“Fire all the hired guns –
I know I’m not the only one.”
By Steve Kado
My friends and I were driving from Los Angeles to Tijuana to go to an art opening. Everyone in the car was involved in art to different degrees. One of our number was actually in the show we were going down to see. Three were from Australia and New Zealand; I was/am from Toronto. In San Diego we picked up Scott, a genuine American, who was in town visiting his mom – normally he lives in the desert where he builds his own house and designs books. At the same time, that weekend, there was a massive manhunt on for Christopher Dorner, the disgruntled victim of discrimination and racism within the LAPD who had had enough and gone on a cop-killing shooting spree. Confusingly, he did not exclusively kill cops, but also family members of cops.
Being that everyone in the car was from the arts, news-awareness was not always a strong point. Also, some people were travelling in America, not residents or even one-time-residents, and we all know how hard it is to keep up with the news when you’re on vacation. Unable, somehow, to bear listening to any news on the radio, we heard no broadcasts or music and tried to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. Earlier I had read that manifesto Dorner wrote. I would say that it was very easy to be sympathetic to him until he got to the killing part, and especially when he broadened the killing part to include family members of cops.
We were fuzzy on the excesses of the LAPD reaction. We had all heard something to the effect that they had shot up several (one? two? three?) different trucks, all because they feared Dorner was inside. In every case they had been wrong – Dorner was not in either of the vehicles they did in fact shoot at, neither vehicle was the make, model or colour of Dorner’s, and in one case the occupants were not even the right gender or number, being instead two Latina women doing a paper route. The asymmetrical and seemingly random armed response by the police force towards “trucks” as a category did, regrettably, seem to support aspects of Dorner’s manifesto.
Reflecting on it all now, one must also say that the silence about what happened to the police officers who reacted so excessively towards widely varying vehicles and people (at least in the news I’m getting) leads one to believe that perhaps nothing has really changed since the Rodney King and Rampart division scandals that Dorner mentions in his screed.
The mantra-like repetition of the phrase “cop killer” by others in conversation, before the car trip and during, led to the first attempt to hear music – Amy put John Maus’ Cop Killer on her phone. Playing out of the tinny speakers, all we could hear over road noise was the incessant repetition of the phrase “cop killer.” Scott put on the Body Count song of the same title but somehow it didn’t stick, despite arguably being more relevant to the specific situation and police force in question. All that night and the next day we would gloomily intone, a la John Maus, those two words.
After the opening we went to a very democratic dancing area. All types, ages and sizes were out there, giving it to the parquet flooring. We got very drunk. Then, around 2 am, a group of men with camouflage balaclavas, assault rifles and (perversely) GoPro cameras strapped to their heads trooped in. Taking one look at our half-antipodean gang the armed men (who seemed to be police) decided that we were of no consequence to them. They proceeded to ignore us while many of the other patrons in the bar were spread out against the walls, searched, forced to empty their pockets and line everything they owned up in neat lines on the ground and other such things. Finding nothing of interest, the armed men left, the music came on again a bit louder than before and things continued as if nothing had happened.
Back in LA, days later, Travis and I are walking from the Gold Line up to his house on a hill in Lincoln Heights. Every yard on the street he lives on is fenced in and contains between 2-4 dogs. These dogs are never walked, vary widely in size and do nothing but run in their yards and bark. The first day I arrived and woke up at Travis’, the first living animal I saw was the chihuahua across the street vigorously humping the terrier across the street. Choral waves of barking follow the passage of anything human or mechanical up or down the street. Acoustically, it is close, for me, to hell. Tonight, however, the dogs are quiet. “Cop killer,” we confide to each other, awed by the night’s silence. Almost immediately, a slow moving police car cruises by, checking us out with its search light. Neither of us match the profile of Christopher Dorner: Travis is a six-foot-something white beanpole and I am a less tall half-Asian person wearing a large backpack with huge glasses. Neither of us is an ex-reservist, neither of us seems interested in killing cops. The cops drive off but then circle back a minute later, just to make sure that we haven’t somehow merged Voltron-style into a cop-killing ex-reservist.
Later that week, the entire saga came to an end. Dorner was killed in a fire started by incendiary smoke grenades lobbed into the mountain cabin that he was hiding out in. He shot at and killed some more police before the fire got him. This was, more or less, how we all expected this to end. Watching CNN’s coverage of the minute details of one of Dorner’s police victims’ funerals in a Vietnamese restaurant, Travis and I try and make sense of a military ritual where a horse is led around with a pair of boots lodged backwards in the stirrups. It looks like someone had been riding a horse backwards and then vanished, leaving their boots behind. Neither of us can hear the CNN anchors explaining this over the din of noodles and slurping that fill the air. Everything from the emergence of a disgruntled ex-cop on a killing spree to the excessive reaction of the police once threatened and the inevitable Waco-like showdown felt grimly pre-recorded. But no one told us about the boot-thing that would happen at the end.
by Carl Wilson
For un-b2tw reasons last week I was looking for Captain Beefheart’s appearances on David Letterman in the early ’80s but then wondered if I could dig up this even rarer clip. Via a misleading for-devotees-only pitch-dark live clip, I landed here. Shhh. Both from Doc at the Radar Station, which unfashionably might be my favourite Beefheart record, no doubt just because it’s got the new/no-wave-vertical-horizontal-flip-nervy-shakes that are my personal national rhythm. And maybe a lyrical economy compared to what he was doing in the previous decade.
For those who don’t know Capt. Beefheart, maybe it just sounds perfectly banal by now, and not like something illegal is happening on your TV.
by Carl Wilson
Ever since I talked about her in my best-of list last week, Aimee Mann references have seemed to turn up everywhere, by my skewed definition of “everywhere”: She was on WTF with Marc Maron telling a seriously fucked-up story about her childhood, and she had a song last weekend on Girls. Then today a friend posted on Facebook, “When I die, I will probably come back as a lesser Aimee Mann album.” I went to look at a list of Aimee Mann albums to figure out which would be the lesser ones, and it included something called Bark Along with the Young Snakes from 1982. This turns out to be an EP put out by Mann’s pre-Til Tuesday band, a kind of experimental post-punk trio that built up a small Boston following, then quit in frustration. And next I found this song. (There are more if you look.) Happy Aimee Mann Week.
As part of Toronto music series Wavelength’s THIRTEEN festival, songwriters Andre Ethier and Laura Barrett performed at Soundscapes on Saturday, with me doing interviews with each of them in front of the audience in between sets. It was beginning to blizzard outside. All the songs Andre played were new. They were all written in open D (he noticed this toward the end with a little blush). None of them have bridges, because Andre’s done a lot of deep exploring in the English traditional “Child ballads” in recent years and noticed none of them had bridges. He concluded songs don’t need them. (As I said in our talk, no one tell Franklin Bruno, who’s writing a book about bridges, and writes great ones himself.)
I found Andre’s new songs even more singular than his older work – pretty and stubbornly withholding, so funny and so clear. I particularly adored this tune, a Child ballad in a more literal sense, in which he projects his currently four-year-old son into the future and across an ocean, and writes him a beseeching and beguiling parental love letter … with just a faint homoerotic undertone, like a lemon twist.
PS: This recording was made and shared with me very generously by Joe Strutt, of Toronto’s wonderful live-music-archiving blog, Mechanical Forest Sound.
PPS: Andre tells me, “I’m thinking of rewriting the lyrics of that song but keeping the title, so you may have an exclusive on your hands,” but adds, “I like the idea of the first draft being out there.”
Sure, it ain’t “Ain’t Nobody,” but it’s still Chaka Khan. New single, dropping soon, performed at benefit for the United Negro College Fund.
by Carl Wilson
I had a hell of a time deciding what of Veda Hille‘s to share with you today. Though she hails (and rains and sleets and mists) from Vancouver, Veda is in Toronto right now, because she’s about to open a new version of her (and Bill Richardson’s) musical, Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, at the Factory Theatre. She’s also, though this is a highly contested title, probably the least-known of the very best songwriters in North America. You won’t guess that from this one song, though it will help if you listen to it more than once. But it does show off the quizzical sideways leaps of her mind and the wonder-laden shelves of her musical imaginarium. This is from her last studio album, This Riot Life, which mobilizes a lot of fragments of religious language, though it’s not religious, to talk about other matters – the proximity of death to life in the region it’s working, for instance.
It’s only as these songs and their strategies gradually assemble, into a body or constellation or archipelago, that you start to sense their range of silliness and scariness, and get accustomed to their peculiar volatility and spirality, their literally geological wisdom, and feel them becoming indispensable.
So if you’re in Toronto this month, go see Do You Want What I Have Got, and come to see Veda at the Music Gallery on Feb 25. The rest of you maybe go do a little more exploring.
by Carl Wilson
Bob Wiseman, Tracy Wright & Sky Gilbert.
Bob Wiseman’s new album, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, sets a series of challenges like crossword-puzzle clues. Each title is syntactically structured “[Subject] at [Location/Activity],” almost as if in an index. Together they ask: What difference does it make whether we get exactly what a song is about?
The subjects can be anything from cultural or political figures to personal friends: Neil Young at the Junos, The Reform Party at Burning Man, Aristide at the Press Conference, or Portrait of Phil at Various Times in a Closet. The one cover song both fits and breaks the mold, Sam Larkin’s Children at Play. (Here’s the original on Rdio.)
And one title plays on the fact that this is also the syntax of email: firstname.lastname@example.org, the address of the Toronto actor Tracy Wright (previously discussed here), who broke many of our hearts when she died at age 50 in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.
The song tells the story of a time in the 1980s* when Wiseman agreed to act in a play Wright wrote “that made no sense” because he figured no one “in their right mind” would put it on, but then theatre artist Sky Gilbert signed on to produce it in his Rhubarb experimental-theatre festival. As a result, Wiseman sings, “I always knew that I had nothing in common with Sky Gilbert.” The line is repeated over and over, anthemically, in harmony.
Hearing it first at last week’s launch concert at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, it started annoying me: Who outside a small Toronto arts circle gives a shit how Bob Wiseman feels about Sky Gilbert? Why write a song picking on Gilbert anyway?
Then the lyrics cross-cut to Wright’s memorial, when Gilbert got up and said just what Wiseman was feeling and thinking about her, and moved him to tears. It turned out the two had something in common after all: “the love of you.” And I came close to tears myself.
I wondered whether other people, who hadn’t known Wright or who Gilbert is, would be so touched. Would they even keep listening up to the final twist? It made me ask, too, if the electricity of the launch, where many members of the local music community were renewing frayed connections, would come across to an outsider, and whether that mattered.
These are questions Wiseman’s album prods: the effects of reference, and specificity versus so-called universality.
The particularity of Wiseman’s subjects is part of his modus operandi as an artist engagé, a creative activist: the naming of names, the preservation of place, the marking of dates and times. Early in his solo career, he wrote songs that gave a blow-by-blow account of the Union Carbide disaster (live, starts about 0:55) or implicated the president of Pepsi Cola by name in the assassination of Salvador Allende. (A move that infamously got the first thousand copies of his first major-label album destroyed.) You could describe it as a Brechtian gesture of counter-propaganda, or as keeping shit real.
But it’s never solely political. It’s in Wiseman’s voice, a harmonica-like needling without a hint of false gravitas. It’s in the way he’ll often interrupt a catchy melody with a dissonant solo or silly backup vocal, recklessly undermining what might have been some kind of “hit.” It’s in the cranky energy and nearly painful innocence of his writing, which attest that these aren’t positions struck but art made by following the tracks of his preoccupations.
He sounds like a regular person who’s ruefully aware that his complaints can’t reroute the flows of power, but can at least take satisfaction in sharing and laughing or weeping over them. If some personal situations won’t be transparent, perhaps listeners will connect anyway with having relationships and experiences that are exactly that, obscure and opaque in the supposed big picture of news and celebrity. Just like our own. And no less crucial to us for being so.
I do have affection for certain email addresses. Maybe your loved ones’ familiar @’s also set off a warm and quiet hum.
Purposefully or not, the variations Giulietta Masina plays on the “X at Y” formula work through a range of possibilities about how we’ll relate to the subject of a song. Neil Young at the Junos, for instance, treats a figure Wiseman can rely on his audience feeling like it knows well, then tries to say something unexpected – neither hagiographic nor cheaply skeptical – about him.
The title track unfolds most like a riddle: When Wiseman started playing it at the launch, my friend and I said to each other, “Do you have any idea who that is?” Then partway through I said, “For some reason I’m thinking about Fellini.” And just as I was looking her up on my phone, Wiseman sang the final words, “8½.” Giulietta Masina was Fellini’s actress spouse.
I only later discovered that Ruby Bates at Grad School, one of my favourites, is about a woman who’d been an accuser in the racist 1930s Scottsboro Boys rape case, but later recanted her story and was vilified for it. I haven’t identified the second woman, more contemporary, described as dying in an ambulance in the last verse, and am glad I haven’t.
I knew right off who the protagonist of Robert Dziekanski at the Airport was – the Polish immigrant the RCMP mistakenly tased & killed at the Vancouver airport in 2007, and then whitewashed. A straight protest song, a bit obvious. Then I read a college student’s review of the album who was startled to find out or be reminded of this event six long-to-him years ago.
Finally there’s this guy Phil in the closet, along with someone named Rob Noyes who apparently dies, and “the campers of B.B. you’ve heard so much about.” No clue. But I’m stirred by its final plaintive lines about wanting to repay Phil, “it’s awful,” for “being there at the airport or hospital.” Would listening to the song about Tracy feel like this to others, like an emotional mystery?
My misgiving about Wiseman’s songwriting is that he often is too literal for my tastes, even if I see why. This album, more than any since his now-storied debut In Her Dream, when he pretended to be singing songs by someone named “Wrench Tuttle,” unsettles that directness fruitfully.
In his new book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, the psychoanalyst and critic Adam Phillips has a chapter called “On Not Getting It.” He investigates how our drive to get the point, to nail down the meaning of a joke or a poem, to understand ourselves, to truly “know” other people (especially our lovers, our families), may become an evasion of other ways of existing and of allowing others to exist with and apart from us.
In Bob Wiseman’s more literal songs he gets at things worth knowing for certain and stating clearly, most often how an injustice has been perpetrated or excused. But there are things worth being clueless about, worth never knowing – such as not knowing what we do and don’t have in common, so we can be surprised when perhaps we need to be. Such as not knowing how to repay certain debts when all that really can be done is to acknowledge them.
Music has an unusual capacity to say a lot without knowing everything or even much at all. We can “get” a song’s texture and its atmosphere without wanting to “get” all its content. We can hear it many times and only “get” something like “blah blah blah Gilbert, blah blah blah Gilbert … the love of you,” and yet treasure the song.
Phillips quotes the notoriously elusive poet John Ashbery as saying that he writes as he does because if all you do is tell people things, they stop listening. But if they only overhear, they will be curious. On this album Bob Wiseman has things he wants to tell, but also lets us eavesdrop on him talking to himself or to others, about things we might not know or even need to know. The sites from which he sings can be nearby or at a distance, his phrases sharp or indistinct.
By ranging this way, by not always demanding we understand him, he implies that it is okay if we, his listeners, aren’t utterly knowable too. By extension the people he sings about, at his best, cannot be captured and summed up, not reduced only to political subjects but allowed to be humans like the one who is singing about them.
At the least, a cop and an immigrant, Neil Young and Jean Bertrand Aristide, the Oscars and the airport, the halls of parliament and an ambulance all are, and acknowledging that may be to admit they share something unnameably more than everything that isn’t** – including so-called universals such as patriotism, duty, righteousness.
In this sense, being specific, if you are specific about a great many things, might be a different program than we at first thought: less like itemizing a legal brief, and more like giving up on coercion.
* This section originally said Wiseman and Wright were dating at the time; Wiseman writes to tell me I misread his use of the word “girlfriend” – they were just friends.
** The basic idea about things that exist having existence in common is someone else’s that I heard, read or was told about recently. I don’t remember the source. My elaboration on it is my own (mis)interpretation.