Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Fame”

Further Ambiguity

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Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986)

As with Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of the poems in Wendy Cope’s collection confronts us with an ambiguously Canadian reference.

The Poem

The Lavatory Attendant

I counted two and seventy stenches
All well defined and several stinks!
–Coleridge

Slumped on a chair, his body is an S
That wants to be a minus sign.

His face is overripe Wensleydale
Going blue at the edges.

In overalls of sacerdotal white
He guards a row of fonts

With lids like eye-patches. Snapped shut
They are castanets. All day he hears

Short-lived Niagaras, the clank
And gurgle of canescent cisterns.

When evening comes he sluices a thin tide
Across sand-coloured lino,

Turns Medusa on her head
And wipes the floor with her.   (49)

The Commentary

The flushing toilets make “short-lived Niagaras,” which to a Canadian will immediately raise thoughts of Niagara Falls (Canadian side). But of course there are also falls on the American side, and it is impossible to say whether Cope is thinking of Canada or the U.S. (a problem that has arisen before). Most likely she is just thinking of the humour inherent in comparing a toilet flush to one of the largest waterfalls in the world, and isn’t thinking about Canadian versus American sides at all — such things concern us, not her.

Since the Canadian falls are the larger and more impressive, however, the comparison is inherently funnier if the Canadian falls are meant, because the contrast is greater. And since Cope herself is a British poet, I feel we can draw on our history as a British colony and claim the reference as a Canadian one.

And while it’s an honour for Canada to be home to (the most impressive part of) a waterfall that is so famous poets from other countries draw on it for comparisons, we might note that Canada is, yet again, known for a natural feature that happens to be within our borders rather than for anything that could really be considered a Canadian accomplishment.

The Commentary on The Commentary

The thought process in the second paragraph above reveals a peculiarly Canadian form of insecurity: we’re convinced that the world in general takes no notice of us, and so when we come across a reference that might be about us, but might not, we’re very keen to convince ourselves that it is about us, because it makes us feel important to be referred to by non-Canadians. Being noticed forms a sort of bulwark against our own feelings of national insignificance.

As for the third paragraph, how typical: go to great lengths to claim a reference is Canadian, and then complain that it’s not complimentary enough.

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A Perfect Destination for Honeymooners (Munchausen Part II)

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Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785)

The Second Volume

As I noted at the beginning of the post on the first volume, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is actually the product of several hands, and while the differences are not quite so noticeable in the first volume, the second volume marks a significant turn in the work. In the Preface to the second volume, the author writes:

I do not say that the Baron, in the following stories, means a satire on any political matters whatever. No; but if the reader understands them so, I cannot help it.  (117)

It’s hard to imagine a more direct way of informing the reader that the ensuing chapters are meant to be read as a satire on political matters. And a few lines later, referring ahead to the chapter where the Baron comes upon a ship of Africans transporting a cargo of white slaves:

If we were to think this a reflection on any present commercial or political matter, we should be tempted to imagine, perhaps, some political ideas conveyed in every page, in every sentence of the whole. Whether such things are or are not the intentions of the Baron the reader must judge.  (118)

This is a fascinating comment on literary interpretation, seeming to suggest that once you see an allegory in one place, you’re likely to start seeing them everywhere (“in every page, in every sentence”) until you finally lose yourself in a forest of multiple meanings. In the case of the reversed slave ship, the idea is fairly obvious; in many other parts of the book, however, one has a feeling that some point is being made, but without knowing the specific historical context (this edition provides no notes to elucidate such points), it’s difficult to figure out exactly what is being satirized. The writing style is also somewhat garbled in places, and weird details are piled on without in any way clarifying what is being described, which makes the second volume notably more difficult and bizarre reading than the first.

Before I journey too far down the path of criticism, however, I should recall the wise words of Lady Fragrantia, a character introduced in the second volume:

The fact is this, there is a right and wrong handle to everything, and there is more pleasure in thinking with pure nobility of heart, than with the illiberal enmities and sarcasm of a blackguard.  (181)

In any case, the following passage is clear; it recounts a conversation between the Baron and the Lady Fragrantia at a concert. She is talking about the benefits of the waters at a spa:

“…There is a certain something in the waters that gives vigour to the whole frame, and expands every heart with rapture and benevolence. They drink! good gods! how they do drink! and then, how they sleep! Pray, my dear Baron, were you ever at the falls of Niagara?” “Yes, my lady,” replied I, surprised at such a strange association of ideas; “I have been, many years ago, at the Falls of Niagara, and found no more difficulty in swimming up and down the cataracts than I should to move a minuet.” At that moment she dropped her nosegay. “Ah,” said she, as I presented it to her, “there is no great variety in these polyanthuses. I do assure you, my dear Baron, that there is taste in the selection of flowers as well as everything else, and were I a girl of sixteen I should wear some rosebuds in my bosom, but at five-and-twenty I think it would be more apropos to wear a full-blown rose, quite ripe, and ready to drop off the stalk for want of being pulled – heigh-ho!” ‘But pray, my lady,” said I, “how do you like the concert?”  (179-180)

Now admittedly Niagara Falls has both Canadian and American parts, but since the Horseshoe falls, located mainly in Canada, are higher, and therefore swimming up the Canadian falls would be a more impressive feat than swimming up the American, I think we can safely assume that he is referring to the Canadian falls here. He would never brag about a lesser accomplishment when the option of bragging about a greater one was available.

More interesting, however, is the surrounding context. The Baron admits himself puzzled by why Lady Fragrantia suddenly brings up Niagara Falls; however, as the immediately following passage about the nosegay makes clear, the lady is obviously making a (somehwat clumsy) pass at the (oblivious? or just uninterested?) Baron. (He has, after all, turned down marriage proposals from queens and empresses and been thrown out of a volcano by Vulcan for seducing Venus herself.) So Lady Fragrantia wants the Baron to marry her; reading backwards, then, we must ask ourselves: could the apparently unmotivated question about Niagara Falls have also been a hint at marriage? And if so, is this the earliest ever reference to one of the great cliches of Canadian culture, the honeymoon at Niagara Falls?

I think we have to assume it is.

A Land Without a Name

Finally, it’s interesting to note that all the references in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are to places in Canada (the St. “Laurence” river, Hudson’s Bay and Niagara Falls), but none of them actually uses the name “Canada”. To the author, the St. Lawrence, Niagara Falls and Hudson’s Bay are known as places of importance (major river, high waterfall, fur trade) but the country that surrounds them is not named. Canada contains certain specific features that Europeans know about, but as a whole it has no national identity, and so no real existence.

Canada: Centre of Advanced Science

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Nathaniel Rich, “The New Origin of the Species” (NYT Magazine, March 2, 2014)

Is it just me, or does the mammoth in that cover photo look an awful lot like Snuffleupagus?  (It’s in the eyebrows.) Or did it just never occur to me before that Snuffleupagus is a mammoth, but without tusks?

Anyway….

I thought, in connection with Paul Muldoon’s references to his brother’s advanced agricultural science studies in Guelph, that it would be worthwhile just to take note, in passing, of a reference to the role played by Canada in the re-creation of extinct species in an article from the New York Times Magazine.

For context, Ben Novak, one of the central figures in the article, is an ecologist obsessed with the idea of resurrecting the passenger pigeon. Beth Shapiro is sequencing the passenger pigeon’s DNA; Novak applied for a job at her lab but was rejected, which led him to McMaster. Hence the word “instead” at the beginning of the quote; unable to find a job in the U.S. (that centre of the scholarly universe), he had to settle for Hamilton:

Novak instead entered a graduate program at the McMaster Ancient DNA Center [sic] in Hamilton, Ontario, where he worked on the sequencing of mastodon DNA. But he remained obsessed by passenger pigeons. He decided that, if he couldn’t join Shapiro’s lab, he would sequence the pigeon’s genome himself. He needed tissue samples, so he sent letters to every museum he could find that possessed the stuffed specimens. He was denied more than 30 times before Chicago’s Field Museum sent him a tiny slice of a pigeon’s toe. A lab in Toronto conducted the sequencing for a little more than $2,500….  (29)

There are a few points worth drawing out here, but first, if you’re using the proper name of an institution like the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, you should at least spell it the way the institution spells it. And in Canada, we spell “centre” with an “re,” not an “er.” It’s so typically American to casually impose their spelling conventions on us. They see themselves as the centre of everything, and it never occurs to them that other countries might have their own way of doing things.

The reference to McMaster, introduced by that loaded “instead,” does make it sound a bit like a consolation prize, as if Novak would have much preferred to stay in the U.S. if he could have – but let’s not let ourselves slide into the muck of being aggrieved and offended.

Instead, let’s focus on the positive aspects of Canada we learn about here. First, McMaster apparently has an institution that’s a leader in the field of sequencing the DNA of extinct animals. Did you know that? I didn’t. And second, there’s a lab in Toronto that, for a moderate fee, will actually sequence the DNA of an extinct animal for you if you simply send them a sample. I had no idea I lived in such a hub of cutting-edge science. I’m surprised people aren’t breaking into museums, stealing bits of dinosaur bone, and mailing them off to the lab every day so they can create their own dinosaur theme parks. We could be at the centre of the species resurrection revolution – which, according to this article, is proceeding apace.

Unguarded Doesn’t Mean Defenceless

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Mark Oppenheimer, “The Not-So-Lonely City” (NYT Magazine, Jan 19, 2014)

This issue of The New York Times Magazine contains several references to Canada, mostly in a story by Emily Bazelon about Anonymous-type groups trying to prevent online bullying, which discusses the Rehtaeh Parsons case at some length.

But the reference to Canada that jumped out at me came in a story about Keith Hampton, a Canadian who is now a professor at Rutgers. The article was about Hampton’s study of how people use public spaces; this is from the author’s description of Hampton:

Tall and broad with a warm charm, unguarded in that Canadian way, Hampton has become a star in a subfield that lacks a proper name: He studies how digital technology changes our lives.  (35)

First, let’s tip our hats to a Canadian who’s doing well enough to be considered a “star” by The New York Times, even if only in a field that doesn’t have a name. And doesn’t that, in itself, seem very Canadian? He’s willing to be a star, but being a star in a well-known field might seem like an attempt to attract attention, so he’s become a star in a field without a name – this is Canadian success in its classical form, real and present, but simultaneously slightly retiring and diffident.

But the phrase, “unguarded in that Canadian way” – what does that mean? Do Americans see Canadians as “unguarded”? I would have thought the opposite, as our well-known politeness can easily slide into a formality, or even a stiffness, that makes us come across as somewhat cold, distant, or, at the extreme end, closed-off.

And yet here is an American who speaks of being “unguarded in that Canadian way,” as though as though our unguardedness were such a well-known characteristic that it could simply be taken for granted. It makes us sound so open and carefree, like the sort of big, brash people we’ve always dreamed of being but could never quite become.

Unless it’s just a subsumed reference to our undefended border … or a way of saying we’re defenceless without our more militaristic neighbour to the south?

How Canadian, this over-analyzing of a complimentary reference until it begins to sound like an insult. Enough! We are unguarded, in the best sense of the word. Thank you, Mr. Oppenheimer.

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:

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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.

No confidence

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Keith Richards, Life (2010)

There are several references to Canada throughout this book – not surprising from a member of a band that regularly tours the world, and has also made a habit of rehearsing in Toronto (for tax reasons, apparently).

Rather than cataloguing all those, I’m going to focus on the most interesting reference to Canada: the section that deals with Richards’ arrest for drug trafficking in Toronto in 1977.

The band was waiting for me in Toronto early in 1977. I put off going for many days. They sent me telegrams: “Where are you?” We had a gig at the El Mocambo, which would provide more tracks for our Love You Live album. We needed some days of rehearsal.  (391)

That reference to the El Mocambo will have an undeniable frisson for Torontonians of a certain age.

But finally we [Richards and Anita Pallenberg] flew there [Toronto] on February 24. The gigs – two nights at the club – were scheduled for ten days later. I took a hit on the airplane and somehow the spoon ended up in Anita’s pocket. They found nothing on me at the airport, but they found the spoon on Anita and busted her.  (391)

It has nothing to do with Canada, but I love that “somehow”; how did the spoon end up in poor Anita’s pocket?

They [the Canadian police] went to great effort to prepare the big bust of me in the Harbour Castle Hotel…. Alan Dunn, the longest-serving Stones man, the logistics and transport supremo, discovered later that the regular personnel who worked in the hotel suddenly found themselves working alongside many extra people, who had been hired mostly as telephone and television engineers. The police were setting it up: massive resources against one guitar player.  (391)

There’s something amusing about this picture of the Canadian police – they’re portrayed like small-town cops trembling with excitement at their chance to catch a big-time, big-city celebrity. It’s hard to know how much of this is true and how much is just Richards’ grandiosity.

So the police came straight to the room. Marlon [Richards’ son] would not normally have let in any policemen, but they were dressed as waiters. They couldn’t wake me up. By law you have to be conscious to be arrested. (391)

Well there’s an interesting little nugget of information – did you know you had to be conscious to be arrested? I didn’t. It makes sense when you think about it, since they have to advise you of your rights, and if you’re not conscious you obviously can’t take in that information; I suppose the truth is I’d never really thought about it. The wages of a relatively sheltered life.

It took them forty-five minutes – I’d been up for five days and I’d had a heavy-duty shot and I was out. This was my last rehearsal day, and I’d been asleep for about two hours. My memory of it is waking up and them going slap slap, two Mounties dragging me about the room slapping me. Trying to get me “conscious.” Bang bang bang bang bang. Who are you? What’s your name? Do you know where you are and why we’re here? “My name’s Keith Richards, and I’m in the Harbour Hotel. What you’re doing here I have no idea.”  (391-92)

Ah, those bungling Mounties – no match for the insouciant Richards wit!

Really it’s not a particularly appealing image of our red-coated, brass-buttoned national police force, dragging a drug-addled rock star around his hotel room and slapping him to try to wake him up. I doubt they put that on the recruitment posters.

Meanwhile they’d found my stash. And it was about an ounce. Quite a lot. No more than a man needs. I mean, it wouldn’t feed the city. But obviously they knew their shit, like I knew my shit, and it was clearly not the Canada smack. It had come from England. I’d put it in the flight case.  (392)

It’s encouraging at least to be told the Mounties “knew their shit” – this is the first real indication that they’re not a backwoods version of the Keystone Kops. But it doesn’t last.

So they arrest me, take me to this Mountie police station, and it’s really not my time of day.  (392)

The Richards wit again.

…because of the amount they found, they decided to charge me with trafficking, which is an automatic jail sentence for a very long time, in Canada.  (392)

Oh, they send you to jail for drug trafficking in Canada? How positively medieval.

I said, OK, fine. Give me a gram back. “Oh, we can’t do that.” I said, so what are you going to do now? You know I need it and that I’m going to have to get it. What are you going to do? Follow me and bust me again? Is that your game? How are you going to play this? Give me some back till I figure this out. “Oh no, no.”  (392)

Here Richards comes across as the practical man stymied by the prissy, almost school-marmish attitude of the Mounties, who refuse to give him back enough of his heroin to get him through.

But all of this is relatively minor compared to what follows. Any reader who knows anything about Keith Richards would expect him to be conversant in matters of narcotics and dealing with the police, but we now enter into subject area where his expertise may come as a bit more of a surprise: political philosophy:

Yet again someone was seriously after my ass, and the situation was further complicated by Margaret Trudeau, the wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, moving into the hotel as a Stones appendage, offering a double-big tabloid story. The prime minister’s young wife with the Stones, and you throw in drugs, you’re looking at a three-month run. In the end it may have played in my favor, but at the time it was the worst combination of circumstances. Margaret Trudeau was twenty-two and Trudeau was fifty-one when they got married. It was a bit like Sinatra and Mia Farrow – the power and the flower child. And now Trudeau’s bride – and this was exactly their sixth wedding anniversary – was seen walking in our corridors in a bathrobe. So then the story was that she had left him. She had, in fact, moved into the room next to Ronnie, and they were hitting it off really well, or, as Ronnie put it so nicely in his memoirs, “We shared something special for that short time.” She flew to New York to escape the publicity, but Mick flew to New York as well, so it was assumed they too were an item. Worse and worse. She was a groupie, that’s all she was, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that. But you shouldn’t be a prime minister’s wife if you want to be a groupie.  (392-3)

Groupies shouldn’t be married to prime ministers – talk about incisive commentary. (And please note the restraint I’m exercising in avoiding any obvious “Stones appendage” jokes.)

Actually, I found this part of the book exciting: there was Canada, right at the heart of a celebrity scandal. The wife of our prime minister was living in a hotel with the most famous rock band on the planet. Canada was, for a brief, shining moment, cool. Of course we didn’t know it at the time; we were probably embarrassed – or, more likely, horrified.

At another hearing they added a charge of cocaine possession and revoked bail…. I would have loved to have dared them to put me in jail. It was all bullshit. They didn’t have the balls. They weren’t feeling confident.  (393)

Well, there it is: “They didn’t have the balls. They weren’t feeling confident.” Richards is referring to the Canadian authorities, but could any two sentences more succinctly sum up the way the rest of the world views Canada? Our whole national identity seems to be captured there. We’re not confident. We don’t have the balls.

Things brighten a little bit from there:

It was Stu [Ian Stewart] who suggested that I should use the waiting time to put down some tracks of my own – put something down to remember the man by. He hired a studio, a beautiful piano and a microphone. The result has been doing the circuit for a while – KR’s Toronto Bootleg. We just did all the country songs … but there was a certain poignancy because at that moment things looked a bit grim.  (393-4)

So that’s the prize we got out of it – Toronto is forever associated with a Keith Richards bootleg recording. Here’s a sample:

Richards managed to get out of Canada and into the U.S., supposedly into a drug treatment program, and later had the charges reduced, plead guilty and got a suspended sentence; here are the details for those who really want to know.

And here’s a picture of him in the suit he wore for his trial:

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You probably can’t read the caption, but it says:

Suit bought with difficulty on a Sunday for my trial in Toronto, October, 1978.

This will no doubt bring up fond memories for all those who recall Toronto’s “Sunday shopping” battles of a few decades ago. Richards is clearly tweaking Toronto as a sleepy, pious city so trapped in a small-town mentality that you can’t even shop on the Sabbath. Whether this look flatters him, or was likely to win over a Toronto courtroom, I’ll leave for others to judge.

In the end, Richards seems to have been left with a positive view of Canada: his praise of Toronto in this video starts at around the 30-second mark:

Interestingly, he remarks that Toronto has always “been good to us,” i.e. to the Rolling Stones, and then goes on to say, “Especially to me. I mean, they got me out of jail.” An odd way of looking at things; since Keith was arrested and tried in Toronto, he might say it was Toronto that put him in jail.

But, ever the optimist, he sees it the other way round.

Our Greatest Export: Neil Young

Two references to Neil Young from two very disparate sources; I think of Neil as so much a national icon that a reference to him is essentially a reference to Canada as a whole.

Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux (2013)

Unfortunately I can’t find an actual film clip, only these “intellectuals” from The Guardian rattling on, but if you look/listen closely at the very beginning of the segment you’ll hear one character ask for a  Neil Young song; the woman at the piano then launches into “It’s A Dream” from Young’s 2005 album Prairie Wind.

I haven’t seen the entire film (though I did watch the trailer), so I have no idea whether the song runs through it or plays a larger thematic role, or whether it’s just a bit of music in a single scene. I have seen Battle in Heaven, also by Reygadas; no Neil Young that I recall,but I did spend a lot of time staring at the blank, affectless faces of non-actors (Reygadas is somewhat of the Bresson school) feeling that I was supposed to conjure for myself the emotions the characters were feeling rather than watch the (non)actors express them. This grew tedious after a while.

Moving on to another part of the universe…

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (May 6, 2013)

From the “Tweets of the Week” section of Peter King’s NFL column at si.com:

Tweet of the Week IV

“Randy called me and said.’..Got mashed potatoes…can’t get no T-Bone!!!..’.so I said we’ll float that rent fer a little bit n keep rockin’ ”

 @jimirsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts.

I’ve been told Irsay gave $75,000 to keep a Colts-themed bar in Indianapolis, the Blue Crew Sports Grill, alive. Kudos to him for that.

Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, is a well-known fan of classic rock, and according to Wikipedia he “has a habit of quoting rock music”. (You can get a glimpse of his conversational style in this profile and see some of his guitar collection here.) So apparently people who know Irsay know that quoting rock lyrics is the perfect way to communicate with him; and if you use Neil Young lyrics, even slightly obscure ones, he’ll still understand what you mean. (Though it’s impossible to tell whether the Neil Young quote was used by “Randy” when speaking to Irsay or whether it’s just Irsay’s way of summing up the situation; I’m inclined to think the latter.)

So we have a Mexican art-film director and a billionaire NFL franchise-owner, connected by their love for the music of a Canadian: Neil Young. That indicates the remarkable reach of Young’s art and its ability to connect very different people, and shows how deeply it has seeped into the North American cultural consciousness. It makes you wonder whether a lot of his fans even know he’s Canadian; and that, somehow, seems like a very Canadian definition of success.

And now, a little music. Here’s the album version of “It’s A Dream”:

Here’s Patti Smith covering the song in, of all places, Ottawa (I’m still a bit ticked off that she wasn’t the opening act when I saw him last fall in Toronto; she clearly opened for him in Ottawa, as well as at most of his other shows around that time):

And here’s “T-Bone” – be warned that it’s not his most lyrically inventive song – from the oddly titled re•ac•tor album:

And finally, with thanks to Craig Proctor, here’s the encore he did when I saw him; a rare performance of “Helpless” by Crazy Horse. The critics sneered, but we cheered:

Madge’s Mad World

Life with My Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone

Christopher Ciccone with Wendy Leigh, Life with My Sister Madonna (2008)

OK, fine, I read it. What can I say? I grew up in the Age of Madonna, and I was curious. I thought this book, being written by her brother, might offer some striking insight into the inner workings of the most fascinatingly self-reinventing pop star since Bob Dylan. (Or should I use the pretentious Greenblattism “self-fashioning” and thus attempt to lend a patina of intellectualism to this trashy pursuit? No, I won’t bother.)

As is always the case with books like this, I was disappointed; somehow, they’re never as shocking and trashy as you imagine. Ciccone (i.e. Christopher, the Lesser Ciccone) is more interested in whining about how Madonna ignores him, bitching about Guy Ritchie and his walk-in closet, and bragging about the time he spent doing drugs with supermodels than in offering insight into his sister. Or perhaps the problem lies deeper – perhaps this is a book written by an author not intelligent enough to comprehend his subject?

The full cover, when you see it, seems to suggest this:

Full Cover of LIfe with My Sister Madonna

The Lesser Ciccone is on the back, while Madonna is on the front but moving out of the frame, as though leaving him behind, slipping from the net of words in which he seeks to entrap her and eluding his understanding. And note her expression, the classic “Come on … Get lost” look of seduction that leads inevitably to rejection. Maybe you can judge a book by its cover.

Whatever; the point is, it mentions Canada:

We Ciccones may be afraid to confront our emotions, but little else fazes us. After all, we have pioneer blood in our veins and are proud of it. In 1690, my maternal ancestors, the Fortins, fled France and sailed to Quebec, then a complete wilderness, and settled there. Quintessential pioneers, they wrested a life for themselves and their families out of that wilderness. (p. 24)

The weak generalization about being “afraid to confront our emotions” is sadly characteristic of the sort of low-grade psychobabble that riddles the book.

What jumps out at me in this passage, though, is the word “then”; that is to say, Ciccone recognizes that Quebec is no longer a complete wilderness, even though it was in 1690. (Quebec City was founded in 1608, population of 550 in 1665, but it would hardly have been a bustling metropolis by 1690, so I suppose he’s right in the main, we won’t quibble.) This is a refreshing change from the opinion, sometimes encountered among Americans, that Canada is still a complete wilderness and buried in snow 365 days a year. So props for that.

Most thrilling of all, Madonna’s relatives lived in Canada before finding their way to the U.S. Madonna is practically Canadian! Think of all the Juno awards she could have won….

On the High Seas with Doc and Sauncho

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (2009)

Do you have a book sitting on your shelf that you read a long time ago and thought was one of the most amazing books ever written, and that you’re always meaning to reread, but every time you pick it up and flip it open, perhaps ruffling through the pages and watching your lovingly penciled marginalia flash by (you don’t use ink, do you? Or worse, a highlighter?), perhaps spreading it open at that familiar first page and beginning to read the first words of the first sentence of the first paragraph – and a jolt of something like fear stops you? You’re afraid that after all these years the book won’t measure up to your memories of it and, worse, that the rereading will serve as an indictment of the younger you who fell in love with it. “How could I have liked all this callow, juvenile claptrap?” you will wonder. “Could it be I was just a callow juvenile myself, and not the preternaturally sophisticated youth I thought I was?”

Or perhaps you have no idea what I’m talking about. In any case, for me, that book is Thomas Pynchon’s V. I read it in my early twenties and was immediately convinced that it represented everything that was cool and exciting about literature – the writing felt free and relaxed, the sentences rushed and tumbled effortlessly forward, there was humour on every page, it included a broad range of ideas without ever feeling like it was forcing or faking…. It was, I was convinced, a great book.

Needless (perhaps?) to say, I’ve never reread it.

Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, on the other hand, is not a great book. It feels like a paint-by-numbers Pynchon book, as though the author were consciously imitating his own earlier work. (For the obsessed, it has a video promo supposedly voiced by Pynchon himself; if it is him, he sounds somewhat like Sam Elliott.) And, even more significantly, it mentions Canada.

(Is it inevitable that only the lesser works of a great author should mention this country? We shall see.)

No, her original name was Preserved, after her miraculous escape in 1917 from a tremendous nitroglycerin explosion in Halifax Harbor which blew away most everything else in it, shipping and souls. Preserved was a Canadian fishing schooner, which later during the 1920s and ‘30s also picked up a reputation as a racer, competing regularly with others in her class, including, at least twice, the legendary Bluenose. (p. 92)

Not to nit-pick, but shouldn’t “Halifax Harbor” be spelled “Halifax Harbour,” in deference to our northern habits, more closely allied with the British way of doing things? But let that pass. What does it mean?

Not a lot, I’m afraid. Two characters, Doc and Sauncho (each separated by a mere letter from those famous wanderers Don and Sancho, for those who get excited about such things) are discussing a boat, now known as the Golden Fang, once known as the Preserved, which may be involved in some sort of nefarious goings-on. I would read this as something of a compliment to Canada: how many Canadian fishing schooners have been involved in nefarious goings-on?

And yet the use of Canadian history feels a bit casual, almost dismissive. Pynchon uses the explosion in Halifax as a factual jumping-off point to the backstory of the ship in his novel, but it’s a mere narrative convenience. I can’t help but feel that a reference to a major event in American history would have received a slightly fuller description; but is this just typical Canadian insecurity, that old feeling that our history is somehow tame and uninteresting?

And what does it mean that, in Canada, whole books have been written about the explosion in Halifax Harbour, while Pynchon dispenses with it in a sentence? Whose perspective is skewed? In asking these questions we begin to glimpse in outline the form that Canada takes in the minds of writers from other countries. It seems to be a rather small, shadowy form.

But then a flash of light as we come to “the legendary Bluenose,” familiar to every Canadian who has ever flipped a dime:

Canadian Dime (Tails side)

Here we are confronted with something approaching Canadian greatness. The Bluenose was indeed a famous fishing and racing schooner, launched in Nova Scotia in 1921 and lost off Haiti in 1946 while carrying, of all things, bananas. Before being sold off as a freighter and lost, she was virtually undefeated as a racer and held the International Fisherman’s Trophy for 17 years.

And yet … “virtually undefeated”. There again we run up against the “not quite” that is so characteristically Canadian. To have been completely undefeated would be a bit arrogant, a bit too much; having a couple of losses along the way is so much more … polite.

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