Suffering, as I have been, from an existential recurrence of that thing that my beloved, eloquent, super-groovy Papa Nez calls high lonesome (more on that at some point soon – check out his wickedsharp memoir Infinite Tuesday, in the meantime), I’ve been doing my best to actively seek out the good; those things that bring me joy, and help me to share what I can of that feeling with my little slice of the world.
I’m starting with this. Let’s call it CanCon is Awesome, Part 1.
Back in a simpler, more peaceful, less-IMPOTUS-ridden time …
1982. I was a young Canadian girl trying to sort out my own tastes and direction and way(s) of dealing with my Torontonian preteen existence. It was smack dab in the middle of the second Prime Minister-ship of the dad of the guy who’s leading us now.
In addition to providing us with pretty cool stuff like The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, PET was big on discussing just what it means to be a Canadian. This search for a national identity was a big part of my personal bildungsroman, as guided by a set of parents and grandparents that made sure to emphasize their interpretations of Canadian-ness.
Music, even then, was the primary focus of my life, and I was trying desperately to find a niche that I could call my own. It was part of the search for meaning and identity that seemingly plagued my every waking moment. From what I remember, being 12 in the 80’s involved a whole lot of sensory overload. Picking wheat from chaff took some doing (although, with perspective, those days have nothing on today’s ADHD-inducing bombardment of stimuli. Being 12 in 2017 seems nightmarish in comparison).
I had some positive musical influences in my life – and there were certainly bands and artists that spoke to the nascent singer-songwriter appreciation that I was cultivating even then. CanCon was a big thing – and, as a country, we were representing bigtime with songs that have weathered well. I loved, even then, The Band, Leonard Cohen, Buffy Saint-Marie and Gordon Lightfoot. Haven’t/won’t stop listening to them. Check out an older post or two, if you’re needing support for that assertion. My Canadian band (and Band-)-loyalty remains strong.
In 1982, there was a whole lot happening in the world of music. Our proximity to the States, and the fact that we yet clung (cling. Plus ça change, and all that) to our familial relationship with the UK, meant that we were hearing a number of bands offering up ever-innovating styles of music. Some of my favourite artists got their start in those early years, or changed up an older formula, incorporating new genres and instruments. Most of the material on my personal playlists was coming out of England, Ireland or Scotland.
Which was cool. Still is. I still listen to most of those go-to musicians. But where was the Canada in all that? I didn’t get Rush back then (still not 100% sure that I do now…) – even when the prog-rock became more synth-driven (but I LOVE that Torontonians voted to name the babies of our recently-fugitive High Park capybaras after the boys in the band). Loverboy was funny and all… but they weren’t resonating with my identity-search in any real way. A few local offerings – Boys Brigade, Blue Peter, Platinum Blonde, The Spoons, to name the most obvious – were striking some chords but weren’t quite it, for me.
Then this band out of Montreal released a full-length album as follow-up to their first EP.
I bought the tape (because, back in the day, cassettes were the thing – I had a brand spankin’ new Walkman and tapes were THE way of expressing the angst-y nonsense that was specific to 12-ish-year-olds at the time. You could pop on the headphones and problems such as
doting involved intrusive parents fell by the wayside oh-so-quickly.
Rhythm of Youth. I played that thing endlessly (still have it, in fact). On so many family road trips in the station wagon – exploring this country of ours. I had such a terrible childhood – parents who thought it vital that we see our homeland whilst still giving us the world. A prisoner, with my little sisters, of both the car and Dad’s radio selection (I didn’t appreciate CBC then like I do now) as we drove everywhere – and were forced to learn a little something about ourselves, as Canadians, with every family vacation.
Ivan’s baritone led the soundtrack of my life for much of that year – and beyond. From the opening piano chords of Ban the Game, the entirety of the album retained its wonder and got better with each subsequent hearing.
If you have been anywhere around North America since 1982, you’ve heard The Safety Dance. Deny it and I’ll call you a liar. But, while that tune remains pretty iconic as a representation of a particular place and time in history, it’s not, actually, my favourite.
I remain partial to I Got the Message. And Where do the Boys Go? And I Like.
Bits of so many of their songs had lyrics in both langues officielles – truly representing our histoire et identité bilingue and my own, perhaps naive, idea of what Canada was about. The extra-added bonus was that all the years of French classes (in English Toronto) were finally having some tangible pay-off!
The reliance on keyboards alongside the driving drum machine and guitars, typical of the New Wave of synthpop that seemed to be everywhere, meant that after being forced to practice piano for as long as I could remember, there might actually be some cool associated with that particular skill set.
And while they were admittedly infectiously poppy, the songs also had an edge of social commentary that fed my preteen intellectual pretensions.
Men Without Hats remained a constant on my playlists. We took them with us on our high school trip to the USSR – introducing them to a whole bunch of East German soldiers there on weekend leave (who knew that Leningrad was party-central of the Eastern Bloc?). The bartender/manager of our hotel bar got a kick out of the Canadian kids, and let us control the music as long as we kept drinking his ‘screwdrivers’ (vodka and orange pop does NOT a screwdriver make). More than a few German- and/or Russian-speakers were able to sing along to Pop Goes the World by the end of the evening.
Unlike some other die-hard fans, I quite enjoyed their change of direction on 1991’s Sideways album. The electro-pop was replaced by more driving guitars, but the ever-apparent musicality (Ivan and Colin are both classically-trained) of the songs, and Ivan’s inimitable voice still struck chords of familiarity and appreciation.
A couple of weeks ago the latest iteration of the band – led by Ivan and Colin, as in the old days – came through Toronto. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of their show at the Phoenix (I’ve seen a couple too many retro bands make a truly unfortunate return to the stage – nonamesmentionedRationalYouth…), so I was a little concerned about whether or not the love would have lasted down through all these years.
Did it ever. Wow. That was a fun night. Me and my BFF went in without too many expectations and came out completely buzzing with the slice of joy the band shared with us so generously. Ivan’s voice remains a stalwart and much-loved aspect of my idea of Canada. The energy was infectious, and his stories – between all the songs I wanted to hear (although Sideways was, sadly, missing. But the cover of those timeless ‘prog-rockers’, Abba, was just. so. great.) – kept us grinning pretty madly.
In a world that is, currently, dominated by the infamy of the place to the south of our border, Men Without Hats reinforced the thankfulness I’ve been feeling about my Canadian-ness – as I investigate, yet again, exactly what that identity means to me.
We have work yet to do – as a country made up of individuals who have yet to concur on just what, exactly can be defined as a collective identity. I hope that I can contribute to that work in some realized way as I continue to explore and interpret my connection to our history and future.
Part of the take-away from that night at the Phoenix – with my re-introduction to wonderful old friends and the reminiscences the experience garnered, is that I remain a proud Canadian. And that is easy to say.