David Bowie



Five of us in a 1972 Mercury Capri with our sad and meagre luggage, driving nine hours to Prince George and then another two hours after that, the windows rolled up tight against the early winter, the roads already snow packed down to a thick, rock-hard and lumpy old mattress of ice for the last 150 kilometres or so. But before those hours and kilometres, how many joints and how many bottles of beer? I don’t know, I’m mostly hunched over and trying to ignore the joints and stubbies that get passed from front to back and side to side, not that I really can, sitting in the hump in the middle of the back seat, the spot without a seat belt (not that anyone is wearing a seat belt, I was the only one who would even think of it), my arms wrapped around my guitar because there’s no other place to put it, in the exact middle of the greasy smoky sauna that is the passenger compartment. I should be utterly miserable, numb with hopeless misery, but I’m only mostly miserable.

The reason is the 8-track that’s playing over and over, the hallucinogenic soundtrack to the dead dark and white landscape outside, a place I can crawl inside, a place where I can hide.

David Bowie’s Low. It loops and loops. I don’t know when we’re at the beginning or the end of the album, I don’t know what any of the songs are called. I only see a part of the cassette sticking out of the player in front of me, the orange of the cover art like the fire we are gathering around. Songs break in the middle as the machine switches tracks. Bowie sings about a colour and a room. He sings in a language that I can’t understand. It might be real, it might not. We are driving north in Canada. I have no home and no family. The driver’s eyes are rimmed with red and he’s refusing to let anyone else have a turn at the wheel. Every so often the car slides hard on a turn and the whole car goes eerily weightless. Sometimes it shudders hard like it’s going to break apart, and I don’t know why. I’m only seventeen. I don’t know if we’re going to make it alive.


I’m alive.

I’m alive and I actually got into UBC, even though I’m a high school dropout without even Grade 10 Math, and I am at Le Chateau looking at cute little boxy asymmetrical dresses and I am going to buy one and I am going to wear it to whatever kinds of parties they have there, with opaque tights and my new suede flat-heeled ankle boots. And something comes on over the speakers and I I feel like I’ve been hit with some kind of electric dart (is there such a thing? was there back then?) or I’ve suddenly fallen in love with the most beautiful boy in the world, and he’s put his fingers on my cheek and is looking right into my eyes. What is it what is it what is it WHAT IS IT? I am an uncoordinated curvy girl who never never dances in front of anyone but I start dancing like that electric dart is hitting me over and over, like that beautiful boy has me in his arms.

I stagger to the till, where a girl with the most perfectly spiked bangs and the most perfectly black-rimmed eyes is looking at me with utter boredom and disdain. I ask her what she’s playing and I’m so thick-headed with love that I can’t tell (and I don’t care) if she’s mocking me when she tells me.

David Bowie’s Scary Monsters.


I’m driving someone I love to a new town, and I don’t think he’s ever coming back. But I’m an adult now, and I’m not huddling in the back, with my face down and my feet up on the carpeted hump of the drive shaft, I’m holding the steering wheel and stepping on the clutch pedal, shifting gears like driving is the only thing that’s happening here. I’m pulling over to check a map every so often. I even check the oil when I buy gas, and wash the crushed bugs off the windshield. I’m not going to cry. I know where I’m going, approximately, and I have a credit card in my wallet, so I know I can buy enough gas to get back again.

I ask my passenger if he minds, and he says no.

And I play my David Bowie CD, over and over and over.


I suspect younger people will be as mystified by my generation’s love for David Bowie as we are by the newsreels of Valentino’s funeral. How can we all have had this relationship with some musician over decades? How naive could we be, to think that we were all the misfits and weirdos he was singing about?

Those people in their old-style hats and coats, that’s us now.

I don’t care. It was love, and he was there for me. He was there for a lot of us.

Thank you, David.

Here’s an old newsreel of Valentino’s funeral (the official one, from Pathé).

And a short/quick cut-to-the-chase version

Writing or music, but apparently not both at once

I think rule number one of blogging is supposed to be that you don’t make excuses for not blogging, so I’m not supposed to try to explain about work, life, playing music, and all the other things that have been happening lately in the little bits of time that could possibly be going to writing this thing.

But not having time to blog isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it means something good is happening, and being busy with music is definitely something good. The band I sing and play guitar in, The Diviners, is playing on May 2nd at a place called LanaLou’s. We’re opening for the Wonderful Diving Horses, and I’m pretty excited about that.

wonderful diving horses and diviners


And a few days ago Rod Matheson posted a video of my songwriting partner Don Delano and me (the “small version” of the Diviners) doing an REM cover on Valentine’s Day at Chapel Arts — part of his very cool and impressive Every Day Music project (http://www.everydaymusic.ca/). Ours is the 734th video in his series of 1000. Wow. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVKP2XZN-Hs


everydaymusic diviners screenshot


Music and writing have always had a way of balancing each other out for me. When I’m writing I usually don’t have time for music, and when I’m playing music I don’t get much writing done (except for songwriting — but I put that in the music category). More than that, I find I experience writing and music in nearly opposite ways, and bring nearly opposite sides of my personality to doing the work. With my fiction writing, it’s all about solitude, long hours, obsession, struggling for perfection, endless revising and discarding drafts, never being satisfied — which no doubt explains why I hardly ever publish anything. With music it’s about experiencing the moment, collaboration, friendship, the fleeting joyful or awful or joyful/awful forty minutes of the live show, playing that’s good-enough, singing that’s expressive but flawed, immediacy and imperfection, the risk of public failure and the rush of cheers and applause, and not trying too hard — which is why I’ve never been particularly good.

I guess this all makes sense in a way, because I studied writing formally, and I learned to play music in front of people in a post-punk anti-formal-training kind of setting, where courage and camaraderie counted more than technical skills. So I’m not happy in the recording studio, because that requires accuracy and care, something that goes against my learning. And I’m not good at doing readings, maybe because my writer self just doesn’t know how let go of control and just put on a show.

But I’m not going to philosophize about all this any further right now. There’s a show coming up. Hope to see you there.



Finding old junk — dead projects from long ago

I just happened to rooting around on my computer looking for something else when I came across the files I kept from an old online zine a few of us published way back in the early 2000s, called Uh Oh Canada. I remember us being pretty clever and amusing (and the visuals were great), and indeed, rereading the stuff now, some of it’s still pretty good. (Not my contributions, but some of the other pieces.)

It is funny to think now that we founding Uh Oh Canada members held a very serious meeting in the Railway Club before our first issue came out, and talked about what we would do if this thing really took off. We didn’t want to be surprised by overwhelming success, to have some kind of bad scene over all the money that might come our way. It is also funny to think how much work we put into this project. In the end — of course! — we put out a few issues which probably no one read, and then the whole thing fizzled out. But in the short time that Uh Oh Canada existed, I learned a lot, and developed huge admiration for the other contributors.

I’ll check with the old gang to see if they’re okay with me reposting their work here too, and meanwhile here are a couple of my own pieces. Both of these come from Vol 1 No 3, The Great Outdoors Release.

The first, under a pseudonym, is a review of the video release of the classic Canadian film, Goin’ Down the Road:

Like a lot of other Canadians, I’ve been waiting for years for this film to come out on video. After all, it’s a classic, even immortalized by an SCTV parody. But now that I have, at long last, got my own copy, I’m kind of sorry. I mean that in the best possible way. I really think is a compliment to say that it hurts me almost too much to see this brilliant, horrible movie. Apparently even director Don Sehib couldn’t understand why anyone would want to watch Goin’ Down the Road again, since it is about such a couple of “losers.” But what an examination of losers! These aren’t over-the-top characters like those in Midnight Cowboy. Pete and Joey, the two pathetic Maritimers who move to Toronto in search of a better life, are all too real. It’s 1970 and they have 1960 hairdos. (Like the hair, their car is similarly out of date, and represents the men’s belonging to a past era more than just being unfashionable.) They’re not good-looking. They’re attracted to women with mile-high ratted hair and white lipstick. They have no money, no education and no skills, but somehow believe they’ve get great jobs, apartments, and girlfriends. Put simply, they’re clueless. I don’t know about you, but move things forward a few years, say Pete and Joey are from Oshawa or Red Deer, and I could swear I know these guys. Or at least I used to. It’s been quite a while since I’ve spent as much as 90 minutes with anyone like them, and this film reminds me why. Too many moments in this film take me back to my own painful down-and-out youth a dozen or so years later. There’s the sad, drunken wedding, and the subsequent tiny run-down apartment that the newly married Joey and Bets have to share with Pete. There are the desperate attempts to have fun even while the furniture’s being put out on the sidewalk. There’s the constant smoking and bitching. And then there’s the constant feeling that the rest of the world is having an easy and wonderful time of it, and doesn’t care in the slightest that you don’t have food to eat or a place to stay. Yes, I winced almost all the way through Goin’ Down the Road, but only because it’s so true. I believe that this really was Toronto for one brief moment. There really were whole generations of unskilled, uneducated men who replaced pins at the bowling alley for a shitty wage. (No doubt these are the old guys you see at the Legion nowadays, resting their heads on the terry-clothed table tops as last call approaches.) Want ads specified whether men or women could apply, and how old the applicants could be. The world truly was clearly divided between the hipsters and the folks who had completely missed the cultural boat, even more than now. The next time some old fart starts telling you how society has changed for the worse, how the availability of contraception, federally-funded job programs, sexual harrassment laws, and the pogy have turned our country into a mess, you might want to sit them down with this movie. If these were the good old days the old-timers like to talk about, you might want to reconsider believing anything else they have to say. –Tracy Black

goin down the road

From http://www.canuxploitation.com/review/downroad.html


The second is a bit of an opinionated rant about music (and I guess was intended to be the first installment of a regular column?). It brings tears to my eyes not only because of the annoying tone, but more than that, because it is a reminder that David Wisdom used to be on the CBC, and he isn’t any more.


Get an Earful: 

Music Reviews, Opinion, and Unvarnished Truth

This Month: Stop Complaining and Learn to Love New Music. Here’s How.

Kenny G, muzak, Celine Dion, the wimpy MOR crap so often heard in cheap sushi restaurants, Bob Seger being played at weddings (apparently as unavoidable as death and taxes). These things seem sent to torment me. But what I hate most of all is hearing otherwise sensible folks proclaiming that there isn’t any good music anymore.

Usually, of course, this comes from some jolly person I’ve only just met, on discovering I write a music column and host a campus radio show. Since I’ve promised in recent years to be on good behaviour in social situations, I refrain from slapping these ignorant souls, however possible that it might knock some sense into them. Instead, I smile stiffly and move away in a hurry.

Well, this column isn’t about avoiding confrontation, so here goes, you naysayers. I’m about to set you straight.

 First of all, the obvious. Think back to your beloved, generation-defining music. Remember what the parents, teachers, and other old farts in your life used to call it? Is it possible that you’re saying the same things now? Notice a pattern?

Another question: when do you ever actually hear music that’s been produced in the past year or two? It ought to go without saying that if you haven’t heard it, you should keep your mouth shut about whether it’s good or bad. On the other hand, if all you’ve heard is what generally passes for new music on commercial radio and MuchMusic, I’ll cut you some slack, because most of it is indeed crap. (There are some exceptions. More about this later.)

Amazingly, a lot of people believe that music was shit before they were around twenty years old, at which point a glorious renaissance of sound took place, only to burn out forever when they turned twenty-five. (The ages may vary, but you get the picture.) We’re all guilty of some level of sentimentality toward the music of our youth. It was the soundtrack to our adventures of self-discovery, after all. We made both friends and love with this stuff playing in the background. For me it was the first two REM albums, the Hoodoo Gurus, Young Fresh Fellows, and the obscure sixties garage/psychedelic bands revived by the Nuggets and Pebbles compilations that came out around the same time. All of these still give me a pleasant case of the shivers when I hear them. I’m still convinced that this was and is good music, but what makes it magical to me is that I discovered it when I started university, met new, intelligent, and exciting friends, and left my nasty, miserable teenaged years behind me.

What most people don’t realise is that this can happen to a person more than once. When I started seeing the man I eventually married, he introduced me to the Buzzcocks, who now qualify for magical status on my personal soundtrack. Similarly, when I went back to campus radio (and graduate school) after a few years away, I discovered some of the exhilarating new music that had come along in my absence, and was especially moved by indiepop, the likes of Stereolab, and naughty girl garage bands with names like Kittywinder, Sit ‘n Spin, and The Rondelles.

This can happen to you too. If you join a conversational French class and meeting that special charming someone while Piaf is warbling in the background, you know perfectly well that Piaf will become a favourite of yours (at least until you break up!). 

But you don’t need to leave your house to discover new music that you will actually enjoy. Watch The Wedge on MuchMusic a few times and see if every tenth or twentieth band doesn’t give you hope for the future. (If this is too difficult, turn it on while you’re doing the dishes. It won’t kill you.) It’s also possible that your local commercial FM rock station runs one lonely program, probably at an inconvenient time, that plays independent artists that will never make it into regular rotation. Again, don’t expect to be thrilled by more than a small fraction of what you hear.

But for sheer musical variety, nothing can beat campus or community radio. These low-wattage stations, found in almost any reasonably-sized city, aren’t masterminded by professional (read commercially-minded) programmers and music directors, which is, depending on your point of view, either the best or worst thing about them. Instead, legions of music-crazy volunteers haunt CD stores, thrift shops, and their stations’ eclectic record libraries to produce reggae, raga, worldbeat, jazz, new classical, electro-acoustic, hip-hop, folk, roots, hardcore, klezmer, and gay-themed shows, among others. If you can find these stations on the dial (and it isn’t always easy), you’ll also hear country, metal, and pop music that is a very far cry from Garth Brooks, Led Zeppelin, or Britney Spears. (And thank the gods for that!)

Not quite as varied, but available from sea to sea to shining sea, is our national broadcaster, the CBC. You may be surprised to hear that Radio Two doesn’t just play classical music, but (especially late at night) offers up loads of the new stuff. If the amateurishness of campus radio makes you squirm, you’ll be pleased to hear that the programs are hosted (with a few exceptions) by announcers with great voices and a professional style that is much nicer to listen to than anything on commercial radio. (The exceptions? Well, let’s just say that your humble writer had the honour of hosting a late night show for six weeks a couple of years ago.) No matter what else you do, make a point of listening to one of David Wisdom’s programs. He hosts both the new music RadioSonic and the disarmingly eclectic Pearls of Wisdom, and he’s a genius.

I’ve offered you plenty of options, so get out there and get informed. You’re guaranteed to dislike a lot of what you hear. You’re likely to hate some of it with a passion. (You hated some of it when you were twenty, too. Remember?) But leave your radio on a campus or co-op station for a good two weeks, and I promise you will hear something that can change your life.





The brilliant and wonderful David Wisdom, from http://jinglebellrocks.com/character/wisdom/ 


The beauty of quick and dirty — loving garage rock and being a librarian, too

It’s funny how easily I forget that I’m crazy about old ‘60s garage rock. Months can go by without me thinking about it, until it’s almost possible to believe I’m a person of sophisticated tastes (after all, I read “serious” books and I’m picky about what TV shows I watch), but then I’ll hear an old, noisy, primitively-recorded 4-chord song (maybe The Troggs or the Count Five or ? and The Mysterions), and it all comes back to me. It’s not a poetic or romantic kind of love, it’s the sheer physical kind, the type that is electrifying and unbalancing, that hits you hard and makes you forget common sense and shame. If they were teenaged boys and I was a teenaged girl I’d text these guys in the middle of the night, I’d skip out of my afternoon classes so I could hang out in front of their school in hopes of seeing them come outside when the bell rang.

But never mind the not-quite-right metaphors, I’ll admit what actually happens when I hear them: I am compelled to jump up and dance and shake my hair around, totally forgetting that I’m too old, too uncoordinated, too graceless,  too much of a librarian to be able to pull this off.

If I had to choose just one first-generation favourite garage-rock band, it would be The Sonics, from Tacoma, Washington. Growing up in Vancouver and doing campus radio and going out to see bands in the ‘80s, I was introduced to them through The Pointed Sticks (who covered The Witch), almost certainly The Enigmas, my favourite local live band at the time, who did lots of garage covers, and ultimately the Sonics Full Force LP that came out sometime midway through that decade. (I bought mine from Zulu Records; you can still see the plastic wrap.)

sonics back sonics front

Like the whole punk scene (which was also already over by the time I was old enough to go see live bands), the garage guys* were proof that being loud and audacious and having just a few basic skills on an instrument was enough to make life-altering music. A boyfriend with serious music cred (and no formal music training) showed me how to play “Strychnine” — my introduction to barre chords, and not the sort of thing they taught us on our nylon-strung acoustics in the guitar class I took as an elective in high school. After that it was just a matter of months before I was in my own band, writing songs and singing and playing guitar — essentially because I was too naive to realise I wasn’t good enough.

But that’s another story.

The Sonics came to Vancouver in September — their first time playing here since their original 1960s incarnation. It could have been awful, and maybe it should have been awful, some guys in their 70s (!) who were never particularly huge, playing fifty-year-old songs. But the venue was packed — sold out or close to it — and with a mix of people who could have seen them in the old days, people my age, and people who weren’t even born when I discovered the Sonics in the ’80s. Somehow we all knew this was going to be special, and it was: Gerry Roslie’s voice was inexplicably even better than on the old records, there was a huge happy mosh pit, and everyone was blissfully soaked in sweat, including me. Yes, I danced and sang along at the top of my lungs, probably to the great amusement and pity of everyone around me. But I didn’t care. I was absolutely high from the whole thing.

This stuff makes me happy, and more than that, it reminds me of the beauty of quick & dirty and DIY, approaches that I have mostly unlearned through years of education and experience.

Librarians are notoriously obsessed with accuracy and even perfection — something that’s essential when we’re cataloguing items or answering reference questions. But there’s a place for quick & dirty in my work too, and I need to remember that possibility. How often do I find myself at work staring at a problem that feels like having to write, arrange, and conduct a symphony, complete with hiring a room full of musicians, when all that’s needed is a three-chord song that I can whip off in an afternoon?

I don’t have the answers, but thank you to The Sonics for reminding me to ask the question.


* There were women who did great garage rock too — see the Girls in the Garage series, for instance (unfortunately there isn’t a Wikipedia entry for those records yet — and I don’t know enough to be the one to create one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_garage_rock_and_psychedelic_rock_compilation_albums). Someday I would love to do more exploration of these old girl groups (and why and how they are mostly forgotten; certainly it wasn’t for lack of talent and visual appeal). For the moment, you can get tiny and delicious tastes on the web, including here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkyZuUNQRNc