Sunday, 19 November 2017

NONSENSE VERSE

Scamp’s Crooked 9 Blues

I’m a cranky old tabby big as rugby ball
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby big as rugby ball
Hear me rumblin’ all down your front hall

I’m a cranky old tabby pacing the kitchen floor
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby pacing the kitchen floor
You don’t feed me Whiskas I ain’t goin’ purr no more

I’m a cranky old tabby sippin’ at the bathroom sink
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby sippin’ at the bathroom sink
You better run that tap ‘cause man I need a drink

I’m a cranky old tabby with a crusty butt
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby with a crusty butt
Better change my litter or I’ll drop a you know what

I’m a cranky old tabby snoozing on a comfy chair
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby snoozing on a comfy chair
When I wake up you better comb my tiger hair

I’m a cranky old tabby wailin’ at the wall
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby wailin’ at the wall
Dear Lord deliver me won’t you heed my call

Monday, 13 November 2017

NONSENSE VERSE

A Tabby in Winter

I know that it’s confusing; I know it’s really weird
But winter has arrived again, my old greybeard

We’ve had this conversation at least twenty times before
The weather is the same outside every household door

I’ll tell you something else that’s oddly passing strange
It takes more than thirty seconds for a season’s change

Letting you out now, sir, you’d only meet your death
You’d freeze beneath that hungry coyote’s breath

Get off the counter! Don’t shred the couch!
Use your litter box! Don’t be a grouch!

Go groom yourself, curl up and try to get more sleep
Because out there, my friend, the snow drifts are so deep

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

The Dilemma Posed by Rod Stewart

Ann swears like a sailor these days. Sometimes I wish she’d stop poring over her American fake news feeds. Hello, Pot, I’m no better. I look at the CBC, the BBC, the New York Times and the Globe and Mail and keep muttering, “Jesus.”

Ann cannot move around my heart without the use of a cane now. Sometimes she uses it as a pointer and I find myself instinctively cupping my gnards with protective affection. Some sort of binary, cisgender reflex, I guess; I’ve always been fond of them. Our everyday routine has altered. Our ancient and deaf tabby sits and caterwauls facing the wrong way in a corner like some Cockney demon, “Allo! Allo!” The toilet runs like a marathon. The faucet in the bath doesn’t work. October’s social calendar was populated with funerals. Halloween Jack on the front porch is frozen solid.

When it all gets too much, I shrink inward and dwell on big, important stuff. The other morning Ann said, “Rod Stewart’s coming to Edmonton.” I made a humming noise of acknowledgement, morning kitchen coffee proof that I’d been paying attention. I began to think about Rod the Mod because I’m so sick of global, national and provincial politics; heart attacks, suicides and cancer scares; poverty and entitlement; negative and regressive public discourse; the Canadiens’ horrific start to the new season; Facebook platitudes and affirmations; pug puppies and kale.

Even if things are breaking down in this house and in the world that surrounds us, there is always music playing in the living room or the YouTube vortex on the desktop computer in the den. Either as a member of Faces or as a solo star, Rod gets more than his fair share of loud spins here at the Crooked 9. However, we rarely listen to anything released after 1975’s Atlantic Crossing. In the great, chaotic cosmic scheme in which life’s rich pageant unfolds, Rod’s career trajectory barely registers as tragedy except amongst betrayed hardcore fans.

Rolling Stone once sneered that no other artist had betrayed their talent so completely. Rod was a lot like a tumor, the bigger he became the worse he became. Yet his pedigree was impeccable: shy second fiddle to the ego that is Jeff Beck in the Jeff Beck Group; front man for chaotically and delightfully sloppy Stones rivals the Faces; the remarkable string of solo albums for Mercury Records. There’s no firm consensus as to when Rod fell over the edge of the creative cliff but the albums that followed 1977’s Foot Loose and Fancy Free were slicker and excruciatingly calculated to please a mass audience: the folkie, lovable loser desperately desired to be a rock god at any price. And then Rod stopped writing songs altogether.

He is a legacy artist with a chequered legacy. Still, Rod remains one of the premier showmen of second generation rock ‘n’ roll. His is an amiable stage presence, witty and charming. (His breezy autobiography Rod is neither a waste of time nor eyesight.) Soccer balls booted from the footlights zipping around hockey rinks! Reliable. For two hours or so his paying audience will have as much fun as he does, and that’s always felt like reciprocity to me having seen him four times over the course of some 40 years.

Ann said, “I’ve never seen him.”

Hmm. “When?”

“April.”

The trouble with senior rockers of course is that you must make a financial commitment months in advance, roll the dice on their health (and yours) rather than the illegal foolish behaviour of their (and our) primes. Tickets aren’t $15 anymore. Arena security is now as invasive and annoying as an airport’s. Still, it’s very simple to reschedule a downtown train trip across the river as opposed to an itinerary involving flights and hotels. I’d mused a year ago about surprising Ann with a trip to see him in Las Vegas, but America has a very different hue these days.

“Something to look forward to,” Ann said.

April, yeah, spring. It’s cold now and the winter’s coming on. The fake news is all bad. All right, let’s plan on rocking out like middle-aged boomers in five months. “That would be fun,” I said. And if Rod the Mod can still do his job, and everything shakes down as it should for him, and us, and the planet over the next 150 days, it will be.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

THE DELETE BIN

Three O'Clock Train

Today's post has migrated to the Delete Bin, my favourite music blog. The link to the 'Bin is down on the lower right. I wrote about Three O'Clock Train here in September. More needed to be said.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A FAN’S NOTES

US + Them

Early last June my friend Rene, a graphic designer, called from Calgary. Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, had a fall date in Edmonton. Rene, a native Edmontonian, described Waters as a “bucket list” act and thought a road trip north to see the show and check out the new downtown arena might be fun. We got in touch with our friend Roy, a stone-carving wildlife artist and self-proclaimed aficionado of “all things related to The Wall.” Last year, my birthday gift to Roy was a gently used The Wall coffee mug and a cinema ticket for Roger Waters: The Wall.

The three of us met almost 30 years ago in the advertising department of a major corporation. One of the conundrums of advertising is easily described by imagining a simple linear scale that extends from one to ten. The designer’s mind is at ten. The available software is either a seven or an eight. The budget and production resources usually register around four.

Waters’ departure from the progressive band was so acrimonious as to be petty. In return for ceding the name of the group he co-founded to remaining members he demanded the rights to The Wall and his inflatable pig. He’s often perceived and portrayed as a cynical crank. Now, reimagine the advertising graph. Substitute Waters for the designer. An analogue recording studio becomes the software. Live performances transform into the means of production. We’ve wormed into a lobe of his brain and the neurons are firing frustration.

In 2017 technology caught up with much of what must go on in Waters’ head. The floating pig is now a drone. Through some miracle of ticketing Rene was able to acquire us seats the venue described as “lower-drink rail.” We were cordoned off above and behind a lower bowl section on comfortable chairs before a shelf to rest and bend our elbows on. The soundboard island down on the hockey rink’s floor was larger than Canada’s smallest province. I counted a baker’s dozen of lit laptops before struggling to remember what number follows 13.

The focal point for the audience was an immense video screen which dwarfed my perception of the depth of the stage. The boards to be trodden were maybe two planks, nothing wider than a window washer’s gantry. Pose some of your children’s action figures on a cribbage slat in front of your 60” flat screen TV and you’ll get the picture. Band members were uniformly dressed in black. The bearded guitarist and co-vocalist bore a curious resemblance to a young, unshaven David Gilmour.

A rock critic once acidly and rather amusingly described the Eagles as “loitering” on stage. There was no Freddie Mercury in Pink Floyd either. The Floyd relied on special effects, lights and backdrop slides. If complex compositions were not road worthy, well, a movie could be filmed in a Roman ruin. Waters is more charismatic in interviews than performance, as snide and opinionated as his lyrics.

The evening’s sensory assault was casual fan friendly. The set list was stuffed with material from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. I assume the sole song I didn’t recognize came from Is This the Life We Really Want? his latest release. Mercifully, we were not required to reassess The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. Because a $12 Rogers Place beer is processed at the same rate as the buck-a-can variety, I scurried off to the men’s room during ‘Money’ because I’m okay if I never hear that track again. If there was a theme to the performance, it could be summed up succinctly: “Mother, should I trust (insert personal bete noir here)…”

As the US + Them extravaganza marched toward its climax, I was glad I was wearing my glasses though I didn’t know where to look. A second video screen, perpendicular to the first dropped from the ceiling, its supporting cables rendered as white smokestacks. It stretched from goal line to goal line. A remote controlled pig flew around the upper tiers past an image of the Battersea power station snuffling after a silvery, remote controlled moon. Down on the floor the prism from the cover of Dark Side was recreated as a pyramid, Giza sized, with white lasers. The multi-media surrealism was a parsec beyond anything Waters could’ve imagined let alone orchestrated and staged during Pink Floyd’s prime.

Fittingly, the show ended with ‘Comfortably Numb.’ Rene, Roy and I walked over to the Hotel Macdonald to have a beer under the portrait of the Fathers of Confederation. I felt overloaded, hungover almost, battered by the volume of everything: the music, the effects, the visuals. Minds blown. We reached a questioning consensus. “What the hell did we just go to?” If we still smoked up our brains would’ve melted. There had been a few whiffs of skunk in the arena and the olfactory trigger had made me grin, thinking about the 70s for a fleeting moment, rock shows, basements with wood paneling and shag carpets, rolling papers, record sleeves and black vinyl, and clunky stereo headphones.

Roy examined his phone. “How do we get Uber?”

I said, “There’s a taxi stand right outside the door.”

“Old school,” Rene said to me. He turned to Roy, “I think you have to download the app.”

“How do I do that?”

“We could just grab a cab, you know.”

“No, we’re taking Uber.”

Friday, 13 October 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Montreal, Mon Amour

City magic. Drink it all in. Our internal clocks are winding down and could stop any time. Sometime in the late afternoon of the first of May, 2020, coincidentally Ann’s birthday, there could come a moment on a median. I will have lived exactly half my life in my hometown and half in Alberta. Two entirely different lives.

Ann and I are 12 storeys up in the Hyatt. Through our hotel’s window I can see the Royal Victoria Hospital where my sister Anne toiled for most of her medical career. The gothic castle is set against the familiar profile of Mount Royal, a latticed steel cross atop its ancient, rounded peak. The foliage is just beginning to fade and turn from a deep, rich green. Some of my brother is up there somewhere amongst the trees.

Five years ago the three of us found a nice spot for a few ounces of Bob’s ashes overlooking the McGill University campus, his alma mater. We took turns sprinkling him around. Afterward I licked his dust from my fingertips because I didn’t want to wipe him on my jeans. Following our private pagan ceremony we went to Lester’s on Bernard for smoked meat sandwiches. Tell me, what else were we going to do?

There were mileposts all down the unpaved shoulder of my steep slope to perdition. The crucifix and portrait of my rather effeminate guardian angel, little boy blue, over my bed were sequentially replaced by Spider-Man, Montreal Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau and ultimately, Mick Jagger. The one constant was outside in the night air illuminating the radio waves.

Compared to the aridity of Edmonton, Montreal always feels tropical, humid beneath a busted water balloon sky. Ann and I leaned against the brick sidewall of a pub on Bleury, sheltering from the rain beneath a black iron fire escape, smoking. From the alley I could see the top of cruciform Place Ville-Marie, lit red, the fingers of its searchlights probing the darkness. Its iconic beams used to hypnotize me to sleep. A perfect night long ago meant the lights sweeping clockwise past my bedroom window, the Expos playing baseball in the Pacific time zone on the radio and my mother not screaming at my father downstairs in the living room.

After I die I hope to exist beyond the confines of time and space; I wish to spend eternity exploring the universe which is, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “… a big place, perhaps the biggest.” There’s so much I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t understand. On the other hand, I could easily settle for a modest afterlife, a searchlight, a single bed and a ballgame on a transistor radio – so long as the batteries don’t run out as sometimes nine innings take forever.

Crescent Street, greystones, stairs, awnings, memories, was wet with rain. I understood something I already knew, why certain film directors always shoot wet sets. Everything glistens. A dirty street had been washed and baptized. Gazing down upon the streetscape like that optician’s billboard in The Great Gatsby was an unfinished 20-storey mural of Leonard Cohen, late career fedora and pinstriped glad rags. The rake really didn’t suit his beige undercoating, too bland, not Leonard’s style; on this drizzly day I wanted to see his famous blue raincoat. I don’t suspect Leonard hung out much on Crescent Street either, neither earnest nor earthy enough, no poetry in the singles bars no doubt, but, Jesus, he would’ve made out like a bandit.

This city was my city. Now I’m just a tourist with heartstrings attached. Montreal made me. Montreal shaped me. Montreal will always have a hold on me. I wished we had a better camera than Ann’s iPhone and my iPad. Everywhere I looked I saw a work of art, a tableau of tired grace; a streaky watercolour, one of my works if only I possessed that gift and quality brushes. I wanted to paint the town. All I’ve got are words and my vocabulary is limited. I love Montreal more than I can say.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

DUKE STREET KINGS

Crass Cash Grab

Copies of my second novel Duke Street Kings are still available. Not a surprise so much as a genuine, certifiable miracle. Honest. Visit falcon-press.ca or call toll-free 1-877-284-5181.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

High School Confidential

It was a couple of hours after midnight and so I guessed it was sort of Saturday already, squinty in a Double Pizza outlet on rue Ste-Catherine and Jeanne-Mance. The chairs were on the tables. An employee in a polyester polo shirt was mopping the floor. There were two wedges of pizza on display, warm in infra-red heat. Nothing else within staggering distance was open. Ann and I were occupying a smoking room across the street at the Hyatt. We were hungry and I was sweating potential bed spins; I knew fog and pain would come with sunrise even if the curtains were drawn. I had regressed 40 years in the previous seven hours.

High school reunions are time machines. I graduated from a semi-private Catholic boys’ school in 1977. Ann and I were in Montreal to say hello again to distant friends of mine and perhaps find others whom I’ve lost along the way. This trip had a different, invigorating dynamic. “Our focus isn’t family obligations in my hometown, baby, we’re only here for fun.”

Marty is my oldest friend. He lives in Vancouver, me, Edmonton, the Rockies between us now. We grew up on the same side of the street in Montreal. His house number was 77, mine was 111. Our dads knew each other well enough to nod and know the other’s name. In kindergarten, 1966, Marty suggested we didn’t have to take the yellow Uncle Harry’s school bus, we could just cut through the alleys, he knew the way. Last weekend he informed me that I’m getting fat. I would’ve preferred “a little thicker around the middle” even though my waist size is 31-inches. Gut punch. When Marty admitted his embarrassment about his hair, I said there wasn’t much to be embarrassed about.

Eric had combined business with pleasure on this side of the Atlantic. He was in from London, UK via Boston. At home, he walks his dog in Windsor Park. He’d just learned that the old geezer he greets most mornings with a casual wave is Prince Philip. John lives on the ninth hole of a golf course in northern Mexico, about three hours south of El Paso. He and his wife Grace packed sipping tequila, Heineken and Mexican Marlboro Lights for Montreal. Ever gracious if lethal hosts, their penthouse suite became our headquarters after hours. The Nexus: Ann, me, Marty, Eric, John and Grace; the gang that couldn’t do shooters straight.

When I think of my high school days, I picture a Twister mat with overlapping circles. My old school was unique in that students attended from all over the city. One group rattled along together on the morning train from the West Island. Marty and I were Townies who transferred between three buses, the 165, the 51 and the 102; we’d bump into John and his brother on the 51 who were en route from Outremont. Eric caught the 66 before boarding the 102 much earlier in its loop. He could also take the 105.

Some guys were stoners while others only smoked cigarettes. Some guys inhaled both. There were athletes and brainiacs, nerds and hipsters, student councilors, chess players and drama club actors. Because of the bus stops and the train platforms, some shared bad habits or athletic facilities or common interests in particular rock bands combined with the configuration of classroom seating and the tics and tells of certain teachers, a mixture of that or this, it was impossible to be isolated, educated in a vacuum. My high school circle was not a bubble. Last weekend one fellow said, “We were a good group. There were no bullies.” I agreed and added, “No, just one psychopath and a sociopath or two.” Just like everywhere. Then we got to wondering about the fates of the red flags, the would-be criminals in our graduating class. “Wasn’t he kicked out?” Shrug. “D’know. Can’t remember.”

I cannot guess a person’s age anymore. Maybe I never could. The Class of ’77 gathered in a private lounge and so I knew that virtually everyone in the room was around my age, 57. Still, some guys looked like they could get seniors’ discounts anywhere. For others, their ageing process apparently ceased at the close of the 20th century, the only documented malfunctions of the Y2K scare. I thought I appeared as expected, unairbrushed, sort of close to the mark, four decades considered.

Enlarged pages of the school’s tabloid newspaper were laid out for display. Tony, meGeoff’s itinerant correspondent, was the Entertainment Editor. I cringed rereading my gushing review of the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue (although rock revisionism has since come around somewhat to my teenaged, blind worship point of view). And there on the same page was blown-up proof that I’m not completely crazy. “Ann! You’ve got to read this! It’s all true!” I pointed to an ancient feature story on our school’s music teacher.

Miss was a dedicated disciplinarian, a pinched Scottish spinster who loved her work. “Mister Moore, you will learn to find middle C on a piano keyboard if it’s the last thing I do on God’s green earth.” One of the songs she taught us in secondary one (grade seven) was ‘Jim the Carter Lad.’ The chorus went: Crack! Crack! Goes my whip I whistles and I sings/I sits upon my wagon happy as a king/My horse is always willing and me I’m never sad/For there’s none can lead a jollier life the Jim the carter lad. Twenty boys with breaking voices would roll their Rs right back at their conductor. That memory will always stay with me. Did Miss know we were mocking her? Did she care? Crrrack! Crrrack! Ann, herself a retired music teacher, knows the words now.

Montreal’s Hyatt is a few blocks west of what used to be heaven, the former Sam the Record Man rabbit warren of rock ‘n’ roll. One Saturday morning in the spring of 1978 my friend Norm and I lined up well before opening time to score tickets for the Rolling Stones. Green card stock with a perforation and black type, $15 Canadian – mint stubs from the Some Girls tour now sell for $50 American on e-Bay. That the concert would be staged in a foreign country on the fourth of July was simply a matter of logistics. These days Norm lives in Toronto. In real life he’s a lawyer but he plays a blonde Fender in two working bands. His hometown crew which features his brother-in-law on lead guitar and vocals is called Exiled on the Main. The outfit rocked the Class of ’77 reunion.

Norm wore a black Keith Richards t-shirt. Judging from Keith’s hair, the design was based on a ’76 European tour photo. I’d had a hunch. I peeled off my red sweater to reveal a charcoal Mick Jagger t-shirt, ’72 American tour, jumpsuit and eye glitter. Since Ann and Grace were the only women there, I mostly danced to the live music alone. During the extended coda of ‘Tumbling Dice,’ I gave it my all, the full body roll the way Mick used to perform it. While trying to regain my feet or at least my knees I realized I’m not so limber anymore, fat as Marty so helpfully pointed out. What made the rising process doubly awkward was my knowing Eugene was in the room.

I played with and against some incredibly talented football players in high school. One of the best I ever saw was Eugene, a phantom running back, impossible to tackle. He quit the team because his passion was dancing and he turned pro. Eugene and his wife Jessie, who did not attend, are pioneers of a collaborative exercise regimen which they dubbed acro-yoga. I asked him how he connected the dots from dancing to acrobatics to yoga. His short answer was, “People.” He went on to explain that people are inherently social, we like being together. We enjoy the sensation of touch, of human contact. So why should a workout be any different? Tony has taken some of their classes. Tony said he now burns in body parts and places he didn’t know were included in standard human anatomy.

The Nexus had convened in a pub on Bleury at two Friday afternoon. A proposed stroll downhill to Old Montreal never happened. Once the high school bash wrapped up around midnight, it only made sense to go back to John’s and Grace’s to drink more and smoke Mexican cigarettes on the balcony where John suggested I might benefit from regular visits to a psychologist: good for me, good for Ann, just because I fear heights owing to an insane compulsion to leap. We were doing everything we used to do in a more sophisticated way, getting wasted in hotel suites instead of parents' basements and public parks. Nothing and everything had changed over 40 years. That is why I eventually found myself swaying slightly in Double Pizza at closing time eyeballing two slices of life preservers. “What are they?”

“Vegetarian and plain cheese, sir.”

Well, that wouldn’t do. “If you throw some pepperoni on both, I’ll buy out your inventory.” Sir? He called me sir. He didn’t understand that this weekend I am just 17, if you know what I mean.

“I’ll have to charge you extra, sir.”

“I’m cool with that.” I had to be, had no choice because I knew that when Ann and I eventually got vertical and cleaned up hours hence, we’d do it all again. Amen.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

CORRESPONDENCE: DEAR meGEOFF

A Second Letter from Tony

Tony Intas and I were classmates and football teammates at Montreal’s Loyola High School. That was 40 years ago. We’ll meet again on Friday at our class reunion. In the meantime, meGeoff’s roving correspondent checks in from Barcelona, Spain. The football team played inside an empty stadium; the Rolling Stones didn’t.

Dear Geoff,

A wise (and by now absurdly rich) man one proclaimed, "You can't always get what you want. You get what you need".

I experienced first hand evidence of this last week in Barcelona, Spain.

An English ex-pat former work colleague of mine from the 1980s, with an otiose wanderlust the likes of which I have never seen, and I having been going to Rolling Stones concerts together since 1989. It is "tradition", it is "expected". He has a very understanding wife, who almost gave birth to their first child at a Stones concert in Paris over a decade ago, but had the courtesy to do so a few days later, thank you very much. His children, each born in different countries, have "interesting" passports and are leading perhaps equally interesting, definitely worldly lives, never having spent a day in school in England. They too understand that whenever "Uncle" Tony visits, he and Daddy will go somewhere to see the Rolling Stones  - if they are on tour. (Otherwise "Uncle" Tony will just act silly and leave).

When a tour is announced, Daddy and I decide where in the world we have yet to see them and if it is a place where he and his family currently reside, we see them there. If not, we pick a place where either neither of us has been to before, or where it would be really "cool" to see them (still waiting for the opportunity in Moscow or Beijing, just to observe the kayos and mayhem afterwards, as we are now both too old to be active participants in same). His understanding wife understands this as well, as do his children.

This "No Filter" tour, it was Barcelona. He had been to the city before, I had not, so this was technically within the parameters because he had not been there with yours truly. 80,000 of us piled into the former Olympic Stadium. As Daddy and I are older, although not necessarily wiser, we selected seats that had excellent vantage points AND padding. The washrooms and refreshment stand were mere meters away. Ours was a covered section of the open aired stadium, should it rain, which it did not. Perfect!! I needed that.

It had been a few years since we had seen the Glimmer Twins et al, and I was therefore very much in the mood to do so. Mick Jagger has lost a step or two and Keith Richards and Ron Wood now share the guitar solos. Nonetheless, it was a solid two hour show and they played all the favourites, some of which brought tears to my eyes, as they always do, because certain songs remind me of certain events in my life, both good and bad. All the times I have seen them, (8 and counting) I have yet to hear them play "my" song, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking". I have a live version of it on a CD and Jagger's harmonica solo is amazing and Ron Wood ends the song playing the guitar like I have never seen him do so. I really, really, really wanted to hear "my" song. Alas, it was not meant to be.

The people around Daddy and I, of the same approximately age and girth, were very respectful of one another when it came to sight lines and standing during the concert and frequent trips to the washrooms or refreshment stand. I needed that.

When the 80,000 of us left the stadium, it was as organized and tame a mass exodus as I have ever seen. No drunken hooliganism, no fist fights, no ambulances carting away the comatose (not like Wembley in the late 1990s, THAT was a mass exodus of multi generational Doc Marten wearing fans!!). Alas, I need that too, because I am older, was tired and just wanted to go to bed. When the mass exodus arrived in great numbers at the Metro Station closest to the stadium,  to find it had closed for the night 15 minutes before, there was a very organized and respectful queue for buses and/or taxis. Again, I needed that , as my  "Street Fighting Man" days are well, well behind me and I was even more tired and still wanted to go to bed.

So, in the end, I didn't get what I wanted, I got what I needed.

Thank you Mick and the boys for reminding me what it is all about.

AMDG

Tony


Readers of this blog who find themselves in places where they don’t normally find themselves, actual or otherwise, are encouraged to write meGeoff a letter detailing their experiences and impressions. Get in touch with me. I’m on Facebook.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

EAT ME

Ain’t Got No Shame

I wouldn’t feed airline food to a dog. Unless I hated the dog.

On Wednesday Ann and I will fly to Montreal. Our agenda includes my 40th high school reunion which could shake down as a depressing exercise in nostalgia and an admission of failure later in life. We’ve also booked an uplifting visit with my elderly mother who prays every day to die in her sleep that night. Should be fun!

In the meantime, particular needs require attention. I have to bull through the novel I’m currently reading so I can crack open William Gibson’s Neuromancer on our trip. Tuesday evening while Ann is playing with her orchestra I’ll meet with our usual house-sitter who knows the routine: Mungo the tabby laps still water from the stoppered bathroom sink while his big brother Scamp prefers to drink directly from the trickling kitchen faucet. Next, I shall put on the new Rolling Stones album, Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theatre, rattle the windows, deafen the cats and make sandwiches to eat on our flight.

A friend of mine describes the need to use the facilities on an airplane as “the walk of shame.” I get that. I’ve got hang-ups too and would rather writhe in my seat than be comfortable. I used to feel the same way about Ann and I packing our Air Canada picnics, uptight and embarrassed: The rubes are aboard with raw rutabagas and live chickens! Not any longer. Honestly, I now get a mild kick from planning and creating our in-flight menu because it is the sole modicum of joy I derive from air travel.

Hell is other people. For me it doesn’t get much worse than the stifling confines of a flying tube filled with folk and their trolleys of carry-on baggage. Affordable flying is essentially a good thing of course, but full planes (and often overbooked at that) have allowed carriers carte blanche to ratchet customer service into a death spiral. One of the first things out the cabin window was somewhat palatable complimentary food. The glittering on-board café options, nickel-and-dime cash grabs, credit cards only, are inedible bits of expensive cardboard. For the record, I’ve enjoyed tastier heroes and hoagies from Petro-Canada gas stations, Mac’s convenience stores and 7-11. No bologna and those places sell cigarettes too.

I’m not cheap. However, overpaying for sub-par products infuriates me. Stocking up on sandwiches in the departure area before boarding isn’t a viable option because I can make better sandwiches for less than half the prices those bakery and deli kiosks gouge. There’s an art to being a gourmet rube, shameless yet refined.

I always consider the indelicate sensibilities of the morbidly obese stranger nestled up against my shoulder, snoring softly, their shoes off and their pants undone. Ann’s and my sandwiches can’t be too pungent. Onion buns are out, as are sloppy, smelly fillings such as egg and tuna salad. Cheese buns can be a bit greasy, but we pack those square-inch packets of chemical wipes that I habitually light-finger from pubs that serve ribs and chicken wings. Artisan breads bulked up with seeds warrant toothpicks and that cleaning process merely reduces Ann and me to the level of our fellow rabble. Other breads just transform into a masticated muck that hibernates between my gums and cheeks. Delivery systems are tricky, sticky wickets.

Condiments are crucial. There are five types of mustard in our fridge, not one of them is plain old childhood, boiled hot dog yellow. Mayonnaise yes, ersatz salad-type dressing, no. The key though is ajvar, a pepper and eggplant based vegetable spread. It’s red and it looks bloody good on bread. Cheese must be strong. Not just its flavour but the texture as it must retain some semblance of its semi-solid self following a few unrefrigerated hours in a baggie. Havarti is too soft, too delicate, like most garnishes. Tomato slices do not travel well. Sliced kosher dill pickles do, provided they’ve been patted down with a paper towel. Spinach leaves hold up better than lettuce leaves because they’re always limp anyway.

My sandwich specifications demand one half-inch of filling, a minimum meat stack. My preference is shaved slices of everything in the barnyard: fowl, bovine and porcine. Two of the three will do as there are so many delightful variations of sandwich meat: spiced or herbed; cured, smoked and processed carcinogenic.

For me, the miracle of air travel, the ability to traverse a huge country in hours instead of weeks now lies with our enjoyment of my culinary creations rather than the thrust of turbines and the lift of wings. My sandwiches are magical, heady combinations of the finest ingredients, personally selected, thought through and assembled with doting care. Whatever hell we’ll be flying in or into, well, at least we each had a decent sandwich en route. What more can you ask for in the jet age?

Thursday, 21 September 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

It Was Real at the Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A FAN’S NOTES

All Down the Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 September 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Eye-watering Sponsorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Here Comes a Regular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody smoked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 August 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

The Absurd Banality of Evil

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

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

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

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

Friday, 18 August 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Gasoline Alley and a Visitation from the Spirit of Elvis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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