Mariposa was one of the most progressive festivals of its kind – only the Newport Folk Festival and a similar event in Philadelphia had better reputations – bringing attention to marginalized folk, blues, and traditional music. It steered clear of emerging chart music – pop and rock and even folk-rock – instead scheduling time for forgotten blues masters, Inuit throat singers, and local tubthumpers (Gord, I do not mean to disparage local folksingers by calling them “tub-thumpers,” but it’s kind of what they were. Still, I know that a lot of them are your friends, and I don’t need to piss you off any more than you already are). In 1971, excitement over the event resulted in ticketless fans swimming across the harbour to get to the island, further dissuading organizers from booking big-name talent for fear that the grassroots festival would lose its way. Such was their monastic commitment to a toned-down event that, in 1972, evening performances were cancelled, in keeping with the philosophy established by artistic director Estelle Klein, who, in 1972, was out of the country, holidaying in Greece and taking a break from the festival.
 
By 1972, the music scene had changed. In Toronto, it had moved from Yorkville’s coffee bar idyll to scabrous Yonge Street, with rock clubs being born every day alongside strip joints, pinball arcades, and gay taverns. These new places catered largely to the younger music fan, blessed by the drinking age in Ontario having been lowered, a year earlier, from twenty-one to eighteen. Also, because of 1971 federal legislation that required radio stations to play 33? per cent Canadian music, the nation’s sonic palette widened and there was room for new bands driven by fuzz-toned guitarists and wild-haired singers who felt empowered after hearing themselves on the radio for the first time. The city’s musical culture moulted. New sounds were being heard everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except at the largest and most stubborn-minded music festival in Canada.
 
When Mariposa organizers sat down to program the playbill for that year’s festival, they pencilled in Murray McLauchlan and Bruce Cockburn as the de facto headliners. Gord, I’m sure that you would have headlined the festival had you not been suffering through your shittiest year ever. By ’72, you’d stopped touring, and you were dating Cathy Evelyn Smith, the same woman who’d conceived Levon Helm’s love child in the Seahorse Inn on Toronto’s southern Etobicoke lakeshore and who was later charged with murder in the speedball death of John Belushi. You had also suffered the first symptoms of Bell’s palsy during a performance at Massey Hall and, in 1971, had waged a trying battle with Grammy organizers, who demanded that you shorten “If You Could Read My Mind.” Anyway, because of your stasis, the responsibility for headlining the bill fell to two of your Yorkville proteges, both of whom, because of the new CanCon rules, had usurped a musical territory that, before the new law, had been almost exclusively yours. I don’t know if that cheesed you, Gord. I don’t even know whether, because you were lost in a deep fog of booze and drugs and pain, any of this registered. Maybe it did. It’s one of the things I hope to figure out.
 
Anyway, what happened on that island that weekend was an unexpected confluence of the greatest songwriters of their age, each of them – like yourself – emerging from difficult times. That it happened in my city – in your city, in our city – puts me close to the memory, although I would have been way too young to go there myself. Because it’s one of these great events that hasn’t been written about, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Writers live for this sort of thing: an untold story. The same could be said for you, Gord. It’s been over thirty years since anyone wrote a book about you. It is time. Still, the ideas didn’t end there. After poring over newsprint and microfilm about Mariposa ’72 at the Toronto Reference Library and other places, I found that the story grew and grew. What I learned was that, over the seven days leading up to Mariposa, there occurred some of the era’s most memorable and profound moments in music, politics, sports, and culture, both at home and abroad. What happened from July 10 to July 17 eclipsed any single story, including your own. In Canada, the Canada–Russia hockey teams were announced; the largest jailbreak in Canadian history occurred at Kingston’s Millhaven penitentiary; and, through a combination of forces, Trudeau mania fell fast and hard. The summer of 1972 was also when The Rolling Stones staged one of the most important – and notorious – rock and roll tours ever, in support of their important and notorious album, Exile on Main Street. As it turns out, they were also in Toronto during the Mariposa weekend, playing two shows at Maple Leaf Gardens. Stevie Wonder opened and filmmaker Robert Frank and writer Truman Capote were in tow. On Sunday in Montreal, their equipment truck was bombed in a loading bay behind the Forum. Some said the separatists were responsible, but no one knows for sure.
 
World news of that week is also filled with remarkable events large and small, including the beginning of the Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky chess summit and the journey of Pioneer 10 towards Jupiter. The week started with a total eclipse of the sun, and when the bells rang out on the evening of December 31, 1972, they ended the longest twelve months in history – three seconds having been added to international time – and something about music, something about Canada, and something about the world was different than it had been before. Gord, before I started writing, I talked to people who know you. I was given advice on how to handle the situation, which proved to be no advice at all. When I announced my intentions, some folks told me to steer clear. “Whatever you do, don’t park outside his house,” said one person. “The last guy who did this had his car pissed on by him. He’s a grumpy old man. He’ll never talk to you.” Others were more encouraging.
 
“Gord is a beautiful person,” said Dan Hill. “After Paul [Quarrington] died, he really helped me get through my period of grieving.” Eventually, I was left with two impressions. From what I gathered, you were either a loner or you were everybody’s good time. You were either a tough guy or a sweetheart who could break down at a moment’s notice. You were either a shit-kicking cowboy or an angel; a drunk or a saint. You’d either steal someone’s girlfriend or give him the shirt off your back. You were either Canada’s Townes Van Zandt or a Roger Whittaker wannabe in a plaid shirt. You were either hell on your band or loyal to a fault. You either loved Canada or had tried as hard as you could to get the hell out. Your small-town roots were either the driving force of your art, or the small, airless pepper box in which your life was confined. You were either here – showing up at Leafs games or attending industry banquets – or not here – disappearing to go on long canoe trips, or hiding out in a friend’s apartment in Detroit.
 
Because you won’t talk to me – I’ve called your record company a bunch of times, written emails, all of that, and still nothing – I decided to write you a letter, which, by now, is kind of obvious. I should also tell you that this book alternates between a letter to you and a description of the events of that week in ’72, leading up to Mariposa and a wild prose crescendo that will leave even the crustiest old critic lachrymose and braying from his knees.
 
There’s one other thing, Gord. It’s actually a big thing.
 
You see, in the letter sections, I’ve made stuff up. Some of it might have happened; some of it might not. Because you won’t talk to me, I’m left having to imagine your life. Because I’m a musician, too, I wanted to use all that I’ve seen and heard and done in my own rock and roll life to help piece together your story; to understand how you – a small-town choirboy – ended up creating this country’s most formidable body of song. The lawyers don’t want me to write this book, Gord. They think you will come and find me and drag this book down. My wife doesn’t want me to write it. She doesn’t want our car pissed on. But no artist ever did anything based on whether a lawyer liked their idea or not. Well, maybe some did, but not me.
 
Still, if you won’t talk to me, Gord, I’m going to talk to you. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first conversation that started without both people listening.
 
So, okay, Gord.
 
I’ll start.

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Talking Music

Talking Music

Blues Radio and Roots Music
edition:Paperback
tagged : blues

Talking Music is a collection of nineteen of Holger Petersen’s in-depth radio interviews with artists—the pioneering men and women who created the blues and roots sounds that have influenced the course of popular culture and music in North America. Many of his interview subjects are no longer with us—their stories need to be told.The book is divided into four collections of interviews: British Blues Revival, Delta and Memphis Blues, Artists Who Helped Build Stony Plain, and Bonus Tracks.Ea …

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Have Not Been the Same (rev)

Have Not Been the Same (rev)

The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995
edition:Paperback

 

?Published in autumn 2001, Have Not Been the Same became the first book to comprehensively document the rise of Canadian underground rock between the years 1985 and 1995. It was a tumultuous decade that saw the arrival of Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Sloan, Barenaked Ladies, Daniel Lanois, and many others who made an indelible mark not only on Canadian culture, but on the global stage as well. Have Not Been the Same tells all of their stories in rich detail through extensive …

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Excerpt

 

You Can Come From Here

 

One of the most revolutionary changes wrought by the CanRock renaissance also stems from folk, something so obvious that it seems incredulous that it should even be an issue. But before 1985, Canadian rock acts rarely ever sang specifically about their own country, avoiding place names or other signifiers like a plague.

There are plenty of theories as to why this was. Perhaps bands didn’t want to appear “far too Canadian,” to borrow a phrase from Spirit of the West, because Canadianisms were the epitome of uncool in a scene that still pined to be anywhere else but here. For more commercially minded bands, perhaps they made a decision, conscious or not, to make their songs more “universal” and not limit them to Canada. When the Tragically Hip became superstars in Canada and nowhere else, some crippling culture commentators on both sides of the border suggested that the band’s fate was doomed to their own country because of Gord Downie’s choice of subject matter. For a songwriter like John K. Samson, however, “Gord Downie has such a remarkable and original voice, both on the page and in the air. He certainly made a great contribution to songwriters in this land. The Hip made all the difference. There was suddenly less striving, less grasping. People were more comfortable with who they are and where they’re from.”

Of all the prominent Canadian rock musicians to come of age in the ’60s — if you relegate Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia and Leonard Cohen to the folk world — only the Guess Who made a point of “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon,” although their biggest hit, “American Woman,” was Canadian only as reflected through a negative, by defining Americans as an “other.” Otherwise, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young only slipped into Canadian specifics when they were homesick ( as in “River” and “Helpless,” respectively ); Robbie Robertson was too wrapped up in American mythology to bother with his native land. British writer Barney Hoskyns, author of a biography of the Band, notes that the first lyrical manifestation of Robertson’s roots was “Acadian Driftwood,” written at the Band’s twilight. “It took Robbie Robertson almost a decade of living in America to write a song about Canada,” Hoskyns writes in Across the Great Divide. “Sitting in his Malibu beach house in the summer of 1975, he was writing about his homeland with the same empathy and compassion that had infused ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ Canada had finally become as distant and romantic to Robertson as the American South had seemed to him back in 1960.” With this evidence forming Canada’s musical canon, it’s no wonder that it took years to overcome this cultural insecurity in song.

“In Canadian music,” says Kurt Swinghammer, “there was always a sense that if you wanted to be successful, you had to hide the fact that you’re from Canada, which is so stupid. It’s way more accepted now. Maybe that’s just part of the evolution of a culture that’s still young and growing and shaking off some insecurities about where it’s from.”

“I’ve always loved peculiarities and regionalism in stories,” says Joel Plaskett, who was a budding teenage songwriter when he saw Sloan’s second show. There, the band played a song called “Underwhelmed,” which referenced a girl who tells the narrator to loosen up on his way to the L.C.— a reference to the liquor commission of the province. “You don’t call the liquor store the ‘liquor commission’ in the States or in any other province except Nova Scotia, and I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I thought it was beautifully insular, and it totally spoke to me.”

John K. Samson grew up admiring the Prairie pop band the Northern Pikes, both for their early independent success and the way they “crafted really remarkable songs and wrote about small towns and cities in an unpatronizing way.” But it was hearing two artists from Toronto — a city which, Samson admits as a Westerner, he was raised to despise — changed the way he thought about writing locally. “The Rheostatics were a big deal to me,” he says. “They sang about things that I didn’t think people could sing about, while making this beautiful and unique music. They could have been from Austin, Texas, as far as I’m concerned: Toronto was so far away for me; it was a foreign land. And hearing Ron Hawkins of Lowest of the Low sing about the Carlaw Bridge [ in Toronto ] or places that I’d never been to certainly reinforced the idea that I could write about the places that I was from, that it wasn’t unrealistic or a stupid idea. There were writers here [ in Winnipeg ] at the time who were enforcing the same thing, but mostly they were poets and fiction writers. Those Toronto people reinforced that it could be done in a musical way.”

Tom Wilson of Junkhouse and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings welcomed the change. “People like Blue Rodeo and Gord Downie have been embraced in such a huge way,” says Wilson, “that suddenly you didn’t have to be singing about the Mississippi River or have a poncey British accent to get your point across. You could sing about Lake Ontario or wheat kings or do what the Rheostatics do so fabulously well. That became really important to a generation of listeners. In the early ’90s, it was a rediscovery. It’s all there: we should stop being so British and asking what our identity is, stop worrying about how many books or records or movies we sell in the States, and be happy with who we are.”

John Critchley of 13 Engines says, “We were proud to be from Canada and we definitely had Canadian influences in our music, as well as others from around the world. I’m proud of where I’m from and I’ve written songs about where I’m from. But I don’t think music and politics should be confused. You should be proud of where you’re from and write about what you know.” But, he adds, sometimes doing so runs the risk of jingoism.

 

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On a Cold Road

On a Cold Road

Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock
edition:Paperback
tagged : rock

David Bidini, rhythm guitarist with the Rheostatics, knows all too well what the life of a rock band in Canada involves: storied arenas one tour and bars wallpapered with photos of forgotten bands the next. Zit-speckled fans begging for a guitar pick and angry drunks chucking twenty-sixers and pint glasses. Opulent tour buses riding through apocalyptic snowstorms and cramped vans that reek of dope and beer. Brilliant performances and heart-sinking break-ups.

Bidini has played all across the count …

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I was nothing but a pimply little question mark on the day my sister and I first walked into Ken Jones Music in Etobicoke. Sunlight streamed through the windows, dappling the guitars that hung behind the counter and bathing the small music shop at the back of the Westway Plaza in warm light. The store was cluttered with drums stacked on top of each other, keyboards leaning three deep against the walls, dusty racks of unread sheet music, long outdated band want-ads taped to the cash register, and ashtrays scattered across old chairs and window ledges. At the back of the store, young boys sat in tiny rooms plucking guitars through amplifiers that buzzed like heat bugs, the sound of their hammer-ons and finger-rolls and string-benders snaking out to where I stood, sucking it all in like sugar through a Pixie-Stik.
 
After our first taste of this place, my sister and I signed up for guitar lessons, which I grew to hate. My disdain might have had something to do with the fact that Cathy had mastered the basic chords and strumming technique before I’d grown my first finger callus. She out-licked me on “Kum Ba Yah,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” and “House of the Rising Sun,” which we debuted for our parents in our living room sitting on bridge table chairs behind music stands. I’d like to tell you that I rose to her challenge and went on to become a blurry-fingered virtuoso of the fretboard whose technique set the world’s pants on fire. But I did not.
 
Instead, I quit.
 
Cathy played her hand just right. My room was papered with an Aerosmith poster over my bed, 10cc above my night table, and Rush’s Farewell to Kings staring at me each night as I hit my pillow. Every other inch of the walls was pasted with photos culled from Hit Parader, Creem, and Circus magazines, or purchased at Flash Jack’s Head Shop, the scuzzy Yonge Street epicentre of high school stonerdom, where they sold roach clips and hash pipes and lurid pictures of Linda Ronstadt. These pictures of my favourite bands were testament to my desire to be like them, but they were also witness to my failure to do anything about it. I’d wander into my sister’s austere room – shockingly devoid of rock shrine-ography – and stare at her acoustic guitar, Mel Bay How-to-Play book, and music stand casually draped with belts, purses and other young-girl ephemera. In this display of coolness, Cathy seemed indifferent that she was better than me. My jealousy deepened. School ended. Summer passed. Winter descended. My sister played on.
 
But then a year later, mysteriously, she stopped. As soon as Cathy put away her guitar, I picked mine up again. I went back to Ken Jones Music to sign up for more lessons, still a damp patty of clay waiting to be palmed, but this time confident enough to look into the future and see someone other than who I was: a nervous child dressed in brown, ankle-riding cords and a maroon sweater that scratched like steel wool. No, this time I could see myself as a figure straight from my walls – a sparkling giant outfitted in electrically lit platform shoes and a spangly jumpsuit, flaunting a great bramble of chest hair, and topped by a frizzy afro and bug sunglasses.
 
I approached the counter, where an unclean fellow sat with his feet up, plucking a mandolin.
 
“I was wondering about guitar lessons,” I gulped.
 
“Do you play guitar, man?” asked the freak.
 
“No. Well, I did. But I’m not very good,” I said.
 
“Excellent,” he replied, strangely.
 
Stu looked like he’d just strode off a Three Dog Night album cover. He had that Jesus-as-folksinger look, thin-framed with a moustache and straggly beard. It was 1975. The first time I smelled pot, it was rising like steam off his flower-patched denim jacket. But while Stu was a prodigious stoner, he was a lot easier to understand than most of my teachers at school. He’d sit with me while I waited for my lesson with Ken and describe all the bands I’d never heard of whose music books he sold at the store – ZZ Top, the Eagles, Humble Pie, the James Gang. He told me about rigging a stage, setting up microphones, sound-checking, recording, tuning, and keeping your instrument in playable condition. He let me in on these mysteries as if he were spooling out paradigms from a lost language.
 
When a few friends and I finally got a band together, we set up in the store so that Stu could teach us the basic tenets of songwriting and arranging. We paid him with money given to us by our parents, who had parted with their hard-earned dollars even though they knew the money would be going to an indolent hippie who wore love beads and smoked skunk-weed from a water pipe. Stu took us through the looking glass, and we followed like Alice.
 
Our little combo was enthusiastic, if musically repugnant. We were four fourteen-year-olds playing the Triumph version of “Rocky Mountain Way” on out-of-tune instruments. Everybody took a solo, even our drummer, Mario Molinaro, who played so hard that he punched his sticks through his drumskins and shredded the hi-hats into shrapnel. But no matter how hellacious our din, Stu would listen patiently, bemused, and then show us what a bridge was. We were thrilled. Every now and then, his own group rehearsed in the store. We’d camp outside and listen to them play Led Zeppelin and Rush songs with three-tiered synthesizers, double-neck guitars, roto-tom drum terraces, disembowellingly loud bass guitars, and vocal mikes cabled through a Traynor P.A. To us it was like hearing the Stones at the Gardens. We vowed that we’d be good enough to have gear that real and a sound that big. Stu just tapped his head and said, “You will, you will,” then folded his hands in his lap.
 
Stu worked the front of the store, but the fellow whose name was on the place did most of the work. Ken Jones was a round, balding fellow who looked shockingly like Captain Kangaroo without the mendacious eyebrows. Ken sold me my first guitar, a white El Degas Stratocaster copy with a soft neck and a tone that was as warm and forgiving as a tire crunching glass. Ken showed me the basics out of the Mel Bay books, and soon I was putting two notes together, pretending to play “Rock and Roll Hoochie- Koo.” That Ken had the patience to take me this far was remarkable considering that he spent most of his time locked away in a closet-sized room teaching sweaty teenagers with breath like milk gone bad how to cop Eric Clapton licks or strum church hymns. He eventually passed me on to a local long-haired rock troll who tried teaching me Frank Marino, Joe Walsh, and Domenic Troiano riffs while his girlfriend sat cross-legged smoking in the corner. This often led to lead-guitar duels with him in which I placed a distant second. I was put off playing solos for the rest of my life, but Ken and Stu had already turned me on to music and there was no going back.
 
A few years after I left the store for other musical experiences, the Toronto Star wrote an article about the Rheostatics’ first gig at the Edge in February 1980. We were seventeen years old at the time and had to get a special liquor permit to play in the club. About fifty kids from high school came to see us play, and when we finished, the band we were opening for pleaded with us to get our friends to stay. But it was a school night. The Star found all of this interminably cute and dispatched a reporter to interview and photograph us on the bleachers of a high-school football field. I owe it to my mom for calling them and suggesting the idea in the first place. It was the first time I ever saw myself in print, and it was a shock. In the photo, I’m wearing blue trousers, a white striped blazer, and a T-shirt with an exclamation mark on it. Even though I’m sporting my most expensive haircut to date – thirty dollars at Super Cutz in Sherway Gardens – my head still looks like a luge helmet.
 
 
Ken Jones posted the clipping in his shop. He drew an arrow pointing to me and wrote, “I taught him!” on it. He didn’t do it because he had any intuition that we would dent the mug of Canadian rock, or grow up to dazzle industry captains or play sold-out concerts in hockey rinks or take champagne baths in rooms wallpapered with money. It was because of one gig.
 
One.
Three dollars. Tuesday night.
The Edge.
 
Sixteen years, handfuls of tours, walls of faces, miles of strings and cables, thickets of magnetic and electrical tape, lakes of beer, numberless clubhouse sandwiches, and six hundred gigs later, we were asked to do a national tour with the Tragically Hip in the winter of 1996 to support their Trouble at the Henhouse album. The biggest tour by a Canadian band in the history of music in Canada. It would put the Rheostatics in front of almost half a million people and finally give us a chance to play our music to the mass audience that till then had eluded us. Since our inaugural gig at the Edge in 1980, we’d gone through many changes in sound and had suffered the loss of our drummer of fourteen years, Dave Clark, who quit the band sixteen months before our tour. People like Stu and Ken and a million others had floated across those years, and as I set out to write down my experiences about being on the road, I found myself thinking not only about them, but also about the bands and musicians whose songs I’d heard on the radio as a kid, and whose bravura had founded the musical culture in which I now lived and explored.
 
I decided to track down these figures from my past. I wanted to understand, through them, the anatomy of making music in a country noted more for space and snow than for money or people. I was fully aware of the struggle it takes to sustain a musical career in Canada (I was painfully conscious that a small number of consumers supported Canadian bands – 19 per cent of total sales – and that our scant population meant that musicians shared the same audience in ten cities across the country), but I knew very little about the artists themselves. It became important to me to know what it was like for the early bands, the first to leave their home towns hauling P.A. systems and glitter balls, chasing down one-nighters in towns that barely existed. They’d established the east-west route that every Canadian group now travelled, and more than likely took for granted. Without their perseverance, neither we nor the Hip would have had reason to exist, let alone to light out for the coast, let alone to write this book.

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Soldiers of Song

Soldiers of Song

The Dumbells and Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

The seeds of irreverent humour that inspired the likes of Wayne and Shuster and Monty Python were sown in the trenches of the First World War, and The Dumbells—concert parties made up of fighting soldiers—were central to this process. Soldiers of Song tells their story.

 

Lucky soldiers who could sing a song, perform a skit, or pass as a “lady,” were taken from the line and put onstage for the benefit of their soldier-audiences. The intent was to bolster morale and thereby help soldiers su …

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Unheard Of

Unheard Of

Memoirs of a Canadian Composer
edited by John Beckwith
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Canadian composer John Beckwith recounts his early days in Victoria, his studies in Toronto with Alberto Guerrero, his first compositions, and his later studies in Paris with the renowned Nadia Boulanger, of whom he offers a comprehensive personal view. In the memoir’s central chapters Beckwith describes his activities as a writer, university teacher, scholar, and administrator. Then, turning to his creative output, he considers his compositions for instrumental music, his four operas, choral …

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Excerpt from Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer by John Beckwith

From the section entitled Compositions, chapter 13 Choirs, pages 282 to 285

I had greeted Elmer Iseler’s 1964 appointment as conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir as a case of “the right person at the right time. “5 When that historic large choir pondered what to do with a commission for the Canadian Centennial in 1967, he suggested my name. This was a major challenge. Where to find a suitable text? As usual, my thoughts ran to a newly written libretto. The choir agreed to let me share my commission with a librettist. When I consulted with some of my writer friends, the name of Dennis Lee came up. Like Margaret Atwood, he had been part of Pamela’s Victoria College cast for Epicoene and was becoming known as a poet: his Civil Elegies, then about to be published, had pertinence to the modern city, and Toronto in particular; the children’s collection Alligator Pie, for which he was later renowned, was still several years in the future. Lee and I discussed some ideas about living in contemporary Canada and specifically in Toronto, and he developed a text calling for chorus and three soloists (speaker, Heldentenor, and blues singer). His first idea for a title was Civitas, but I thought that was too high-toned, so we settled on Place of Meeting, which some historians claim is the meaning of the Aboriginal word “Toronto” (“the [Toronto] meeting-place” and “the carrying-place” are terms found in historical accounts). The text depicts the commercial sleaze of the modern city (“this shambles”) and wonders how human dignity can survive in such surroundings. The blues singer laments,”This country ain’t my country, and this city ain’t my home. “ When the speaker climaxes a diatribe by shouting,”There is no Canada; there is NO Canada! “ the chorus overlaps his sustained “NO” with the beginning of “O Canada. “ The tenor part represents a more optimistic and hopeful view, overriding the critical/editorial elements with penetrating high Bs and Cs. We took our commission seriously and ambitiously. Northrop Frye said of the Centennial that what we were all celebrating was the Canada we had yet to create; 6 that was, I thought in retrospect, what Lee and I had tried to convey in Place of Meeting.

Place of Meeting was my largest composition project to date. Starting to work on it amid other commitments in the summer of 1966, I planned to produce it in stages, the score for chorus and soloists (with rehearsal cues) first, reserving completion of the orchestra’s score and the instrumental parts for later (I was promised the full Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the largest instrumental group I had yet worked with—six horns! ). Elements in the work would, I figured, coexist on different planes of dynamics and speed, as in my radio collages—and with these multiple forces it would be necessary to have two conductors. When I checked out these ideas with Iseler he was supportive, indeed gung-ho. The vocal score was ready for the choir in the spring of 1967; it had timings (twenty seconds here, forty-five seconds there) for the orchestral passages I had yet to write. The soloists were booked: the speaker would be the musically sensitive actor Colin Fox; the tenor would be Jacob Barkin, one of the musical Barkins of Toronto, then a cantor in a synagogue in the US, and a singer with a powerful, ringing high register; Al Harris, well known from many CBC broadcasts, would play the guitar accompaniment for the blues singer Phil Maude.

The second conductor position was as yet unfilled. This was still the situation at the start of choral rehearsals in the early fall. With some hesitation, I said to Iseler that if necessary, since I knew the score, I could be the second conductor. He found this an acceptable solution and even asked me to take one or two of the rehearsals, which I did. This experience revealed to me a mood of unrest among the choir members: some were tremendously keyed up about the project, while others were doubtful or even hostile. The piece was turning out to be not just new but controversial. At that point in its history, the Mendelssohn Choir had, I think, never attempted any more advanced contemporary repertoire than Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, so Place of Meeting seemed to many of the singers further off the choral-music norm than it actually was. Moreover, if the musical content was unfamiliar, Lee’s text was, to some, pretty strong stuff. In one passage the choir shouts a miscellany of advertising slogans then seen on billboards or heard in radio jingles, among them a particularly blatant one from a subway placard,”Shrink Hemorrhoids Now! “ For some of the more squeamish sopranos, that exceeded the bounds of good taste. It certainly wasn’t the B Minor Mass.

Iseler and I divided the conducting chores; for sections in simultaneous but conflicting metres (a large portion of the work), the choir was directed to watch him and the orchestra was directed to watch me. I was nervous for my rehearsals with the orchestra but felt I had good support from the players, some of whom I knew well. Audiences gave Massey Hall a superior rating for acoustics, but those who performed there regularly had a different opinion of the acoustics onstage. I understood this when I corrected the tuba on a wrong entry, only to be told that what I was hearing was the bassoon from the other side of the stage; the echoes played tricks. The speaker and the blues combo were positioned in a balcony overlooking the choir, and we asked for them to be miked. It turned out that the hall had no regular sound system in place (its transformation into a rock concert palace was still some years off). A part-time technician would come in when required and set up what amounted to a public address system intended for travel lectures or political meetings. There was delay and distress before this was prepared more or less adequately (it proved inadequate in the performance). Our dress rehearsal made everyone nervous, especially Elmer Iseler. He told me when it was over that he thought the performance would have to be cancelled. He was a veteran professional performer and I was making my first appearance leading a professional orchestra, but I found I was the one who had to rally his spirits. Somehow I must have managed to, because we went ahead with the show.

The night of the concert, the work came off more smoothly than in the dress rehearsal. As so often happens, the performers rose to the occasion and gave it their best. There were moments of audience reaction where it seemed our intentions got across. Fox’s voice commanded attention despite the erratic miking, and in the ironic final fade-out Harris’s blues guitar created a hush. I was told by two orchestra players afterwards (Gene Rittich and Bob Aitken) that my beat was clear; they had advised me as a novice that what most players want from a conductor is a strong upbeat, and I tried to remember that. There were however some bad, uncertain moments. The passage where the choir suddenly launches into “O Canada” was to be capped by the tenor soloist’s most exultant phrases, but Iseler hit “O Canada” at a faster tempo than he ever had in rehearsal—so much faster that Barkin found it impossible to sing his lines, so the effect was ruined. Dennis Lee and I were called to the stage for several bows with the conductor and soloists. It seemed something of the work had connected with our audience, but there were to be no more performances.

5 “Music in Toronto 64—65,” Canadian Forum 45, no. 534 (July 1965): 83—85.

6 Northrop Frye, The Modern Century: The Whidden Lectures, 1967 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967), 122—23.

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