Thursday, January 06, 2022

Catseye and Kevin James Howes

This is almost more of a social media post than a blogpost - but it's already making the rounds on Facebook, and I want to put up something more permanent, to announce how pleased I am that Kevin James Howes has followed in the footsteps of his mentor and friend, Ty Scammell, in unearthing what seems to be a lost semi-Canadian gem of music from the past - the band Catseye, written about on the CBC here. I love these sort of rescue stories; of course, my favourite was the New Creation, the Christian garage band that Ty set on the road to rediscovery after thrifting one of their albums. But Catseye - bandcamp here - sounds pretty damn great too! Kevin already has made a huge mark on the musical landscape with the Native North America releases, of course, but this is just a fun story, awakening hope that YOU TOO MAY SOMEDAY SALVAGE SOMETHING PRECIOUS FROM A THRIFT STORE, someday - if you work as hard as Kevin! 

Congratulations on being part of such a fun story, Kevin Howes!


Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Ryszard Bugajski's Clearcut, All the Haunts Be Ours, and the story of an unlikely commentary/ interview


A note about screengrabs from Clearcut - these are not taken from the Severin box set, but from a DVDr of the Vision Maker Media screening transfer that I mention below. They are sourced from the same print as the Severin - director Ryszard Bugajski's own - but they are lower-res, and no doubt only a glimmer of how good the film looks from the brand-new Severin 4K scan.

So the Severin Folk Horror box set , All the Haunts Be Ours, is now purchasable online. I have only seen a few of the films on it, including Kier-la Janisse's essential documentary history of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which I interviewed the filmmaker about here, but her documentary has me excited to see many of the other films on the set, which casts a broad net in defining films as "folk horror," not just focusing on the obvious British manifestations (The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan's Claw and the like - those films are not part of the box, though they do loom large in the doc) but taking an international sweep - including, most importantly to me, the Canadian-made film Clearcut, in which Graham Greene gives a chilling, career-best performance as either a pissed-off, violent fella named Arthur, or else a trickster manifestation, who abducts a mill owner (Michael Horgan as Bud Rickets) and a liberal lawyer (Ron Lea) who is involved in their losing land claims case. 





Arthur takes his two hostages into the forests of Ontario for a Canadian "outdoor ordeal" par excellence. As a thriller, with ruggedly physical performances, considerable suspense, and amazing locations, Clearcut would play (in some respects) just fine on a double bill with other Canuxploitation classics like Rituals - my other favourite Canadian film, incidentally. As the ordeal progresses - and they arrive at a sacred site decorated with ancient rock art - the film takes on the flavour of an "involuntary vision quest," by which Arthur's trickster is striving to teach the unteachable Rickets about the value of nature, and maybe actually reaching through to the lawyer when it comes to the need to take ACTION, even direct action, rather than just submitting briefs and playing by the rules and making ineffectual oaths about injustice when the system predictably fails to correct itself. The lesson is proven to have worked when the lawyer actually attacks Arthur, his tutor - though the ending is still not entirely what you might expect...

Now, the filmmaker at hand, Ryszard Bugajski, was a serious man, a serious filmmaker - a man who, before leaving his home country to come to Canada, had made a very challenging film about the injustices and tortures perpetrated by the Communists in Poland, The Interrogation, which got suppressed for years, and won him the honour of being told he would never work in Polish film again (unless maybe he informed on his colleagues). You can hear Bugajski tell all of these stories on the Clearcut commentary, which is edited together out of an interview I did with him maybe five years before he died, which really took in his whole career - even though it was Clearcut I was most interested in; still, you have to tell a story like this; how does a Polish political filmmaker end up making one of the most challenging and confrontational political thrillers ever made in Canada? How is it that my favourite film about Canada's relations with its First Peoples is made by someone from Europe? (Granted, there's a fine book that the film is based on, MT Kelly's A Dream Like Mine, which I've read and recommend - but there's a lot that the film changes from the book, which is also something Bugajski and I talk about on the commentary)...

The Interrogation can be found for free online; it's a key film to watch if you have illusions about life under Soviet-style Communism - or just if you want a sense of the film practice Bugajski was coming from, before he made Clearcut. The Interrogation is typical of the serious, compelling political dramas Bugajski made, even has direct similarities between three of his later films (General Nil, The Closed Circuit, and Blindness, all also telling true stories from Polish history about characters who are unjustly tortured by the state). And it has its own interesting and unusual release history, too (as we discuss on the commentary, the director himself helped make bootlegs of The Interrogation available underground, so that people could see the film after the authorities gave it a big thumbs-down!).

But all told, Ryszard Bugajski's background was very different from yours or mine. What your average English-speaking/ North American movie fan might see in a film like Clearcut - what parallels we might notice between the story arc and that of horror movies or thrillers we have seen - well, those resonances might be there for us, and they might even help us view the film in different or interesting ways (some rich, some perhaps perversely irrelevant), but to the extent that they are there, they're functioning on an archetypal level, as a feature of some sort of universal subconscious,  as a universal feature of storytelling, maybe. They sure aren't there because Ryszard Bugajski SAW the films you might be reminded of; I know, because I asked him.

For instance, it is difficult for a film viewer who grew up watching horror in the 1980s to not read aspects of Clearcut in light of films like the old Eric Red classic The Hitcher, where it turns out the point of the ordeal imposed by the abductor is to strengthen the victim to take up arms against him; the killer is training a non-killer to kill, enacting a kind of death wish against himself, creating his own chosen assassin. That's exactly what happens at the end of The Hitcher, and not that far off what happens at the climax of Clearcut; after his being a punching bag through most of the film, the lawyer character (Ron Lea) finally has enough and tries to kill Arthur, which Arthur seems to genuinely respect - all quite like how Rutger Hauer approves at the end of The Hitcher of C. Thomas Howell's attempts to kill him. It turns out that the director had not seen The Hitcher, at all, however. Even though Bugajski, as a filmmaker under Communist authorities, had access to films that the average Polish movie-viewer would not be able to see, something like The Hitcher was not the sort of film that the authorities in Poland would have deemed important enough to allow them to screen. (Re: The Interrogation, I also asked Bugajski if he was aware of, had been able to see any of, the Corman-produced Women in Prison-type films that someone steeped in sleazier fare might see resonances with, but ditto, there - though I have seen The Interrogation pop up on lists with films like The Big Bird Cage or such, located within the WIP subgenre, But Bugajski didn't know the subgenre, had no intention of participating in it, and never even saw films like that prior to leaving Poland. He'd heard Corman's name, he explains - that was about all. Raises interesting questions, really: should a film be located within a subgenre by fan categorizations when the filmmaker was completely unaware of those films? ...or should we try to look at the film as outside that category, & consider it a mistake to class it with films the filmmaker had never seen...? 

I'm not going to give anything more away about the contents of the commentary - there ARE American films and filmmakers that made a mark on Bugajski, but I'll leave that for people to hear about in the commentary itself; they came as very pleasant discoveries to me and there's no reason to deprive you of that pleasure. Let me instead give you a tiny bit of a history of my involvement with the filmmaker, and how the commentary came to be. 

I first saw Clearcut in 1991, when it came out on VHS during my tenure as a video store geek at Rogers Video in Maple Ridge. In fact, I still have the VHS tape I bought at the store where I worked. It seemed something special to me even in 1991, though (as I say in the commentary) I knew people who felt very much otherwise about it. There's a kind of remarkable figure in my past, who came into my life in the 1990's and made me question a lot of my values, a kind of "spiritual teacher" if you will, himself of a First Nations background, who was of the opinion that the film was "irresponsible," because it wasn't the kind of film that would win friends for First Nations activists, since it made them seem dangerous and scary and so forth, rather than spiritual and sympathetic and easy to embrace.

I mean, sure, Arthur is not a great PR spokesperson - not one who is likely to win friends and influence people on the campaign trail, as he goes around biting the head off a snake, "debarking" the film's mill owner with his giant knife, and just being pretty sharp-edged and nasty in some of what he says (including the infamous "I'm going to cut my finger off and make a necklace for your fat fuckin' wife" chant he goes into during the climactic, "wrong" sweatlodge at the end of the film).  He does have a fair bit in common - relentless, unstoppable, possibly omniscient - with the monster in monster movies, the slasher in slasher movies, and however naive Ryszard may have been about those kinds of films, you do have to sort of note that the film resonates on some level with them.

But the objection still misunderstands that throughout Clearcut, mean as he might be, Arthur is the one who holds the moral high ground, and the viewer realizes that. We the viewers may be more similar to the liberal lawyer - I certainly am - but that doesn't mean we think he's in the right or don't want him to learn from his ordeal. He's a man of talk - "the man who talks for us," as a young girl named Polly calls him in the film; but who, it is implied, does precious little else. We may not sign up to man the barricades at a future mining site because of the positive impression Arthur makes, but we won't go off patting ourselves on the back about how our right white liberal sympathies actually make a bit of difference. Something more than hand-wringing and cursing the injustices is required... 

That objection, then - that the film is irresponsible, will lose sympathy for the cause, etc - also misunderstands that the film isn't really saying anything about Native activism at all. It's discussing the failures of Canadian liberals (you can capitalize that if you like) to actually make way for any meaningful progress for First Nations people, even though we've known about the problems in Canada for years (and yes, there is discussion of residential schools and missing children between myself and Mr. Bugajski, late in the commentary; it chilled me to revisit it on the tape, since the topic was nowhere as timely when the conversation took place). We have been the perpetrators of genocide. We have not come to terms with it as a nation. And we are more than happy, usually, to say right-sounding things, in the absence of taking adequate action to ensure that these injustices do not keep continuing - to do what Peter Maguire does: to talk. (Consider the case of our prime minister...). 


Anyhow, loving this film, loving how righteously pissed off it is, loving (maybe) the punishment it doles out to, uh, well-meaning liberal do-nothings like myself, I have done, over the years, everything I knew how to do to keep the film from disappearing from public view. Adrian Mack interviewed me about a screening I hosted at the Vancity Theatre back in 2015, when the film was only available as a German DVD with forced subtitles, too much contrast, and darks that were too dark. I think only a couple dozen people made that screening - but it didn't matter; arranging it was less about who came to see it that night and more about just asserting into the world that the film still existed. At the time, I blogged about it, posted an interview snippet, and even - as a direct result of the Mack story, I think - helped connect a company called Vision Maker Media in the US with Ryszard Bugajski, the filmmaker, to get a better scan made, for a screening they were hosting. The scan was based on his own personal 35mm print (which would also be the source of the Severin scan), and used for at least one screening in the States, and was a vast improvement on the German DVD (I am presuming the Severin 4K blu-ray scan is even better yet, but haven't seen it; like I say, my screengrabs are from the Vision Maker version). The film had long been unavailable in anything like a decent format on DVD or such in North America, and when you could find it on the grey-to-black market (or on torrent sites), it was presented in terrible-looking pan-and-scan based on the old VHS tape. Over the years, I bought three different "bootleg" releases to see if they looked any good or had anything special going for them. They didn't. There was (and still is, as I write) a shitty-looking VHS transfer on Youtube, but it really does not do justice to how GOOD this film can look, how spectacular its compositions can be; it's a lousy way to watch the film. The film needed to come back to the world, so people could see it, in a proper restoration; for my money, it's one of the most confrontational, biting, politically fearless films about First Nations in Canada, and it hasn't gotten less relevant since it was made circa 1991... but it's also a real source of visual pleasure, a really fine film to settle in and WATCH...



So how did I end up interviewing Ryszard Bugajski? It happened in 2013, when  I was covering VIFF for local papers (and this blog), and I noticed that Ryszard Bugajski had a film in it (The Closed Circuit). All this was a couple years before that public screening that I hosted, note. Given the opportunity to speak to him, I seized the opportunity, even though it wasn't exactly clear who it would be for or when it would come out into the world; lucky for me, he was just fine talking to someone with a passionate interest in his films, took it on trust that I would do SOMETHING with the material. We spoke over a few occasions in 2013-14, some of which saw him talking to me from a car phone between public appearances in the US, and some of which took place with Bugajski at home in Poland - he had eventually repatriated and resumed movie-making there - with me on my Mom's landline in Maple Ridge, feeding the call into a cassette recorder. The idea initially was to do a career retrospective for a film magazine, and to time it with the release of Clearcut then being discussed by a UK label (at that time, Second Run DVD, who had put it out  The Interrogation, had expressed interest). 

It was challenging from the start, trying to figure out where the article should be published. The one film magazine I *had* written for at some length, CineAction, would have been a perfect home for the piece - an academic film journal dealing with the politics of film, published out of Canada, and having a historical association with my favourite-ever film critic, Robin Wood. Alas, they had folded (they're back online now, I gather, but all of this took place while they were calling it quits). The other magazine I found who was interested in the article had no desire/ budget to pay me a red cent for it, to my dismay. It was going to be a lot of work to transcribe, and it just annoyed me that a glossy American film mag you could buy at Chapters would pull the "sorry, we don't pay" thing on a prospective contributor - one who was offering (what seemed to me, anyhow) a major piece of writing, certainly a labour-intensive one. Another complication: Second Run never did put out Clearcut, for reasons I remain unclear on; it's possible they just weren't happy with the quality of the German transfer previously mentioned, and didn't have the wherewithal to create a new scan. I wrote them a couple of times to try to figure out what was happening, but it was always... just... stalled. Which meant that even if I found a magazine that WOULD pay for the work of transcribing and shaping the piece - even a pittance, just to make a gesture at being fair - there would be no way for people who read the article to see the film in a decent quality North American release; nor were General Nil and The Closed Circuit available here, either, for that matter. I did write a few DVD labels, including very high profile ones like Criterion, to let them know about the film, to request its release - but no one seemed to care much. Without a way for people to follow up reading about the film by actually seeing it, the timing all just felt wrong... so I stalled, hosted that 2015 screening, and waited for a moment that seemed right to put the interview into the world, with the tapes of my talks with Ryszard always close at hand...

...And then he died. I had no idea he'd even been sick. With his untimely passing, it seemed further away than ever that his film would be restored and made widely available... I pestered the VIFF, the TIFF, pestered Jesse Wente (who had a hand in making the film the centerpiece of a tribute to Graham Greene that had taken place in Toronto)... I begged friends who I thought might know more than I do: if we're going to keep this film from being forgotten, WHAT DO WE DO?

Finally I decided two things: to involve the Cinematheque in hosting a public screening - which we set up as a free event for Canadian film day, April 22nd, 2020 - and to just skip the movie mags and put the interview online here, on my own damn blog, so anyone empowered with Google could find it. I dug out my tapes and started transcribing again... as news of a strange new virus began to spread. The Cinematheque screening was all planned out; we acquired a copy of the Vision Maker scan as the basis for projection, had a page all printed in their program, and then it all got unceremoniously cancelled, as the Cinematheque went dark that spring due to COVID. By the time it was shut down, it came as no surprise whatsoever... we've been in discussions to make it happen again, using Severin's even higher-quality scan, but with omicron causing havoc, who knows when exactly that will take place! 

I was feeling pretty bummed after that cancellation, when a few months later, to my total surprise, I got an email out of the blue from Severin's Kier-la Janisse, telling me that Clearcut was being included on their folk horror box set, and asking her to help track down a 2015 video introduction that Ryszard had done for his film, I believe for that Vision Maker screening (she thought it had been done for my screening, the one Mack had written about in 2015 at the VIFF Centre - but it hadn't). She knew me from a few things in Vancouver - I had attended a few festivals she'd curated, and had hooked her up to host the Border Radio Q&A with Chris Desjardins a few years ago in Vancouver, when the Flesh Eaters were in town. She also knows Mack, and had presumably read my 2015 interview with him. But we are in no way close, and she didn't know the half of what I had on Clearcut, and I didn't know that that introductory clip (since found) existed. Instead, what I told Kier-la at the time was that "what I do have is a 90% unpublished interview with Ryszard Bugajski, which I would be very happy to edit into a commentary track for the blu-ray." 

She was game. Despite it all being last minute, slightly panicked on my part, and requiring way more back-and-forth between us than she'd envisioned, I delivered before my due date. It took about three or four days of committed work, at this very computer, for the most part, to get it done, with the help of my vastly more computer-savvy friend Dan Kibke, who helped me transfer the 4 hour interview from cassette into a digital file with a (roughly) hour and a half-long commentary. There was lots we had to cut, of course, but most of that dealt with General Nil and The Closed Circuit. It was actually super fun to do, watching Dan manipulate software that stupified me, and getting to hang out with him; we haven't spent a lot of quality time together in the last few years, and having a project to work on together was really good for our friendship. Plus the end result was a really cool, lucid commentary about Ryszard's history up to and including his coming to Canada, with a fairly in-depth interview about the making of the film ("How did you do the dying moose?" "Did Graham really bite the head off a snake?" "Was there any direct or indirect influence on the shoot from the Oka crisis?"),  with some brief discussion of his return to filmmaking in Poland, ending, in fact, on his final film, Blindness, which he had yet to begin making when we talked about it (but which played Vancouver at the Polish Film Festival, about a year or so before Ryszard died; that's how I met Shane Harvey, in fact). And through it all, as Dan and I shaped the piece into its final form, I had fireworks going off in my head: I MADE THE RIGHT CALL! PEOPLE CAN NOW HEAR RYSZARD TALK ABOUT THE FILM HIMSELF! I HAVE MADE GOOD USE OF MY INTERVIEW AND DONE RIGHT BY THIS FILM! ("...and I didn't have to transcribe four hours of tape!"). You don't have to buy some stuffy film mag - you don't even have to be able to read; you can just switch on the commentary track on the Severin disc (one of two commentaries on the disc, note; there are LOTS of cool extras, as fits Severin's MO) and listen to a more-or-less seamless conversation between Ryszard and myself. 

Now, at present, as I write this, Severin's website - recently rebuilt - does NOT mention this extra, but a friend who bought the set confirms that my commentary with Ryszard IS on there; I'm told the omission is just an error from the rebuild of their website after Black Friday. Also unmentioned is an audio interview with Graham Greene that I helped set up - a thing which briefly saw me standing in a Tim Horton's parking lot in Duncan, texting some suggested questions for Kier-la to ask Graham, because once we got his contact info, we were told to act fast. I haven't experienced THAT extra myself, and am very keen to hear it - some of those, presumably, are my questions Graham is answering ("Ryszard was unsure about why whether people were more respectful to the production when Floyd Red Crow Westerman showed up - was it because he was an elder, or because he was a celebrity, or...?"). There's also something that I did with soundtrack composer Shane Harvey, who was instrumental in setting up the interview with Graham and who had some really interesting stories about Clearcut and working with Ryszard - 

- one snippet of which I held back for just this sort of blogpiece. Shane and I had wrapped the Zoom interview, and then he thought of another story; it was easiest for me to just record the audio, quickly, than to figure out how to re-start a Zoom recording. "Did he tell you about going to a Native reserve to get gas at one point in his career?" Shane asked. Lord no, I laughed, and settled in for a story.

"It was like, Idaho or something; I can't specifically name the places he went," Shane began. "I guess he felt a bit guilty at the time that he was a Polish director, even with his great success with The Interrogation, that he was able to direct a film about Canadian Natives; like, how can a Polish guy know what's going on with Canadian Natives? And he went to a gas station in mid-west America, that was on a reserve, and he was paying for his gas. He got talking to the people in the little store, and this was back in the day when people had a few movies stacked up in the back corner of the store. And there was a Clearcut there! He said. 'I directed that film; see that film that is on your shelf?' And apparently the Native gas station attendant said it was the most used, rented-out video of all time in the store. 'It's never available - it's always rented!'"

Shane and also talked about Polly, the young girl in the film, who smokes the film's first cigarette (befitting its sacred use as visible breath) and who pops up throughout the film, toting the lawyer's briefcase. "She's in some way a continuation of him [Arthur, I think Shane means], and that's why when Peter Maguire says, when he's been arrested, and they're like, 'What happened to that Indian guy?' 'He's dead, but he can come back.' And I think it's coming back every day in our lives." 

All of this equals real cause for 2022 to be the best year of my film geek life. Clearcut is finally back among us, looking better than it has looked since the 1991 film release. By dint of having stalled on publishing a print version of my interview, anyone who wants to learn about Ryszard's career or his ideas in making Clearcut will be able to ACTUALLY HEAR him talk about the movie himself - a man who is no longer around to be interviewed, speaking anew in nicely cleaned-up audio (thanks, Dan!). My conscience is now clear, my strategy, such as I had one, is vindicated - I don't feel guilty about the four straggling tapes anymore. About the only thing that I feel could have been better is that I had no great quotes in the formal interview section of the tapes to elaborate that Graham Greene, who had initially not been very friendly to the film, had actually come round to pick it as THE film for a retrospective of his work (involving Jesse Wente; see the Kier-la interview linked above for more on that). That is in there, but not as clearly explained as it might have been. 

Mr. Greene, if you read this article and/or listen to the commentary, you might be distressed to learn that for some time there, Ryszard thought you kind of hated Clearcut. Rest assured, as a result of the conversation between us, he was very happy to discover you'd changed your tune and came to really appreciate the film. He did learn of the Toronto screening where you picked it as the representative film of your many works. (It's certainly my favourite of your films, I must add, though I enjoyed you plenty in Thunderheart and Dances with Wolves and pretty much anywhere else I've seen you...).There just wasn't a way to shape what we had into the commentary, given the time limits Dan and I faced, the fact that Ryszard was no longer around to provide new quotes, and that some of our discussion about these aspects was part of sort of chit-chat outside the interview per se. (Did Kier-la ask you about that whole "I see a naked man" thing, I wonder? I'd love to know what was goin' on there...).

Of course, as I say at the outset of the commentary, there are some less than circumspect phrases that turn up, with Ryszard frequently defaulting, for example, to the term "Indian." He knew just as well as I that that term is passe and not really part of accepted discourse when it comes to Indigenous people; we even talk in the commentary about how he discovered this. But habits are hard to break, and AT NO POINT had we envisioned the conversation appearing as a commentary, when we initially did it; when you're writing for a magazine, you have a bit more freedom to tidy up things like that.

It's a pretty interesting commentary no less, if I do say so myself. Very proud of it. Also, fans of Willie Dunn, Kevin James Howes and the Native North America series should note that Dunn's film "The Ballad of Crowfoot" is also an extra on the Clearcut disc (disc #9 of the set), with an interview/ commentary with Kevin himself... I mean, Severin are some kind of amazing when it comes to their extras, eh? There's lots more I'm not mentioning, because I've yet to experience it myself...

The All the Haunts Be Ours folk horror box is now available through Severin Films. No stand-alone disc version of Clearcut has yet to be announced, so just go ahead and buy the whole damn box; if the other films are anywhere near as good, it's going to be the purchase of the decade. Also note that Severin is now the copyright holder on the film Clearcut, by arrangement with Mr. Bugajski's estate, so contact them if you are looking to set up public screenings. Note that there may be one this spring/ summer at the Cinematheque, but COVID is a factor again, so... who knows what will happen!

Thanks again to Kier-la, Dan, Shane, and to the estate of Ryszard Bugajski. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Health update, plus Montecristo plug

Updating the update, just writing over the previous post here... I am back out of hospital and home and havin' fun with Erika - trying to make a game out of changing bandages on my varied wounds (see below, but I've had grafts from all of my arms and legs, as part of a process of building a new, cancer-free tongue out of muscle tissue taken from elsewhere - which process actually failed the first time, requiring a complete surgical repeat of my Dec 16 procedure on Dec. 17th; I also had a tracheostomy, as an alternative to the painful and problematic intubations of my September procedure, which is healing up nicely - it should close on its own soon enough, but a little air still escapes when I cough or belch or fart or so forth). I won't be doing much blogging for the time being, but find my Facebook wall for a few updates. I am doing okay - biggest surgical ordeal of my life, but I am now cancer free (and on a liquid diet, and having to train a graft from my arm onto my tongue to speak and swallow. I am making some progress, but it may be slow). 



(actually the *second* grossest of my two graft sites on my wrist - the other one has tendons visible!). 





"Relax, babe, it'll be easier if I do this one by myself. Maybe you could take photos?"



For those of you actually interested in my published writing, meantime, you might want to seek out the newest issue of Montecristo Magazine, a very glossy glitzy publication for an income bracket quite other than mine, who sought out a memoir from me on the early days as a record collector. It's a fun story, mostly focused on Vancouver's old shop Collector's RPM, and touching on a few local characters (Grant, Dale, Phil) who are still active out there, but with a little bit of added reminiscence from Vancouver's vintage Record Row. The context and illustration might speak more to record collecting as it is perceived now, as opposed to how it was for me then, but it should be a fun read (I actually haven't looked at the published version but I trust them - and I've been a little distracted, eh?). I have a few other online-only stories with Montecristo, like this one about the Clash playing soccer with Vancouver punks on the cusp of their first North American tour, or a two-parter on the history of the Cave, which features some familiar faces for those of us on the music scene... part one here, part two here. (You hafta buy the actual magazine to read the record collecting piece, tho' - it ain't online!).

Lots of challenges ahead, mostly involving retraining my throat and tongue to swallow and speak. I'm doing okay, however, am glad to be home, and grateful to have such a caring and playful wife to support me through this rather unusual experience. Might be some time before I blog here again - but I'll post any urgent news.

Meantime, what the hell, the Bowie Ball got its date changed? I was pleasantly surprised to think I might be actually fit to go out in public for a bit! (If you see me, don't expect much in the way of conversation). But what's this, Richard Thompson is coming back to town? (And there's no news about Sparks or EXTC cancellations yet, and Erika got us tickets to see Frazey Ford, and...). It's really not that bad, considering how bad it WAS for a bit there... (The first couple days in hospital were difficult indeed). Of course, COVID counts might make it prudent to skip a bunch of that, and it may be wise to get a booster vax one way or another, but... One thing at a time, folks...! 

And Happy New Year, y'all! This is actually being written Jan. 1, 2022, as I sit on the couch, reading the new Jason Pargin (formerly David Wong) for a bit, before heading back to bed... 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

XTC: Stories from Vancouver, 1980, apropos of the EXTC tour


EXTC gig poster for the Rickshaw show, March 20th, courtesy Mo Tarmohamed

Doug Smith's XTC pin (see his stories of seeing the band below!)

COVID has made for some interesting musical developments. With more time at home and less opportunity to go out to shows, music fans have had to find ways to compensate for a lack of input, which for some of us has meant delving deep into bands we hadn't paid that much attention to previously. For many of us, Sparks were the undisputed winners in this category, with a timely documentary, an immense back catalogue just bursting with ripeness for people to delve into, a high-profile feature (fictional) film based on their libretto, and a delightful, fresh new studio album (A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip) AND an impending tour that will be bringing them to Vancouver for the first time, all of which laid the ground for a deep plunge, which many, many music fans besides me took. Edgar Wright deserves a lot of credit for the huge uptick of interest in the band, but the stage was well-set for him by circumstance; the only thing that could have been better for nascent Sparks fans would have been for more of their back catalogue to have been in print, though for a certain type of music fan [raises hand] having to face slight hardship to acquire a band's music - downloading notwithstanding - only makes seeking it out more rewarding and fun. Incidentally, my interview with Ron and Russell Mael, with guest interviewer David M. in tow, appears in the new Big Takeover (along with Part Two of my talk with Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers; I know Neptoon stocks the mag, locally, though they may not have the new one yet... but you can probably still buy issue 88, with part one of my Leary interview, or issue 87, with my Eric Bloom interview, or issue 86, with... what the hell did I do in issue 86? Oh yeah - David Yow Part Two, which gives you a hint of the content for Big Takeover 85, which also has part two of my Bev Davies interview... and so it goes...). 

A strong second place for me in terms of bands I've plunged into since COVID is XTC. They had long been on my radar, of course - and I've long-loved SOME of their songs, most especially Colin Moulding's "Generals and Majors," which is a kinda top-ten 1980's British pop single for me, way up there with the most creative, fun, and catchy songs of its era, ranking with the very best of Ian Dury, the Clash, the Jam, and the Specials. But much the same as I felt the first time - a few years ago - that I tried to listen to Sparks' Kimono My House, which has that one undeniably great early Sparks tune on it, when I had previously spun Black Sea, the album that my fave XTC song is on, my feeling was - "This bears investigating and is definitely full of riches, but, ummm.... not right now."

The right confluence of circumstances to plunge deep into XTC began for me a few months ago, with the announcement of the EXTC tour - with a show at the Rickshaw just five days after Sparks plays the Vogue. Of course, there's an equally delightful documentary out there (tho' requiring a bit of digging, possibly of the illicit download type, because it isn't on Showtime anymore, isn't on physical media - I don't think - and isn't streaming in Canada that I can see). The doc amply explains why the band, in 1982, stopped touring, and also interviews drummer Terry Chambers about being the member who left the band when they ceased to play live that year. While one also completely understands and sympathizes with Andy Partridge's withdrawal from the concert circuit - which does seem to have been necessary for his well-being - the excitement some of us feel at the prospect of seeing a set of classic XTC songs performed by EXTC, with Terry on kit, underscores just how important live shows can be to getting music fans aligned towards a band; because I probably wouldn't have gotten quite as enthusiastic about burying myself in XTC's back catalogue if it didn't serve as homework for catching this show. I will enjoy a tune like, for example, "Science Friction" (a very early effort, when Barry Andrews, later of Shriekback, was still in the band) if I'm not hearing it for the first time when I see it live - especially since the band interpreting it is not (one member aside) the same band... tho' what a happy coincidence that the period when Terry was in the band, the period most represented in their touring setlist, is also the period of XTC's that I enjoy the most! 

A final delightful incentive to plunge: social media, also invaluable as a source of cheerleading for and exposure to Sparks - is rife with people (ESPECIALLY among the demographic I belong to, with many of my Facebook friends being old-school Vancouver punks, now in their 50's and 60's) who actually caught XTC live during their three Vancouver appearances here, in 1980. And best of all - Bev Davies has come through with amazing photos of the band backstage at the Coliseum, when they opened for the Police. (She also has shots of them at the Commodore a few months prior, but didn't think they were anything special). 

Here's some eyewitness testimony of friends of mine on social media, talking about seeing XTC here in Vancouver. 


(L-R: Gerry-Jenn Wilson, Nardwuar, and bev davies, photo provided by Nardwuar... if you know who took this, Bev wants to know!).

1. bev davies (Toronto-to-Vancouver transplant who became one of the documenters of the vintage Vancouver punk scene)

XTC backstage at the Coliseum, Oct 27, 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission
L-to-R (I think): Terry Chambers, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge

I took my son the the sound check at the Commodore, I could do that in those days. The drummer was checking the drums, pound pound pound for a very long time. My son who was about 11, found me and asked me how much longer was he going to do that. Just at that time the band walked on the stage and broke into "Making Plans for Nigel," one of his favourites at the time. I took no photos of the sound check though.


2. Doug Smith (alumnus of many bands, including the (Vancouver band known as) the Replacements, the Little Guitar Army, the Strugglers, and ad-libbing vocalist on the incredible Vancouver obscurity, "Hell is a Microwave," by the Subterraneans
 
My friend Richard and I went to the side entrance to the backstage area (we were baked) and, the gentleman watching that area (must've been in his 60s... and, possibly hating it all) asked us for our passes. Richard saw Andy Summers walking up in our direction and whinged it - saying that we were his (pointing to Andy) guests. Andy came up and he actually vouched for us before walking away from us (didn't see him backstage again).


XTC backstage at the Coliseum, Oct 27, 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

XTC were clowning around and even attempting to make a human pyramid (in the hallway outside of their dressing room near the monitor PA and, numerous guitars on racks). We watched them for a bit, telling them how much we loved them, but didn't stay long as we were 15 and paranoid.
Their set was incredible! It was the second time that I had seen The Police where I reckoned their "support" act upstaged them...and The Police were good. The 1st act was The Specials at The Gardens.

Andy Partridge was moving very angularly, and as if sparks were flying off of him. Almost as if he had no control over his limbs. Richard and I thought that they were on LSD but I later found out that he was having incredibly serious issues with his medications...

They played mostly Black Sea and Drums & Wires songs with a couple of crowd pleasers from their debut and sophomore albums.


Doug Smith on vocals with (the Vancouver) Replacements, 1980 Smilin' Buddha, photo by Mina Shum; not to be reused without permission. L-to-R Darcy (age 19), Doug (16), Casey (15); not pictured - Craig, on drums (15). "Fun fact - Darcy and Craig are brothers a la Bob and Tommy Stinson." Doug also provides a gig poster from that period, a bill that his version of the Replacements are featured on:


3. Gerhard Regier (former co-worker of mine at a Maple Ridge Rogers Video, and member of Mother, EST, Dog Skin Suit and The Pride: "We played in and around Vancouver quite a bit in the 80's. Some people might remember us.") 


Saw them in 80 at the Commodore. Very energetic. I recall that "Battery Brides" had a long hypnotic intro, but don't remember much else except I enjoyed the show.

Also saw them open for The Police. Andy did the goofy walk from "Ministry of Silly Walks" though a lot of the show.

Again very energetic and enjoyable. I even bought an XTC pin from the merch booth which I never do.

I would have been 24. My friends and I were serious music nerds. We followed the punk / new wave scene avidly ( as well as jazz, pretty much any kind of underground music and some contemporary "new music"). We formed a band called EST and played around a bit mostly at gigs at the Abbotsford Airport Armouries that we put on ourselves. We played the Smilin' Buddha once with Tim Ray and AV, who we were friendly with, to a tiny crowd.

We went to shows a couple of times a week. We saw the first Vancouver gigs of The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Jam, Wreckless Eric, The Specials, and a million others. I missed The Clash, Tom Petty, and Patti Smith but my bandmates saw them all at the Commodore.

If I gave it some thought I could name some others but there were lots of bands we saw. I am sure we saw DOA. The Pointed Sticks, Subhumans, and Young Canadians a million times and pretty much every local band at least once.

XTC was a favourite of ours for their musicianship, off kilter musical ideas and humour.


XTC poster provided by Rob Frith of Neptoon Records

4. Andy Meyers: guitar/ bass/ songwriter for the legendary Toronto punk band the Scenics, whose comp of studio recordings is currently being distro'd in BC by Jason at Supreme Echo. Note: Andy is now a Salt Spring Island resident and mastered Chris Arnett's solo album)

I saw em... 2-3-4? times in 1979 in a small club (the Edge) in Toronto. Original lineup, sitting up close. The first line up was exactly like the footage you can see from Old Grey Whistle Test on Youtube. The show felt like that it except it was hot and sweaty and an hour+ long. We really appreciated what they were doing. The type of creativity they had and how hard they hit it.

Also saw the Drums and Wires tour in a 500 seat theatre. Sitting ten feet from the stage.. Small, sweaty club... they were energized and intelligent, all those great songs from the first two albums. Not much of a 'show' per se, but givin' er. Preferred their sound with Andrews. His acidic style was a great addition.


L-R: Brad, Andy, and Ken

Note, Scenics fans, that Andy will be "doing their next vintage LP thru RaveUp in May. it covers material from 77 (7 tracks) 1980 (one track) and 2009 (2 tracks.) It's called Scenic Caves." He also has a solo project upcoming, but more on that later, I hope... 
 
5. Ford Pier: interviewed at length by me here; best known as a solo artist, but also a longtime collaborator with other artists locally, from DOA to Nomeansno (and more to the point, Tom Holliston). And of course he's part of the team at Red Cat Records.
 

Ford Pier by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

I wasn't there (I was 10) but a good story is about Barry Taylor sitting in behind the kit for XTC's soundcheck in Edmonton at the SUB theatre when YC's toured as support. Seems Terry Chambers was off meeting distant relatives for dinner or something? That's how it was told to me. Fat chance getting BT to recall what songs they played, although I visualize him playing "Helicopter" like he was born to it. Also "Knuckle Down," except it would be another two years before that song existed.


6. John Armstrong (Buck Cherry of the Modernettes, interviewed by me here). 

Saw them, remember only thinking they were some very very good musicians and that the songs made me jealous.


7. Jaime Clay (of Vancouver bands Private School and Warsaw). 

Great show at the Commodore. Andy was in top form and looking so ultra-cool in a shirt with rolled up sleeves, looking like he was getting down to some hard work - which he did. I remember trying the rolled up sleeves the next band practice, and my singer had already beat me to it!

8. Bill Mullan: Jeez, I didn't get a bio of Bill Mullan. He's a friend of my friend Dan Kibke. Nice guy, great taste in music! 

I saw the Coliseum show in 1980. It was the "concert bowl" which meant the stage was moved forward on the floor, making for maybe half the normal capacity. Even so, my takeaway for both bands was that their sound didn't quite fill the room, didn't impress my ears the way "dinosaur" outfits like Yes, Jethro Tull, Queen had in the full Coliseum. As for XTC, I didn't know their material that well going in (didn't own any albums) but I did definitely like what I heard -- emphasis on the noisier, more driven aspect of their sound. The show I was very much looking forward to a year or so later was their English Settlement tour, booked for the Commodore, then cancelled due to Andy Partridge's health problems.

9. Sharon Steele - Vancouver music fan and rock photographer extraordinaire  

(Photo provided by Sharon Steele, taken circa 1980). 

I was at the Commodore show with the Young Canadians opening, and it was one of those iconic performances that I was lucky to have seen.

I remember Andy sweating profusely and Colin not breaking a sweat. I know...and how does this matter? 

"This is Pop" and "Helicopter" were my favourites at the time, and I remember the intense facial expressions from Andy during the show.

I was 17 in 1980 almost 18 by a few days. Back then it seems that because I was tall it was easy for me to pass for 19. I got into them earlier with White Music - fave songs were..."Radios in Motion," "I’m Bugged," "This is Pop."

I somehow never got a hold of Go 2. When I bough Drums and Wires, I liked "Making Plans for Nigel," but "Helicopter," "Scissor Man" and "Complicated Game" were more my faves, probably as they were more in alignment with their first albums stylings.


XTC backstage at the Coliseum, Oct 27, 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission
L-to-R (I think): Terry Chambers, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge


Thanks to everyone who contributed stories and photographs! Terry Chambers brings EXTC to the Rickshaw Theatre on March 20th. Read my brief email interview with Terry and EXTC vocalist Steve Tilling here. See you at the Rickshaw (I hope!). 


Monday, December 13, 2021

Harmony for All Musical Instrument Donation Drive

 

It's always fun to get stuff from Joe Keithley on City of Burnaby letterhead... like the following press release Joe sent today (dated last week, but no matter). If you have any working musical instruments you're not using, this Saturday would be a great time to part with them... see below! 




December 6, 2021

City officially launches Harmony for All with instrument drive December 18


Burnaby, BC – Residents are encouraged to dig out any unused musical instruments and donate them at City Hall on December 18, as the City of Burnaby officially launches Harmony for All, a new program to provide instruments and musical instruction free of charge to Burnaby residents.

“Expressing yourself through music is one of life’s greatest joys, but the financial cost of renting an instrument and paying for lessons puts music out of reach for too many people,” said Councillor Joe Keithley. “Harmony for All will ensure that all Burnaby residents have the opportunity to explore their musical talents. Learning music is a wonderful way for our kids to connect, make friends and overcome cultural barriers."

Councillor Keithley and Burnaby firefighters will be at the City Hall main parking lot from 10am to 1pm on Saturday, December 18 to collect instrument donations of gently used instruments in working condition from community members. Residents who donate an instrument will receive a tax receipt.

Donated instruments will support the launch the first phase of Harmony for All, which will be an instrument lending program to provide underserved Burnaby children access to musical instruments. It is expected to start in spring 2022. 

Future phases of the program will include eliminating barriers to musical education, with the City coordinating low or no-cost music programs for people who may not be able to afford lessons. The City also intends to develop grants for Burnaby residents to pay for music programs.

At its November 8, 2021 meeting, City Council agreed to contribute $72,000 to establish Harmony for All as a City-operated program, and on November 18, 2021 the Burnaby Fire Department’s charitable organization pledged $10,000 and committed to contribute a further $10,000 every year for the next 10 years.

Learn More: 

Harmony for All