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.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016



When I was child in the 60s I didn’t know much about anything except what I was taught in school, told at home or read on my own time. My father gave me an allowance of a quarter a week and his advice was always ‘save it for a rainy day’ no matter how badly I wanted a packet of hockey cards or a Caramilk bar; many allowances carefully nurtured could provide more utile items like hockey sticks or baseballs. Dad’s philosophy was if you wanted something you worked and saved up for it; if you couldn’t afford something, you couldn’t have it. Simple as that.

Ironically, I grew up and went on to a career in advertising, an industry that persuades you to want things. From behind the curtain I saw the fabrication of desire. I’m not cheap but I consider the fate of a dollar before I part with one. To me, paying $100 for a meal or a pair of pants is extravagant, unnecessary. I enjoy a glass of Scotch or cognac but they are expensive treats to be savoured infrequently. That said it doesn’t pay to skimp on practical goods like comfortable footwear or a well insulated winter coat.

I’m closer to 60 than 50 now. I’ve led an average life of ups and downs, a jagged graph of peaks and valleys, successes and failures. Throughout I’ve always had the refuge and the joy of reading or listening to music. Writers and musicians need people like me, fans who make it worth their while. And every fall the market is saturated with new releases. And every fall I think there are enough books and music in the house to see Ann and me out, and if I bought everything I wanted the cost would add up pretty quickly, and, anyway, Christmas is coming.

This year has been a strange one. There have been cancer scares in our family of friends. Our social obligations have alternated weddings and funerals, beginnings and endings for people of all ages. Last July at a wedding reception I was seated beside a fellow we knew. We weren’t close but we liked each other. We talked, we laughed, we drank, we smoked. He dropped dead a week later; not my fault. Earlier last week Ann said to me, ‘I don’t believe in deferred gratification at our age. We both know life can change in an instant.’ So, fuckit, I went shopping with Ann’s permission.

The out of control spree commenced with the newly re-mastered and reissued Beatles album ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl.’ The revelation was just how tight the Beatles were as a rocking band, how attuned each member of the quartet was to the other three even though it was impossible to hear themselves without stage monitors over the screaming.

‘Born to Run’ is the just published autobiography of Bruce Springsteen. That The Economist deigned to review it speaks to the Boss’s stature in contemporary American culture and the quality of a memoir written without a ghost. The companion album ‘Chapter and Verse’ contains five songs which predate Springsteen’s 1973 Columbia Records debut. The gem is the proto-E Street ‘The Ballad of Jesse James.’ With the benefit of over 40 years of hindsight you can hear what’s coming, the flicks of switchblade knives and humming Exxon signs.

John le Carre is my favourite living author. I consider his works a gift from my father who introduced me to his novels. ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ is le Carre’s latest, reflections on his life as a spy and a writer, perhaps parallel or dovetailing career paths. The book was stacked beside ‘Born to Run’ as if the store’s staff had known we were coming and our parking meter was only plugged for a minimum stay. Ann said, ‘There might not be any left by Christmas.’

‘Colonel Sun’ was the first James Bond continuation published after the death of 007 creator Ian Fleming. Written by Kingsley Amis under a pen name the novel’s been something of a Holy Grail quest for me. I’ve hunted through used book sellers’ wares and antique shops for ages, always seeking. Sunday evening there was talk at the table over Thanksgiving dinner about Cyber Monday, about how the American Thanksgiving e-tail event was being exported into this country; everything on Amazon would be on sale, probably.

Come Monday my breakdown bottomed out into its nadir. I don’t particularly like Amazon, having everything I don’t need at my fingertips, and I don’t like the negative impact the company has had on the shops that used to populate our main streets. ‘Colonel Sun’ new, trade format, $15: ADD TO CART. One unsatisfying mouse click bestowed denouement on years of fruitless searching, no victory has ever been so hollow.

I freed some moths from my wallet. There are freshly minted dust motes dancing in the shafts of sunlight that penetrate the windows of our home. I feel a little guilty and slightly soiled, like any adman. But I can say there is nothing I neither need nor want now, at least until December 2nd when the Rolling Stones release ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ their first studio album in over a decade. Christmas is coming. I can wait an additional 23 days before playing it to death and memorizing every lick and lyric. Not a problem.

Thursday, 6 October 2016


Coke Adds ‘Life’

I get good advice from the advertising world/Treat me nice says the party girl/ Koke adds life where there isn’t any – the Clash, ‘Koka Kola’

The Coca-Cola Company of Canada has launched a new cola. A serving of Coca-Cola Life has half the calories of Coca-Cola which previously, for a decade or longer, was known as Coca-Cola Classic because Pepsi-panicked senior executives in the beverage maker’s Atlanta, GA head office lost confidence in their flagship product and foolishly messed with a winning formula. Diet Coke and Coke Zero have no calories but are chemically sweetened. Life is sort of a bridge between the extremes of the full on sugar, glucose-fructose rush of a regular Coke and its less tasty Diet sister and Zero brother. Life is sweetened with sugar and some weird, hip South American jungle plant.

Life is positioned oxymoronically as a natural cola, hence the radical green packaging which is alarmingly left of Coke’s traditional colour palette. Green these days suggests a certain environmental and ecological sensibility. In the soda pop industry green is a semaphore for ‘uncolas,’ lemon-lime drinks and ginger ales (club soda is blue, tonic is yellow). Life seems to be targeted at the type of consumer who would refuse a carbonated soft drink on the hottest day of the year.

The creation of Life reminds me of a relatively recent inane and pathetic campaign by Kraft to market Kraft Dinner to adults. The hooks were nostalgia and fun! One of the elements included a pop-up event tent on Toronto’s famous Bay Street. Kraft neglected to take into account that one of the reasons people strive to become high-powered bankers and lawyers is that they never want to eat Kraft Dinner ever again. If companies remember not to forget what they’re very good at, they can be delusional and mildly messianic about their core products because who wouldn’t yell ‘Please!’ for a foil packet of stinking dehydrated cheese powder.

I don’t know much about Life. I understand the new cola has launched in other countries and that the buzz fades as soon as the advertising campaign wraps up which indicates the product may have no traction beyond initial consumer curiosity. Life strikes me as a somewhat defensive sparkling ploy, in that the corporation that manufactures and distributes a legendary, tasty and refreshing beverage is constantly taken to task by activists and special interests who maintain that Coca-Cola should be righteously condemned for spawning a generation of obese, diabetic screen addicts. That would suppose that the arts of branding and persuasion somehow overarch the exercise of free will; unlike cigarettes and alcohol, cola is not addictive.

In order to understand the meaning of Life I turned to my friend John, a Coca-Cola connoisseur. John believes Coca-Cola tastes best when drunk or poured from a single serving container, either glass or a 500 mL plastic bottle, never a can. John has opinions on Coke vessels too because the container affects the cola's flavour: ‘For some reason the two-litre has improved and is as good as the 500 mL, the one in between, probably one-litre, is crap along with their new smaller size.’ He welcomes themed packaging because it saves him hunting for a sell by date. For instance, a Santa Claus Coke in October is obviously fresh from the plant while a Rio 2016 Coke is just as obviously past its prime. Fountain coke is a minefield of inconsistent proportions, sometimes there’s too much syrup but generally there’s not enough and that too tiny dollop in turn is further diluted by too many ice cubes. Diet and Zero don’t even rate a sneer.

Earlier this week I asked John to sample Life: ‘To my very surprise, it is not bad! Tastes very much like regular Coke with only the slightest aftertaste. My taste buds aren’t what they used to be but I think if you gave me a taste test with both of them nice and cold, I probably would have trouble telling them apart. Maybe I could wait for the aftertaste of both and get eight out of ten. The good news is it does not taste like the usual sweeteners that they are using instead of cane sugar, so they may be on to something.’ Coca-Cola could not craft this testimonial, a ringing endorsement from an aficionado. Was the green label married with the traditional script and wave thingy off-putting? ‘No because it made it easy to find in the cooler. That is the only change, colour. They did not try to add a bunch of crap about contents or sweeteners.’

Soda sales are in a steady albeit gentle decline, shrinking about three-per-cent annually. Coca-Cola faces a dilemma. Life is a mere brand extension rather than the advent of an entirely new marketing category as Diet Coke was when it was first introduced in the 70s. Life will not spawn a new generation of cola drinkers. If Coke loyalists like John choose Life over the old classic the company will simply cannibalize sales of its signature brand.

The Atlanta marketing spin is that Coke’s growing family of colas is now able to offer bubbly refreshment suitable to any lifestyle. Actually, the real thing is the Pepsi bugaboo again. Pepsi Next, a similar product to Life and curiously, wrapped in green and sweetened naturally with real sugar and a jungle herb, went to market four years ago. I’ll bet Life just wants a little scrap of the fading carbonated action from an old nemesis: ‘From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!’ It’s difficult not to be cynical. But John says Life is good and he would know.

Sunday, 2 October 2016


Two Nights, Two Shows, Two Venues

Thursday evening was our first experience in Edmonton’s brand new downtown hockey rink. From the outside it resembles a gigantic globule of mercury. The attraction was the roots band Dixie Chicks, the third music act to play the joint since it officially opened a few weeks ago. It was likely their first ever performance where they had to compete for attention against the venue they were booked to headline. Ann and I were honestly equally curious about the Chicks (DCX in social media parlance) and the arena.

When Rogers Place threw open its doors to welcome the media and the curious in September it sparked a frantic civic circle jerk. The Edmonton Journal managed to insert a story about the rink in every section of the paper: news, sports, arts and business. The junior Western Hockey League Oil Kings were stunned by an attendance of more than 18,000 at their season home opener.

Ann and I ate a respectable dinner at Denizen Hall, the gentrified barroom of the Grand Hotel, an infamous flophouse whose main feeder was the recently demolished Greyhound bus station. It used to be the type of place I was afraid to venture into due to a foreboding inkling that things couldn’t possibly end well. We sat before a window sipping pints of Yellowhead lager, micro-brewed just a few blocks away, and studied the arena. A few roof tiles seemed to be missing. Had they blown off? We wondered how long it would take the pouring rains and melting snows to streak and stain its silver skin.

Our tickets situated us in the upper bowl, just a little higher than the peak of Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park. The pitch was steep but nothing compared to the gallery of grey seats in the old Montreal Forum. Behind me four young men alternated whining about some perceived slight in their social milieu in high pitched voices and belching clouds of Coors Light like NASCAR fans. Ann had to share part of her seat with the plump Facebook addict on her left. There must be more legroom on an Air Canada Rouge flight.

The crowd spanned generations and genders. At first I found the arena rock stage effects for an act featuring banjo and fiddle mildly jarring, but the Dixie Chicks play big halls and Rogers Place is a fucking big hall. Natalie Maines, front and centre between founding sisters and angelic harmonizers Martie Maguire and Emily Robison (career stat courtesy of DCX: six husbands and nine babies), was a revelation as a stage performer; she owned the place and a career in stand-up awaits if she wants it. It seems obvious and facile to point out that the Dixie Chicks write good songs, but I think that’s a rare trait these days. They remind me too of Rod Stewart in his glory days in that when they cover somebody else’s work it becomes theirs and possession is nine-tenths of the law of perception. Everybody knows ‘Landslide’ of course, but the surprise showstopper was a staggeringly gorgeous rendition of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ in front of a backdrop of purple rain.

Exiting the concert we trailed two young women who were absolutely giddy with their night’s DCX experience. They took turns addressing each arena staff member thusly: ‘Thank you, Roger! Nice place you’ve got here!’ I laughed at the absurdity of corporate sponsorship and naming rights. Rogers Place does indeed sound like a friend’s basement rec room furnished with a beer fridge and a foosball table.

Friday night Ann and I scaled things back, way back. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is one of our favourite bands. They receive consistently heavy airplay on our living room stereo. The roots group is a side project of Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson, each of whom is an established artist in his own right. Their output is sparse, just eight albums over the course of 20 years.

Sherwood Park is a bedroom city east of Edmonton in neighbouring Strathcona County. I used to think the two places were some distance from each other. The sprawling communities almost abut now, separated simply by a ten-minute stretch of freeway through an industrial, science fiction landscape of refinery tanks, towers and tubes. Festival Place is a warm, intimate space. There are tables in front of the stage and along the sides. The rest of the seating is theatre style although there are not enough short rows to complete the alphabet.

The concert had a welcome, impromptu feel. The three singer-guitarists admitted that they’d just caught up with each other in the dressing room. Stephen Fearing said he’d spent the morning attempting to assemble an IKEA armoire at his home in Victoria, B.C. and was thrilled to leave the project uncompleted. Tom Wilson had been playing acoustic shows with his son in Los Angeles, CA. Ann imagined the group text from Colin Linden to the others: ‘I’m heading up to Edmonton from Nashville to visit family. Should we book a venue for a one-off?’

The show was superb even if the set list was likely hastily assembled backstage. We had the sensation that the life-sized trio was actually performing in our living room, flattening the tabbies’ ears and rattling the windows. Why Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have not sold as many albums as the Dixie Chicks is a mystery to us; they are equally talented composers with three pairs of attuned ears to vet a hook and a chorus. Perhaps the fluid, on again off again nature of the band has held them back. One step up and two steps back, jagged momentum is impossible to sustain.

The evening provided two pieces of fabulous news. ‘Kings and Kings’ a new album spotlighting guest artists including Jason Isbell and Nick Lowe – an all-time hero of mine – is due later this month. It will make a stellar companion to ‘Kings and Queens’ which includes songs sung along with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Patti Scialfa, Exene Cervenka, Amy Helm and Lucinda Williams. If the idea of any of this music intrigues you, may I also suggest ‘South,’ the latest Blackie and the Rodeo Kings release to date. And from the stage, a promise to return to Alberta next March with a full band and a coterie of special guests.

The bad news for Ann and me is that we’ve booked a Hawaiian vacation commencing at the end of March. The tragic fallout is that I will spend the rest of autumn and all of winter fretting over potentially conflicting dates. And we didn’t buy travel cancellation insurance.