Thursday, 30 June 2016


American Guns and Brexit: We, the Insane People

All things and everything are entwined in the web of history. And physics too because there will always be equal and opposite reactions, low entropy and chaos linked by quantum waves of fear. Everything’s connected.

There has always been war in Europe. Whatever the continent brought to the table to advance the human condition, it is also responsible for creating global warfare. The American Revolutionary War or Great Patriotic War or whatever began almost immediately after the end of the Seven Years’ War. Proxy conflict continued in North America. France and Spain backed the 13 colonies. Great Britain employed German mercenaries, Hessians. The Continental Army was something like an outdoor Canadian hockey rink on a mild winter’s night: pick-up; everybody dropped their guns eight years after the face off.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, (raise a Militia, bear arms, blah, blah) enacted in 1791, isn’t about the right to walk into a Dallas Wal-Mart with a loaded assault rifle so much as a reflection of a fledging nation’s middle finger to 18th century geopolitics. The United States Army was not formally created until 1796. In the meantime, the loose affiliation of independent states was prepared to defend itself against European colonial powers (Britain, France, Spain, Holland etc.) looking to solidify or advance their interests in the New World.

The Second Amendment was a Continental Congress stopgap: European interference in the affairs of the new country was rightfully feared and would not be tolerated. The self-proclaimed weapons right now seems as archaic as slave ownership. And it lives on now as a fulcrum for fear, leveraged as an alienable right in a demon haunted world by special interests and the paranoid right. There’s a fifth column of the enemy within and barbarians are at the gates.

There has always been war in Europe. The European Economic Community (EEC) was formed to ease trade and commerce restrictions between countries on the continent. However, a tacit hope of the agreement was that partner countries might be less inclined to invade each other. That worked. The EEC has since morphed into the European Union (EU). The EU is a grand, globalization Petri dish, a modern and enlightened attempt to distribute goods, democracy, wealth and equality despite often being hamstrung by red tape.

The Brexit result (I’m fed up with these neologistic proper nouns already and can we please fucking lose Scandalgate?) reflects Britain’s fear of the rest of Europe. The still mysterious doom of one of the world’s most respected countries hinged on two lame advertising campaigns. One called for the benefits of common sense and a common market; the other, from people who should surely know better after all this time, fearfully cried for isolation, tribalism and protectionism, a toast to brave Albion with chipped Victorian teacups: to bed-sits, gas meters, a full English, two World Wars and one World Cup, coal strikes, Spitfires and the Strand, luv. The downside of direct democracy is that a myriad of complicated issues is reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator: us and them; reason versus passion.

We’ve all just dipped our toes into the tide of the 21st century. I suppose a Creationist might rib us that these are the sunny days of Eden for populist demagogues. I would argue that the decline of the British Empire began with the violent secession of the Thirteen Colonies, which in turn led to the cocktail napkin Second Amendment. I realize that Americans need their guns. The daily mass shootings in that country aren’t as bothersome as Muslim mole President Obama’s conspiratorial plan, in league with the United Nations, to round up true patriots and imprison them in the dank dungeons underneath Wal-Mart stores. There were no facts underlying the Brexit ‘Leave’ rhetoric, just appeals to the past and nostalgia, and weirdly, the funding of Britain’s National Health Service.

History tells us that there were never any good old days. History informs us that a lot of our present problems had their genesis in bygone days. Moving backward into the future seems an insane proposition, delusional at best. Our overheated and rifled imaginations are running off in all the wrong directions.

Friday, 24 June 2016


Sing to the Hand

There are enough of them to compile an excruciating mix tape, aren’t there? Maybe enough to fill a box of a dozen Maxell chrome 90s. Those songs you never want to hear ever again. I’m not even typing about ‘Where Evil Grows’ by the Poppy Family or Terry Jacks going solo; I’m typing about those tired FM radio warhorses, those monumental tunes that still cast dark shadows far beyond the realms of pot and puberty: ‘Money,’ ‘Hotel California,’ ‘Free Bird’ and the strutting king bee of them all, ‘Stairway to Heaven.’

Thursday an American court decreed that Led Zeppelin did not steal the music of an American band called Spirit to create the opening chords of what may be Led Zep’s best known but not best song. I didn’t follow the proceedings closely but I was highly amused by the tableau: lawyers quizzing geriatric rockers, legends and golden gods, in 2016 about what they were up to in 1970 or ’71. In this instance ‘I don’t remember’ is not an evasive answer, coached perjury is near impossible.

The first time I heard of Spirit was 1978. Jay Ferguson released an album called Thunder Island. The eponymous lead single sounded like Joe Walsh slumming in California, and he was, Joe played guitar on the track. It was an okay song but I’d rather have heard Joe Walsh doing Joe Walsh. A few years later Don Henley would absolutely nail the same wistful vacation longing with ‘The Boys of Summer.’ The Thunder Island sleeve was pina colada tropical beachcake, sort of icky Bee Gees and excruciatingly similar to Love Beach, that year’s Emerson, Lake and Palmer release. My music magazines said Ferguson had once played in Spirit.

Led Zep has been called to account before, specifically by Chess master Willie Dixon for entire verses of his writing which were incorporated without credit into ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ After the (rightful) settlement Jimmy Page said something like Robert Plant forgot to rewrite the words or just sang what he knew. My sense is that plagiarism in stoned composition is more accidental rather than calculated although digital technology has opened an entirely new Pandora’s Box of borrowing, sampling and stealing – does Bo Diddley own his beat?

I have never heard ‘Taurus’ by Spirit though I know enough not to confuse it with ‘Tarkus’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Had I been investigative I could have descended into the YouTube vortex and compared the intros of ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ I didn’t. Led Zeppelin IV or ‘Zoso’ or ‘Runes’ is in my music library. I have not played it in years because I cannot bear to listen to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ one more time.

The song remains the same: I have acne and braces and it’s the end of the high school dance and it’s too late to work up the nerve to approach a girl I think I like and I think might like me although I’ve no idea why she would. The beginning of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is playing and I am trying not to look twice at a girl who could’ve looked twice at me and so instead stare into the awkward void of adolescent hell. It’s a long song for a sort of slow dance and if I don’t act quickly it will soon be over. Funny how times slips away.

These days I rarely sleep through the night. I know restlessness in the wee small hours is a function of age. What often wakes me up is a dream invoking my teenaged years, the embarrassment, the shame, the stupidity and the sheer ignorance I possessed because I thought I knew everything while knowing less than nothing. I get out of bed and walk down the long hallway toward the kitchen. In my head I hear: ‘There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.’ Heavy stuff, the relentless soundtrack of unresolved, past-dated angst; I just want to make a sandwich and read The Economist. But first, the bathroom.

Sunday, 19 June 2016


Laugh? I Nearly Died

When Ann and I bandy about ideas or suggestions of future plans she always says, ‘Put that in your hopper.’ We both ruminate and let things percolate. Then we talk things through. Sometimes we act. Sometimes we don’t. The only life lesson I’ve learned is that you only live once and it never sticks so I need constant remedial reminders. So I thought it might be a kick to take Ann to Las Vegas to see the Rolling Stones next October. Reckless, impulsive, that’s me.

Ann has never been to the throbbing heart of American grotesque, Donald Trump’s hair manifested in a red crater in a desert; Mars colonized by the Syndicate, and Disney: pyramids, medieval castles and pirate ships, New York, New York with an Eiffel tower. A spray tanned and spatula pancake foundation fake Elvis on a purple-costumed jag mumbling like a Wal-Mart greeter in a blue-rinse hotel the Sinatra-led ‘Ocean’s 11’ cast couldn’t be bothered to rob. Collectible, full colour, hooker cards wedged into every public nook and cranny along the Strip. A bloated and doughy Pete Rose scribbling apologies on baseballs beneath the vault of a painted sky. Fabulous: there’s a reason why what happens in Vegas stays there, troublesome infections notwithstanding.

I love the Rolling Stones as much as I love the Montreal Canadiens, which is to say more than my mother but not as much as I love Ann or our cats. I know rock is dead; I know the Rolling Stones do not matter anymore, the sex and danger along with the riffs and topical words withered long ago. Now they intrigue me as an incredibly successful brand, one I still buy into because, remarkably, they’ve remained one of life’s constants even if their set list hasn’t changed that much since 1989; I wish Guy Lafleur still scored 50 goals each winter for the Habs.

The only other time Ann and I travelled to catch a show was in 2012, Bob Dylan was playing Lethbridge, AB of all places, a small hockey rink. The prospect was so strange to contemplate that it had to be seen to be believed. I was also under the delusion that we’d meet him in the Ramada Inn hotel bar after the show and talk baseball and Neil Young. Those tickets cost $90 each. The framed show bill hangs in the kitchen: Don’t You Dare Miss It! The portrait is lit such that he seems ageless, indefinable yet distinctly accented with a dash of black eyeliner.

Vegas being Vegas, I set a loose limit on how much we were prepared to pay for decent Stones seats, mindful of the inherent risk involved committing financially to senior citizens appearing in a foreign and increasingly strange country some five months in advance. I calculated that about $200 a seat ought to turn the trick even if it seemed a tad extravagant with the exchange and taxes on top, but you only live once.

Last Wednesday there was an advance sale for middle-aged sad sacks such as myself who have downloaded the official Rolling Stones app. I secured two VIP tickets worth $550 each, included were souvenir lithographs and a lanyard complete with a laminated tag which was not to be confused with a backstage pass. The transaction timer ticked down. I thought, If Christ Himself were to return and mount an Elvis tribute show at the T-Mobile Arena, the future home of a future NHL franchise, I would not pay that amount of money. I said to Ann, ‘We’ll wait until Friday when tickets for the little people go on sale.’

Friday morning I logged on to the ticket sales site and was provided a place in the digital waiting room. Thirty-seven minutes later I was presented with a single option, two tickets at $450 each, lanyard included. I thought, If the Rolling Stones were to perform an acoustic set of blues and country in our backyard I might pay that much provided they played ‘Loving Cup’ and ‘Coming Down Again.’

Following the psychodrama and the cursing, Ann said, ‘If we want a true musically themed trip we should go to Nashville and Memphis, and spend four or five days in each city exploring.’ I was in Nashville once on business, in and out, just 24 hours or so. I spent most of my work day chatting hockey with the general manager of a printing company. I was there to press check a print run of seven million digests, but this fellow ran a great shop and so I had nothing to complain about. I attended a Pacific Coast League AAA baseball game. I drank cold beer. I ate catfish po’ boys. Swimming in my own sweat I stared at the green directional signs pointing the way to Memphis, the Sun and Stax studios, blues clubs, barbecue and the Jungle Room, and wished I had more time. Ann added, ‘Put that in your hopper.’

Sunday, 12 June 2016


Sign ‘O’ the Times

We should close the windows at night but the cross-draught is a godsend. Shortly before six o’clock last Thursday morning Ann and I were awakened by hysterical screaming: ‘Fuck you! Eat my shit!’ One of our eccentric neighbours had gone postal in the dawn. Her back lane collection day blue recycling bag was being rummaged by a stranger seeking containers that might return a few cents’ deposit at a bottle depot.

A friend of ours who lives around the bend of our street experienced an imagined senior moment a week ago. He was mowing his front lawn. He stopped cutting to go into his backyard to get another bag for his clippings. When he returned his machine was gone. There was a nanosecond of self-doubt: ‘Wasn’t I… Didn’t I…?’

We recently found a plastic glove box wallet on our driveway. It had been flung like a Wham-O, side-armed with a wrist snap. Somebody’s 2004 Dodge Caravan had been broken into and we now possessed the owners’ manual and the vehicle’s maintenance history but neither the driver’s name nor address. Our Honda has been rifled, inadvertently left unlocked after unloading the fruits of our errands; the landline probably rang and distracted us - some disease marketer looking for money: Diabetes, Heart & Stroke, which type of cancer, what else have you got?

Ann’s noted that the sounds of our spring have been more sirens and car alarms than birdsong, rustling tree leaves and coyote yipping. The local volunteer who composes the Neighbourhood Watch e-mails has been busy. There are squatters in a neglected bungalow which is proximate to the grade school, the community hall, the baseball diamond and the soccer field. Hunters and gatherers roam the alleys. The information is helpful and tipped with common sense property preservation suggestions, if fretful for those who fear that nuisance crimes perpetuated by invaders will dance the neighbourhood into some Third World shantytown apocalypso.

Beyond blind adherents to warped ideologies, I don’t know much about criminals. There are amoral careerists, sleazy opportunists and desperate sorts driven past lengths they were raised to know are wrong. That can of worms is a bottomless five-gallon pail. What I do know is that hard times and an abysmally high rate of unemployment make for idle hands.

Alberta is tied or leading the country in consumer delinquencies: mortgages, car loans, credit card payments and whatever other debt is measured and quantified. The economy is stalled. The energy industry has been scorched, burned by endlessly running OPEC taps, the green lobby and boreal wildfires. This is the realm of the rookie NDP government, squalling and learning to crawl one year after inheriting bags of shredded ancien Tory regime documents. And to soothe this smoking wasteland, the NDP has legislated a near-universal carbon tax whose timing is less than ideal though it makes perfect political sense to get the ugly and necessary stuff out of the way early in their mandate. People have short memories.

There is a pervading sense too that the old ways are passing; that the good old days of boom and bust predicated by the gusher of Leduc No. 1 in 1947 just may be going kicking and screaming into the night. Change happens because it must, managing it is tricky. Recalibrating the provincial economy beyond the diktats of the energy lobby will take years. And that will be a complex play to stage because globalization and what pundits describe as ‘digital disruption’ have already made their spotlighted entrances. Why encourage or subsidize a failing industry? Why invest in buggy whips when you know Henry Ford’s making cars?

An old joke: ‘How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.’ Bank of England Governor Mark Carney alluded to this last week here in Edmonton while delivering a commencement speech to the University of Alberta’s Class of 2016: ‘Many of the jobs and even the industries of today will be gone tomorrow.’ In days like these it seems as if the future in its micro and macro forms is due to arrive sooner than expected; here in Edmonton we’ve glimpsed a pale rider approaching in the near distance. Screaming ‘Fuck you!’ from behind the manicured side of a backyard fence doesn’t strike me as the most constructive means of engagement.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016


The Greatest 1942 - 2016

Do I have to type his name? Do I even have to type his name!?

It doesn’t matter who’s in your corner, if you choose to climb into a boxing ring or fight the Government of the United States, you are alone. I only came to this understanding long after Muhammad Ali’s retirement as the best heavyweight there ever was. Ali was louder than life and he hit his opponents way harder than the hard knocks all of us experience over time.

Heavyweight boxing is now a fringe sport, still groggy from its cannibalistic and farcical Mike Tyson nadir. It’s hard to believe it used to drip with drama and glamour. My limited schoolyard brat appreciation of the sport grew from the photography in Sports Illustrated, a fighter reeling from a punch, his sweat flying like a sheet of rain, frozen. And the photographs were taken in exotic locales around the globe, places where someone like James Bond went. My big brother and I shared a subscription to Sports Illustrated and, in retrospect, it seemed like Ali was on the magazine’s cover at least once a month. Beyond the pictures, he made for some compelling reading.

Recess the morning after an Ali fight was a violent hell. Last night’s match was restaged, restaged, restaged and restaged. Every boy wanted to be Ali. I don’t know that the colour of his skin ever occurred to us and, anyway, everybody in the United States of America was an equal – especially since the end of the Civil War (there’s one hell of an oxymoron) – and everything was fine down there, right? We knew he’d changed his name for religious reasons, but hadn’t we all chosen names of apostles and saints for our Confirmations in 1967? And maybe his religion was weird, but our catechism had a guy in a whale’s belly and in a lion’s den and a Holy Trinity and a Virgin Birth. After Ali lost his first bout with Joe Frazier in 1971 our schoolyard shock was palpable, the result seemed as improbable as the Second Coming or our nun teachers conducting classes naked.

Ali had that magical, Everlast charisma; he transcended his sport, and the politics and the pop culture of his time. Maybe he created the pop culture of his time. He was just 74 when he died, an age that doesn’t strike me as all that old these days. When the stars in our parents’ universe winked for the last time, well, who cared? That was their generation. But the tide will always turn. I am not thinking about punches to my face in the schoolyard, Ali’s epic bouts, his rhymes, his evangelicalism or even his philanthropy; I am thinking that if life has the nerve to cease the breath and the words of a man like him, it must surely snuff me, a mere aged fan.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016


Buy Another Day

Sunday morning promised a sunny respite from what locals describe as a "million-dollar rain," a steady, dense downpour gentle enough to soak into the turf without carving runoff culverts in the soil or batter the still fragile spring plants. I refrained from turning on any electronic devices and settled outside on the patio under the shade of an umbrella. My companion was James Bond. I was finally able to get around to ‘Solo,’ London author William Boyd’s (‘An Ice-Cream War,’ ‘The New Confessions,’ ‘Any Human Heart’ to cite just a few works of his I’ve enjoyed through the years) addition to Ian Fleming’s literary legacy. ‘Solo’ was published in 2013 but it took me a while to track down because bookstores tend to sell lifestyle accessories rather than a varied selection of actual books.

There is so much to read and so much to learn. Each time I admonish myself for slumming with words I remember what my father said about 007, “I’ve always got time for a good story.” However there are certain standards and rules to be followed, and of course exceptions. I believe literary characters should die with their authors. Obviously I’ve not adhered to this view vis-à-vis James Bond. The only other time I’ve broken this rule was with ‘Poodle Springs’ in which the Boston detective author Robert. B. Parker (“Spenser, like the poet”) completed a fragment of a surviving Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe manuscript. It read seamlessly, but who knows where Chandler intended to go with it and whether he even knew himself?

I will not read the marketing novelization of a Bond film or any film. Ironically Fleming’s own ‘Thunderball’ novel began life as a film treatment and the settlement of the ensuing legal difficulties allowed for the original film to be remade as ‘Never Say Never Again,’ a smirking bastard outside the “official” Bond canon. (The stories in ‘For Your Eyes Only’ were intended for television.) I have made two other 35 millimetre exceptions in my life as a reader: Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’ was originally a film treatment for director Carol Reed and Arthur C. Clarke expanded the movie script he co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick into the much more expansive and elegant explanatory novel ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’

The movie 007 and the book 007, though the lines between their lethal silhouettes sometimes blur, are two very distinct brands of killers. While they both share very particular suave and sophisticated characteristics, the Bond Fleming typed out at Goldeneye, his Jamaican cliff-top hideaway, was not given to nudge-nudge, wink-wink quips. There is some evidence that Fleming was either growing tired of his hero or had literary aspirations: ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ is narrated by a female, demoting Bond to a secondary, almost minor role. Fleming’s loyal readers did not embrace his tentative experiment.

The Bond of prose is easily recognized by his black hair and a troublesome forelock which tends to fall over his forehead and is usually described as a comma. He showers frequently, the water as hot as he can stand it and then cold only for the last five minutes. He is rigorous about his routine of calisthenics. He drinks, smokes, takes speed and more often than not thinks of women as “poor little bitches.” And he comes in three varieties. The first is the spy of Fleming’s imagination. The second type, despite the best efforts of SMERSH and SPECTRE, lives on in continuations by genre thriller writers including John Gardner and Jeffery Deaver. The third 007 perhaps reflects Fleming’s unfulfilled ambitions, noted and well regarded British authors Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and Boyd have each taken a turn writing as Fleming.

The day before, Saturday, there was a break in the dreary drizzle. Ann said, “Let’s get off the property.” We motored over to a nearby antique store, one she likes that has since recently relocated inside the perimeter of our daily chore rounds. The gravel parking lot was peppered with desultory stalls selling one person’s junk as treasure, ancient Marvel comics and tarnished lapel pins, a sad little fair. There was a barbecue pavilion and it didn’t seem half as hygienic as Ann’s friend Rod the Trumpeter’s hot dog stand downtown on Jasper Avenue, or even the monthly charity lunchtime barbecue held outside our grocery store on the first Tuesday of every month; the commonality was the squeeze bottle of a sweet green relish, a disgusting condiment to contemplate with its toilet sounds of dispersal. We each had a bite to eat anyway, charmed to death when the fellow with the dirty fingernails who’d peeled the cello envelopes from the rat trap cheese slices asked us if it was “melty” enough on our burger and dog.

We entered the two-storey store. I immediately situated the washroom because at my age with dodgy food you just don’t know, you never can tell. Upstairs were shelves and barristers’ bookcases stuffed with musty, dusty spines. I spotted ‘Biggles in Africa’ and thought, “Maybe, just maybe.” Ian Fleming died in 1964. The first post-Fleming Bond novel was published in 1968. ‘Colonel Sun’ was written by Kingsley Amis behind the pen name of Robert Markham. This book has become something of a grail quest of mine. From Victoria, BC to Charlottetown, PEI and other towns and cities a long way from many places in between, I’ve combed used book stores and sundry curiosity shops hoping to buy somebody else’s discarded, yellowed junk, an obscure James Bond tale.

It was not to be. I then searched the vinyl bins for a secondary grail, the inaugural Rolling Stones Records release, the ‘Brown Sugar’ maxi-single backed with two B-side tracks, ‘Bitch’ and ‘Let It Rock.’ No luck there either but at least the music’s in the house in other formats. Instead Ann and I left with two impulsively purchased heavy oak office chairs that pre-date our respective arrivals on this planet. I was happy; if I were to furnish Philip Marlowe’s noir office for a film set, I’d use those chairs. They’re comfortable and they don’t make them like that anymore.

Today my Internet browser was open. I searched the web for ‘Colonel Sun’ simply to double check its first edition year. And there it was on Amazon, a mass market reprint released late last year to zero fanfare. One of my personal grails was finally and literally at my fingertips at an insanely competitive price. I sat back and pondered such a dull denouement to years of hunting and foraging. “No, Mister Bond,” I thought, “it cannot end like this. It’s just too easy, Blofeld would not approve.” I closed the browser and turned off the computer.