Saturday, 30 September 2023



The House of Commons has 338 seats up for grabs each federal election. You hope that the winners chosen by their fellow Canadians to serve their fellow Canadians view their roles as something of a calling rather than a well-paying job with great perks and benefits. You hope that your member of parliament will think a little beyond their pet projects and pet peeves, be up on current affairs even if they’re beyond their caucus remit. And you hope your MP might read a little history because that subject has a marked propensity to influence or even become a current affair. History can be a tricky subject because it will be reinterpreted, misinterpreted or just plain spun.

Consider this recent and very simple example. The Rolling Stones and Major League Baseball (MLB) together announced this week that Hackney Diamonds, the band’s new album, will be released in 30 different special editions featuring stitched togues in the primary colours of your favourite team and “baseball” white vinyl. I’d probably buy one if the Montreal Expos still existed because the Stones played the Stade Olympique two nights in 1989. MLB and the Stones go way back. This tenuous link is spin, absurd cross-marketing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week delivered a joint address to Parliament. His country, the non-aggressor, is at war with Russia. His counterpart, a former KGB operative who can’t decide if he’s Peter the Great or Josef Stalin, will sustain the folly which has turned into a protracted grind. Winter is coming to the region. Zelensky sought moral support but mostly money and materiel while in Canada. This country which hosts a significant Ukrainian diaspora is a laggard in its North American and NATO defense commitments, but it’s doing what it can to reluctantly fight the good fight.

So. The Speaker of the House of Commons (since resigned) Anthony Rota had to grandstand for Zelensky, trot out a mascot, a Ukrainian Second World War veteran who fought against the Russians in those years, now a frail ghost in the public gallery, as a symbol of contemporary Canadian solidarity. A bit of a stretch, but hey, simple, inaccurate and feel-good PR that’ll play well on video. Trouble is, Ukraine, one of the world’s great breadbaskets, whether as a region of an occupying power or an independent country, has, like most of Eastern Europe, an awfully complicated history.

A few years ago, when the vandalization of public statues and monuments was all the inarticulate rage, Rota, like most Canadians, would’ve been surprised to learn that Ukrainian social societies in Edmonton, Alberta and Oakville, Ontario had erected stone tributes to the Waffen-SS Galicia division. Now, Rota may not be a history buff, but these SS monuments were a hot topic in current affairs. An engaged MP might want to do some digging. Or have an aide do it for them. Why do they exist?

The majority of Canadians have been relatively lucky. We may share a bed with the elephant south of 49 but we’ve never lived between a rock and a hard place. The Holodomor was Stalin’s systematic attempt to starve the people of Ukraine, the very people who grew grain for the Soviet Union. The western portion of the region, known as Galicia and where Rota’s token patriot (my freedom fighter is your terrorist) was from, was Polish turf. Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Stalin invaded from the other side intent on securing Galicia. When Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, its invasion of Russia, Stalin switched sides, joined the Allies. Hitler’s National Socialist Party created ideologically driven services which unfortunately thrived alongside those of the German state. The Party oversaw its own military, police and foreign intelligence services, among others. The SS was formed originally as Hitler’s bodyguard – and bastards like him need one.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We all know that one. And we all know those temporary hook-ups of convenience tend not to end well – the Taliban was a great group of guys when Russia invaded Afghanistan. Rota’s war hero was a boy in a wasteland pitted with the open graves of atrocities. This boy made a decision to bear arms for an undefined political or racial homeland amid an international shitshow. Who hasn’t taken advantage of a situation? Tried to leverage it. This boy was motivated to volunteer for the Waffen-SS (the organization’s military arm) rather than the ragtag Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) which was too choosey about whom it would ally itself with, or fighting as a partisan.

Rota’s old man was not ready for his close up, but maybe in his mind he was. Anyway, all of this could have been easily avoided if somebody had just been paying attention. Did a little research. A stray lyric from 1994 “I was a pitcher down in a slump” certainly, at least to me, verifies the Stones’ long and loving relationship with professional baseball (I didn’t have to look the line up, I know my stuff). And that connection rings about as true as Putin’s limited de-Nazification military operation in Ukraine. Rota’s gaffe was a gift to Russian propagandists; I can hear the sustained standing ovation he's receiving in the Kremlin all the way from Edmonton.

The Stones grandstanding with MLB is like a Nancy Sinatra song, kinda stupid, kinda fun. Surface stuff, entertainment acts. But I don’t appreciate that lack of depth, that vacuous shallowness, those hollow talking points, those staged Instagram moments coming down from Parliament Hill in regard to national and foreign affairs, mainly because there’s a big library there and MPs, people like the former Speaker of the House of Commons, should utilize all of its resources. Books, periodicals and records can provide context and nuance, background. Genuine information. Perhaps Rota would’ve paused in the stacks to reconsider an ill-considered, gushing upstaging of Zelensky. 

Dispatches from the Crooked 9 is celebrating ten years as your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of everything. My companion site has been refreshed, revamped, revitalized and otherwise reinvigorated. Watch and listen to songs I co-wrote with The Muster Point Project. Of course, you can still purchase my latest book Of Course You Did in your preferred format from your preferred e-retailer. 

Monday, 25 September 2023



Anticipation. It’s more than just Carly Simon longing for a splurch of ketchup.

My experience as a traveller isn’t terribly extensive, but I’ve been around a little bit. I’ve learned enough to view a journey in one of three ways. The first is obligatory, personal or professional business. The second is a revisit, I’m familiar with where I’m heading and I have a pretty good idea of what I’m in for. The third is the most adventurous, an unfamiliar destination. A goodly portion of the fun provided by a trip like that unfolds long before “wheels up.”

Since the covid pandemic kind of went away, Ann and I had been passing the puck back and forth in our own end, speculating about that selfish third destination, some place new to gawp at. We were all over the map, Memphis and Nashville, Dublin, Paris… Certain close personal friends who know me a little too well understand that I can sometimes be a little persnickety. Chaos is disruptive and the world is so full of it. If everything’s not in its place, it’s askew and that is aggravating. I’m not uptight, I’m just a bit particular. Beach holidays are fine for half an hour, but, man, the sand gets everywhere.

Potential destinations are akin to radio chart busters, hooks required. Every place in the world has a history and I’m always intrigued to learn about it, but if its history has already been a source of intrigue to me, so much the better. The arts in whatever form and in whatever tense are always a lure. If they don’t define a culture, they frame it.

Ann and I identified a fall window, a short one between the Doobie Brothers and Bruce Springsteen complete with a respite from standing commitments, a prime time to flee before winter locks us down. Edmonton is a long way from many places. A flight from its international airport is generally a short leg to somewhere else, the first baby step of an actual, proper journey. The opportunity cost associated with all travel is obvious: no hassle and no money spent. When Ann and I plan trips - our post-pandemic skills are rusty, we try to expedite the expediency of our expedition, attempt to alleviate our anxious, abject acquiescence to all ensuing annoyances. It is what it is and so we do what we must.

Ultimately, we elected to head down the Mississippi toward the Gulf of Mexico. What could possibly go wrong in a port city situated below sea level at the tail end of the hurricane season over Halloween? Once Ann and I have dealt with the devilish details involved with any trip and before we research our destination, I review my preconceptions of the place – whatever the source of them.

Back in the early seventies about when my age first hit double digits, my older brother bought me a subscription to Sports Illustrated, one of those gifts of tacit reciprocity: We’ll both enjoy it. My introduction to New Orleans then was hosted by Saints quarterback Archie Manning who begat Colt Peyton and Giant Eli. The football team’s nickname was musical, like hockey’s St. Louis Blues, an American standard. The theme was perpetuated by the jazz funeral opening sequence of Live and Let Die. “Brown Sugar” was a salacious sketch of the Confederate States of America’s major metropolis, an electrified time warped piece of travel writing, but I couldn’t decipher the slurred lyrics garbled through a cheap AM transistor radio speaker back then. That song has since been condemned by pearl clutching revisionists, but history demands relativism because it never flatters its subject.

My high school Canadian history courses glossed over Britain’s deportation of the Acadians from its Atlantic provinces. I learned more about that paranoid policy listening to The Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.” The dispossessed regrouped in French Louisiana of which New Orleans was the capital. The French colony became a Spanish possession before flipping back to the French who sold it to the United States in 1803. I know this because a favoured restaurant in Edmonton was Louisiana Purchase and that ersatz Cajun establishment has either moved from its downtown premises or closed; I’ve no idea. And for some inexplicable reason, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” was a loudspeaker staple at the ballpark when Edmonton was home to the Triple A Trappers.

How could I not buy a book called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead? The Antebellum South pulses like an overripe abscess in the crime fiction of James Lee Burke. Americana, a memoir written by Ray Davies of the Kinks dealt with his stay in New Orleans. Mostly, he got shot, painfully aware while recuperating that in Elysian Fields and other city cemeteries the dead are necessarily buried above ground.

A Streetcar Named Desire, the drama by Tennessee Williams is set in the French Quarter. The play’s something like Mardi Gras, I’ve never seen it performed. The “Hey, Stella!” celluloid snippet we’ve all seen is probably the only line of dialogue Brando never mumbled. When I was still living in Montreal and cable TV was fettered access to American border stations, 60 Minutes broadcast a piece alleging the New Orleans heat was the most corrupt police force in the United States. Wages were paltry and ethics, like sewage, flowed downhill from there. The Big Easy, a noir film starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin played on the documented sleaze a few years after Clint Eastwood got kinky in Tightrope, the French Quarter again.

Contemporary history, the news of the day, is frequently presented as unprecedented and as such could precipitate an existential crisis: “Today the (insert noun) changed forever.” Climaxes are soon folded into a narrative that’s been unfolding for centuries, worthy of a paragraph or perhaps a full chapter. Hurricane Katrina was two and a half presidential administrations ago; pundits don’t speak of pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans anymore, just as they no longer view Louisiana state politics through the fiction lens of Robert Penn Warren.

Underpinning our anticipation, my impressions and Ann’s impressions (and hers are different), is the music, which has lasted longer than some of the levees which protect the city from being swamped: Dixieland, zydeco, blues, funk, soul and barrelhouse rock’n’roll and whatever else may be stewing in the gumbo. I feel like we’re going to a place I already know pretty well. I cannot wait to stay out late listening to music and finding out just how wrong I am.                           

Dispatches from the Crooked 9 is celebrating ten years as your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of everything. My companion site has been refreshed, revamped, revitalized and otherwise reinvigorated. Watch and listen to the songs I co-wrote with The Muster Point Project. Of course, you can still purchase my latest book Of Course You Did in your preferred format from your preferred e-retailer

Thursday, 7 September 2023


Hackney Diamonds

Oh, how the years fly by. Time passed is now so imprecise, fluid, receding and sometimes indistinct. I would have to consult my records in the family bible to tell you what year my mother Annette died. It was a New Year’s Day; I know that much. When I think about her now, I frequently summon that night in Montreal when I was visiting from Calgary sometime in the oughts and Mom and I went stepping out. We had a real good time together.

Perception isn’t everything so much as a reel of time reversing from fast-forward and sometimes becoming snarled in a creaky mechanism. The Montreal Canadiens play their home games in the Bell Centre. I have to remind myself that their “new” rink was inaugurated something like twenty-five years ago. When I escorted Annette there to see the Nashville Predators on a weeknight, the rink was even newer.

It was a big night for us. Annette had her hair done in the morning. Her fur coat came out of its storage bag in the closet. That shade of red lipstick I remembered as a kid kissed the Kleenex – mercifully, she didn’t spit on it afterward to wipe my face, Jesus, I was in my late forties or early fifties, after all. Mom wanted a hot dog and beer before we found our seats. God, she hadn’t seen the Habs skate since the seventies. My stepfather had had season’s tickets, great ones, down low in the reds in the old Montreal Forum; winter Saturday nights there were their happy social obligation. Annette’s mother, Marie, my Nana, had been a fanatic, a worshipper of Rocket Richard. Nana took me to my first professional hockey game in February of 1968, the Los Angeles Kings were in town.

My Nana and my Mom, and LA and Nashville both in garish yellow, synchronicity. When the Canadiens took the ice in those uniforms that predate the formation of the National Hockey League in 1917, I got a pleasant little chill up my spine even though I could only name three or four players on the club’s roster and was unsure of their sweater numbers. I watched Annette absently dab at her lips with a napkin: beer foam, lipstick and mustard. I understood Mom was back in 1975, ’76, ’77 or ’78 and enjoying the visit, all done up and hooked on a different man’s arm. Her favourite player back then was Yvon Lambert, as a scout Mom rated rugged good looks over skill.

The Canadiens were scarily good during those years and had been since the early sixties. So were the Rolling Stones. These are two heritage brands who excel at evoking their glory days, whether by elaborate pregame ceremonies or enhanced reissues of seminal albums. They are and will remain cultural phenomena, straddling both high and low, topics of heated debate in pubs and ivory towers. It’s hard to remember a time when the Stones released a really sticky, classic single and the Canadiens weren’t mediocre.

There was a time when the Canadiens held first dibs on every prospect skating in Quebec. Then came expansion and with it the draft and then the draft lottery. Rock music was once a legitimate countercultural force before it withered into an aged sub-genre of popular music. Industry business models for sports organizations and rock bands have been radically reconfigured since the seventies. Times have changed but the essence remains: the Canadiens still play hockey albeit with a lot less elan and the Stones, at their heart, are as Paul McCartney recently said, “a good little blues band” with an undeniable knack for Barnum and Bailey big top self-promotion. The 2023 corporate tongue is a jigsaw of glass shards, not liquified or blown up this time around and around. Buy the merch; buy the good old days.

Yesterday I told my neighbour Ted over the fence that the new Stones single “Angry” had just dropped mere hours ago. He said, “I didn’t know that.” I replied, “Why would you? You have a life.” Yeah, I still get that old, familiar new Stones tingle and I’m grateful for it although, admittedly, that feeling has diminished exponentially as I’ve aged. The “Angry” video is essentially a three-minute shopping channel ad for their back catalogue. The song is decent enough, a lot like the Habs not deploying the neutral zone trap, refreshing riffology. It bodes well for the rest of Hackney Diamonds because to me a main ingredient in the Stones heady brew is what young people today refer to as deep cuts, the rest of the album. “Recent” examples would include “Back of My Hand” from A Bigger Bang, “Always Suffering” from Bridges to Babylon and, oh heck, let’s go all the way back to “Baby Break It Down” from 1994’s Voodoo Lounge.

I hope Hackney Diamonds will not be hackneyed. I don’t consider myself a sad sack completist with a dauber ready to play “their best since…” bingo, but I suppose I am what I am. Still, Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, Springsteen’s Letter to You and the Who’s WHO were all fine late career releases. And I’ve enjoyed each one at least a few times. They’re never my first, second nor third choices when I’m in the mood to listen to those artists. Those albums are musical Yvon Lamberts, that is to say, just good enough to be in chronological order alongside the greats.                   

Dispatches from the Crooked 9 has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of everything since 2013. My companion site has been refreshed, revamped, revitalized and otherwise reinvigorated. Watch and listen to the songs I co-wrote with The Muster Point Project. Of course, you can still purchase my latest book Of Course You Did in your preferred format from your preferred e-retailer. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2023


“Grub Street”

There is a three-block stretch of Calgary’s Centre Street, just up the slight rise from the Chinook C-Train station, on which every hot tub dealer in town has an outlet. You are familiar with artists’ colonies and other hives of like-minded businesses or individuals. Some sort of congressional black hole gravitational force always seems to be at play. Some two hundred and fifty years ago London’s hacks, freelance writers who for a fee provided content for what would become and what we now perceive as mass media, tended to gather in the taverns along a long since disappeared street called Grub Street.

At the close of the nineteenth century George Gissing published a novel called New Grub Street, a story about two competing writers, one of whom has no scruples. Fifty years later Joyce Carey published The Horse’s Mouth, a novel about a talented, wildly erratic and eccentric painter named Gulley Jimson (the movie stars Alec Guinness). The books’ common theme is integrity as self-sabotage, or like the 10cc single, “Art for Art’s Sake.”

I read both books in my first semester at university. A Brit Lit course explored the gap between the Edwardian era and the “Angry Young Man” movement. My professor’s name was Tobias. She sported a purple ‘do with a Bride of Frankenstein nicotine streak. She was tenured long past her best before date, but during those lectures when she could summon the energy to inflate her withered passion, man, she knew her stuff.

Around this time, I used to spend a lot of time with a newish friend of mine named Glen. I’d dated his sister, Susan, and he and I remained in touch after she and I split up. Our apartments were in the same Montreal neighbourhood; he was closer to Guy Street and I was a little farther west, closer to the Montreal Forum, ambling distance. He could’ve taught The Horse’s Mouth; and you’ve got to read City of Night – that line from “L.A. Woman” – and Hubert Selby and Tom McGuane and this, and that. Oh! And this too! Glen made his way out west from Montreal about ten years before I did, so, maybe forty years ago. We lost touch.

Susan and I had bonded over music; we were both in our college’s creative arts program. She hosted a show on the campus radio station; I wrote album reviews for the newspaper. About fifteen years ago when I was still working for a Calgary ad agency, sometimes as a hack, Susan came to town for a media conference. We caught up over happy hour drinks. I asked after Glen and asked Susan to please pass on my regards.

Social media did not exist when George Harrison released “Devil’s Radio” in 1987. My footprint in the global village’s town square is minimal, I’ve had a Facebook account for a decade. The platform doesn’t even cross my mind should I be seeking hard news or an informed opinion while wasting time online (and I prefer to pull the appropriate reference book from the shelf rather than use Google). My feed is music, books, baseball and a sprinkling of my hometown and its hockey team. I’ve also been able to reconnect with a number of people I cared about all those years ago. So, Glen and I, actual friends, a little long-lost, are also twenty-first century electric friends.

Glen sent me a note a few months back not knowing I was busy working on song lyrics for Kevin Franco’s Muster Point Project, remarking on a picture of me I’d posted on my Facebook wall. He said I looked like Gulley Jimson. I thought, “Oh, great, grey haired and grizzled.” I laughed, and in that moment, I was inspired to frame the lyrics for “Grub Street.”

I remembered all those books Glen and I used to talk about. I remembered the elegiac chain-smoking wreck that was Professor Tobias, sadly beautiful in a Replacements sort of way. And, dear me, Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter” (Graham Greene, 1948; The Horse’s Mouth was published in 1946). It took me two cigarettes on the front porch to conclude that “Grub Street” would make a great song chorus, lyric hook or title. The link between George Gissing and Gulley Jimson wasn’t too tenuous, an author and another author’s character, although separated by contemporary literary convention and two world wars, were addressing the same dilemma, essentially talking the same language. The proper nouns together could combine to create a memorable line. And, God help me, I know Kevin sometimes sweats singing so many sequential “S” sounds for some reason.                 

Dispatches from the Crooked 9 has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of everything since 2013. My companion site has been refreshed, revamped, revitalized and otherwise reinvigorated. Watch and listen to the songs I co-wrote with The Muster Point Project. Of course, you can still purchase my latest book Of Course You Did in your preferred format from your preferred e-retailer.