Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ten Great Songs 2009 #4: All the Money I Had is Gone

Michelle Lang was the agriculture reporter when I started at the Leader-Post in 2001. My job was mainly to sort the mail, archive each day's edition, and tame the wild fax machine. It was the closest thing to an adult job I've ever had. I held on to it far longer than I should have because I was afraid that that was as good as I was going to get in this world. And also because they let me write CD reviews and interview Bruce McCulloch and Bob Newhart and Charley Pride.
By the time I started at the L-P, I'd been writing consistently for about four years for the student press, alt-weeklies, and the odd not-quite-glossy music mag. Among the amateurs and the activists, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I was quickly humbled at my leftover desk on the edge of a real newsroom, watching real journalists do real journalism every day. I spent the next five years wallowing in a wounded sense of inadequacy that mostly manifested itself in self-sabotage.
Early days, before I resigned myself to a lifetime of fax wrangling, it felt like my lowly position might be a springboard to better things. During that first year or so, some reporters would ask me to help search the archives (before the archives went digital). One day Michelle stopped by my desk and said she'd heard I had the best French in the newsroom.
"That's not saying much," I said. I'd helped translate some French documents once.
Well, Michelle explained, of course I'd heard that such-and-such federal agriculture program was falling apart and the provincial Ag Dept. was publicly considering pulling out or going ahead anyway or something. She knew that Manitoba had already bailed and had heard that Quebec might be too. Trouble was, her French wasn't good enough that she could call up the Quebec Agriculture Ministry to confirm. Would I, could I?
So, with my horribly out of practice French and extremely limited knowledge of agricultural issues, I dialled up the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture. "Etes-vous...?"
I made a transcript and translated it and left it on Michelle's desk. The Quebec Ministry was weighing their options and promised to act in the best interest of their producers. When Michelle got back to the newsroom, she thanked me for my help. It felt great to be challenged and to come through on it. Good work is its own reward, I figured.
The following morning, I immediately opened the paper to the Ag section to see how much ink my little adventure had generated. The Quebec Ministry of Agriculture featured in one tangential sentence in the article, which was mainly about how Saskatchewan farmers were dealing with the mess. At the bottom of the the article, in italics, read: with files from Emmet Matheson.
Damn. I doubt Michelle realized how much that acknowledgement meant to me. For her, the whole thing was routine: you follow through on stories and you give proper credit. That's just good journalism, that's just being a decent human being.
I think everyone who worked at the Leader-Post back then would agree that working there became a little less fun and interesting after Michelle left for the Calgary Herald.
Michelle Lang, along with four Canadian Forces soldiers, died yesterday in Afghanistan when the vehicle they were traveling in hit an improvised explosive device.

mp3: "All the Money I Had is Gone" by the Deep Dark Woods

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ten Great Songs 2009 #3: Going Out Tonight

Recidivism. A great, dark theme for a great, dark song. It starts with that spare twang-y chord, like it's an outlaw country murder ballad. And it is, in its way.
The song finds its narrator at a point of despair so low that bottoming out seems like redemption. Maybe this is what's happened to (the hopefully fictional) Gary Hache in the decade since Andrew Vincent first sang about him. Ten years younger, getting loaded and mouthing off to cops sounds like a lot of fun. But sometimes bad boys grow into sad men , and this song catches one of them in a quiet moment, and nails it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

You Should Have Loved Them When You Had the Chance

Originally published in a December issue of prairie dog magazine.

You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance


Saved By Radio

4 dogs

Proof there’s no God: The Parkas were twice as good as Two Hours Traffic, yet somehow failed to reach even half the national profile of the Two Minute Miracles. The Parkas played their final show last July in Toronto and you probably didn’t even know they existed until you read this paragraph. WTF, my friends?

You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance comes to us like an infant in a rocketship from a doomed planet. Each song is a feat of strength magnified by our yellow sun and lesser gravity. “Isolation Pay” is David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” ferociously played as if an outtake from This Year’s Model, the lyrics rewritten as a convincing blue collar anthem. “Bad Comedian” is one of two odd setpieces (the other is the brilliantly simple “Face the Facts”), a roman a clef that recalls Toronto writer Jason Anderson’s overlooked 2005 novel Showbiz in the way it plies the tragedy out of comedy and then socks it right back. “Brighton Hurricane”, “Don’t Say No” and “The Gang’s All Gone” are prime examples of the meaty, muscular brand of rock the Parkas have always excelled at. “Goodnight, Nemesis” calls back to the themes of the Parkas’ first album, 2003’s Now This Is Fighting, and highlights how the band has matured. Back then, on “Giants in My Field” the Parkas cheekily riffed on Aretha, spelling “R-E-V-E-N-G-E, find out what it means to me.” Now, older and wiser, they broodingly tell us “Sometimes justice is just a grudge." You Should Have Killed Us... shows a band that held on to all that was good and interesting about itself and continuously found new ways to make it work.

mp3: "Face the Facts" by Parkas from their new, final album You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance

mp3: "Scam the Tram" by Parkas from their first album Now This is Fighting

mp3: "Get on the Cardboard" by Phasers on Stun, a pre-Parkas band featuring the world famous Rhyno Bros Rhythm Section

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Showbiz, Part Two: Escapism

“I read and review a lot of CanLit where there really isn’t a plot,” Jason Anderson told Taddle Creek magazine about his debut novel, Showbiz in 2005. “A lot of character, a lot of theme, but there’s really not a ripping-yarn story element to it.”
Showbiz follows Nathan Grant, a freelance journalist whose career has stalled out in the middle of an intersection, as he gets in over his head chasing down a story that could make his career or break his legs. That's plot taken care of. Out of the plot, or maybe alongside?, come all kinds of great characters and themes. And jokes.
Mostly Anderson gives us a nervous Canadian navigating the USA, a post-paranoid landscape yin-yanging on the axis of exhibitionism and secrecy. Reality TV and conspiracy theories. All of which is plenty entertaining and worthwhile, but what really makes the novel crackle are the insights Anderson teases about, well, Showbiz. Throughout the book, we get brief italicized vignettes from Grant's quarry, presidential impersonator Jimmy Wynn; internal monologues as he psyches himself up for another curtain call in the good old days. As the novel winds its way through show biz meccas New York City, Las Vegas, L.A. and rural Californa desert toward a climax that could only happen on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, the parallels between the art of impersonation and the craft of writing start humming like tines of the same tuning fork. The last half of the book is really enjoyable.
The first 30 or so pages are a little awkward. There are scenes at an art opening and a bar-qua-barber shop that don't do a lot to engage the reader or necessarily set up the rest of the book. Anderson eases in to the parallel reality of his novel--a world where JFK was named Teddy Cannon and killed in New Orleans, Lenny Bruce survived to turn into a low-rent Ed McMahon, though the Shaggs persist (albeit under a different name) because even on a quantum level, no universe could exist without them--a little too slowly, giving the impression at first that he's just too chicken shit to use real names. But once we meet Anderson's pudding-loving Lenny Bruce the idea finally clicks and the novel really takes off.
Plus, Anderson includes my favourite joke (best told as an orphaned punchline by Detective Meldrick Lewis throughout several seasons of Homicide: Life on the Streets) about a bear.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Ten Great Songs 2009 #2: Holiday

If you're looking for a perfect gift for that special someone in your life who is trying desperately to make the transition from writing incoherent 250-word record reviews to full-fledged novelism, you could do a lot worse than Jason Anderson's 2005 novel Showbiz.
Anderson plays keyboards in The Two Koreas and, more importantly for our narrative today, writes arts journalism out of Toronto for a bunch of places that you'll probably recognize if you live in Toronto, and won't if you don't. Like the CBC.
About 12 years ago, Anderson was the music editor at Eye Weekly, and I was very slowly making my way from Regina to Montreal to become a writer. Seriously, that was the plan: Move to Montreal, become a writer. I made a flowchart and everything. I was well on my way to achieving both goals, because I had published at least five record reviews in Regina's prairie dog magazine (it was a monthly back then) and was temporarily living in a London, Ont. basement apartment. I was 20, I was destined for greatness.
I had already faxed (!) my tearsheets to the Mirror before I even left Regina, to give them time to find me a desk, I suppose. But my plans were still malleable, so I decided to send Eye an email, just in case. I included a couple of my better pieces (I didn't have a lot, but it was still obvious which ones were better) and an offhand remark about how I was the second coming of Richard Meltzer. Of course, this was 1998 or something, and Meltzer was more or less entirely out of print at the point and I don't think I'd even read anything by him, I'd just read about him and decided he was my hero based on that. Well, maybe I'd read some of his stuff on Addicted to Noise, which was kind of a kickass website back in tha day. But I certainly wasn't familiar with his style, just his reputation.
So I get an email back from Jason Anderson. He commends my intention to be the next Meltzer, says he likes one of the samples I sent him and invites me to pitch to him. He even suggests I use more jokes. So I call him up, he talks to me as if I'm a peer, telling me that the new Plant & Page album really sounds like an Albini recording (because it was) and I'm like, oh shit. I'm just a guy who's written a handful of CD reviews, I don't know what an Albini recording is supposed to sound like! I'm in way over my head. I have one pitch, not a great one, based on a musical obsession I was on the verge of growing out of. Anderson whittles it down a bit, but accepts it, gives me an assignment. He never hears from me again.
I spent the next few months in Montreal, writing horrible poetry and short stories that were even worse.
Eventually I went back to Regina and have incrementally become almost as good a writer as I used to tell everybody I already was. Give me another twelve years.
More about Showbiz tomorrow.

Monday, December 07, 2009

One Year Later...

I think back to those dark days of last December, sleepless and harrowed, wandering the streets near on midnight looking for the late-night supermarket in the snowy mystery. One foot in front of the other, one diaper change to the next.
Those early days, you were losing more weight than you should have. Just by a little, just enough to scare us. We supplemented and regulated, stepped up the frequency of your feedings, every three hours, no matter what. It really felt, and I supposed it was, that all we had to do was keep you alive. It was easy to forget about ourselves. But when we remembered, we were famished.
I went out into the night, I didn't remember the last time I'd been out, I didn't know what day it was. It was dark, but it had been snowing so the ground reflected the light from the standards above. Everything was new, built in anticipation of the Canada Line, it was like walking through a window display.
I got to the store just as they were starting to close up. I wandered the aisles in a hurried fog, not wanting to be last out, but without much idea of what I should be buying. By the time I made it to the cashier, my basket was full of random frozen meals, unripe fruit and a salad mix. I had no business buying groceries in my state of mind, but what else could I do?
I got home, put a frozen lasagna in the oven, and hoped it would be ready before your next meal.
A week or so later, the danger had passed, but no one was getting much sleep, no one had recoverd. We took you out to our neighbourhood coffee shop. I wore the same green corduroy Snuggli my parents had carried me in, 31 years earlier. You were so calm and quiet, I was afraid I'd smothered you. You were so fragile. I took nothing for granted.
Yesterday, we took you out for brunch, you walked part way. You ate a pancake and some fruit. You raised a ruckus and laughed, laughed, laughed. I laughed too.

mp3: "Daddy Loves Baby" by Don Covay

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ten Great Songs 2009 #1: Rising

A few years ago, I went to see The Marriage of Figaro. Not my favourite opera, but related at least. It was a pleasant enough experience, but I wasn't all that impressed by the supertitles projected above the stage. I'd seen foreign movies, so I was prepared to read and watch at the same time. I wasn't, however, prepared for how pedestrian the libretto seemed when translated to English.
I get what Opera is trying to do with the supertitles, and I appreciate that they're trying to broaden the audience and democratize the artform. But, geez, I like the mystery! What's obscure and unknowable is half the appeal! I don't want quotidian Opera, I want it so grand that I can only respond to it on an emotional level.
So I was a little worried when I noticed a number of English-language songs on Lhasa de Sela's new album, Lhasa. Her previous albs were mostly sung in Spanish and French, and though I understand French, I often choose not to. Luckily, Lhasa didn't flake out on me. The album is a country & western album in about the same way that Leonard Cohen's Various Positions is a C&W record. "Rising", written with Patrick Watson, is a great song.

mp3: "Rising" by Lhasa de Sela

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


What's funny is that I bought a new parka the other day.
I live in Vancouver, I don't actually need a parka. I could get away with a windbreaker over a sweater. Growing up on the Prairies, though, I had some parkas, yes sir. Big puffy numbers from the Hobo Shop, three-quarter length Hudson's Bay doozies, and yeah, oversized army surplus parkas. When I was 15, everyone I knew either had a green army surplus parka or was about to get one. Friday nights we slouched and loitered around the South End of Regina imagining ourselves ruthless street toughs until the minivans and station wagons rolled into the DJ Cinnamons parking lot at 9:30 to take us home, where, if we were lucky, our mothers would make us hot cocoa and popcorn.
My big green army surplus parka followed me around the country the winter of 1995/96. We were out there near Hawk Junction, tending to the snow mobile trails, trimming the undergrowth with Husqvarnas and Stihls. I used to put a mandarin orange in the pocket of my parka as we'd leave for the trail in the morning. By midafternoon, the juice would be frozen, but not the pulp, making for a sweet, slushy snack.
For the last three years, since I've been out on the coast, I've made do with a flock-lined corduroy jacket, real rugged-like. I bought it at a mall. In the suburbs. Aside from how heavy it gets in the rain, it's been a good coat. The main problem I've had with it is that wearing it supercedes wearing corduroy pants. Which I really like to do. But you can't wear top and bottom corduroy. Unless you're in the woods. Wrestling Bigfoot. In the year 1978.
My new parka, purchased downtown, has street cred. It's fitted, with a vinyl shell and a fuzz-lined hood. At first it reminded me of Han Solo's parka from Empire, but I don't have goggles for it. Yet.
What it really reminds me of is the type of coat tough, young single mothers from Queens wear in hip hop videos and inspirational movies. You know, that stereotypical image of the girl with the big hoop earrings and her hair back in a super-tight ponytail. She won't listen when everyone says she can't do it, or she shouldn't do it, because she has a dream and can't no one tell her she can't chase her dream. I have the same parka as her. And for a minute or two today, I was her.
It wasn't raining, so I had a choice of outerwear. Lill and I were going to the grocery store to pick up some bananas and bread, two of her favourite foods. It was just cold enough that I wanted something snug, so I wore my new parka out for the first time. I zipped it all the way up, like a turtleneck, and let the hood sort of half hang off the back of my head. On the way back, I pushed the stroller up Commercial Drive, a cloth grocery bag slipping off my shoulder. I started to feel a little swagger in my hips, a little J.Lo in my attitude. I became Emmet from the Block, and I was gonna go to beauty school and someday take my baby out of this neighbourhood and have a nice house with a yard and little fence, and well, it's just a little dream, but it's my dream and you can never take it away from me. I bobbed my head as I thought these strange thoughts and gave the stinkeye to all these people on the street judging me, thinking I'm just another girl from Queens going to beauty school, learning how to do extensions. But I'll show them, I'll show all them, that I'm something else. I'm something else.

The Parkas of Ontario release their final album today. You Should Have Killed Us When You Had the Chance. Great record, great band. I'll hopefully have more to say about it by the end of the year. Until then, here's a fitting track, "The Gang's All Gone" from the new alb, you can buy it from the Parkas. As well, what the hell, a track from their previous alb, Put Your Head In the Lion's Mouth: "You and What Army".

mp3: "The Gang's All Gone" by Parkas