Sunday, 24 January 2016


A Second Rate Fourth Estate

For most of the duration of one of my advertising jobs in Calgary I frequented a dingy pub near the shop at lunch hour. When you turn up in a place at pretty much the same time five days a week for almost a decade and sit on the same stool, people get to know you. The owner added the National Post to his Calgary Herald subscription because he realized pretty quickly that I am a newspaper junkie. The waitress always had the paper positioned at my usual spot at the bar like a placemat. Of course I got to know the other regulars.

Mr. Ed was an elderly man with an impish twinkle in his eye. He always sat at the same table with Ken, his best friend of 60 years or more. Sometimes their grown children and their spouses would join them for lunch. Mr. Ed believed that the City of Calgary’s use of the colour red, specifically on its mass transit vehicles, was a subliminal conspiracy orchestrated by the federal Liberal Party. Rational discussion of graphic identity, its usages and applications, was impossible.

The Edmonton Journal has been our city’s paper of record since 1903. The province of Alberta was admitted into Confederation in 1905. The Journal is one of many Postmedia titles in Canada. Postmedia is possibly the most inept media company ever, excepting the evil Carver Media Group Network (CMGN) featured in Tomorrow Never Dies (Hello, Mr. Bond.), Fox News and Canada’s own hysterical Sun Media. Naturally and needlessly, Postmedia acquired the Sun newspapers in 2014.

Sidebar: Paul Godfrey, currently Postmedia’s CEO, engineered the sale of Sun Media to Quebecor Media, a company run by the man who would be king of Quebec, Pierre Karl Peladeau. Mr. Godfrey then bought the tabloids back on behalf of Postmedia for less than a song, merely a chorus and a bridge. Suddenly many major Canadian cities had one proprietor overseeing their two competing daily newspapers. Mr. Godfrey then paid himself and other senior executives handsome bonuses even though Postmedia is crippled by some $670-million in debt, its shares are pretty much worthless and its employees tend to get fired, victims of continual cost cutting measures.

Last September the Edmonton Journal was graced by the ballyhooed Postmedia makeover. The paper’s front page masthead, formal and elegant black type, was transformed into a square, literally and virtually an enlarged app icon. That the square was two tones of orange led to paranoid cries that the Journal was tacitly supporting the provincial NDP government elected the previous spring. I thought of Mr. Ed, how could I not? ( In fact, Mr. Godfrey had ordered all Postmedia newspaper editorial writers to endorse Stephen Harper's Conservatives in last October's election.)

In a note to its readers the Journal explained that the box designed by media experts in Europe suggested Edmonton’s river valley and its fall foliage at sunset. Really? The note went on to crow that the Journal was now a tiered publication, craftily refined to serve its diverse readership across multiple platforms. The note on page A2 did not indicate that the Edmonton Journal was now some kind of fertility drug runt; that it looked exactly the same as the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald except for the hues of its logo square.

The reimagined Journal launched with a creepy print and outdoor campaign featuring a giant index finger dressed in various costumes. The message was whatever your interests, whatever your platform, the latest news was at your fingertips. National and international news was packaged into a special National Post insert. The business section was rebranded as the National Post’s Financial Post. Content throughout the paper became increasingly meaningless and fluffy as a lot of it now flowed from a central source based in Hamilton. I stopped picking up the National Post because half of it including some of its already thin sports coverage was reprinted in the Journal. Articles grew shorter.

I soon noticed a change in my morning habits. While I still spent half an hour or more with the Globe and Mail, the Journal was relegated to two or three sips of coffee. Every edition of the paper seemed Monday-skimpy. The layout grew increasingly bizarre, television listings would turn up in the business pages which were tucked away in the back of the National Post insert which wasn’t thick enough to line a bird cage or wrap a fish anyway.

Postmedia announced that the company was integrating its dual, competing newsrooms across the country as yet one more cost cutting measure. Many respected reporters, columnists and editors lost their jobs; the non-unionized papers in Alberta were particularly decimated. Here in Edmonton for instance a local beat will now be covered by just one Postmedia journalist filing on behalf of both the broadsheet Journal and the tabloid Sun. That story will then go to a copy desk where it will be smartened up for Journal readers or dumbed down for Sun mouth readers.

The Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun used to be fierce competitors. Up until last week they continued to spar at least somewhat as rivals under the same ownership umbrella. Mr. Godfrey has always maintained that Postmedia’s competition is not other newspapers, either his company’s own or others in the industry, but digital entities such as Google or Facebook. The only content that matters to him is advertising content.

The Catch-22 is that lame editorial content however cost effectively sloughed off on an alienated and disaffected readership (whatever their preferred platform) by an organization that once specialized in the gathering and dissemination of news does not bode well for the future of Postmedia. Advertisers like an audience; they’re fussy that way. My sense is that if Mr. Ed is right about a nefarious Liberal scheme to paint parts of the prairies red, Postmedia is without the resources, acumen or inclination to investigate. Real stories, and the many angles and points of view any story has will go unreported too.

Prediction: Postmedia will surely shutter its Sun tabloids citing their inability to effectively compete with the free Metro transit tabloid. The resulting cost savings will only enhance the performance of the remaining titles in the ever shrinking chain of fools.

Thursday, 21 January 2016


Blue Rodeo Live at the Jube

Alt country band Blue Rodeo is such a fixture in the Canadian cultural landscape that I take the group for granted. They are a fantastically rendered glacier in a Lawren Harris painting, a Stephen Leacock sunshine sketch of a small town, a stubby brown beer bottle and a woolen hockey sweater with the elbows worn out.

Like most Canadian music fans of a certain advancing age, Ann and I have a bunch of Blue Rodeo albums in our record library. And somewhat presumptuously I consider co-founders Greg Keeler and Jim Cuddy friends I’ve never met and so it’s always a pleasure to check in with them and check them out on stage every few years or so. While the band would not help me dispose of a body, they’ve never let me down the four or five times I’ve seen them. Blue Rodeo is a relatively reliable ticket as they generally play the summer festival circuit and then hit the road again during the bitter winter months. (Last July’s ‘Honour the Treaties’ dream double bill with Neil Young here in Edmonton was cancelled; I was crushed albeit unsurprised as bogeyman oil shows do not play as well as petroleum expos in Alberta.)

I cannot name anybody in Blue Rodeo aside from Keelor and Cuddy. I believe a guy who used to play in Wilco may or may not still be a member. And I think way back in the old days there was a guy who played with them who was once in the Battered Wives, a punk band I saw in Montreal’s Theatre St-Denis supporting Elvis Costello and the Attractions. So last night Ann and I found the band’s stage configuration a bit odd. Cuddy, whose voice remains remarkable, was front and centre. To his right was a new to us guitarist who played all the wiggy Crazy Horse parts Keelor used to play. When these two locked in, Cuddy’s back was always to Keelor who stood far stage left, alone out there in the shadow of the outskirts, gamely strumming an acoustic guitar.

Keelor’s not that old, he spent at least a year in the same Montreal high school as my sister who turned 61 last June. He sang as well as ever, full nasal. Yet Ann and I could not help speculating about what is none of our business, Keelor’s health or the seven-piece band’s internal dynamic. I was reminded of the Billy Connolly show we saw in the same venue last November: ‘This arm moves by itself, does what it wants, like I’m carrying an invisible raincoat. Just so you don’t guess at my symptoms, I’ve got Parkinson’s disease. He can fucking have it back.’

I am writing about a long established rock band which may or may not be entering the twilight of its career; I’m not interpreting diplomatic signals from Tehran or the Kremlin. Perhaps I worry too much about nothing. In any case, the new and as yet unreleased songs sprinkled throughout the two hour set bode well for a future album, Keelor’s ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ especially. Performing unheard material for finicky and nostalgic baby boomers is a particularly courageous act in this day and age.

New songs, and even generic if witty stage patter, seem to provoke the unrequited class clowns secreted amidst concert audiences. Heckling is now apparently the hilarious aural equivalent of photo bombing or disrupting television reporters as they attempt to file live stories. Ann and I have heard the loutish drollery at Ringo, Rosanne Cash, Ryan Adams, Gordon Lightfoot and Billy Connolly (that’s nerve). Cuddy and Keelor are experienced pros and they will always give better than they get from an amateur comedian who paid for his ticket. And they back it up with their songs, one great one after another.

Sunday, 17 January 2016


A Ballpark in the Dead of Winter

Down on the river flats here in Edmonton beneath the south-facing windows of the Hotel Macdonald perched on the precipice of the valley’s northern slope is a ballpark. Depending upon your seat relative to the lines stretching from the apex of home plate, the view above and beyond the outfield fence may offer you downtown’s skyline, the Alberta Legislature, the stacks of the decommissioned, massive brick Pink Floyd power station or the green canopy shading the city’s extensive river-side leisure path network.

The modest yard, at once bucolic, urban and industrial was precariously and publicly financed and engineered by a local character, one who might be politely described euphemistically as a ‘flamboyant businessman.’

In the mid-90s AAA minor league baseball got too big for its britches because clubs that had once traded hands for a dollar were suddenly deemed to be worth a million of them. Ergo, existing rickety wooden parks and the paltry amenities they offered were required to upgrade in order to enhance the fan experience and ownership revenue streams – same difference – because the main event, a game, was now secondary to the bells and whistles of the facility. The clown, the mascot and the Blues Brothers tribute act could stay for the seventh inning stretch provided they covered their costs.

The pro arguments for what became Telus Field included the civic prestige associated with Pacific Coast League baseball and the incalculable yet positive effects of economic trickle down provided by pro sports. The cons were just those, convoluted within bluffs and threats of relocation. Canadian PCL sister cities Calgary and Vancouver were held up with the same gun but did not raise their hands above their heads.

The Trappers, affiliated variously with the White Sox, Angels and Marlins, despite having their demands met, headed south anyway, as did Calgary’s Cannons and Vancouver’s Canadians. Some said it was because of the weather. Some said it was because of the geography. Some said it was because of the value of the Canadian dollar. Some said the local market of hardcore seamheads was just too small, although maybe they tired of the vacuum hose in their wallets and the endless idiot distractions between innings. Some said it was just a business decision pure and simple; a bigger cash grab was to be had elsewhere. Some agreed it was all of the above.

The failures following the PCL’s exit mounted: the Canadian Baseball League, the Northern League and the Golden League were all dead on arrival. Telus Field is now used maybe 30 times each summer by the Edmonton Prospects, a low level collegiate operation which cannot afford to replace the signage all of the defunct franchises left in their wakes. You can count the fans with your index finger. The most memorable moment in recent seasons was when my pal Tim, who always enjoys a visit to a ballpark, was in town from Calgary. He announced between pitches that he was eating the worst hamburger he’d ever eaten in his 50-plus years of existence. God bless him, he somehow managed to swallow every last bite. Rancid food became the new normal, it never used to be that way.

As white elephants go, Telus Field is a mouse compared to Montreal’s decrepit Olympic Stadium (Hello, Brazil! Is this a bad time to call?), the recently vacated 20-year-old pro football dome in St. Louis or even Edmonton’s own recently renovated though soon to be abandoned NHL arena, Rexall Place. It’s strange to contemplate, but of all the structures that comprise a city, venues dedicated to professional sports seem to have the shortest life spans.

State of the art gets old fast when the game being played is no longer the prime attraction, when the competition is the ease and comfort of a den equipped with a hi-def flat screen TV, when a rooted for team has no compunction about pulling up stakes on the whiff of a sweeter deal. Edmonton’s possibly transformative and as yet unfinished new downtown hockey rink will likely be derided as an inadequate relic by its main tenant a quarter century hence even as we hail sports arenas as our new and great public undertakings.

The first visit from the edge man is always a cheery one, rife with friendly advice. NHL boss Gary Bettman was in Calgary last week attempting to extort civic support for a massive, pro-centric athletic facility on contaminated land that in no way could be ‘cost-justified’ as a strictly private venture, according to Bettman; Calgary’s hockey team also owns a junior hockey team, the Canadian Football League’s Stampeders, a lacrosse team and a nightclub. Construction of the Flames’ existing home ice was completed in 1983.

Telus Field was built but nobody goes there anymore and not because it’s too popular. The City of Edmonton now faces a dilemma regarding its fate. The under-used and neglected ballpark is situated on prime inner city real estate. The least sentimental and most sensible solution is demolition. And after the developers have moved in and thrown up their mews and carriage homes on the flood plain somewhere, perhaps near the stack of super mailboxes, there will be a plaque that echoes Sinatra: There used to be a ballpark here.

Monday, 11 January 2016


David Bowie 1947-2016

If you’re going to be a fucking rock star, go be one. People don’t want to see the guy next door on stage; they want to see a being from another planet. – Lemmy

The first time I saw David Bowie perform was in 1974. He trod and writhed on the stage sometime during Talent Night at the F.C. Smith Auditorium, a venue my Montreal Jesuit high school shared with Loyola College. ‘Bowie,’ in Aladdin Sane make-up and his mother’s clothing, mimed ‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Cracked Actor’ in front of a full rock band, their amps turned off.

‘Bowie,’ whose given name was Pat, was a couple of years ahead of me; I didn’t know him but I did play football with two of his younger brothers, both of whom were tremendous running backs. Seems Pat’s hips were better suited for dancing. Somehow Pat met Sue, one of my stepsisters, and they began dating. (As it transpired, my older sister knew Pat’s older brother as they were in pre-med together and shared the same circle of friends.) Pat was relieved that there was at least some Bowie in our mixed and matched home, my copy of David Live.

It’s fun when an older, more worldly music nut takes one under his wing: Well, the Stones are great, but you need to buy Bowie’s earlier stuff. You don’t have any Mott the Hoople either, you need that. What’s with all this Rod Stewart solo shit? You don’t have any Faces?

My mother and her husband travelled frequently which meant my three stepsisters and I had the run of the downtown townhouse. Shockingly, the young people would throw parties. My stepfather had goofy beer steins, giant ones reading I BET YOU CAN’T. We’d pour six beers into them and then top them off with vodka. Glug glug. Pat and I would hold dance-offs; he’d do Bowie and I’d do Jagger, microphone floor lamps were damaged. Once the alcohol sweat had dried, chipping golf balls over the high backyard fence into four lanes of speeding Montreal traffic seemed like inspired genius.

I remember Pat and me hustling down to A&A Records to buy ‘Golden Years,’ the advance Station to Station single. We spun it on a turntable at maximum volume as soon as possible. We looked at each other: Disco? We played it ten times; tonight I wonder if Pat still has that 45 somewhere, a plain white envelope but a gold RCA label. The album proved to be a brittle, chilly masterpiece; there would be more to come.

Sure enough we were soon up all night preparing and planning ticket strategy for Bowie’s Station to Station Montreal Forum show. We were successful at a Ticketron outlet in Place Ville Marie that not many people seemed to know about. That 1976 concert was going to be the biggest night of my life since my Nana took me to see my first Montreal Canadiens game in 1968, and it was and I just about died when the coke-addled stick man with the slicked back orange hair segued ‘Diamond Dogs’ into the Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock n’ Roll.’

The shock of this morning’s news was its suddenness. Bowie seemed to be in a late career, almost Dylanesque resurgence into relevance with 2013’s The Next Day and last Friday’s release of Blackstar and its two videos and a co-authored off-Broadway play based on ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ starring Michael C. Hall. I’d pretty much given up on him by 1987’s Never Let Me Down – sorry, I did. However it was a treat to see Bowie live for a fourth time after very many years on his Reality tour which was truncated by his suffering a heart attack. But that was almost 13 years ago!

I’ve never stopped listening to Bowie’s good old stuff, records with bizarre cover art that Pat introduced me to even if I could never quite make sense of the lyrics. Bowie was always about sound and vision, mixed media, affectations and performance, some semblance of some form of new and used art. I cannot grieve a shaman and a showman (Watch that man!) whom I never met but I can mourn the fantastic voyage of my teenage years and the fun I had aspiring to be a card-carrying member of the National People’s Gang. And, oh boy, isn’t it just like Bowie to make an exit as disconcertingly dramatic as his guest appearance on Bing Crosby’s 1977 ‘TVC15’ Christmas special.

I’m playing ‘Fascination’ from Young Americans now. Pat and Sue are still married.

Sunday, 10 January 2016


Going Mobile

There was some good news in the financial pages last week. Honest. Wednesday the Globe and Mail reported that auto makers had their boats floated by record sales in Canada in 2015. Almost two million Canadians cruised away from car dealerships in sparkling new toys fueled by low interest rates and inexpensive gasoline.

At this point it’s impossible to speculate how many of the new vehicles will be subject to recall.

However, the industry’s long term prospects appear to be rosier than the paint job on a pink Cadillac despite the recent economic downturn. The article went on to say that ‘there are a record 10 million vehicles on Canada’s roads that are 10-years-old or older.’ Car manufacturers are salivating over this sea of potential sales.

Canadian cab drivers meanwhile have torpedoed any enthusiasm over the auto sector’s resurgence and would prefer maintaining the status quo, the way things always were and used to be, as vehicles aged in double digits are strictly verboten with Uber.

Saturday, 9 January 2016


Damp, Dismal, Drab, Dreary and Dull Days

The outdoor lights and indoor decorations have been put away. The tree lies in the alley awaiting pick up. We returned the rented Rug Doctor machine to the grocery store (it took some five minutes for one of our Christmas guests to spill their wine). The carpet’s clean although there may or may not be a faint whiff of cat piss embedded in some of its fibres, particularly proximate to the location of the tree. These holidays are over.

Looking out our back door through the fog billowing from the clothes dryer vent Tuesday morning I observed that the neighbourhood’s jays and magpies had frowned at the crumbs of a heel of bread I’d scattered for them. The sky was fireplace ash, the evergreens grey and there were hints of hoar-frost on the remaining brittle brown branches and twigs. White snow atop squat white garages. You can’t help but think about escaping to other places, exiting the chilly low light of this misty, monochromatic world.

Where to roam for a different set of holidays? WestJet has a January BLOWOUT! sale on for a few more days. I like WestJet because it’s not Air Canada. I hate WestJet because its flight staffs are infuriatingly cheery and chirpy. And WestJet introduced the $25 checked bag fee which Air Canada matched, naturally. Why don’t airlines charge for carry-on and spin cargo hold bags as gratis? Each entitled Einstein blocking an aisle during boarding while mystified and bemused as to why their steamer trunk doesn’t slot into the overhead bin above their seat row cries out for an additional and steep ‘on-and-off’ convenience fee.

I’d like to go somewhere with a little moisture in the air. A place where opening a carton of beer doesn’t slice the nicotine stained and withered parchment enveloping my fingers and hands to ribbons. Our wish to travel is more acute: let’s go while we’re still fit enough to move about for five or six hours at a stretch, while we still perceive hotels as simple shelters, places to sleep and bathe, rather than destinations. I have regrets about my unadventurous youth. I lacked the resources back then but what I really lacked was courage because I’ve always liked things just so and obviously everything would be out of kilter in a foreign place, especially the toilets.

Like many Canadians needing to escape the oppressive leaden skies of winter, we’re looking south. Despite registered Republicans and a national propensity for daily mass shootings (defined by the FBI as three or more persons killed or wounded), the United States beckons. We’ve laughed about rubbernecking the uncontrolled crossing of wretched excess and the grotesque that is Las Vegas. Both Rod Stewart and Elton John are playing that oasis in April; if only it were 1976 instead of 2016. Much more intriguing is a potential music themed road trip through Memphis and Nashville and god knows where else a blue highway may take us. Clarksville?  I’ve never been to New Orleans or San Francisco and I’d blow through Chicago (and Buddy Guy’s Legends on Wabash) or the Big Apple again in a New York minute.

The hindrance is the depressed state of Canadian currency. The loonie while not quite a dead duck is certainly emu-like, flightless. Taking a winter vacation in Canada is for us a bit like the busman’s holiday and of course bad news for the friends and relatives whom we choose to inflict ourselves upon.