Tag Archives: memory

Scud Mountain Boys at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, Sat. Feb. 25, 2012

by Carl Wilson

Memory, as everybody knows, is an odd, perverse thing. When I first saw the reunited Scud Mountain Boys’ stage setup at Lee’s Palace last weekend, I said, “Oh, that’s funny, it’s just like the photo on the back of one of their albums where they’re sitting in somebody’s apartment around a kitchen table, playing and drinking.” Then I came across the above 1990s-era photo online, clearly not a candid home snapshot but one that includes microphones and at least a bar booth if not an actual stage. Was this the album shot, or a publicity picture I got with the Sub Pop CD reissue of their first two albums, when I worked at an alt-weekly in Montreal in the mid-90s, which is how I first heard of the band? Or another picture altogether? I wanted to dig out my copy of the CD to check, but almost all my CDs are walled in with a bunch of boxes in a nook off my kitchen and retrieving it would be basically a home-renovation project.

What a more exhausting and error-fraught sort of excavation it must be to dig up three people with whom you were once intimate, but haven’t spoken to in 14 years, and propose that you do the thing you used to do together, before you stopped talking. But now-Toronto-based songwriter Joe Pernice (better known for his subsequent and current band, the Pernice Brothers) did that after a close mutual friend of the group’s unexpectedly died. The deceased had been a fan and the idea was to honour his memory. Not right after, though. As Pernice explained on stage, it took him a year to make the phone calls. But whatever he was afraid of happening didn’t happen, maybe because “nobody really remembers what caused all the shit any more.”

What I hadn’t known was that the kitchen-table-on-stage was a standard live Scuds motif in their initial run, around the Boston area, not a cute reunion gimmick. You could argue that now it has become a cute reunion gimmick. I think it is more apt to say that it is a technique, one of those stage-magic tricks you discover and maintain because it works, makes the show the way you need it to be. Now I find it virtually impossible to picture them standing in standard band configuration, rather than drinking beers off the table (Americans visiting Toronto always love Keiths), bending over in the uncomfortably expressive angles around their instruments that people do in a home song-swap session (not a “jam,” as Pernice admonished), mumbling in each other’s ears, telling tales between tunes.

But this was not folksy-homey coffeehouse shtick. Pernice’s songs are too infused with rue for that, as much as classical pop craftsmanship ever has been, lying (their pretty white asses off) where the mouths of the George Jones, Jimmy Webb, Alex Chilton and Joe Strummer rivers meet. His persona now is laid back and salty-charming, but the songs make it easy to picture it when his back-in-the-day yarns tend to include heavy doses of anti-anxiety meds. Then you’re tempted to imagine “all the shit” wasn’t so much the bass player, the mandolinist/drummer or the lead guitarist’s faults – but maybe that’s just because they weren’t talking as much on stage. Second-guessing other people’s memories is an even less reliable thing.

Indeed, I wondered what the person in question would have had to say about the story Pernice told about writing one of his best-loved songs: A girlfriend at the time, he said, kept going on about what a romantic song “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms was, and he exasperatedly responded that the guy in the song was just trying to get laid. To prove his point he wrote a seductive, early-70s-style, gorgeously hazy tune in which a guy tries to wheedle his way back into a girl’s bed (“I would give anything to make it with you, one more time/ I would give everything I own”), which builds up to chillingly menacing insinuations. He titled it, “Grudge Fuck.”

The crowd was full of pushing-middle-aged folks, no doubt with their own recollections to husband. There wasn’t a lot of dancing or swaying, as if everybody were still following the cool-rules of 1997, when they went to more shows, when audiences stood or sat nodding with their arms crossed whenever not moshing. But when they did express emotion, it was with surprisingly rowdy outbursts, of varying appropriateness: Why did people scream every time Boston was mentioned? Was the room really full of Mass. expats or were they just trying to bonafide their in-the-knowdom? Even on a Saturday in a bar, do you shout every time a song mentions drinking and drugging, when those are the things clearly killing the protagonists? Jeez, it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day.

Unfair. But the intimacy made it tempting to rubberneck into people’s minds. Pernice suddenly did a double take at a woman holding up a homemade shirt in the front row: “Is that you?” He explained that she’d shown him the same shirt at a show in another town 15 years ago – when her parents brought her, and she was, “like, 13. … Wait, I don’t like the way that sounds.” The dysfunctional-neighbourhood feel was cemented when Sadies (and former Pernice Bros) drummer Mike Belitsky cracked the singer up so much from the back of the room with a text message (his iPhone was on the table, to watch the time) that Pernice had to take a few minutes’ break after corpsing on his first couple of tries at the Scuds’ somberly beautiful cover of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” He had to think of “nuns beating me” and other dark childhood images to regain composure.

After all, I’m not the boss of anybody else’s nostalgia. (Though I’m tempted to call Pernice on leaving out that he didn’t just “work in a bakery” when the band started, but was doing an MFA in creative writing.**) Hell, I’m not even the boss of mine. I was grateful finally to see a band that never played near me in their original lifespan. And to see them enjoying each other’s company. Even though there’s a part of me that selfishly hopes this slight return will be the sum of it. That even wishes they’d remained, as the slogan of Lubbock, Texas’s The Flatlanders had it, “More a Legend than a Band.” (Yet even they later reunited for a string of shows and new records.) That sympathizes with Darren Hayman’s title, “We Love the Bands that Don’t Re-form.”

It’s an adult pleasure to have memories that stay memories, memories you can’t recover, even ones you never got to attain in the first place. Perhaps we just confuse reality with rarity, essence with inaccessibility. We think there’s only so much room around a kitchen table. Or, whether superstitiously or maybe with real folk wisdom, we long for minor rites of sacrifice, destruction, some kind of preview of death and loss to gird us for the real thing, even fantasizing it can homeopathically prevent the real thing: “I’m going to burn the silo when you go,” a farmer whose wife is on the way out sings in one sterling Scuds song. “You’ll see the flames, and maybe know.”

We’re damn fools, the thing is. Can’t we be allowed sometimes to forget that? The sugar-lick torture of the Scud Mountain Boys was to remind us and make us like it.

 

** Joe informs me that there was a significant time lag between the bakery and the grad-school period – sorry for presuming on my own in-the-knowness!

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Tea With Chris: Pokélicious

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: My tea this week is of the chocolate-in-your-peanut-butter variety, though hopefully more appetizing than that sounds. First up, male K-pop idols with Paris is Burning swag, performing their female counterparts’ moves on Korean TV. (Did you know that Paris is Burning is on Vimeo?)

Someone got their allusion to The Wire in a Nickelodeon kids’ show:

And someone else got Pikachu all dolled up in Beyonce drag:

Carl: Is there a tea ritual for mourning? I have two people in mind today, parental figures in different ways. First, there is Elwy Yost, a celebrity I suppose only in Ontario, as the host of several movie-presenting and interview programs on TVO that I and many of my peers grew up with. The very definition of avuncular, Yost was broadly knowledgeable about popular cinema without a scrap of film-snobbery, not even the geeky kind. He was the great popularizer. Most of all I feel indebted to him for Magic Shadows, the weeknightly program on which he’d show movies a half-hour at a time over the course of a week – plus, one night, a chapter of a vintage film serial, the kind you would have seen before the feature in the 1940s and ’50s. The grounding in pop-culture history that provided, especially the way that he made black-and-white and silent films seem as exciting as new ones, affected my cinematic and other cultural tastes for good. It’s hard not to believe that Yost was a part of the root system of Toronto’s passionate, engaged and diverse movie culture, which extends to realms much beyond his own middlebrow tastes. He got to live out his own dreams while devoting his energies to his audience’s service. A beautifully balanced life.

The other farewell is more personal, to the mother of Toronto artist and performer Becky Johnson, Vancouver’s Anne Garber, who died recently at the sadly early age of 64. I got to know Anne when Becky asked me to give a talk about her as part of a special Trampoline Hall show she curated; I chatted on the phone with her for hours, during which she was warm and expansive and open about difficult subjects, including her divorce and other relationships, parenting, self-image and her compulsive shopping-and-hoarding issues, which were an ongoing struggle (though she also turned them to positive ends as a consumer journalist). She had the kind of enormous personality within whose embrace nearly everyone feels at home, and to hear about her death made me feel precisely as if a light had gone out or one of the engines that turns the world had run out of fuel. Deep sympathies to her friends and family.

Speaking both of film and of family, this week I saw the documentary Blank City in its limited Toronto run. It’s a crackling look at the Manhattan independent and Super-8 film scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, closely bound up with the music and art scenes, the No Wave and Cinema of Transgression etc. But beyond the importance of those movements to the independent film and video that would follow, it’s also just an incredibly evocative portrait of a pack of nervy kids in a desperately poor, dangerous environment (the images of the Lower East Side in the late 1970s are incredible), going for broke and fighting, fucking and filming their way to some kind of grasp at enlightenment and change. It makes you jealous, even though so many of its stories end terribly. And it really makes you want to make art. See it if you can.

In a similar spirit of go-for-broke urban-wilderness and noisemaking, but without the heroin, I am excited this weekend to go see the five new bands that have come out of the first-ever Girls Rock Camp Toronto (at the Tranzac on Saturday at 3 pm), and to play find-that-concert-venue in Wavelength Toronto’s “musical treasure hunt,” Band on the Run. And for a more Canadian spin on underground-scene history, there’s a panel discussion at the Soundscapes record store on College at 4 o’clock Saturday about the new edition of Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance 1985-1995, featuring co-authors Michael Barclay and Ian Jack, in conversation with Don Pyle (ex-Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Phono-Comb, King Cob Steelie), Allison Outhit (ex-Rebecca West, now VP at Factor) and Julie Doiron (ex-Eric’s Trip, now Julie Doiron!).

Remember mashups? This is one of the most uncannily seamless ones I’ve ever heard, based on two fantastic songs:

And this one unites two far-apart genres to compelling effect.

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Pine Point: An Interactive Documentary by Mike Simons

by Carl Wilson

The furthest north I’ve ever been was in Grade 10, when I played second trumpet in the high-school band and we went on an exchange to Pine Point in the Northwest Territories. The dominant feeling of the trip was the sheer anxious thrill of being so far from home, billeted with a strange family, and playing concerts to audiences full of strangers. The kids in Pine Point were really fun and kind. But the other notable thing was that their town seemed kind of fucked up.

This wasn’t a secret: It was a mining town, and the mine was closing down; there was a big sign that we saw every time our bus drove out of the city limits to go play Hay River or some other neighbouring community, which read, “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING PINE POINT PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS?” I’ve always remembered that, as an unusually robust instance of gallows humour – in a town down south, the city and the cops would never have left the sign standing. Since then, people from other resource- or industry-dependent towns that dwindled have told me that someone there pulled the same prank.

But it wasn’t just that the town was in decline. It was also that some of the young teenagers in the band at the Pine Point school had their own apartments, where they lived on their own. After band practice we would go over there and party, and they had a lot more booze and drugs around than at the parties I went to back home. They threw around a lot of dirty language within earshot of their teachers and didn’t get hassled for it. All of this was pretty shocking to us, the Catholic high-school band that played adulterated versions of Handel and such (because “high-school band” actually is a genre of music that doesn’t quite correspond to anything people really listen to). It wasn’t just gallows humour here, but a kind of gallows culture.

We’d thought the town we came from, Brantford, was fucked up. And it was: It had been an industrial centre, home to one of North America’s biggest farm-equipment manufacturing plants, where half the town had worked. And when I was a kid, Massey-Ferguson shut down, plunging the city into a spiral of unemployment and underfunding that it didn’t really claw its way back from until well after I’d left town. Our downtown was a ghost town, battered by a series of unsuccessful renewal schemes, to the point that even now it’s a popular location to shoot horror movies. And I’m sure some of the kids who dropped out of school in Brantford ended up fending for themselves in shitty apartments, too (in fact I know a couple who did). But it wasn’t a fact easily taken for granted, whereas up here it seemed to be.

I just got a quick and confounded glimpse of what was going on in Pine Point, but it was enough to slap me awake a bit, punch some holes in the roof of my sheltered existence, get a mouthful of that taste that’s the vastness of the world. But those were days before the Internet, when long-distance phone calls were still expensive, and I didn’t keep in touch with any of the kids I’d met up north. I think a couple of my bandmates did for a bit, but I don’t remember getting many reports.

So when I stumbled across this beautifully made NFB interactive documentary called Pine Point, I had to struggle to remember for a bit – “wait, isn’t that the place …?” And then, there on the third page of the documentary (I’m sure there’s more accurate technical language in which to talk about this young medium, but I don’t know it) is a sequence that leads up to that sign: “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING … “

The narrative begins with a statement by its maker, Mike Simons: “Pine Point was the first place I ever went alone. I was 9, living in Yellowknife and travelled there for a hockey tournament.” So in some ways, he’s coming from the same perspective, as someone to whom Pine Point was a vivid but fleeting youthful flash. There were differences, of course: His was a 45-minute trip, while ours must have been the better part of a day – a 90-minute bus ride to Toronto, some four hours to Edmonton, another couple of hours to Yellowknife, then a terrifyingly small, rattling plane across Great Slave Lake to Hay River and another bus to Pine Point. He came for sports as a kid, me for music as a teen. And I think he was there a few years earlier than I was.

But he went searching for that memory on the Internet, and discovered that Pine Point no longer existed – not that it had just faded into non-existence, but that it had actually been totally demolished and carted away in the year after the mine closed in 1987. But many of its former residents had banded together on the Internet and started having annual reunions.

As Simons notes, the blurriness of hometown memory takes on a particular poignancy when there is nothing left to compare with it, when that place has really become just a concept, hung precariously on the consensus among a limited group of people that it was real. My uncertainty that Pine Point was the place I visited, that’s almost like a vulnerability in the system – like Tinkerbelle, or God, or other characters in stories that will flicker out of existence if no one believes in them. I reach crucial points in the documentary and think, “Woah, the high school burned down six years before I was there? I vaguely remember hearing that – or am I just synthesizing that memory now on the spot?”

Fortunately, Simons’ thoughtful, deeply textured project takes that private tapestry of images and stories and transplants it squarely into the more secure public realm. (This week it won a Webby, which is a medium deal.) Of course, it gets there through the work of an outsider, but Simons puts in the foreground the tenuousness of memory and the difficulty of preserving let alone communicating it. And that fragility finds an echo in the wounds and tragedies that many Pine Pointers turn out to have undergone in the decades of their dispersal.

They’re the kinds of stories you’d find if you followed any random collection of people over a few decades, as Michael Apted has shown, but just as having seen his characters as children renders even their more banal adult misfortunes wrenching for the viewer, somehow the way each individual Pine Pointer’s roots extend into the fallow frozen dirt of the vanished town (with its “beauty you almost feel guilty for noticing,” as Simons puts it), makes every further deprivation they suffer feel like a greater injustice. At the same time, though, he argues, there’s also a blessing in the fact that Pine Point is gone, as it can never betray them, by changing, or even being different than they imagine it. It is theirs forever, or rather as long as there’s a them to have it.

And this is the reason you never have to have been to Pine Point to appreciate Simons’ achievement here: Really it’s about mortality. The death of the town symbolizes any death, and the way that we each will be remembered, until we’re not. It’s why the interactive nature of the project is so suitable – it gently forces you to get your hands in there, not to try to stay out of this fray of life and death.

The documentary counsels appreciation of little things like teams, tournaments, hobby groups and parties, as well as those big bits of history that unite us, because they all serve as pegs to hang our quilts of memory on (Simons remembers the day a Russian satellite crashed near Yellowknife the way the Pine Pointers remember the high-school fire and the way we’ll all remember getting the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination this week). And some day when they pack each of us up and cart us away, you want to have accumulated a nice healthy collection of those involvements large and small, so you leave people more to think about, more to recall you by, than that you seemed kind of fucked up, in that period when you were closing down.

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