Reflecting on a Lifetime Love of Music and Two Years Running an Indie Magazine

I’ve loved music for as long back as I can remember.  When I was around 9 or 10 years old, my mom would buy all kinds of new music and I would sit with the record covers and marvel at the art and photos while amazing and interesting sounds swirled around the room.  And when the feeling was right, Mom would boldly turn the volume dial past 5, the number that was considered the safe point to prevent noise complaints.  I still get nostalgic when flipping through the disorganized stacks of vinyl at our local record store and I come across a familiar cover that, as a kid, I would sit cross-legged on the floor and study for hours.

Mom eventually settled in to a pretty steady diet of Country and Western music.  It was still performed by crooners with actual life experience back then (Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, George Jones, Conway Twitty…you get the idea) but before all that, there was The Police, Split Enz, Fleetwood Mac, The Cars, and even eyebrow raisers like Rough Trade.  Did she really just yell “Is he screwing with her?”  Music dominated over TV in my house and I’m thankful for it.

Exposure to different music on a constant and regular basis kept me open minded to what was to come.  Hip-hop, Shoegaze, Ska, Reggae, Alternative, Brit pop and Electronic music in all its variations.  And although I listened to a lot of different music, I didn’t start to collect it until CDs came along.  Before then, it was all about the mix tapes I would make from friend’s records or from the radio, my finger poised to strike “pause” to beat the advertisements.

Photography happened sort of by accident.  It was a mandatory course in my college journalism program and required we use a proper SLR 35mm film camera.  No auto settings, no Kodak Disc, no Polaroids.  Manual everything and a darkroom to process it.  I loved every minute of it.  The marriage of music and photography didn’t happen until years later when I was asked by a friend to shoot their band’s performance.  I was so out of my element.  Multi-coloured strobe lights, non-stop movement, people dancing around me.  It was amazing and I was hooked.  I knew I couldn’t accept it as a one-off opportunity and my search for postings looking for music photographers began.  Armed with only one band in my portfolio, SoundProof magazine still gave me a shot and sent me to photograph My Bloody Valentine.  Mind blown!  If I thought I was hooked before then, I left that gig a full-blown addict.

A bunch of publications, hundreds of bands, and thousands of photos later, my partner in crime and brilliant writer Jacqueline and I started talking.  Who is writing about the music we love?  When the music we love is covered, is it getting the photography and written assessment it deserves?  Is there enough promotion & journalism of new bands that should be in the spotlight in our city?  The answer was more or less no.  So we said:

“Forget it, brother, you can go it alone” – The Clash

STEP ON Magazine was born and has since become DISARM.  And it’s been a fantastic journey so far.  Reflecting back on 2 years of us two going it alone, what have I learned?  Well this, in no particular order:

1 – Music is as important to me today than ever before. It’s so much more than sounds coming from a speaker.  It’s a language, or more accurately, a dialect.  It identifies your tribe.  Find your tribe and stick with them.  Build your army.

2 – The music I thought was great in my teens, is still great today, and will always be great. More or less.  We all have our moments and lapses in reason.

3 – The Cure is everything.

4 – Vinyl is superior. As I mentioned before, I didn’t really collect music seriously until CDs.  Vinyl was for DJs, end of.  When the vinyl resurgence started, I was (quietly) cynical about it and dismissed it as hipster-fueled nonsense.  That changed when Jaqueline and I popped in to a local pub one Tuesday night, which happened to be vinyl night.  Having a seasoned ear for music and the many different formats, I can say with some degree of authority, it just sounds better.  And you don’t need an acoustically perfect room and a tube-amplifier Hi-fi setup to hear it.  The fact that Jacqueline soon after uncovered a treasure trove of her original records (Cure, Clash, etcetera) thought long lost prompted us to buy a turntable.  We’ll never look back.

5 – Cynicism is toxic (see Vinyl is superior)

6 – Great, important music is still being made today. You just have to search harder to find it.  It was easy to find great music in the 80s and 90s.  The radio played it, movies used it for soundtracks, stadium-sized concerts were reserved for it.  Today it’s rarely found in those places.  Scour Bandcamp and SoundCloud.  You’ll find it.  When you do, support it and tell everyone about it.

7 – Live music is medicine for the mind and soul. Go see as much of it as you can.  And don’t miss the openers.

8 – Nothing easy is worth it. No further explanation required.

9 – Don’t discount the little guy. No one is so small they should be ignored or overlooked be it musicians, an indie magazine or fan site.  Be respectful and thank the people that promote and support you.

10 – It’s ok to be a fan AND the media. We don’t ever try to hide the fact that we love a band or a musician.  We yell it from the rafters.  It’s never uncool to wear the band’s t-shirt at their concert.

Dave MacIntyre

The Tragically Hip: A Canadian Shield

The Tragically Hip are a national institution. They are the rarest of things in Canadian music, especially Canadian rock music: a band massive enough to polarize people and to ensure just about everyone from coast to coast has heard of them. We, being Canadians, always have an opinion. The Hip are also of  Canada and are a success story made pretty much exclusively in Canada – with a requisite shout to the American fans along the northern towns of our shared border who get it.

Canada of the 90’s and 2000’s (while The Hip released 12 albums) became known for some of the world’s biggest, record smashing, polarizing, sometimes embarrassing figures: Nickleback, Celine Dion, Alanis Morrisette, Michael Buble and Shania Twain; artists who have achieved the greatest heights of music acclaim, popularity and record sales the likes of which we’ll never see again in this digital age. They scaled these heights through the unlikely and lottery-like system of the American music industry and were supported by a suspicious amount of marketing money that makes promoters of today weep with longing, as well as a certain universal pop appeal. The Hip, the great little bar band that grew, are as big as it gets nationally through sweat and grit and endless miles on buses and planes traversing this big country, all while remaining true blue iconclasts. They’re truly world class. And yet, they’re OURS. 

As hard/impossible as it is for Canadian rock bands to crack the U.S. and global music industry, (RUSH and The Guess Who being two rare exceptions, along with Neil Young who’s really been a Californian for 40 or 50 years) it is also no easy feat to cross our enormous country made up of many unique regions and little empires that thrive on our perceived and asserted difference from one another. The Hip cracked this code early as they emerged from 1980’s Kingston, Ontario, an old-fort and University town that squats between the two self-righteous universes of Toronto and Montreal. Of course, like all shiny things, Toronto wants to claim them as our own, as they now come back to Tawrana for a victory lap of their extended (and regularly sold out) Fully and Completely tour. The tour began in January and includes a diplomatic and generous criss-crossing of Canada and the U.S. with a focus on playing 1992’s Fully Completely album cut for cut, along with other high points from their extensive back catalogue. And tonight, we Torontonians call them ours with this triumphant Canada Day show. On July 1, the unusually expressive and flag-waving (but only really comfortable doing so once a year and formally) Canada Day crowd comes fully alive at the Molson Amphitheatre. It’s the best possible way to celebrate our heritage that doesn’t include being at least 3 hours north of the city and near a cool lake.

This writer and this photographer spent many of our free, young, and easy 20’s going to Hip shows as they reached the peak of their output and career success in the mid 90’s, after they’d put in over a decades worth of solid work creating their sound, tightening their unit, and becoming Canada’s modern day poet laureates (voiced by national treasure Gord Downie)- something we really needed in contrast to the bombast of Celine and the crustiness of Nickleback, a band that was the unfortunate 3rd generation runoff of Creed and Live. As The Hip became bigger in the mid 90’s, and tickets harder to get, our friends took to rented minivans, just a few drivers over 25, in a happy period of road trips to see the band in small, intimate, inexpensive venues in places like Boston, Chicago, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Basically, we took the hockey fan’s approach to scoring tickets, and created great memories along the way as 6 or 8 of us would stuff ourselves into the kind of awkward, familial room sharing arrangements that you can only do with friends in your 20’s.

Before and after those trips were many shows and early festivals here like Another Roadside Attraction and Eden Music Festival, which The Hip would ably co-headline alongside The Cure & Bush, (with many others including Porno for Pyros, Catherine Wheel, Live and The Watchmen).

And always, always, from high school parties (where Fully Completely was played on a loop) up through endless, perfect days and nights visiting summer cottages with friends, The Hip were (and are) a big part of the soundtrack of our Canadian lives for a large group from coast to impossible coast. A deeply rooted part that for us, is as big as U2 without the baggage or weight of all those trucks that make up a show, without the preaching and the tinted shades or the patriarchal post-colonial leanings. Icons that have grown and yet stayed local in a way most of our great comedians never do, with backgrounds on northern lakes like our own and life in towns always named after bigger and brighter UK ones that our actors distance themselves from by adopting blank American accents or sometimes, bad Brando. As we’ve grown, this background, essential, casually cool rock music has dug and grown deeper roots within us, staying true and proud like all those symbols on our money and our stoic anthem once made us feel proud of as kids.

The kids who’ve followed the road with The Hip have all seen some of the world now, along with its impending darkness. We’ve grown and lost and loved and been let down, plenty now. We aren’t on a road trip anymore, free of mortgages or kids or even real jobs to prioritize anymore, but on the long and rocky road of life (“no dress rehearsal…”) where you are lucky to find even one co-pilot. And The Hip still rises up to meet us as perfectly as an Ontario lake breeze that seems oceanic, as poetical as the great Irish bards, as our very own stab at Shakespeare. Like so many of the 80’s and 90’s bands who’ve managed to survive a difficult, shrinking and starving music industry, The Tragically Hip are no slouches. Rather, they are the best of the best, like our impeccable, impermeable Canadian Shield rock that has stood since the time of Canada’s aboriginal tribes and their still beauty; long before generators and jet skis or our dirty industries came along. It’s that Shield rock that brings us back to Canada, the idea of a Canada resistant to American encroachment, its shabby culture and its endless need for our greatest natural resources, and an appetite only for our most vanilla, easy to swallow music. We don’t care if you don’t know what Bobcaygeon is. For tonight, and all the nights like this, we are a people and a country that is proud of its difference and itself, unsellable and incorruptable, rugged and beautifully permanent.

To the people who’ve said to me over the years, usually women, “I don’t like The Hip” I turn away and shrug. So much of the best music, MY music, is off the radar or unappreciated and so it shall be, that’s part of being cool. I take it as an endorsement of my own difference and discerning taste. They really don’t get it (or deserve to have it) and that’s a fact. For I can think of nothing better for a long summer night, on the old wood ledge in our friends’ amazing gem of a cabin next to a smoky mosquito coil while we play endless games of cards, or for a Canada Day, than to hear our poets sing about caribou; David Milgaard; “Bobcaygeon”; the “Wheat Kings” of “the Paris of the Prairies” where rusty breezes push around the weathervane jesus” (in a stunner of a song that incorporates social justice issues and farming in a way only Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg or Toots Hibbert could accomplish) to get the inside references of the checkerboard floors of an iconic rock club that still survives and even thrives; the mysticism and uniquely Canadian ghost story and myth of Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko.

This last one, “Fifty-Mission Cap” is a graduate level Canadian literature stunner, and always brings a chill, mixed up as it is with our own still-young country’s history which is so fresh it is literally worked into our passed down grandfather’s old RCAF caps. Canada is still an oral tradition of recent myth and legend. And all this music, romantic, open hearted, tough as it is, goes well beyond Canadiana, with universal concerns and ideas mixed with wit, literature sarcasm and swearing. It’s goddamn great. It’s sometimes obscure. It’s authentic, in double denim, instead of turn your skin green bling and daisy dukes. It’s tough as hell. It’s us.

The Tragically Hip have over 30 years invested in this music and performance, and attendance at one of their dynamic and fluid shows should be mandatory for visitors and newcomers alike, just as getting into their discography could (and should) serve as contemporary literature and history texts & curricula which we anticipate will happen in another ten years. They move from rock anthems to dirges about love, life and maturity (often in the same four minutes) and never stop for a break. They have given us our real national anthem “Wheat Kings” and they have quiet songs that conjure up the feelings of uncomfortable dreams about now distant family members and the childhood pains that return and linger all day like a rheumatic ache in songs like “Pigeon Camera”:

” This house it has it politics
Over there that’s my room
And that’s my sister’s
And that’s my sister
With something we could no longer contain”

They have early, eternal songs like “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Little Bones” that rock as hard, as capably, and as – goddamnit why aren’t they as big as anyone for this is as good as Zeppelin, The Stones, and certainly U2– underrated as most of Canada’s vast beauty and its stubbornly diverse, individualistic, frontier minded, complex, rugged and true blue hearts that live in it remain. Fully and completely.

(*Photo gallery below.)

“My Music At Work” (The Tragically Hip)

Everything is bleak
It’s the middle of the night
You’re all alone
And the dummies might be right
You feel like a jerk
My music at work
My music at work
Avoid trends and cliches
Don’t try to be up to date
And when the sunlight hits the olive-oil
Don’t hesitate
The night’s so long it hurts
My music at work
In a symbol too far
Or the anatomy of a stain
To determine where you are
In a sink full of Ganges I’d remain
No matter what you heard
My music at work
(c.  Little Smoke Music/The Tragically Hip)
Jacqueline Howell

Icons, Heroes, Celebrities & Deities: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rightful place transcends fascination at AGO preview show

“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” – Public Enemy, Fight the Power – 1988

“Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Let’s discuss the idea of celebrity fascination & death, artists, heroes and deities.

Why do we afford some artists the courtesy of minimizing premature, bad deaths and not others?  Are legends made or is legendary status prescribed by those holding the copyrights, the master recordings, and the rare photograph? Is it a relic left over from the Hippie dream that Manson destroyed so easily in 1969? Should we believe the hangers-on made good? The ex-wives? The art experts?



Continue reading “Icons, Heroes, Celebrities & Deities: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rightful place transcends fascination at AGO preview show”

Most Of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamps

“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” – Public Enemy, Fight the Power – 1988

“Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Let’s discuss the idea of celebrity fascination & death, artists, heroes and deities.

Why do we afford some artists the courtesy of minimizing premature, bad deaths and not others?  Are legends made, or is legendary status prescribed by those holding the copyrights, the master recordings, and the rare photograph? Is it a relic left over from the Hippie dream that Manson destroyed so easily in 1969? Should we believe the hangers-on made good? The ex-wives? The art experts?

The Beatles are worshipped as musical deities by critics and multitudes of fans. The fact of John Lennon’s assassination is not considered to infuse their myth with greater, or even outsized, meaning. The word “assassination” is out of fashion, too powerful, too threatening to the myth it interrupts while silently cementing it in place. It seems impossible to imagine that Lennon’s murder did not jump-start the canonization of his old band that he and the rest had run from a decade before.  Generations born as The Beatles ended and Lennon was assassinated and their catalogue became an asset for millionaires to trade like baseball cards and Apple Computers was rumoured to be named for them and on and on have no choice but to love The Beatles or be damned, for it’s a dull, accepted & expected societal norm.

Like those who are genetically predisposed to be repulsed by the taste and smell of cilantro, finding it “soapy”, there are people who don’t care for The Beatles and for whom “Love, love me do” is nothing more than the tinny loudspeaker soundtrack  of now- defunct 80’s retro hamburger joints they grew up in. Right on cue, comes the craving: too much garlic and piles of real cheddar and properly grilled, light, perfect buns. This shit is perfectly commercialized, but grilled to perfection.

For them, “Imagine” is some generic commercial sounding song that is received  by The Beatles- immune with an inquisitive pause for the tag line of whoever licensed its use to sell something. “Helter Skelter” was effectively stolen by Charles Manson. “Birthday” is a reference from Sixteen Candles. “Twist and Shout” belongs to Ferris Bueller crashing, and improving, a parade.  John Hughes was of the Beatles generation and used this music in his films as a gateway to introduce new forms of music that do not owe anything to them. Molly Ringwald, his onetime muse, and ours, led him to the music that L.A. kids were actually listening to. Modern music stands against the Beatles. Punk and Post-Punk obliterate them. Electronic music (Kraftwerk, New Order, OMD) make tracks as far away as they can get from the Albatross of the Beatles. Hip Hop remixed it all into entirely new forms. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus for a while but they aren’t Jesus.

There is a pretense among the devoted, including leading music critics and corporate entities of ’80, post Lennon’s assassination and onward, that The Beatles deserve all the accolades they can get, need dozens if not hundreds of tomes written about them, and that all the other commercial products and reproductions done in their name for half a century are not just cynical cash grabs and micro fame bids from those less-talented multitudes who’d like to beg, borrow, or steal a piece of that infernal legend. This lie depends on the narrative never settling on Lennon’s death and all the darkness surrounding it, including his own politics, arrogance, burned bridges, feuds, messy personal life, money, drugs, radicalism, ego and hubris. Somehow that dreadful looking 1970’s bed-in anti-mop top long hair and beard has done its work and a trick has been pulled, transposing Lennon with Jesus in his public’s imagination.

Elvis fans can fill their days listening to nothing but his extensive catalogue and are fulfilled and reminded of their youthful glow. This music, for the devoted, delivers time and again and no amount of collectible bric-a-brac for sale in tabloids or new permutations of the once-impossibly beautiful young Priscilla Presley’s face can trouble the ambient dream that Elvis fans enjoy. Elvis died at 42 years old. 42 YEARS OLD. What a waste, what a sin, what a crime for a man to do to themselves, their fans, their legacy. He abused his body with drugs and food, or, if we reach for some human empathy, as we sometimes do today for the special ones, he “self-medicated” his pain from (????) in this way. The amount of strain, of suspension of disbelief required to remain clear-eyed and loving toward a wealthy and beloved hero/singer/icon who died in this way at such a young age, rather than feel abject disgust and betrayal, is startling. Anyone born after ’77 knows fat Elvis, sweaty Elvis, caricature of Elvis, shadow of Elvis, country -trash indiscriminate, gaudy, money spending Elvis, Elvis-impersonator freaks Elvis, Eddie Murphy -skewering Elvis, and must look very hard to understand any other.

These dubious saints, Elvis and Lennon, sailed past their peak and were extinguished by the time Basquiat inhabited downtown Manhattan. The Clash said, rather matter-of-factly, in 1979: “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” At that moment, out of the dust rose a singular talent lyrically named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a culturally relevant coincidence that Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the New York street-art, downtown and then quickly, glided into the uptown art scene about the time of Lennon’s murder nearby and three years after Elvis died.  Lennon’s image, words, protests, opinions and fame made him a target and he was silenced. There are no conspiracies about this assassination as the questions they would raise would hit far too close to home for his generation of fans and their most cherished belief systems. Yet, we minimize this death, as his image, words, ditties and music are considered bullet-proof and unkillable. He was sanctified, and in many ways, sanitized. Basquiat’s too-recent, not sepia-toned pedigree, his skin, and his work that was never cuddly, refuses any and all such hollow myth-making for mass consumption. What’s most impressive about it is that it speaks for itself and doesn’t need any help from the art scholar at all to be appreciated, as it’s visceral. It offers more than you could ever impress upon it even if a million words were written on the subject, like those 10 years of The Beatles that people can’t get enough of.

It is most definitely, always, a tragedy when someone dies young, and by young, we mean 27 or 40.  It is always a tragedy to lose an artist of any age who has much to say and has barely been heard yet, even as the outward markers of success suggest a phenomenon. It is a terrible loss, forever in the bones and nerves and heart and the brain we understand so little about, to lose someone we love. Someone we barely knew. Someone who changed the shape of the world, the space-time continuum, whether our mother, our friend, or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

But remember, we are talking about a great artist here. A visionary. An original. A wit. A brain. A cultural sponge. A self-made man. A boy with great style. A boy who lives on and on, in 1000 pieces of work spread out across the whole world, some of it destroyed, lost, hidden, and hoarded, but, through some miracle,  some of right here in Toronto for a few short months of winter. Remember the love that Elvis gets, that Lennon gets, as these figures are preserved in amber and mounted with their pale cheeks still soft, their forelocks still boyish,  good boys, loved this way, not the ways they later changed or failed to stay innocent. They look out and sing out, immortal, from those ancient pictures and recordings that their fans use as mirrors, where the devoted are forever 16 with everything ahead of them, every possible future, and John and Elvis sing, on an endless loop “love me” and you do. Tenderly.

This is what we think 2015 should look like, sound like and be like. And so it shall be. Relaunch of Step On Magazine!


The Prodigy. Nasty.

The Day is My Enemy – March 30th 2015

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Dearest NME….we’re asking you nicely, for now.

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