Midsommar: DISARM’S Best film of the Year, 2019

Midsommar is a story of a young woman coming-of-age, through devastation and mute grief, careless life choices and while being dropped into the strangest of settings she must try to survive by her wits. Or is her own trajectory prearranged, rigged, cast by a community and her friend who invites her there? Midsommar is not what the clips, memes and trailers show, though they show some eerie, riveting and beautiful scenes. Nor is it what the film critics who fail to get it and are not actually interested in interpreting it tell you it is: how they claim it fails or falls short.

Midsommar is something new. It is a daylight-drenched folk horror film full of actual twists in a genre which has made a tired cliché of twists. Its unique tricks of genre begin before the film itself: its poster, featuring a still of a woman’s face in tear-stained anguish, is itself a red herring. What appears to be another in an infinite line of women we’ve seen for more than a generation now in dirty tear-stained horror (bait for the horror film fan) is seen in hindsight as a still of its star mid-cathartic primal scream. She’s, for once, not alone. This is coded, like so much of the film, like so much of many great films. Midsommar is not a pale imitation of The Wicker Man, or of anything. The urge to label it as such is one of desperation, for its point of view is incisive and blunt. Midsommar is full of sleight of hand, like the poster, like the marketing, efforts that ultimately add to the pleasure of close watchers in need of unexpected catharsis and rescue from the darkest corners of our psyches as it enrages others who tune out and reject the film’s arguments and plot points, ones that are nuanced and designed for close watchers, not the jump-scare crowd that needs a ear-shattering violin note to know when to react, who need to feel they would outwit all the villains before them. Our biggest enemy is often our own drives.

The jokes, memes and silly, giddy love that have followed Midsommar, often promoted by young women but also those who just get it, including some of the leading creaters of off-beat film (like Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro) are all real and valid, because the social critiques of the film reached their targets: their own audience. Their subjects. Millennials grappling with life direction and hope. People in bad, lazily long relationships. Women who need a primal group scream, who are tired of being let down and hurt past the point of registering an expression or mustering up an argument. People who endeavour not to be cliches: the bad tourist. The ugly American. The dilettante anthropologist. The reality TV reject who disappears and is forgotten, early on, making a fool of themselves.

Midsommar, Ari Aster’s drastic departure from Hereditary, was designed to alienate viewers (and reviewers) most comfortable with the accepted norms of storytelling in film, TV, graphic novels and pulpy thrillers: wherein a wife may so often not have a word of dialogue, may be murdered in a pre-credits sequence, need not be named, or exist only as a framed picture for the male hero to launch his lone-wolf vigilantism, consequence and morality free. It feels custom-made for the half of the audience who have spent their whole lives silently suffering untold depictions of girls and women being choked, smothered, dragged, struck, beaten, terrorized, killed, and stuffed in suitcases or tossed in trunks or over bridges into shallow creeks as if they were all but crumpled cigarette packs. This has been women’s lot in film, that women have had to accept as reflections of ourselves, until very recently. This increasingly casual, visceral and realistic violence against women has passed for entertainment since the golden age of cinema darkened over the grande dames who once made our humble grandmothers stand taller and risk a bit of red lip for their modest waitressing jobs, allowed our mothers to question their assigned roles in the turbulent 1970s, and made ourselves turn from movies to 1990s music for role models where, as few as women were on big stages, they (and we) seemed, for a season, unkillable.

Midsommar hit a public nerve that is strikingly familiar to the one struck by The Witch. That film was appreciated by people who love all things folk horror, as well as those who appreciate the difficult and honest-to-goodness travesty of justice that was life in witchcraft-era Salem / New England, especially for girls and women (the dialogue is taken from real trial transcripts of the time that led to death sentences as tools of lawless social control, of regulating women’s behaviour and of managing unsexy community-wide crises like bad crops and firewood shortages). The trials also served as public entertainment in long, dark days of chilly misery. In The Witch, the obscure verbiage of Salem is disturbingly uttered by a cruel, milkless mother, two creepy, demonic twins, and a hubristic father who cannot even grow corn. The girl’s choices are being sold into servitude and left prey to the whims of an employer, or slowly dying from starvation; or could she break free of her goat pen of a life and embrace the woods? What’s not to love?

Like Midsommar, The Witch is a pitch-black comedy for an underserved audience. The Witch contains a few disturbing scenes – a very few in horror terms – one of which involves the fate of a plump baby stolen by a witch. This provoked men online to cry out in horror at this “terrifying, awful film” – a mystifying reaction in a storied film history (and real life) of full sized children and women brutalized regularly. This reaction echoes in the objections to Midsommar. The Witch is a film with a final girl you are meant to root for. If you don’t, there may be something askew in your view. It’s a great coming-of-age film for lovers of sharp satire, which I thought we all were becoming today. The Witch is not in the least scary, unless you are rooting for the wrong party.

Similarly, Midsommar’s protagonist is not in a position of control of her world. Dani (Florence Pugh) begins the film in mostly mute grief and clad in grayed-out depression-wear, her unhealthy but passive relationship with her longtime college steady a farce (to nervous laughter of date-night viewers who find it too relatable). The film sets its own rules early on: all the violence is disturbing but measured and used economically. These deaths matter, or have causes and effects. (This is a rare distinction that elevates a film.) Remember, death, even fictional death, should shock us. We should still know how to feel.

This story begins in our real post-everything world: where we hang on too long to young love in a search for family; everyone is medicated some way; disturbances spill over too often into suicidal impulses and prescriptions are beta-blocking and failing everyone. And like The Witch, Midsommar carries a very strange strain of pitch-black comedy and social critique that holds the whole narrative in delicate suspension. This critical eye must be appreciated to fully get or enjoy the film. For an end of term summer trip which is half-way a lark for Dani’s friends (her boyfriend and his buds, on which she’s tagged along) the landscape is ripe for tropes of horror film and of real life alike: the ugly, loud, disrespectful American tourist. The affable Brits who somehow always know how to find a pint. The shitty friend who thinks he can cruise into your hard-earned work as a lark. The friend-zoned buddy who would probably love the girl better than the guy she’s with, if only she could see him. But the visitors have been drawn here by unseen criteria and selection modes, like sociology teaches eager students how to do. They have messy love lives or flexible morals. They have time to kill. They are naive and entitled.

This film must be viewed through two important filters: Dani is grief-stricken through the first two acts. This informs her motivations, her decisions, and her performance. She is not played as charismatic but flatly, and is not any more likable than anyone else. The other filter is the knowledge that the group is zonked out on various, unfamiliar homemade hallucinogens from the moment they leave their car on a dirt road through to the film’s conclusion. The pleasant, smiling community in quaint white embroidered linens deign to explain their closed sect and way of life only a little, with their norms and rituals unfolding in a time-stopped daylight haze, but what becomes abundantly clear to us is that these folks are expert chemists with a raft of manipulating powders, potions and teas, which are usually enjoyable and accepted by these visitors born into the post-pharma generation.

I’m not sure you’re supposed to relate or root for anyone in Midsommar, of if the film invites you to stand apart in judgement; begin assigning value to their lives and prescribing punishment for their ways and transgressions quietly and dispassionately. This is a challenge to one’s attachment to the character stakes, but also one that is important to our “witnessing” of the rituals and rites of the film. It also challenges the experts of horror and of anti-hero cinema and TV. Whoa, did you see yourself in the wrong character? Oops! This gets under the skin of the viewer who sees a new version of the helpless baby in The Witch as someone who has a close encounter with a bear. Why would we identify with a fool? Life is not fair. We know this already, too well. Each character in Midsommar has a fair chance to show their mettle and become useful in various ways. It may be that the land consumes everyone, but agency is possible along the way. Where are the heroes?

The best of current horror often dwells and engages with the monstrous nightmare of grief. The small community which is the native home of Dani’s friend Pelle is one that has clear rules about life and death, gender roles and child rearing which are shown as flawed and also objectively pragmatic. Their death ritual is perhaps objectively preferable to the nightmares of lengthy illness, but to witness it or to anticipate it personally is deeply troubling, brutal and frightening. What Midsommar does so well is provoke in deep and meaningful ways, rather than push buttons for the sake of shock value (which makes the “pointless” and “nothing happens” critiques more disturbing as one ponders the appetites of the writers holding those opinions). We can stay outside Dani’s perspective if we wish, given the luxury of a healthy, intact family of origin; a trustworthy friend or partner; a purpose. Or we can dip a toe into the friendly but seriously competitive maypole circle: what choice would we make at this point or that? Would we pass this challenge or fail (as most do)? This film is interactive, maybe troublingly so. We can also seek identification (or more likely) stand in judgement of Dani and her friends as they cross each trial to the presumed (or even cheated) finish line: Do they listen? Are they respectful visitors or embarrassing louts? Do they leave the land as they found it?

Larger rituals are being carried out over this particular Midsommar celebration than can be anticipated or gamed by anyone unfamiliar with them. There are important goals to be achieved, ones straight out of the world of agriculture and farming, harsh rituals that exist in reported anthropology of numerous “uncivilized” cultures of the world, and ones that speak to primal (/”uneducated”) beliefs to keep harmony with the earth and respect the ancestors, something the modern world has utterly failed to do. There are mating rituals, exalted positions, and sacrificial lambs, all on a gently precise schedule that the viewer is pulled seductively into, in the bright, endless sun. Watching the film closely, you are treated to hallucogenic film effects: the leaves breathe, we lose our appetite for the strange, suspicious, decorative food, the sense of time is confusing. We want someone to win or lose the maypole dance and form opinions about people’s worthiness or performance (even in games that might be rigged). We fall into the crowd in crisp white, finding our own level and limits within the space of the film. Where do we laugh? And why? What bothers us? And what doesn’t? What happens when the seer can only produce scribbles and so people begin making up laws? This and other details are not relegated to folklore. They are the scary realities of politics even in 2020, of corrupted media, of unfair families. The fear is real.

Midsommar is chock full of ideas like this, rich with careful and affecting symbolism that you can pluck at will (or miss). Dani, numb with grief and loneliness, sees the world she’s visiting quite differently than her male counterparts. She notices the details, like women do. She takes time to read the writing on the barn walls, while anthropologists argue and making a mess of things around her, missing both the wider story and important details that might save them. Midsommar is a timely statement on male privilege and notions of authority, as well as the place of natural and fraudulent talents and instincts under pressure (school pressure. Relationship pressure. Pressure to conform). Dani’s friends come from a rarefied, cosy and still largely old/white/male academic world, and are unprepared for spaces not custom built for their comfort. Through this, Dani floats free, a young woman in a state of transformation she never asked for, but one that all girls of her age or situation encounter, always in an unplanned way.

Like all “final girls” of horror and of crime-as-entertainment, Dani is ultimately alone with only her wits to help her, and must draw on something inner, primal and buried. The way Midsommar plays out tells the truth: that some things are predestined. That life isn’t fair. That people lie when they tell you “take this, and you will feel no pain”. That it’s always good to offer to help out as an invited guest. That you don’t always know how the sausage is made, but that it’s better to know, even thought it may make you recoil.

At year end as in its season, Midsommar is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic anomaly in a world of formulaic and green-screened infantilism known as Hollywood today. You can wax poetic on the colours of light sabers and the exact shades of superhero capes these days, forcing kiddie-lit to impersonate art as if box office has ever correlated to the zeitgeist, the underground or sea changes, but that’s a lie. To dismiss a seriously beautiful and artful film like Midsommar seems like an aggression directed at art itself (and at new, upstart filmmakers) as people attempt to classify the film they don’t like because it hit them square in the cajones as frivolous and feminine, unserious and frilly. As if half of us weren’t bone tired of living in a world of green screen flatness and brown washes, fantasy and sci-fi all merging into dull backgrounds of unlovable otherness. As if we weren’t full of primal need to see reality: things made by hand, scenes full of wooden tables and chairs, even strange yellow painted houses we aren’t supposed to (and hope we never will) enter, in our dreams and imaginations. Films like this remind the un-easily amused who we are, what life means, and keep us sharp and present. They go against all the grains of genre, and for that they are the most interesting thing going in the art form, deserving the longest and most acute gaze.

Midsommar draws and comforts people who are drawn to and comforted by filmic elements like clean design and interesting costuming, out-of-time rhythms and fresh-painted artfulness; it does not pander to the dull desires of fans of any genre. The film is to be exalted for its achievements in genre-breaking, audience affecting, and art: a rare and welcome foregrounding of set design, cinematography, and the particular challenges of an almost 100% outdoor shoot set in the blinding midday sun, with silvered mirrors bouncing off the smiling faces of benign evil, forcing us to look just a little bit harder, and overcome the glare bouncing back at us.

Jacqueline Howell

The Watchmen at The Danforth Music Hall

On Saturday, November 23rd, The Watchmen’s fans gathered for an assured good time at at the Danforth Music Hall. Set amid the sweet spot between adjusting to winter darkness and the full-on holiday season, this evening was an occasion for friends to get together for one big night out of Canadian Rock and Roll from one of our greatest bands who disbanded in 2003 but have played together occasionally since 2010.

The Watchmen packed their set list full of gems the crowd knew by heart, and still found time for some surprises that reminded us that Daniel Greaves has an incredible vocal range and versatility: on this occasion there were nods to Billy Bragg, Spirit of the West, Bob Marley, and others amid a rapid fire set of The Watchmen’s own classics.

The twin high points of the evening encompassed the story of music in its highs and lows. The band adapted their planned set on short notice to pay tribute to the late John Mann of Spirit of the West, with an unforgettable cover of “Political” dedicated to “The Spirit of John”. The rendition was inspired, a proper tribute. People in the crowd danced wildly or cried discreetly in the moment. Another surprise came in the form of a (long delayed) gold record presentation for their 2001 album Slomotion. Everyone in the room got to feel like friends and family, celebrating this milestone, no easy feat in a country this large and spread out. Celebration is so important and often denied artists, and it felt really special to share the moment with a band who deserves much acclaim. It all reminded us that this band is one of the few holding the torch left by The Tragically Hip, their contemporaries, who can take us on emotional and musical journeys with an ease that seems effortless.

The Danforth show covered all the albums we know and love, featuring Slomotion most heavily with five songs. The selections from that album and Silent Radar are sing-along anthems their fans have held dear for twenty years, and are now burnished as Canadian rock classics.

The evening was fluid with spontaneity: A bit of “I Can See Clearly Now” a dash of “Superman” a hit of “Between the Wars” (for aren’t we still, and always, between wars of some kind or another?) a mention of a song that brewed from an inspired moment “at a sound check in Grand Bend” making us think of the famous camping party spot of our youth, and picturing the band right in the thick of it and still finding time for innovation, a guest vocal from a boy who appeared to be a young friend or Greaves’ son, an acoustic cover of “Highwayman” on piano and an unheard of double encore (after house lights had been brought up) which sent us off into the night with a gorgeous rendition of “Redemption Song”.

Words by Jacqueline Howell.  Photos by Dave MacIntyre and Jacqueline Howell.

Images in Vogue and The Box at Revival Bar

On Friday, November 22nd, two of Canada’s early New Wave stars played a double bill together at the luxe, warmly atmospheric Revival Bar (783 College St.) in Toronto. These bands have been out of the scene in recent years, but have lately reformed for occasional gigs. The crowd at Revival is full of solid supporters, lifelong fans and friends, and the vibe is happily electric.

As kids of our own era know, these two bands (each different but complementary in sound) represent a very exciting time in our nation’s music history. The early 1980s was a fertile time for young bands in our cities; the intercontinental, breezy, cool “Hollywood North” of Vancouver, the well-established, gritty rock and roll city that Toronto then was, and the specific aura brewed out of Montreal and Quebecois French culture, a place that visitors always describe as very European and very different from everywhere else in Canada.

Images in Vogue were one of our first video stars. Not only were new wave bands pioneering new sounds and instruments (a sound represented as well out of Canada as anywhere in the world) but there was a new demand for video content and a sophisticated appreciation for filmmaking techniques in cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where we had our own film industry. Suddenly bands needed to have a clear image not just for an album sleeve or a gig but one that needed to read well for television, on repeat. The bands that mastered the growing pains of the early music video world are few, but top among them were Images in Vogue, and The Box (and The Spoons). In the video era, these bands were able to translate their ideas through the tricky video medium, another hurdle to the rocky road bands travel to get their music out there.

Images in Vogue mastered the image: Dale Martindale achieved the goth / new wave / arty hair all others only dreamed about, and even made it look natural on him. He accompanied this, for a time, with large black framed glasses which rendered him some kind of early cross between Morrissey and Robert Smith that all the girls fell for. The video image and the looks of boys became foregrounded at this time (for better of for worse) but then as well as now, what stood the test of time was the music. Voice. Tunes. Melodies. Vibe. Images in Vogue, with “Lust for Love”, “Call it Love”, “Save it” and “So Careful”, crafted catchy tunes that stayed with us forever, carried on the unique and gorgeous vocals of Martindale (which only in hindsight do we realize had clear tones of Bowie).

Images in Vogue put in time with four EPs before their album release, In the House (1985) which charted in Canada and won them CASBYs for Album of the Year and Group of the Year in 1986. They achieved something that the era was grappling with industry-wide: how to be alternative and cutting edge but also popular enough to warrant label interest and that of the masses. All of this is at least ten times as harder to achieve in a country as large and spread out as Canada, as it is in the U.K. and the U.S.

The Box were something different, but also tapped into a trend of the global, and rapidly international zeitgeist. In that period, we had Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”, sung all in German (later re-recorded in English, an inferior version) the staying power of Blondie’s “Rapture” and “Sunday Girl” with their nods to downtown Manhattan ‘bedroom French’, and real accents being allowed to enter into the once-flat Americana of rock and pop music. British bands were starting to sound British, and French music was now curious, cool, dark and heavy, in the form of exactly one band: The Box.

Jean-Marc Pisapia (an early member of Men Without Hats) formed The Box in 1981, and would go on to steadily assault the charts with a string of hit albums, singles and videos. For us, the best example of The Box sound is the unforgettably chilling “L’Affaire Dumoutier (Say to Me)” which recounts, in French-only dialogue, journalistic-narration, and the sung chorus, a murder of a woman, the surrounding media circus, and the role of insanity in the murder. In similar fashion to Nena’s deeply atmospheric cold war remoteness undercut by a young, passionate and vividly alive voice suggesting everything we longed to know about cold war Germany, Pisapia’s vocals offered a crash course for the curious in Francophone attitudes, voices, and stories.

Like all music needed to be to break through at this point in time, the music was cool but accessible, if on its own terms. In “L’Affaire Dumoutier”, the band acts out the plot of the affair, like bands are so often required to do in their videos, but here they seem natural, compelling, and like a trailer for a movie we wanted to see more of. Their faces are interesting, the accused eyes’ hollowed and his face gaunt, the police detective full of road-weary sadness.

The Box is a great band whose work holds up today, and tells timeless stories that also point to an exciting time in Canada’s music landscape.

At Revival, Images in Vogue emerges as strong and fresh as ever, with “Call it Love”. There are rows of seats set up for the performance but everyone is standing at the front and surrounding the stage. People are dancing, selfie sticks (?) are bouncing, and the energy is happy. (How I loved the dancing merch table girl…) One never knows what to expect after so many years, and rust on vocals and instruments would be understandable and forgiven, but there’s no need. Dale Martindale sounds 22, album perfect, and the full band is on point. He plays to the crowd like a natural front man, one who is at home on stage, any stage, and ought to be there in a sustainable capacity. As the opener the set is slightly abbreviated but leaves us wanting more, more, more. (This reporter gets star struck meeting with Martindale. I’m twelve again. He tells me that tonight he’d worn a shirt from one of the band’s videos on stage. Understandably, the white tux from Lust for Love was not deemed appropriate.)

The Box comes out and runs through a full set of their classic hits that still enjoy radio play today. There’s some guitar on guitar action as singer Pisapia leaves the stage to mop his brow, looking every bit the same cool police detective character out of the “L’Affair Dumoutier” except grinning wildly, feet away from his audience, enjoying the show himself.

The room feels friendly and spirited, and both the venue (which also serves as an event space) and these bands should be sought out whenever the opportunity presents itself.

We kids who only knew this music through our televisions knew nothing of industry, of struggle, of the brutal nature of trying to be an artist in those days or now, we saw only a sheen of high, black hair, fresh faces, and VJs inventing a new form of entertainment and journalism that was supposed to be as lasting as any other that resides on TV, but is now a relic, locked down in some vault somewhere and reduced to memory and frayed VHS snippets. But now we who loved and love music know better. We know that bands were people, most of whom, had to re-enter the world and make an ordinary living, that all those video spins did not profit them, only the advertisers, the owners, and us kids bopping at home. So to see these bands who conquered all of that and can come out now and rock us like this, is a reckoning, even to those of us invested in the recognition and celebration of our own, misunderstood, mistreated 1980s musical history and culture. We have these wonderful artists walking among us. We should give them more to do. They are worth it.

The Images in Vogue and The Box show at Revival was to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities, Canada. Listen to Images in Vogue on their website, where they are also offering a deluxe box set. The Box has announced a Closer Together tour for 2020 – 2021.

Words and photos by Jacqueline Howell

Peter Hook and The Light Live at the Danforth Music Hall

Peter Hook and the Light’s tours have grown with a clear sense of devotion and a work ethic that won’t quit, since hitting the world stage seven years ago. You’ve had to be there, and there could mean so many places where long time fans feel the same way: devoted to the New Order catalogue unfolding sequentially through each tour, and gobsmacked at hearing Joy Division’s music live after so many years, in all its urgency, grit, and singular power.

One cannot help but note the storied career of Peter Hook while the usual suspects – Toronto’s best music fans – who by now finally mostly know each other, against local custom – wait and discuss competing biographies and tours with the devotion of British football fans. For this is our football. Our only sport: music and its peaks and troughs, tragedy that courses through this story’s origins and even us kids like a marble vein, and the resistance to grief that New Order invented out of ashes, their improbably going ahead to New York in full shock and despair (and commitment) and discovering the saving powers of early dance club music, which they absorbed fully into their blood stream and packed in their duffles home to England, is like Camelot to us 80s kids. There is no story like the New Order story, and while it’s often sad and feels so public and yet personal to millions, it never, ever gets boring, in large measure thanks to this man and what he’s lately built.

Tonight Hooky has brought us Technique and Republic, as well as a full separate closing set of JD songs. The set list feels raw and new, considering they’ve been touring it for months elsewhere and our stop is almost at the extreme end of the run. Lead vocals are traded off between Hook and (Monaco band mate) Pottsy, who has added much to the show since he joined, with his better-than-the-real thing Bernard Sumner vocals that thrill and delight some very tough customers who memorized every note decades ago. There seems to be a few moments of confusion about who and when sings which parts, but no matter – these shows, songs, instruments, and Hook’s sheer will never have rust on them and never will, and their authenticity is always so refreshing to see that it works. The format Hook has chosen for these yearly tours is a risky one: instead of playing the tried-and-true hits, of which New Order has so many, and perfecting a formula that might be an easy one, he starts over each time with an intention to recreate full albums and see where the night takes the band.

Full albums were never arranged to be performed live at all, and not in album order, that trend that has become the (no doubt maddening) formula in the recent years of our formative music’s live resurgence. Technique is one of New Order’s very best let it play albums, but unfortunately for this writer its tracks are light on signature Hook bass lines and truly blinding moments of euphoria that we’ve become so spoiled to enjoy this close for some years now. It’s an addiction, the best kind. And we are used to getting so much of the pure stuff. It’s not a point of pride to say one misses the Substance tours, as nothing on earth can compare to that playlist, culled as it was from the best and most popular of a decade that shaped our very heartbeats and lives there still. And no real fan stops there.

Because the moments always happen. Second song “All the Way” hits in brand new ways, with its clear, pure poetry, written by a young man that resonates more with years on us:

It takes years
to find the nerve
to be apart from anyone
to find the truth inside yourself
and not depend on anyone

A surprising highlight of the evening is the rarely (if ever) played “World in Motion”, helped quite capably on guest vocals (we hear) by a mate of the band’s young son (well done, lad!) And while the crowd dances and bops and hollers for allsorts, there’s one particular glowing moment of private joy where we stand, in the form of “Regret”, which is a song that sparked love that is now in its 25th great year. It is a monument for just us two, who’ve been closer than we ever could have dreamed to this legend and now stand swaying at the back of the room.

The music of classic Technique and better than you may remember Republic is all much missed and holds up so gorgeously. The Hook shows over these years of true graft that new and hungry bands should envy and aspire to have seemed to build a solid group of us returners as well as continuing to awakening new/old fans who were under the misapprehension that our music was from a bygone time and lives only in YouTube now. This, friends, is not nostalgia at all, not a blip, but offers powerful encouragement. The word of Hooky’s stunning shows has spread so delightfully in the old-fashioned manner – hand to hand and word of mouth, that it’s become something of a resurgence of the immediacy of our 1980s culture itself, hard as that is to quantify. You had to be there.

Jacqueline “Forever and a Day” Howell

Ride Live at The Danforth Music Hall

Ride takes the stage at Toronto’s jewel, the Danforth Music Hall, like visiting old friends. This is one legendary British band who never forgets us, not in the period of recent global shoegaze resurgence or once they began recording new music again in 2017, with return visits on both album tours since. This venue feels a bit like a secret, where so many great British bands we could largely only long for in the 1990s as we pored over back pages of NME and Select magazine, have found their way regularly in recent years.

They enter to “R.I.D.E.” beginning a nineteen song set confidently with two more brand new ones: the shimmering “Jump Jet” and the infectiously jangly, harmonious and optimistic “Future Love”, rounding out their opening set with the eternally fresh, still urgent call to creative soul action: “Leave Them All Behind”, its extended outro firmly setting tonight’s musical mood. We are in for a treat, with classics and new tracks seamlessly mixed, a range of moods and sounds blended together with mastery, and all of it united by Ride’s iconic harmonies and tight-as-a-drum rhythm section.

The new record (the band’s sixth) is the extremely well received This is Not a Safe Place, their second new album in two years (2017’s Weather Diaries was their first since 1996’s Tarantula). Six new songs are played tonight, including one for the very first time (“End Game”). There’s the blistering, driving and psychedelia-tinged “Kill Switch” the exciting driving dance beat of “Repetition” and “Shadows Behind the Sun”. “Eternal Recurrence” sounds as if it could have emerged from any era of this band, and all the new music is stunningly impressive. It is the sound of a band – still united today with all four original members – who still have much to say, who won’t be pigeonholed by genre, era, or scene – the hallmark of true artistry.

The rather foreboding yet presciently titled This is Not a Safe Place speaks to this precise moment of late 2019, at the close of the first twenty years of a new century, so far from the defiant optimism of the 1990s we remember. The title suggests: Don’t get too comfortable. Stay alert. Be ready to move. It seems to connect to 2017’s Weather Diaries, then a darkening global moment when we were, perhaps, still looking for signs mystical, tribal or elemental, to save us. Ride’s new message is received clearly by the realest communities, global ones, a people united by music, values, critical thinking ability, and taste. Music is still a powerful form of protest, of rebellion, and of activism. It shakes us awake from the 24-hour news scroll, and fortifies our spirits for the daily onslaught, the next bad headline, or the gloom that’s come to rest on our shoulders too permanently. This album and its messages are sure to top the best of lists for this year as well as inspire both emerging bands and Ride’s contemporaries alike to create something new, urgent, and fearless in 2020, in defiance of all the noise.

The rest of the set is judiciously spread across the strong back catalog, including: “Chrome Waves” “Chelsea Girl” “Twisterella” “Drive Blind” and “Vapour Trail” (custom designed to ricochet you like a DeLorean back to whatever age you were in 1990).  The crowd may not be too familiar with the weeks’ old new album yet, but they are committed and enthusiastic throughout. It is always heartwarming when lager louts don’t push forward for just their favourite old song, but a crowd settles into some sort of harmony for two hours. It is the ideal, and somehow, in the alchemy of rock and roll, it’s influenced by the artists themselves.

Shortly after the show, the band casually reconvenes at a nearby pub, itself a local institution that still welcomes new and traditional music to its small stage. Here, music talk is avid and casual, all barriers removed, as Ride’s harmonies still run through our heads and a few keen-eyed fans suss them out for a shy hello. The band are gracious, chill, and the epitome of cool, standing right there at a neighbourhood local, at ease with all of it: life, music, us, and the road, their home away from home.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

Unbelievable: True Crime Drama as True High Art

Unbelievable premiered on Netflix with little fanfare to become one of the most dialogue-promoting series in recent memory. Part police-procedural, part reclaimed victim narrative (rather than spotlighting a predator) this series shines with authenticity. Yes, it’s based on true events – a descriptor often loosely used to describe contested or controversial spins on people’s trauma – but here the story drips with an at times, grim realism, and a natural unfolding that reminds us that while the pressure is on to solve difficult serial cases before they grow cold, true investigation has its own rhythm and pace, it’s coincidental twists that feel fated and necessary, and its wrangling between jurisdictions, players and even partners. It is riveting television, especially once you’ve cleared episode two and been introduced to all of the main characters. By then you’ve met the heroes you can pin your hopes on.

Like any tough true crime story, you have to grit your teeth through the details to get to the chase – which means white-knuckling through a tough first episode which recounts the stranger rape of a young woman (Marie, played with a steely strength by Kaitlin Dever) and its mishandled aftermath, her abject isolation and seemingly permanent voicelessness, until we see a glimmer of hope in the form of two female police detectives, played by Toni Collette (as Grace Rasmussin) and Merritt Wever ( as Karen Duvall) who do not appear until the second episode. Thereafter the narratives are interwoven across two time periods.

Toni Collette has established herself on both the small and big screen as an actor of rare truth and directness. Since we fell into her eager eyes so many moons ago as the awkward, lovable ray of sunshine Muriel of the 1994 Aussie hit film Muriel’s Wedding, it’s been love. Collette has been drawn to darker and more complex material of late, and this writer is among her legion of fans who will follow her anywhere – watch any project with her name attached – like the criminally short-lived multiple personality drama – comedy series United States of Tara (2009) – and to the bleakest of depths found in the horror of 2018’s Hereditary. In Unbelievable, Collette takes a new spin on a seasoned, slightly broken-hearted detective with many sharp edges, adding layers of wordless depth that only an actor of her caliber can. (In a world of police procedurals, we still too rarely see fully formed, believable female detectives made this well.) There is a wordless, intimate Collette scene near the series’ end that is sure to bring on the waterworks for others as it did for this writer, unlocking all the emotion at once of seven hours of drama.

Rasmussen is paired through circumstance with a younger detective from another district, Karen Duvall, who is called to the scene of another stranger rape where a young college student has endured an excruciating night with a recall that is clear-eyed and almost photographic. She meets in Duvall a professional of rare empathy, intuition and gentleness. One feels this level of communication could only be achieved woman to woman. But more than this, it’s readily apparent that there are key factors that separate the success of a case like Marie’s (four years prior) and that of the new victim, Amber: she is grounded, much better supported, does not have the shadow of a difficult youth in the foster care system, and is highly articulate. Coupled with the steady hand of Detective Duvall, (Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) is a quiet force of nature and power here) it’s clear from minute one that this case stands a much better chance of seeing a resolution than Marie’s does in episode one. We expect the stories to intersect at some point, but the viewer has no idea when, if or how.

What Unbelievable does so well, and what sets it apart from many other such stories that fall into genre television or implausible twists for drama’s sake, is to draw from the clean lines of real, top-tier journalism. The story is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper series. But even with that, the producers maintain a thorough respect for both the material as an unbelievable, heartrenching, but ultimately satisfying narrative, and for the true, living people it portrays. Survivors of terrible violations. People who may or may not have gotten justice. Victims at different stages of “healing” – from an act which, when handled authentically, is beyond all hour-long-drama sensationalization and is impossible to understand fully from the outside. And the real-life players in the police departments that either succeed or fail victims, for once in clear broad strokes, without the murky grey areas of so much amateur hour / podcasted true crime documentary. Things in these cases were either entirely botched and criminally mishandled, or were carried forth with utmost respect and skill. There are through lines and eventually, clarity. These things are beautiful in their way, even when other details hurt forever.

And so, Unbelievable is an instructive and highly important documentary-like drama that shows in plain language (and as gently as possibly) how flawed justice can still be in the flashy age of C.S.I., DNA and technology. There are people behind all this science and tech. There are fields on forms skipped over, there is coding done by fallible humans, there are limited resources, and sometimes you need to kick down doors and get creative to get anywhere. The work of police detectives is shown in this drama to be something awesome and at times potentially destructive, as it is a unique sort of work that is fully human. The reason we are drawn to police detective narratives across history from “Sherlock Holmes” to “Columbo” to true crime stories is because it calls upon the depths of our human capacity for empathy and greatest heights of objective reason and analysis both, while forcing good people to look at the worst acts humankind is capable of – and still retain a working soul. It is fascinating, important, and totally mysterious work.

The series carries a clear feminist / feminine viewpoint that adds to its strengths (and is, again, true to life). Facts are facts. Women did this and men did that. There are lessons to be learned, takeaways and learning curves that should be used as instructive rather than merely damning. One ineffectual or overconfident cop can do a lot of damage inadvertently, as happens in part of this story. And one great cop who is willing to dig deeper, following her gut, can accomplish much more than a 9-5 day would ever allow. There’s an argument to be made here for intuition and the simple fact that perhaps women who’ve been assaulted by men ought to be interviewed (only) by (skilled) women. A clear specialty. One could argue that rape deserves all the drama and resources of a murder case. We need to do better to care about women before they are dead, instead of after. And there’s a jarring reality depicted in Unbelievable that crimes of rape go to women’s guts and marrow – even as bystanders or people reading the news – in a way far different then they do men. A character exclaims in frustration midway through the series, in reference to male cops “Where’s the OUTRAGE?” Yes. Where? Perhaps, even for great detectives and fine men, rape is just too awful for them to feel in their guts and marrow, in a galvanizing way. For women, it’s a fear and a quiet concern we carry innately and whilst bothering no one, from the time we know we are different from boys for our entire lives. We live with alertness, always looking over our shoulder even on daylit sidewalks, always aware, living with this hum in our bloodstream. We know we can be overpowered by most men. Followed, stalked. We know that our smiles can disarm the predator or invite unwanted attention. And that what many or most of us have experienced at the hands of boys and men could always have been worse – women who’ve been victimized in some way at some point live inside that ellipses. “could have been worse…” It becomes a prayer of gratitude, a blinking caution light. It is innate, barely spoken of, and worldwide.

Lisa Cholodenko directs the first three of eight episodes with a guiding hand, a gifted director you’ll remember from her films High Art, Laurel Canyon, The Kids Are Alright with an ever-clear point of view. The show’s producers are at least evenly divided between men and women, and it shows in the series’ execution. This is noteworthy because of the points stated above: on the ground, in the bedroom and on screen, women and men are separate. They are each skilled but bring essential differences to their work, their eye, and their execution when it comes to law enforcement, writing, and filmmaking. Co-creators Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon have assembled a remarkable mini-series deserving of much acclaim, repeat viewing, post-show discussion and awards. They’ve taken the unspeakable and the hopeless and woven it with honesty, care, and a map of what resolution looks like in the most difficult of stories. They’ve shown how different results can be if you see your work as a calling versus a paycheck, how our own projection can taint or aid our work, how all victims matter, not only the cleanest ones, especially the most flawed. This is high art: the everyday, the darkness, the lost and the despairing, giving victims everywhere who nod in recognition, full voice, their reckoning, their day in court, and even, one hopes, some well-earned peace.

Jacqueline Howell

Matty Fest at RBC Echo Beach: Stellar food, Legendary Music and Chill Late Summer Vibes

Who says summer is over? Not everyone runs on schedules based on the school year. Some of us follow the beat of music, searching for chances out-of-official season to hit beaches and enjoy the unique experience of outdoor music festivals for an extra hour, a day, or a few weeks. Some tireless souls even find a way to juggle both things.

In Toronto, RBC Echo Beach famously rolls that dice for a few weeks into late summer, the outdoor concert venue sitting adjacent to the Budweiser Stage and the water’s edge of Lake Ontario. Here, visitors from spring to fall get to feel the night breezes and an amped-up lake effect rarely found elsewhere in the city, where sounds bounce off high rises and music fans walk gamely through a street and off-road map that only locals and event-goers know, the shortcut of a lifetime of trips to or through Exhibition Place, and the streetcar crawl vs. walk internal debate of recent years’ traffic snarls, all of it worth the teenage nostalgia accomplished only by wandering around in the dark on the last fumes of a beer buzz in your home town.

Matty Fest sprung from Chef Matty Matheson’s parties in the Toronto basement of his iconic restaurant Parts and Labour.

A festival that is equal parts food and music (and Matty) this year’s Fest featured The Wu-Tang Clan’s 25th Anniversary, Descendents, Gogol Bordello, Danny Brown, and Toronto’s own METZ, as well as a roster of food offerings from Toronto’s varied restaurant world (and beyond). The line up has grown over the years, and in the city’s declining corporate festival scene, stands out this year as remarkably astute. Each of these artists is completely different, cutting across geographic boundaries, eras and genres, but somehow the effect is a cohesive whole. The cohesion today comes from quality of performers, execution of the event (details big and small) and keeping it as simple as possible. We are back to grassroots, and we need to rebuild in the model of Matty Fest (and recently suspended TURF and Field Trip as well.) Each of today’s artists are here to kill, and the crowds at the main stage lack the usual churn of other festivals. People in this crowd are here to stay and want to see it all, with their kids on their shoulders and their last days of summer, for the nights have already grown cold.

Matty Matheson takes the second stage for remarks late in the afternoon, before the big acts begin their sets. He is a shambolic delight, and among the ramble which gives us a chance to rest in some shade for a time, you should know that “this whole festival is brought to you by the brokenness inside of you” and his caveat: “I’m not a stand up com-goddamn-edian.” No, he’s a magician. Matty Fest 2019 quickly becomes a historic day and a fest to look forward to in future years.

Danny Brown shows what one man and his own urgent sounds can do, in the beating sun (all while, he says, working against the abundance of barbequed ribs “too much good food….they expect me to rap?!”) Brown’s laughter is infectious and one of a kind. He laughs “AHEE HEE HEE HEE…” and is the greatest sound. The mix tape phenomenon who emerged in 2010 still has all the fire he is famous for, BBQ notwithstanding.

Gogol Bordello entered the music world with something so strange and firmly outsider-ish, but was quickly embraced by the world with their musicality, spirit, raw energy, and intimate folky-ness that only seems apparent years after seeing them the first time (then, in a steaming, over-packed club). It is only now that we hear the fully realized phenomenon that they are the closest thing to The Clash we post-punk kids will ever know, and they are stunning. They come out today performing at notch “11” and never turn down the momentum, from “Start Wearing Purple” to “Alcohol” which feels like a gorgeous dirge for ones own spirit, to the only line I write down as if it was my own: “Letting my inner saboteur run loose!” In this set up, the outer edge of stage left turns out to be the only route in and out of backstage, and to see these colourful creatures pass by us to and from stage while everyone else is unaware of them becomes a highlight. You might not expect singer and dynamo Eugene Hilz to touch you gently on the back passing through the crowd politely, but he does, and so my night is made.

No well-rounded true festival bill is complete without at least one true punk legend. Descendents have it all, honed since 1977 California. We hear their influence down the years, in a range of sounds of almost any subsequent band who claimed the word punk.  Their songs are short, furious, and angsty.  Timeless. Headliners Wu-Tang Clan have the entire site flocking to the main stage as the night grows dark and cool. They start the show with three Wu-Tang related film trailers: now that’s a move. Their video, light show and eclectic soundbites create the biggest spectacle of the night, as the headliner is supposed to do. Most of the original members are in attendance, along with the son of the much missed Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and people hop fences from VIP to get into the mix as they oughtta do.

We sampled food from around the site which seemed to be a big draw with healthy lines everywhere and a great mellow accompaniment to a family friendly day of music in the perfect breezes of September by our too-often underutilized waterfront. Our favourites were a jambon sandwich from The Swan and an unbelievably satisfying crispy fried chicken sandwich from Five Point Hot Chicken which serves traditional Nashville hot chicken, beautifully spiced and seasoned (834 Bloor Street West). The Fest prioritized minimal packaging, less waste, and aimed to sell out of all food, rather than be stuck with unsellable food. Leftovers were planned as donations.

A popular choice was the boxed pizza from Maker seen carried across the site in boxes, an ideal option for sharing with families or groups. Matty Bucks made the day a fun, immersive and “CNE” like experience, as we had a budget to spend on food (having already stocked up on bucks) and so made sure we used our budget and ate, something sometimes forgotten in the journalist’s rush from photo pit to pit and between stages.

After a recent trip away that was a logistical mess from an event attendee perspective, Toronto’s norms seem refreshing and almost nurturing. After all, if you are going to splurge on painful big stadium prices for cold tall cans of beer, said can better be swimming in ice water in the Canadian fashion, and sold by ample vendors scattered across the site accepting both hard currency and plastic. Furthermore, this should all be accomplished without wasting time away from the music in long lines. The sellers at Echo Beach are efficient and yet friendly. They kindly point out the water refilling station behind you, for later (which are manned, a luxury).

Echo Beach is a wondrous site for smaller festivals, with its cozy layout and clear paths that make the visitor feel welcome and reduce disorientation. Not to sound like a bore, but you forget about niceties like clear and useful permanent or temporary signage (in a semi-unfamiliar place you might visit once a year) until you visit another place and find yourself wandering a foreign golf course, feeling like a written off stray golf ball in pursuit of a restroom (or the supposed to be clearly marked spot you’ll need later to find your friends when the wifi inevitably fails.) Time is money. Time is now set times, we all run on them like we are crew, once we learn the hard way after missing too many acts due to time mismanagement in best forgotten festivals prior. Time is precious in the fleeting hours of September summer, with threatening gray clouds today of a kind that have blown out past festivals at this fully outdoor venue, and here at Matty Fest every single one of us knows it. We look to the clouds like demi-gods ourselves, one baleful glance each, and they move aside, scattering a few drops at intervals but obeying our collective deep need for one more day like this, for once.

We are now in a world of at least three generations of families born after Rock and Roll, and the young families of Toronto who breathe music have their children used to the flow of such days already. It’s a new and beautiful era for music festivals. Where my era’s children had only the Santa Claus Parade or Firecracker day down at Kew Beach or historic forts as places to sit on their dad’s shoulders, today’s babies have the air traffic controller headsets in candy colours, the correct rock t-shirts and the roll-with-it ability that we strived for against our parents’ suburbias and normal dinner times as burgeoning punks and post-punks, once. Now, families define themselves, vacations are as varied as places on the map, and kids under 12 can attend festivals for free (whereas many rock gigs were and still are 19+ in Toronto.) It’s great to see. It’s great to know about, and you gotta get there next time you see a poster.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre and Jacqueline Howell


Danny Brown

Gogol Bordello


Wu-Tang Clan

Lowest of the Low – AGITPOP Release Party at The Danforth Music Hall

Lowest of the Low AGITPOP Record Release party, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, May 31.

It’s a spring Friday night in Toronto and the Music Hall is packed full of Lowest of the Low fans. People who know this band’s 1991 debut record word for word. We’ve grown up with it. It holds a very special place in our Toronto memories (and beyond) and it has the power of great, singular music to transport its fans back to our younger selves. Not a few of us are here with the same ones we’ve been listening with since the 1990s, when bands had lots of time to bake, albums were played until they became our own anthems, and time moved slower.

Shakespeare My Butt, is, as the irreverent title suggests, an energetic twenty-something that’s equal parts bookworm and upstart. It was not common at the time for Toronto bands to take pride and ownership in this city, still then, deep in its insecurity complex and far too susceptible to American and British media, music, and notions of what cool was. But Lowest of the Low did that. They sang about making out late at night on Bathurst Street. The simple drunken joy of a tin of beer at the east end’s Only Café (a legend, already, back then and an institution by now). The Carlaw bridge appears. These are not references for the tourists, they do not pander to the American radio market, and they mean nothing to people unfamiliar with our neighbourhoods. They are community references, and references now belonging to fans of this band.

The album is Canada’s own George Best, the much-lauded classic Indie British record by The Wedding Present from the same period which documents, in sometimes excruciating detail, the cycle of first love through open-hearted, ripped from a diary verses. Both albums took hold of their respective cultures.  Shakespeare My Butt is an edgy album, featuring a then very bold use of profanity and frank talk of sex, both things that fuel young lives.

Bands with iconic albums slow-brewed over our formative years have an uphill climb when releasing new music today. There will always be the nostalgists, the “play the hits” louts. But the release of new music for our important 1990s (Canadian) bands is a big milestone today, and one well worth celebrating. The set weaves old and new rather seamlessly, with a lot of thought given to the set list and where to place the sure fire hits. But the Low needn’t worry. The new material is wholly their sound, still full of activism, boldness and the gritty love of those in need that their band name speaks to, with a well done accompanying video display that weaves historic civil rights march footage with the contemporary and the local, as seen as a backdrop on “The Barricade”.

Friends are brought out, filling the stage with a horn section and a bongo drum player. Guitars are swapped madly as the band runs through songs with the same energy as the records, and with Ron Hawkins in the rarest of voices, one ever-clear and unchanged across 25 years. A wonderful moment comes when Hawkins places his microphone in front of a woman in the crowd to ask her to tell us a story. She doesn’t hesitate. She’s ready. She mentions back in the day, CFNY 102.1 The Edge, hearing the song they are kicking into, having gone through a rough time and how it helped her through it. It’s a perfect soundbite of a story we all can relate to. Ron lays back on the stage, the microphone above his head, like he’s at home on his bed in that time travel world of last century on a long distance call over a cord stretched from one room to another. He looks utterly at home. He says speaking of CFNY…

Dave Bookman’s death of last week is still right under the surface of this city’s skin. Hawkins says some perfect words up to the rafters and beyond about Bookie, that he’s here, that “we’re just gonna keep on doing what he would do until he tells us to stop”.

The Low demonstrates that they still have their finger on the urgent pulse of what matters. Tonight the front row (in our end of the room) is solely comprised of petite, devoted women, who get to see and hear a rallying cry from one of our clearest voices for their rights, which are being challenged as we speak, even in 2019, half a century after the civil rights movement.

And it’s a fight that needs to be fought at every corner, even in rooms as friendly and warm as this one.

All standing room rock shows bring out the possible tension being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, in an unregulated area which relies almost totally on non-dickish behavior. Here, as in past Lowest of the Low shows, the room is quite an even gender mix (more than in many rock shows). One complete star of a fan is at the barrier on crutches. You gotta love music fans with all your heart. But one man emerges, looking to “good-naturedly” push and bully his way to the front. He is large, and uses his size to get his way, along with an uncomfortable jocularity. For we are not all jocks. We all have the right to enjoy a show in our own way. Majority rules, I guess, and in this part of the room (which happens to be the front row, stage right) there are quiet couples and women giving each other reasonable space. Until one man elbows, high fives and points his way to the front during, predictably, one of the hits. He even pats a stranger on the head. He’s alright when people go along with his ploy to push in front of others, the oldest trick in the book to the seasoned gig goer, but when he meets any resistance (even being ignored) he turns ugly. He disappears halfway through the show, a relief.

Tonight’s show closer is the melodic, honest sing along, “Rosy and Grey”, which talks about the simple pleasures of life on the margins / for the young. The fleeting freedom of the EI check (Unemployment benefits / “the dole”) meaning one can pay for a round of drinks. Regrets and reminiscences. The cheeky line about oral sex which is part of a couplet that is actually one of the most romantic in Canadian music history. This is The Lowest of the Low. The album became a phenomenon because their punk sensibility and fearlessness about their content broke through and said what everyone was thinking, told the truth about what young people (and hell, older people too) were doing and how we were living. And it holds up today, is enshrined as a classic album, as much as contemporary music ever can be in this country, these days, by a bands’ own bootstraps and the goodwill of fans willing to buy a box set.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

Remembering Dave Bookman: The Spirit Of Radio – May 30, 1960 to May 21, 2019

Toronto radio’s quiet legend, Dave Bookman (“Bookie” to everyone) died today just after midnight, after a month-long hospital stay. We’ll always remember: we lost Bookie on what would have otherwise been a beautiful, 18 degree, late May day, with a light breeze and patios calling us out of our extended winter hibernation of false starts and stops, killing frosts and bros in shorts in lively night time pubs when it drops to a little above freezing, still happy as clams, their mood, on other nights like this, impermeable.

Such is May in Toronto. During this time of weather mayhem, with birds migrating back and forth to Florida seemingly daily in confusion, folks with green thumbs visibly itching to get out there and start their own kind of physical therapy, and people like me planning music trips to California partly in search of consistent, stable weather for once,  and still moving away from the shadow of our own aneurysm caused ICU stay, Dave Bookman, his loved ones, and medical team, quietly fought for his life.

Those closest to him would have missed this usual weather roller coaster because they were on a different one. A terrifying, heartbreaking one, seeing only glimpses of mercurial spring through the end of the hall hospital corridor windows, the places where you go to make private, furtive phone calls that are really fractured prayers. They would have sat under-dressed and over-dressed and immune to everyday discomforts, becoming detached from their own bodies in sympathy, now just a heart, a hand that reaches another still one, stuck, stick straight, alongside a grey-beige plastic bed rail, like no one ever should midway through a big life, utterly powerless.

In the ICU, love and friendship is boiled down to its essence: a cup of ice chips or a cup of water. Or both. Do you want both? ICU life, for the one sitting vigil, is on another plane and one avoided by the less brave. They are large, cluttered rooms with no privacy, only illusory curtains on rails that are never oiled, where nurses pop out of from either side like grim but reassuring puppet shows, and where that one private glassed-in quiet room you briefly pine for is not an upgrade you ever want. It’s a hive full of people doing baffling and noisy but essential life-saving work on 12-hour shifts, amid alarms going off and intercoms crackling, as the person bedside unknowingly gets permanent tinnitus they will not notice for weeks, for love. For what is love, if not a stoic attention to another, a cause, a career, a band? A dream?

As for the patient laying hooked up in sci-fi confusion, part of the machine like a brightly-lit mid 1990s Industrial music video, their thoughts and discomforts are only known if they are not comatose, are awake, seem-better-today, can even drink a Timmie’s coffee, have crossed that finish line where their body is stable enough to want food again. A hospital complaint from a patient is a secretly joyous assertion of life. Those who most need to be there have higher concerns than all the things we think of as normal, and unspoken by all is the truth that they are, already, elevated, angelic, different. Many have gone, still and wordless, even voices like Bookies’ which seemed too important to ever end in our time.

And the ice chips and the ice water are for the lucky loved ones. The ones who are on the recovery road, can cheer up the person who’s swerved the crash, making incremental gains, like a flight path. Not straight, rather changing altitudes and reliant on gulf streams. These family members who are devoted will still hold their breath for two years before trusting the doctors.

Absurdly, this strange cacophony you can only laugh about later, if the person in medical crisis gets a later, is not so different than the hum of a rock club setting up for another great night out. Absurdity and surreality are the hallmarks of life in the ICU that no one outside medicine can ever be prepared for. Like the mysterious, exciting, world of live music and broadcasting, things that soundtrack our private and public moments, dull commuter drives, and favorite ever trips up north alike, most of what makes this thing tick are unseen, behind a veil, that just keep us all on the planet upright, standing, spiritually or literally, still sucking air.

For me and my friends, babies raised on CFNY, The Hip, Alan Cross’s Ongoing History, Strombo, MuchMusic and Big Shiny Tunes, Toronto radio has never existed without Bookie’s voice. I know this extends to Buffalo, New York, too, where there was no alternative radio, no college rock, no indie, only our own 102.1. The stories have poured out today like a steady open faucet on social media, these times when social media is its best: its immediacy and unfiltered, live wire nature crackling like a thousand pirate radio broadcasts all over the world, in unity, in solidarity, in harmony. The stories are still erupting as I write, from kids-now-DJs, kids-now-musicians, kids-now-writers, or from Bookman’s radio peers (more than a few of whom were each Bookman’s best friend), various legendary Daves, and giants of Canadian music. The pirate radio of love beams today from entities we think of as insentient: like Scotiabank Centre, Live Nation, and the Legendary Horseshoe itself, slouches in grief today.

Gord Downie could conjure the words for this in one line. Gord is missed like hell, loss echoing and ricocheting on loss, all so fresh, so vital, good men felled in their prime and there is no fairness in the universe today. Birds calling are little assholes. The sun dappling and a gentle breeze is ludicrous. Indie 88 goes live with full, open-hearted, tear-voiced grief, playing us song after song Bookie liked or make them think of him. They go all in, Radiohead. Neil Young’s Heart of Gold fells us, as it never has, but was made to do. There’s only one song in my mind: “The Spirit of Radio” as covered by Catherine Wheel, spun hundreds of times on 102.1 throughout the 90s, always blared from the various cars we drove around those years, our Toronto anthem. Peak CFNY’s anthem. A beautiful song written by Geddy Lee and remade completely for us kids that says ALL THIS MACHINERY MAKING MODERN MUSIC CAN STILL BE OPEN HEARTED.

Dave Bookman is The Spirit of Radio. Someone else on Twitter said it first, not me. It’s a blur. But there it is.

What was more intimate, more influential to us in the 1980s and 1990s but the local radio? The announcer warming up a concert we’d waited months for, of our favourite band? I never saw him, or knew him to see. But we loved him. The ribbon of grief carries the most private and loveliest of memories from Bookie’s lifelong friends and people he worked with – usually both – who share them with all of us out here in frequency range.

I have only one micro personal story of Bookie. When we started writing, despite being decidedly indie and without any support from local media friends, I mustered the nerve to message Bookie through Facebook to ask if he might send young aspiring writers our way who were looking for experience. His response was kind and cordial, and unexpectedly, followed up with him giving our publication an on-air plug and a thoughtful recommendation to check out “these good people covering music arts and culture in the city”. He had checked us out and decided to go above and beyond, giving our little website air time.

The stories large and small and multi-part and still to come all matter and form the ribbon of sorrow that helps us publicly grieve public figures who we love, legitimately, even from a distance. Grief is finally authentic and beautiful, alternative and upstart and punk and denim-clad and unwashed. Grief is finally cut free of the stuffy funeral home, the procession, and the sickly sweet flowers that you always wish were his favourite treat for his recovery at home. Grief is ours for today.

Give Dave Bookman a day where the hockey fans rally outside. Rename a venue. Host a benefit. Rename a street, a good one. It is public, it must continue to be so.

Jacqueline Howell

The Twilight Sad in Toronto, May 16th 2019

The Twilight Sad: Toronto, Velvet Underground, May 16th, 2019.

The Twilight Sad have returned to Toronto with their latest album It Won’t Be Like This All the Time. 

The Sad have built a fanbase here, as elsewhere, over many years, playing the circuit of gritty rock clubs and halls that we are damned lucky still exist. They’ve played the big stages, having opened for The Cure across their massive North American tour in 2016 (locally headlining Bestival Toronto that year). We first caught the Kilsyth band in 2010, as part of an exciting bill of up and coming Glasgow bands that were gaining wider recognition. At that time, the riveting stage presence of James Graham was something this not-yet-writer found overwhelming. Long distant, then, from the happy days of similarly sized concerts from bands who came over from the U.K., I was rusty, out of practice. It turns out I had been asleep. If I’d ever been at front of stage in my youth in the 90s, an alcohol and convivial haze was half the point, the precise memories sketchy and full of youthful blank spots. And stadium shows, pre-big screens and big sound, were wishful thinking, all of us sitting in the cheap seats, light blue plastic they were, all of us thrilled just be be there, at all. None of the nuances of performances, nor even full confirmation these were the same people from our posters, was really possible.

So seeing The Twilight Sad on an intimate stage before a passionate crowd was something I wasn’t ready for in 2010. Graham’s stage presence is by now, famous to all who’ve been in those rooms and festival fields. But I’d never been around (or close enough) to see an artist give it all from his marrow, eyes white and rolled back, body possessed, clothes melted, singing from somewhere primal, somehow looking good doing it, but doing everything that repressed cultures are told will get you labeled. I lived in a land defined by measured lawns of puritanical social codes and tall poppy syndrome. I had forgotten (never seen up close) that true art and bloodletting performance is rare, special, what music fans wait for or may never get to see. That they aren’t something of flat, priceless images from the 1970s, you-missed-it, New York. But in 2010, I had not yet learned to hold myself un-self-consciously in a crowd with full ease and abandon, even alone, not needing liquid courage anymore, finding my religion in the chords of our few stalwart, saintly poets who miraculously return to us year after year, despite airports and border patrols having not one art-loving bone in their entire structures. I hadn’t swayed, eyes closed, beyond the need for visuals, photos unnecessary, phone away, in a place of transcendence that artists build with their audiences, each of us a vital part, a temple constructed and dismantled in 90 minutes anywhere the bus can take them, or us.

Now, Velvet Underground, a former nightclub / bar haunt of ours, has been refurbished and decluttered as a central downtown site for excellent club-sized gigs, and is run by people who still value links to important bands from overseas. I’m ever aware of the history of even this new paint, our limited and fragile Toronto landmarks, and the great fortune that conspires to enable this lifestyle at all, when there is a movement in the corporate, corrupted media arena that tries to convince all of us who know better around the world, that guitars and real music made by hands and voices is something dying, retro, uncool or obsolete. It’s all lies. Rock and Roll still has enormous, incorruptible power to threaten the establishment no matter how the establishment shakes its ass or how much smoke and mirrors they trot out to soulless arenas. We go on.

En route to this gig, The Twilight Sad updates their fans on their tour from the road. A necessary cancellation due to illness for the lead singer means doctor-ordered rest for two days, in order to be able to make Toronto’s show. Then, the airline loses essential band equipment. At the gig, Graham, a man of few words but much sincere feeling, tells us that the band were the guests of Border Services for three hours today. Getting to Canada is not easy, and the bands who make the effort mean more to us then ever.

Now to the gig. Due to unavoidable delays we arrive midway through Kathryn Joseph’s set, regrettably, as it’s clearly not to be missed. The crowd of The Twilight Sad fans is silent, respectful, enraptured at this lone figure curled over her keys performing her award winning debut double album Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled. Toronto Bros have been chased out of town with pitchforks: this is why we (forever) need more female representation up on our rock stages. Joseph commands the room with a syrupy voice full of life and heart, her evocative, clean lyrics repeated until I see the story unfurled before me of this specific love, this pain, this universal dirge we must grapple with as humans. No talking is permitted by strangers who’ve adopted a code unusual for Toronto gigs, a single, withering dirty look as effective as a young mother to her child was, in my day. It’s impressive in every way. This is her atmosphere, one made by music alone, and it is a perfect complement to the Sad. Joseph is a fellow Glaswegian and support for their whole tour. Don’t be late.

As expected, James Graham emerges in full physical force, perhaps front loading his energy in case his still very ill throat and body lets him down later. He touches his chest like you do when you need your nana-nurse, and yet his vocals never flag, causing worry amongst a devoted crowd who care about him even more than their night’s entertainment. He’s earned it over years of hard graft, and great music. The set is a full one, as the rest of the room drips sweat in the strange mid May humidity of Toronto that swings up and down by 25 degrees in a few hours. We know and empathize with persistent flus and colds around here, and we aren’t even trying to sing.

The set moves through seven songs from the new album It Won’t Be Like This All the Time and finishes with an emotional wallop: “Cold Days From the Birdhouse”, followed by a cover of Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm” in honor of the late Scott Hutchinson, a friend whose death rocked his community of fans as well as his music family. We must all keep ourselves warm. We must keep each other warm. Alive. It is a war cry against the darkness we must fight. The final song of the gig, “And She Would Darken the Memory”, which has been in the set since 2007, is a mic drop moment of modern music that tells everyone that real music is the farthest thing from dead, like many great and organic art forms has just been badly treated by an industry. But music is not an industry. And so, in free-fall, the music that can flourish now is only, ever, art.

This band, back in 2010, was too big for the stage I saw them on, in my town that I believed then did not let people stand to their full height (or reach beyond it). They gave the same, major performance and sound that would enable them to fill The Cure’s massive stage as support for the massive, historic 2016 North American tour, a record-breaking route that carved a map like a joker’s smile, taking a continent to church in three-encore sessions. By then, the Sad were more than ready. And they are still perfect on the rock club stage where fans get the best of both, like it was a private party. This band can do anything and has only grown with the opportunities they’ve been given – for how do you not learn from the best, and the biggest changes? The Twilight Sad is a band now in full flight, who must be seen live at every opportunity. Nobody moves from their spot. Most of us have a perfect, tight view, even eye contact. Shouting distance. Trust.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

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