Thursday, 21 September 2017


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 cafĂ©, 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


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


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.