‘You know it’s dark…’

Photo: Toronto Star

That’s what the big, pointy thing in my backyard looked like last night.

I’ve turned off the television and I’m avoiding social media as best I can. Once again, hatred is coming to the fore and demonstrating the depravity and delusional depths to which we, as humans, can sink. I can’t handle the speculation and the voyeurism that is the norm when things like this happen. I’m not sure that I have anything at all that I can add to any sort of dialogue about why we, as humans, continue to do these things to each other. This blog is full of posts (here’s one), and my life is full of ghosts of discussions-past, that strive to address underlying causes and the nonsensical clinging to anachronistic and out-of-context ideologies that suborn these types of horrors. I’m exhausted from re-hashing my dialectic around why we must address- and enact- the complete separation of world statecraft and politics from any and all mindless adherence to mythologies and social controls that are out of place and time.

If you really want to, you can search back through the catalogue and find far too many reactionary posts that arose out of tragedies of this sort. Before the first indicators of the events of yesterday started in my feed, I was toying with an idea for a post- a break from the fiction I’ve been trying to write lately- in the form of a belated experiential slice-of-life sort of a thing that spoke about the goodness of the life I enjoy. Given that it was going to be a post about a music show, in a local music hall, the subject’s poignancy has taken on a new dimension. Going out of an evening to share the connection that music brings to those of us who value such things above the irrelevancies of constructed divisions and preconceptions is something that I hold to be a sacred (for lack of a more appropriate term. Yes, I get the irony) part of being a human that shares this planet with other humans.

So I’m writing it anyway. I’ll take comfort in memories of some of the real, tangible, good to which I have been a privileged party. I welcome anyone who might like to join me, but I understand that many of you are glued to the incoming messages and the pain associated with the images and realities of the situation. I will return to despairing over the crimes we commit against each other when we have more than speculation and in-the-moment reactions with which to deal. Especially since, once again, the soundbites and commentaries are fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia and demonstrating, yet again, wrong-headed thinking that stems from positions of privilege. If you want to read some excellent insights into that reality, have a look at this op-ed. Totally jibes with my thoughts on the subject of the day-presented more clearly than I can manage at this point.

Outrage and grief are understandable, and certainly warranted. I’d be the last to suggest otherwise. But what is, per usual, missing (for the most part- the essay linked above is a welcome exception) is perspective, and rational response. Enough. On to some regularly-scheduled programming…

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For Canadians, Thanksgiving comes early (relative to our neighbours down south, that is). I had booked some vacation time around the October holiday- hoping to get some things done and have a bit of a break from the workaday normalcy. Those Blue Jays were still in the running and providing us all with some awesome post-season excitement. It was a warm weekend in this City by the Lake, and, after a lovely dinner with the fam, I’d arranged to meet an old friend up at Lee’s Palace (not the ‘Shoe, but probably my second-fave live venue in town) to see a guy who feels like an old friend.

The Wheat Sheaf Tavern had set up tvs outside- for smokers, people passing on the street and those, like me, waiting for streetcars. I witnessed another of those amazing Kevin Superman Pillar catches before the Red Rocket whisked me north. As I walked over from Bathurst, every bar on Bloor was playing the baseball game, and I was reassured that we were solidly in control of the game. Since all was good with the Boys in Blue, I was ready for some high octane rocking and rolling (admittedly, there were text updates throughout the evening- no disrespect to the star of the show at all, but it had been 22 years since the Jays were in the post-season. 22. Long. Years).

Jesse Malin has come up in my WordPressWorld discussions a time or two- he’s one of the most engaging live artists I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) and he never fails to entertain. The holiday and the Jays’ game pretty much validated my concerns about the timing of the show- there weren’t a whole lot of people on hand. But my friend had rearranged his family dinner plans to make the show, and we tend to celebrate big dinners early in the day, anyway, so we were there, wearing our proverbial bells and hoping to make enough noise to make up for the poor turn-out.

We got there in time to see most of the opening act- Matthew Ryan, a dude out of Philly who writes and plays solid story-songs that offered important messages that were lovely, lyrically and musically, both. Between songs, he spoke of the importance of engagement- political or otherwise- words that rang especially vividly leading up, as we were, to that federal election. We got to have a quick chat with him- and snap a few pictures- between sets. Always a bonus to meet the person behind newly-discovered music.

By the time Jesse hit the stage the crowd hadn’t grown significantly, but it didn’t take long for him to entice us all down to the dance floor for a sing-and-dance-a-long that turned into one of my favourite nights of live music, ever.

In the last year he has released two albums of new music (yes, I said TWO). The most recent, Outsiders, had dropped the previous week. I admit that I hadn’t had much of a chance to listen to the newest stuff (the lack of real computer means that I remain hesitant to download the albums- and I like, whenever possible, buying CDs from merch tables at shows- so I’d relied on streams from various sources and some YouTube viewing to catch myself up), but, having seen the guy three times previously, I knew that the live versions of the new stuff would be the stuff of which memories are made.

I was right.

Jesse’s been at his craft for a few years decades now (he started performing at CBGBs when he was 12. Yes, that says 12), and his live shows are things of beauty. He’s a consummate professional- the voice, the backing band, the energy… and the lack of crowd deterred him not-at-all. Within a couple of songs he had joined us on the dance floor- belting out his new material (with a few older standbys in the mix) and showing just how classy working musicians can be. A few people came close to being clothes-lined by his mic cord as he moved among us, but great music- and its appreciation- is about taking chances, and should be riddled with the potential for a little danger.

Man.

I’ve tried to isolate some of the highlights in my mind. It’s difficult, though. His shows (even the one that packed the ‘Shoe because the TIFF glitterati thought the Boss might show up- I wrote about that one here) always seem more like a kitchen ceilidh- hanging with friends, sharing some stories and dancing ’til your feet hurt and your cheeks ache from the smiling and singing along.

I visited the merch table- of course- and bought both New York Before the War and Outsiders. Since the show I’ve had them both on repeat pretty constantly.

Hard as it is to choose favourites, this one stands out from New York Before the War:

I love the references to Dee Dee Ramone (clarification: turns out I got my musical allusions wrong. I checked out a YouTube clip, ‘Live at Vintage Vinyl’, today, and Jesse provided some background on the tune. In Addicted he’s actually referencing the life and death of Arturo Vega- the close friend and artistic director of the Ramones, who, among other things, designed that iconic logo of theirs. LOVE the stories this guy tells about his experiences and travels. Check out the performance if you have an hour- his story about Shane MacGowan- as a lead-in to his version of If I Should Fall from Grace with God… so awesome)- who has to be a personal hero of Jesse’s (he pops up in earlier tunes, as well), and the NYC atmosphere that resonates throughout. The themes of tearing things down (bookstores for condos, for example) and moving on- or being forced to move on- are visited throughout the album, which is a working-out of all kinds of things that have been floating around his head since 2010’s Love it to Life. It’s about how quickly things are changing, without requisite time or sensitization to get used to all the dramatic shifts in paradigm that we experience nowadays. The album reflects on the disposable culture we’ve created, the prevalent apathy and mindless following of trends, and addresses the realities of having to deal with horrible, terrible things- but still manages to find a spark of positivity that keeps us keeping on. And dancing while we do so.

Outsiders is darker, but also playful and full of tongue-in-cheek humour than demonstrates his masterful use of language and lyric.

At Lee’s, he talked a little about filming the video for this one. About how it was sweltering that day in New Orleans as they made their way around town to gather the images to accompany the lyrics- capturing NOLAs ‘away-ness’ in his song about the eventual return to his home- where his heart remains.

I can’t stop listening to it. Seriously. Non-stop. It’s my new  get-up-and-deal-with-the-day tune. Naturally, the title resonated quite personally. Sort of foregone, conclusion-wise, that I’d be intrigued. The song is so full of allusions and references and well-connected turns-of-phrase… I’m gushing, I realize. And if it doesn’t make you feel like dancing… you might want to get that looked at.

After the show wound up, still feeling kind of breathless, I thanked Jesse, as he passed on the way to merch, for coming to see us again, and for giving us such a fantastic night. He signed my new CDs, and posed for some photos with us, while chatting away about past shows at the ‘Shoe and other visits to TO.

Loved it. All of it. (Many thanks again to Mr. G- for the company, and the ticket, and the long-ago intro to Jesse’s music).

Nights like that demonstrate the best of us human-types. People making art, sharing art, connecting with strangers and reinforcing the reality that those things we create to share with love are much more important than the things we create to feed divisiveness and hatred.

We need that message on days like yesterday- and today. Thank you, Jesse, for your long-term and ever-developing role as messenger.

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“Hey man, whatcha doing,

All along the road to ruin

You know it’s dark when atheists start to pray.”

The crimes committed in France yesterday are bringing out the hashtags and the superficial demonstrations of engagement and encouragement. One of them, #prayforparis, is generating backlash, as others post things about there being too much prayer- and asserting that prayer is the origin of the problem. While I understand the sentiment behind the hashtag, I have to concur with the naysayers who are pointing out that fighting against hateful ideology- supported by religions and political systems, both- is what we should be doing.

Charlie Hebdo’s message to the world (cartoon by Joann Sfar)

As a concept, I’ve always thought that prayer, the way it’s generally defined by western religions- as an intransitive verb that addresses god(s) with adoration, supplication, thanksgiving or confession- is the ultimate cop-out. Asking a deity- any deity- to intervene in problems of our own making, horrific acts performed by humans against other humans, removes us, in a way that is criminal, from taking responsibility and proactively working to make things better.

It is dark. In the City of Light, in Lebanon, in Kenya, in too many other places on this globe.

But there’s another definition of the term- one that is distanced from overtones of religion and belief- and the abrogation of human culpability. As a transitive verb, ‘to pray’ means ‘to entreat or implore’, often used as an introduction to a question, request or plea.

I can get behind that last bit. Pleading. With all of us, as human beings, to mourn, to punish the guilty who seek to end or disrupt the lives of others for reasons that can never suffice. But vilifying and scapegoating entire groups while blaming and further victimizing those who are fleeing the terror… I implore us all to think before we act/react/speak.

That’s how this atheist prays.

Bureaucracy run amok

And from the files of the most recent example of reactionary politics and the elected leader of our country…

While I admit that our opinions sometimes differ, Alan Cross has had an undeniable impact on radio and music appreciation in my part of the globe.  And his mind works similarly to mine.  His Ongoing History of New Music and The Secret History of Rock link together music/musicians and the context and history in which they were writing.  During his tenure at CFNY the station was cutting edge in its programming and support of the music industry in Toronto.

Gotta give the guy his props.

I saw something about this particular situation last week and, while my original impulse was one of outrage, I set it aside to explore more thoroughly when I had a bit more time.  Alan has done a very good job of gathering the deets on his blog and explaining some of the whys and wherefores behind this ridiculous decision.

As he notes, while the Harper government has certainly not been shown to be a great friend of the development and preservation of programs meant to enhance the arts and culture, this ridiculous new fee that is to be levied on foreign musicians who wish to perform in Canada is actually collateral damage from a scandal that came to light last spring.

RBC- the largest financial institution in Canada- was taken to task (rightfully) for laying off Canadian workers and replacing them with foreign contract workers.  This resulted in the expected amount of backlash in the media, from Canadian labour groups and from the opposition parties in the House of Commons.

The Harper government’s response was that they were ‘working on’ the problems with the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.  Result?  This new $275 application for offshore workers who wish to apply for jobs in Canada.  And that Canadian workers MUST be offered the positions first.  All fine, on the face of it.

But, as Alan notes, whoever wrote this addendum to the Program rules did not think about the specific needs/realities of the music industry.  Alan is a music industry insider, and, as such, can (and does) speak far more clearly about the ramifications of this fee for bands (from other countries) who are signed to Canadian labels and other such intricacies.

I am pissed about what it will do to the diversity and availability of bands that come through this town o’ mine on a regular basis.  One of the things I love most about this city is the number of smaller venues that offer exposure to both local and touring bands that are not regularly found on the radio stations that are run by the huge, corporate and impersonal media conglomerates.

I love perusing the tickets lists on the sites run by independent record stores like Soundscapes or Rotate This.  For a few bucks you can see new music- or old favourites- at all kinds of cool joints around town.  Some of these bands are just starting out- and working hard to garner followings and gain some exposure.

I have been lucky enough to see a whole lot of hard working musicians in these small clubs, bars and taverns over my lifetime- sometimes little bands who later went on to command stadium crowds (and ticket prices).

But more often I tend to gravitate to those singer-songwriters who have made working careers of writing and playing their own music in dive bars and concert halls- touring for the love of the music and the interaction with the appreciative ears in their audiences.

These are not necessarily musicians who are likely to make it to the stadium level or regular airplay on local radio station morning drive times.  But the rapport with the audience and the pure energy that is generated with a smaller crowd in a smaller venue is something that should be experienced- and it is that which is threatened by this reactionary and unexamined application of a rule meant to crack down on the bad publicity that arose with the RBC situation.

The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern is one of my favourite music venues in town (seriously, check out the ‘History’ section on their website.  There’s some pretty cool stories in there).  In addition to the annual Skydiggers Christmas show (which is a holiday tradition with some of my peeps), I have seen an number of great bands there over the years.

Almost exactly three years ago I had the opportunity to first see this guy live:

It was during TIFF.  The Boss was in town in support of “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town”, so there was a whole lot of speculation about whether or not he might put in an appearance at Jesse’s show at the Horseshoe.

Largely because of this:

Tickets, that I had bought at Soundscapes for $14, started selling for crazy prices on Craig’s List and Kijiji.  My friend, who first introduced me to Jesse, is also the biggest Springsteen fan I’ve ever known, so there was a fairly high level of hope and anticipation (though he was convinced that it wasn’t to be) in the air as we showed up for the gig.

The Horseshoe was PACKED.  Like I’ve never seen it before.  And it was filled mainly with film industry douches who were there only on the off-chance that Bruce would stop by for a set.  When Jesse and the band took the stage, I set aside my frustration that a large percentage of the audience was there only to be seen and/or in case of a Bruce appearance (they continued to talk on phones- and occasionally to each other- as the band began their set.  Honestly.  The rudeness.  Put the damn phones away and give the BAND your attention and respect) and let the music flow.

Jesse and the band were electric- and full of personality that would have been lost in a less-intimate setting.  At one point Jesse climbed across the heads of the crowd to the bar to grab a tequila shot from the incomparable Teddy Fury.

All things considered, the band handled the gig with grace and respect- for those true fans who were there to see THEM (Bruce never did show- to the surprise of almost no one who was actually there to see Jesse and the St. Mark’s Social).

I’ve since seen him twice- both times back at the ‘Shoe- and both times with a more modestly-sized audience (one was a January show and it was so freakin cold outside that I could hardly blame people for not coming out).  Though there might have been fewer of us, the enthusiasm (of the audience and the band) was engaged and completely together.  At one point Jesse had us all sitting in a circle on the dance floor singing along to his great cover of the Replacements’ Bastards of Young.  It was like a camp out.  In the Horseshoe.  With Jesse Malin.

Those are the kinds of shows- and the type of venues for live music- that are threatened by the arbitrarily applied rule that has been put in effect by Harper’s Conservatives.

As Alan Cross points out, Canada is NOT closed for business and exposure to great, working musicians from all over the world.  While some people may be content with spending hundreds of dollars to see mainstream acts (I hesitate to call them all ‘artists’) at massive venues, I remain part of the music buying (and appreciating) public that likes to see new music in smaller places without having to take out a bank loan (likely negotiated by someone from overseas who was hired before the rule went into effect).

There are certainly bigger concerns in the world at the moment.  The issue of intervention or non-intervention in Syria tops the discussions that are happening in the rooms of power around the world.  I understand that.  It’s making both my heart and my brain hurt.

But this issue, close to my very soul since it is a big part of the soul of the town (and country) I love, is another example of programs/rules/procedures being instituted by a bureaucracy/government without analysis or insight into larger or longer-term consequences.

It’s Monday, and the week is likely to see some pretty big decisions that will have ramifications for us all.  I’ve already started my reading list with this and will continue on from there as I try to get a handle on the push for military intervention in Syria.  But I plan to ease back into the week.

Jesse puts it nicely in NY Nights:

“On my TV they’re still playing god.  I’m sick of politricks.”

Sigh.

But.  As I keep emphasizing, it is our responsibility to stay awake and aware of what our politicians are up to- and speak up when it isn’t acceptable in our reasoned assessment of the situation.  Whether the proposed actions are an attempt to halt thousands of people killing other people in the name of ideology and power, or a ridiculous surcharge for musicians who enrich the already rich life we are privileged to have here in Canada.

Proportion matters, but so does participation.