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Archive for the category “Music”

The Idea of a Commonwealth, and a Poem About Montreal

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Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir (2012)

Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir is a bit of an odd book: he originally wrote it to chronicle the time he spent as part of a tour with Stevie Wonder advocating making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday (hence the book’s title) rather than as a conventional memoir. In the course of writing about the tour, however, he ended up writing about his childhood and youth as well. The process shows through in the structure of the book, which begins with Stevie Wonder, then suddenly leaps back in time to his parents and his childhood, and then gradually works its way forward to Stevie Wonder again, with various jumps and detours along the way. The book doesn’t really touch on the last years of his life at all (see below).

His relationship with his mother is powerfully conveyed, and his experiences as a campus activist and young author trying to get published are sharp and often amusing. And of course there are the backstage anecdotes you expect from a book like this – smoking gigantic joints with Bob Marley and so on. He seems to have stumbled more or less by accident into being a musician, by way of writing poetry and then making what would now be called “spoken word” albums – at least based on what he describes in the book.

If you’re a fan of his music, it’s definitely worth reading. There are even a couple of references to Canada.

That Sophisticated Land to the North

This passage is from a description of Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, who, we have already been told, “was originally from Jamaica”. It describes him at the time he met Scott-Heron’s mother, Bobbie, in Chicago:

Gil Heron was young, exotic, and worldly, a veteran of the Canadian Air Force. He was also physical and athletic, and went all out when he competed. The Aries fire lit up his face and made it glow. The joy of winning brought a smile that made you feel like you were standing in a bright, warm sun. Sometimes he was romantic and sometimes thoughtful, brooding over the quality of his competition and teammates who couldn’t get the ball to him when they were pressed. He loved to talk about soccer, past games, teammates, opponents ridiculed as their pointless, desperate pursuit of him always ended the same way: Goooooaaaaal!  (19-20)

Heron played soccer in the United States until:

…the Scottish national team visited Chicago for a “friendly” match, an exhibition game, and were impressed. In fact, after the game members of the coaching staff spoke to him and made an informal offer for him to come to Scotland to play. He was, after all, already a citizen of the commonwealth.
My mother and father separated when I was one and a half years old, when Celtic, in Glasgow, Scotland, offered him a formal contract. My father decided to take an opportunity to do what he had always wanted to do: play football fulltime, at the highest level, against the best players…. To play with Celtic was also a Jackie Robinson-like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of Blacks. (21-22)

The way the words “veteran of the Canadian Air Force” immediately follow the word “worldly,” as if to provide an explanation, implies that his time in the Canadian Air Force is part of what has given him this air of worldliness, and we can be flattered by the idea that spending time in the Canadian armed forces turns you into a sophisticated cosmopolitan. At least to Scott-Heron’s mother, at that time, Canada was not the boring provincial backwater we see in some portrayals, but rather an exciting and perhaps slightly romantic country.

Beyond that, it’s fascinating to see how the idea of a larger commonwealth citizenship, one that transcends nationality, runs through the passages about Scott-Heron’s father: though from Jamaica, his family immigrated to Canada (easier because both were commonwealth countries?) and he joined the Canadian Air Force; later, when an opportunity arises to play soccer in Scotland, being a citizen of the commonwealth smooths the way again. (Heron became the first Black player to play for Celtic – you can read his Wikipedia entry for a little more information about him.)

Montreal In Verse

Scott-Heron often drops little (or sometimes large) chunks of verse into his narrative as a way of telling his story. A visit to Montreal for a concert inspires one of his longer poetic passages:

Montreal, November 7, 1980

I had no choice aside from moving quick
An ex-country hick whose image was city slick
The last one they would’ve ever picked
When I was in school doing my weekend stick
Compared to my classmates I couldn’t sing a lick
And through record store windows when they saw my flick
On the cover of an LP they wished for a brick
Because it wasn’t just out there it was actually a hit
And what they were wondering was what made me tick
It was that in spite of themselves they could all feel it

In reality I was heading for work
In the back of a cab I was changing my shirt
My Mickey Mouse was saying it was five to eight
So theoretically I was already late.
Next to me in the backseat were my daughter and my wife
And I’d probably say never been happier in my life.
Light rain was falling on the Montreal streets
And I slipped on my shoes and leaned back in the seat
As we pulled up to the Forum where the Canadiens played.
Tonight: “Stevie Wonder” the marquee proudly displayed
But not a word about me or my “Amnesia Express”
But I was feeling too good to start getting depressed.

It was only four days since I had found out for sure
That Stevie wanted me opening the rest of the tour.
News of Bob Marley’s illness was a helluva blow
I thought. And the eight o’clock news came on the radio
It looked like a sellout though the weather was damp
And fortunately no cars blocked the underground ramp.
As the cab took the curves beneath the old hockey rink
I was lighting a Viceroy and still trying to think
Of how Hartford had sounded and the tunes we should play;
Made mental notes of the order and felt it was okay

Keg Leg, my man, stood near the security line
‘Cause I never had I.D. and couldn’t get in sometimes
I was carrying Gia as we moved down the hall
And I nodded and smiled as I heard my name called.
Things were getting familiar and I was finding my niche
But I didn’t want to give producers any reason to bitch.
I told my brother to get the band ready at eight o’clock
And it was damn near ten after when I moved into my spot
James Grayer gave me a smile and tapped his Mickey Mouse
The lights went down and the crowd perked up
Because I was finally in the house.   (262-3)

To clarify a couple of points: Gia is Scott-Heron’s daughter, the “Amnesia Express” is the name of his backing band, and he got his place as the permanent opener on Stevie Wonder’s tour when Bob Marley became too ill to perform and had to drop out. And a Mickey Mouse, I assume from the context, means a watch: interesting as Mickey Mouse watches were one of the items of desirable Americana mentioned in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which we considered recently.

I don’t know that we can conclude a lot from this poem; there are a couple of local references (the Forum, the Canadiens) but other than that it focuses on what is going through Scott-Heron’s mind on the cab ride; he’s not making statements about Montreal or the impression it creates on him. And perhaps that’s just the point: to Scott-Heron, Montreal is just another city, another stop on the tour, and the fact that it is in Canada isn’t even particularly meaningful to him.

Except for the fact that it is Montreal, and not some other city, that he chooses to memorialize in verse.

Left Unsaid (Unrelated to Canada)

It seems difficult to leave this book without glancing at the question of what Scott-Heron leaves out. There are some oblique references in the final chapter to not being allowed into his mother’s apartment, but nothing is ever clearly explained. I do recall reading a harrowing article about him in The New Yorker years ago, however, and I managed to track it down: called “New York Is Killing Me,” it is a portrait of Scott-Heron a year or two before his death.

It’s not a pretty picture, obviously, but if you’re thinking of reading The Last Holiday, the article makes a useful companion piece in terms of filling out the story of the latter part of Scott-Heron’s life.

The Music

Of course, there has to be music. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is Scott-Heron’s most famous song, but we’ve already featured it, so I’m going to put up my personal favourite, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”:

I also like this one, which is a little closer to his “spoken word” roots:

And finally, we might as well have Scott-Heron’s tribute to a couple of jazz greats:

And that’s that.

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Bob Dylan in the Land of Obscurity

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Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (aka The Old Weird America) (1997)

This is one of the those books I heard about years ago and had been half-planning to read while at the same time half-dreading the experience; when I saw a paperback for $5 I decided the time was finally right. As it turned out, the “dreading to read” side of my feelings was more prescient than the “wanting to read” side – the book is a tedious slog, occasionally broken by an over-reading of a song conducted with such dead-serious reverence that it becomes laughable.

Obscurity, Of Course

The first reference to Canada comes in a description of the band that accompanied Dylan on his 1966 tour (documented on the famous “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg):

In a combination completed by various temporary drummers, most notably Mickey Jones of Trini Lopez fame, the musicians Dylan played with on his tour were bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, and guitarist Robbie Robertson. They were four-fifths of an obscure Toronto honky-tonk outfit called the Hawks, once the backing band for Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins….  (xiii)

Toronto is nothing more than a point of origin here, or a location that is simply mentioned; for our purposes, the key point is to note the attachment of the word “obscure” to Toronto, which seems to be placed there almost automatically, as if anything to do with Toronto is invariably also obscure.

The other reference comes in the lead-in to the discussion of one of the Johnny Cash songs covered on The Basement Tapes:

You begin to sense people digging deeper, bored with the obvious. Someone excavates an obscure Johnny Cash number – lifelong Cash fan Dylan, or perhaps Hudson, who with Paul London and the Capers, his Ontario-based teenage rock ‘n’ roll band, backed Cash in Detroit bars in the early 1960s.  (73)

Marcus is certainly a fount of obscure knowledge. It’s remarkable that a group of Ontario teenagers would have been chosen to back Johnny Cash – but perhaps his star was still in the early stages of its ascent at the time.

How Insecure Canadians Impress Americans

Since we’re on the subject of this book, we might as well note a couple of other references to Canada, for the sake of completeness if nothing else. The following is a description of one of the basement performances:

After this the evening went off the rails. Professor Hudson returns: ‘Too many of us are ignorant of the vast, untamed wilderness to the north, and the odd graces of Canadians that have contributed to the scene, if you’ll pardon the expression, in their own, inimitable fashion. Here, is a flower song, a veritable prayer dance for mushroom sauce, invented by the Sasquatches, a great and beautiful tribe of more than a dozen happy’ – and Hudson sticks on the word like a nick in vinyl – ‘happy – happy souls, completely covered with hair, if you can imagine.’ The Bigfoot aria that follows – and sustains itself – features a chorus of preverbal grunts and squawks and a lead that sounds as much like a vocal recorded underwater as a tape played backward. As the creatures strain toward words, you realize they don’t need them.  (80-81)

Note Hudson, a Canadian himself, begins by saying “too many of us” are ignorant of Canadians. What we have here is a Canadian impersonating an American in order to laugh about Canada with other Americans, clowning and making a joke of his national identity for the benefit of his American audience – though who exactly he thinks that audience is is difficult to say. This is obviously not a reference to Canada by a non-Canadian, but making fun of Canada in order to ingratiate oneself with Americans represents a characteristic type of Canadian insecurity, and that seems to be what is expressed here, albeit obliquely.

Slightly Mystical

And then there’s this, during Marcus’ lengthy discussion of the song “I’m Not There”:

As Dylan sings, as the shimmering northern lights in the sound Hudson, Manuel and Danko are making rise to meet him, a phantom town gathers around the woman in the song, and like the phantom text of the song it disappears as soon as it is apprehended.  (201-202)

I suppose there are places in the U.S. where you can see the Northern Lights, but it still seems noteworthy that Marcus chooses this particular metaphor to describe the music made by a group of Canadians. As for the rest of it, if you feel that sentence deepens your understanding of the song “I’m Not There,” then maybe you should check out the book. I’ve listened to the song many times, and I have to admit I can’t hear the Northern Lights in the sound; maybe you can pick them out.

I don’t mean to sneer at Marcus: while I don’t go in for his style of reverent Bobolatry, and I don’t consider the Basement Tapes a watershed moment in human cultural history, there is some pretty good music on them, and “I’m Not There” is certainly worthy of praise as one of Dylan’s most mysterious and hauntingly beautiful songs. But….

It’s Not There

Ordinarily, at this point I would provide a link to “I’m Not There” on YouTube, so you could listen for the “northern lights” yourself. Bob and his lawyers, however, seem to have done a fairly thorough job of removing his songs. There are some cover versions you can listen to, a couple of which are bearable, but since none of them have the band Marcus is referring to, you won’t hear any northern lights.

For lack of anything better, here is what strikes my ear as the least offensive cover of “I’m Not There”:

I like the way some of the lyrics are supplied seemingly at random; the Basement version of the song is notoriously incomprehensible (even by Bob Dylan standards), so perhaps these were the only ones the singer felt confident typing up. (An added benefit of the video is that, if you’re a guitar player, you can pretty much learn to play the song from watching it. The capo’s at the 4th fret, and then just standard chords.)

On Weirdness

One thing Marcus does capture well in his book (as suggested by its alternate title) is the sheer weirdness of the Basement Tapes, and the way that weirdness grows out of, and pays homage to, the weirdness to be heard on something like the Anthology of American Folk Music. This idea of weirdness can be overdone: to me it remains an open question, at least in some cases, whether the apparent “weirdness” of a song’s lyrics is intentional, or merely the result of the singer recombining remembered lines and verses from other songs more or less at random (I’m talking about songs from the Anthology, not the Basement Tapes songs, which I think are consciously constructed to try to create that effect). Viewed in this way, weirdness would be a natural result of what is sometimes called the “folk process”; the seeming discontinuities and contradictions in the Homeric epics, and the attitude of the “analytical” critics to them, might be a useful comparison.

Having said that, I feel this post would be incomplete without at least a taste of the Anthology, which certainly lies behind the Basement Tapes in some sense; here’s a favourite of mine:

And here’s a song that strikes me as a possible example of the “folk process” in action:

Sex, Drugs, Classical Music … and Canada, Of Course

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Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (2004)

This is a strange book. I suppose you could categorize it as a memoir and not be too far off; it also seems to purport to be an “exposé” of the dark side of the classical music scene, though it really isn’t, or not to any great extent. There’s very little in the way of a narrative thread running through the book: much of it concerns Tindall’s own life, of course, but she often drops her story for long disquisitions on the history of classical music in the U.S., the lives of particular performers, and so on. As a result, the book ends up being a heterogeneous mix of personal anecdotes, social history, and op-ed type passages on “the state of classical music.” If I had to sum it up in a word, I would call it “lumpy”.

When I got to the end of the book and found out that Tindall had become a journalist, the book’s form – or maybe I should say, its lack of consistent form – made a little more sense to me: it’s more like a lot of articles on various topics related to classical music strung together without much of an organizing principle. And when I looked up a few of her articles online, there were definite parallels with the book, suggesting that perhaps some repurposing had gone on. That said, a lot of the personal anecdotes are interesting or amusing enough to be worth reading, and the portrait of the life of freelance classical musicians in New York, which hovers somewhere between subsistence and poverty, is sharply drawn and affecting.

And, of course, there are a few references to Canada to make it all worthwhile. The first comes in a description of one of Tindall’s fellow students at the North Carolina School of the Arts:

Next door to me was Kristin. She’d brought her French horn from a Montana town of 250, where, at best, girls returned home to a husband and farm after attending a local college. One snowy night, pianist Lili Kraus had played eighty miles away in Great Falls, the only big town between Billings and Calgary.   (22)

The passage on a general level speaks to the cultural desolation that exists outside major cities. Interestingly, however, Canada is not mentioned as an example of some kind of wasteland, as often happens with American authors; rather, Calgary represents one outpost of civlization at the far end of the musical desert in which Tindall’s roommate has grown up. I think we can take that as a compliment.

The next reference to Canada is simply a brief mention in a performance itinerary about Tindall’s friend (and sometime lover), the pianist Sam Sanders:

By April, Sam hit the road with Itzhak, traveling to Dallas, Quebec and across the Midwest.  (182)

There’s an interesting pattern of decreasing specificity there: Dallas is a city, Quebec a province, and the Midwest a region that encompasses several states. Ordinarily it’s Canada that is treated in the vaguest way in lists like this and U.S. locations that are named more specifically, but here the one Canadian location actually occupies the middle position, and it is “the Midwest” that is treated like a vast expanse of nothingness.

So that’s a nice step up for us. Of course it would be Quebec that the famous Itzhak Perlman includes on his tour.

And finally, there is this, which was definitely the most interesting Canadian reference in the book:

Schlepping back from a gig in Jersey, I held my instruments tightly while passing through Port Authority. The bus station had long been known as a magnet for crime. However, today it felt safe, even bucolic, as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray,” a term coined by Northwestern University professor Robert Gjerdingen. The technique was first used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. The trend spread as Pavarotti cleared out Denver parking lots, Chopin thwarted Toronto thugs, and an endless loop of Mozart blared across a Florida slum….
I thought about the message of the Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime.  (205)

Tindall doesn’t seem to think the trend towards using classical music to chase away loiterers is anything to be proud of, but at least in this somewhat questionable area, Canada can claim to be a leader. This passage also reflects an idea of Canadian cities that runs counter to their usual image of being much “safer” than American cities: even Toronto, it turns out, has thugs.

Personal Reminiscences

In an example of what Northrop Frye might have called the “pre-critical response,” I have to confess a particular fondness for that paragraph because I experienced what it describes first-hand. In the mid-90s, when I used to travel to the wilds of Scarborough to work, I had to take a bus from Kennedy station (apologies for the Toronto references for those who have no idea what I’m talking about), and during that time the TTC, in response to a couple of stabbings, instituted exactly the program Tindall is describing at Kennedy: in an attempt to make the station feel inhospitable to the sort of people who stab other people, they started piping in classical music (I think it was mostly Beethoven) all day. And so every morning, while I waited for my bus, I was treated to some music.

(Of course in the age of the iPod/iPhone, when anyone who wishes can walk around permanently cocooned in whatever music they choose, this “musical bug spray” idea would never work. But those were different times.)

What were the results? I don’t personally recall feeling any “safer” in the station, but then I was only waiting around there in the mornings, and the stabbings likely occurred at night. I don’t think anyone else got stabbed while the classical music was being played, so I suppose it “worked,” in some sense. The program didn’t last very long though – I think after a month or two at most the station was silent again. No doubt non-stop Beethoven was driving the TTC employees crazy and they complained about a “poisoned work environment” or something like that.

The Music

Since the book is about music, it seems a shame not to include a little. Here is Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, just to give a sense of what Tindall’s instrument (did I mention she’s an oboist?) sounds like:

“An ill wind that no one blows good,” as a repeated joke in the book has it.

One of Tindall’s boyfriends has a particular fondness for Mahler’s Fifth; here’s a version conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who also features in the book:

Though I find this version by von Karajan more compelling, particularly the first movement:

Bonus Pop-Culture Tie-In

Mozart in the Jungle has recently been used as the basis for a TV series by Amazon. I haven’t watched it, but here’s the trailer:

My impression, based on that, is that the show bears little relation to the actual content of the book, but really just uses the subtitle as the jumping-off point for a largely fictionalized narrative. Still, it might be fun.

The United States Has Ceased to Exist

Bon Iver, “Calgary” from Bon Iver (2011)

As a small pendant to the larger discussion of American hipsters’ obsession with Canada (begun in our Patricia Lockwood post), I thought it would be worthwhile to glance at this song. I’m not going to quote all the lyrics – they’re easy enough to find online – but only the part that seems like it could be relevant to Canada:

So it’s storming on the lake
Little waves our bodies break

There’s a fire going out
But there’s really nothing to the south

It’s not immediately clear why the song is called “Calgary.” Most of the songs on the album have place names as their titles, and it seems fair to assume that each song is in some way associated with the place it is named for. And while I think we are free to interpret works of art in our own way, and aren’t necessarily obligated to be guided by the creator’s “intentions,” it might still be worth pointing out that Vernon himself has confirmed that the song is about Calgary, Alberta.

So if we imagine that the singer is in some sense speaking from Calgary – or his idea of Calgary – how remarkable does the final line quoted above become? There’s not very much of Canada south of Calgary, which is in the southern part of Alberta, but there is quite a lot south of Calgary: most obviously, the United States, which is here referred to as “really nothing.”

Could there be a clearer example of an American hipster trying to escape his Americanness and proclaim himself a Canadian? Is there any more obvious way that he could try to tie himself to the effortless cool he associates with Canada? The singer essentially denies the existence of his entire country – a country of hundreds of millions of people – in an attempt to establish his hipster bona fides.

And that isn’t the only clue to his desire to be Canadian. His “band” – which seems to have a more notional than actual existence – is named after a corruption of the French phrase “bon hiver” (“good winter”) – and French, I believe, is one of the official languages of Canada, not the U.S. And then his record label, jagjaguwar, recently merged with – can you guess? – that’s right, Secretly Canadian.

American hipsters wish they were Canadian. What more proof do we need?

The Sexy Side of … Ottawa?

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Graham Nash, Wild Tales (2013)

This book is not so much an autobiography or memoir as a series of anecdotes strung together, and how much you enjoy it (or don’t) may depend on how much of an admirer of Graham Nash you are. Graham Nash is certainly an admirer of Graham Nash: he never misses an opportunity to tell you how great one of his songs is, or how well he performed at a particular show or studio session.

The focus of the book is really on the music he made and the musicians he worked with; there are tangential references to sex and drugs, but if you’re looking for a lurid portrayal of the debauched rock star lifestyle (and why not?), look elsewhere, because you won’t find it here.

You will, however, find a lot of references to Canada. I suppose that’s not surprising, given that Nash had a lengthy (by his standards) affair with Joni Mitchell and was in (and out of) a band with Neil Young for decades. I’m not going to catalogue every single one, since they aren’t all particularly interesting; instead, I’ll pick out a few of the more characteristic ones.

Joni’s Enchanted Castle

This passage describes how Nash met Joni Mitchell for the first time, while he was on tour with the Hollies in Ottawa, of all places:

Eventually, she invited me back to the place where she was staying, the Chateau Laurier, a beautiful old French Gothic hotel in the heart of town. Her room on the seventh floor was out of this world, literally: It had a beautiful steepled ceiling, walls made of stone with gargoyles hunched just outside the windows. Flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays, candles were lit strategically, and beautiful scarves had been draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire.  (116)

Joni then seals the deal by … grabbing a guitar and playing some songs. Nash is suitably impressed:

I never knew anyone could write like that. There was pure genius sitting right in front of me, no doubt about it. I was awestruck, not only as a man but as a musician. I thought I knew what songwriting was all about, but after listening to Joni’s masterpieces, one after the next, I realized how little I knew. She was twenty-four years old. My heart opened up and I fell deeply in love with this woman on the spot.

We spent the night together. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. It was magical on so many different levels. The next day we woke up at two in the afternoon and I realized I was in hot water. I’d put in a wake-up call with the hotel’s front desk, but somehow misplaced putting the receiver back in the cradle. The Hollies had already checked out of their hotel without leaving details about our itinerary. I only knew they’d be somewhere in Winnipeg. I had no idea where they were staying or playing or how to get there. Our gig was only a few hours off. Somehow, I got the details and found a flight to Winnipeg. Traumatic, but worth every minute of it.  (116-17)

Wow! Who knew that two musical icons of the 60s first met and fell in love in Ottawa?

And Ottawa, contrary to its usual reputation as monotonously grey and cold, provides a wonderful atmosphere for romance – the “French Gothic” hotel with gargoyles perched outside the window, the fireplace, the steepled ceiling – the Chateau Laurier sounds like the enchanted castle in a fairy tale, where the lovely princess leads her bold knight. Perhaps Ottawa is just different enough from other places Nash had been to lend his night with Joni a magical quality – or maybe it was all Joni.

And then, alas, the quotidian reality of Winnipeg calls, and the idyll comes to an end. Mitchell and Nash would eventually end up living together for several years in California.

Square, Straight Canadians

Later, there is a description of Joni Mitchell’s parents that gives us, perhaps, a sense of the typical Canadian upbringing of the time:

I’d met her [Mitchell’s] parents, Bill and Myrtle Anderson, a few months before this. Joan and I had gone to visit them in her hometown, Saskatoon – a nice suburban house, not posh but very clean, stark white walls. I can’t describe what Joan’s room looked like because I wasn’t allowed within twenty feet of it. Bill and Myrtle were a very straight, religious couple, and they weren’t about to let a long-haired hippie sleep with their daughter under their roof, that was for sure. It surprised the hell out of me. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, not even close. But just to make sure, they put me in a downstairs bedroom, separating us by a floor, and made it clear I’d need an army behind me if I tried to sneak up there.  (140)

“Not even close” – ouch! We almost pity these poor, prudish Canadian parents, valiantly trying to protect the sanctuary of their daughter’s honour, not realizing it’s been conquered and sacked countless times before. They’re just so out of touch with the realities of life in the major U.S. centres – an ignorance perfectly summed up in the single word, “straight,” which seems to capture so much of what Nash sees in Canada, and Canadians, at this time.

Genius Joni

There’s also this description of the crowd backstage after Mitchell’s first solo show at Carnegie Hall:

There was a great backstage scene after the show. Crosby was there, and David Blue, and Joni’s Canadian friend Leonard Cohen….  (141)

I find that description of Leonard Cohen endlessly amusing – “Joni’s Canadian friend”.

It does, however, raise a couple of points of interest: first, that in a music scene that was based largely in California and New York, an Englishman like Nash, at least, was aware of who the Canadians were, and used their nationality to mark them off and associate them with one another.

But even beyond that, Cohen is not given an identity of his own: he’s not the poet Leonard Cohen, or the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, or even the Canadian poet or the Canadian singer/songwriter: he’s just a Canadian who is friends with Joni Mitchell.

This might partly be due to the fact that Nash knows Mitchell, and so he sees other people in relation to her. But the way he portrays Cohen as just a sidelight to Mitchell is also part of a larger, recurring element in the book, which is Nash’s admirable respect for what he repeatedly calls Mitchell’s “genius”. To Nash, Joni isn’t just a woman he had an affair with: she is a truly great artist in her own right and someone who, through her talent, demonstrated to him how much farther he could go in songwriting, and who serves as an example and inspiration to him throughout his career (though he very modestly (and correctly, from what I’ve heard) says he never wrote anything as great as her best songs). Like Dave Van Ronk, Nash regards Mitchell as one of the leading songwriters of her time, and demonstrates how much of an influence this Canadian woman had on the development of the singer/songwriter tradition.

It’s interesting to hear Nash describe the influence Mitchell had on him as a writer when we consider, for example, Lorrie Moore’s portrayal of the music of Joni Mitchell versus that of CSNY in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? In that book, CSNY, an all-male group, are connected (through their song “Ohio”) with the public world of war, politics, and the general social ferment of the times, whereas the music of Mitchell, a woman, is connected much more with the personal sphere and with the concerns of women – one might almost say it provides the soundtrack for types of experience that are shared and understood exclusively by women. Nash, however, makes no such distinction: he never suggests that Mitchell’s music is somehow feminine or “for women,” only that he admired her brilliance and did all he could to learn from it.

Bad Joni

But the course of true love never runs smooth, as someone or other once remarked, and it’s not all roses for Nash and Mitchell. Here’s a scene of an argument they had:

“You keep slagging America after it gave you all this opportunity,” she said. “Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?”
Like us, Joni was opposed to Nixon and the war, but she didn’t think it was fair to throw hand grenades from the side of the stage. We argued, and she ended up pouring a bowl of cornflakes and milk over my head. I was stunned – to say nothing of being pissed.
There was a maid in the room. I turned to her and said, “Would you kindly leave?” Then I put Joni over my knee and I spanked her.
Needless to say, it was one of the more interesting moments in our relationship.  (180)

Mitchell here seems to be showing some North American solidarity, as a Canadian defending the U.S. against the attacks of an Englishman. Does this indicate some subliminal Canadian desire to free ourselves from our subservient relationship to the UK (the past) and form closer ties with the U.S. (the sexy, exciting future)? If we wanted to stretch a point, we might see Nash’s violent response as expressing the attitude of the colonial overlord determined to assert its continued dominance over its overseas possession by chastising it for daring to offer an opinion contrary to what the colonial overlord expects….

But no, we won’t.

The Mysterious Mr. Young

In addition to Joni Mitchell, there is (unsurprisingly) a lot about another Canadian: Neil Young, who, over the years, has temporarily turned CSN into CSNY, though never stuck around for too long. The following passage describes a party where David Crosby took Nash to meet Stephen Stills, though it ends up being more about Young:

I knew all about Stephen Stills. I was totally into Buffalo Springfield. Allan Clarke had given me their album, which I’d carried throughout our [i.e. the Hollies’] tour of Canada. I practically played the grooves off that record. The word on the grapevine was the group was about to break up. The problem, apparently, was with their lead guitar player, Neil Young. He often turned up late for gigs, or not at all. He didn’t show at Monterey Pop, flat-out refused to play an important showcase on The Tonight Show, all of which frustrated the hell out of Stephen. He’d had enough of Neil’s shit. Besides, Stills was a guitar virtuoso in his own right and wanted the lead guitar position of the Springfield for himself. Looking back, it’s doubtful Neil ever wanted to be part of a band. Here’s an illustration that’ll put it in perspective: David and Stephen saw A Hard Day’s Night and knew exactly what they wanted to do. Neil didn’t give a shit about A Hard Day’s Night. He saw Don’t Look Back (twice) and took that as his role model. Neil always wanted to do what Dylan did: be an individual, a great songwriter, an interpreter of his own music. You couldn’t do that in a group, a lesson I’d learn about Neil much later in the game.  (113)

Notice the skilled use of foreshadowing at the end of that paragraph.

There’s a lot of information and opinion there, obviously, but what’s interesting from our perspective is the portrayal of Neil Young as an individual who can’t or won’t be part of a group: in Nash’s view, he seems very much the opposite of what one expects of a Canadian, given that our country is supposed to be more cooperative (socialist?) than the U.S. Here Young appears as the classic American loner, despite the fact that he’s actually Canadian.

The book also contains a little history lesson on how CSN became CSNY: apparently, Ahmet Ertegun suggested adding Neil Young to the CSN lineup to bring more “heat” to their live performances. Crosby agreed; Stills, despite bad memories of Buffalo Springfield, came around, but Nash was unconvinced, and so he insisted on meeting Young, one-on-one, for breakfast:

Turns out Neil Young was a funny motherfucker. I knew he had this dark, looming presence, a scowl and a loner tendency. But Neil was funny. Now, maybe he understood that I was the group’s lone holdout where he was concerned and he was on his best behaviour, but at the end of breakfast I would have nominated him to be the prime minister of Canada.  (161)

Breakfast? Really? This is what world-class rockers do: they meet for breakfast, like high school girls scarfing down pancakes while rehashing the details of last night’s drunken party?

At least Nash shows some familiarity with Canadian politics: he knows we have a Prime Minister (being British helps there, I suppose). No doubt he knows prime ministers are actually elected, and that Canada doesn’t seek nominations for the office from rock stars.

Back to Joni

Later on, Nash and Crosby are trying to pull together songs for an album:

And there was always something to write about Joni. When we were still a couple, I’d spent some time with her in British Columbia, where she had a little stone house on a beach. It was a place where she was indeed bouncing off boulders and running on the rocks, so I wrote “Mama Lion” to capture that snapshot.  (224)

So Mitchell not only inspired Nash to develop his own songwriting skills, but she also continued to provide material for him to write about long after their relationship ended. The stone beach house carries a suggestion of idyllic solitude that is not surprising to find associated with Canada.

The Absent Goldfish

We get another glimpse of Canadian narrow-mindedness in the description of Nash’s tour in support of his 1980 solo album, Earth & Sky:

Despite all of that, I had to get it up to promote the album. There was a two-month tour, mostly small theatres, just a trio, nice and laid-back to complement the songs. Leah Kunkel, Cass’s sister, opened for me. The only other participant was Joey the Goldfish, who swam in his bowl onstage throughout all forty-eight shows except the show in Canada, where thanks to immigration I replaced the real fish with a slice of carrot.  (273)

What? I really can’t figure that out, but apparently Canadian immigration officials refused to let a goldfish cross the border. Here we are portrayed as almost hysterically focused on protecting our homeland from the dangerous influence of marauding foreign rock stars (and their pets) – though I suppose, given the RCMP’s experience with Keith Richards, we aren’t totally to blame. The only notable result of this championing of security was that the Canadian audience (note it sounds like there was only one show in Canada – is that an insult or a mercy?) was forced to stare at a lump of carrot floating in a bowl of water, rather than a goldfish, which no doubt drastically reduced the entertainment quotient of the concert.

The Music

On to the good stuff. This is Joni Mitchell singing “Willy,” a song she wrote about Nash (“Willy,” apparently, was his nickname):

Here is “Our House,” which is Nash’s song about living with Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon:

And here is a conversation with Nash (via the Library of Congress) that covers some of the same material as the book:

So if you don’t want to take the time to read it, that at least gives you a taste.

Canada’s Gift to the Fashion World: The Canadian Tuxedo

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Brian Hiatt, “The Rise of the Black Keys,” Rolling Stone (January 19, 2012)

As a general rule, I try to focus on references to Canada in books, but occasionally I’ll come across a mention in a magazine or other piece of pop-culture ephemera (is anything really ephemeral anymore?) that is just too good to ignore. This is one of those moments.

I’m not sure exactly how I stumbled on this Black Keys article, and it’s a few years old now, but it opens a door into a part of Canadian identity that we haven’t really dealt with here before, so it seemed worth considering. This is from the very opening of the article, when the author does his obligatory description of how cool the subject of the article is:

No one in this busy Hollywood organic coffee shop looks like they might have just sold out Madison Square Garden – least of all, perhaps, the compact, thick-bearded dude in the jean jacket shuffling toward a corner table. Dan Auerbach’s looks are striking enough: sharp-angled nose, bright blue eyes, floppy reddish hair. But his denim-on-denim outfit says “parking-lot attendant” as much as it does “rock star” (“I’m not afraid of the Canadian tuxedo,” he says, though at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans) – and he carries himself with an almost wilful lack of flamboyance.

He’s so cool, he’s good-looking, he’s wildly successful but at the same time totally down to earth – and he’s wearing denim-on-denim! It’s actually Auerbach himself who identifies his look (if someone so cool and down to earth can even be said to have a “look”) as “the Canadian tuxedo,” showing that, among our many other accomplishments, our nation has also left its imprint on the fashion world.

Is this something to be proud of? It’s hard not to feel that there is something disparaging about the term “Canadian tuxedo,” as though we Canadians are such unsophisticated hicks that jeans with a jean jacket is the closest we can come to formal wear. And the line about “at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans” – that “at least” seems to indicate that the Canadian tuxedo is a horribly unfashionable look, but the version of it that Auerbach is sporting isn’t quite as awful as it might be. (Note that, for the cover shoot, he swapped the denim jacket for the more conventional rock-star leather.)

And why is this look referred to as “the Canadian tuxedo”? Is it, in fact, a way for Americans to make fun of Canadian fashion sense? According to GQ magazine, the story is a little more complicated than that, and involves Levi’s, Bing Crosby and a Vancouver hotel. (Needless to say, there are other explanations floating around on the Internet.)

But, contrary to its ostensibly scruffy and lower-class reputation, the denim-on-denim look is one of this spring’s hottest fashion trends, having made appearances all over at Fashion Week in Paris. And, predictably, there’s a website devoted to images of people in Canadian tuxedos – including Beyonce and Barack Obama.

So our humble contribution to the fashion lexicon is clearly hitting the big time.

Back In Those Old Folky Days

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Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Although it was published quite recently, Dave Van Ronk’s memoir deals mainly with the subject matter you want it to deal with: his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. The book is the basis for the recent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, though having read the book, I have to say they started with pretty good source material and made a sorry hash of it. (If you’ve seen the film, you may be forgiven for wondering how much of the narrative came straight from the cover photo, with the cat nervously poking its head out of the doorway behind Van Ronk. The same image appears on the Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover.)

Based on the book, and also his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I suppose you would call Van Ronk a “raconteur.” Given that the book is written “with” Elijah Wald, it’s hard to know how much of the shaping of the anecdotes – and the book is really just a string of anecdotes – has been done by Van Ronk himself and how much by his amanuensis, though in the Afterword Wald makes it sound as though he essentially wrote the book in Van Ronk’s “voice”. Whatever the details behind its creation, it makes amusing reading, rolling along from one story to the next with a pleasant rhythm.

There are numerous references to Canada, and to famous Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen, some of which are just passing mentions that don’t reveal too much. I’m going to try to pick out a few that I think illustrate some larger idea about our country, or that are just interesting for one reason or another. This one is part of a series of stories about Van Ronk’s friendship with Reverend Gary Davis:

Like most geniuses, Gary had his eccentricities, and one that sometimes drove me crazy was that he had his own sense of pitch. We were playing once at a concert in Canada, and he did his whole first set with the low E string about a quarter tone flat. It was driving me crazy, because every time he hit that note it was booming off-key, so on the break I borrowed his guitar on some excuse and surreptitiously tuned that string. He came back for the second set, started into a song, and just stopped dead, looked a little perplexed, and tuned that string right back down to where it had been.  (137)

I don’t know that we can conclude a whole lot about Canada from this, but it’s an entertaining story, and a decent example of the sort of thing you’ll encounter if you decide to read the book. Van Ronk makes no mention of whether the Canadian audience was as bothered by this out-of-tune string as he was; perhaps it was some sort of joke Davis liked to play on the philistines north of the border? But, at least in Van Ronk’s telling, it sounds habitual.

Those Competitive Canadians

This next passage is about a sort of “changing of the guard” on the Village folk scene as it became more popular:

…musicians began streaming in from all points of the compass: [Tom] Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio … Ian and Sylvia from Canada, Dylan from Minnesota … but with very few exceptions, my old friends who had been huffing and puffing all of those years to become professionals were nowhere to be seen. Basically, what I think happened was that the New York singers simply were not as competitive as the newcomers. You do not stick it out in this line of work unless you are fiercely driven, and most of the New Yorkers, while they might have had the talent, did not have that competitive drive.  (150)

Well, that’s a first: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a reference to Canadians being more competitive and driven than New Yorkers, but there it is – Ian and Sylvia, those fiercely competitive Canadians, driving the meek New Yorkers out of the Gaslight and taking their jobs (and dreams of folky stardom) away. This is certainly an unusual view of Canadians, contrasting with our more customary polite, almost meek image.

Of course, the Canadians are lumped in with singers from several locations in the U.S., as well, so they are only a part of a wave that washed the New Yorkers away – but still. And that’s another thing….

Canada – Just Another Place in the U.S.

It’s also noteworthy that in that list, Canada is mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Minnesota and Ohio, as if it were just another American state, rather than a separate country. The same thing occurs a bit later:

I was hosting the Tuesday night hoots at the Gaslight, as well as sometimes doing a week as a headliner there or at Folk City, and for variety I was making occasional forays into the hinterlands. I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, and I was going to the West Coast, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Canada.  (171)

There it is again, Canada lumped in with a list of U.S. place names as if we were just another American location – and the equal of a mere city this time, not even a state, as we were in the earlier list. (We saw something similar, incidentally, in Ted Hughes’ description of his camping trip with Sylvia Plath.) And Canada comes last in the list, as if to suggest that we are the most obscure of the “hinterlands” Van Ronk visited.

I really do think Americans sometimes forget we’re a whole separate country: we’re so close, and so similar, that they just lump us in as the “fifty-first state,” so to speak.

The Joni Mitchell Saga (In Three Parts)

Joni Mitchell is a significant presence in the book, and overall Van Ronk is very complimentary about her – there’s even a photo of him with his arm around her(!), so apparently they were friends. I’m not going to quote every drop of her name, but I will pick out three references that seem to illuminate something larger about Canada.

1. Typical Insecure Canadian

The major references to Mitchell kick off with this fascinating portrait of Canadian insecurity and our tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the opinions others have of us:

My favourite Patrick Sky story happened right around the time he recorded that album [A Harvest of Gentle Clang]. It was 1965, and we had been invited to appear on a Canadian television show called Let’s Sing Out, which was their version of Hootenanny. They were filming at a college in Winnipeg, and Patrick and I happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo…. All the tech people were running around, setting up lights and patting us down with powder puffs and that sort of thing, and over in a corner, sitting by herself on a folding chair, was this lovely blonde lady. She was playing a guitar and singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing “Urge for Going,” and that was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical, and by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished, and there was just this silence, utter silence.
Then Patrick turns to me, and loudly says, “That sucks!”
As it happened, that was the highest compliment Patrick was capable of bestowing, but of course Joni had no way of knowing that. She later told me that she went back to Detroit in tears and told Chuck, her partner and husband, that the great folksingers from New York didn’t like her music, and she briefly considered quitting the business.  (174-75)

First, notice how the Canadian TV show is described as “their version of” an American TV show. This is a very common way of thinking about us among our neighbours to the south: they don’t consider us distinct, but rather as a slightly altered version of themselves, so anything Canadian is described as being “the Canadian version of” something American.

But more important, obviously, is the effect the opinions of these two New Yorkers had on Joni Mitchell. This is an absolutely classic expression of Canadian insecurity: it makes no difference how famous you are or how much success you have in Canada, you don’t mean anything until you succeed in the U.S. And this isn’t just an opinion held by Americans (though no doubt they would feel that way too, if they ever gave a thought to Canadians who weren’t famous in America); what is so telling about this passage is how completely Mitchell has internalized the idea that it’s the opinions of Americans that matter. She is there, after all, to appear on a Canadian television show – a show that these Americans have taken the trouble to fly north to appear on, so it clearly isn’t nothing, and the fact that she’s appearing alongside them suggests that she is more or less their equal.  But the high opinion of the people who run Let’s Sing Out means nothing when put up against criticism from those two giants of the New York folk scene, Patrick Sky and Dave Van Ronk.

And yet, show of hands: Who’s heard of Patrick Sky? Who’s heard one of his songs? And what about Joni Mitchell – who’s heard of her or heard one of her songs? I can’t see your hands out there, but I think I can guess the results of that little survey. So even a very talented Canadian who went on to incredible popular and commercial success could be led to question her own value by two Americans who (not to be rude) didn’t ultimately add up to that much on the music scene.

Just to give you a sense of what they were laughing at, here’s a remarkable version of “Urge for Going” recorded for a Let’s Sing Out program in Sudbury (not Winnipeg) – it even features the “Let’s Sing Out” theme song before Mitchell’s performance, which reminds us that “there’s room for all in the hootenanny hall” – a typically inclusive Canadian sentiment:

2. The Three Titans of Folk

Joni Mitchell’s name crops up again in a discussion of how musicians learn their craft:

There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene [today], but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did.  (121)

I just love the way he casually lumps himself in with Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as though when people talk about the folk music boom of the 60s, the first three names on their lips are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and … Dave Van Ronk. Somehow, I just don’t think Van Ronk has quite that level of popular recognition. On the other hand, it is a great compliment to Canada to see Mitchell mentioned alongside Dylan.

3. Hinterland Songstress

Later on, Van Ronk mentions Joni Mitchell in reference to the fact that, unlike Mitchell and Dylan and so many others, he rarely wrote or sang his own songs:

There were unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell out in the hinterlands, and there was a grapevine that reached all around the country, so as far as new songs went, I was surrounded by an embarrassment de richesse.  (207)

Now, to be fair, there are probably parts of New York City that Van Ronk would consider “hinterlands,” but still, there’s that word again: Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, is off in the hinterlands. I think it’s just coincidence that Van Ronk’s idiosyncratic French (he was quite the autodidact, apparently) comes up in the same sentence as a reference to Canada, though perhaps there’s something going on subconsciously.

And Now, Some Music

Having talked so much about music, we might as well wrap up with some actual music: “Hesitation Blues,” which is one of Dave Van Ronk’s better-known (maybe?) songs. To start us off, here is Jelly Roll Morton’s version; I think at the beginning you can hear him say that he didn’t write the song:

Next, here is Reverend Gary Davis’ version – it’s fascinating to hear how he works the audience:

Here is Van Ronk doing his version:

And finally, if you’ve hesitated here this long, you might as well check out this relatively recent Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna version, just to see that the tradition goes on:

 

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part II

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Patricia Lockwood, “What Is The Zoo For What” (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2013)

We continue our look at Neil Young’s appearances in contemporary poetry with this poem from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

What Is The Zoo For What

The word “zoo” is a zoo for the zoo.

A fountain is a zoo for water, the song
is a zoo for sound, the harmonica
is a zoo for the breath of Neil Young,
vagina is a zoo for baby.

Baby, girl baby, is a zoo for vagina.

The rose is a zoo for the smell of the rose,
the smell of the rose rattles its cage,
the zookeeper throws something bleeding
to it, the something bleeding is not enough,
a toddler fell into the cage of the rose,
the toddler was entirely eaten. His name
was Rilke, it was in all the papers.
A Little Pine Box is a zoo for him now,
it said in all the papers.

Then all the kids started doing it. Falling
into the violet’s cage, approaching the cave
where the smell of violets slept, getting
their whole head clawed off by it.
Neil Young did it to a buttercup
and his face got absolutely mauled.

The music that was piped into the zoo
let all the longing escape from it
and it ran riot over the earth, full
of the sight and smell of a buttercup
rearranging the face of Neil Young,
attacking pets at random, attacking
me in my bed as I slept, attacking
the happy wagging ends of my poems.

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

I’m going to leave it there.

The first thing that struck me about the poem was, Why does it even mention Neil Young? The poet needs the name of a well-known harmonica player, but surely, for any contemporary American poet, there’s someone a little closer to hand than Neil Young? No, not Toots Thielemans. I’m thinking, of course, of the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota himself: Bob Dylan.

Why not mention Bob here? Has Neil Young eclipsed him as the iconic harmonica-blowing folkie in the contemporary pop culture imagination? (And if so, what a victory for Canada!) Does the poet simply prefer Neil’s music to Bob’s? Is is for the slant rhyme with “song” that “Young” provides? The last is perhaps the best reason, though rhyme doesn’t seem to be a major goal of Lockwood’s; in fact, she uses direct repetition in places where one might expect rhyme – if one expects anything at all. (Though there is a fascinating music in “violets slept … clawed off by it … buttercup.”)

But notice how, once she lets Neil Young into her poem, she can’t get rid of him. The reference to Neil’s harmonica seems like a throwaway, and the poem appears to be moving off in another direction, with children getting attacked and devoured by flowers (or the smells of flowers?) – and then suddenly there’s Neil again, getting mauled by a buttercup. And there he is again in the next stanza, his face now not “mauled” but “rearranged” by the buttercup.

At this point Lockwood seems to realize that Neil Young is taking over her poem, and we get that odd little two-line stanza:

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

Neither of these apparent questions actually ends with a question mark, but we’ll try to answer them anyway. Yes, you can put Neil Young in a poem, but no, he won’t get trapped in there forever; in fact he’ll take over your poem, make it all about him, and then roll off down the open road with his old friend, the white line. And how refreshingly un-Canadian that behaviour is; considering how often we’re saddled with the reputation of being overly polite, it’s rather exciting to see a Canadian behaving badly, even if only by overstaying his welcome in a poem that seems to want to be about something else.

A Further Reference

I was doing some “research” for this post on Patricia Lockwood’s Twitter page, and I couldn’t help but notice this:

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The context is that she tweeted about giving her parents weed brownies; someone replied that that was illegal, and she replied with the tweet that mentions Canada. I’m not sure how much I want to read into this remark – is it just absurdist humour, or does some idea of what Canada is like lie behind it? That our country itself is somehow fond of spreading misinformation? That we’re overly respectful of parents? That we live in a socialist nanny-state with laws regulating every aspect of interpersonal behaviour?

I think I’ll just leave it alone.

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part I – UPDATED

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Michael Robbins, Alien vs. Predator (2012)

I feel I need to begin by apologizing for the Toronto Public Library: they clearly affix their stickers with no regard for how they affect the aesthetic appeal of a book’s cover. And this book really does have a striking cover design; it’s a shame to see it marred. On the other hand, I can’t afford to buy all the books I want to read, so I have to put up with these minor indignities.

Moving on…

Canada may or may not have immense cultural cachet, but it’s clear that one Canadian does: singer/songwriter-folkie/rocker Neil Young. We’ve discussed him before, but it’s never a bad time to talk Neil. Michael Robbins’ book contains at least one reference to him:

Second Helping

I dare not speak my name, it is so long
and unpronounceable. I enforce the thaw
here among the timbered few. We despise you
and whatever you rode in on – is that a swan?
I’m not really like this. I’m over the moon.

Still, we jar marmalade. We plow.
We don’t need Neil Young around anyhow.
Your tribe’s Doritos are infested with a stegosaur.
That Forever 21 used to be a Virgin Megastore.

Scott Baio in full feathered glory
was everything I’m not. I am everything I am
and then some. I’m coming along nicely.
Don’t stick your fork in me until I’m done.  (14)

It’s a bit difficult to tell how Neil Young relates to the rest of the poem – in fact, I find it a bit difficult to tell how the different parts of the poem relate to one another. No doubt this is the point: the poem makes it impossible for you to say what the poem is “about,” because talking about what poems are “about” is old-fashioned and tedious – as are poems that are “about” something to begin with.

Nevertheless, we’ll cling to our illusions, however old-fashioned they may be, and give it a try.

The word “anyhow,” at the end of the Neil Young line, might be some sort of clue; it’s a turn of phrase that seems to indicate Neil Young has been around, but has now left – but who cares, we didn’t need him anyway. This sounds like false bravado – compare Coriolanus and his “there is a world elsewhere.” Is the speaker secretly going to miss Neil’s folkie guitar strumming? Will Neil’s help be missed at plowing time? Does this association arise purely because he put out an album called Harvest, and then another called Harvest Moon?

I don’t think I’m going to reach any satisfactory conclusions.

UPDATE

This may be a first for us here at Wow – Canada! (perhaps because most of the authors I write about are dead) – what appears to be an author comment. Someone known as “MR” (Michael Robbins?) has stepped in in the Comments to inform me (or should I say gently chastise me for not noticing?) that the Neil Young line in “Second Helping,” above, is actually a quote from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama”:

(Look out for the Confederate flag drop at around the 1:20 mark.)

I’m familiar with the song, but not familiar enough to pick up on references to it. Or perhaps I suppressed the memory, out of my eagerness to find a reference to Canada in the poem?

I suppose this means that “Second Helping” doesn’t really contain a Neil Young reference, or that it does so only at second hand, so to speak. Nevertheless, I’ll let the commentary above stand – and we still have Michael J. Fox (see below).

Finally, just to show I’m not toally off base in terms of Michael Robbins dropping Neil Young references, here’s a more recent poem of his, That’s Incredible, also linked to in the comments, and containing a direct Neil Young reference.

A Digressive Disclaimer

Does my commentary on “Second Helping” make me  sound like I’m down on Michael Robbins? I don’t mean to be. I actually enjoyed this book – it’s full of great lines: “I have eyes/in the sack of my dead” or  “Let’s get this seance started,” or “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z,” to pick out a few.

Just in the poem I quoted above, there’s the line about the swan, sharpened by the internal rhyme with “on”; the rhyme of “stegasaur” with “Megastore” practically jumps off the page. But can Robbins’ technique produce more than isolated great lines?

Without question, there are poems where Robbins manages to sustain his zany inventiveness throughout: the title poem, or the final poem in the collection. If I have a quibble, it’s that the poems in the book all feel like exercises in the same technique; a few work beautifully, but a lot of the rest just don’t seem to add up to much. Now, to produce a poem as good as “Alien vs. Predator” is more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, so I won’t sneer. Perhaps, for my palate, a couple of poems like that are enough. (I think someone said something similar about Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “One poem like that is enough. It purifies the language.” But I can’t remember who.)

In any case, my purpose here is to look at references to Canada, not to attempt to analyze the poem as a poem or the book as a book. If you want to read some intelligent commentary on Robbins’ poetry, I recommend Michael Lista’s review of this collection.

A Possible Neil Young Reference

My general practice is to quote poems in their entirety as much as possible, but in the case of Robbins, I’ve decided that relevant sections can be broken off from the whole without causing them undue damage. So here’s another possible Neil Young reference, from a poem called “Material Girl”:

You’re coated with salmonella. Or am I
confusing you with the kitchen sponge again?
A beautiful phrase, cellar door,
but I prefer You win. Prefer to sit and spin.  (22)

I say “possible” because when I see the phrase “cellar door,” I immediately think of the  Neil Young song “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which begins, “Caught you knockin’ at my cellar door.”

(For reference, here’s an acoustic performance from Toronto in the fall of 2012:

I think that might be the Hank Williams D-28 (subject of the song “This Old Guitar”) that he’s playing.)

Robbins, however, seems to be thinking of the fact that “cellar door,” particularly as it would be pronounced with an English accent, is considered, in the field of phonaesthetics (did you know there was a field of phonaesthetics? I didn’t), to be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language, so this might not actually be a reference to Canada.

Another Digression

Just to close the circle on “cellar door,” there was a club in Washington DC called The Cellar Door. There’s a live Miles Davis set from 1970 that was recorded there (here’s a sample), and guess who else is coming out with a live album, also recorded at the Cellar Door, and also in 1970? That’s right: Neil Young. (Sometimes the connections are almost too much for me – I feel overwhelmed – “What splendor, it all coheres!”)

This, I believe, marks the second Neil Young live release from a venue where Miles Davis also played at around the same time, the first being the Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970 album. In fact, as you can see from the cover photo, Neil’s and Miles’ names appeared together on the marquee:

NeilFillmoreCover

So clearly there is some sort of harmonic convergence taking place in the universe; or at least there was in 1970, when Neil and Miles played the same venue at least twice, on both occasions recording material that would later be released.

That felt like an exhausting aside.

Wait – Another Canadian Celebrity!

Returning to Alien vs. Predator, there’s one further reference, not to Canada but to a Canadian celebrity, that I might as well quote while I’m at it. This is the final stanza of the poem “The Dark Clicks On”:

Michael J. Fox talks Parkinson’s
with the former Miss Arkansas.
The clouds are there for them
to be sick on. Those European
stairwells with the lights on a timer?
You get halfway up and the dark clicks on.  (26)

The near-rhyme of “Parkinson’s” with “Arkansas” gives an idea of the slightly unconventional music that Robbins creates in his poems. Does Miss Arkansas come in for any reason other than to provide that gorgeous near-rhyme?  Is any other reason required?

So…What Does it All Mean?

As a collection, Alien vs. Predator is riddled with references to celebrities, actors, musicians and pop culture generally, and it’s hard to say that Neil Young or Michael J. Fox are brought in for their “Canadian-ness,” or even that Robbins is particularly aware that they are Canadian. Perhaps they are famous enough that they transcend being Canadian, and are simply celebrities that Americans have more or less adopted as their own. And this tells us something about the attitude of Americans towards Canadians: they see us as similar enough to themselves that they can absorb us into their culture so completely that we cease to be different at all.

Toronto: City of Grandmas

NYTMSweatshirtCover

Willy Staley, “Talk,” The New York Times Magazine (September 15, 2013)

The following is from an interview with the rapper Earl Sweatshirt in The New York Times Magazine:

You were just in Toronto. How was that? It was crazy. Canadians are weirdos, though. They are so nice – overbearing nice, like grandmother nice. Toronto is like a city of grandmas.

The rapper Drake is from Toronto. Is he grandma nice? Due, Drake is grandma nice. He was at Frank Ocean’s show in L.A. and got into an argument with Tyler, the Creator’s mom. I left and came back in the room, and she was apologizing to him for how she came at him, and he was saying: “It’s all love. I love you, Mom. I love moms.” Drake loves moms.  (12)

The idea that Canadians are “nice” is not in itself particularly noteworthy, especially coming from an American; this  perceived “niceness” is a close cousin to the “politeness” which we already know we’re famed for south of the border. But then comes the twist: “overbearing nice.”

That’s a new one. Canadians aren’t just nice; we’re overbearingly nice. Here our niceness takes on a bit of an edge, as if its purpose isn’t to make other people feel comfortable, but rather to get our own way, like a grandmother who uses a sugary, wheedling tone to compel you to do what she wants. From this point of view, niceness becomes a type of power play.

This may illuminate the anecdote about Drake which follows, and which on the surface seems to make no sense. If Drake is from Toronto, and Torontonians are nice, then we would expect the story to lead to Drake apologizing to Tyler, the Creator’s mother – or to focus on his being so nice that he never gets in an argument with her to begin with. In fact the opposite happens: the story ends with Tyler’s mother apologizing to Drake. What does it mean?

Arguably, the anecdote simply comes out of the question about Drake, which comes out of the question about Toronto, and isn’t meant to suggest the more self-serving corners of our national niceness.

But if we accept the general notion that everything means something, then we might be inclined to suggest that this story reveals how Canadian niceness becomes overbearing. Drake doesn’t directly win his argument with Tyler’s mother; instead, through a sort of conversational jiu-jitsu, he is so nice to her that at the end of the argument she apparently feels so bad about having argued with such a nice guy that she is compelled to apologize to him, thus giving him a form of victory – at which point he continues to overwhelm her with niceness.

Perhaps Canadians are like the Greeks in Horace’s famous line:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Epistles II.i.156)

We accept being conquered so nicely that we make our conquerors feel bad about it, and thus ultimately win a stealth victory over them. Some idea along those lines seems to lie behind Earl Sweatshirt’s description of us as “overbearing nice” and gives us an interesting new perspective on Canadians: nice on the surface, but underneath that, consciously using our niceness as a way to get what we want. This is, at least, a little more interesting and nuanced than the more usual image of us as overly polite pushovers.

A Final Question

One final issue arises: why is the question about Toronto even asked?

As a professional musician, Earl Sweatshirt must travel all over the world. Why is the fact that he was just in Toronto of interest? Why does Staley ask specifically what he thought of it? He sounds like a typically insecure Canadian journalist, forever asking foreign celebrities, in a tone of desperate hope, “What do you think of Canada?”

Still, he makes a point of discussing Canada – and if you go to the online version of the article (linked above), you’ll see the headline is “Earl Sweatshirt: ‘Canadians Are Weirdos'”, as though Earl Sweatshirt’s opinion of Canadians were the main point of the interview, and the one most likely to catch people’s attention and make them stop and read.

Could it be our neighbours to the south are beginning to find us as fascinating as we always dreamed they would? We can fantasize.

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