Something is rotten in the state of Britain: its core values, identity and heart have been gradually and insidiously eroded by three and a half years of uncertainty, deception and denigration.
Back then, we rarely considered our position in Europe; it was simply a fact, both geographically and emotionally. We were tied to our neighbours by invisible links which were rarely questioned or discussed by the general population, let alone challenged with any appetite for change. But the righteous hubris of one man changed all that. A reckless political gamble threw the cards into the air and as we continue to watch them fall around us, with a new word – Brexit – now firmly ensconced within our lexicon, a polarised society has arisen amidst the biggest political and constitutional crisis since the Second World War and the fabric of our society is being systematically destroyed.
Our windswept, rainy, grey island has pulled up the drawbridge and Europhile dissenters are drowning, not waving, in the moat. Mainland Europe has never felt so far away. Social media has become a playing ground for trolls and propaganda; colleagues argue amongst themselves around the water-cooler; mates ‘un-friend’ those they have happily coexisted online with for years, arguing over something they never realised would or should matter and the rest of us shout out our frustrated diatribe into the vacuum created by our own safe bubble of concurrent allies.
And so we look to those who feel what we feel, who echo what we say, and who provide us with a sense of unity when we feel abandoned by the ones we elected and the ones we didn’t. The political pundits and the left-wing journalists; the writers and the activists; the poets and the singers – these are our light-houses, our beacons of hope as the storms of dissent continue to rage and iconic amongst these, remains Uncle Bill.
Billy Bragg has been writing, playing and singing both his own and others’ protest songs for almost forty years and has always been at his best when skillfully verbalising the struggles he sees around him and the frustrations he feels: a musical barometer for the zeitgeist of our generation. An opponent of racism, fascism, sexism and homophobia, his politics and his music are inter-twined, with his sets as likely to provide us with a stern pep talk and some liberal banter as they are a trip down musical memory lane.
After trialing the idea of a three night residency in select North Eastern American states, Bragg has brought the idea to the UK. Using this format, he is able to explore a wider back-catalogue than a usual tour would allow and is also, as he pointedly explains, crucially able to reduce his carbon footprint. The format of the triumvirate shows follows a ‘career spanning’ first night set, followed by albums one to three and four to six over the consecutive evenings and has been met across the UK by sold-out venues, with many devotees attending all three nights.
A dark Tuesday in late November sees the first night of Bragg’s residency in Cambridge, a left-leaning, politically active city he has visited many times before and where he is welcomed warmly by those of us who crave the unity of the crowd; a sense of solidarity in these ever-confusing times, as the countdown to an unwanted General Election and the threat of No Deal cliff-edge Brexit looms ever closer. Launching straight into “Sexuality”, Bragg knows how to get the crowd onside but despite this, the audience requires some warming-up – and he knows how to work us, moving swiftly into the first of three Woody Guthrie covers, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”.
By the time Bragg arrives at “Milkman of Human Kindness”, we are signing along; “Valentine’s Day is Over” is spat at us angrily as he reminds us of the significance of respect and amusing light relief is provided in the self-deprecating humour of “Handyman Blues”.
But of course, sing-along classics aside, we are also here to listen to Bragg talk about the things that matter: about the issues of the day, about his fears and concerns, his advice for our sanity and his attitude towards the situation we find ourselves in. Telling a tale about a couple outside New York’s Bowery Ballroom who lambasted him for ‘talking too much’, I conversely find myself wishing he would talk more and I doubt that I am alone in thinking that I would happily pay to hear Bragg without his guitar, such is the powerful message of his confident diatribe and his warnings against the most dangerous state of all: apathy.
Most compelling is Bragg’s explanation of his recently published pamphlet, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, in which he argues that freedom does not equate to unadulterated autonomy of speech and that in a time where our very democracy is being questioned and challenged, we must be mindful of the responsibility which freedom brings – and question its very notion. By alerting us to the way in which freedom of speech as a concept is being stretched out of shape by the powerful, Bragg suggests that with it must also come accountability and equality – the three points of this triangle being mutually inclusive. It’s an effective proposition and is exactly what the audience needs to hear from their front man tonight: the sincerity with which he approaches his subject, his crowd held silent as we ponder the import of his words. In this moment we again feel the stirrings of hope, we sense a connection and we feel as though, to quote “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”: ‘when the world falls apart some things stay in place’.
However, Bragg is keeping his most powerful musical polemics until last and we are treated to “I Keep Faith” (a reminder to us all), “Why We Build the Wall” and a wonderfully alternative version of “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”, sardonically geared for his weary British audience: ‘we shake our fists in anger and respectively suggest that we take our money from Trident and spend it on the NHS…but if Brexit comes to No Deal, you know we will be the first people who voted to put sanctions on themselves. No one knows how many children Boris Johnson sired or can remember how many times his lies have got him fired, but I will tell you this mate, I know how this will end, when he does to Britain what he’s done to his ex-girlfriends’. We laugh but it’s through gritted teeth.
Bragg’s encore provides us with a final burst of solidarity in song: “Power in a Union” and “A New England”. I am warmed to see a young couple excitedly make their way to the front; they weren’t even born when Talking to the Taxman About Poetry was released and yet they are here, their fists in the air, chanting along with an audience of parents and grandparents. Theirs is the generation that the music of Bragg and his peers must target, there is power in a union and there is also hope in the young: so energised by the concerns of the day, so confident in their voice. They are not ground down or jaded, yet they are the ones who have been let down, whose futures have been put under threat and their vigour is inspiring.
We are not the ones who are looking for A New England but we are looking for a more tolerant, equal and empathetic one and in this, we must all act together: ‘it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand, there is power in a union’.
“Gordon Lightfoot” harangues his manager, Bernie, in a delightfully petty rivalry with another musical client. He often does this in song. “Corey Hart”, “Geddy Lee”, “Burton Cummings”, and a cast of Canadian Northern Lights have been known to pop by for brief appearances, to punctuate stories, or to reveal that they, like all of us of a certain age, have one foot happily rooted in our particular Canadian cultural past. These uncanny impressions are just a few of the cast of characters of Taggart and Torrens.
Welcome to the Canadianity landscape, one built over the past few years in typical Canadian fashion: humbly, with a ton of belly laughs and with just a touch of our patented overuse of “Sorry.” Taggart and Torrens (T&T) are the pop culture reporters Canada needs and have never really had before, unless you count the unrecorded kitchen table impressions and musings that at least one member of every Canadian family is quietly good at, coast to coast.
Canadian humour is unique, and, like all good things today, undervalued. It’s easily forgotten that what the world grew up thinking of as Hollywood funny was homegrown right here in this big land: much missed figures like John Candy and always hilarious actors and mimics like Martin Short. A generous heap of what made Ghostbusters so funny, and part of our youth. The meteoric rise of Jim Carrey. The global shorthand of Austin Powers. These and many more were brewed in Canada.
On the Pod, Jonathan Torrens and Jeremy Taggart unpack Canadianity (a term they coined in their ever-growing lexicon, a new unofficial language) via references across the spectrum of our culture, the strange animal that is Canadian fame (if you stay here you will probably never be a household name) our particular icons, music and television shows of our 70s and 80s youth, and never-ending games that underscore the national need to kill time in long winters, road trips requiring stamina like few other places, and our deep need / ability to amuse ourselves, as much as others. To be self-effacing, with an equal gift for a well-placed jab, when deserved. There is no hate in our humour.
The past two years of political unease around the world with what feels like a relentless wave of ugliness-as-news leaking over the frail borders of our consciousness, have coincided with this new Canadian culture programming in the form of a podcast and occasional road show, with a comedy-music album forthcoming via Dine Alone Records. The key to all podcasts (and indeed, the original play-at-home mass entertainment, radio and storytelling) is a natural banter between hosts: the rest is gravy. And here, T&T delivers gold. We might assume one of the most unknowable sort of figures in culture would be a drummer from a highly successful band and an actor / writer who’s been on our TV screens on and off since the 90s (another world). But the two longtime friends have the most rare and valuable of assets in entertainment: natural and real chemistry.
Jeremy Taggart has the ease and openness of a born storyteller, one who has seen a lot and has decided to kick back for a minute or two. He’s lived a great deal in the wider world of music (since he was seventeen) where cred lies both in talent and stamina for the touring life and in the unwritten rules of the industry where gossip stays close and there’s a gentleman’s code that means the public rarely learns about the messes in the business, the tragedies, the jerks, and how the sausage is made. He still has a code, but he’s fearless and firm in his own voice, calling things as he sees them, independent and fair-minded, and seems always happy to see the humour in life, including his own colourful childhood.
Jonathan Torrens was once Jonovision, will forever be Trailer Park Boys J-ROC, (a fact that so infuriated a professional colleague that they were moved to write an email telling him the “MAFK” schtick was tired). Torrens has had to grapple with this sort of hater-prone fame, having been part of an iconic show that is either loved or hated, but, like J-ROC, is recognizable to all of us who get it (a friend of mine who grew up very rough laughed all through the series, saying it was his real life. It was a comfort, knome sane?). No doubt Torrens channels his unique east coaster sensibilities and applies that to his brilliant knack for improvisation and mimicry in the characters created for the show, particularly everybahd’s new BFF, “Andrea” (‘n them) (who was so instantly fully formed that she seems to live and breathe) in his comedy. He’s a writer whose equally good on his feet. T&T make each other laugh and give each other space to play. The podcast is unique among podcasts. It’s also unique in the world of Canadians and how we were brought up: This series doesn’t need to please America. Be marketable. It doesn’t feel inferior, need to hide its accent or apologize. It represents a change in how Canadians might want to see themselves again. Culture is as important as any other national resource.
All of us long to curl up around our weekly entertainment that feels like friends, more and more in fragmented and isolating times. T&T is not just a podcast, but instills a feeling like the radio programs we’ve heard about from decades ago, at least as worthy as the highly popular American podcasts about crime or politics that can only put us to sleep, disconnected from our essence as they are. Canadians need to laugh. We are funny, and we need to be entertained in our entertainment. We have clear lines, still, between news, gossip, entertainment, and documentary, there are boundaries, borders, that are important and healthy. T&T somehow embodies both the important, deep Canadian values, and the irreverent, our funnybones, in ways that were hard to articulate before the show existed. That were buried for too long. That have been embraced with full force by so many who’ve needed just this thing to make us whole.
Before Taggart and Torrens, we had only the odd feature in now-defunct weekly papers (like an oral history of MuchMusic) to reflect on who we were and are as a distinct, artistic and funny culture. Archives are always buried down in some vault. Nothing Canadian gets rerun. Our own memories have to serve much more than is fair. We’d search for scraps of SCTV (even tattooed, as it was, on our memories) or took comfort in Facebook pages like Retrontario for videos, commercials, and scraps of our youth via TV programs, such as the beloved local oddity Hilarious House of Frightenstein, which stretched a single day’s work of Vincent Price reading Edgar Allan Poe lines into a starring role, making 80s kids think he was one of ours, like Billy Van, or everyone’s dog for a minute, Hobo.
The few pieces written about Canadian culture were, for too long, a study in “Who were we and what has happened to our unique, weird mass culture in the death of CANCON?” and “Whatever happened to (enter name of Much VJ here)?” more than vivid culture stories. Short on hope, they were little glimmers of what was missing. But now we have a model of what was, what could be, and what is quietly happening with Taggart and Torrens’ off-beat Canadian podcasting, which is really a DIY rebirth in indie Canadian broadcasting). They inspire, inform, and entertain. They draw on lifetimes of unique experience in the world and yet are as relatable as you could ever hope for. They are silly, they are fearless, they have love for all of it. They’re the full package. And they make us all into bahds.
Have a listen on SoundCloud or YouTube, so we can become fluent in a new national language, together.
The highly anticipated Yayoi Kusama interactive exhibit has arrived at Toronto’s AGO. And while it is here, it is still highly anticipated by many. Long online ticket release queues mimic the ones we are used to at actual events. Kusama’s expertise at playing with form, image, time, space and inclusion has extended itself, in the Instagram era, both offline and online, to the excitement-level of a concert announcement, and the bodies hoping to get in, in numbers enough to fill a stadium. Stadium love, Toronto has for Kusama.
And just like original, groundbreaking music, great art is worth the wait. Kusama’s work predates rock concerts and music festivals. She was behind the original “happenings” that formed the worlds of both student protest and student art in her first years as an artist.Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors (March 3 – May 27, 2018) is the first of its kind, an institutional survey exhibition that lets attendees enter immersive infinity rooms. It marks the most ambitious North American tour of the artist’s work in almost a generation. The AGO in Toronto is the only Canadian stop and one of just six on the tour that runs into early 2019 (Seattle, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Atlanta).
The infinity rooms are surreal and incredibly immersive. They defy the eye (and the camera lens) to place oneself in this landscape, and yet the landscape is “real”, three dimensional and allows us right inside it. It is kaleidoscopic and rich with fantasy inspiration, and marks the debut of a number of new works such as All the Eternal Love I have for Pumpkins (2016), featuring dozens of Kusama’s signature bright yellow, dotted pumpkins, a motif for the artist’s artwork and preoccupations since she was a small child. An artist working out their dreams of childhood and seeing them continually blossom as they enter their senior decades is something striking in itself. The newness and excitement it has created in so many young people and not just the expected numbers of AGO members and long time fans of the artist’s work who might remember the happenings of their youth is something else entirely. It seems that Kusama finds herself right at home and right on time for audiences today just as in prior decades and other eras and places. Perhaps the artist bends time. Defies it. Remakes it. Indeed, the artist does. Even if we can’t linger too long within it.
Perhaps the fantastical, the introspective, the reflective, the dreamlike, the childhood wishes Kusama articulates in acute, imaginative detail, as surreal or unusual as they are, wildly coloured and lit from unknown sources and free-floating are deeper to our shared dreams than anyone ever anticipated.
The AGO’s presentation of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors will be complemented by an installation of her 1966 work Narcissus Garden, featuring over 1,300 stainless steel mirror balls placed in the AGO’s Signy Eaton Gallery. Narcissus Garden will be free to view with general admission.
It’s very hard to write about The Tragically Hip. Hard then, and hard now. When something is big and broad enough to be tied into more than half of your life, primarily the most halcyon days of your youth when you thought friendships and summer days and dreams and parents would never run out, it’s almost gibberish. It smacks of redundancy.
It’s especially hard to write about a brilliant writer, a writer who can use economy, wit & play with language at a master level, with his own invented process, tools and tricks of his trade that are deep knots of mystery we don’t know, and we can’t know. I only know that they are better than mine; better than most. But too, that they feed my brain, my creativity, my heart and my soul. They enable tears as if they were a faucet, they heal heartbreak like a good bender, they make the lake glow like Vegas, they make love feel like winning the lottery.
It is easy to love them. If you’ve got alotta heart, yerself. Lace up your skates:
I discovered The Hip during 1989, and their first album Up to Here. But it really blurred together into 1991 with Road Apples, and both albums were heavily featured in our 12 disc CD changer at The Body Shop store where I spent some formative years developing my worldview. Straightening shelves, wrapping baskets, the music in the background got absorbed in my psyche a way it wouldn’t have via the radio. That wouldn’t be normal in adulthood when we got too busy. “Little Bones” is undoubtedly genius, and like many Hip songs even as their sound and subjects changed and always evolved, it bursts with an instant urgency and no warm up. It slaps you awake:
“It gets so sticky down here
Better butter your cue finger up
It’s the start of another new year
Better call the newspaper up
Two-fifty for a hi-ball
And buck and a half for a beer
Happy hour, happy hour
Happy hour is here”
It sounded like a great Paul Newman movie, that one we hadn’t even seen yet. It sounded American, though no band in America sounded like that then. It sounded like road music. But it sounded like Shakespeare too, as the twisting verse evolved: “Two fifty for a decade / And a buck and a half for a year; Two fifty for an eyeball / And a buck and a half for an ear.” Canadian music was growing up in 1989. And it was growing up led by this upstart band from Kingston, with one foot in Shakespeare, history (much of it undocumented) and literature but with most of itself firmly in the present, able to see into every corner of the Canadian heart, and us. With a keen observance of the world under our feet. With range, with imagination, with superpowers, telekinesis being just one of many. Tell me he didn’t move you and change the substrata, too.
“Pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire
Sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire
Picking out the highlights of the scenery
Saw a little cloud that looked a little like me
I had my hands in the river, my feet back up on the banks
Looked up to the lord above and said, Hey, man, thanks
Sometimes I feel so good I got to scream
She said, Gordie, baby, I know exactly what you mean
She said, she said, I swear to god she said…” (New Orleans is Sinking)
If you haven’t heard the band do that song live, you haven’t heard them. Each and every one of those lines have been known to stretch into side trips and diversions, meditations and hallucinations that became the only religion we would ever again want or need. Woodstock came to us, 25 years later.
This band was a rocking “bar band”, we thought. It was a man’s band, we thought. It was a road tripping band. It was and wasn’t all of those things because we had no expectation of our own Springsteen, Dylan, Lennon, Cobain, Gaye, Morrissey emerging from little old Canada. That and our false humility hurt this great, great band as it has others as well. But The Hip was also a tightly wound nerve center of intellect, of confidence, of outsider observance, of irony. Of iron. It was like nothing we’d ever heard. There’s a “Colonel Tom” reference in New Orleans is Sinking. “Blow at High Dough” is fully grounded in Kingston, Ontario, but depicts the way a big movie production upsets and seduces the small towns it touches down in like a tornado: “Some kind of Elvis thing”. This is a precise bit of Canadian culture, our cities regularly disguised as American ones, our shabby old buildings right on time for prohibition-era Chicago. The imagination of Gord Downie, from the jump, was preoccupied with affairs at home and the wider culture, of which he was an astute critic, with honesty about human foibles, a scribe’s talent for scraps that caught his eye and ear that others miss. Even his earliest works were weighted with an old man’s wry wisdom. This is a facet of him that we always loved like hell, one that now is burnished as he will never get to be the spectacular old man he would have been. Gord Downie was the University program in Canadian Studies that was all the university many of us would ever get, and it was transformative. It prepared us for the future. It was damn near free.
The early shows are legendary (and by early, I mean at least the first 12 years) as the band built their name in a tireless life on the road from city to city in a country that is over 4000 miles wide, that had no music festival scene to speak of (so they built their own) and that was largely indifferent to big ideas and used to the comforting nowhere nostalgia of cover bands. Not much has changed there. We’re in a bit of a downturn. But as much as we could change, we did change. Incrementally. “Blow at High Dough” was one of those songs that would turn into amazing Jack Kerouac rambles on stage. At our Eden Music Fest in 1996, in a period of rich musical output for The Tragically Hip as well as a rich time for its fans, “Some kind of Elvis thing” was swapped for “Mathew Broderick”. Who knows why? It was funny, that’s all. It was ours, alone. A secret gig. A bootleg to be. It was never boring. It was an adventure. It’s one of the only things I really remember about that weekend (which was a bit like the 60s: if you remember it, especially if you bitch about it, you weren’t really there).
Another thing about (the much maligned, flawed, ambitious) Eden Music Festival. That bill was stacked with some big name talent from Britain and the U.S. but we were all there for The Tragically Hip. The crowds were as big and devoted for The Hip that night as they were for The Cure the other night, a singular band that was in its 20th year of global domination and evolution. This was a moment. This was the year we all grew up and stood a bit taller as we graduated from Hip studies. 1996 was the year that The Hip tickets got too hard to get in Toronto, as each great album piled on the last. So, and I don’t know whose idea it was, but we rented vans and started road-tripping to faraway American cities and small clubs full of people like us from Canada. And there, we would get those legendary shows that I now realize The Hip were giving us like an intimate fan club exclusive because they knew all about our efforts. We didn’t know we made a difference to them. We were still thinking small, thinking Canadian. Chicago, Boston, Erie. And Toronto when we could.
Thinking about Gord Downie and The Hip incessantly for the past two 72 hours since his death, able to talk only to the few who deeply understand the wordless sadness & deep awe, I am so happy that the country and parts of the world, even, raised the level of appreciation lately for the triumphs of this band that millions of fans have known about for 30 years. (That’s been well covered elsewhere, and continues to steamroller throughout Canada. Bring it on, it’s never too much, I say.) Gord Downie’s legacy is assured. But I’m so sad and furious that this deserving artist, poet and man will not get to retire, see his children go on to raise families of their own, be the even wiser elder statesman / old man we all know he would have been. I’m full of bittersweet melancholy about the latest music from The Hip’s last few records that I put off, saving it for “later” and especially abouthis production with regular solo-album collaborator Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) called Introduce Yerself the forthcoming solo record of 23 songs to Gord Downie’s loved ones and significant people in his life, that promises to put its hands around our hearts and squeeze us til we’re dry*.
Of all the great things that The Tragically Hip did for Canada & Canadians, for bookworms and hockey fans and boys who didn’t have the words and needed a spokesman, for David Milgaard and Guy-Paul Morin, for Bill Barilko and we hope, for Chanie Wenjack, perhaps their greatest achievement of the early years for Canadians was to make us less repressed. If we act almost alive at gigs sometimes it’s because of Gord Downie’s freedom and beautiful performance art, directly. His whoops and kicks and sweats and nuttiness and Jack Kerouac rambles were like snow that dusted everywhere he ever went and released us inch by inch from that dry uptight puritanism from a century ago. Wildness and intellect. You know, both were scary. Both together? It was revolutionary in the 80s and 90s. I remember being shoulder to shoulder with a thousand people in harmony swaying we were 25 we were 100 years old mystics we were not the same afterward. It was all love and unity. Any rock star who has come from here with any ounce of swagger or confidence (and our many actors who blur out their accents) owe a debt to Gord Downie and The Hip, who were missionaries.
I’m grateful for the education I’ve had. That sounds boring- but if you’ve ever had a real mentor, a life-changing professor, you’ll know it isn’t. Gord Downie’s brain, given flight by a band who never had one single member rotate out or get turfed since high school, took us all on a journey across landscapes beyond our own lifetimes, inward to the self, unflinchingly at marriage (and divorce) into the Grand Canyon, and sidelong at all the things that make us Canadian (a very under-reported topic before The Hip) including our wrongfully convicted, our hockey, our CBC, our Bobcaygeon, our nautical disasters, our self-esteem (low, which The Hip raised by inches and by years) our toughness, our stoicism, our wanting to be urban sophisticates but our truth that our ears and eyes and instincts are not far from the brutally harsh wildness that Hollywood would imagine was theirs in films like The Revenant, but, naturally, was filmed smack dab in the middle of nowhere in our vast pristine modern day ‘here’. Canada is a mystery. A work in progress. Adaptable. A snow globe. We need to be shaken up to become beautiful. And we know now that we are beautiful, creative and weird. After Gord Downie.
If the band had really broken in America or they’d “gone American”, it would have broken our fragile hearts. It would have knocked our collective self-esteem back a bit. In popularity, their homey specialness would have eroded a bit. America breaks many more artists than it gets broken by. They might have become like the actors whose accents slip into that L.A. smoothness and betrays us and our “ehs” and plain speak, who only touch down here from first class to a hotel and a restaurant none of us can afford and never really land. They deserved to be worldwide, U2 level, appreciated. It wasn’t their Canadianness that prevented it – I adore bands that only ever sing about Manchester and English preoccupations in full northern slang- it was just the way that it was. They were too good for it. So they stayed ours. When the news came that we would lose Gord, when the band & their families planned out the next year….? They flipped the U.S. the bird (I like to think) and they rooted in here, in this goddamned big enough land. Coast to coast, and then up to James Bay. That’s how you handle your circumstances with grace. You go deeper, you dig in. You mend and make do. There’s such a richness to that, an elegance. Imagine.
“I made degenerate art for the religious right
On the day that you were born
I had a passion to experiment
But I was torn” (Put it off).
The way Gord Downie spent the last 18 months of life with an inoperable & rare brain cancer is yet another masterclass, this time, in how to squeeze every last bit of meaning and usefulness, even art, from your days. It is the new way to go. Few can pull it off. Few ever did pull off what he did. It is almost a separate career worth of achievement that we have yet to unpack and will become a fine new tradition in Canadiana. It tells us: get up off your ass and don’t mourn, instead, do something, ass****! (That might just be me to me).
“If you knew you had X months to live, what would you do?” That question of floating docks and lazy days with legs slung over Muskoka chairs, slapping at mosquitoes, you never take seriously because you just can’t know what you would do, or if you’d be able to do much of anything at all. Or if you’d be in hospital for months in a twilight of lessening dignity, full of fear. You answer that question exactly the way you answer what you’d do if you won the 649, which is the exact opposite thing. Expansion of possibility versus life shrinking to a pinpoint. All of it, just wide speculation. “This is all nothing but cold calculation”. Downie and The Hip answered that question in a way that changed the face of illness and death, and even that evil epidemic we call cancer. They quite simply flipped it the bird. How they did it we’ll never know. It’s called magic for a reason. They, in a sense, just got on with it, just kept on workin’. They also said, let’s make a plan. One imagines a short list and a longer list and a longest list and that they made it pretty damn far but it’s never enough, is it?
“When the colour of the night
And all the smoke for one life
Gives way to shaky movements
A forest of whispering speakers
Let’s swear that we will
Get with the times
In a current health to stay
Let’s get friendship right
Get life day-to-day
In the forget-yer-skates dream
Full of countervailing woes
Its diverse-as-ever seen
Proceeding on a need-to-know
In a face so full of meaning
As to almost make it glow
For a good life we just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go
Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow
Grow somewhere we’re needed” (It’s a Good Life if you Don’t Weaken)
I know that Gord’s family shared this person with all of US in the dark. Just as ever. Even then, even in the “what would you do with months to live”. My heart goes out, in the dark, to these people I don’t know. I know that Gord spent his last years making art to bring a light & raise both awareness & funds to a new family in the north, who accepted him in as the mystic he surely always was. He was given by them the Lakota spirit name “He Who Walks With the Stars”. It was his time. It was long overdue. It’s never enough. We were always looking up, looking around, looking inward after 1989. Now the stars are somethin’ else too. And the stars belong to everyone in the whole wide world.
Oasis: Supersonic (2016) Directed by Mat Whitecross
The much buzzed about documentary about the rise of Oasis & the Gallagher brothers from the capable, deeply plugged in and utterly present Mat Whitecross (Spike Island) (now on Netflix) is worth all the applause you might think it was getting from just nostalgic fanboys. It is a special challenge for a filmmaker to separate a well-known story and iconic music from its myth/legend/gossip or whatever the once-mighty, feral British press would have you believe was the story. Whitecross may be the only one who could have done it with such grace and clear-eyed appreciation, not to mention co-operation.
One thing that always made Liam and Noel so interesting, and something that is a bit of an endearing, refreshing, and in today’s PR cloaked & dull world, highly unusual trait, is their candor. There seems to be no subject, no story, or no disaster that they are embarrassed about or will deny- this after years of reported estrangement and a bad break up- and both have their unique and truly funny senses of humour intact about it all. There’s a generosity about the shared history that is surprising given the current state of “Oasis” and the Gallagher brothers endless public feud and fallout, in spite of all the bratty headlines of the time (catnip the the voyeuristic and untalented hacks) and puffed up arrogance they wore like parkas. It turns out that they have a true appreciation for it all, and even, dare we say, with the passing decades (or with myth-making over), a new humility?
Oasis: Supersonic, like the fictional, but true, look at the legendary/mythical high point of the Stone Roses reign, Spike Island, rockets all of us who were there, 90s kids and young twenties, without warning, into an immediacy and joy of an exciting time in culture that REALLY WAS SPECIAL and was OURS, not without a bit of whiplash. If whiplash could happen to your heart. The biggest surprise is not that Liam and Noel, quite separately, produced and enabled this film to happen with all its essential music clearances and footage; or that they both can love the success and milestones of their band that (yet) might have ripped apart their family forever without bitterness and with tongue-in-cheek, seemingly still grounded, still Manc, still real human beings; or that they could still produce something as good as this, together, whilst estranged and through a director with diplomacy skills that could probably heal nations; but that it turns out that Oasis love us regular people right back. That we are a part of this thing.
With decades gone by (the most we’ve ever felt the shock of passing time we try to ignore, never more alive than in the 90s, maybe the last great days of music & real wider cultural happenings ever to be) and the charts of today a polluted factory runoff pond that will kill you even if you are in earshot and refuse to buy into the lies being sold as “music” by “artists”; with time away from Oasis; the music comes roaring back, fresh as new. Would you ever believe Liam was a one-take wonder? Will you ever feel, first hand, via perfect, raw footage culled from those with access and presence of mind to capture and to keep it, what it felt like to have the world at your feet, to control not a room, but a dozen football stadiums worth of people, better than through this documentary?
Far from the ease in which great music seemed to flow around the globe in the mid-90s, and further still from the detached cool that our rock stars must manifest, wear as armour, fake-til-they-make-it, or actually have had since they were anonymous and regular survivors of the monster called family and of modern life, Supersonic is just that. It is a meteor of memory, music, culture, and clear-eyed youthful promise. It enables us to remember what we were. What we can still dream of. What was possible, and only possible, without (away from) the technological dark age of right now, with all these screens and genius apps we use mostly to avoid real life and to remain arrested in our own development.
Supersonic is both a great documentary about Oasis’s unique successes and place in music history, as well as a love letter to a time and a place and even to all of us. And, in a time when Millennials are more nostalgic about our past than we are, this film is needed to fuel them, the next generation of 20 somethings with messages they sorely need to be blasted loud and clear.
You can be self-made. You can come from nothing. In fact you should. Greatness and grit really only ever does. Go and make something. Fuck shit up. Invent yourself.
Third Eye Blind has been in the news very recently. They’ve been in that news that everyone is stuck in right now, the muck and the mire that is the US Election, that brutal mess with all its talk talk talk and emotion and button pushing, and its satire that even at the highest level has failed to right the ship, to allow true democracy to happen after all.
But Third Eye Blind, who’ve continued to make new music over the years since their explosive success in the glorious late 90s, gave the world a moment of true enlightenment, actual humour, and a pause for thought that our comedians and pundits have fallen over themselves for months and failed to do. They “trolled the Republican National Convention”.
They did what musicians are supposed to do, and sometimes still do- use their formidable weapons- the only weapons that ought to be open carry (and not by most civilians, either, only the skilled) to create a moment. To resist. To speak out. To criticize. To call out. It was astounding, and it was beautiful. The silly jaded bloggers took notice, and stepped away from their Kardashian coma haze for a minute or two to write about something else. The mainstream media huffed and puffed in disbelief that some band who comes from a time of actual free speech and is not beholden to anyone, who are grown and do not have ugly corporate ties like most big artists, pulled off something out of The Prestige.
The accurate story is that Third Eye Blind “played a benefit concert for “Musicians on Call”, a charity, near the Republican National Convention. The band took the opportunity to speak out against the Republican Party, criticizing their views on science and LGBT rights, and playing tracks specifically critical of their stances, including “Jumper”, and “Non-Dairy Creamer”. (Wikipedia) The media/blogosphere/citizen social media reporter is perhaps so out of practice at seeing normal and necessary dissent, they freaked out a little. This band has always been outspoken, free-thinking. The time is just right for them to jump back into the fray. Let’s all limber up and see if we can get our mosh on again.
Culture watchers, those of us on the margins of the new media counter-culture (as we’ve coined it right here) and fans of this band cheered and laughed, for once, at something interesting, real and actually noteworthy in an ocean of noise, ugly noise emitting from Trump who is here because he’s a Reality TV star and people are TV zombies, and for no other good reason. We laughed at the rediculousness of the whole terrible situation in the US, because what else can we do? What else can a band do, and in fact, no one else seems to have done this, except these guys.
And a week later, Third Eye Blind is slated to play the second annual, and now historic, Canadian music festival, Wayhome. We love good humour up here in Canada. We gave the world the best comedians Hollywood has ever (will ever) know. We are of the frontier mindset, a little wild, yet, and we are free thinkers. We embrace this band with our open enthusiasm, maybe even a little harder than we might have a few weeks ago, but those of us who’ve embraced them since their forever great 1997 self-titled debut do not follow trends or waves. We were always gonna be here, and here we are.
At Wayhome as we have since 1997, our big moments are not the sing-along singles, the ubiquitous “Semi-Charmed Life” (which we will always remember with amusement was used in a Tigger movie trailer, minus the little red panties and meth references, of course, in fact, it could only have been the do do dos…as this was the last time bands were allowed to make blantant drug references in plain English) “Jumper” and “Graduate”, but the epicly beautiful dirges “How’s It Gonna Be” and “Motorcycle Drive By” for which we still know every word, intonation and strum.
The last of these, “Motorcycle Drive By”, gives us “those f0ur right chords (that) can make me cry” Jenkins sings about in Semi-Charmed Life. But it’s more like 8 chords. It gets us every time, and it does today, too. It’s a piece of musical poetry, far away from the misconception of late 90s bands and gigs as a brofest. This is a song about a romantic man being denied a future by a toxic, destructive, troubled woman, a backdrop of drugs and despair and the growing pains everyone endures in their 20s, this time, put to paper and sent around the world. “There’s this burning. Just like there’s always been.”
“Visions of you on a motorcycle drive by
The cigarette ash flies in your eyes
And you don’t mind, you smile
And say the world doesn’t fit with you
I don’t believe you, you’re so serene
Careening through the universe
Your axis on a tilt, you’re guiltless and free
I hope you take a piece of me with you”
What Motorcycle Drive By, is, too, is the example of more than a great song on their first album but indicative tight musical unit that’s been paying their dues and singing in bars and parties working for this moment for some years. It could have been a stand alone, one hit wonder, and thank god it wasn’t. Follow up album Blue brought us “Never Let You Go” and we walk through the crowd seeking optimum viewing spots while singing “the girl is like a sunburn” in scorching heat, and badly sunburned.
Seeing Third Eye Blind on the same day as The Killers it becomes clear that in some sense TEB was the prototype. It was rock, with heart, with highs and lows, rawness and pain, and soaring crescendos. It was anything but Grunge. Or maybe The Killers and other bands who’ve emerged post 2000s who play in the same endless, perfect sandbox of hearfelt rock and roll are really a throwback to something we’ve sorta lost lately, but always need.
The crowds at Third Eye Blind are waking up. Lots of them in the massive crowd have not seen this band on their Toronto stops in recent years, clearly. Many of them have never seen the band live, and have forgotten why this CD never left the 6 disc changer or why it was essential to every road trip (and still will make the miles fly by, we promise.) It’s great to see, to be part of, as it’s exactly the kind of shaking up that music festivals are known for, and are capable of. The headliners ensure the party can sell, the new discoveries give us life for the future and let us say we were there, and the much deserved rediscoveries, like Third Eye Blind, remind us who we were and the musical promise of the 1990s that we all still owe a debt to.
THE BEST OF OUR FEST Highlights of the stuffed full of goodness Wayhome 2016 lineup included a strong roster of Canadian bands. It’s a great time for Canadian music with the expansion of our festival offerings, and a necessary source of lifeblood for fans and musicians alike. All of these bands rocked out and made our best of list, and defied the heat like true rock and rollers. Most of them in black / jeans, across genres, defying genres, putting in the time, building something lasting in a tough climate, and rocking us all out in different ways, all in one epic weekend north of Toronto. And new discoveries of the next wave of Alternative that we pray to Black Philip for every night.
Metric once played a free show for students at Frosh week at U of T on their early rise. This is a band that’s grown with us over the past decade, forming a soundtrack to our lives. They are of world-class caliber, deserving of a type of prestige, authority and glow reserved for bands and times of industry richness we think of as retro: U2, Coldplay, The Stones, Prince. Their frontwoman is a great musician and a rock star who makes stadiums swoon. They sing and rock about issues big and small, with a wry tongue in cheek and a keen human observation that ranks them among the most special type of bands. Their lyrics hold up to analysis (for those lit major types with that obsession/disease) or can be sung and flung into the wind with rock and roll abandon. They asked “after all of this is gone, who would you rather be? The Beatles or The Rolling Stones”. The question hangs there over all music, not just their music, over all creative life as we ponder art and commerce and meaning and legacy. They don’t say who they’d rather be as time is the only thing that will tell.
Alternative Hip hop artist (and for the past year, Q host) Shad is a self-made man who’s been in the game for a decade. We were lucky to have the insights into his back catalogue and his deep, deep meaning to superfans via a writer named Chris Dagonas who was with us in our early months and wrote “The Old Prince Grows Up. Shad Then and Right Now” last year for this magazine. This feature gave us insights and reference points that allowed us to walk into the always jumping scene that was the Waybold stage /tent and feel at home among thousands of Shad fans freaking out and using what little heat-wave zapped energy they reserved for this stellar show. Shad is our own Hip hop royalty. He is Canadian hip hop : Kenyan born, Ontario raised, bringing a background of English and French bilingualism and a learned air that lifts rhymes into elevated, educated poetry, and a worldly viewpoint that is flexible and agile. We needed more and will be in the next crowds for a solo Shad show.
A Tribe Called Red
A Tribe Called Red is a fantastic, very post-modern group of artists who mix influences and sounds of Hip hop, Reggae, moombahton, and dubstep influenced dance music with cues from First Nations music. As their profile has grown in recent years, one unifying description always follows: they are not to be missed. Their name is an obvious (and brilliant) nod to the iconic A Tribe Called Quest, a most worthy influence and an apt reference. From DJing to dancers that deliver more culture and beauty than a lifetime of stale textbooks that once erased First Nations from Canadian history, A Tribe Called Red has earned acclaim from the street and audiences and at the highest levels of Canadian music. They’ve also been vocal supporters of Idle No More and have been a voice against cultural appropriation (the most obvious being festival goers wearing headdresses and warpaint to shows and festivals as “fashion”) mixing important messages and cultural criticism without missing a relentless beat and creating a show that delivers an unforgettable time while moving Canada into the musical & cultural future – one that cannot be dominated by white voices but is finally growing diverse.
Wolf Parade’s bona fides are deep and subtly underplayed. We remember the band opening for Arcade Fire back in the mid 2000s just before AF moved into stadiums, and there is a deep Montreal connection & we think, friendship. (Here’s Arcade Fire covering Wolf Parade’s “I’ll Believe in Anything” on their Reflektor tour in 2014 in Montreal). Drummer Arlen Thompson played drums on Arcade Fire’s iconic Wake Up – a song that will define our age- that is almost all drums. On hiatus since 2011, the band is now back as of 2016, into a world that still needs them. As the pictures show – and let us bore you again with how bloody hot it was this Wayhome weekend- this band defies such environmental conditions and subscribes to the rule (that almost all musicians outside of Hip hop are bound by) that you dress in pants for the stage. They are dressed like damn gentlemen, causing passersby to stop in their tracks and marvel. Here are musicians cool enough in this heat to don a jacket AND TIE. This band has style. Back on the road for 2016 there are US dates available for August and September and, EP 4 is also now available for pre-order. Give this great band some love. (We feel we can state with confidence that they were the first of the 2000s bands with “Wolf” in their name, too.)
We are big fans of Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner’s side project Operators, which we’ve included in our New Music Radar feature.
Dilly Dally’s debut album, Sore, came out in October, and in a festival bill loaded with big names and “tiny font” names, they arrive at Wayhome with some significant buzz from discerning fans and media whose ears are always tuned to the reverb, the rattle, the grit and the clean burn of Alternative music (a word, and a music, that’s more ripe for a comeback than ever in the pop/pap/dross/corporate landscape of today. Alternative music fans feel it in our bones when there is a sign of life nearby, and move toward it like the vampires who operate on deep dark magic (and are never fucking sparkly!) to find ourselves at stages like this. YES. Dilly Dally has it, is it, and delivers what we’ve been waiting for. After Wayhome (and fresh off the Polaris Prize long list, and one of our picks here) Dilly Dally is off to be appreciated by UK & Europe, where the vampires were born and still rumble most glamorously at night. Let’s hope they let Dilly Dally come back to us so we can see them again in Toronto. Alternative music is just real music. Find it and embrace it and kick and break something, make some noise and wait for the McDonalds era of music to finally die off because it’s just junk. The video for Snakehead starts like this, we’re in love:
Words by Jacqueline Howell, Photos by Dave MacIntyre
Photos: Metric, Wolf Parade, White Lung, Third Eye Blind, Shad, A Tribe Called Red, Dilly Dally.
The Killers, Sunday July 24, Wayhome Music and Arts Festival, Oro-Medonte, Burl’s Creek (north of Toronto).
The Killer’s front man and songwriter Brandon Flowers is smiling in that authentic, endearing way that fans, AKA “Victims” know well and sometimes wait years for. But memory will have to serve as we are firmly, for once, in the beautiful analog-no-photos-please authentic world of Flowers (and those of us over 30) ‘s dreams and visions. He’s atop a monitor. Now he’s behind his trademark, trusty synth. Now he’s singing slightly toward stage right, and when he veers finally over to stage left, we all swoon.
It’s Sunday night at 9:30 sharp and The Killers are back again with us, rapidly and assuredly closing the gaps between the couple of years since their last big tour as if it was but a season ago. Toronto’s been lucky enough to be on every tour since the hardworking band’s formation 14 years ago, with a couple of Brandon Flowers solo stops for good measure (including a smashing solo turn at the inaugural Wayhome last year). But tonight, tonight, something bigger is afoot. Those of us with the Victims official fan club T-Shirts still holding up and still worn have seen all the various stage set ups from glammed up to palm trees to full Las Vegas dazzle to horn sections (Ray!) to skeletons to confidently stripped back, like tonight. As the Wayhome crowds surge from all over the massive grounds to the one and only Sunday finale show, on the day things finally have cooled just a little in the merciless heat and we could take the necessary siestas for this important ritual, The Killers launch right into a no-fuss no-muss 1.5 hours of sheer bangers with nary an interruption and just the right amount of words from the stage.
Whatever people want to assume or claim about a private man and a band that is focused firmly on making music and not selling ancillary products or playing silly celebrity PR games, one thing is certain. This band is full of humility and gratitude. This is evident everytime they leave it all on the stage and the impeccable track record of never dialing it in. This is a fact that is not up for debate- we’ve done the research. We don’t take in music or report on gigs as if we were old players commentating in suits on a footie game. This is life, music, art and soul. This is something you only rate with your heart.
The barely repressed smile and the energy coming down from the stage is the gravy and is also the prize in the Cracker Jack box. One could almost forget that The Killers headlined Glastonbury back in 2007, Flowers in perfect Las Vegas gold lame, and they killed it with ease, cementing their legacy for the larger world which always got them more than their country of origin in the usual US/UK exchange program that includes such esteemed members as Depeche Mode (bigger in US than in UK) and The Cure (bigger and more beloved in Toronto and around the world than in US or UK). Tonight, the smile and the energy and the life coming from up there is as true blue as if it was a newer band finally hitting their stride and getting their shot, or as if we have somehow all been teleported to Glasto in 2007 and are seeing history made.
As if it weren’t enough to have been treated to an immense, deeply crowd pleasing festival bill of over 60 acts, including Arcade Fire’s first full band show in over two years, LCD Soundsystem’s first outing in five years, an unforgettable and utterly artistic FKA Twigs late night show and happy surprises on four diverse musical stages, the festival closes in a way that conjures fantasies that my firm, private comment in the car after Flowers ‘ solo set last Wayhome was prescient and was even as powerful as law:”Now The Killers need to come back and headline. That would be a perfect fit.”
And here we are with Brandon, Dave Keuning, Ronnie Vannucci Jr and touring bassist Jake Blanton. Everyone is where they belong tonight. Seems like everyone is here, in a space that looks scary from above (in a Wayhome-provided drone shot) but is really an amiable wide open field with room to move even at that perfect front /side pocket where those in the know get in early. I am are here with old friends, new friends, and my truest love. We are all here. We 40,000 can’t help falling in love.
The buzz is rising in the strange twittersphere that The Killers are back on the road again like they were for so many years we were spoiled from. The energy is electric, the excitement is palpable and one of the many wild, non-nonsensical totems of this great big weekend is finally the sensible and meaningful “Battle Born” whose carriers fight to the front and before the eyes of all the band to see. Victims, representing, and The Killers crash onto the stage folding time like a paper airplane. Because that’s what great music does. These are pre-dystopian anthems of just a few years ago in an ever changing and lately, flattening musical landscape. Killers songs have balls. They have heart. They have staying power. They have worth. They can save your heart. They might have already saved your heart from the mean reds or the blues sometime as they did mine not so long ago, something I wear on my sleeve because it’s true, and it’s past and love did not leave my life but returned to it, and all the while, the music held me up and will always be loved in turn, like my religion, because that’s what music is.
Killers songs are about an unbelievable woman who stupidly broke a beautiful man’s heart, fueling a truly great album in our new century. They are about remembering your essence, the gold hearted boy or girl you used to be. They are from a juggernaut of a band whose demos were so damn good, they went right on to the first album. These same songs ring with unabashed, brave, unvarnished, uncool truths (yet made cool when set to music, when brought into the light, when reaching the millions strong who get it and buy in) they are rock and roll poems full of feelings of longing, apprehension, fear & anger. They are the dreams of regular people, music fans, who willed themselves and fought (battle born) and hustled with true grit to stand beside their own musical heroes and belong there. And duet. And cover, beautifully. And be in the game and to change it, too. And like all the greatest songs we set our hearts beating in time to, for those of us who grew up to the strains of synth pop assuring us that the Cold War was something we could dance through (and so we did), Killers songs ring as true as New Order, as The Cure, as Joy Division, as OMD, as The Smiths & Morrissey, as Bruce Springsteen, as Elvis.
The Killers have always done a cover or two, and have always done them justice, if not breathed new life into them. Fans know all this. Casual listeners can be turned with a few drops of these covers. The Killers have long made Joy Division’s Shadowplay a part of their set (before it was cool, even) and tonight, I see that they’ve now just up and made it their own after recording it for the great Ian Curtis biopic “Control” and playing it steadily down the years. This song is their secret touchstone, that band, Joy Division, the mecca and the root of all British rock post-Ian Curtis’ tragic death and the end of Joy Division, the band that is the grail we start from and look for in our own tours around those few chords and few notes, working to make something we haven’t heard before in a time when it feels heavy and stale, like its all been done.
But the pace never slows with this band, at this show, and as a veteran of 8 Killers (and one Flowers solo) shows on two continents I can say that as great as they’ve always played, this is the best one yet. That is all down to the band’s impossibly tight, agile, tireless and euphoric show. And has an extra drop of magic of a festival crowd in total sync in the final hours of celebrating the dedication to make journeys and travel to make music matter, to make sure we are a part of it and not sidelined on the couch, an effort that grows more special with every dystopian year lately. No less so as the world continues to ache with public violence, and the bravery and commitment of both performers and fans is not insignificant.
But that’s the last thing on our minds as we all delve in and sing and dance and cheer without a minute’s pause or lapse to Mr. Brightside, Spaceman, The Way it Was, Human (intro) Bling, Shadowplay, Human, Somebody Told Me, Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll, For Reasons Unknown, A Dustland Fairytale, Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis cover), Read My Mind, Runaways, All These Things That I’ve Done, This is Your Life, Jenny Was a Friend of Mine AND When You Were Young.
The bucket list for this band – if we can’t just be hired to feed Ronnie’s dog on tour-is growing shorter and now revolves around seeing a Killers Christmastime show featuring their annual Project Red charity singles (especially “A Great Big Sled” and “Don’t Shoot Me Santa”) and the Murder Trilogy. Oh and Romeo and Juliet. Oh yes, this is how a Victim conversation goes.
Happily, The Killers decided to pull up to the foot of our driveway once again, and were welcomed back. That feeling soaking your spine was, actually, magic.
Ronnie Vannucci Jr. gets the last word though, and it’s mike droppingly brilliant. After his customary drum sticks toss (his second of the night) he steps to Flowers’ mike and reminds us all “Tell your friends”.
Steve Martin, iconic actor/writer/comedian/musician (lately with Edie Brickell) is also an avid art fan who discovered our own icon Lawren Harris of Group of Seven fame, in a book some time ago. It seemed that among Martin’s wide circle of friends including art collectors and artists, the work of Harris (and indeed, The Group of Seven) was not widely known in some pretty big circles in the U.S. So began a thirst, a quest, and an emerging passion for this work which led to this premiering exhibit’s creation and curation by Martin for the AGO. The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, opens tomorrow, July 1, Canada Day.
Martin spoke on his love for art and the work of Harris (and his personal / artistic links to Canada/ Toronto) at a media preview on Tuesday June 28th at the AGO. A high profile group including Trinity-Spadina MPP Han Dong and local media and culture pros filled out the main floor atrium space while gallery visitors and staff overflowed second floor balconies above to catch a glimpse of this historic visit and hear about the exciting new show. While The Group of Seven’s work is among the most high profile of national treasures, celebrated and featured in our most staid and formal parliamentary settings and spaces, public galleries, formal textbooks and deepest imagery, Martin’s talk brought some L.A. cool and a refreshingly relaxed approach to this art, this project, and to our own relationship with Canadian and local art and culture. His appearance itself lent something unusual, special, and yet understated to the whole proceedings and to the ongoing art conversation that is such an important one for local/regional/generational/national voices and identities. Also rather important for the future – that we take some of the formality out of art appreciation and bring it back down to earth where the young can be inspired to access, appreciate and create future master works. This approach is something that the AGO is leading in and bringing Steve Martin into the mix is a beautiful facet of this approach.
For Lawren Harris’ work is sometimes abstract and other times, literal. You can visit the near north landscapes that look just like some of these works- although time of day, light conditions, patience and imagination (as well as a move away from the grab and go filter to death Instagram instinct) will be required to find those Harris blues and whites in nature. Those both fortunate and adventurous enough to find the Canadian public, shared, accessible, free Northern Ontario lakes can sit in a water craft or on a bank and see those impossible, pristine, unpeopled, advertisement-free, uncluttered landscapes, feel the stillness and feel truly humbled; “small, but not out of place at all” (as The Tragically Hip coined the feeling). There are people, there are animals, there is life there out of frame (and always has been- these early 20th century works are not acts of erasure of Canada’s Aboriginals) but the land in the paintings and in Ontario’s rich natural world today is still overwhelmingly broad and generous and uncorrupted, largely, thankfully, protected as Crown Lands, as well as just remote enough to remain so for as far back as those old, even ancient, rocks have stood above clear lapping lakes and rivers.
It’s significant that a very famous, well-loved and respected Hollywood actor/artist and writer who’s no doubt seen every corner of the planet he’s ever wanted to and then some, who is among those few celluloid stars who can probably not go to any city on the planet even the more remote islands and not be recognized over a private dinner in a public space, finds something new, intimate, inviting, and addicting about Lawren Harris (and the landscapes and settings that inspired the painter). The work, these paintings, this Group, for Canadians, has national recognition and is widely celebrated, while like all public, institutionally celebrated things, is also taken for granted – as we do our actors, our artists, certainly our comedians, our quality films and projects and our famous faces of the world today. Our own actors have long had to go south of the border for us to recognize them. Those who are brave and loyal enough to remain, and those unlucky or landlocked, can become part of the background, decoration for a passersby’s selfie. When really they are, like all artists worth their salt, really diamonds, despite their provenance or name recognition.
It is significant, also, that the broad ability for a painting to reach a collector or a book reader can propel someone very well established into new areas of inspiration and connectedness, outside of one’s comfort zone perhaps, far away from the expected areas of focus and enabling them to not “stay in their lane” as casual hate speech cautions artists, musicians, actors, and thinkers of today who approach debate or add voice to public conversations. It takes a very strong person/ality and a strong stomach, heart (what have you) to step into other lanes even if you have the power and credibility to call up the biggest art collector and biggest guns of the country and have a peek at their private collections in their “warehouses”.
As expected, Steve Martin is as quintessentially, naturally (and professionally) funny as anyone who’s ever made it big, and, let’s get this out of the way, most eternally silver fox handsome and funnier than most who probably ever will attempt the game. He’s also, in case you don’t look at film credits or think through the laughter of 40 years, a serious and insightful man. YET! His approach to art is just like ours- when he sees something he loves, it’s like a good wine. “Let’s get drunk!” A bad painting makes you say “Wow. Huh.” and a good painting makes you say “Huh. WOW!” The feeling great art (one could extend to “arts” music etc.) is the urge to dominate and own it, privately “to see it in your living room” followed by the reality check “Oh, I see it’s a national treasure…!” (Art can be both for wealthy big-game hunters but too, is and must be for Joe Public). A few embarrassing film junket-type questions emerge from the star-struck media who are careening out of their little, well trodden lane, as usual, longing to tie a star to our little berg with some little anecdote, when really, this is a citizen of the world and the arts, who has a lot of Canadian friends, great comedians, and likes being around comedians. The shrug Martin deflects such questions with is real, and it’s important. Canada needs to calm down and start being more confident in our worth in such fine company. When will we ever believe we are more than just a backdrop? And his advice to young artists is just about perfect: with reservation as it’s “always a cliche” he offers wisdom that reminds us in this jaded, overexposed, devalued generation that hard work and hustle has always been part of craft, talent, and the life of creative people. “Do anything offered to you. Always keep making things. ” Martin says. Look for new areas of exposure for your work and yourself- your worthiness and ability to be asked to create for others. Look at all avenues for creating work. It’s a casual little chat. Like the best, probably most newsworthy culture stories. It’s not bombast. As usual, Steve Martin, the artist through and through, is (seemingly effortlessly) inspiring, timeless, mountain-like, and clear in his message. And funny. Nuanced. No pratfalls here.
To sit before a real star, the brightest and the best from the era who knows the world in a way the vast majority of audiences never will, who’s written for obscure 1960s tv shows and authored fine movies, books, and one liners to boot; who’s navigated the mountains and peaks and valleys of the glittery world of entertainment and survived the dingiest back alleys behind that city’s false fronts as well; it must be said, who remains when too many have fallen never to be replaced; an actor who you can name as the direct cause of some of your biggest belly laughs in your life, laughter-as-the-best-only-medicine that could bridge generation gaps and heal families; a performer who survived being a prop comic (the best prop comic); who played a sarcastic waiter in The Muppet Movie in short shorts and outshone Orson Welles, Milton Berle, Bob Hope (giants of their day) and Richard Pryor; who called our heroic talent John Candy a friend and colleague; is heady stuff indeed. To see him brush all expectations aside for a nice conversation about a cool thing he’s curating, while pouring a glass of water for his presenter, is nothing short of the almost forgotten, long promised magic of the Silver Screen.
The Idea of North presented informally, with ease and with a long overdue understatement, is that we have our own fascinating landscapes and artists that even a century on, are still ripe for discovery south of the border (and north of it).
The Idea of North is that we have rich, timeless landscapes that you will simply not believe within a few hours drive north of Toronto, that will make you forget or re-contextualize, if you will (students) the academic notion/reading/critiques of culture for something transcendent, apolitical (for once) and timeless indeed. If Steve Martin appreciates it among all the wonders of the world, it’s certainly worth a look for our own. If you have a friend who can show you the way, make haste, bring some wine or a board game, and count your lucky stars (they will bloom like nowhere else on earth.)
Innovative ballets have now been created in its honour. Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art, will speak in depth on this topic and Lawren Harris’ view of this city of great diversity and dense urban growth in the 1910s- just as it is today- July 15th at Jackman Hall. With heavy international political and social concerns at the forefront of today’s news, with massive upheaval, migrations, displacement, wars, changes, and stresses, it’s not only timeless and reassuringly Canadian to look inward (in our historic way) but is also quite timely to look inward in a new, clear, confident way; to find strength, discussion points, context, inspiration, and pride in our art and our landscapes and our riches, in the truest and most pride worthy sense of the word. As usual, additional programming, art classes for children and adults, allow a deeper look and participation in this great new show. See the AGO website for more information, tickets and FAQs.
The Idea of North is flexible, open, not pinned to a wall in a calendar, not a coaster, not something dry and dusty from a textbook, not something for parliamentarians and school kids only to pass by each day at our Legislature. It’s rather exciting, starry, special, BIG, after all. Steve Martin said so.
Bestival Toronto returned for its second year in the city in a new home, Woodbine Park in Toronto’s east end. A big change from Hanlan’s Point of last year, the move eased logistical issues that the Island always brings and offered new ways to showcase all of Bestival’s unique and special offerings which exist both on and off their stages (and tents).
The new site was utilized very well, including the placement of the all-important I love Bestival sign above a perfect hilltop viewing area for those who like their crowd scenes slower and more comfy, with full view of the main stage and most of the main food & bev areas. Returning Bestival-ers got to have the warm fuzzies seeing the iconic Bollywood tent and the special homey touches that Bestival is known for. This festival is singularly great among those in the area in recent years, leading the charge in putting attendee experience first, from walkability to seating areas (that go far beyond picnic tables or VIP-only offerings of other events in town.) This is not an ad, but a real observation from someone who loves the little details and furniture and has spent years carrying around various versions of a blanket/raincoat/etc.
There was an intimacy to the new setting that was interesting and made for great conversation and people watching. Families came with children decked out in their protective ear covers, and all seemed to enjoy the open spaces, relaxed vibes and hot, beautiful weather. The now-customary strong variety of food trucks was present, and we decided to stick to cool cider and a chicken burrito along with water. Stages were a quick hop making the circuit easy to map and cover, and along the way to the Inflatable Church and the Bollywood Stage sprung up the Summer of Love Costume Party & Parade full of unicorns and musicians and followed by a surprising and beautiful pooch (on staff) riding in a golf cart. And that was all before 6:00 p.m.
With Rob da Bank, Maddmon, Smalltown DJs, Thugli, 4B, Giraffage, Shaun Frank, Madeon, Porter Robinson, Elliot Vincent Jones, Rationale, Swim Deep, Jamie XX, Odesza, Tame Impala.
Plus, all the beautiful people, one beautiful dog, the most beautiful handmade headdress of all, a moose-icorn? A lovely dancer we think outta go by Bust A Move, new friends, the most chilled out tent ever to be staked in this city (complete with twinkly chandelier) the most delightful green apple glasses filled with Jim Beam bourbon, sun, and even the Isle of Wight made an appearance.
Day two artist gallery /write up to follow.
With thanks to Bestival Toronto and all the featured artists and the people.
Words by Jacqueline Howell. Photos by Dave MacIntyre