Monday, July 24, 2017

Todd Serious, The Poseidon Adventure and a trail of disturbing breadcrumbs...

(The Rebel Spell at 333 for the Last Run album release, photo by me)

I never figured George Strombolopolous for being a punk rocker. 

The other night, my wife and I were driving back from an ill-fated attempt to glimpse the Northern Lights from a dark road off Belcarra when her CD player began to crap out. It doesn't like it if we use it too much - it overheats and refuses to load and then, digital display flashing, it spits the CD out. So we flipped on the radio; Jack FM was playing something crappy, so we punched the preset for the CBC. 

Strombo was playing John K. Samson, on a repeated show from, presumably, last February. 

Apparently Samson was the bassist from Propagandhi - a band I don't really follow - so after a couple of (very enjoyable) solo tracks and urgings to catch Samson on tour - a tour long since completed - Strombo put on Propagandhi's cover of the Rebel Spell's "I am a Rifle."

It was nice to hear. I remember hearing what I think might have been a debut performance of that song at Under the Volcano, maybe the third or fourth time I saw the Rebel Spell, about ten years ago. Strombo made a little speech afterwards about Todd Serious - "a true punk with a true heart," he said, I believe, quoting someone from Propagandhi. He didn't get it all right: he mis-stated that the song had been covered in honour of Todd after he died, when if memory serves, Propagandhi recorded their version of the tune while Todd was very much still with us, though it does pop up on that posthumous Rebels Sing album, as well, in Todd’s tribute. But it was pretty cool to have Todd mentioned on the CBC, even if Strombo didn't do the next obvious cool thing and follow up by playing an actual song by the Rebel Spell.

It was also fun for my wife: Erika had helped prepare a giant vegan feast for the Rebel Spell when they played Adstock in Maple Ridge, the summer before Todd died, debuting a couple of songs off Last Run (I shot video that you can find on Youtube - the "last chance to hurt yourself" footage, with Todd himself wincing a bit, having injured his back in a previous rock climbing accident). Even though she doesn't really care for punk rock in any form - she vastly prefers Bell and Watchtower's reading of "Pride and Prejudice," for instance – and even though Todd was mostly concerned that day with hanging out with Gerry Hannah, also in town, than socializing with us, Erika admitted that it was pretty cool to have someone she had met and cooked for mentioned on her car radio. It was a little less unusual for me, but was still a nice moment.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about Todd again. As we drove, I played, from my phone, Jesse Lebourdais' song "You Were a Rifle," written in Todd's honour, and obviously referencing "I am a Rifle." (I haven't really come to terms with the whole of Jesse's striking new album but it is super-flattering that Jesse took the title of the album – Grief, Intensity, Friendship - from an interview I did with him awhile back, having asked my permission to do so, for the record; I often will try, as a writer, to reference someone's songs or album titles in my own titles for pieces, but this is the first time that my title influenced the title of a record not yet released). Erika and I got to talking about all the weird intimations of mortality that crop up on Last Run and on other albums by the Rebel Spell, previously discussed in conversation with Erin and Elliott from that group during an interview with West Ender, before one of those Todd-less concerts with various guest vocalists singing Todd’s songs. There are multiple references to death and dying and the brevity of life throughout the album, and elsewhere in Todd's body of work. There's even the album cover - which shows a man dying on a mountainside - and title (Todd told me in the last interview I did with him that it was, more than anything, a reference to the likelihood that their veggie oil van was going to crap out soon but it always had seemed more significant than that...).

By far, however, the creepiest discovery came after I revisited The Poseidon Adventure, awhile ago, playing it for Erika one night.

For those who haven't seen it, The Poseidon Adventure is a 1970's disaster movie - ignore the remake! - about a group of passengers on a cruise ship who have to try to find a way to survive and escape the ship after it is capsized in a freak storm. The leader of the group - also featuring Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell and Shelley Winters - ends up being an action-oriented, dynamic young priest, Reverend Scott, as played by Gene Hackman. He’s not much the type for sitting around waiting for God to intervene, as is made the explicit subject of an early sermon he gives, before the ship even capsizes (this is not a film shy about overt declarations of its theme). “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way.”

The Rebel Spell's song "Not a Prayer" abundantly fits with this attitude. Hackman later lectures people who elect to stay where they are, praying for help and rescue, rather than trying to climb "up" and out before the ship sinks completely. “Sitting on our butts is not going to help us.... Maybe by climbing out of here, we can save ourselves. If you've got any sense, you'll come along with us.” He even gets into an argument with a colleague who elects to stay and comfort those who have decided not to try to climb out. He's pretty hostile to prayer, for a priest, but he's absolutely right that sitting and praying doesn't make a lot of sense, as the action of the film soon demonstrates: the people who elect to do it are soon drowned, while only those who try to climb up and out are eventually (for the most part) saved.

But there's a more disturbing parallel between the film and the song "Last Run." Having successfully led a small group of survivors through the bowels of the ship, to exit from a hatch near the propeller, Hackman finds that in order to open the hatch, he has to leap from a walkway and likely fall to his death, to turn a valve. He does so - but he also issues a final, angry prayer to God. I am trusting IMDB on the transcription, here:

"What more do you want of us? We've come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don't fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many more lives?"

Hackman hangs from the valve, about to fall, angrily accusing God for having taken a young girl's life just minutes before. Then - just as the valve turns, signaling rescue for everyone else, he shouts: "You want another life? Then take me!"

Then he lets go and falls to his death - just as Todd fell, on my birthday, March 7th, just over two years ago, in 2015. And that final “take me” gets a really creepy echo in the final verse of the song "Last Run": 
Blame the war on nature, blame the fear of green, blame the lazy cowards in huge machines,
Blame us all together as we poison the sea, blame the way we consume and breed and breed
or pesticides and the GMO wheat, the water you waste for the taste of meat
Blame acid rain, yes it’s still a thing, clear-cuts you can see from space
reactor leaks, open pits, massive dams and their floods of death
Blame our anthropocentric mind disease, science dragged out back and forced to its knees
Blame your own inaction while the world bleeds, blame that on the distractions of your silly scene
I know you need a sacrifice to your god of greed if it will help you can take me  blame me blame me blame me
It could, of course, be a coincidence. Todd may never have even seen The Poseidon Adventure. I would kind of prefer it if he hadn't, if this was all just some phantom in my film buff's head  I'm writing here of a guy who called me at least once, in that above-linked final interview, on overemphasizing the "distractions" of my silly film geek scene. I would much rather my head be up my ass on this one, because I don't really want to think of the implications of this: that maybe all the intimations of mortality in the Rebel Spell's lyrics, and especially on that last album, weren't actually part of some creepy supernatural coincidence, but had - sorry! - some active design behind them...?

Has anyone else ever speculated along these lines? I haven't encountered it in public, if so, and was too afraid to bring it up during the interview with Erin, Elliott, and Travis that I spoke of earlier, because I actually figure thinking this way might offend or hurt someone. During that conversation, we only got so far as to agree that the whole "cosmic coincidence" reading of events would have pissed Todd off to no end. If he had any tolerance for superstition, religion, or spirituality I never encountered it, not that I knew him that well. I tried, that last time I spoke to him at length, to tease out some possible inclinations of a mystical or spiritual streak in him and found nothing, even with songs like "I Heard You Singing" suggesting what CS Lewis would have called an encounter with the numinous.  I had actually presumed that he WAS describing, in that song, what I would comfortably call a "spiritual experience," but somewhat to my surprise, he would have none of it, seemed flatly disinterested in the angle. 

But how would Todd feel about people thinking the presumed accident that claimed his life was actually not an accident at all?

From time to time, a story starts to assemble itself in my head, proving - I'm sure Todd would glower at me here - that I have way too much free time: a story of an outwardly rationalist, action-oriented, materialist with no tolerance for mysticism at all, who nonetheless becomes convinced somehow that through sacrificing himself he can set a chain of actions in motion that will alter the world in some meaningful way, perhaps even moreso than by remaining alive. I think of Mishima, too, and Runaway Horses - which ends with a young, very pure-spirited Japanese insurgent choosing to commit hara-kiri, in the hopes that it will spur revolutionary change, than undergo the diminishments and compromises of aging. (I have even less reason to think Todd ever read Mishima). And of course, there was nothing of accident in Mishima's death...

I wonder about these things, and I look at the intimations of mortality on Last Run alone: the title of the album, sure, the cover art.

Then there’s the lyrics.

From "Hopeless:" "It hurts to be here but I can't leave/ And if I found a way to walk away, well where then what would I be? / I’d be useless to you and worse to me and I don’t get any better on self-pity/ I don’t get anything else just this bit of time..."

"Breathe" talks about drawing in a "last breath" before it's too late, talks about cheating death, and closes on the line that there's "nothing after death."

"Last Run" has the verse mentioned before, as well as another chorus inviting us to blame Todd, to take him as a sacrificial scapegoat if we need one so badly.

"Pride and Prejudice" seems mostly political, but ends on the exhortation to "scream and scream like you’re the one dying / And don’t stop screaming until your heartbeat stops."

There are a few songs, mostly on side two, that don’t fit the theme. "Grass Rat," the song Todd and Stepha co-wrote about Stepha's daughter, doesn't have that much to do with mortality, though it does have a lyric about sacrificing yourself for those you love. "Ten Thousand Years," "All This Costs," and "Fight for the Sun" also have little to do with what starts to emerge as a sort of theme on the album - of offering oneself as a sacrifice to help create a just world, of allowing oneself to become the scapegoat.

But some of that seems to inform "Let's Roll a Storm." Travis pointed out that he actually contributed some of these images, but there’s a verse about “standing on the edge of a cliff… One more step and you’ll be smashed to bits… the wind is at our back but we still refuse to jump.” The song also makes frequent mentions of sacrifice in the chorus (giving up “a piece of your bread.”)

There are also multiple references to "leaving"  - first in "Hopeless," above, but also in “I Heard You Singing," which has Todd imagining disappearing into nature, escaping the world, being tempted to heed “a call to be free.” It touches on the language of “leaving” in “Hopeless."

And then “TheT’silhqotin War” returns to imagery of dying in sacrifice so that the greater good might flourish, tabled also in “Last Run,” with Todd and collaborator Jeff Andrew singing, “climb the gallows/ take the blame,” referring to martyred warriors in an action to stop the building of a road.

I feel guilty speculating, but there's too much of this to seem a coincidence. I hope I don't offend anyone here, but - especially after having re-watched The Poseidon Adventure - it's kind of hard for me to shake all this. My mind finds myself drawn to it at unexpected times. I feel a bit bad that I've neglected both Alien Boys and Freak Dream shows to linger on thoughts of a band that is no more, of someone who is no longer with us. But it kind of haunts me, you know? I'm not saying he took his own life - I'm avoiding that actual formula - but when the above things align themselves, it's really hard to see his fall as accidental.

Sorry, folks.

[Added May 11, 2019: someone came up to me - a former co-conspirator of mine on the Vancouver music scene - at the Iron Road Re-Ruin last night, wanting to talk with me about her own angle on this story (she hadn't read the above). She had her own reasons for thinking along these lines. So I'm not the only one who has considered this thought, apparently. But she too is nervous about talking about it in public]. 

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