Monday, 26 December 2016


The Ice Man Cometh (Sort of)

Seven, maybe six, possibly eight years ago I was in Toronto on business. I managed to corral a friend for a night on the town after remote office hours. The excursion eventually concluded in a bar on Queen Street - mercifully within weaving distance of my hotel. The joint’s theme was, I vaguely recall, ironic hipster communist, red stars and Groucho Marx and John Lenin and alcohol. Perhaps because of the setting and my friend being a musician and me having had my first novel published, drunken artists unable to make a living off our fields of passion, our conversation turned to politics, specifically the state of the Left.

I pontificated, hopefully in an undertone, that the Left has always been bereft of sensible economic policy but since it had pretty much dictated social mores in our country, and rightfully so, it was now seeking a new windmill to tilt at and its current bete noire was ecology, us in our environment. Whales, gluten and meat had been forsaken for the grander, abstract concept of global warming. And ‘global warming’ had been hastily re-branded as ‘climate change’ and that sudden zigzag in terminology and definition was cause for alarm to an ad man like me because obviously the primary premise had been flawed and the new message came across as a hasty patch to beta Version 1.0. Where were the R and D, and Q and A, anyway?

Well, dear me, was I ever wrong. Time has told. Science too.

Edmonton is Canada’s northernmost major metropolis. It is a winter city, which is to say that for many months of the year it’s fucking cold. The sun’s on a broken dimmer switch, the days are short and the nights are longer than a Baptist Sunday sermon. A recent Bishop of Rome, perhaps John Paul II, allowed that Hell indeed was a human construct. In my Canadian Hell it is 50 below, I am naked, alone, and I am wet. I cannot imagine further misery. Oh, wait, the songs of the Poppy Family as sung by Paul Anka are on eternal repeat.

Growing up I was never a Cub or a Scout, never a joiner. I’ve always preferred my own company excepting those times when it has just been me with me and there’s nothing left to mutter about, only walls to climb. Rah-rah teambuilding advocates whose exercises were endured throughout my career in advertising only fertilized my latent misanthropy. Knowing all of this, I, in a moment of unhinged transcendence, volunteered for our neighbourhood’s outdoor ice rink maintenance crew.

Outdoor hockey is a tired trope in this country, a marketing cliché for anyone who wants to sell anything wrapped in the prickly and nostalgic wool of soft nationalism. Still, there is something magical about shinny, informal games played without persnickety referees, fewer rules and no padding. Hockey is the best sport on Earth when it’s just played by a group of friends with strangers. Nuances need not be negotiated. No goalies means no lifters, hacking and slappers are tacitly forbidden.

My volunteer motives were threefold and entirely selfish. I wanted to force myself to get out as I can easily and pleasurably pass time engrossed in a book or the sides of a record album. I prefer exercise that achieves a companion benefit or result. I cannot comprehend Lululemon gym hamsters who work out on machines that simulate actual activity. The two-inch diameter watering hose is more than 200-feet long and wound on an iron spool, heavy metal and rubber. Finally, a clean sheet of outdoor ice allows me time travel. Alone on a rink wearing a team sweater, I can again be a kid with dreams of growing up and being as good as Jean Beliveau or Bobby Orr.

Ideally you make ice when it’s between eight and 12 below. You lay down a spray over the entire rink and when you retrace your steps to do it again your first layer will be frozen. A proper hockey ready sheet requires some 40 or 50 hours of labour. Watering a base of turf too heavily in milder weather results in unsightly yellow patches because the drenching displaces soil and minerals which rise. The resulting blotches are overly prone to gouging and spot melting on a sunny day. Our volunteer crew efforts to date have been uncoordinated. I visited the rink twice last week but nobody else was there, perhaps because the outdoor temperature was too warm. Like anyone hours into a new job, I hesitated to take the initiative, worried about making slush and undoing what little we’d already accomplished.

The physical plant for our rink, essentially a big tap, is housed in the adjacent community hall. That public building is a new one. It opened in September, over budget and rife with niggling functionality issues mostly caused by a ‘green’ vision of self-sustainability (except the solar panels were too expensive). So - and mercifully, I think, we were unable to take advantage of an insanely bitter cold snap earlier in December because nothing we needed to flood the space worked properly. The rink enclosure had also been utilized as a construction staging area. Consequently the grass was chewed up, rutted, and the re-sodded portions were never mowed. The field was no longer even a suggestion of level.

It snowed all day Christmas Eve. Think of a street as a shallow trench between kerbs, now imagine it filled, unplowed and compacted. Today, five days past the solstice, the weather gave us a bit of a break. Christ was born between six and three B.C. and so he would’ve turned about 2020 on His birthday yesterday and I was feeling that old myself today when the rink manager called seeking labour. I got into my gear and hustled up the street.

The rink manager ran the snow blower. I followed his path wrestling the pull of a mechanical rotary brush, burnishing our thin layer of ice and the stubble poking through it and too inexperienced to sport ear protection against the roar of the motor. Next we chipped off the snow encrusted along the base of the boards and heaved it outside the confines of the rink. Hockey boards are surprisingly high when you’re wearing boots and standing on frozen grass instead of a thick slab of ice. Our goal this holiday week is to somehow have the rink ready for New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow’s forecast indicates a high of zero, in northerly Edmonton, in late December; I’m not confident but I’ll do what I can – weather permitting.

Saturday, 17 December 2016


Feng Schadenfreude

This morning was much like other mornings. I sipped my coffee from a Beatles Apple Records mug. I perused the newspapers. The disc jockey on CKUA had gobbled acid with his breakfast oatmeal and was spinning some bizarre stuff, lame Holiday Inn cocktail lounge torch treatments of classic rockers. One of our tabbies had found his way into an enclosed space and was yowling at a blank wall. The other tore at its fur, scattering tufts on the carpet in the hall.

Out on the front porch grey cigarette smoke snaked and swirled away, hotter than the freezing air. Not much higher up, the moon, a pale smudge on fading navy paint behind muslin cloud curtains, hung frozen solid. Somebody somewhere fired up a motor; a lazy idiot using a machine for a sweepable skiff of snow, I thought; during the winter sound carries much as it does over water, sharply. Then the jackhammering began nearby in earnest. Nobody in their right mind busts up concrete in mid-December when it’s 20 below. I worried that a City crew was attempting to expose a compromised water main. Swell, a couple of days without running water. Great. I leaned over the railing and peered down our street.

Our very fine house is situated in what is now considered a desirable inner-city neighbourhood. The river valley, the University and hipper-than-thou Old Strathcona are all within walking distance. Downtown is across the North Saskatchewan River, a ten minute drive or train ride. The community is long established and its trees are described as old growth. Some folks with too much time on their hands are advocating for expensive and pretentious retro-decorative light standards and street signs. Some of us are quite content with the status quo.

Neighbourhoods like forests regenerate over time. Older homes are demolished and replaced by newer models with better insulation and more reliable and safer hidden working guts: PVC pipes, mandated smoke detectors and electrical wiring that doesn’t require hockey tape to function. Interior millwork reflects current décor trends and fashionable materials. Street life isn’t very different for the most part. Infills generally blend into our sloped roof bungalowscape once their new build sheen has been subjected to the wind and the weathering of a season since builders and owners tend to respect the existing character of the community. Generally.

There’s no accounting for taste. Three doors down and on the other side of the street the Borg have begun colonizing Edmonton: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. Somebody postmodern and gauche has commissioned a black cube of a home complete with black windows. The architectural style is sort of Prairie-Brutalist, Nazi bunker with a second storey. It might look all right in a moon crater in a low budget sci-fi film. At least we don’t live in its shadow nor have to look upon it directly.

Our local devil’s radio suggests that there’s some feng shui involved with the design of the simple square – the steel and concrete fortress is worth a million alone, never mind the lot! For instance the front door is actually located on the side of the house to confuse floating evil which only manifests from one direction. There are whispers of a small exterior courtyard hidden within the confines of the cube, very feng shui though impractical in this climate (Where do you pile the snow even if you're shifting it with a gasoline blower?). Maybe grocery store tabloid astrological charts and Facebook memes of affirmation guide the construction and labour of sub-trades?

The jackhammer was working on the new neighbourhood blight. Cracking a surface poured mere weeks ago. Something was wrong, out of sync with the crass micro-universe. Expensive. Good. Now the noise didn’t seem so irritating. I smiled upon the misfortune of the strangers sullying my street. I do not ever want to get to know the Borg because I might actually like them; I will never be assimilated.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016


Through a Mirror, Cracked

America’s Central Intelligence Agency has stated with “high confidence” that state sanctioned hackers in Russia interfered in last November’s presidential election. Apparently the secure servers of both major political parties were breached but only e-mails deemed detrimental to the Democratic campaign were leaked. President Obama has ordered an investigation. President-elect Trump who has eschewed daily intelligence briefings (there’s a joke in there somewhere) has dismissed the CIA’s allegations. He said somewhat insightfully that if the election had gone the other way and losing Republicans had decried the Kremlin’s influence they would have been derided as conspiracy theorists.

The world of espionage is, to purloin a poetic phrase from T.S. Eliot, “a wilderness of mirrors.” Author John le Carre titled one of his spy thrillers ‘The Looking Glass War.’ James Bond film buffs will recall the climax of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun.’ The assassin hunts 007 in his labyrinthine fun house where killing is a great game enhanced with mirrors. Bond eventually gets his lethal drop on Scaramanga by posing as a pop-up cut-out of himself. What was unreal and expected became unexpectedly real.

The audacious beauty of the Russian hack is that “high confidence” is suspicion but not definitive proof. If it did not happen, the perception that it did is an equally effective result. Either way Moscow is a crafty and powerful global puppeteer; there’s no tell-tale hanging chad. Red state voter suppression laws are likely more culpable for the Clinton Inc. defeat, yet there must be a certain cold comfort in believing the debacle was engineered in part by the security apparatus of a hostile foreign power. Whatever evidence exists, if any, remains in the shadows.

The existing State of the Union is a fine state of affairs indeed. A concerned northern neighbour reluctantly concludes that both of America’s political parties are more concerned with advancing their respective ideologies than prudently seeing to the needs of the country they were created to serve. Political discourse is so toxic that what might be a pressing matter of national security simply mirrors partisan schoolyard hard lines: “Yes they did.” “No they didn’t.” The fact remains that someone has artfully hammered another wedge into a country that is already displaying all the symptoms of a major crack up.

Monday, 12 December 2016


Do Do Do

I spend a lot of time looking out my back door. I call it writing because the typing part is mechanical. If I’m working on a freelance job, watching our eccentric neighbour put out peanuts for the squirrels, blue jays and magpies is billable time. I suppose if a curtain hung over the beveled window pane I’d be an expert at twitching it for a discreetly better view.

Beside me on my left is a white bookshelf, a little taller than me. Its top is stacked with wicker bread baskets and a cowl of quilted fabric which I think must be a tea cozy. Two shelves are crammed with cookbooks. One shelf is my staging area where I store my cigarettes. Often there is an open can of beer on a Butte, Montana Quarry Brewing coaster: WE DIG BEER. There’s an unopened tin of AC/DC Australian Hardrock Beer, brewed in France (?) that features the Black Ice album cover artwork. There’s the Bob Marley Exodus lighter I bought at the airport in Barbados, headed home and needing just one more cheesy souvenir to display alongside my Banks Beer ashtray. There’s a box of wooden Sun Studio matches, a thoughtful gag gift from a former colleague. There’s a grey Elvis tin that might hold ten or so cigarettes if I could be bothered to use it. There’s a figurine of Youppi! the defunct Montreal Expos hirsute orange mascot who now reminds me of Donald Trump because neither pear-shaped humpty is an Einstein. The wall switch for the back porch light is tucked in there too, covered with a Mick Jagger plate. The bottom shelves are plugged with gloves and footwear, slabs of suet and a bag of seed for my flock nestled up against my birding books.

To my right is framed sheet music from the Jazz Age: ‘When the Morning Glories Wake Up in the Morning (Then I’ll Kiss Your Two Lips Good-Night)’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Regular Sweetie (But I Won’t Be Your Once in a While).’ Beside the elaborately and gorgeously illustrated Gatsby tunes is a laminated Rolling Stones 1970 European tour poster, art deco design: radical rhythmic change in a mere 50 years. The boot rack on the tile floor is positioned over a furnace duct grille. Next to that is a reconditioned pine washstand that my father presented to me nearly 30 years ago. That’s where the current magazines are stacked, primed for perusing during my wee small hours walkabouts.

My back door is six steps above grade. I apply more stain to the planks every spring. The wrought iron railings are due for some fussing next year. From time to time when the low light is right, shortly after dawn or near twilight, the evergreens in the yard and across the alley shift hues, becoming rusted and black, and the shadows in the snow disturbed with hare and skunk prints change from blue to grey, to violet. For a brief, shining moment I see my immediate space in this world through the eyes of Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson or Emily Carr, painters who translated the Canadian landscape onto canvas using colours and forms I’d considered surreal until I saw them.

For a second I contemplate dropping an unsuccessful pen and taking up an untutored brush to capture December’s fleeting beauty. I recall a Bob Geldof song lyric from the 80s: ‘There’s so much beauty, I wish that I believed enough to pray.’ But the light changes swiftly and everything is linear again, like cursive writing in a lined notebook or edited type on a printed page. The curtain that’s not actually hung on my back door is drawn.

Friday, 9 December 2016


The Circle Is Unbroken

That lascivious tongue has been part of popular culture for 45 years. Rolling Stones Records was launched in 1971 with the ‘Brown Sugar’ maxi-single whose B-side was backed with both ‘Bitch’ and a live version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Let It Rock’ recorded during the Stones’ 1970 European tour. That disc is rarer than a 21st century Stones studio release, but not by much.

There is a fundamental advertising rule: never, ever mess with your visual identity, your logo. That poor tongue has been through the wringer: nails have been pounded through it; baseball and football stitches have been added; it’s been blown to bits. Last Friday you could find it in record shops tinged an electric overdose blue. The justified and ancient brand didn’t even bother putting its name on the Blue & Lonesome album cover because we all know and recognize that lick.

Once I was seduced by the Rolling Stones, a little before puberty – likely not a coincidence, the natural question to ask was, what do they listen to? That was how I met and fell in love with the blues. It’s too facile to say that Blue & Lonesome could have been their 1963 debut although the 12 Chicago tracks chosen by the 2016 incarnation of the band could easily have comprised that first album.

The original sextet could not maintain its purist stance for a long, long while. There were too many personalities and outside influences, push-me-pull-you. The first big Stones hit was a casual gift from John Lennon and Paul McCartney. For every ‘Little Red Rooster’ there was the Bo Diddley beat, songs by Chuck Berry, Bobby Womack, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke, and ballads composed by Jagger and Richards. The band was too talented not to evolve and create its unique noise.

Worshipping the blues as teenagers and understanding them as senior citizens are two very different things. While the elevated lifestyle of a Rolling Stone is beyond my capacity of comprehension, I can relate to the universal human trials of financial and personal failure, divorce, death, suicide, cancer and addiction. We’re not that different. In his autobiography Keith Richards’ ghost wrote that the true essence of the other, mercurial Glimmer Twin was to be heard in his harmonica playing, and how Mick is one of the best there ever was. Blue & Lonesome is weathered and inspired, a document of experience and lives lived. It could never have sounded this authentic in 1963 even if the songs had been cut at 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

After the cut, pasted and overdubbed pastiche that was 1981’s Tattoo You, Stones albums became increasingly infrequent. Fans had grown used to two-year gaps but no more. While the group ineptly managed its petty internal dynamics rock music was relegated in status to a sub-genre of popular music. Meanwhile a complacent industry was blindsided by digital disruption; sad sacks like me recording mix tapes home alone on Friday nights were no longer a problem worthy of addressing.
The circus maximus that is the 21st century touring version of the Rolling Stones is always capable of churning out another Stonesy rocker for yet another compilation. The songs are good, if out of time, yet they don’t quite resonate like the crowd pleasing warhorses on Through the Past, Darkly. ‘Don’t Stop’ would have made a fine unheralded gem on the side two of Undercover. ‘One More Shot’ might have added a half star rating to the abysmal Dirty Work – the ad campaign was better than the music: Pure Hearts; Clean Minds; Dirty Work. I’ve long wished the corporation would cease purveying second rate takes on ‘Start Me Up’ and get back to their roots. I did not expect an album of Chicago blues covers. NOBODY EXPECTED AN ALBUM OF CHICAGO BLUES COVERS!

Cover albums by artists revered for their songwriting chops are alarming releases, possibly droopy white flags waving from dry wells. Ray Davies and John Fogerty have each released covers of themselves in concert with admiring acolytes. Nobel laureate Bob Dylan has recently mined Frank Sinatra standards twice over. My favourite record in the sub-sub-genre, until last Friday, was Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe it was just a placeholder from a lost weekend that stretched into years, but Rock ‘n’ Roll provided autobiography and context, a personally curated diary of Lennon’s formative years even if I was left to wonder how he managed the leap from Chuck Berry to ‘Strawberry Fields’ to ‘Working Class Hero.’

Blue & Lonesome is the true story of the Rolling Stones, that primordial sound that existed before graphic icons, stage fireworks and inflating penises, girls and dogs, before artifice, before rock ‘n’ roll Barnum and Bailey, before Lear jets and candy from strangers, crazy mama. A circle has closed. It only took a couple of generations.

Monday, 5 December 2016


Christmas Shopping

Even when you love your work you need a break sometimes. I’d been on hiatus, weary of the calculated vengeance I’d so casually inflicted. Death has a smell and it was starting to stink. My name is Danger, Geoff Danger. I can be your staunchest ally or a relentless nemesis; it’s up to you: your morals, your ethics. I’m a knight whose armour is polished with blood and cynicism. The lustre’s dulled.

When my bosomy blonde moll Ann Fatale asked me to go to a suburban mall with her I said okay. Downtown streets after midnight are my usual prowl, but I was bored. So I backed the black winged, chrome bumpered Cadillac out of the driveway and drove her to the marketplace. I’d planned to sit in the car smoking and sipping hootch, listening to hard bop on the eight-track. Ann whispered breathily that maybe I could buy her a Christmas gift this year, just this once. Well, I’d given her my world and everything in it but you can’t argue with a fine looking broad whose gams are longer than ‘War and Peace.’ She said there were two stores that purveyed dainty unmentionables and that I was overly familiar with her intimate measurements anyway. How hard could it be?

I parked near an entrance. Ann and I agreed to split up and rendezvous again in one hour. I went into the lingerie shop and bought what I thought would look good hanging off a bedpost or piled on the floor, which was how I came to be walking through the concourse carrying two pink paper bags with four-inch gussets. A too pretty young man leaned over the counter of a kiosk and tried to slip me a packet of something. It looked like a French tickler. I brushed it aside. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he said in a faux Continental accent, Suisse with a lisp, ‘what do you use to wash your face?’

‘Irish whisky,’ I grunted. I tried to turn away, intent on getting Ann’s gifts into the trunk of the Cadillac.

Precious reached out and stroked my cheek. ‘Do you exfoliate?’

I put my bags down and grabbed him by the throat. ‘You little piece of Eurotrash,’ I hissed, ‘do you bleed? Do you feel pain?’ I broke his perfect nose, cleanly. His blood flowed Santa Claus suit red. I could smell its coppery scent.

Back in the parking lot I sat behind the wheel smoking and drinking. I soon tired of the company. There was time to kill before meeting Ann Fatale and I knew she’d be late. I decided to go back into the mall and see if I could find a record shop. I did.

The jazz section was pathetically small. I poked through it and stopped to examine a re-mastered version of Horace Silver’s Doin’ the Thing – at the Village Gate on compact disc. A clerk about a third of my age with only half his head shaven and sporting black nail polish asked me if he could help me. I ignored him. ‘That is a remarkable album,’ he said.

‘I have the vinyl,’ I grunted.

‘Well then, sir,’ he said, ‘this won’t be a worthy upgrade. I think some of the rawness is missing. But if you like that raw style…’ He circumspectedly directed me over to the blues. ‘A different idiom, I know, but I think you’d really enjoy this.’ He handed me an album by R.L. Burnside called A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. The cover was a caricature, cartoony.

I studied it. I studied the sales guy. I admire people who are good at what they do no matter what that may be provided it’s legal and above board. I grunted, ‘You’re all right, kid.’ He wished me a Merry Christmas and was there something else I was looking for? I said no and took the disc to the cash.

I was waiting when my doll arrived late in a fluster amid a flurry of bags. More bags than an old folks’ home. ‘I kept you waiting,’ she sighed huskily. ‘I was a bad, bad girl. I did some impulse shopping.’ I grunted. ‘It was the strangest thing,’ Ann went on, ‘there was a pop-up store down one of the concourses manned by such a gorgeous young man.’ Ann glanced at me, ‘But not my type, big man. Anyway, somebody had punched him in the face.’ I grunted and peered down at my shoes, wanting another cigarette. ‘I felt so sorry for him. I dropped two century notes on skincare products.’

‘Oh,’ was all I said.

‘Can you imagine?’

‘No,’ I admitted.

‘Did you get all your shopping done, baby?’

‘I did. I did. I even bought us some new music to listen to, blues.’

‘Oh! Why don’t we get home, pour a drinky-poo and listen to it? And you can watch me exfoliate my Brazilian.’

Friday, 2 December 2016


The Company Man

Mid-November was dreary, uninspiring. I couldn’t drum up a full quorum of the Tuesday Night Beer Club. So it was just Stats Guy and me who crossed the river and headed downtown to Beer Revolution. We settled in at a round table in a corner and ordered pints of Penny lager because the Tuesday brew special is peach flavoured and if you like peaches, eat one, listen to the Allman Brothers album or the Stranglers’ single.

Our server returned once we’d finished our catch up chat and had gotten around to perusing the stiff oversized menu. “What’s an ‘American’ pizza?” Stats Guy asked her. “It tastes just like a Big Mac,” she replied. “It tastes just like a Big Mac?” Stats Guy repeated. “It tastes just like a Big Mac,” she said again. “With the special sauce and everything?” asked Stats Guy. She said, “It tastes just like a Big Mac.” I watched a sports highlight on the television; Stats Guy asks a lot of questions sometimes. Finally, he decided, “Okay, I’ll have one of those.”

As our server walked away I said to Stats Guy, “Why’d you order that? If you want a Big Mac, have a Big Mac. I love dill pickles. I like potato chips. I would not eat a dill pickle flavoured potato chip.” He said, “I have to know; Big Macs taste good.” They do and once in a while, you really want a Big Mac, even an ersatz one, apparently.

Michael James ‘Jim’ Delligatti who invented the Big Mac in 1967 died this week. According to USA Today the middle club sandwich-like bun was crucial to keeping the big burger together. ‘Big Mc’ didn’t sound right. The rest, as they say, is obesity. Delligatti, a franchisee who owned almost 50 stores, never received a penny from the corporation in exchange for his sandwich, its condiment and its name though it ultimately came to define McDonald’s. Once the Big Mac became a standard menu item in 1968, its creator ate one a week for the rest of his life. Delligatti lived to be 98.

Around the time Terry Jacks left the Poppy Family for a solo career, there was just my mother and me left in the Montreal house I grew up in. Dad had accepted a Bell Telephone transfer to Ottawa and was camping in a bedsit on O’Conner Street. My brother had moved to Edmonton to begin his career as a metallurgical engineer. My sister was living in an apartment in the west end, on Walkley near Loyola and was working on her pre-med degree in pharmacology; she took Wesley the grey and white family cat. The happy miracle of my parents’ divorce was that the Catholic Church automatically excommunicated my mother: no more attending mass on Sundays!

There were broken pieces to examine even if they could never be reassembled. My Nana said to me, “Your mother wanted Ruby Foo’s and your father (her son) could never afford it.” Ruby Foo’s was a motel and restaurant on Decarie Boulevard, at one time trumpeted as ‘The Las Vegas Strip of Montreal!’ I remember it as a sunken expressway lined with car dealerships and places adults went if they weren’t going downtown because the buzzing and winking neon signs were no brighter there. On our newly minted pagan Sundays my mother would ineptly tootle us to Decarie in our maroon Beaumont for a carhop brunch at the A&W, a tray of foil pouches hanging from a partially rolled down driver’s side door window, a Whistle Dog for her, a Teen Burger for me and fries or onion rings to share. A baby root beer and a manly mug of orangeade. But something was happening across the traffic trench beside the racetrack.

I was still too unsophisticated to listen to stoned, giggling FM disc jockeys or appreciate ‘Interstellar Overdrive.’ Heck, I still hadn’t figured out that I could utilize ‘fuck’ in my speech as a verb, noun, adjective or gerund. On Top 40 format CKGM between ‘Boogie Down’ by Eddie Kendricks and the Jacques Brel abomination that was Terry Jacks there was a constant commercial. A truck driver in what I took to be a tough New York accent lectured a big rig rookie ride-along, something like: “When ya’s hungry, kid, ya gotta look for dem golden arches.” A McDonald’s had risen on Decarie beside where they ran the sulkies. It was a long bike ride away for a kid saddled with a newish red ten-speed from Eaton’s, a store brand, not a Raleigh, not a Schwinn.

How was I to know that that instantly served box of magic was an edible Model T Ford, an avatar and a harbinger? It tasted good and it was exotic. How was I to know the Big Mac would homogenize the plant, be the advent of global branding? How was I to know that places like the Do Drop In in my neighbourhood where Eddie manned the grill and Phyllis waitressed and rang up the tabs would go out of business? How was I to know that I’d grow up to accept garbage on my plate in a restaurant because at least it was better than McDonald’s? God bless and god speed Jim Delligatti; I love your burger, even more so when it’s hot and the bun doesn’t taste like the packaging. Or a pizza.

Monday, 28 November 2016



A number of years ago I used to post remarks online in the Globe and Mail’s comments sections which accompanied every article or column. The novelty of not having to mail a letter to the editor amused me. My greatest hit was a 24-hour ban for having typed something to the effect that The Sound of Music was the only movie ever made which compelled viewers to root for Nazis. Hilarious, I thought. Saturday I was reminded of a second post which irked other amateur commentators.

The business section had run a story on some Human Resources expert (They never downsize themselves, do they?) who equated job satisfaction with an absurd level of evangelical passion and long hours, in other words, unquestioning Kool-Aid swillers. I reflected on this premise. I was fortunate to be modestly successful in an industry of my choosing and I was engaged enough to keep current, study the many aspects of its history and contemplate its future. For all that, I realized I derived more enjoyment just sweeping out my garage than I did from my career because my garage was my turf. I didn’t identify as an adman so much as the curator of Garageland. That’s what I wrote.

The Crooked 9 garage is not much different from yours. There are gerry-built shelves against the rear wall. A pink Christmas bow hangs from the door motor, low enough to tick the parker’s windshield and prevent calamity. Beside the liberated traffic signs on the walls are a couple of very tasteful Elvis ’69 Comeback Special clocks that don’t work. There’s a Montreal Canadiens license plate still in its shrinkwrap and a 1981 Northwest Territories polar bear plate turned up from somewhere by somebody. There are two cottage quality oil paintings, still lifes. The prize is a split piece of white planking with the brass house numbers still attached, dating from the days when the nine in the address was straight because the installer had understood the nature of a serif font.

Saturday morning was warm enough to putter outside without gloves and just a fleece pullover instead of a coat. There was no snow to shovel, no ice to chip away at. No leaves to rake and nothing left to cut back in the garden. I decided to embark upon the Sisyphean task of sweeping out the garage. The cement floor is cracked and pitted in places, the layer of filth covering it omnipresent.

Repetitive chores are a sort of soothing balm. You can free up your mind to dwell upon and perhaps resolve more pressing matters much in the way a solution to a problem will present itself while you sleep. You can zone out too, simply block out every decibel of white noise generated by the world at large: an automaton at peace. At worst, as is sometimes the case with me, you can become overly particular and precise while tackling the task at hand.

First I brushed the pad with a stiff bristled push-broom. I swept it again with a finer domestic straw broom. Next I scattered a green sweeping compound and swept that up. Finally, I did a fourth pass, sweeping the entire surface once more. I filled half a plastic grocery bag with debris, scooping up the piles with a faded red plastic toddler’s snow shovel. The entire process took me two tins of beer and four cigarettes plus a break. Inspecting my work I realized that though I’d achieved a concrete result, I’d mainly succeeded in just redistributing the dust. I then noticed some more matter out of place, pea gravel and grit on the driveway from the winter tire treads of the Honda CRV. That stuff will eventually migrate to Garageland, that’s a given. I take comfort in the knowledge that I can perform the same chore again today or two weeks’ hence; whenever I want.

Friday, 25 November 2016


Adjective, Noun, Tour Package

Vegas Golden Knights: I have paid for an all inclusive vacation package which includes buffets and tickets for Cirque du Carrotte en Haute; the sardine can flight taxis down the runway and U-turns as the tour operator declares bankruptcy. My dream of an Ocean’s 11 holiday, three glorious golden nights in Sin City – hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas – are shattered.

Thirty National Hockey League owners welcomed the Vegas Golden Knights to pro hockey’s clubland last Tuesday. Technically the team will begin competing for the Stanley Cup next season. Realistically they will be dreadful for winters to come. When the novelty and the buzz of another new desert attraction fades, this squad will still stink like the other zombie carcasses in sunny non-traditional hockey markets.

Is Vegas Golden Knights as dumb a name for a fledgling franchise as Mighty Ducks of Anaheim? Maybe not, as the newly sanctioned moniker consists of only three words. And yet, there’s a crowded elevator whiff about it, of misguided marketing directives trumping common sense. Las Vegas is a city in Nevada. Vegas were compact Chevrolets. Sports teams normally style themselves as representing the city or region in which they play their home games. The geographical proper noun should always be incorporated as a matter of courtesy and clarity. Leave the abbreviated slang to the locals and the headline writers to evolve organically and without contrived artifice.

Las Vegas Golden Knights doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. Four words. So now the adjective in the team’s nickname becomes irksome. And “golden” is not new to the NHL either, fans of a certain age will recall the extinct California Golden Seals. There are other colourful adjectives in the league: the Blue Jackets and Red Wings are led by short, primary descriptors. Golden isn’t a colour so much as a meaningless two syllable hue or glow.

Since the NHL’s latest pigeon, erm, owner, apparently had his heart set on Knights for personal reasons (West Point grad and CEO of Black Knight Financial Services), he could have settled on the cleaner, simpler and slightly suggestive Las Vegas Knights even though knights, excepting one themed hotel and a few exalted British performers, have nothing remotely to do with, erm, Vegas. Then again, does anything on or near the Strip have a connection to reality as most of us have come to understand it? Here come the G’ Knights.

The club’s primary logo isn’t aces, nor is it an utter disaster. Imagine a medieval battle helmet as rendered in a comic book or video game. However the team’s colour palette is as busy as an overbooked discount excursion. There are four according to and each possesses gravitas: steel grey (“strength and “durability”); black (“power” and “intensity”); red signifies the city’s skyline (neon signs) and the rusty stone found in desert canyons; gold of course is a nod to the state’s precious metal mining industry. Who knows what the laundry will ultimately look like but given what players have worn during the past two all-star games and at the recently resuscitated Canada Cup, here’s betting jaded old school fans will wince and cringe. Grey is the new black with red and gold piping, accents, bibs.

The Vegas Golden Knights will be unwatchable in every sense of that word. The real tragedy of this expansion is that the fees paid by this new dog will provide lingering life support for three or four other dogs in the league that need to be put down. Think of the NHL kiting its official MasterCard monthly payment to a Golden Knights Visa. Think of a gambler shuffling plastic in front of an ATM in order to keep playing the slots because he’s due and there’s got to be some money had from somewhere from some account. What could possibly go wrong in a house, an industry, made of cards?

Tuesday, 22 November 2016


You’re All Right, Jack

The other day I went into our local Canada Post outlet to buy some stamps. I asked for a book of ten. The clerk, blonde and always cheery, suggested a set of 12 Christmas themed ones. I was about to say something like “Whatever” when I spotted a packet featuring a Montreal Canadiens CH sweater crest displayed under the plastic countertop. I pointed, I said, “I’ll take those instead.” She indicated that I’d be getting only six stamps. I said, “I’ll take two then, please.” I made an unexpected decision in a fraction of a second, without a conscious thought based on a visual cue.

Logos, emblems, mascots and symbols surround us, images of a language we all understand without having to consult a wordless dictionary.  They can be commercial or nationalistic, scientific or sacred. They may convey information or emotion; they can unite and they can divide. The mathematical symbol for infinity, a continuous line with neither beginning nor end, essentially a tipped over figure eight, was designed in 1655. Bald eagles are more numerous in Canada than they are in the United States yet we tend to think of the raptor as the “American bald eagle” and the bird stirs patriots as much as their beloved Stars and Stripes. A maple leaf is synonymous with Canada, so much so that American corporations operating in this country use it as an apostrophe in their subsidiaries’ word marks. The basic red leaf design is a child of the 60s though it seems as curiously ageless as the cross of St. George.

Choosing a new emblem or symbol is an exercise fraught with peril. Ask a New Zealander about the flag debate in that country. Here in Edmonton the mayor is soft selling a new civic flag. Last week the Royal Canadian Geographic Society in conjunction with Canadian Geographic magazine announced that the gray jay had been designated Canada’s national bird. Nothing is official until Parliament makes it so. The unveiling of a new national symbol would dovetail nicely with the celebrations planned for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

Once known as the Canada jay, the gray jay should be properly called the grey jay north of the Medicine Line but America exercises its global power even in ornithological circles. Canadians in all provinces and territories are familiar with the bird that is too tough to migrate. All of us call it a “whiskey jack,” a corruption of the Cree word “wisakedjak” which translates as “mischievous prankster.” Owls are wise; loons are crazy. I applaud the whimsy of the Society’s selection of a good natured joker.

Now, the gray jay may never fly. Or it could become a line in a dusty edition of Hansard, the official record of Parliament. Perhaps it seems absurd to even discuss the adoption of a new national symbol in the 21st century. We’ve managed to get this far thus far without it. Could the whiskey jack eventually match the beaver, that industrious nuisance that was the original economic foundation of these parts? I don’t know, but the way I see it with the way things are the world over in days like these, Canadians should, as we used to say after people freaked but before they lost their shit, have a bird.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016



Pulp fiction master Edgar Rice Burroughs is best remembered for his Tarzan tales. An equally compelling series of stories relate the adventures of John Carter, a Confederate army captain who was mysteriously transported to Mars, Barsoom in that planet’s vernacular, whilst sheltering in a cave. Another literary character from the same period of American history, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, awoke one day only to find himself stretching his tired limbs in Arthurian Britain.

Present times are peculiar and I’ve the disconcerting sense that I’ve hit my head and am consequently now somehow caught up in the fantastical strands of a parallel, alternative narrative to reality. Sunday morning I stood outside on the rear patio, its chairs stored and its tables tipped, contemplating the blue sky and green grass. My coffee smelled good and tasted better. I studied the bare branches of the trees and the shrubs expecting to see tiny green nubs of buds. Surely the month was April and not November?

The United Kingdom has turned its back on the European Union. The Chicago Cubs are baseball’s World Series champions. Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Donald J. Trump is the president-elect of the United States. The Edmonton Eskimos are playing in the Canadian Football League’s Eastern Final next week. The Rolling Stones will release a new studio album. It’s even conceivable that Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front (the party’s name should tip you off as to its ideology), could be the next president of the Republic.

I am as discombobulated as a fictional Reb or Yank, a stranger in a strange land. Black is white. Up is down. Right is left. I cannot make heads nor tails of things. Sinners are saints. Wrong is right. Nothing quite computes. Still, here I am in the middle of it all and it’s impossible to look away from the absurdity of life’s rich pageant.

Thursday, 10 November 2016


A Whole New Ballgame: meGeoff’s Political Analysis as Sports Clichés

It was supposed to be a coronation. There was no redemption Tuesday night for Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. Despite a long career of posting stellar regular season statistics, the steady veteran choked when the prize was within reach, missing her gut check appointment with destiny. She left her ‘A’ game in the chummy confines of the clubhouse. Clinton, battered after years on the gridiron, could not summon that old college magic to carry her team on her shoulders, failing to execute in the red zone, in the key and from the slot. Underdog Donald Trump proved to be the big dog as he battled relentlessly, ducking jabs and wildly counter punching and even landing some hellacious body blows through to the final bell, reaching the green and winning the battles in the corners and along the side wall. The Republicans didn’t draft the tough guy from Brooklyn for his finesse. The ensuing result defied Vegas odds-makers, coming out of left field as it did. Clinton’s coaching staff neglected to account for the intangibles, the 12th man in the arena, Trump’s supporters who are traditionally derided as the worst fans in the nation. As valuable seconds ticked away on what began ostensibly as a slam dunk, a suspect offside call by the FBI derailed Clinton’s game plan; had her calling foul and glaring at the hapless zebras, stalling her sprint to the finish. Trump made in-game adjustments, moving to a no-huddle offense utilizing his vaunted full-court press against Clinton’s excruciatingly dull trap and seized the contest’s momentum at a crucial juncture on the clock as the gun sounded the two minute warning. His late innings rally racked up the winning tally with the prospect of overtime looming. Politics is a rough and dirty game and this epic tilt was no exception. While it will never be considered a classic it spoke to the transcendent nature of blood sport and will certainly be remembered as one for the ages. It may have been an ugly win for Trump who’s forged a career winning ugly but the record books will only show a W, proof that the best team, on paper at least, does not always emerge victorious. Retirement beckons for Clinton, often perceived and portrayed somewhat accurately as one of the game’s chillier and more analytical stars. Somebody somewhere will hold a Clinton night for the defeated warrior as she hangs them up for the last time. A banner will be raised to the rafters in her honour. People will cheer. The fluttering silk will only cover her perennial and unlovable loser tag, not erase it.

Monday, 7 November 2016


Exile on Mainstream

Last Wednesday morning after the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, I stared out my backdoor watching the woodpeckers, magpies and blue jays, still a little fried from watching a mind blowing four and half hours of baseball. The sun rose a little higher, the hot orange sky warmed into a Cubs blue. Despite the sports story of this young century, everything was the same as it ever was, just like the day before, and tomorrow was sure to be.

Sometime this coming Tuesday night the grotesque that is the 2016 American presidential campaign will reach its denouement. I expect next Wednesday morning will be much like last Wednesday’s, birds flitting in the backyard, black coffee in my Rolling Stones mug and the tabbies going out, coming in and going out again. Even though we’ve just turned back our clocks, I don’t anticipate a mushroom cloud in lieu of sunrise.

The modern Republican Party reminds me of scenes from an abusive marriage, an unfathomable alliance between the super-rich and those they exploit. During a prolonged unhinged bout of batshit craziness its members managed to select an inexperienced, buffoonish vulgarian as the Grand Old Party’s White House nominee. Half of that country and the rest of the world (Russia excepted) looked on in horror. The near universal negative reaction was of course the fault of the “mainstream media” who will also be complicit in rigging the November 8th vote in favour of the Democratic Party and its corrupt, criminal and crooked candidate.

Coincidentally, the strident Left, the anti-everything-vaguely-capitalist and pro-Earth Mother contingent, complains about its depiction in “mainstream media,” its miniscule profile and the vacuum of coverage its agenda garners. Mainstream media: more or less strange common ground for complaint for two radical extremes who also share the same thoughts on globalization and free trade.

A couple of weeks ago a Facebook friend shared a meme featuring Adolf Hitler. Refreshingly, the embedded image contained no typos or spelling mistakes.  It read in all caps something like: HITLER WAS TIME MAGAZINE’S MAN OF THE YEAR IN 1938. PROOF THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA DOESN’T ALWAYS GET IT RIGHT. I sat back dumbfounded, taken aback. Had partisan discourse on social media descended to this? Who could possibly confuse “Man of the Year” or more properly “Newsmaker of the Year” with some sort of popularity award especially when its subject was a dictator goose-stepping Europe toward yet another world war?

The Adolf meme intrigued me for another reason. Was its creator swilling Pabst Blue Ribbon in a Rust Belt city or sipping latte on Vancouver Island? Did they want to work on a pipeline or protest one? What is the definition of mainstream media in this day and age, I wondered, since the fringes on either side of the spectrum sneer at it?

The traditional press and modern electronic media are commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate. That term is a late addendum to the hierarchical structure of society as it existed in the Dark Ages. The First Estate was the Church, and there was only one. The Second Estate was literally that, the landowners, the nobility. The Third Estate was the common people, the vast majority of souls unlucky enough to be subservient to the whims of the First and Second Estates. The invention of movable type and later the mechanized printing press gave rise to the Fourth Estate whose mission was to be a voice for the Third Estate and call or hold the First and Second Estates to account. Democracy cannot exist without an unshackled and independent press.

Prior to the Internet turning itself on asking what mainstream media was was not a particularly tricky question. Mainstream media was the newspaper of record in your city or town and its competitor, it was network news, it was weekly news compendiums published for the establishment. The alternative sources of information were equally obvious, counter-culture weeklies and magazines that questioned the pervading ethos. But whether you were reading the New York Times or the Village Voice, Newsweek or Mother Jones, the facts were there, just interpreted and presented differently. A key element to remember here is that lunatic New Journalism scribe Hunter S. Thompson and legendary investigative maverick Seymour Hersh had honed their craft and understood their topics better than any mainstream reporter.

Tomorrow night a misguided and pathetic attempt at revolution might be televised. Today I will define mainstream media as traditional outlets purveying properly vetted information, from the Washington Post to Rolling Stone, organizations that deal in facts and who have somehow managed to stagger through the hysterical, screeching “Me!” rise of social media while scoffing at Fox News, a comedy sketch without punch lines. In other words, blatant ideology and outright lies have no stake in the turf of the Fourth Estate; they never have.

Propaganda in the media is best left to the brain-washed, the editors of China’s People’s Daily or Russia’s Pravda and such. While we may not always agree with the informed views expressed in a free and independent press, and a mainstream one at that, there’s no doubt that accurate information is essential in the formulation of our opinions and ultimately, our critical decisions. There are two sides to every story; we require balance and common sense to orient ourselves on the highwire above the abyss, the yawning, thirsty maw of digitized ignorance. There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream sometimes.

Thursday, 3 November 2016


Game Over?

About 11 years ago I wandered into a pub in Gloucester, U.K. The televised match was Chelsea playing Liverpool. The joint was packed with smoking drinkers wearing red or blue, crawling infants and madness. I hurried back to my hotel to rouse my brother from his nap and join me. I said, ‘You’ve got to see this.’

I remember a mild September Sunday in Missoula, MT in 2014. Ann and I were exploring the somewhat quaint downtown. We passed a pub that might have been called the Black Hat, or maybe the Top Hat. The sidewalk sandwich board outside the entrance had no specials to entice us, the chalk scrawl simply read: ‘Bears – Packers: Nuff said.’ We went in. The jersey colours had changed and there were neither children nor smoke but it was déjà vu all over again.

Two different countries. Two different decades. Two different sports pulling people into similar venues an ocean apart because the game was on television. In its infancy television was like idly complaining about the weather to a stranger waiting with you at your bus stop, a great unifier because everybody watched the same show at the same time. There was no choice until cable networks and specialty channels began to populate the spectrum. Ted Turner’s concept of a 24-hour all news channel suddenly didn’t seem so crazy, and his Atlanta baseball club cultivated a national following as providers of 162 games of content to his fledgling network. Our viewing habits were altered in one other crucial way: an advance in home electronics enabled us to record broadcasts to view on our own schedule and not a network’s, and glory be, we could fast-forward through commercials.

As the medium fragmented like a jigsaw puzzle swept off a tabletop, I came to agree with media buyers who posited that pro sports in real time was an advertiser’s best televised bet. Even more so with the enhanced picture of high-definition TV. True, this same digital technology permitted a savvy fan to watch a game with a reality lag of a few minutes allowing them to speed through commercials but most couch creatures are as lazy as the rest of us and can’t be bothered to take the extra set-up step. The beauty of the sports nut demographic is its wide-ranging skew, created and nurtured in part by the calculated marketing efforts of the various leagues. Beyond the realm of beer and trucks lay a dreamland littered with flushable baby wipes and adult diapers.

Now it seems the lovingly arranged marriage between television and pro sports might be headed for the rocks. Canadians are well aware that Rogers Communications’ ownership of National Hockey League telecasts is not paying off. Excuses are rife. Viewers didn’t warm to the hipster host and his expert panel. Clubs north of 49 are not competitive. The Sports Network’s Canadian Football League numbers are down but only because the new rules result in a penalty flag on just about every play from scrimmage. Shockingly, television ratings for the impervious monolith that is the National Football League, the cartel that can play out its entire schedule in empty stadiums because of network money, have dropped by double digits seven weeks into its season. Its established stars are on the wane and its new ones take a knee during the national anthem.

This year’s World Series is a modest bucking of the overall and baseball’s own downward trend. Eyeball numbers have almost, almost climbed back to the levels recorded in 2009. The boost makes a fine argument for the merit of content. Television was not invented the last time either championship contender won it all. Last night’s epic game seven between Chicago and Cleveland could be a rare ratings bonanza. It requires magic, mojo, juju and voodoo for two long suffering legacy franchises to become good at the same time. Bloated professional sports leagues cannot engineer marquee match-ups for their playoffs, let alone night after prime time night during their interminable regular seasons. Yet they’ve all operated believing that we would watch every game anyway, just in case. But something happened on the way to the bank.

The cornerstone of any vibrant economy is surplus. Surplus creates a supply which is then sold to meet a genuine demand or one created by artifice, advertising, say. Either way, you never give away your assets. There is an advertising corollary to this fundamental principle: never, ever devalue the equity of your brand. In other words, don’t cheapen it. The cola wars go way back. Around the time the Cleveland Indians last won the World Series, you could buy a bottle of Coke for a nickel. You could also instead buy a bottle of Pepsi with that same nickel and enjoy twice the amount of cola. Coke never lowered the price of its product nor increased the volume of its containers. The consumer could not help but conclude that Pepsi was an inferior product even though it provided better value.

In our era, modern times, we are struggling to make sense of the digitization of everything. Certain ramifications and consequences are already apparent but nobody can fathom this disruption’s ultimate angle of repose. It’s entirely possible nothing may ever settle. In my last agency job we were proud to do work for a prestigious salty snack food client. The company’s marketing manager was determined to get his brand into the burgeoning social media conversation. He ignored friendly warnings that his proposed action was something akin to solving the puzzle box in ‘Hellraiser.’ The fellow was dismayed to discover that many of the consumers who bothered to engage with his brand were uncomplimentary. And, gee, well, could the agency address this negativity somehow and, rather awkwardly, gee, there was no budget to correct a supposedly free marketing initiative gone awry that was, in essence, an attempted end run around my employer’s services.

With these two lessons in mind, let us now examine the television contraction of what was once the wide world of sports. Comprehensive highlight packages began to clutter the airwaves in concert with the rise of cable sports networks desperate to fill air time. The assumption of viewer attraction was logical: results were newsworthy; fans would watch a compacted version of what they’d already seen; fans would be curious about games subjected to local blackouts or broadcast in other regions. Inadvertently we were reprogrammed not to endure quarters, halves, periods, innings, time outs and other delays in exchange for witnessing fleeting moments of heartbreak or glory. Time shrunk, fans were no longer required to commit three hours of their time to get the game story and the final score; we could catch the highlights later. The actual games no longer mattered. Only die-hards, the core constituency of any sport or club were motivated to watch meaningless games play themselves out in their entirety.

The blind leagues only recognized the exposure and the promotional potential of the highlight shows, the scene setting for future games. Casual fans would watch the free trailer and pay to see the film, no question. And then along came an unheralded rookie phenom called the Internet. In their frenzy to establish a presence across all platforms the big leagues effectively circumvented their traditional main squeeze, television, by creating their own web sites and commissioning their own apps to show their own highlights, craft their own narratives.

For the home viewer there used to be a cost associated with sports fandom, whether it was a particular television package or a few minutes’ attention for a few commercials. The diluted mini dramas are free now and the peculiar paradox is that there are now more ways than ever to not watch a complete game without turning on the television. And this disconnect, this disruption, has been inadvertently perpetuated by enterprises whose sole goal is to keep us glued to our sets on behalf of their sponsors and partners by providing a form of unscripted entertainment.

Thursday, 27 October 2016


One Sun Day in Memphis

In the mid-50s guitarist Carl Perkins was developing a hybrid sound of country and blues of what he thought was his own invention. He may well have imagined that he was picking in a rural Tennessee vacuum. How could he have known that Ike Turner, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were on the same path? Crucially, like Berry and unlike Presley, he composed his own songs. Meanwhile in Memphis, inside a converted and sound-baffled garage, Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips had an inspired notion to sell ‘race’ records to baby boom white kids, but how?

Carl heard Elvis on the radio and drove to Memphis to audition for Sam. January 1st, 1956 Sun issued Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. The song was a massive hit. That spring Perkins was nearly killed in a car accident. He and his band were driving north to New York City to perform their rocker on national television, dawn found them wrecked and almost drowned in a ditch full of stagnant water. During Perkins’ long hospitalization Presley took ownership of Blue Suede Shoes in the way Aretha Franklin would later claim Otis Redding’s Respect.

On December 4th a fully recovered Perkins was back at Sun seeking to regain his career momentum, looking to wax another hit. Phillips had arranged for a lunatic pianist from Louisiana named Jerry Lee Lewis to sit in on the session to fatten out Perkins’ string driven rockabilly beat. Johnny Cash dropped by to say hello. Elvis turned up. That gorgeous, impromptu and sloppy jam session is still available in record stores. It’s not gold but it’s an important, living document of one aspect of post-war Americana.

Last night Ann and I saw the play Million Dollar Quartet, a fictionalized jukebox musical based on that singular day. Only the people who were there really know what actually transpired between the recorded reels of tape. But even the slightest drama requires realized characters and the semblance of a plot (conflict) and so we were not watching dinner theatre impersonators. The Phillips character, a businessman with a keen ear and an evolving plan, the narrator, weaved all the historic threads together.

Perkins never again soared up into that dizzying, suede blue stratosphere but he kept on writing hits and established himself as an artist in his own right as well as being a sometime member of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. His accolades came from other musicians, notably the Beatles, especially George Harrison, who revered him. Cash left Sun because Columbia Records promised him the opportunity to record a gospel album, his boozy and pill-addled way of giving thanks to his Lord for his early success with I Walk the Line.

Equally conflicted was Jerry Lee who believed playing the devil’s music was wrong even though it was the only thing he was good at. Unlike Little Richard, Al Green and that wimp Cat Stevens, he never bowed to that angel on his shoulder nor stopped pounding out secular music, although he did go country. My favourite anecdote about Lewis concerns his visit to a gas station sometime in the 70s. Inside whilst paying he spotted a rack of bootleg cassettes which displayed his music and that of his friends’. He smashed everything to bits. When the hapless clerk complained about how upset the boss man and the shady vendor would be Jerry Lee snarled, “Tell ‘em Killer was here.” Alcohol might’ve been involved.

Million Dollar Quartet of course, as it must, concentrates on Elvis. The foreshadowing dialogue hints that the guileless King will soon lose his way. RCA who bought Presley’s contract from Sun wants Phillips to join them and produce records for their latest asset. Sam is more interested in the fates of Killer and a Texan named Roy Orbison, and staying put in Memphis because there’s a certain sound like nowhere else in the Sun recording studio, a mystical echo. This is the wistful “What if” moment of Million Dollar Quartet as the audience teeters atop the apex of what will prove to be a classic arc of American tragedy.

Sam Phillips and no Colonel Tom Parker. No shabby B movies. Perhaps a late career renaissance singing Bruce Springsteen’s Fire: “If only.” History, any history, is quixotic; we can re-interpret it but the eventual finality of that stitch in time never changes. We can revisit the past, dwell on it, and wish for a different outcome but it gets real, real gone in the space of a backbeat or a vocal hiccup, and we can only imagine what it was like to have been there, in Memphis in early December, 1956. We know what happened over the course of the thousands of days that followed.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


Ave Amor Jesu (a Catholic hymn arranged for choral and organ)

Jesus Christ is a pretty nice guy to all us wretched sinners
Sundays He serves up brunch, sometimes He springs for dinner

Jesus Christ was a hirsute guy, like all us hairy sinners
But He only grew a beard because He had no trimmer

Jesus Christ is a guiding light to all of us filthy sinners
Sunbeams sparkle on His head, His halo has no dimmer

Jesus Christ is patient too, with all us miserable sinners
Sometimes He does get mad though His temper is on simmer

Jesus Christ was a fisherman and hope for us drowning sinners
He learned to walk on water because He was no swimmer

Jesus Christ is an upbeat guy amongst all us guilty sinners
He said Life is bad but when you’re dead you will be a winner

Monday, 17 October 2016


His Bobness: Nobel Laureate

‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ isn’t a letter from St. Bob to the infidels so much as Dr. Seuss scribbling careerist rhymes on speed in the midst an acid flashback. And I don’t think Dylan was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature on the merit of ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man’ either, even though parody and satire constitute literature which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “written works, especially those valued for form and style.”

When I conjure an image of Bob Dylan in my mind, there are two to choose from. The first speaks to my own age and so he’s wearing black eye shadow under a feathered pimp hat and playing an electric guitar. The second stems from an earlier photographic record, a curly haired young man seated before a manual typewriter and smoking. There is always paper scrolled in the machine in those black and whites.

The poet Homer and the playwright Shakespeare wrote to be recited, not read. The novel as readers conceive it has been in existence for about 400 years. There is a compelling argument that specialized, long form television series have replaced the novel as the world’s most popular storytelling form. Graham Greene, probably 20th century Britain’s most renowned author, originally conceived and wrote ‘The Third Man’ as a film treatment; does its printed form as a novella in anyway diminish its stature within his canon? Everything is written; last week’s Nobel debate was about how a modern author like Dylan chose to deliver his writing to an audience.

Dylan has been writing, recording and releasing music for more than 50 years. His catalogue, almost every album, veers from pop genius to, “What the hell was he thinking?” Each time I hear ‘Every Grain of Sand’ I want to believe in God again, that is, until the song ends. ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is a fully realized short story. ‘Hurricane’ is the sonic equivalent of some of the best sports writing I’ve ever read and perhaps even the new journalism of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. And what to make of ‘Tempest’ a lengthy ode to the S.S. Titanic which entwines history with the Hollywood epic?

And yet… If someone were to ask me for a primer on American culture, I would say: read these books and poems; watch these movies and plays; look at these paintings and photographs; listen to these musicians. I would never say, “Oh, you must read Bob Dylan.” That advice would as meaningless as saying, “Oh, you must look at a portrait of Toni Morrison.”

Alfred Nobel was an arms manufacturer and the inventor of a really efficient explosive. Late in life he attempted to spin his life’s story and profits into philanthropy. The Nobel Prize committee is directed from the grave to reward achievements in various fields which benefited humanity in the preceding year. Dylan’s recent output has included Fallen Angels, a companion album to Shadows in the Night, a disc of American standards made popular by Frank Sinatra, and The Cutting Edge, an extensive hodgepodge of outtakes from his electric and career defining run of wax from 1965 and ’66: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

Election Day November 8th will soon be upon the United States. Intelligent people all over the globe are desperately hoping that America will get itself back on track. Perhaps the Nobel committee did look back. Maybe Dylan was chosen as a symbol or an icon for what was good about a country now divided: the civil rights and anti-way movements; and his associations with a dusty idealist like Woody Guthrie, and the groundbreaking poetry and prose of the Beat writers.

For me the Dylan Nobel award is something of an affirmation. I sensed this devil’s music made more interesting and complex because of Dylan’s influence meant something even if I could never articulate exactly what, but I knew it would change the manner in which I viewed the world and conducted myself while walking on it. So what exactly constitutes literature? And does Dylan even rate? French writer, designer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once said, “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.” And in the case of His Bobness, maybe out of tune.