By Michael Barclay - Friday, November 9, 2012 - 0 Comments
The veteran band celebrates 25 years with box set and staging their own tribute night
Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo laughs and says, “When I think of the mistakes that we have made over the years and that we’ve survived, it’s ridiculous.”
It’s also miraculous. To be any kind of band for longer than five years is a major victory. To be a band for 25 years is a formidable feat, especially in this country. But to be a successful Canadian band for over 25 years putting out new albums that routinely go gold and platinum is—well, now we’re really only talking about two bands: The Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo.
Blue Rodeo played their first gig in Toronto in February 1985, after Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor returned from New York City. They released their first album, Outskirts, in 1987. Unlike The Tragically Hip, who are exactly the same age and have maintained the same lineup since day one, Blue Rodeo has a large extended family of ex-members and star collaborators who have bolstered the core trio of Cuddy, Keelor and bassist Bazil Donovan. Some of those showed up at an intimate show at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio for some live karaoke, performing the band’s greatest hits, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Outskirts and a new box set compiling the group’s first five albums.
By Michael Barclay - Friday, November 2, 2012 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
The Dundas, Ont. native has a new electronic album, and it sounds good at home or in a dance club
It’s every musician’s worst nightmare, and it’s one Dan Snaith witnessed first-hand: seeing a stage collapse and take a life. It was June 2012 at Downsview Park in Toronto, where Snaith’s band Caribou was set to open for Radiohead on the last North American show of a tour that put Snaith—a native of Dundas, Ont., who started out making bedroom electronic music—in front of his biggest audiences to date. What should have been a triumphant hometown show turned tragic, when Radiohead’s drum tech, Scott Johnson, was killed in the collapse; three other technicians were treated for injuries.
“My wife and I were standing behind the stage when it collapsed,” says Snaith. “For a long period of time, whenever I closed my eyes, it would be what I would see. It was devastating, a horrible day. There are a lot of people involved in Radiohead’s team, and I gained a whole new respect for the way they conducted themselves in the face of this tragedy.”
Though that day’s gig was cancelled, and the next leg of a European tour was postponed, the show, as they say, must go on, and Snaith played his final gig with Radiohead just two weeks ago. In the meantime, however, he spent any downtime he had in 2012 on an entirely different project, one with much more scaled back ambitions.
Snaith started writing and recording tracks in a single afternoon, on his way out the door to DJ gigs in his adopted hometown of London (where he’s lived for the past 10 years after moving there to get his Ph.D. in math). Unlike the layered, carefully arranged electronic and experimental pop music of Caribou, the new material Snaith recorded under the name Daphni was designed for dance clubs: not for big stages, and not for his touring band, which can swell up to seven people. Not even necessarily for listening at home, although Daphni’s debut album, Jiaolong, has achieved that rare, impossible thing: an album that works as well in a club as it does
By Mike Doherty - Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 10:19 AM - 0 Comments
The singer’s mother thought his soon-to-be-published book of poems, one of the best things he’s ever done
Burton Cummings has a couple of favourite phrases to describe his status as a rock ’n’ roll survivor: “I haven’t exactly lived the life of a Buddhist monk,” and “I’m not quite ready to move to Lourdes.” He’s used them many times in the past, and he does so again on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. And yet the singer, songwriter, pianist and bon vivant who once forced his old band, the Guess Who, to cancel a Carnegie Hall date because he’d been up all night partying with the Grateful Dead, hasn’t been drinking “for quite a while now.” He’s quit smoking, too.
“For a guy that’s going to be 65 right away I’m in pretty good shape,” Cummings says, referring to his New Year’s Eve birthday. His vigour shows on his new release, Live at Massey Hall, a greatest hits album recorded at the Toronto venue in 2010 and 2011. On it, he delivers songs from his Guess Who days and solo career with untrammelled gusto, including his soaring hit Stand Tall, which he performed at a Massey Hall engagement in 1976, but “didn’t sing for years because I didn’t think I could do it justice.”
Nick Sinopoli, a vocalist and percussionist with Cummings’ band, the Carpet Frogs, is in awe of the voice: “He can blow-dry my hair with the monitors.” Before Cummings adopted the Frogs in 1999, they were a Toronto-based cover band singing Guess Who classics such as No Time and Hand Me Down World; Sinopoli was happy to step aside for the real thing. And lately, Cummings is “hitting all these [notes] that were ‘the young Burton.’ ”
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, October 22, 2012 at 11:05 AM - 0 Comments
A new biography of Leonard Cohen provides new details on Jimi Hendrix, Phil Spector and Joni Mitchell
One of the first times Leonard Cohen ever played before a vast audience was in Central Park during the Summer of Love, in 1967. He was 32. A groan went up from the crowd as folk diva Judy Collins, the one people were waiting to see, brought her unknown protege onstage to sing Suzanne, the song she had made famous. “Tonight my guitar is full of tears and feathers,” he said quietly. Mortified by stage fright, Cohen made his way through the song as an audience of thousands fell under his spell. That night he celebrated in his room at the Chelsea Hotel with a 23-year-old blond from Saskatchewan he had just met at the Newport Folk Festival: Joni Mitchell.
That’s one of the evocative moments conjured by author Sylvie Simmons in I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, the most discerning, intimate and definitive biography every written about Canada’s pre-eminent singer, songwriter, poet and monk. It’s the portrait of an artist raised in Montreal’s Westmount by a widowed mother who was clinically depressed; a devout student of seduction who studied a hypnotism manual after hitting puberty; a melancholy poet who learned guitar from a Spanish teacher who committed suicide after three lessons; and a traveller whose homes have included a Greek island, a mountaintop monastery, a Tennessee cabin and endless hotel rooms.
By Michael Barclay - Friday, October 19, 2012 at 12:55 PM - 0 Comments
On his new book, ‘Perfect Youth’ and the music that changed our cultural identity
Entertaining books about Canadian culture are few and far between. Perhaps they need a few more narratives involving vomit, electrocution, bar fights, the Mafia, neo-Nazis, k.d. lang and riots 13,000 people strong. That’s what Sam Sutherland has unearthed so brilliantly in Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk, a book that is not so much about a much-mythologized genre of music as it is about the Canadian instinct to make something from nothing, about a time (1976-1982) when Canada was still just beginning to assert its own culture, about facing ridicule and being outcast for creating something new and true to yourself, about transforming your entire life into performance art. Sutherland conveys a stunning amount of information from every corner of the country (Meat Cove, N.S.?) in a breezy style that is as fun as the music he’s writing about. And as someone who co-authored a book about post-punk Canadian music between 1985-1995, Have Not Been the Same, I laud Sutherland, with whom I recently had a chance to speak, for adding a crucial component to this country’s musical history.
Q: How old are you?
Q: That means you were born in 1985—after the period of time you’re writing about, which I’m guessing you cut off around 1982, 1983.
A: Yes, that’s the general point after which you can’t really argue something is first-wave punk anymore.
Q: Could this book have been written by a 40- or 50-year-old, or does it takes someone younger and less jaded to look at this time period with open eyes and fresh ears?
By Elio Iannacci - Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 11:00 AM - 0 Comments
On her experimental new album, the singer addresses marriage and motherhood
Ever since the unrelenting success of Adele’s 21, the pop-music market has been drowning in breakup albums. A flood of new acts ranging from Scotland’s Emeli Sandé to England’s Rebecca Ferguson have been playing the same forlorn chords that ooze from the chart-topping singles Rolling in the Deep and Someone Like You.
Martha Wainwright’s new album, Come Home To Mama, mines similar—but bolder—emotional terrain.
“She’s not a child dealing with ex-boyfriends,” says Yuka Honda, the experimental electronic artist who produced most of Come Home to Mama’s songs. “Martha is a wife, a mother and an artist with so much to say and so much responsibility on her shoulders. It was my duty to capture it all.”
Honda, who used textured arrangements and strings to back Wainwright’s vigorous, three-octave range, wanted to avoid slick production. “On one hand, I didn’t want to repeat what she’s done in the past,” Honda says, referring to Wainwright’s self-titled folk-pop debut in 2005, 2008’s rootsy I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too, and 2009’s live album of Edith Piaf covers. “On the other hand, I knew we couldn’t suffocate her vocals in anything saccharine.”
By Emily Senger - Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 8:34 AM - 0 Comments
Canadian rock fans take heart, Geddy Lee’s signature wail may find its place in…
Canadian rock fans take heart, Geddy Lee’s signature wail may find its place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after Rush was one of 15 artists nominated for a coveted spot for 2013.
While all previous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees have been decided upon by a panel of music experts including historians, artists and other industry insiders, Rolling Stone reports that this will be the first year that the public will also be allowed to vote online, at either the Rolling Stone or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame websites.
So step up Canadians, and ensure the Toronto rockers get their due. Because with vocals (and hair) like this, how can anyone argue against Rush getting a spot in the hallowed halls?
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 11:00 AM - 0 Comments
Inspired by her dad’s old 78-rpm records, Krall puts a contemporary spin on ragtime
“People scream out, Peel Me a Grape! and I [play] it,” she says, “but I just can’t sing certain lines.” When she recorded the song for 1997’s Love Scenes, “it was a different time,” says the 47-year-old singer and pianist. She still looks young enough to play the role of the song’s coy vixen, but she’s eager to move on, so much so that her new album, Glad Rag Doll, sets aside the elegant piano jazz that made her a star. She has reinvented ’20s and ’30s Tin Pan Alley tunes in a style somewhere between jazz, folk, blues and alt-country, with producer T Bone Burnett—a frequent collaborator of her husband Elvis Costello—at the helm.
On a hot September afternoon in Manhattan, where Krall and Costello live for part of the year with their nearly six-year-old twins, Dexter and Frank, she’s ensconced in a booth in an Italian restaurant, looking back to when her father, a keen record collector, started bringing 78-rpm records home. “I started trying to make [Glad Rag Doll] maybe 35 years ago,” she says. “I’ve been listening to this music and living it.” That said, the album, is “not a tribute to my dad—it’s my own thing. It’s not Girl in the Other Room , which was about my mother’s death; it’s not a tribute to Nat Cole; it’s not a bossa nova record; it’s not the big band record—this is mine.”
Krall’s words tumble out in a rush, as if a dam has been opened. She’s notoriously reluctant to speak about her work, but on this subject, she’s determined: “I’m the leader of the band, and sometimes I’ve been misinterpreted as [if] somehow a committee of other people have directed me and pushed me. I can’t really fake stuff.”
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, October 1, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
An exclusive excerpt from Neil Young’s new book, a mix of memoir, meditation and rant
Like Bob Dylan (Chronicles), Keith Richards (Life) and Patti Smith (Just Kids), yet another rock icon has been seduced by print. An intimate mix of memoir, meditation and rant, Neil Young’s Waging a Heavy Peace roams a world of music and drugs, wives and children, cars, guitars and model trains. At 66, Young has followed in the footsteps of his father, Canadian journalist Scott Young, whose laconic voice seems to echo through every page of the son’s spare prose. The book’s road stories jump from dressing rooms to emergency wards, with cameos from Dylan, Springsteen—and Charles Manson. Young explains how he missed the Junos after almost bleeding to death in a Manhattan hotel lobby and how he wrote Cinnamon Girl, Down By the River and Cowgirl in the Sand in one day while running a fever. But perhaps most captivating is Young’s newly sober infatuation with the writing life. “No wonder my dad did this,” he marvels. “I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”
I have been clean now for seven months. That is a good long time. I still feel cravings. Maybe I’d like a beer, maybe a joint. I heard the Pistol Annies sing about reasons why they’re broke and so who would invest in their future? One’s drinkin’, one’s smokin’, one’s taking pills. Well, they are writing their asses off. I know that. I haven’t written a song in more than half a year, and that is different for me. Of course I’ve written over 90,000 words in this book, and that is different for me, too.
By Michael Barclay - Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 1:25 PM - 0 Comments
The armchair critics are simply wrong
Michael Barclay is a co-author of Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995 and a blogger at Radio Free Canuckistan. He is also the chief copy editor at Maclean’s.
Many celebrated the decision, considering the album rich with great songs, inventive arrangements and an exquisitely executed artistic vision. Others wondered why Polaris jurors—of which I was one of 11 locked in room deciding the outcome during the gala—picked such an apparently “safe” act. There were plenty of more daring possibilities: hip-hop artist Drake, outlier Grimes, rock’n’roll believers Japandroids, roots rock queen Kathleen Edwards, avant-garde hip-hop party machine Cadence Weapon, the hardcore punk operatics of F–ked Up, the conceptual Asian psychedelic metal of Yamantaka/Sonic Titan, the goth soul/blues of Cold Specks or the electro-rock firebrands Handsome Furs.
Why Feist? Of course, I know exactly “why Feist,” and I’ll tell you (as much as I can) in a moment.
Polaris has never pleased everyone, and never will. In many ways, the actual winner is a sideshow to the whole event, a MacGuffin. I, for one, have only agreed on two of the past winners so far. Picking the No. 1 is never a unanimous decision. There were jurors this year unhappy with the result, but I don’t think they begrudge it.
Here’s how it goes down.
By Mike Doherty - Monday, September 24, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
Six years after she ruled the world with Loose, the pop star learns to say yes again
Impeccably coiffed and styled, a silk scarf wreathed around the collar of her jean jacket, Nelly Furtado leans forward on a couch in a Toronto hotel suite. “I’m still a bit of a s–t disturber.” She lets out a goofy laugh. “I’m still a little punk ass somewhere inside my soul. And I think I get off on confusing people.”
The 33-year-old pop star is referring, specifically, to her unpredictable new album, The Spirit Indestructible; some of its songs look back to her youth in Victoria, B.C., as a teenager with “a big chip on her shoulder [who] knows that at any party she can grab the microphone and everyone will listen to her sing.” But she could just as well be talking about her career. It’s indeed confusing that she’s taken six full years to make an English language follow-up to Loose, which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
What does it take for a star of her stature to stall the momentum of her success? “It took strength to say no to my manager,” she says. “It took a lot of repeated ‘no, no, no’s’ for people to understand that I wasn’t recording another [English] album anytime soon . . . What are they going to do—put a ball and chain around a microphone in the studio?”
By Elio Iannacci - Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
The sisters’ memoir project explodes into a songwriting phase and a new album
There is so much more to Heart than power ballads and big, over-permed hair. As the most successful sister act in rock history, the band’s frontwomen—Nancy and Ann Wilson—have inspired icons from punker Beth Ditto (who says Heart is her “musical lifeline”) to director Sofia Coppola (who used Crazy On You and Magic Man for pivotal scenes in The Virgin Suicides). Although their hits climbed the Billboard charts in the ’70s (Barracuda), ’80s (Alone), ’90s (All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You) and 2000s (WTF), the group has yet to win a Grammy. They were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, but were passed over in favour of Donovan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “When these women wrote a lyric and sang a song, you know they had lived it,” comedian Sandra Bernhard says in her one-woman act.
Despite years of press coverage, the sisters felt their story hadn’t been told. So they commissioned Charles R. Cross, who wrote the Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, to talk to them in 2011 and publish the transcripts in the memoir Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll.
The conversations dredged up old memories, and the sisters started writing new songs. They approached Canadian music producer Ben Mink—best known for crafting k.d. lang’s Ingénue—to put together Fanatic, scheduled for release Oct. 2.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 10:00 PM - 0 Comments
10 did it for Boléro, now Fifty Shades is giving a 16th-century composition a bounce
A sexy bestseller is the best way to introduce someone to serious music. Or that’s the assumption record companies are making about Fifty Shades of Grey. EMI Classics, one of the oldest classical record companies in the world, announced that it will be releasing an album of classical pieces “personally selected by author E.L. James herself.” These works were mentioned in her hit series of novels, or, as she put it in a statement, “inspired me while I wrote the Fifty Shades trilogy,” and all of them are being presented on the album as a way to get her readers interested in the classical back catalogue. The hope is that since her protagonist Christian Grey likes Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach, her readers will too. Or as British music critic Norman Lebrecht puts it, “Classical labels were always quick to jump on a book or movie bandwagon.”
The potential of Fifty Shades of Grey as a classical gateway drug became apparent to record companies earlier this year. The book provided a major boost to recordings of a 16th-century choral composition, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, whose “astral, seraphic voices” accompany a sex scene in the novel. “We noticed a big jump in sales back in April but did not know why,” says Steve Smith, who produced a recording of the piece for the group the Tallis Scholars. “We remained oblivious to the reference in Fifty Shades of Grey until early in July when, having reached No. 7 in the U.K. classical singles chart, we made a determined effort to understand what was happening.”
Fifty Shades isn’t the first movie to boost the popularity of classical music. It’s not even the first to give it naughty associations: the Dudley Moore movie 10 mainstreamed the idea that Ravel’s Boléro was the perfect accompaniment for sex. “Classical music is often used as shorthand for ‘sophistication’ or indicating a character’s depth,” explains Vancouver Courier arts and entertainment editor Michael Kissinger. By tying a potentially trashy scene in with this type of music, authors and filmmakers can give a high-class veneer to their work—and encourage fans to check out the music to prove they’re as sophisticated and sexy as Christian Grey.
By Mike Doherty - Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 11:34 AM - 0 Comments
Centurions of evil, fountains delivering enlightenment and epic space journeys, for starters
Although their latest release, Clockwork Angels, is Rush’s first full-length concept album, it’s not as though the band hasn’t had a lot of practice. Here’s a look at the Toronto power trio’s most beloved (and occasionally bemusing) concept songs to date.
1975: By-Tor and the Snow Dog: Clocking in at a relatively svelte 8’39”, Rush’s very first multi-part suite is drawn from their second album, Fly by Night. Not only did the bookish Neil Peart take over from John Rutsey as the band’s drummer, but he also took up the lyric-writing reins. Led Zeppelin-influenced songs with lines such as “I just want to rock and roll you woman” were scrapped in favour of pieces like this: a suite about a battle between a “centurion of evil” and a beast with “ermine glowing in the damp.” As Lee’s bass snarls and Peart pummels his drums, the fight rages through a section called “7/4 War Furor” (making explicit the band’s fascination with odd-metre time signatures), and ends with the canine victorious. Thanks to him, “the land of the Overworld is saved again.” Granted, the lyrics are over the top, but there’s an element of Rush’s vaunted humour here: the antagonists were, in fact, inspired by their manager Ray Danniels’ real-life pooches.
1975: Fountain of Lamneth: Caress of Steel’s entire second side is taken up by this six-part suite. Though its title suggests a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module, its narrative is difficult to pin down. It tells the tale of a man from his birth, (he emerges from the womb singing “I am born / I am me/ I am new / I am free”), through his quest for the titular fountain, which he seems to hope will bring him enlightenment. At the end of the suite – SPOILER ALERT!!! – he finds the fountain, but it leaves him as confused as before. The suite’s melding of adventure with disappointment makes it a precursor to Clockwork Angels. Musically, it’s a little disjointed, with each section fading away before the next begins. The album, which also features a 12-and-a-half-minute song called The Necromancer, bombed, and the band nicknamed the resulting tour “Down the Tubes.”
1976: 2112: Ignoring record-label pleas to record something less complicated, Rush delivered an album that opens with a 20-minute science-fiction suite about a world where everything, including music, is controlled by a group of priests. Perhaps it was an allegory for their own battle to write the music they wanted to play, and though the hero finds himself shot down after picking up a guitar and penning his own songs, Rush themselves would be vindicated as 2112 became one of their most popular albums ever. In 2006, it was named a MasterWork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. Peart drew lyrical inspiration from the writings of Ayn Rand and he found himself castigated by the music press for being a “Randroid.” To this day, he asserts that he was never an objectivist or a pure libertarian, but that he was arguing for the importance of individual belief against a sometimes stultifying collective. Whatever the album’s political philosophy, it rocks hard, and its songs remain live staples.
1977-78: Cygnus X-1 (Books 1 & 2): This two-part suite stretches across two albums: Book I closes out 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, and Book II opens 1978’s Hemispheres. Clocking in at nearly a half-hour, the “duology” was inspired by the black hole of the same name. Book I details the journey of a spaceship pilot into Cygnus X-1, and Part II depicts a battle between the gods Apollo and Dionysos, representing order and chaos; the explorer returns and is declared “Cygnus, Bringer of Balance” between the two. In a tour book from the era, Rush were declared, with this suite, to have “boldly go[ne] where no band has gone before.” Peart references Don Quixote, Nietzsche, and Jane Austen, and Geddy Lee weaves whooshy synthesizer textures amongst the salvos of odd-metre rock.
1980: Natural Science: On the album Permanent Waves, Rush returned to shorter songs, influenced by artists such as Elvis Costello and The Police; nevertheless, the last piece is this three-part, nine-minute suite. Originally Peart had wanted to condense the 2530-line medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into a song; he scrapped the idea, but the band recast some of the material in this tale of how life inside a tide pool compares to hyperspace. The music veers from acoustic balladry to special effects-laden weirdness, and in the end, the lyrics echo the album opener, Spirit of Radio, with a call to artistic arms: “Art as expression / Not as market campaigns / Will still capture our imaginations.”
2012: Clockwork Angels: Rush’s first full-length concept album is a dense, churning work whose individual songs are relatively short but cohere into a 66-minute whole. The narrative, set in a steampunk alternate world, reflects Peart’s ongoing preoccupations with disillusionment, state control vs. individual freedom, and Don Quixote (the ballad Halo Effect brings to mind Quixote’s fascination with his ideal, Dulcinea). But overall, it’s more melodic than its predecessors, and it ends with the surprisingly reflective piece called The Garden. Here, the album’s hero hoes his own row, leaving others to fight their battles, and acknowledges, in a nod to David Foster Wallace’s epic novel, that “time is still the infinite jest.” According to Peart, “Only at my age can such wisdom be attained.”
By Elio Iannacci - Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM - 0 Comments
The Canadian music icon has mellowed since she had her son, but remains as fiery and outspoken as ever.
According to Alanis Morissette, there are three types of men in the world. “Men that hate women and always will. Men that grew up being taught to hate women and are working on loving them and then . . . there are the other kind,” she says, getting comfortable on a couch in a downtown Toronto hotel room. “Those that never hated women and never will. I luckily married the latter.”
Of the first group, Morissette was motivated to pen the lyrics to Woman Down, one of the most personal songs on her upcoming disc, Havoc and Bright Lights. The track could easily fit on Morissette’s breakout album of 1995, Jagged Little Pill—a disc that earned her ﬁve Grammys and a Rolling Stone cover (with the cover line “Angry white female”). It could also sit well with the songs on her last album, 2008’s Flavors of Entanglement, often referred to as a heartbreak disc as it dealt with her feelings surrounding the end of her two-year engagement with actor Ryan Reynolds. Yet Morissette insists that Woman Down is one of those songs that needed time to come to her as it’s about more than just one bad lad.
“About 35 men in my life inspired me to write it,” she says, noting that the song’s devils and muses came from a pool of relatives, strangers, relationships, as well as people crossing paths with her during her 26-year career in music, TV and film. “The song sheds light on the chauvinistic, patriarchal context that many of us are thankfully moving away from—and not a moment too soon,” she says, addressing song lyrics such as, Calling all lady haters / Why must you vilify us? / Are you willing to clean the slate? “So much of the misogyny that these men emit has to do with their mothers—most of the time it has to do with how they saw their dads treat their moms.”
By David Newland - Friday, July 27, 2012 at 5:51 PM - 0 Comments
Trust the Germans to have precisely the word for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies
Trust the Germans to have precisely the word for something otherwise impossible to properly describe. In this case, what we want to describe is a work of art on a vast scale. And the word is an admittedly awkward, but handy, 15-letter handle, gesamtkunstwerk.
If you’re one of the approximately 1 billion people who paid any attention whatsoever to the Olympic opening ceremonies, you were watching an example of gesamtkunstwerk. Whatever you may think of the content (‘all over the place’ is probably a description both fans and critics can agree on), it’s worth noting that seeing such a spectacle, whether live or via the media, is a relatively rare occurrence.
The term gesamtkunstwerk—loosely translated as ‘total work of art’—is a fairly obscure bit of artspeak. It was used by Richard Wagner in the mid-19th century, to describe what he was attempting to do in his great operas: a synthesis of vocal music, orchestra, staging, costumes, dance, and architecture around a single mythic storyline.
Gesamtkunstwerk is the original multimedia. As a concept, it predates Wagner by millenia. From shamanic rituals incorporating masks, drumming, dance, and trance, to folk fertility dances in flowing costumes amid fresh flowers, to scented ceremonies of prayer and praise in mighty Gothic cathedrals, some version of gesamtkunstwerk has been with us for about as long as we humans have been expressing ourselves en masse.
In the 20th century, Wagner’s notions were put to use in a myriad of ways. Some were terrifying: spectacles surrounding mass demonstrations of military might, as in Nazi Germany (see Triumph of the Will), Soviet Russia, or contemporary North Korea, are gesamtkunstwerk. But so, one could argue, are the concerts performances of Pink Floyd, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, or Katy Perry. So are Laurie Anderson‘s Home of the Brave, and Robert Wilson & Philip Glass‘s Einstein on the Beach. So are elements of the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square. Likewise, Brazil’s Carnaval. The sound & light show at Canada’s Parliament Buildings is an example of gesamtkunstwerk.
And so are the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies in the recent era. Gesamtkunstwerk. The same word that suited Wagner’s Ring Cycle suits this particular adoration of another sort of Rings just fine.
Calling something an example of gesamtkunstwerk is no guarantee of quality, mind you. Think of the accidentally flash-fried doves of Seoul, and the distressing Donny and Marie dinosaurs of Salt Lake, to name but a couple of wince-worthy moments. Canadians might rather forget the giant inflatable beavers taking centre stage in Vancouver to close the 2010 games. But how can we?
By such standards, the London 2012 Opening Ceremonies, ambitiously directed by Danny Boyle, deserve a great deal of credit.The mere scale of the endeavour is mind-blowing, for starters.
Anyone who attempts to sustain a storyline incorporating both the spirit of the Games and the beloved myths of a proud people, in front of all the world, in real time, in multiple media, all the while worrying about weather, logistics, and terrorism, has my deepest respect. I can barely sustain a line of thought long enough to tweet it.
Of course, like every ambitious work of art—and Olympic Ceremonies in particular, it seems—this particular gesamtkunstwerk includes the usual array questionable artistic decisions, not to mention culturally specific references.
Trivially, the mind reels as Mary Poppins vanquishes Voldemort; more seriously, I wonder why we seem to be celebrating the industrial age, and note the exclusion of the worst excesses of the British Empire.
But keep in mind what we’re looking at: a self-celebration the whole world is watching. A live spectacle grander than almost any other, one that includes video, music, dance, acting, comedy, setting, staging, lighting, elaborate mechanics, hundreds of volunteer participants, unseen workers galore, paratroopers, James Bond, Mr. Bean, the Royal Family, a Ferris wheel, a helicopter, and a vast parade. Not to mention multimedia contributions in real-time from the audience.
It’s an impressive thing to look at. It’s almost an impossible thing to imagine putting on, let alone more or less successfully. It’s a thing you rarely see, really. So while the first impulse may be to point and giggle, snicker and tweet… go easy. This is a worthy attempt at something glorious.
It deserves a solid name.
Gesamtkunstwerk. That’s what it is. Rings just about right, don’t you think?
By Yoni Goldstein - Friday, July 27, 2012 at 1:56 PM - 0 Comments
Guns N’ Roses’ first album still works, even if it does sound a tad outdated
Twenty-five years ago this week Guns N’ Roses’ first album, Appetite for Destruction, was released. It begins with Axl Rose whispering “Oh My God,” a phrase, which, depending on the tenor and setting, can mean one of two things: pious affirmation of the divine or, bluntly, Holy Sh-t. The Gunners’ lead singer occasionally dabbled in religious iconography but his meaning here is the latter, though it’s unclear what exactly the brief prologue refers to. It could indicate the absurd culture of sex and drugs (and rock and roll, but less so) in Hollywood, Calif. in the mid-to-late-1980s–the “jungle” of Appetite’s first, and best, song, Welcome to the Jungle. Then again, it could just be Axl being weird and overdramatic, which is, at the core, pretty much what Axl has turned out to be.
In 1987, when Appetite was released–or, if you’re a music purist, in ’88 when it started to gain mainstream attention–no one outside the world of academia cared about postmodernism. Consequently, it wasn’t yet understood that ascribing meaning to art is the jurisdiction of the receiver, not the creator. And yet, Axl’s foreward is the best way I can think of to describe one’s reaction upon hearing the record for the first time. Oh. My. God!
Appetite for Destruction is the most jarring album in the history of popular music. The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks rivals it, certainly, but there is an appreciable Britishness to Johnny Rotten et al that prevents the album’s message from achieving universality–and anyway, the Pistols weren’t the only punk band with crossover appeal to emerge in the late-1970s. By contrast, in 1987 there wasn’t a single other band like GnR.
More than enough said about the hair metal that neutered rock and roll in the 1980s. Suffice it to say Appetite was the antidote to the vapidity of Bon Jovi, Motley Crüe and Def Leppard. The delay-heavy, repeating B-flat and siren-scream that opened Welcome to the Jungle heralded a new kind of musical aggression. It was rude and crude–and overflowing with gratuitous swearing (my favourite curse: when Axl proclaims in Out Ta Get Me that he is “f—ing innocent.” Chances are, whatever the accusation, Axl wasn’t anywhere near innocent). My Michelle is about a crack whore, Mr. Brownstone about a drug dealer (and It’s So Easy, one sheepishly acknowledges, is blatantly misogynistic). And through it all, the piercing, screaming, yet somehow still strangely melodic voice of Axl Rose (the slick guitar work of Slash, too, though I’d argue he played a subsidiary role in the band).
And yet in many ways, GnR was, in 1987, nothing more than a glorified hair metal group. They looked the part–Axl, bassist Duff McKagan and soon-to-be-fired drummer Steven Adler all wore ridiculous coifs (keyboardist Dizzy Reed, who joined in 1990 and to this day plays in Axl’s bastardized band, still wears that look)–and we all know image is at least as important as aural substance when it comes to rock and roll. They certainly weren’t averse to milking the hair metal weapon of choice–the power ballad–either. Sweet Child O’ Mine isn’t really much more than that when you think about it (and it’s worth noting the majority of Gunners singles from the subsequent three albums–I refuse to acknowledge The Spaghetti Incident – were minor-key, sappy tracks). Their live shows were massive stage productions, as pyro-filled and commercialized as the glammiest of glam bands.
What one can say about Gun N’ Roses is that they represented rock music in transition, from the cheap artifice of the late-1980s to the very palpable honesty and anxiety of early-1990s grunge. The Gunners were influenced by Scorpions and at the same time foretold Nirvana. They had one foot in each camp – no small feat, since music acts that double dip stylistically more often than not sully the good name of rock and roll.
And you can’t argue with numbers: More than 30 million copies of Appetite for Destruction have been sold in the last 25 years, making it the best-selling debut album ever. Appetite for Destruction is certainly one of the most beloved works in the history of rock–and a critical hit as well, a perennial maker of best-albums-ever lists.
Twenty-five years removed from its original context, the album still works–even if it does sound a tad outdated, at least it is far less so than its contemporaries. It teases and excites, and sometimes it makes you laugh because it’s so ridiculous. And it is the main reason why rock fans still pay attention to corn-rowed, fat Axl, why we pay good money to see a band that only retains the Guns N’ Roses moniker on a legal technicality and why– worst of all–so many of us still dream of a reunion that will never happen. For one more chance to hear what Oh My God sounds like.
By Alex Ballingall - Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Toronto band makes, promote and distributes its own albums
Jimmy Shaw couldn’t believe what was happening. The guitarist for Toronto synth-pop band Metric was speaking at a music industry conference last year at Harvard University with lead singer Emily Haines and their long-time manager, Matt Drouin. “The panel was, like, R.E.M.’s manager, U2’s manager—some serious heavyweights,” says Shaw, laughing. And they all had questions for Metric. “It was pretty surreal.”
They were curious about Metric’s bold experiment in independent music making. In 2007, while working on their fourth studio album, Fantasies, the band turned down two multi-million-dollar deals from labels Interscope and Warner Brothers. Instead, during a ﬁve-hour conference call with Drouin and the band’s lawyer, they decided to start their own company, Metric Music International (MMI), with Shaw and Haines as co-CEOs. Rather than rely on a record company to make, promote and distribute their music in a multi-year, multi-album contract, the band started releasing their albums through MMI. The four members took control of virtually every aspect of the operation, from approving advertisements and renting cars for touring to poring over balance sheets and hiring booking agents. Metric is now a stand-alone enterprise unlike anything in the music industry. You might call it a band business.
“They’re becoming an all-encompassing world unto themselves,” says Eric Alper, a publicist with eOne Music Canada. “Nobody is doing this to the same extent.”
By Mike Doherty - Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 10:34 AM - 0 Comments
When this mezzo-soprano sings, the old and the infirm, the young and the hip, all are transported
In the recital hall of a well-to-do retirement centre in midtown Toronto, Patricia Hammond is working a tough crowd. Many in the mezzo-soprano’s audience are clustered at the back, and some have nodded off. During Handel’s Ombra mai fu, one man answers his cellphone in a blaring tone: “Hello? . . . I’m at a concert!” When Hammond sings When the Red Red Robin, another man labours down the aisle and pokes a woman in the front row with his cane, reminding her loudly of a bridge game; she rises to her walker and leaves.
As the show goes on, the 38-year-old singer starts weaving her way among her listeners. She serenades a blind man in her warm, clear voice, and he clasps her hand tightly in both of his. During the Cuban song Yours, she approaches a shy listener sitting by himself; he retreats at ﬁrst, but then, with a big smile, starts leading her in an energetic sort of seated tango. Gradually, the audience at the Briton House comes out of its shell: a woman stands up to sing La vie en rose with Hammond’s pianist, and by the end of the show, many are clapping along.
Hammond tends to have this effect on people. The B.C.-born singer, who is making a name for herself in London, England, where she is frequently featured on the BBC, has an unending supply of stories about her 12 years of touring Britain’s retirement homes. In Wales, she recalls, a man who hadn’t spoken for at least ﬁve years suddenly began singing along. In a home for criminally insane men in Northern Ireland, a “massive goth” was beset by racking, “transformative” sobs, his mascara running down his face. Even a seemingly uneventful concert can prove galvanizing: two days after a concert that she thought “nobody had really appreciated,” she learned that one man in the audience, a taciturn former construction worker, had felt memories of his mother’s singing come flooding back as Hammond performed. Afterwards he cried with happiness, and the next day he passed away.
By Josh Dehaas - Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 1:57 PM - 0 Comments
The generation that embraced the entertainer as children welcomes him back—on campus
See also: A Fred Penner fan, all grown up
Emily Slofstra, 24, is one-fourth of the Tra La Las, a band of Wilfrid Laurier University graduates who sing about the environment, income inequality and police brutality. “One of our songs is called Harper is the Root of All Evil, if that gives you any indication,” says the Occupy supporter, who grows her own veggies on an urban farm.
The Tra La Las attend plenty of shows in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. But without exaggeration, Slofstra says 65-year-old children’s entertainer Fred Penner gave one of the best.
Like so many twentysomething Canadians, she grew up singing along to hits like Sandwiches and The Cat Came Back. Now the man who crawled through the log on CBC’s Fred Penner’s Place each weekday from 1985 to 1997 has made a comeback by playing for people who heartily embrace his messages of sharing and environmental respect.
Penner, on the phone from his home in Winnipeg, admits he was a “little bit lost” in the decade after the TV series ended. He played children’s festivals and gave keynote speeches for educators while “hoping for the next big thing to come along.” Then emails started arriving from college-aged kids, asking things like, “Do you still have the log? Do you still have the Word Bird?”
He suspected the generation he once sang to on the TV screen might want to reconnect. Penner played his first show for university students in Gerts Bar at Montreal’s McGill University in 2008, just as the clouds of the global financial crisis were forming.
“When I finally came around the corner there was this collective rave of ‘Freeed Pennnner!’ I remember looking out at this generation and every single person was smiling and pouring out this incredible energy toward me. It was a love-in. A love-fest.”
Penner has since played pubs from the Wave at the University of Prince Edward Island to Felicita’s at the University of Victoria to the Lazy Owl at the University of Regina. While fans say nostalgia is the main draw, the messages he offers certainly resonate. “I talk about how we’ve been seduced by this world of credit, ” he says. “It can’t be easy for the young people coming up, trying to figure out where their lives are going economically, spiritually and even morally.”
Penner takes his cue from folk singers like James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who inspired him as a young adult. “The folk singers were protesting against the establishment, against the man, against the war,” he says. “As a collective group, you made your voices heard. Nowadays, it’s not the same. We’ve lost that purpose.”
Slofstra and her friends are the exception. Many of the folks who pushed their way to the front of the crowd at the Chainsaw in Waterloo last year were activists in one way or another. There were graduate students studying migrant workers, indigenous rights and the environment, plus some who’d been arrested protesting at Toronto’s infamous G20 meeting in 2010. “I think maybe that shows something,” she adds. “The fact that my friend group was listening to Fred Penner might have informed who we became as adults.”
Not everyone sees the shows as political. Jon Millington, 23, attended the UPEI gig in October and said the highlight was Puff the Magic Dragon. While he recognized the hippie roots, he says Penner wasn’t pushing a message. Candice Heigh, 24, was brought to tears at the UPEI show. “He said something like whenever he sees all these people here at his show, he knows the world’s going to be okay. That was really profound for me.” Heigh had graduated with a B.A. in psychology a few months earlier and was struggling to ﬁnd a full-time job. After seeing Penner, “You think, ‘wow,’ there are so many things in the world that you can do!’ ”
Penner might suggest starting with income equality, labour rights or the environment. After all, he’s hopeful this generation will change the world. Until then, he plans to continue on the university circuit, entertaining and educating. “Maybe I should be a university professor,” he says, half-joking. “I have toyed with the thought.”
See also: A Fred Penner fan, all grown up
By Zoë Janzen - Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 1:53 PM - 0 Comments
Why a thirty-something ukulele songwriter got a kids’ entertainer to sign her chest
“Fred Penner is playing 8pm at Chainsaw this Friday.”
Not quite believing my eyes, I read over the text three times before responding: “What time are you picking me up?”
I am in my mid-thirties. I work at a music store and I’m a ukulele songwriter. My friends and I are more likely to be found going to see Gogol Bordello or dancing with wild abandon to Kidstreet than clapping along with a ‘children’s performer,’ but none of us questioned it. On instinct, we just said, yes, of course we’re going!
Fred was in town at one of the universities for a conference that weekend and apparently someone convinced him to play a gig at the Chainsaw in Uptown Waterloo. The Chainsaw is a bar on King Street known to be a bit rough around the edges. It is charming in its rawness, but more accustomed to hosting punk bands and drunken karaoke than children’s performers.
Nevertheless, on this particular Friday in March, the bar was packed with adults in their twenties and thirties, all there to see Fred Penner.
At the allotted time Fred climbed up on stage and we hooted and hollered our approval. He announced that it was an all-request show and we were encouraged to write down
songs we’d like to hear and toss the suggestions up on stage. He played whichever ones he liked and/or remembered the words to.
Some songs he played in their entirety, others he only played a verse or two. It was pure ear candy, and a trip down memory lane. We grinned our silly grins and loved every minute of it.
For the final numbers, Fred sang about sandwiches and the cat coming back. At the top of our lungs, we belted out the words along with him. We knew them all. Upon the final chord of The Cat Came Back the place exploded in cheers and applause.
After a few minutes of basking in the fantastic energy we’d just been a part of, my friends and I decided to go and meet this troubadour of our childhood. The line was long and we
waited about half an hour, most of which was spent rehashing the show and laughing at the frat boys who’d pulled on Fred Penner’s Place t-shirts over their sweaters.
As we drew nearer to the front of line, I began to think how funny it would be to get Fred to sign my chest. I’d never even considered getting my chest signed before, but for some
reason I kind of wanted him to! At last it was our turn. Fred was jovial and genuine with every person.
When he finally turned to me I brazenly asked if he would autograph my chest. He laughed and said, “Of course!” I bared my chest, he brandished his Sharpie,
asked me how to spell my name, and thus I was marked. I wondered: Was I the first person to acquire his signature in such an intimate spot? No, apparently not, though Fred said he’d only fielded the request about three times in his career. That’s a shortlist I’m proud to be on.
Yes, it’s true. Fred Penner is the only person ever to have signed my chest. Not Eugene Hutz, not Gene Simmons. Fred Penner was and still is our rock star.
Look out Raffi, you’re next.
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 6:40 AM - 0 Comments
A concert preview trashing the band has earned plenty of notoriety
Things are getting noisy in Boise, and that’s before the Canadian rockers Nickelback even fire up their guitars and pyrotechnics at the Idaho Center on June 13.
A concert preview in the Boise Weekly trashing the band has earned music critic Josh Gross plenty of notoriety.
Gross suggested other uses for the $45 cost of a ticket: buying a dozen Big Macs, doing 10 loads of laundry, “or you could buy 45 hammers from the dollar store, hang them from the ceiling at eye level and spend an evening banging the demons out of your dome.”
The preview generated more than 500,000 Internet hits in the first few days.
One typical post said, “Have fun sitting in your studio apartment while these guys make your annual salary in one night.” Gross concedes other bands are more deserving of criticism, “but they are not playing in Boise this week.”
In a followup post, Gross summarized some of the 200 replies to his column:
“In the past day, I have been told that I am a genius, a king amongst men and a hack that could be easily outdone by a one-armed cat. I should alternately win the Pulitzer and forcibly insert 45 pickles into my bum. There has been little middle ground.”
By Paul Ruban - Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 11:40 AM - 0 Comments
The Weakerthans’ front man has gained a loyal following far from his Prairie home
“Zugabe! Zugabe!,” chanted the crowd at the end of John K. Samson & The Provincial Band’s recent Hamburg concert, hammering the German word for “encore” over and over again. The acclamation came as no surprise, since Samson’s fans in Germany have been asking for more for more than 15 years.
“I have roots here,” says the soft-spoken singer-songwriter, best-known for fronting Winnipeg’s indie rock darlings The Weakerthans. “I have as many friends here in Hamburg as I do in Winnipeg. There are people here that I’ve known for almost 20 years now. That grounding does something.”
A grounding which, together with positive reviews in German music blogs, newspapers and magazines, has given wings to his music in Europe’s most populous country. “The Weakerthans started touring here before we started touring anywhere else, oddly enough,” recalls Samson. “We did maybe one or two really small tours in Canada, but our first big tour was here.” Germany accounts – with the UK – for the lion’s share of the 30,000 to 35,000 Weakerthans’ records sold to date in Europe. “We’ve tried touring Italy and Spain and France, and it just hasn’t worked,” adds Samson, mystified. “I wish I knew why, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
What may, at first glance, seem just as baffling is the gusto with which German fans – many of whom have never visited Manitoba’s capital – belt out the chorus of the Weakerthans classic One Great City!: “I HAAATE WINNIPEEEEG!”
Samson is a self-described “provincial writer;” Winnipeg, his muse. His first full-length solo album, Provincial, released last January, unravels specific Prairie roads and conjures the ghosts of forgotten hockey players and places of southern Manitoba. How, then, can lyrics so arcane and anchored in Place resonate with German audiences?
“The way in which John K. Samson writes is not Canada, Manitoba or Winnipeg-specific,” says Christof Jessen, 47, who co-owns a small Hamburg record store in which the Weakerthans played in the fall of 2000. “People who walk the world with open eyes relate to the way he describes these places. The cracks between space and time he sings about are universal.”
“He comes from the Prairies, and I’m from the small village of Bockwinkel, south of Bremen,” explains Thomas Nordmann, 30, who attended Samson’s Hamburg concert sporting a Weakerthans T-shirt. “There are more cows and pigs than people living there. I can relate to his songs.”
The dust was still settling in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall when Samson first took to the stage in Germany. The punk band for which he was playing bass at the time, Propagandhi, immersed itself in the freshly reunited country’s squat culture, and the German anti-fascist movement of the early 1990s had a “big influence” in shaping the young musician’s political worldview. “It was so forceful and direct and loud,” Samson told Maclean’s a few hours before his Hamburg concert, which took place—with no small irony—in a club nestled in a reconverted World War II bunker.
In 1993, Propagandhi was invited to open NoFX’s European tour. That same year, the band’s first album, How To Clean Everything, made its ways to the ears of a young musician from Hamburg, Marcus Wiebusch, who was then leading a punk group of his own, …But Alive. Wiebusch, today 43 and front man of the German indie pop band Kettcar, describes the album as hitting his “whole circle of friends and [him] like a bomb.” Through his now-defunct label, B.A. Records., Wiebusch arranged the booking for Propagandhi’s 1996 European tour. Propagandhi’s home label, the G7 Welcoming Committee, returned the favour in kind the following year by releasing …But Alive’s third album in North America.
“Those two bands had a real affinity, both politically and musically,” remembers the 39-year-old Samson. “And I also felt that Marcus and I were very similar writers, in a way. He’s a very plainspoken writer, and also one that speaks both politically and emotionally about the world that he lives in.”
Samson and Wiebusch have both long since abandoned their anarcho-punk roots for softer sounds. Their friendship and musical collaboration, however, have withstood the test of time and Atlantic divide. When Samson left Propagandhi to form The Weakerthans in 1997, it was “immediately clear” in Wiebusch’s mind that B.A. Records would produce and promote the band’s first album in Europe.
It was also in the late 1990s that Samson was introduced to another musician from Hamburg, Thees Uhlmann, 38, who “became a really close friend” and was instrumental in arranging for The Weakerthans to open for the acclaimed German rock band Tocotronic in 1999. It was an experience Samson now sees as a turning point for the Winnipeg band’s exposure in Germany.
Wiebusch and Uhlmann would later cofound Hamburg’s Grand Hotel van Cleef record label, which not only released Samson’s first full-length solo album in Europe, Provincial, but also brought out his two solo 7-inch vinyl EPs, Provincial Road 222 and City Route 85, before they were made available in North America. “I wanted to have an excuse, frankly, to hang out with Marcus and Thees and to come over here more often,” explains Samson. “That’s why I asked them if they would do it.”
Through unremitting support and promotion, Wiebusch and Uhlmann have been key to Samson and the Weakerthans’ staying power in Germany. At times, their help has been as hands-on as taking the wheel of the band’s truck on the road. But the friendship that binds Samson to the pair is also one cemented by a mutual admiration for the other’s musical craftsmanship.
“An artist always abides by five, six, seven golden rules: one of mine is that I strive to write as well in German as John K. Samson does in English,” says Uhlmann in a recent 15-minute video collage put online by Grand Hotel van Cleef, in which 10 German-speaking artists – with styles ranging from rap to punk – wax lyrical about the man the Hamburger Morgenpost coins the “Indie hero from Winnipeg.”
The German edition of Rolling Stone magazine considers that under the wing of Grand Hotel van Cleef, Samson “could not have chosen a better label – and that he can surely rely on the full support of his circle of fans.”
From Wiesbaden to Berlin, their support was palpable throughout the different stops of his European tour, which – with the exception of two dates in Vienna and Zurich – was in essence a German one.
“The Weakerthans are my favourite band, bar none,” says Anna Riedel, 27, putting her hand on her heart. The university student from Hamburg quotes Weakerthans lyrics with the rapid-fire ease of someone reciting her telephone number. She has already seen Samson eight times live, and has followed him to two different stops of the Provincial tour. “I always find myself coming back.”
The (old) Brunswick native, Christian Kruschel, was given tickets to the show as a 28th birthday present from his girlfriend and drove 200 kilometres, jetlagged, to see Samson on stage. Kruschel, who says he “will follow his career to the end,” is especially drawn to the singer’s wistful voice and the way “emotions shine through his music and lyrics.”
“I find that German audiences are, ironically, more attentive to lyrics than some English-speaking audiences,” says Samson. “Their English is generally very strong, but they still do have a translation ‛gap’ where they have to process. I find them a really enjoyable, expressive crowd to play for. I’ve always been really moved by how welcome I’ve been here.”
On the far wall of Christof Jessen’s record shop, there hangs a faded Weakerthans poster, signed in black felt marker. It reads: You are kind. Nov. 2000. XO. JKS. Twelve years later, Samson still feels that same kindness whenever he comes to Germany.
By Elio Iannacci - Monday, June 4, 2012 at 4:40 PM - 0 Comments
The rocker addresses the ghosts of Amy Winehouse and Maria Schneider on ‘Banga’
When it comes to writing about loss, few are as well versed as Patti Smith. After funerals for close friends such as poet Allen Ginsberg, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her beloved husband and collaborator Fred “Sonic” Smith, the Chicago-born singer-artist-poet-author has spent a great deal of her career sorting through ghosts and memories. Many of her finest works address a catalogue of legends that Smith has immortalized, from Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison to Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag. For her latest disc, Banga, Smith includes a tribute to Amy Winehouse’s life in This is the Girl.
“I didn’t really question my own motives and I didn’t think anyone would find offence to it,” Smith says in a recent interview from her home in New York City. The lyrics describe the late British soul singer as someone “who yearned to be heard.” The song is not a cautionary tale. “It was done really lovingly. As soon as I heard about when she died, I sat down and wrote her a little poem and my bass player wrote a piece of music that resonated the poem. It is a song I wish we never had to write.”
Often called the godmother of punk, Smith, who celebrates her 66th birthday in December, recalls composing a poem that lamented the 1970 death of Janis Joplin, another talented singer who died of a drug overdose at the age of 27.
“[Although] they were entirely different types of singers and people, Janis and Amy both had 100 per cent authenticity through and through,” she says. “Their [vocal] deliveries set them apart from anyone else. Amy really had a masterful grasp on R & B, jazz and the doo-wop style of song, and Janis had a rich blues vocabulary. They were so gifted.”
Hard-core Smith fans were hoping she would record another eulogy on Banga, a song about Jackie Kennedy called She Walked Home that Smith and her husband wrote before his death in 1994.
“I’m not ready to sing it yet,” Smith says with a forlorn tone in her voice. “That song makes me quite sad because it was the last one that my husband, Fred, and I worked on together.” It came from reading a few lines in a newspaper that mentioned Jackie was seen walking alone—without bodyguards—through Central Park, after finding out that she was dying of cancer. “She had been to the doctor and he gave her bad news and she just wanted to be by herself. I imagine her walking through the park—which she loved—thinking about life and the fact that hers was ending.”
Although Banga does include another tribute to a dead artist (Maria is about Last Tango in Paris actress Maria Schneider, who died of cancer last year), Smith was adamant that the album was mostly about living. She recorded Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter), the album’s title track and a cover of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, with daughter Jesse on piano and son Jackson on guitar. Banga’s title track, named after Pontius Pilate’s loyal dog in the novel The Master and Margarita, also features Johnny Depp on guitar and drums, who Smith said is good enough to quit acting and join her band. Smith also wrote the ballad Nine as a 49th birthday gift to the actor. “I think at heart he is a musician,” she says. “I’ve never really seen him without a guitar. He keeps two or three guitars with him most of the time—sometimes on a long drive, he’ll have one in the car. That is how devoted to music he is. He writes as well, but he is very private about his writing so I can’t talk about his songs.”
Smith is not averse to talking about her dream candidate for the U.S. presidency. Although she has been known to write songs, essays and poems about politics, Smith has yet to put pen to paper when it comes to America’s current leader.
“I don’t have a grasp on Obama well enough to write a song about him,” she explains. “I voted for him and I’m certain that I’ll vote for him again—he is the better man. I’m still learning about him as a human being.” The crucial issue is the environment. “It should be the No. 1 issue on any table. I would vote for a pro-environmental president first, if we had one.”
Find excerpts from Elio’s interview with the musician right here.
By Elio Iannacci - Monday, June 4, 2012 at 4:37 PM - 0 Comments
On her new album, Jean Luc Goddard, and an unrecorded song about Jackie Kennedy
Read our print story on the ‘godmother of punk’ and her new album Banga here.
Q: Banga includes a track called Amerigo, which speaks to your incredible voyage while filming a part of Jean Luc Godard’s new film with him. Which film first got you interested in Jean Luc Goddard’s work and why?
A: I’ve loved Goddard for as long as I can remember. I really loved the films he made with [model/actor] Anna Karina. And I love Pierrot le Fou. They had an aspect of poetry that could not be copied. The structure of the films were revolutionary but they had a sense of romance to them. Visually, they were beautiful, they were intelligent.
Q: What lessons, if any, did you learn about art from being around him?
A: What I learned is he is his own man. He has his own vision and doesn’t entirely include you in it. The little part that I worked on in the film—called Socialism—was merely a performance piece but I was honored to be in his presence. He knows what he’s doing and he knows what he wants.
Q: Tell me about the moments on Banga when you felt your son and daughter brought something to the table that you were surprised with.
A:I wasn’t surprised by anything in those songs. Our performance together in those tracks is very much what we do; read each others minds when it comes to music. I was floored by the work on Tarkovsky because the level of sophistication that both of them conveyed in the song was really inspiring and I was really proud of that.
Q: How do you feel they are both developing as artists?
A: They are very hard workers, they are diverse and intelligent and capable. But most importantly, they are curious. Their vocabulary is rich but as a parent I don’t sit and judge and gage my son and daughter. I think my job is to be supportive, so I don’t like speaking for them.
Q: You once were quoted as saying you felt like “equal parts Balenciaga and Brando”. What is it about those two extremes that you feel connected to?
A:I said that when I was quite young—40 years ago. It was really the masculine-feminine mix that always intrigued me. The blend of the sexes. Early Balenciaga work, to me, was the epitome of couture, the art of a woman. It was a style I was so taken with when I was young. Brando is a man’s man so I was naturally drawn to him. He seemed to connect with my flippant nature.
Q: You and Robert Mapplethorpe have created some of the most recognizable androgynous images ever made. Is there power in employing androgyny?
A: As an artist you have to have a foot in both genders or none. To be preoccupied with gender in your work is probably going to limit you.
Q: You once said you don’t see yourself as a female artist.
A: I don’t. I try not to think about male or female tastes at all. If gender does come in to play when I do my work, it does so organically. I’m obviously a woman but I do not feel wed to my female gender.
Q: You once wrote a song called She Walked Home about the loss of Jackie Kennedy that fans were hoping you would include on Banga. Will you ever record it?
A: I think eventually I will, but it is such a personal song. It came about from reading a few lines in a newspaper where it mentioned that Jackie was seen walking alone—without bodyguards—through Central Park. She had been to the doctor and he gave her bad news and she just wanted to be by herself. I imagine walking through the park—which she loved—thinking about life and the fact that hers was ending. I’d rather do it on a record that isn’t a rock and roll project like Banga—one that doesn’t include a band.
Q: You’ve written songs and poems about John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and George Bush. Have you ever written anything about President Obama?
A: No. I don’t have a grasp on Obama well enough to write a song about him. I voted for him and I’m certain that I’ll vote for him again but I’m still learning about him as a human being. For now, Obama is the better man so I’ll vote for him for that reason.
Q: Has the President’s recent support for same-sex marriage helped you see him in a different light?
A: Same-sex marriage is not really a big enough issue for me to vote for someone. I think it’s important—and I’m glad that he is supporting it as this shouldn’t even be an issue. Nobody can govern who people are allowed to love.