Wednesday, 21 February 2018

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Encounters with the Lord of the Dance

Ann and I attended two funerals last week. Both of the deceased lived in our immediate neighbourhood. One of the men was our age which was cause for alarm. We’d often bump into John at Blues on Whyte, Edmonton’s premier lowdown music venue. The second gentleman died a day or two short of his ninety-third birthday and that was cold comfort. We’d chat with Earl in our shared back lane, careful always to reintroduce ourselves because he was legally blind. All the kids on the block knew John’s children and they all used to scamper through Earl’s yard shortcutting street to street. Earl thought kids having fun was a fine thing indeed.

The death rite has become less exotic these past five years. So much so, that if I had the wherewithal, the know-how and the backing, I’d create a Rate the Funeral Sandwiches app. But to what purpose, really? Only James Bond lived twice and everybody knows to avoid rancid Spam sandwiches lovingly assembled by well-intentioned Red Hat ladies and how egg salad can turn toxic in a hurry. Ann and I have been to a lot funerals together. I guess we’re at that age: the terrible tombs.

The upside of course is that life waltzes on. Over the weekend Ann and I partook in the celebration of her great-nephew Jake’s eighteenth birthday, a brilliant excuse to gather the clan. Whether it’s nature or nurture, I don’t know, but Jake is as heavily into music as his parents, his grandfather, his great auntie and her consort. Perhaps because it’s retro and somewhat exotic, or just sounds better, Jake is into vinyl. Consequently, a gang of his relatives invaded the indie music shop on Whyte Friday afternoon to watch Jake spend his birthday booty.

Forty years between us but my tastes and Jake’s overlap: Cream and Led Zeppelin, for example. In this disrupted age of streaming subscription services vinyl is obscenely expensive, much more so than compact discs when they began to appear in the marketplace in the mid-eighties. A decade earlier, sometime in the seventies when I would’ve been about Jake’s age, an hour’s wage was good for two long players, provided they were on sale or plucked from the delete bin. A curious fan could afford to explore.

My advice to Jake was, “If you’re into Zep, start with Physical Graffiti.” Speaking as a former advertising production manager, the packaging alone is a triumph of design. I figured also that their mid-career masterpiece would allow Jake to slide backward and forward through Led Zep’s catalogue should he be so inclined.

Sunday night, the midpoint of the Family Day long weekend: three generations of Jake’s family and various friends and relations went pub crawling; swilling shots with your mother and grandfather probably wasn’t the holiday’s intent. There was music all through the frozen night which ultimately culminated in a magical moment: every patron in a karaoke bar singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” accompanists to the newly minted voter on the mic, a birthday boy on his first legal night out.

A few hours prior our roving party had descended en masse on Blues on Whyte. A band was playing. We occupied a long table facing the stage, seating for fourteen. I glanced over at John’s usual table, where he’d always sat with his wife and their friends. It was vacant. Jake and the other kids were on the dance floor, having fun, cutting moves to the soundtrack of the great world spinning. And the beat goes on and on, as it will, as it must. 

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A FAN’S NOTES

Doctor King Rocks a Ram

Martin Luther King Day was celebrated in the United States this past January 15th, less than one month ago. The late civil rights visionary and inspiring orator is perhaps under-served by such a national honour; a pause on a frigid winter’s day doesn’t quite envelope the man in full nor grant a genuine martyr proper justice and respect.

The Super Bowl was played on February 4th. The American championship football game is the singular global television event of the year. The sport itself is no longer the main attraction. The half-time spectacle, a 13- or 14-minute mini concert by one of the world’s biggest music stars draws viewers. The performer works gratis in exchange for exposure to hundreds of millions of ears and eyeballs. Advertisers, famous brands with immense marketing budgets, pile on hoping to share the numbers, leverage that one glorious evening of heightened receptivity. People want to watch ‘the Super Bowl ads’ televised during football’s annual finale. The commercials aren’t invasive or intrusive tonight; no, they’re part of the show!

Big brand. Big spend. Big stage. Big audience. Big opportunity. Big recipe for disaster.

Great advertising will reward you for a few moments of your attention. Essentially, a good ad is the shortest story ever told. You may glean a useful bit of information, have a chuckle or experience an emotion, warm or bittersweet. The tacit intention of the deal is always positive. Great advertising plunders the current zeitgeist and sometimes even pings an agency’s creation back into pop culture to form a sort of Mobius strip of common reference. Classic examples include ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ and Apple’s ‘1984.’

Bad advertising botches any such aspirations exponentially. Metaphors are butchered and analogies slaughtered for a minute of well-intentioned, contrived and patronizing pain that seems to last a lot longer. North American society is more divided than ever. Lately the New World pie hasn’t been doled out in wedges so much as slashed apart by a knife-wielding serial killer. Left, right, up, down, black, white, aboriginal and everyone caught in between, we can’t even mutter at ourselves in our bathroom mirrors let alone converse civilly with other people. Advertisers mean well, bridges (the exclusive walls of luxury brands aside) are generally in their interests. The more consumers, the merrier.

This is how we end up with Dr King, professional football and pickup trucks in the same sentence. God bless Super Sunday but the revolution will not be televised. The Dodge Ram spot debuted incorporates a speech by Dr King extolling the virtue of service to God and community ergo Ram trucks are ‘Built to Serve.’ Expropriating the words of an assassinated African-American reverend in the BlackLivesMatter era in a country still obviously grappling with race after the violent cessation of its 19th century slave economy and then serving up ‘Serve’ in the tag is so wrong-headed as to beggar any, any branding rationale. Nor is there an iota of evidence that Dr King was a closet gearhead, a Road & Track subscriber who frequently paused in his quest for universal civil rights to dream about engine torque and horsepower. 

Decades previous, rockers Bob Seger and John Mellencamp allowed Chevrolet to use songs of theirs to sell trucks. Seger said Detroit was his hometown and if ‘Like a Rock’ helped move another Chevy or two and kept a factory line going, he was okay with that. Mellencamp was less altruistic. He figured that since corporate radio had reduced his entire career to three songs, a television commercial was as good a way as any to give exposure to his latest single.

The speeches of Dr King are in the public domain. As such, his family has no say on the use of something they don’t own. One hopes they were consulted, at least out of courtesy. Perhaps, like Seger and Mellencamp, they were able to somehow rationalize a Super Bowl audience of millions to spread the wisdom and legacy of Dr King. The likely scenario is that the King family was helpless to intervene and is now sickened and embarrassed by the appalling ‘Built to Serve’ result.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Love from Russia! XOXO!!

A meGeoff world exclusive! Your intrepid blogger has obtained an e-mail written by a senior White House official to the president himself, a close relation, eyes only. Its authenticity has been verified by independent sources. Its content promises to blow the lid off the 45th administration. Or not, because there’s no real news here.

Daddy Dearest,

I took another meeting with Boris and Natasha at the T. Tower. They’re well acquainted with our friend Vlad – as you know. We had a very productive working lunch although the steak was a little chewy. Ketchup might be my favourite condominium! LOL!

I’ll keep this brief because I know you’re busy. Two items of very good news. Tremendous news. Huge. Very, very big.

First, remember when no bank would lend us money for our projects? And we met those nice men in Italian suits in Moscow who provided the bridge loans? The ones with all those icky tattoos? They’re prepared to write off our entire debt! All they ask in return is a simple business arrangement, the ability to keep funneling money through our properties, especially the ones with casinos. A no-brainer, no strings attached, so I agreed. You are an inspired genius with a very high Q.I. to diversify into private financial services! Amaze balls!

Secondly, and best of all, Boris and Natasha promised more dirty laundry on Crooked Hillary! Did you know she ran a pedicure ring out of a pizza parlour in DC? Drain the swamp! Lock her up! There’s an e-mail trail too, they say. Who would be stupid enough to write anything down? Anyway, there’s still three years to teach that social climbing wonk a lesson she’ll never forget! Sweet revenge!

Must run. Have a meeting with the Feds I can’t blow off as you haven't fired them all. Boris and Natasha said not to worry about it. The Kremlin did not interfere in the last election. Collusion only applies to labour law, as you well know. Conspiracy and obstruction, whatever they are, aren’t easy to prove. In fact, they said Vlad really approves of the state our great country is in under your inspired leadership and that he’s more than happy to take up the slack given our shrinking spore of influence. Or something like that. It’s all good.

Hey, before I forget, who is Stormy Daniels? Her name came up a couple of times. Did she write your book or act on your TV show? I asked Melania but she got like, all frosty? Climate change or what! OMG!

Love you, big guy

Donnie Jr

PS: Has that Phillipino cook at your place learned how to make a decent Big Mac yet? Do I need to order the limo to stop at the drive-thru on my way from the helipad?

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Very Bad Optics

Stop the world, I want to get off. Because most of us are not blind and because most of us have two eyes, I’m going to restrain myself to remarking upon just two active news stories that make me want to add vodka to my morning shot of cranberry juice.

German automaker Volkswagen is still reeling from last year’s jury-rigged software emissions scandal. It has since come to light that the company has been testing the toxicity of its vehicles’ exhaust on primates and people.

As is the case with many countries, Germany is burdened with some evil history. Volkswagen’s latest misstep leads to the ultimate “What the fuck were you thinking?” question. This is bigger than a car manufacturer attempting to make good or disprove poor past behaviour. The global takeaway is succinct: Germans, experiments, gas, humans. Das epic public relations national disaster.

Meanwhile in Washington, Tweeterdumbest is set to purse his lips and flash the A-Okay index finger and thumb symbol at his first State of the Union address, a revered and important annual tradition in American politics. And didn’t a batch of tickets invite VIPs to attend the “State of the Uniom?”

Granted, the White House did not issue the ducats and the letters N and M are neighbours on the QWERTY keyboard. But doesn’t a typo and a lack of proof reading sum up the current presidential administration rather neatly? Details? Who needs them?

Those involved in contentious debate about the Second Amendment understand that even the placement of a comma is problematic. One wonders about the little legislation that’s been passed on Tweeterdumbest’s watch and what’s been pinned onto it to ensure a yea vote and whether any wonk involved has actually read the text through before the lawyers pile on in courtrooms?

There’s much, much more going on in the world to rant about and despair, drive me to drink. I’m restricting myself to two for now.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

TIP OF THE SPEAR

Our Species and Technology at a Crossroads

In the mythology of the blues, the crossroads is where a musician decides whether or not to shake hands with the devil. The unpaved cruciform is always remote, rural. There’s a signpost but no distant homestead lights visibly flickering like hope in the wee, wee witching hour. The bargain to be negotiated is Faustian, Biblical; a universal and ancient trope. Until this moment, the myth has embraced the destiny of a single man, be he a prophet, a doctor or a guitarist.

Times have swiftly and extraordinarily changed. The moonlit deal on the table now has become a collective decision, one involving all of wired humanity and those of us who soon will be. Which way will we turn at the intersection? Is dystopia or utopia to the left, the right or straight ahead? Well, that all depends and, anyway, it’s far too late to backtrack. Tip of the Spear: Our Species and Technology at a Crossroads is a thoughtful and engaging book by Jim A. Gibson. His thesis, asked and answered is simple: “Now what?”

Jim and I have been friends for more than 40 years. We met in high school. We played extramural football and intramural hockey together. I spent a lot of time in his parents’ basement. In the early 80s I visited him at his duplex in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood from Montreal. One morning we watched his orange Beetle get towed to the Cadillac ranch. We sat down afterward in the living room. I picked up a black plastic coaster with a sliding metal clip sticky with the previous night’s spilt Drambuie. “What’s this?”

“That’s a computer floppy disc. It can store hundreds of pages of text.”

“Eight and a half-eleven, 250 words per page?”

“Yes. That, my friend, is the future.”

In retrospect, that was the moment our career paths diverged; me with my new electric typewriter. I’ve since dallied in advertising and literature. Jim joined the digital revolution and became in his words, “a serial entrepreneur.” Decades later our career paths converged. Jim asked me if I would read his manuscript. I read every draft, five or six of them discounting the jet-lagged cut and pasted one. I offered some editorial and style suggestions. In exchange, Jim managed to incorporate a Bruce Springsteen reference of his own volition and it flows, my brother.

Tip of the Spear addresses big, important, complicated and sometimes abstract stuff. Where will I file my copy in the Crooked 9 library? The book is at once philosophy, business, technology and sociology. Jim understands that everything is in some way connected, especially in this age of information and data, our new economic drivers. Like any clever storyteller, he manages to unsnarl some of the narrative threads, make some sense of some confusing concepts. Jim is a positive thinker but no Pollyanna. The sun will come up over the crossroads, as it must, and we will choose a direction in the new dawn. Jim has written a guide.

For more information visit jimagibson.com.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

SAINTS PRESERVE US

The CEO’s Dilemma

The scene is a well-appointed private office. Dark wood bookshelves stuffed with framed diplomas, journals and textbooks stand behind a heavy, ornate desk inlaid with a gilt pattern. The fixtures, the lamp, the floor ashtray, are brass. A man wearing a rumpled tweed jacket sits in a leather wingback chair, a fountain pen and notebook on his lap, a cigar, just a cigar, in his hand. In the foreground, another man in an expensive Italian suit lies on a backless couch, his head resting against the scroll at one end. Smoke swirls in the muted light.

Chief Executive Officer: Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Doctor. I’m in the middle of an existential crisis.

Doctor: Hmm? What has precipitated this suddenly agitated state of affairs? Your progress to date has been remarkable.

CEO: As you well know, I provide leadership to a multinational corporation. On my watch, we have embraced our social responsibilities to the best of our abilities. I have always made the well-being of our customers and employees a priority, sometimes to the dismay of our shareholders and the derision of industry analysts.

Dr: We’ve addressed your feelings of enhanced self-esteem and affirmation in previous discussions. Now you have doubts?

CEO: God knows I’ve tried to be a good corporate citizen.

Dr: What has changed, hmm? Please continue.

CEO: One member of our family of legacy brands is laundry detergent. We’ve reinvented the category numerous times before. We eliminated phosphates; transformed flakes into powders, powders into liquids, liquids into concentrated liquids. Remember in the nineties when every product sold - cola, beer, dish soap - had to be clear? Well, we transformed detergents, cleaners, into gels. The Marketing people wondered if we could colour the gels to match a brand’s logo and packaging. Research and Development got on board, and then they came up with the idea of an organic plastic pod container that would not dissolve quite entirely but at least breakdown quickly enough in hot water into smaller molecules; less petroleum in other words, and decay within hours instead of centuries. Brilliant! The perfect measure of detergent for every washing machine or dishwasher load for every home supplied pre-packaged. No spills. No muss. Just reliability and convenience.

Dr: Genius, hmm?

CEO: Thank you. So I thought. One hundred times better than our flushable baby wipes that didn’t flush, I thought. Trouble is that teenagers around the globe have started gobbling our gel detergent pods by the fistful, like candy. The products are so attractive, swirling primary colours. It’s some kind of craze we inadvertently helped create.

Dr: Mass hysteria, hmm? But surely laundry detergent is poisonous?

CEO: Thank you for your valued input, Sigmund. Of course it is. You’d have to be insane to ingest one. It’s been a public relations nightmare. There are actually people out there who think we somehow engineered this fiasco on purpose, started the whole thing for publicity. Trust me, I’m not that devious nor is anybody who works for me. We make and sell quality soap. And yet…

Dr: Go on.

CEO: On the other hand, our brand awareness has since achieved an absolutely staggering level of familiarity. We’re getting column inches in the traditional press and trending upward on social media. Sales of our detergent pods and their sister brand dishwasher pods are soaring. I’m taking calls from restaurant and bar chains who want to use them as ice cubes, convenience retailers who want to stock them on the bulk confectionary aisle.

Dr: How does this make you feel?

CEO: Massive opportunity knocks! Take the detergent pod challenge! Eat as many as you can! Put them in your Slurpees and martinis! Die! I’m torn.

Dr: Surely you cannot murder your customers?

CEO: Why not? Other industries do: guns, alcohol, tobacco, opioids. Maybe I can just make them as sick as the processed food and soda corporations do? Maybe I can sell them vehicles with safety mechanisms that deploy like hand grenades? Maybe I can sell them brand new homes, leaky firetraps? Doctor, cleanliness is next to godliness and God help me this is the only consumer behaviour we’ve tried to encourage through the loyal usage of our innovative gel pod detergent products. But, you know if people want to eat them, I’m not pulling them from the shelves; I’m not to blame. In fact, I’m inclined to make more. Maybe add fruit flavouring, blue raspberry, citrus.  

Dr: Hmm, I have a sense of your dilemma. You are conflicted. Your feelings remain unresolved. However, our session is coming to a close. Would you like to book another appointment?

CEO: Things are busy at head office, top floor boardroom bustle. I was lucky to get away today for an hour. I’m of two minds, Doctor.

Dr: This I understand of course, hmm?

Monday, 22 January 2018

EAT ME

Atlantic Trap and Gill

Edmonton’s south side is slated to lose a bevvie of imported local colour come March. The Atlantic Trap and Gill, a pub that caters to the Down Home diaspora, is closing its swinging doors.

There were tell-tale signs, more modest crowds and modest price increases. Word has it that there are not enough homesick Maritimers left in town to keep the business going. This reflects the flat-lined state of Alberta’s oil patch, and perhaps improving career prospects along Canada’s east coast. The timing of the legislated increase to the provincial minimum wage was likely inopportune.

Located a few blocks south of the midpoint of the Whyte Avenue entertainment strip, the Trap always had a neighbourhood feel. The stand alone building is a converted automotive garage that backs onto streets of squat, walk-up apartments. The d├ęcor is ocean pedestrian, fishing nets and buoys augmented by Moosehead and Alexander Keith’s beer signs, St. John’s antique kitsch, the walls and pillars papered with snapshots of regulars past and present. The long tables are communal; the live music kitchen party.

The menu is cheesier than a loaded donair, replete “wit” regional pronunciation and slang; no doubt a “big arsed” bastard to proofread and spell check. Because atmosphere affects publicly prepared and purchased food, the Trap’s fish and chips are arguably the best in the city. The hefty burgers are garnished with traditional toppings and condiments leaving no “fuckin’” space for a precious, apple-smoked-bacon-infused aioli. The sweetly sauced Halifax donairs are a chronic belcher’s delight.

The Trap was never a big game destination. The televisions are old and small by current sports bar standards. The pool tables are no longer the colour of money. The dart boards are decorative. The men’s room, “the shitter,” is problematic for particularly persnickety patrons. One can only speculate about the condition of the food prep area.

So, in five weeks or so Old Strathcona will lose a little bit of its character, become a little more generic. The window of an independent business on a busy streetscape already strip mauled with chain store and franchise signage will be papered over.