Father (for Chris Cornell)

Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, is not a big deal in our house. (If it was, we’d be in trouble, because as Canadians living in Britain, we have two Mother’s Days to deal with.) It was a big deal growing up – and sometimes a raw deal, when it would fall on the same day as my mother’s birthday and then my brother and I were on the hook for two breakfasts in bed with no help in the kitchen. So I have some residual feelings, stoked by all the advertising propaganda that’s been building for a few weeks now, reminding me how funny I am and how I am always there. Apparently.

But this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of another dad – one who is no longer there. That would be Chris Cornell, once the singer, guitarist, and lead songwriter for Soundgarden, and a corking big influence on me as a little grungey kid on the West Coast in the 1990s. Found dead in his hotel room after a gig in Detroit, Michigan just one month ago, Cornell leaves behind not only a legion of fans and some crushed and confused bandmates but three children.

So really, when I say Cornell is in my thoughts, it’s his kids who are more heavily in my thoughts. I found a video this week that broke my heart, clicking through YouTube as I do from time to time over lunch break. It was posted just three days after he died, but the video comes from a concert in Seattle in 2007. Continue reading

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Hey, that’s some way to say goodbye

Leonard Cohen live in Nîmes

Leonard Cohen in Nîmes, 2009. Photo by gaët, found on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

Well.

By mid-November, no one needs to be told that 2016 has not been a very good year. Taking my cue from the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who posited the idea of the short twentieth century (starting 1914 with WWI and ending in 1991 with the fall of Communism in Russia), I hoped desperately and publicly for a short 2016. It would start on 10 January, when we learned about the death of David Bowie, and end on 9 November when Hillary Clinton was elected president of the United States. We know how that prediction worked out.

In the midst of our (okay, my) rage and incomprehension, word of the death of Leonard Cohen hit – not like a bomb, but like a cone of silence that allowed me to leave aside internal wranglings about politics over which I had no control. It forced a kind of stillness and attentiveness on me, and I was the better for it. Many sobbed and sighed and thought, “Why are we losing Leonard Cohen precisely when we need him?”

I had a different reaction. Grimly, cynically, I felt he got out in time. But more reflectively, I think he has given us everything we need already. He has so adequately prepared us for our own mortality by musing on and confronting his own. He’s left us a body of  literature and song that deal so squarely with death and grief, with life and beauty. He has told us what we need to know. Continue reading

Footballers Have Opinions, Too

Gary Lineker’s been getting some stick from the anti-immigrants for speaking up on Twitter about the child migrants coming across from Calais before France bulldozes the camps. Cabinet ministers and tabloid newspapers have questioned whether some of these kids look too old to count as minors, and the former Leicester City and England striker dared to call out those statements and even acknowledge the struggles these people have experienced prior to arriving on the French coast.

I don’t need to get deep into it. Plenty’s been written about it already. I just remember when Pearl Jam and other musicians were playing during the US presidential election campaign of 2004, and rocking Republican Alice Cooper called such action “treason”.

“When I was a kid and my parents started talking about politics, I’d run to my room and put on the Rolling Stones as loud as I could. So when I see all these rock stars up there talking politics, it makes me sick.

“If you’re listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you’re a bigger moron than they are. Why are we rock stars? Because we’re morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night and very rarely do we sit around reading the Washington Journal.”

-Alice Cooper

I make no secret of my great and abiding love for Pearl Jam, and this response from Eddie Vedder made me love him and the band all the more:

“I read a piece from a musician I respect, Alice Cooper, who wrote that musicians really need to keep out of political discussions. For one, they’re idiots, he said. For another, when he was a kid and his parents started talking politics, he ran to his room and put on the Rolling Stones and turned it up as loud as he could. And I agree with Alice. I don’t think any of us want to be doing this. . . . But my problem is that my stereo does not go loud enough to drown out the sound of bombs dropping in the Middle East.”

-Eddie Vedder

I think Cooper will find plenty of fans old and young who disagree with the limits he tried to impose (and still imposes, in lock step with Trump). People who rocked out to Cooper in the 70s may have gotten switched on a few years earlier by Dylan or Buffalo Springfield. Why deny their experience? Similarly, why deny Lineker his views? If he does nothing more than read the headlines, he’s as well informed as most in this country. No surprise that those ridiculing the rock pulpit or the sports pulpit seem to disagree with the views expressed from those celebs, though they couch their opinions in a critique of the person, instead.

I’ll give my last word on this to a biting blog. I found it on Twitter.

The Darkest One

Gord Downie at K-ROCK, Kingston

Photo by David Bastedo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Where the wild are strong,
And the strong are the darkest ones,
You’re the darkest one.”

It says something that a friend of mine – a journalist back in Ottawa with a vigorous Twitter account – could write this, and I would know exactly what he was referring to.

Residing in Britain, I had been living with the news of Gord Downie’s brain tumour for five hours before he and other friends found out. In a year that started so hard and has kept being hard, this one is particularly hard. Like Bowie for all the freaks and weirdos in Britain and then beyond who needed someone to attach to, Gord Downie and his mates who make up the Tragically Hip were epochal, giving an indigenous confidence to young, pop-oriented Canadians just as the alignment of music video television, more accessible recording and distribution, and government regulation made it possible and even acceptable to dig Canadian music.

But that would say little on its own about the courageous, enigmatic, smart lyrics and Gord’s absurd performances. The band was more than special – it was unique. Looking now at their performance from 1995, when Dan Ackroyd introduced them on Saturday Night Live, it amazes me that their management thought this could work. Think of all those Americans watching the screen – who is this guy? What the hell is he talking about? I mean, grunge made opaque lyrics cool (hip?) but there was an intent behind these words that just did not compute:

“I’m total pro.
That’s what I’m here for.”

At dinner last night, we told the kids about when they were smaller – our nearly-ten-year-old not yet four – and we were in Nanaimo, visiting my folks. My dad got a gig down at the Port Theatre filming a dance company that had arranged a show Beside Each Other to Downie’s music and poetry, and he had tickets to spare, so my wife took our daughter to the show. We reminded her of how physically she responded to the dance. The words, I expect, flew by her.

After the kids were in bed, I put on some Hip, of course. It’s difficult, because most of our CDs are back in Canada, including almost all my Hip. We made some tough decisions before that first flight and took only the double-disc Yer Favourites, a best-of collection that is, at least, curated in its order rather than arranged chronologically. (Why do I even have a greatest-hits collection? Necessity: our last road trip across Canada as a family, I realised just before Mattawa that we hadn’t brought any Hip with us – an essential feature, for reasons I’ll explain in another post. So we bought it at the WalMart as a corrective.) I put on disc 2 – the better one, I think, as disc 1 seems to go a bit more for the obvious hits, in a more requisite order. Starts with the obligatory “new” track, then “Grace, Too” (which should be first), then “Music@Work” (which in my opinion shouldn’t be on there at all but which they insist on putting near the top of sets because of its thematic appropriateness).

Disc 2 instead starts with the dark horse, “Fully Completely”.

“You’re gonna miss me,
Wait and you’ll see.
Fully… and completely.”

Quite. And then this, holding the same place in the second chorus:

“Either it’ll move me
Or it’ll move right through me.
Fully… and completely.”

This is followed by throw-away bar-rocker “Twist My Arm”, which nonetheless has Gord’s shrill, paranoid delivery of the complementary line:

“It won’t hurt if you don’t move.”

We can only hope.

Then, of course, “Courage”, which already takes the brave step of name-checking mid-century novelist Hugh Maclennan in the title (go on, mass public: I dare you to stop paying attention.)

“There’s no simple explanation
For anything important
That any of us do.
And, yeah, the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure.”

Every song in the corpus contains a consolation for the desperate fans all reaching back to the old albums, hoping to find one there. It’s a great gift, as is their vow to take Gord on the road one more time and connect with the fans who have connected with them. “We are all richer for having seen them tonight,” he said of the Rheostatics, but of course we say it of them. I hope he makes it. I wish I could be there.

Put Yer Ukes Up: Ukevangelism, Part 2

Michael playing the uke at a tribute concert for Bob Froese, May 2009

Photo (c) Laure Kolk 2009

So I wrote about a change in my ukulele fortunes a while back, when Child Number 2 started singing in the choir and I lost my Monday night pupil. (We still have not fixed a new time for lessons, and this is really bad, but he can still play the hell out of “Taps”, so all is not lost but merely on hold.) I referred to a book on the uke by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White, and I sorta intimated that I would write a review of it soon. Sooner, later, whatever: here it is now.

The book is called Get Plucky with the Ukulele, and it’s a gift to the modern world, coming at the right time now that the second wave of ukulele has crested and the Good Ship Jumping Flea has come down the other side, not upturned. The wee instrument got rather faddish, to the point where US comedian Ria Lina could sing “Not Another Ukulele” at the Edinburgh Fringe on the ukulele with as little irony as is possible in such a setting. You still see them in shop windows, but I think the surprise factor is gone. Those who bought them in the swell of the hype may still have them kicking around the house, so when you talk about playing it, the response is no longer a) are you kidding?, b) oh, I do that too!, or c) ukulele? pfft, that’s so Hackney-three-months-ago now where’s my beard oil? We can confront the instrument as it is, unironically and neither undersold nor overhyped. Continue reading

“We All Cherish Strange Things”: A Meditation on Ukulelevangelism

100_6369Last night, I would have been giving my middle child a ukulele lesson. I taught his sister when she was his age, and she has augmented this with violin through school and, this year, singing in the church choir. I would have been teaching him, only last night, he joined his sister for choir practice, a step he’s really excited about.The author on uke and his daughter on violin

We’ll have to find another time for uke lessons, though, because he’s been progressing really well and there’s still so much to learn. But with a vacant hole in my early evening, I picked up a book by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White – I’d thumbed through it when I bought it, but I was writing up my PhD at the time, so I didn’t give it a proper “look”. It’s fun and good advocacy, and maybe I’ll pop a review of it up here shortly. But reading it sent me back to an old piece of writing of mine. Before I started “maintaining” this blog (that may be too grand a word for it), I would put occasional longer pieces of writing on Facebook in the “notes” category – remember those? Thing is, those don’t always get a lot of reading, and they’re rather buried. But I thought this was a rather good piece of writing that deserved a second public.

So, it’s a recycled blog post (20 January 2012), reviewing two records – one dated even at the time and the other largely inaccessible outside the snug Ottawa market. Obscure, as the ukulele itself is. But not small: it’s a long read, so grab some popcorn.


“We all cherish strange things”
– Neil Gerster, “Set Me On Fire”

This is partly a review of two albums – Neil Gerster’s Hearts and Other Shipwrecks and Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs – and partly an essay on the ideas these records inspire for the strange thing that I, or we, cherish, the ukulele. (Vedder’s record barely qualifies as “new” anymore, but both were released in 2011, so I’ll take that as “recent” enough to give me licence for writing this.)

First, my own interests on the table: I am a ukulele performer, and so my appreciation of these records is overly informed and rather biased. I like the instrument, and I want others to like it, too. As well, I am personally implicated with both these artists. I’ve known Neil for 13 years – though we’ve not been in close contact for all of that time. But we played at Carleton University’s sadly (for all intents and purposes) defunct pub, Rooster’s, and shared a love of good lyrics and melodies. More recently, he played bass and sang on my own record, I Am with the Hunters; and while he was putting his own record together, he asked me for thoughts on arrangements and such. Whilst I have no such direct contact with Eddie, I might as well have done. From the release of Pearl Jam’s second record, Vs, I have faithfully followed his musical progress, memorising and personalising his words, learning his changes and riffs, and letting myself get swept up with thousands-strong audiences during his performances. Continue reading

Better Down the Road without that Load

Michael and Maxime in Villar de MazarifeMusic has been a constant fellow-traveller in my life. Last week, I wrote about the music in my head on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which my wife and I walked ten years ago. I did manage to make some music on the outside, too, where other people could hear it. I didn’t bring a guitar with me – I had to carry everything I had for 800 kilometres, so toting a musical instrument would have been foolhardy (but more on that later) – but some of the places we stayed in had a guitar propped against the wall. To pull it down and play was a welcome act.

The most memorable of those nights – indeed, one of our most memorable on the whole journey – was in Villar de Mazarife. We had heard about this albergue by reputation: the Albergue de Jesus sometimes offers the queimada, which is an apparently impressive flaming alcoholic communal drink experience (not this). The account we read made the place out to be a hippy party spot, and I could see how it might become such a place in the right conditions. This guy, describing the queimada at another spot on the route, is of the opinion that those conditions involve several attractive peregrinas. Perhaps he’s on to something: when we hit Villar de Mazarife, it was off-season and getting chilly, and there was nobody in sight as our hospitalero showed us to our bunk room. The room slept eight on military-style metal bunk beds with bare, unadorned mattresses, but we had it to ourselves. The albergue had dorms on four sides facing into a quad, but all was lifeless.

Not all: we went to the kitchen to prepare our dinner, and a scruffy, curly-headed, bearded Canadian guy (hey, wait a minute!) was just taking his off the hob. His name was Maxime – a francophone from St. Isidore. He ate his meal whilst we cooked, and we made small, brief conversation. He seemed very internally focused and perhaps uncertain about speaking in English. The kitchen was the only warm room in the place, though, so he hung out, plucking the guitar from the corner and strumming softly as we finished our meal. Katie did our washing up, and I gestured for Max to pass the guitar. Continue reading

The Sound Somebody Makes When They’re Getting Away

Playing guitar on Camino

Playing guitar after dinner in Villamayor de Monjardin.

We were back in Canada in July, and I now curse myself for not thinking to fish out my journal from the Camino. Ten years ago, my wife and I walked 800 kilometres from the Pyrenean border to the grand cathedral city in the corner of green Galicia. I kept a couple of journals, in fact – one for the reflective narrative of the walk, and another thin black notebook that fit in my pocket into which I scrawled immediate notes – images, distances, quotations, particularly good meals.

Its two most potent functions, though, were musical. First, I wrote song lyrics in it – and I composed four good ones whilst walking. Okay, three good ones and a comic riff on a comic song called “Rick the Newfie” by Ottawa folk writer Charlie Gardner. Charlie is one of many who met at Rasputin’s most Wednesday nights to play songs at the legendary open stage. Rick, the aforementioned Newfie, was another, and Charlie’s song was a tribute to him, with a stompy jangle and a drawled-out accent. In the original, Rick has an encounter with Death whilst fishing, but the naïf manages to outwit the spirit visitor. I jotted down “Mike the Pilgrim” with a similar motif, in which Mike meets Death; but before he is taken prematurely to his eternal rest, “up come three lads from Belleville” who “left Leon this mornin’ – where ya goin’ to today?” They thump the Grim Reaper with no trouble and invite the protagonist for a beer, so all’s well that is well in the end. I played it back at Rasputin’s with both Rick and Charlie in the house, and it went down a treat. Continue reading

If You Want to

Referendum day in Scotland. It’s been murky of weather and murkier of heart for me and my family today. I have been attentive to the arguments for and against the independence of Scotland since the referendum was announced two years ago, one year after we moved to Edinburgh for me to start my PhD.

We did the math. Unless my studies went freakishly fast or I got a sweet job moments after submitting the thesis (to which I remain, in these unsteady post-submission days, totally unaverse), we would be here to vote. My wife is a dual citizen; I am a Commonwealth citizen. The franchise was ours. So – we could vote.

Yet I felt reticent about marking a ballot on this one. I have voted in Scottish, local, and national elections, and I voted in 2011 on a referendum for electoral reform at Westminster. I felt aware enough to take part, but this was something different. The future of a country I was not born to and am not a citizen of… So – should I vote? Continue reading