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 cafĂ© 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?