Thursday, 21 September 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

It Was Real at the Time

For sale: Tired, out of touch though revered brand. Sale price includes archives and 50 years of brand equity irrevocably tarnished by recent shoddy practices. Best offer.

My impression of Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, is that his life’s goal was to be almost as famous as the musicians his newspaper began to cover upon its inception in 1967. The original fan boy became a media baron. If he couldn’t shift cultural tectonic plates himself, he could at least befriend the genuine shakers and movers, document their achievements and share a little of the spotlight stage left.

It’s safe to posit that the glory days of magazines have passed. There are too many other, less thoughtful distractions. However, the great titles always bore an intensely personal stamp as distinctive as their logos and their covers in a crowded rack. I cannot think of The New Yorker without thinking of its legendary editor William Shawn. In Canada, Maclean’s was the undisputed realm of Peter C. Newman and Robert Fulford was the heart of Saturday Night. And so it was with Wenner and Rolling Stone, for better and worse. Still, it’s a little disheartening to imagine Wenner’s dream as just another title in the portfolio of a conglomerate. Word is that Wenner would stay on as a guiding hand; those types of agreements rarely work out since the seller cedes all vision and power in exchange for a hefty cheque. As Kurt Cobain’s t-shirt read on one RS cover: CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK.

After school was out in June, 1975, I was dispatched from Montreal to Edmonton to spend the summer with my older brother at his behest. I believe he was concerned that I would grow up to be a petty criminal if left to my own unsupervised devices because he was out west and our dad lived in Ottawa. While my brother went to work every day, I haunted Jasper Avenue. I learned some things, like never order a hotdog in a Chinese cafĂ©, even if they’re listed on the menu and WESTERN FOOD is stencilled on the window in a cowboy font. A stop on my daily rounds was Mike’s, a newsstand crammed with cigar smoke and racing forms. There, stacked at ankle level, I saw Mick and Keith, both shirtless, on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was time for this sophisticated man about town to take the great leap from Circus and Hit Parader, just the way I’d switched from AM to FM radio back home.   

Random Notes became essential devouring. Rolling Stone was a bi-weekly paper, so there was no more immediate way to learn what my favourite groups were getting up to. I realized that Montreal’s hip and high deejays had just been repeating what they’d read in Random Notes. The record reviews were thoughtful, well argued, serious stuff, gold. Yet there were elements of arch humour, an attractive snobbishness. The best ever that I can recall was three words, J.D. Considine on J.D. Souther’s ‘Home by Dawn:’ “Don’t wait up.” Snotty, cheeky genius.

Writers were given prominence on the covers because they were as good in their field as their subjects were in their own. Tom Wolfe’s first novel was serialized. Brando and Prince granted interviews. The cover images themselves were frequently the talk of the town. Some were awkward. I had a hard time bringing an oiled up John Travolta sporting Tarzan briefs to the cash register. One of the Boston Marathon bombers did not warrant his additional 15 minutes of infamy, that one pissed me off. Bad calls and mistakes will be made over 50 years of publication, and anyway, provocation sells even if the articles are shorter and less nuanced.

During my 42 years as a loyal reader, I’ve watched the magazine change. Colour was introduced. The tabloid format was shrunk slightly, bindery, staples, were introduced. Rolling Stone shrank again into a traditional magazine format. Lately the perfect bind spine, glued pages, has reverted to saddle stitching as the editorial and advertising content has dried up. It’s not what it was, even physically.

Rolling Stone has always reflected the passions and prejudices of its founder. The irony is that a chronicler of counter-culture was slow to embrace punk because it was not music made by the Beatles, Dylan or the Stones, the rock establishment. Last year’s RS list of the top 50 punk albums had as much credibility as a Trump University diploma. Efforts to remain relevant have spurted inches of fawning ink on Internet fame junkies like Tila Tequila and runners-up in televised talent contests. The magazine’s nadir was a recent double whammy: intrepid reporter Sean Penn’s interview with a notorious Mexican drug lord, only to be topped by a well intentioned but completely and utterly discredited feature on the prevalence of rape culture on American college campuses.

But wasn’t it all big important stuff when rock music wasn’t a mere sub-genre of a disrupted industry. I used to read Rolling Stone like an album jacket, cover-to-cover at least twice. Dear me, it mattered desperately. When’s the next issue? These days when I prowl in the wee wee hours, I prefer to peruse The Economist. I’ve found with Rolling Stone lately that I might be interested enough to read half of every second issue. Maybe I’ve enabled its decline because I don’t care about Stone Temple Pilots, Kings of Leon, Star Wars, Fiddy, Jeezy, Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton and Paris Jackson. Maybe I haven’t because I’ve stubbornly kept subscribing.

The last writer left from the days when Rolling Stone was perched at the toppermost of the poppermost is Mikal Gilmore. He remains a frequent contributor because he now specializes in penning legacy pieces about the dead artists in my record collection, lengthy obituaries. And wouldn’t it be just like Jann Wenner to commission a story about himself and his magazine because the current spew of self-aggrandizing 50th anniversary articles in Rolling Stone just aren’t enough to provide a complete measure of a man. My subscription’s going to expire soon and I do not plan to renew. I will miss it. And then I will forget about it.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A FAN’S NOTES

All Down the Line

A train arrived in Edmonton Sunday, just one coach, one coach, one coach long. Mack MacKenzie of Three O’clock Train performed a remarkably intimate concert in somebody’s living room. There were nine or ten mismatched chairs arranged haphazardly in the dining room in front of a couch and behind a levee of floor cushions, ottomans to the left blocking off the hall. Outside in the backyard were two fire pits and an immense blue-tarped tipi stuffed with rugs and couches. There were psychedelic paintings on the wooden fences. I didn’t hear any tinkling wind chimes, but the evening was still.

Getting to the show took a little Google and Facebook detecting. Neither Ann nor I had ever heard of a venue called ESPA ArtHaus. I eventually reached Lyn, the owner, on the phone. She requested that I not publish her address on social media. “How do we get tickets?” “There aren’t any.” “Well then, how much does it cost to get in?” “Nothing, although I’m sure there’ll be a donation jar.” “Oh, that’s easy, I can do that.” “Come for about 7:30 and BYOB.” “Oh, hey, what does ESPA stand for? My partner Ann is a violinist and taught in the Edmonton Strings Program.” Lyn laughed, “No, it’s the Edmonton Small Press Archive.” And indeed, her welcoming and eclectic home housed a trove of posters, pamphlets and comix from the underground.

While we knew that Mack was on a DIY solo Canadian tour, I tried to explain Three O’clock Train to Ann, who they were and what they had meant to me. Montreal has always had and always will have a vibrant live music scene. The prime of my fandom was the late 70s and early 80s. There was something in the air but not on the airwaves. Jim Zeller, Pagliaro’s harmonica player, was fronting a band playing a type of music that he described as “psychobilly” to the Montreal Gazette. And there was Three O’clock Train, fronted by Mack and his brother Stu. I vaguely recall another member of the group going on to join Men Without Hats (‘Safety Dance’); it’s all a bit hazy now.

“They should be as revered as the Hip and Blue Rodeo but they didn’t sound like either of them. Imagine the ferocity of the early Rolling Stones mixed with the sensibilities of the Band. And punk,” I said to Ann. It’s not fair to compare and slot musicians even though newcomers seek some context. Sunday night I asked Mack about this need to categorize and he said, “The closest thing to us was Rank and File, do you know them?” Yes, Texas cowpunk, and coincidentally, music made by a pair of brothers.

Station 10 was a bar on Ste-Catherine, a little west of Fort, a little east of the Seville Theatre and the Montreal Forum. The joint was named for the district’s notorious police station (since renumbered 25), a cop shop best avoided; rumour had it that arrestees frequently tripped down stairs, awkward in handcuffs. Sometimes Station 10 the bar would show sparkling new MTV the way nearby taverns would show Montreal Canadiens or Montreal Expos games. It was a long and narrow place with the stage at the back. My first Three O’clock Train gig has stayed with me for decades, a local band, good looking guys who didn’t come from another planet, in a local bar rattling the windows and the doors, cracking the plaster with a glorious noise I’d not ever heard before. It seemed as if something massive was taking shape in the cloud of agitated cigarette smoke. I seriously wondered, “Could Station 10 be the next Marquee Club or CBGB? Could this band be exploding in the neighbourhood where I live, write, go to school and work? Wow.”

Time and rock ‘n’ roll magic are ethereal things. I consigned my unpublished first novel to the trash and moved to Alberta in search of a better job and a better life. I lost track of Three O’clock Train, their big time inexplicably delayed. In the late 90s I came across a CBC Three O’clock Train CD in a downtown Calgary HMV. The price was $50. I held it, examined it. I recalled that the first CD I ever bought was Beggars Banquet, the $30 hook being the toilet wall cover art Decca initially refused to release in 1968. Fifty dollars was too much, my second marriage was slow-motion careening into the ditch and I was teetering on the brink of personal bankruptcy.

Ann and I arrived at the ArtHaus on time, which is to say we were early. Mack greeted us like old friends, and wasn’t this better than Pagliaro yelling “Fuck off!” at me back in those faded Montreal days when I’d simply asked Pag a question. Sunday I was the unhippest of hipsters, wearing a Three O’clock Train t-shirt to the Edmonton event. One doesn’t sport the headliner’s merch at a show, it’s just not done. Mack smiled when he recognized the design beneath my leather jacket. The shirt was a gift from my sister and her husband who’d seen him perform recently in Montreal in a live commemoration of the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz. Their snare aside from the music of the Band was the presence of Tom Wilson of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, an ad hoc group the four of us admire. A random thought at this moment as I type: a Train and Blackie double bill would be some kind of barnstorming; Christ, yeah, Ann and I would pay to see that, money’s no object.

Mack had driven most of Sunday from Saskatoon. I said, “Good thing it’s not winter.” He replied, “I planned it. I’ll be in California when it hits.” He then revealed that sessions with members of Rank and File were scheduled down in Los Angeles. This suggested some good news, that there is more to come from the group beyond the spate of remastered catalogue reissues. I learned too the origin of the band’s name. Mack said, “The bars in Montreal closed at three AM.” Yeah, don't I know it? Three o’clock train was his and his mates’ euphemism for going the distance, staying out past last call and then getting home somehow. All aboard! He continued, “We needed a band name in a hurry and it’s not easy to name a band, but we all agreed.”

Mack’s set was unaffected, intense; he played whatever the hell he felt like playing in whatever sequence he wanted in a stranger’s inner-city living room in Edmonton, Alberta at this moment in time. ‘The Devil Like Me,’ ‘A Fire I Can’t Put Out’ and ‘I’m Not Your Indian Boy’ were the standouts from his songbook. He slayed ‘Love Hurts,’ healed its wounds and scars, covered Dylan from Blood on the Tracks and weirdly, a 70s hit from Electric Light Orchestra. Between songs he sipped from a small glass of wine and told a few stories gathered from a lifetime in music and the requisite roadwork. I sat transfixed and thinking, “Here we are again nearly 35 years down the line, halfway across the country and it doesn’t get any better than this, even in my memory. Wow.”

Sunday, 3 September 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Eye-watering Sponsorship

One of the factors that reduced the depths of Canada’s nadir during the great 2008 economic downturn was our well-regulated banking system. Simply put, what happened on Wall Street because of its own greasy machinations as depicted in the film ‘The Big Short’ is not allowed to happen up here.

For the business quarter ending July 31, 2017, each of Canada’s six major banks reported earnings and profits which exceeded other financial experts’ expectations; they’re in with the in-crowd. Happy banks are a good indicator of the direction of the nation’s economy, certain sectors are coming around, feeling their oats and pointing upward.

When I think about my bank I think about being nickeled and dimed to the point of bankruptcy in the guise of customer service and I suppose that would be worthwhile if only I could find a branch outlet with competent people in it. All in all, my perception of Canadian banks is neutral. They provide me with services I require. They may as human constructs make poor decisions about loans and investments from time to time, but generally, it’s safe to say, they’re not prone to pissing money away.

The Bank of Nova Scotia, more commonly known in advertising and marketing patois as Scotiabank, just paid a sports and entertainment company $800-million CDN for a 20-year lease on the naming rights of its prime facility in downtown Toronto, Ontario. “Wow, Scotiabank’s ATM fees must add up and multiply faster than those compound interest crumbs it doles out to paying customers like me.” And a colossal question looms: “Wait, if you consider this a wise investment, what exactly are you doing with my funds, my life’s savings?”

Since 1999 the hockey Maple Leafs and basketball Raptors have played their home games at the ACC, more properly known as the Air Canada Centre but nobody ever called it that which may be why the airline decided to pull its sponsorship plug. Scotiabank is the Official Bank of the National Hockey League and each of its seven Canadian teams. Scotiabank wants to be Canada’s hockey bank because every single Canadian adores hockey and all of us will project those positive feelings onto a massive publicly traded financial institution because the grandly renamed Scotiabank Arena will resonate from sea, to sea to sea.

Travel has become more democratic. Many of us now can afford to go places once considered too distant, too exotic. Upon arrival, I’m always mildly dismayed by how generic much of our world has become, global brands proliferate. A Budweiser in a British chain pub is cold comfort. Corporate branding of ostensibly public buildings simply enhances existing uniformity and blandness. Scotiabank Arena could be anywhere, Wolfville or Slave Lake. In this country there is a Rogers Centre, a Rogers Arena and a Rogers Place. One of Canada’s most despised companies is at once everywhere and nowhere. The company’s brand is now linked to the fan experience in each building: expensive tickets, expensive food and expensive booze; teeth swimming bathroom lines; losing teams. So what does an $800-million exercise in brand awareness buy for Scotiabank?

Essentially signs for these times. Big ones. The bank’s wordmark will be prominently displayed proximate to its competitors’ towering headquarters on Bay Street, Canada’s de facto financial district. Scotiabank signs will glow in all their LED glory in tourism beauty shots of downtown Toronto.

Beyond the bright lights, there will be cursory and hasty mentions of Scotiabank Arena in sports media. There will be the incalculable bonus of a sustained Internet presence because sports fans visit the site of their favourite team to learn more about its corporate sponsors, really. Concertgoers who now print their venue tickets at home from a desktop unit low on the cyan cartridge and who only care about their section, row and seat numbers may note the new name but they already know where they’re going. No citizen in the Greater Toronto Area will ever utter the phrase “Scotiabank Arena” in real life conversation. Ultimately some hipster vernacular will kick in: “Let’s go to the Sco,” or “Scrote” maybe.

Existing Scotiabank customers are likely to be indifferent or appalled. Potential Scotiabank customers may not buy into the manufactured hockey mythology, especially opera or baseball fans. Why should they? And people like shortcuts. We’re good at filtering the extraneous. Scotiabank Arena will quickly cease to register in any medium, a phrase to skim over or tune out because we’ve heard and read it all before.

Branding is voodoo. The ultimate result of a strategic rationale, whether reasoned, passionate or half insane, however well executed, is difficult to quantify. Branding initiatives are often ephemeral too. Corporations tend to look no further ahead then the next quarter: logos, tag lines and mission statement platitudes can change in a frantic hurry in quest of an immediate bump. In a way they’re a lot like I was as a teenaged drug experimenter: “Nothing happened after a minute, so I took more.” Twenty years is an eternity in modern business and $800-million seems a high price to pay for forever.

This deal will not run its duration. It will crater in one of two ways. My hunch is that down the road Scotiabank will invoke an exit clause because its philosophy has changed and hockey and pro sports in general will no longer be a “synergistic” fit with its new direction, and anyway, the marketing team has studied the optics from 30,000 feet and decided that a relationship with sport and its inherent violence might be a poor fit for a family-friendly bank. Equally possible is that the ACC or Scotiabank Arena, already 20th century, will be deemed decrepit and inadequate by its residing teams during the next decade and the only sustainable future lies in a new building with more amenities, revenue streams and 23,000 parking spaces. Either way, another foolish corporation with money to burn will bid on the naming rights.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Here Comes a Regular

When Ann and I cross the river to go downtown, we always take the same bridge. When we emerge from the valley, we’re close to Oliver, a neighbourhood I lived in 25 years ago. Sometimes we drive past a bar on 114th Street called the Gas Pump. Ann says, “That was your old hangout.” “Yeah, it’s still going, amazing.” “We should drop in one day.” “God, I’m afraid I might know somebody.”

In the spring of 1990 I moved from Montreal to Edmonton. I wanted a career that involved a tie and a tweed jacket instead of a tie and an A&P apron. I had limited success in my hometown after university. I did some freelance writing. I’d published a couple of short stories. I hated myself and was profoundly dissatisfied with the life I’d forged. I wanted to be closer to my brother who had moved to Edmonton in 1973. I suppose I needed him to direct me, push me, the way he had when we were growing up in the same house. Trouble was I was married. I did not consult my wife about my plans so much as deliver her a fait accompli; my intent was that she should not be dragged down too.

I rented a one-bedroom in a high rise located on 113th Street near Jasper Avenue, lovely concrete the Wimbledon. There was a living room and a dining area off the galley kitchen, a surprisingly large storage closet and a lengthy hallway to the bathroom that suited my bookshelves. I was finally working in advertising. I began to daydream about writing a novel that would unfold over the course of a Triple A baseball season, bleachers, rain delays, peanut shells and beer cups.

The apartment came with a flaw that was not addressed in any clause of the lease. When I stepped off the bus and took the elevator up to my new home, there I was, just me, my regrets and my flaws. I couldn’t tolerate my company. When you can’t bear to go home, you’ve got a problem. Pacing around my lair after smoking in the bathroom with the fan on, I’d pause to look out the window. Across the alley was a red building which resembled a giant brick. There were business awnings at the bottom and five or six storeys of residential above. There was a place that looked like a refuge to me from me, the Gas Pump.

Ann and I went into the Gas Pump one recent Saturday. It sort of looked the same but it didn’t. The bar was still intact. The tables by the windows with the bonus sill seats were still there. The paint colours had changed and seemed relatively fresh. We quizzed the bartender though she probably wasn’t born when I did my time in the joint. And out of the mouth of a babe: “Todd still works here. He’s on days now.” “Todd? Todd! Does he still weigh 90 pounds?” “Eighty-five now.” “Jesus.”

One day after work I skipped the elevator ride to the tenth floor of the Wimbledon. I went straight to the Gas Pump with a folded Edmonton Journal under my arm. I picked an empty stool at the bar and made a beeline for it every day thereafter. I’d nod to the faces that were slowly becoming familiar. I’d peruse the newspaper and then begin work on the crossword puzzle. Sometimes I’d ask the regulars about a clue. If there was a game on TV, sometimes I’d chime in with a remark. Todd became attuned to my old Montreal habit of ordering two draught beers at a time. Before too long I was deemed reliable enough to be allowed to run a tab as I made new, flimsy friends.

Russ and Vance worked in the oil patch in some capacity. Sometimes they’d talk about going to Saudi Arabia together to force themselves to quit drinking. Russ reminded me of the actor William Holden, a little past his prime. Vance was prematurely grey and balding, his flushed face fast food heat lamp red. Vance got married while I was working on a down crossword clue but never left his barstool and so it didn’t last.

Steve, his younger brother Denis and their friend Morris published News for Seniors, a monthly tabloid. They played cribbage constantly. Together we formed a disastrous curling team one winter and an equally disastrous slo-pitch team one summer. Nadine was an attractive redhead who worked for those guys, a single mother, willing to do everything required to prop up a teetering small business operated by gamblers and drinkers for a paycheque that wouldn’t bounce. Administration? Ad sales? Distribution?

Kate was a talk radio host with no off switch, ON AIR all the time. Her friend Barb was a school teacher who sipped white wine and read Victorian novels amid the din. Terry managed the bakery department of a Safeway grocery store. Ted, a retired lawyer, would arrive every Saturday at exactly noon for his weekly two-ounce tipple before going home, everything on his wife’s errands list neatly crossed out. The Cowboy was Edmonton’s literal incarnation of the Marlboro Man, a regular who didn’t talk much and the only murder victim with whom I have ever been acquainted.

The Cowboy’s girlfriend was a Filipina beauty. Word around the Gas Pump was that she was mail order. She’d march in from time to time to scream at him. He’d just look over at Vance and shrug. The rest of us would stare into our drinks, so nothing different unless a game was on. The Cowboy ditched her. She withheld a second key to his apartment and the knives were in the kitchen. There were whispers too about goings-on in the back of the Gas Pump, bookmaking and cocaine dealings. And that girl over there with the shaved chemotherapy head? Rumour had it that she’d do anything for anybody in the underground garage and she read Tarot cards too.

Everybody smoked.

Last Saturday Ann and I returned to the Gas Pump for a second time. Standing behind the bar dressed entirely in black was a wraith with longish, blondish, grayish wispy hair. “Todd,” I said. I took off my cap and held out my hand. I could see by his eyes that he was scrolling through the years. I introduced myself. Maybe he really did remember and recognize me because I haven’t changed one iota.

There wasn’t much news. Steve had died of cancer. Vance had passed just a year or so ago. As for everybody else, they had moved on. Maybe some of them were dead too. He blinked at me. “I just started working days, man, can’t get used to the sun.” He mumbled something about retirement not being a viable option yet.

I said, “Jesus. Your vampire days are over.”

He smiled. “I’ve got something to show you.” He pulled out his phone, pressed an icon and began to swipe. “My granddaughter.” Todd showed us a picture of himself with an infant, the pair of them in matching Rolling Stones t-shirts. We laughed. “Man, I didn’t even know you could get Stones stuff for babies.”

“Mick’ll sell you anything,” I replied. I paid for my pint. Ann’s club soda was on the house. “All right, thanks,” I said, “good to see you again. Are the toilets still in the back?”

“No, man, other end. You’ve got to walk all the way to Jasper now. Hey, I work Tuesdays through Saturdays, days, come back and see me.”

I said, “Maybe.” I don’t hang around much anymore. I don’t need to, and that took too long to figure out.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

The Absurd Banality of Evil

In the wake of the deadly insanity that was Charlottesville last weekend, I’ve been contemplating the existence of the little twerp who inadvertently became social media’s white supremacist poster boy for America’s Crystal Night. Amaze balls, bro, LOL! You know the image, the cherubic kid, mouth agape, shouting out something obscene. He sports a Hitler haircut but is without the testosterone to complete the look on his upper lip. He lied to his mommy, telling her he was attending a rally in support of their country’s 45th president.

His family name begins with the letter C and is followed by many consonants. This tells me that some of his forebears came from parts of Europe that were tragically intimate with Nazi and Soviet jackboots. This may constitute irony, like rain on a Nuremberg parade. His surname also suggests to me that his family never had a stake in the Confederate States of America’s rebellion against a duly elected federal government in Washington in the guise of states’ rights, code for the free and coerced labour that sustained an agrarian economy: slavery.

He’s a college boy and obviously bright enough not to enroll in the orange, odious vulgarian’s matchbook version of a university. He must be a big man on campus because he’s a member of Vanguard America, a sort of crypto-fascist ROTC. Like the Nazi Brown Shirts of old, they have uniforms too, but preppier: white polos matched with khaki chinos. Other than a JC Penny changing room, I suppose its members have to fit in somewhere.

These days everybody holds a grudge, has a complaint. Some are even valid. The clichĂ© goes that winners write history, though the result is not always fair. Yet there are those in the rich pageant of humanity who deserved defeat, decimation. I can’t fathom how crazy a supposedly educated kid must be to align himself with the likes of Johnny Reb and Adolf Hitler, an in-crowd of two of history’s biggest losers who promoted ignoble and revolting causes. How could anyone, anyone, aspire to associate themselves with the likes of them? Well, this clean cut, contemptible little monster, a scrotum swollen with bilious hatred, has, and he’s going to grow up, get older and get more set in his ways. Right now, his future’s looking bright. And, as the president tweeted today, violent protests which include murder can help the United States “heel.” (The ultimate Freudian slip has since been corrected.)

Friday, 18 August 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Gasoline Alley and a Visitation from the Spirit of Elvis

Around this time of the month in 2012 Ann and I travelled to Lethbridge, AB to catch Bob Dylan IN SHOW & CONCERT! Part of the attraction was using those proper nouns in the same sentence without it sounding like brown acid babble. I was reminded of that little escapade Wednesday because we hit the road again this week for an intimate performance that didn’t quite compute.

Modern Nashville icon Rodney Crowell, performer, writer, producer and friend of the late and legendary Guy Clark, has been omnipresent in Alberta this August, playing any music festival anywhere. If you’re not familiar with him, you’re familiar with his songs as sung by others and they include Roseanne Cash, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bob Seger; he’s a bit like John Hiatt in that anonymous hit-maker sense. Crowell’s two latest releases are masterful collaborations with the utterly sublime Emmylou Harris. A tour scheduling quirk placed him in a pub situated in the only place in the country named after a Rod Stewart album.

In terms of growth, the Edmonton-Calgary corridor has been one of the most explosive areas in Canada over the past decade. It is always rush hour on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway, every county, town, city, provincial park, tourist attraction, golf course and federal jail is connected. Smack dab in the psychological middle, where bus riders and drivers pause for cigarettes, snacks, gas and parking lot beers on the outskirts of Red Deer, Alberta’s third largest city, is Gasoline Alley, a seemingly endless strip of signs, services and recreational vehicle dealerships.

Ann and I drove south over the rolling parkland. The fields were green. The stands of trees, windbreaks, always in distance, were blue. The sun was invisible in the ashen sky, there was heat and the smell of wildfire smoke blown east over the Rockies by prevailing winds. Ann always does the driving because I could never be bothered to get a proper license. My father drove if he absolutely had to. My mother was a hazard, no matter what she says now in her dotage. Driving just wasn’t an expected Chuck Berry, Beach Boys or Bruce Springsteen rite of passage for me growing up. My passenger job with Ann is to be of service: I punch her gum out from its blister pack; I light her cigarettes; I open her sparkling water; I change the music; I fish her sunglasses out of the glove box.

I didn’t need to do any navigation on this particular trip because both of us have been down this road a thousand times before.  Neither one of us has ever contemplated dawdling for longer than three-quarters of an hour in Gasoline Alley, let alone booking a room for the night. Pulling into the strip from the highway we realized that there were infant Gasoline Alleys behind the original, newly paved back streets and parking lots cluttered with more restaurants, hotels and big box retailers all nurtured by development. There was a there there now, a micro-city near the county line, a colossal outdoor mall haphazardly designed to purvey services and stuff, born again Bibles too, Jesus knows.

The Hideout is a thrown up building dating back to the chain restaurant school of architecture, rustic industrial. There are wood and stone decorative accents inside. The ceiling is high and open, exposing ducts, joists and trusses. The dinner special was prime rib which cost two dollars less than the price of admission. Ann’s $30 concert ticket was numbered 002, mine was 003. Ann and I opted for sandwiches to split and share, a Cuban for a Reuben and tastier fare than the nearby Donut Mill. Our attentive waitress thought we were clever. There were plywood panels laid on the pool tables for extra seating. To our right four fat guys with ten years on me stared at their drinks as their impossibly thin, leathery wives talked too much and too loudly.

The warm up act was a shy local kid with chops, the brim of his ballcap could not have been tugged any lower. Next came the announcement from the stage every road-tripping concertgoer dreads: Rodney wasn’t feeling well; he was suffering from hypertension. The update was worse: Rodney had gone to the hospital. Ann and I know all about emergency wait times in Alberta. Ann said, “That’s it.” I said, “In the old days it used to be drug busts or overdoses.” She said, “We might as well stay.” I said, “There’s nothing else to do here.” We agreed together to forego the proffered refunds.

An acoustic guitarist and a fiddler came out, the other members of the Rodney Crowell Trio. They were unused to vamping. They billed themselves as Two Guys on Stage. They thanked the audience for selling out their debut. Regrettably they had no merchandise for sale. People began to file out. The duo handled the crisis with witty aplomb. Their set included a stellar version of Elvis’s ‘Mystery Train.’ Maybe it was the summoned ghost of Elvis playing puppet-master, but Ann and I soon experienced the Miracle of Gasoline Alley.

Rodney had been released from Red Deer General. Rodney was in the building. Ann and I changed tables, moving closer to the stage and acquiring better sightlines. Crowell made his entrance with an electric guitar. Even the leather ladies shut up for a moment. He was apologetic and somewhat perplexed by his own health, “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m fit. Doctors can’t tell me what’s wrong with me.” During the ensuing applause I thought, “Elvis left us 40 years ago this week. Don’t rush to join him, we’re not worth it.” Crowell performed an abridged, audience-friendly set, filled with songs everybody knew. Perhaps fittingly, the highlight for me was a raucous cover of ‘That’s All Right,’ Elvis’s first single. Ann and I danced in Gasoline Alley. We never once imagined that that could ever happen.

Friday, 11 August 2017

A FAN’S NOTES

Bryan Ferry Live in Enoch, Alberta

The year was 1982. Roxy Music had hit the North American big time with Avalon which would prove to be their final, full-length studio swan song. I remember walking along de Maisonneuve Boulevard, tickets for the group’s Montreal Forum show tucked into the pocket of my leather jacket, maybe my brown one, maybe my black one, I can’t remember. I was wearing Levi’s. There was no snow on the ground. I fell in behind a group of guys with elaborate hairdos, each resplendent in a solid pastel suit, the colours accentuating, complementing their mates'.

Roxy Music was glam, avant-garde, ground-breaking, sultry, louche, manic. Out there, Bowie in a permanent Berlin phase. Following the glamour boys I thought, “Wow, hardcore fans, dressing up like that.” An hour later they were on stage as Modern English performing ‘I Melt with You.’ And then Bryan Ferry fronting Roxy Music came on.

Wednesday afternoon Ann and I drove the sports car westbound on the Whitemud. We passed Edmonton’s ring road and then the freeway frittered itself away into a maze of concrete barriers and NO ENTRY signs. A hard left and we arrived at the River Cree Resort, a well-appointed and curiously cheerful casino attached to a Marriott Courtyard on Treaty Six land. This time I was wearing L.L. Bean jeans and some sort of Costco retro-vintage, three-button t-shirt.

In the rear of the complex and out of sight is a permanent, temporary structure, The Venue at River Cree. A taut pavilion on a concrete pad supported by steel studs and fed with as much electricity and alcohol as required. Folding chairs, with section letters and row numbers taped to the smooth floor. Bryan Ferry was to perform beyond our city’s limits this night in a place an occupying army might erect.

Nineteen eighty-two to 2017, 35 years, that’s the longest I’ve gone between a hero’s gigs. Ferry’s support act this time was Judith Owen. Witty and dramatic, she would slay headlining a club where the patrons had paid to see her and her band. On before Ferry, she was doomed to be seen as just another delay before the legend’s entrance. There was an indifferent drinkers’ din in the back of the room.

Prior to the concert, I had big plans. I would bump into Ferry somewhere in the hotel or casino and then be helpful, writing out his set list for him. I’d tell him to perform a show of mixed thirds, solo, Roxy and covers. He would thank me for my valued input.

Ferry walked on stage sporting a black suit jacket and a white dress shirt with the top two or three buttons undone. There was some grey in that famous black haircut. I imagined James Bond gone slightly to seed, intent on killing audiences rather than enemy agents. Ann leaned over, “He just drips cool.” And a charisma enhanced by dramatic poses and flourishing, emotive arms and hands, much communication in a motion. And sweat. The human heat and the lights made the tent a little closer. There was a smell. Usually backlit by a wall of uniform colour, the suave silhouette seductively led his audience up the stairs to his Dorian Gray attic. I consciously averted my eyes from the video screens to the left and right of the stage. Ferry was right there before us, actual human-sized, to scale, and I wanted the illusion to be real.

Walking onto the stage Ferry immediately switched to glide with ‘The Main Thing’ and ‘Slave to Love.’ I guessed there had to be a Dylan cover since Ferry has recorded an entire album and more of His Bobness. ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ proved me right. The middle portion featured the welcome surprise of ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ from For Your Pleasure, Roxy’s second release dating back to 1973. I’d read (falsely) that Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera was part of Ferry’s band for this tour. His substitute was the equally legendary Chris Spedding who shredded a searing version of Neil Young’s ‘Like a Hurricane,’ another left field song in the set I didn’t dare hope to hear.

Ann and I matched the crowd demographic, mostly middle-aged couples. She noted something I didn’t pick up on, that one partner was hardcore while their mate was more of an incidental fan, a taste gap that’s rare at a rock concert. The climax of the concert was sustained as Ferry fed off the frenzy of an audience trying to remember how to rush the stage, cognizant of dodgy knees and bad hips. ‘Can’t Let Go’ quickly led into ‘More Than This’ and ‘Avalon.’ ‘Love Is the Drug’ preceded ‘Virginia Plain.’ Tucked somewhere within the assault was Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy.’ The evening ended with the frantic, stone soul classic ‘Hold On (I’m Coming)’ by Sam and Dave.   

The show cannot go on forever. Concertgoers understand rusty or fading chops. Indeed, Ferry left some of his signature lines to his better equipped hired help. But our memories for an artist like Bryan Ferry are long. So a show can sometimes become about what it was not. I missed ‘Mother of Pearl,’ ‘When She Walks In the Room,’ ‘Oh Yeah,’ ‘To Turn You On’ and ‘Take Me to the River.’ If we’d met at the resort, those are the songs I’d have demanded Ferry play. And as he sauntered away bemused because I’m basically harmless I would have shouted, “And ‘In the Midnight Hour’ too!”

“Staycay” is an abbreviation of the insipid compound neologism “staycation.” Ann and I had decided to spend the night together at the River Cree so we could enjoy a couple of beers after the show and the modern novelty of smoking indoors because the casino is situated on First Nations turf. My newly formulated plan was to meet Ferry in the casino after his show, debrief him and then gently chide him for not fulfilling my fantasy set list. Maybe we’d play baccarat together, roulette or vingt-et-un. “No, Mister Ferry, I expect you to sing.” It was not to be, but Ann and I finished up our evening $67 ahead on the slots. We were flush, flushed, the party was over and we were so tired.