Monday, 25 February 2019


The Siren Songs of Hell

One of the recent bishops of Rome came clean to the wavering faithful and finally admitted that Hell is a human construct. Still, Hell’s existence in some form gives me a forlorn hope: there may be an afterlife but it’s going to suck

I have throughout my life done many stupid, shameful, hurtful and harmful things. I was just following orders though God knows whose. Sometimes at night when I can’t get to sleep I scroll through the list of my transgressions. Guilty! I groan in the wee wee hours when there’s no ambient light leaking through the window blind. I understand that I have been largely the architect of my own Hell. J’accuse! Despair has suggested suicide a couple of times but never insisted.

I was born in midwinter. I am Canadian. I don’t believe it’s entirely irrational or illogical on my part to assume that I will die when there’s snow on the ground because the cold here can lock in for six months out of 12. Decent odds, 50-50. I’ve always pictured my Hell as a barren, nuclear winter wasteland. My naked, self-flagellated flesh burning in the liquid nitrogen freeze. Eternity’s going to hurt forever.

I will not suffer in silence. Because I’ve made my living for the most part sweating details (You too can channel your OCD into a lucrative career! Ask me how!), I’ve fretted over the soundtrack of meGeoff’s personal Hell, the music I’m doomed to scream along in agony with until the end of time and a few minutes after that because bad songs never seem to fade out. Initially I imagined the noise would be an endless loop of the overexposed high school warhorses I can no longer abide: Skynyrd’s Free Bird, Floyd’s Money, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, Hotel California by the Eagles and Led Zep’s Stairway to Heaven. Pop revisionism is a peculiar and persuasive thing and so I expanded my top five list to include tracks from the New Seekers, Carpenters and ABBA to jibe with Dante’s poetic circles.

There! Satan’s mix tape task done and dusted for him, or so I thought. But there’s something else insidious and hideous happening in music these days. In the past 48 hours I have heard Diana Krall croon Heart of Gold and Lisa Loeb somnambulantly warble All the Young Dudes. I have also been subjected to sparse, jazz-tinged arrangements of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Life on Mars? and After the Goldrush by overly earnest and breathy singers I wish I’d never heard. What fresh, insipid Hell is this?

Perhaps I was overly hasty envisioning my Hell as a harsh, unnatural alien landscape. Now it might be akin to a berth on meGeoff’s voyage of the damned. I am on a cruise ship endlessly shuttling back and forth between Disneyland and Disneyworld. I’m alone in the cocktail lounge. I am in formal evening wear but my collar’s too tight and I cannot loosen my tie. The pianist quietly butchers every song I ever loved, in ascending order just so I’m aware that what is very bad is going to get even worse.

There are Tiffany lamps on the tables, pastel fabric coverings on the chairs, ersatz brass portholes and murals of salmon-peach-watermelon sunsets with grinning, leaping dolphins in the foreground framed by charcoal silhouettes of palm trees on the walls. The bar is open but there’s no stock, nothing on tap, nothing to be had. The guy who founded Lululemon helps himself to a seat at my table. He has an umbrella drink but he won't buy me one. Instead, he scolds me for not living, laughing, loving and flossing. I am trapped in the room in his company. I cannot escape him to smoke a last cigarette outside on deck before jumping overboard. I want to die again but that’s no longer an option. Oh, my soul, it’s going to be the longest, darkest night I’ve ever known in both my lives. 

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Friday, 22 February 2019


A Rite of Spring Training

Why does the shortest month in the calendar year always seem its longest? Ten consecutive days of extreme cold weather warnings have confined me to the Crooked 9. Why should I venture outside if I don’t have to? I’m relieved I no longer volunteer at the community’s outdoor hockey rink. I’ve been puttering around the house figuratively kicking around the plot of a new novel, a story still struggling to find its way through an incomplete first draft. The cast of characters includes neither a lovesick elite commando or a beautiful, spunky scientist nor a psychopathic sadist hell-bent on revenge; I wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Tuesday offered a mild respite. The Tuesday Night Beer Club emerged from hibernation. As is often the case with Stats Guy, our conversation in the pub soon turned to baseball. San Diego was prepared to pay a guy who struck out to end last October’s World Series $30-million to play third base this summer. For that kind of money you better hit and field perfectly, be the Platonic ideal of the five-tool ballplayer. When I arrived home in the dark the wind had risen and the temperature was falling. Nothing illustrates the February Blahs quite like snow crystal dervishes twisting off the eaves.

Meanwhile down in the southerly climes of Florida and Arizona, major leaguers are loosening up in anticipation of the long season ahead. It’s reassuring to know that spring or some ritual form of it has arrived somewhere in the hemisphere. And so around this time of year, as I have for some 40 past, I will read a book about baseball. There is an art to sportswriting because readers know the score; it’s no mean feat to retell an old and familiar story, the ending never deviating from forever.

Twenty-first century baseball is not an integral part of my present. I think about the sport the way I think about my grandfather Moore, fondly and warmly, sentiments tinged with loss but increasingly fainter with the passage of time; Papa saw the Babe at Yankee Stadium; Papa was there when I got my only extra-base hit in my one season of inter-city baseball. How many hours have I spent sitting in the stands watching the Montreal Expos and later the AAA Pacific Coast League Edmonton Trappers or Calgary Cannons? Those teams are gone now; three strikes and you’re out. In Alberta I’ve paid admission to watch the Canadian Baseball League, the Northern League and the Golden League fail.

These days during the summertime Stats Guy and I watch college players refine their skills, have the nuances of the game drilled into them. The short season Prospects host clubs from all over Alberta and Saskatchewan, green highway sign curiosities rather than actual destinations. I often wonder what it’s like for a player to attend school in California, say, and then play baseball on the Canadian prairie. Edmonton’s ballpark is oriented on the river flats south of downtown. Should the action on the field lag – not an uncommon occurrence in modern baseball – there’s a lot to look at. Sometimes I think I just pay for the grandstand view: the smokestacks of the decommissioned power station behind the left field wall remind me of the cover of a Pink Floyd album; the reflective steel arches of the new bridge over the North Saskatchewan soar before a backdrop of green parkland and blue sky; the ornate and domed provincial legislature is beige sandstone; the grey, majestic and slightly foreboding Hotel Macdonald, a relic from those halcyon days of rail travel, resembles Dracula’s castle, lodgings for the blood-sucking elite, the vampire one-per-cent.

On deck on my night table is a Christmas gift from Stats Guy, a book called ‘Blue Monday’* by Danny Gallagher. The Montreal Expos under the Zen guidance of then manager Felipe Alou were quality clubs in the early 90s. However, the franchise only qualified for post-season play once in its history and that was all the way back in 1981. Montreal’s quest for glory, to become the first Canadian team to play in a World Series, ended abruptly. Los Angeles Dodger and Expo killer like no other Rick Monday’s home run on that frigid Monday afternoon in my hometown was not a walk-off because the host team had last ups, three outs left to win the game in the ninth or at least tie it to send it into extra innings. Everybody knows the outcome.

As February’s cold sorely lingers, I will remain indoors and pick at an old wound, a 38-year-old invisible scar that’s still a little tender.

*In no way to be confused with Montreal playwright David Fennario’s ‘Blue Mondays,’ his second volume of prose published by Black Rock Creations in 1984.      
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Wednesday, 6 February 2019


Mind the (Generation) Gap

More often than not there is music playing here at the Crooked 9. I cannot imagine our lives without beautiful noise. Its sources vary. Sometimes it’s selections from our library of compact discs and vinyl. Sometimes it’s Ann practicing her violin for her season’s concerts. Sometimes it’s the radio, the dial always tuned to CKUA, Alberta’s public broadcaster. A visual representation of our listening habits would be a pie chart divided into imperfect thirds and quarter notes.

CKUA bills itself as accessible or interactive radio. There’s an app of course but the hosts of its various shows actively solicit listeners’ comments and suggestions via e-mail during their airtime slots. This aspect of engagement is the flip side of the dusty glory days of rock ‘n’ roll radio when as a fanatical teen I repeatedly tried to call deejays even though I knew I’d never get through. I’d been groomed for crushing disappointment though because the lady on ‘Romper Room’ never saw me through her magic mirror after my half day of kindergarten.

Last week the host of ‘Midmorning Mojo’ asked her audience to let her know which albums we knew by heart, backward and forward, the sequence, all the lyrics.

I thought: Gee, your show’s only three hours long and it would take me all day to type up a spreadsheet as I’m a little rusty with Lotus Notes. And how would you like it sorted? By year of release or alphabetically and then chronologically by artist?

Ann said, “Did you hear the question?” I replied I had and that it seemed a tad inane. Ann said, “Not really. Think about all the people we know and how they listen to music, especially the younger ones.”

Rock music these days resembles its fan base, a bit long in the spooky tooth. The obvious sign of its decline is the demise of the album format, the long playing record. Sometimes I think Ann and I are the last CD consumers in town. While it’s true that vinyl has staged a modest comeback with music buyers, I believe the black circles in their ornate sleeves generally constitute hard copy souvenirs of the enclosed digital downloads. I liken modern vinyl to the concert programs I used to buy at shows during the seventies.

Around 50 years into my existence, as rock music petrified into a subgenre, a popular song became known as a jam. The modern jam is a different beast from the Allmans, the Dead or Phish extending and exploring their songs on stage. Still, the term fits to a certain extent as a contemporary hit tends to be a collaboration of many writers and a canny assemblage of beats, samples and Auto-Tune tweaks. A song that did not chart, was not released as a single, is now described as a deep cut which to me implies filler.

Applying these terms retroactively to classic albums denies the totality of the long player. Young Americans, Bowie’s excursion into plastic soul becomes two jams and six deep cuts. The new language is absurdly irksome though indicative of how music is experienced in the 21st century. Consider a Bowie fan around this date in February, 1975 when Young Americans was originally released. The lead single had already been released to build anticipation for the entire (and more expensive) album. He or she had access to a stereo. There was the ritual of removing the cellophane and dropping the stylus on side one, track one. The sleeve and the liner notes required study. The record had to be turned over and then replayed in its entirety, after all this was new Bowie.

Now, consider the Bowie-curious in 2019. He or she has a laptop or a digital device about the size of a package of cigarettes, opposable thumbs and ear buds. They don’t buy recorded music on physical media. They rent a futuristic form of it, different delivery systems. Perhaps ‘Fame’ piqued their interest, perhaps because of the John Lennon co-writing credit. Why multitask through the seven preceding songs when they can scroll right to the track even if it means skipping ‘Win’ and ‘Fascination’? Who cares about the cover art when it’s the size of a thumbnail? Once, an album was a complete package, from the song sequencing to the graphics. This type of context no longer matters.

I thought: Gee, maybe the deejay didn’t pose such a dumb question after all, but instead one for the ages. The long and short of it is different strokes for different folks.

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Sunday, 3 February 2019


Saturday Afternoon at the Baby Boomer Golden Years Lodge

The time is the not too distant future. Tea and light refreshments are being served in the common room of a seniors’ residence. Folks are playing cards and board games or staring slack-jawed into space. Emotional support animals make their appointed rounds. Three hunched elderly men, Hughie, Dewey and Louis, are huddled together in the corner, partially obscured from hovering staff members by a large potted plant. They are in deep conversation. Their walkers are tangled up.

Hughie: My youngest son dropped by yesterday for his annual visit.

Dewey: That ne’er-do-well?


Dewey: Keep it down you deaf bastard. Read my lips.


Hughie: I told you he’s dyslexic, Dewey. Anyway, my good-for-nothing failure of a son may’ve been redeemed. He brought me 20 cigarettes, a gram of weed and a six-pack of beer. I say we go up to my suite and party like it’s 1979.

Louis: FARTY.

Dewey: Do you need changing again? Shut up. Never mind.

Hughie: He also made me a new fangled mix tape of the Stones and Led Zep. You just press a button. He showed me how.

Louis: WHO?

Hughie: Them too.

Dewey: Zep rules, man.

Hughie: No way, dude. Stones all the way. They were better than the Beatles. I think they’re still touring.


Dewey: Christ, Louis.

Hughie: Cover your mouth when you speak, that’ll mess with what’s left of his mind.

Dewey: That Zep album, the one with the windows on the cover, that one was monumental, man. Better than anything the Stones ever did. And that guy, the dead one, was the greatest drummer ever.

Hughie: Not a chance. The Stones began that four-album run with, uh, I forget, in whatever year it was and culminated with, uh, that double set, the grey one with the postcards inside.

Dewey: The Zep album was grey too. There was that song on side three or maybe side four? About time travellers and some Indian province? That one.

Hughie: So what do you say? I say we go get wasted and listen to the old songs.

Dewey: What about Louis? He’s deaf as a post.

Hughie: He can read though, can’t he? We show him what’s playing, what we’re listening to and he’ll hear them in his head. Probably at maximum volume.


Dewey: Damn! Louis, shh!

Hughie: Everybody look dozy!

Orderly: Gentlemen. How has your social hour been? It’s almost time for your naps. Don’t forget this evening’s entertainment is the film Flashdance.

Dewey: Oh, Christ, wow-wee.


Orderly: Is Mister Louis okay? What’s he on about?

Hughie: Oh, he’s fine. Inside joke. Help me up, please? The three of us are going back to my place.

Orderly: For you and your friends, Mister Hughie, it is nap time.

Hughie: I suppose it is. Give me a hand, will you?
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