Saturday, November 26, 2022

The lyrics of Robyn Hitchcock: of meaning-making, obscurity, and surprise (plus a little bit on Shufflemania!, his new album)

Robyn Hitchcock and I at the Commodore, 2017, photo by Erika Lax

So while I wait for Shufflemania, the new album by Robyn Hitchcock, to arrive in Vancouver stores, I've been listening to Hitchcock's music, thinking about what I love about it. There is more than one kind of pleasure to be had in Hitchcock's songwriting, though I think particularly, my attachment to his songs tends to correlate with how much I feel like I understand the lyrics. Not that that is exactly a prerequisite, because there are songs of his I do not understand at all, that strike me as quite mysterious and magical, more on which below; but my favourite of his tunes tend to be the ones that I don't feel entirely on the outside of; while songs of his I can make neither head nor tail of (like his new tune "The Raging Muse") tend to often feel like shoes that don't fit: I can admire them from without, but not being able to try them on and walk around in them limits how intimate my connection with them can be (this is a reference to a Bob Dylan song, btw, where he compares himself to a shoemaker, and as such, since Hitchcock is a fan of Dylan's, is meant flatteringly). I'm not exactly intimidated - I do not know know why there are fish in the grass, or what they have to do with a raging muse. It feels like an acid-trip image, really, but that feels like a bit of a trivialization, though I guess if Hitchcock HAD been on acid and found himself hallucinating fish in the grass (or even better had travelled to some part of the world where there are mudskippers or lungfish or other living fish one might encounter on land) it would be fair game for an autobiographical gesture in a song lyric. So I'm not complaining - the song is catchy enough, and agreeably weird, but short of my finding some sort of personal analogue for the experience he's singing about, it kind of just slides on by me. 

By contrast, an example of a song I have a fairly good grip on, even if it doesn't have a huge personal resonance for me: "Queen Elvis," off his 1990 solo album Eye. (That tour was the first time I saw Robyn Hitchcock live, at the Town Pump, with NO FUN opening; in fact, in the photo at the top, taken the night Robyn opened for the Psychedelic Furs, I was trying to get his ear to tell him that I had brought David M. of NO FUN to the Commodore, that night, in honour of the three shows of Robyn's that NO FUN had played before back in the late 80's. I was very curious if Robyn remembered NO FUN and hot to suggest that if he was to play Vancouver again - sadly, no shows here this tour - he should get David to open. But Mr. Hitchcock was very busy, signing CDs, posing for selfies and so forth, and I never really got to have the conversation I wanted to with him. I was happy enough to get a signed CD and discover afterwards that Erika had snapped this pic!)

But let's look at "Queen Elvis" for a second. This is one of Hitchcock's most clearly meaningful songs, taking on gender non-conformity, queerness, celebrity, and both Hitchcock's own reactions to these things, and general societal reactions to them, too. I should imagine any trans- or queer person hears things resonating in the chorus, "Justify your special ways." I don't fully understand Hitchcock's motivations for writing it, if he was trying to balance out the apparent potshot at transpeople in "Uncorrected Personality Traits" from a few years prior (though nothing in his lyrics should really be taken at face value) or if he was just indulging in some weird flight of whimsy, inspired by something specific that he chooses not to let us in on. I get a bit puzzled, too, by the sudden apparent reference to Dylan ("everybody must get stoned"), since it is hard to imagine Dylan as Queen Anything, and am not sure what to make of the mention of landscaping (though according to the sole annotation to the song on Genius Lyrics as I write, Hitchcock did have a day job as a gardener at one point). The song is too complex, too shot through with ambivalences - is being "sculpted" (by whom, into what) a good thing or a bad thing? - to really work as a trans anthem or anything, but there's still overall a sense that you mostly know what he's singing about and can get on side with him.  

There are also a few very accessible songs like that on his 2017 self-titled solo album, pictured above, which stands as among my favourite things he's done. "Virginia Woolf" is maybe the one you can fit your mind around most fully; even without having read Woolf, or Sylvia Plath, if you catch that he's singing about how both women killed themselves, there's not much mystery to be had from the song (you're welcome to contemplate why people kill themselves, but there's no cleverness getting in between the song and its subject, which I appreciate). "Sayonara, Judge," is another favourite - and while I do not know the specific liberation that Robyn is singing about, I feel like I do have a sense of the freedom that comes out of accepting you are a loser. It's not such a bad thing. The images are abstract enough to apply to a wealth of life situations, and if the specific inspirations are hidden, protected by a layer of poetry - who is this "Teddy Bear" of whom he speaks? - there's nothing really that elusive going on, emotionally, nothing that stops the song from feeling like maybe it's about you, say. It's a fine pair of shoes to walk about in. 

But Hitchcock does more than that, as a songwriter; it's actually unusual for his songs to lay themselves so bare, and really, he has quite a gift at crafting lyrics from pregnant-seeming resonant images that are rich in feeling and flavour but are very hard to unpack into something didactic. All my favourite songs on Globe of Frogs, for example, do that - including the title track and "The Shapes Between Us Turn Into Animals." It's tempting to just be lazy and call them drug songs, along with "The Raging Muse" above, but this doesn't capture the magic of what his lyrics can do: "In a globe of frogs, the moth unfurls its moistened wings" is a very striking image, very concrete,  and sends a little chill down your spine, maybe, the way actually watching a moth emerging from its cocoon, spreading its wings for the first time, might do, but while it touches on things magical and mysterious and so forth, I have no idea what it "means." What is a globe of frogs, even, and how did the moth get in there? Beats me. And as with "Queen Elvis," you get a lyrical juxtaposition where an image acquires its own opposite: in "Queen Elvis," it's the idea that society (or someone) will sculpt you til you "bleed" or "breathe," depending on which chorus you listen to, whereas in "A Globe of Frogs," Mrs. Watson has children who have been "certified insane" (a bad thing, presumably) while herself having been certified "as good as gold," which we're assuming is positive, unless it means she's going to be used as a dental filling. It's tough to eke out meaning from lyrics when an image contains its own opposite within the same song!

...to say nothing of those other times where Hitchcock drops an image you simply were not expecting, which can be sometimes quite startling ("if I was man enough I'd cum on your stump," for example, in "Wax Doll," which always reminds me of the Annie Sprinkle/ Long Jean Silver amputee-porn arrest, but which could mean something quite other for Hitchcock; who knows?). Or, going back to Eye, there's "Executioner," which seems like a dark but fairly accessible breakup song, almost a banal thing for as rich a songwriter as Robyn, until it climaxes in an out-of-the-blue potshot at Live Aid. It's a bit of a spit-out-your-drink moment, when you hear it, and changes your relationship with the rest of the song, which turns on a dime from the brooding to the hilarious, and leaves you wondering which side came first and/or was more important to the singer. Was it a break up song he got bored of midway through and decided to subvert, or was his target always Live Aid, or was he just writing away and find himself taken with a ridiculous option for a rhyme? You had THOUGHT you knew what the song was doing, but you find yourself delightfully non-plussed. Such gestures keep you on your toes, make it hard to wear any given song out...

Shufflemania appears to be a mixture of both of Hitchcock's extremes, maybe tending a bit more to the obscure compared to his last LP. My early favourites off the album are "Socrates in Thin Air" and "The Sir Tommy Shovell," and typically, they're the ones that fit my feet best. The first - there's a fun rock video for it, linked above - is a kind of mournful observation of what has happened to our intellectual life, written around Socrates' death sentence. He's vulgarized and trivialized in the marketplace ("look what they did to him," with the video showing him decked out with shades and a cap), finds himself no match for the herd ("there were more of them than him") and tempted by egomania, maybe, as he finds himself surrounded by "mediocre minds" (which I take to be a reference to the Einstein quote, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds"). The end result is that he's gone, lost in "thin air," with society making no apologies or even claiming responsibility. It seems pretty relevant to the state of our society intellectually, and again, requires less that you have read Socrates than you know how he died. We might ask why Hitchcock casts himself in the role of executioner, in the video, but that's a bit extraneous to the lyrics, which are quite accessible, really. 

There's also probably plenty to be unpacked in "The Sir Tommy Shovell," though I was sad this morning to discover that there is no public figure named Tommy Shovell (or Thomas Shovell); I had hoped that there was a real person that I might read about here, whose deeds or history or values would underscore the song. Is Hitchcock even thinking of a specific person, and disguising their name? I don't know, but the fantasy pub in the song sounds pretty appealing - a nice mixture of the high ("Sir") and low (the "shovel"), and definitely better than "the Racist Loser," who also has no obvious referent in the real world (but is easier, somehow, to provide faces for, things being what they are). This one I probably like as much as I do because of the punchy music, which brings you back to the days of the Soft Boys and "Rock 'n Roll Toilet," for example. There's also plenty of energy to be had in "The Shuffle Man," mind you, but I like that one a bit less because I really have no clue what it's about. Individual lines pack a punch ("don't forget to function/ don't be one of those" - definitely not!), but overall I'm lost. Agreeably so, but I'd need to have Hitchcock himself to explain things to me. What is Shufflemania

Surely he has been asked that question in recent interviews, but I have read none of them, and think trying to talk to him myself would be quite terrifying, since this is one smart fella, and if he wanted to explain his lyrics, he'd probably include a decoder ring in the Cracker Jack box, y'know? One feels he might have contempt for decoder rings, want to protect his own lyrics, his own experiences; why else would he have translated them into code in the first place? 

Really looking forward to the new album, in any event. Come back to Vancouver, Mr. Hitchcock! Soon! (And hurry up and get here, Shufflemania!).   

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Holy Spider returns to the VIFF Centre (and Klondike to the Cinematheque)

I didn't get to see everything I wanted to this past VIFF, though I did pretty well considering. In particular, I recall racing out to see Holy Spider at the Playhouse one evening. Friends were going, the buzz was strong, and it couldn't have been more topical: Iranian women (and some men, even non-Iranian ones) were protesting pretty avidly at that point, at the Vancouver Art Gallery and elsewhere around the world, over the death of Mahsa Amini, who was in the custody of the morality police at the time for the crime of not having her hair covered (interesting, nuanced article about that here). What better time to see a film about an Iranian serial killer, Saeed Hanaei, whose predations on prostitutes and addicts - he killed sixteen women - were welcomed by some sectors of the public in Iran, who argued he was cleaning up the streets, getting rid of "corrupt women" who were a blight on Iranian society... especially given that the film implies that authorities dragged their heels in catching Hanaei, with filmmaker Ali Abbasi going so far as to invent a character, a female journalist, who is ultimately responsible for Abbasi's capture? 

Alas, the lineup for the film that night was so long by the time I made it to the theatre that I was told that there was no hope of my entry; I consoled myself with the equally remarkable (and also quite feminist and topical) film Klondike a few blocks away. That film I reviewed here (just skip the bit about the ballots and phrasal verbs); happily, Vancouver audiences will be able to see Klondike again at the Cinematheque (though only for one night, December 1st, so mark your calendars). 

But friends who did get into the Playhouse that night assured me that Holy Spider was remarkable, a must-see, their pick of the fest, so happy news that it too is returning to the screen in Vancouver, opening at the VIFF Centre on December 9th. The film boasts a Cannes-best-actress-winning performance by Zar Amir Ebrahimi (below) as said journalist and an equally compelling performance by Mehdi Bajestani as Hanaei. It's quite brutal at times, quite painful, as Abbasi gives us enough time with three of Hanaei's victims that we come to care about them. This happens despite (or is it "because of?") Abbasi's depicting their rather desperate lives in a pull-no-punches fashion; the first is shown smoking opium and sucking cock before she encounters Hanaei, the darkness of her circumstances offset by our knowing she has a daughter at home whom she is trying to support. The second victim actually connects briefly with the female journalist; and the third, depicted in the poster, above, while the least obviously miserable of Hanaei's victims, is also the feistiest and strongest, the one you most hope will successfully fight back against him - which makes the brutal violence she encounters really quite hard to stomach. 

The director's statement from the press kit - the full kit can be found on the Wild Bunch website - is excerpted below. There are a couple of minor grammar issues that I will leave as given:

HOLY SPIDER is a film about the rise and fall of one of Iran’s most infamous serial killers: Saeed Hanaei. In a larger context, the film is a critique of Iranian society, as the killer is a very religious man and a well-respected citizen. I was still living in Iran in the beginning of 2000s when Saeed Hanaei was killing street prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad. He managed to kill 16 women before he was caught and put on trial. It was during his trial that the story really caught my attention. In a normal world there is no doubt that a man who had killed 16 people would be seen as guilty. But here it was different: a portion of the public and the conservative media began to celebrate Hanaei as a hero. They upheld the idea that Hanaei simply had to fulfill his religious duty to clean the streets of the city by killing these ‘dirty’ women. This was when the idea of making this film came to me. 

My intention was not to make a serial killer movie. I wanted to make a movie about a serial killer society. It is about the deep-rooted misogyny within Iranian society, which is not specifically religious or political but cultural. Misogyny everywhere breeds through the habits of people. In Iran, we have a tradition of hatred towards women, and it often rears its ugly head. In Saeed Hanaei’s story this is present in its purest way. This makes it necessary to show different perspectives that demonstrate a range of opinions in Iranian society; those on his side and those who oppose him. 

Saeed Hanaei is both a victim and a criminal. As a soldier at the front of the Iran-Iraq war, he has given his youth to his country, to make it better and to give meaning to his own life. He then finds out that society doesn’t care about him, that his sacrifices during the war didn’t change anything. He exists in an existential vacuum, in spite of his belief in God. Saeed goes to the mosque and cries in the house of God. He finds a new mission, a mission for Allah. 

HOLY SPIDER is not intended to make political points against the Iranian government. It is not another critique of corrupt societies in the Middle East. The dehumanization of groups of people, especially women, is not unique to Iran but can be found, in different variations, in all corners of the world. 

I see the movie as a specific story about specific characters, and not a “theme” movie about certain social problems. We don’t want to let Saeed’s story and persona saturate the film. Instead of making another movie about different ways a man can kill and mutilate women, we want to underline the complexity of the issue and the stakes on different sides, especially on behalf of the victims. Rahimi’s story is as important as Saeed’s. I want to get close to her and understand how she deals with conflicts within herself, with her family, and society while she follows the case.

Hanaei’s victims were not generic street women, they were individuals with their own personalities, and we hope to restore a part of their dignity and humanity that was taken from them. Not as saints, not as unfortunate victims, but as human beings, like all of us. 

Abbasi says that part of the inspiration for the film came from the documentary And Along Came a Spider; it's available for free on Youtube, and contains interviews with Hanaei, I believe from shortly before his execution (there is also an interview with Abbasi in the press kit that I encourage you to check out, but it seems less than fair play to just excerpt the whole thing; you may also find this interview interesting, wherein Abbasi likens Hanaei to Travis Bickle!). 

Of course, Iranian authorities have not responded well to the film. The Iranian Culture Ministry says the film "has insulted the beliefs of millions of Muslims and the huge Shiite population of the world," which insult you may need help to perceive, since the film, while condemning misogynist elements in Iranian society, is hardly irrelevant to the rest of the world or dealing with a problem specific to Iranian society. Hanaei's character is sadly very recognizable, a man who believed his life would be meaningful, who believed he was due a hero's stature, whose dissatisfactions in middle age (some of which may also doubtlessly have been sexual) find him embracing a sort of angry, violent authoritarianism, which ALWAYS takes its rage out on the vulnerable and weak (I mean, where's the fun in victimizing people who are stronger than you?). There's plenty 'nuff people like that - violent, women-hating bullies, whether they kill or not, who use their conservative values as a justification for predation - inhabiting every creed, Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist or otherwise, living all over the world, even in Canada (though the structure of Iranian society might make them a bit easier to spot). It's kind of like Abbasi has, with this film, screamed into a crowd, "You misogynist bastards" and the Iranian Culture Ministry alone has looked up angrily and said "You talkin' to me?" (cf. the English idiom, "to take the bait."). 

Abbasi - who ultimately had to film in Jordan, and whose film no doubt will not screen in Iran, addresses the question in the interview: Why is this movie threatening to Iran? 

It’s not like we’ve made an explicit movie — but it’s one of the few movies set in Iran that conveys a certain realism. There has been severe censorship in Iranian cinema for the past 50 years. Any movie you see is presenting a parallel reality of Iran, like movies from the Soviet era. Almost all of them adhere to a set of written and unwritten rules, even movies critical of the Iranian government. The taboos that are never broken in Iranian films include nudity, sex, drug use and prostitution. But those things remain a big part of Iranian society and they are relevant to my story, even part of its atmosphere. 

...I don’t want people to see this as a message movie, although misogyny and dehumanization are themes we explore. My intention was to hold up a mirror to Iranian society, and while the mirror might be dirty or broken, it shows a good portion of what it feels like to live there. This movie is as much a political statement as a comprehensive view of society and while I don’t think Iranian society is a sick place, I do believe the representation of reality in Iran has become sick in terms of how women’s bodies are depicted on-screen. They have been dehumanized into non-existent figures with faces buried in cloth. Almost every family has access to unregulated cable TV that routinely shows Britney Spears dancing in a bikini, but Iranian women are seldom depicted as having a sexual life. Also, after thinking about this story for more than 10 years, I feel a fundamental injustice because the families of Saeed Hanaei’s victims are seldom mentioned. A tragic injustice befell the women who were killed — they became numbers and people stopped caring about them, much less their families. These were real people, and by showing their fate in a specific way, their survivors can remember them as human beings like anyone else. 

Like I say, the film is quite brutal at times, so be warned if you go, you will flinch at some scenes (I did). It's also gorgeously cinematic - Abbasi talks about wanting to create a "Persian noir," and it succeeds there, as well. But it's well worth going to see - a remarkable film to emerge from Iran. Too bad that what might be the greatest piece of Iranian cinema of our time has been rejected by the country that birthed it, and that Iranian audiences will never get to see it (unless it is pirated, which I imagine it will be, quite widely). 

Hey, does anyone know if those protests at the VAG are still going on?

For more information on the VIFF Centre's screenings of Holy Spider, go here.  


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Invasives/ Byron Slack Interview, by way of John Wright, Nomeansno, and Rong: Of Feeling Good and Living Forever


This article will get to Invasives presently! ...But first, I figure the people who know Invasives' music - their bandcamp is here - will not mind a digression into John Wright's upcoming project. Wright - drummer for Nomeansno and frontman of the Hanson Brothers - has recorded his first post-Nomeansno album, and it features Byron Slack of Invasives (and Kristy-Lee Audette, of Rong, also playing the album release that this interview is written in regard to). So it is not entirely irrelevant. Surely no Invasives fan will mind the news of this other project, and perhaps some Nomeansno fans who don't know Invasives will discover them, given that John Wright himself is a fan and friend to the band?

So commence the digression!

Part One: John Wright's new project! 

In the spring of last year, despite fresh travel advisories from the BC government, my wife Erika and I travelled to Powell River to talk with John Wright (and visit his pub, The Wildwood). Some of that appeared in a German magazine last summer, but other than the odd mention of it on my blog, the article has not run in North America. To be honest, the interview wasn't even the biggest part of it, for me, since I've interviewed John Wright (and his brother Rob) more than once over the years. 

No, the peak for me of the experience was that I got to drink John's beer. I am very glad I got to do this, because I'd wanted to sample his beer for years. If I had had a beer bucket list, "beers to try before you die," it would have been the only beer on it. Which is fortunate, because - though I am not dead - it turns out to have been one of my very last beers ever, since a few months later I would discover that I had recurrent cancer in my tongue and be told to not drink alcohol, period. John's beer may not have been the last beer I had - I probably downed a few at shows afterwards - but (unless you count de-alked stuff) it is the last real beer I REMEMBER having, and as such, is a great beer to "go out on," so to speak, because it was absolutely yummy and well worth having waited for. 

Photo: Erika Lax

There was a lot else that took place, including, earlier in the day, trying "the Hanson" pizza at the Wildwood (where, note, you CANNOT as yet buy John's beer - the licensing didn't work out. But the beer there is great too!). I also got to meet Colin Macrae of Pigment Vehicle, who is one of John's partners in the Wildwood and runs the Powell River coffee shop Base Camp (or did last I heard - I haven't stayed in touch!). But the coolest part of the actual conversation was learning from John (who, unlike his brother, has not retired from music) about his new musical project, which he was inviting Ford Pier, Byron and Adam Slack of Invasives, and Kristy Lee of Rong to partake in (Adam Slack, it turned out, was not able to attend, though John hopes he can be involved in the future; also note, vocalist Selina Martin also contributed to songs via the internet, sending in tracks from France, and John's son Aiden also played some acoustic guitar). 

John Wright in Powell River, 2021, by Allan MacInnis, not to be reused without permission

Commence John Wright mini-interview: I am in italics, John is not, but he is indented a bit. As we join the conversation, we are talking about the impact of John having worked most of his musical career with a brother like Rob, with John admitting that in many regards, he was "a bit intimidated" meeting the standard set by Rob when putting together his upcoming record. 

John: ...The people who are going to listen to this are Nomeansno fans, and yeah, Robbie set the bar pretty high when it comes to the tone and the text and the songwriting, lyrically... I can string together words sometimes that are clever, and silly Hanson Brothers songs are okay, but Robbie was the lyricist in the band. Robbie could find the emotional tone in his words that makes the music mean something. And the music - it worked both ways; I could write music that gave Rob that palette to emote on. So we worked well together. He didn't find it difficult to write words to my songs, and his words gave the songs an emotional and intellectual depth to the feeling. Like, I write a song and I know just how this song needs to feel, lyrically. But I can't necessarily do that, I'm just not as talented a lyricist...

...So I had all these songs that I really [couldn't] come up with anything lyrically for, so I thought, maybe I'll farm a few out... [plus] I play drums, and I play keyboards, [but] I play very rudimentary guitar and bass, and to be in a band and play some of these songs, some of the stuff is kind of complicated and beyond me, although I've tried to simplify things to suit my abilities. But I knew that eventually maybe Ford or Byron or people I know would come and help: "Do you want to play some guitar on this song?" And also I said, "Ford, hey, I've got this song and no lyrics, do you have any ideas?" Byron was sending me music for the robots, for instance [John Wright provided vocals and lyrics for the Compressorhead album, where the music was played by robots - this being a few years ago now]: "I've got these demos, these ideas." So we were exchanging things amongst ourselves, primarily with Byron and Ford, and I talked about how it would be awesome if Adam could play some bass for me. But this was a couple of years ago, and as time goes on - I'm busy with the bar, they're busy with their lives, and Adam has a baby, and blah-blah-blah. And there was no timeframe set. 

But Ford has written some music for one song which is on the new album, and he wrote another song that is complete that is not on the album [a second release is also in the works!]. And Byron wrote some lyrics to my songs, and then he sent up a song and I rearranged it and edited the words. So we've kind of collaborated on some stuff. [There was] about a year of talking about them coming up and doing some recording and replacing some of my guitars and working on these songs that I'd written together - I'm speaking primarily about Byron here. And Kristy [his partner], whom I'd never met - it was like, "Kristy plays trumpet, she plays guitar, she's kind of a multi-instrumentalist." "Awesome, I've got horn parts, maybe she wants to play those?" And she did. She came up, she played some horn, she did some singing, And Byron did some guitar and some singing, the background 'gang vocal' kind of stuff. It was awesome. And the next album is well on its way, and hopefully I'm going to get them to do more. The opening song is Byron's song and mine. 

Can we know the name? 

The first track is called "Just Breathe," which is essentially a Byron song that I turned on its head and did a lot of changes to. Primarily his words and primarily his music, but I completely rearranged it, like "Hey, Byron, you know that song you sent me? Well, I kinda changed it. In fact, I changed the title!" 

There's an Invasives song on Robot Stink called "Stop and Breathe." 

Yeah, I forgot about that, actually, until afterwards, when I was doing a little Invasives binge on Spotify and thought "Oh fuck!" But they're not the same. 

Okay, so, about Invasives. Do you have favourite songs of Invasives, or something you've done with them that you want to talk about...? 

Invasives, from the moment I heard them and saw them - what a fucking great band. Really strong songwriting and just great live. So I've been a fan from the gitgo. I think it was Blair Calibaba that introduced Invasives to us, and then of course they played some shows and did some tours with us. I haven't been involved in any of their songwriting or recording, but a couple of times they have asked my opinion about which songs to do in what order. So I've offered my opinions here and there. The last album [Just Another Under the Sun], I heard some roughs and gave some opinions on that. Byron and Adam have always reached out to me about their recordings and asked my opinions about this-that-and-the-other thing, but [their music] is entirely them, what they do and produce, and it's great. The new album is very strong - I'm afraid I don't have the song titles all in my head or in front of me, but they did five more songs for the album [than are on it]. They were talking about wanting it to be different from their other records; they went to a different studio, and they didn't have Dave Ogilvie mixing it. And some of the song arrangements are a little different on this one. They kind of sent me the songs in the order they wanted and the bonus tracks, the extra tracks, and I said, "I'd include all of the extra tracks on the album. If you want this to be different, here you go!" 

But they eventually decided on their own order, and it was primarily what they originally had. But there are five outtakes that are awesome. I think there'll be an EP of them...

Something Byron and I talk about [below]: bands that are influenced by Nomeansno. And he is happy to acknowledge that he was influenced by Nomeansno, as is Ford Pier. But there is also the question of what he thinks is a sort of regional sound, which includes math-rock or, sorry, "prog" influences in punk, in bands like Pigment Vehicle, Removal, and maybe Victims Family. I wonder about that - if there's a regional aspect to this sound, that Nomeansno participates in, that comes from somewhere else? Or does it all sort of start in terms of technical, mathy punk with Nomeansno, in terms of the West Coast at least...? I mean... do you hear Invasives and think, "Hm, they sound a bit like Nomeansno?"

Personally I never thought Invasives sounded like Nomeansno. When I first heard them, I thought, "They sort of sound like Helmet" - total riff-driven, hard-hitting songs. And they like to fuck up the time signature a lot. They blend time signatures. I like doing that, too. There's one song, "The Hawk Killed the Punk," where at one point, one of us is in 3/4, one of us is in 4/4, and one of us is in 5/4, all at the same time, then eventually it all comes together and ends. I like doing that a lot, and Byron does that a lot, which is cool. I like that. And they reminded me of Victims Family a bit, though I know they never heard Victims Family til later... but in terms of a regional sound... uh...

[This leads to a long discussion of actual influences, John's lack of interest in prog bands, and the possibility that Rob Wright, eight years older, had listened to that proggy stuff more than John. It remains an inconclusive conversation which takes us far afield from Invasives, so... End John Wright mini-interview!]

So that's how cool Invasives are, if you didn't already know. (As for John's new project, it is still a ways from any release date, and note, there is no great news yet about Nomeansno reissues: John explains that all the existing materials in the band's possession, including lacquers, CDs, vinyl, and what tape exists, have been turned over to Alternative Tentacles. Since many original masters and much of the art has not been returned to the band by Southern Records, there is a slow, laborious process of rebuilding things, with no fixed date as to when it will be completed). 

Meantime, people looking for a high-energy, super-smart, precisely-played punk onslaught like you might expect from Nomeansno - though from a band who are indeed very different, as John notes - are directed to Buddha's on November 26th to see Invasives perform...! Also note that Rong, on the bill, has a new album called W├╝rst, which is out now on vinyl (digital release upcoming in February) and a new single, "Queezey." (I do not know what Pet Blessings are up to!) 

Commence Byron Slack interview; again, I am in italics, Byron is not. You may also enjoy my previous Invasives feature here, from 2016. 

See you at Buddha's!



Part Two: Byron Slack and Invasives

Allan: I have always associated Invasives with Nomeansno – maybe because I saw you open for them, maybe because there are two brothers in a three-piece band, maybe because sometimes your rhythm section owes a bit of a debt to Nomeansno on some songs (the intro to “Below the Salt,” for example, sounds very Rob and John to me, and some of the guitar riffing and background vocals on “Piece of Land” seems very Wrong-era Andy)… you’re obviously very DIFFERENT from Nomeansno, but could you talk about their importance to your history? What have you learned personally or musically from Nomeansno? Do you have any favourite memories of seeing them live or sharing stages with them? Any insights in how to be a band that you’ve gained from them?

Byron: Well that’s one heck of an opening question Allan! What band is this interview featuring anyway?!?! ;) Kidding aside, I feel that some of my songwriting choices owe more debt to those gents than our rhythm section. After spending a lot of time with their music you can hear a shift in our recorded material mid 2000’s as we sponged up so much from those guys while under their wing, though I do feel that our time of wearing that on our sleeve is not as present now as it once may have been. The “Below the Salt” intro in my imagination was a reference to Missy Elliot’s “The Rain (Supa DupaFly)” but then I can hear what you are sighting, tight loud bass and a drummer who is locked into the accents and groove are an attribute of NMN. Victims Family is one of my favourites as well and that also leads down a path that one could argue has similarities to NMN.

I would prefer to be associated with what in my mind is at this point a regional sound, the Ford Pier Vengeance Trio, Pigment Vehicle, Removal, all these groups we pull influence from as well. A big happy artistic pool of muck. 

The background vocals on “Piece Of Land” is John Reddit of the unfortunately defunct War Baby, he was visiting the studio and we asked if he could step in the booth, I am so happy he did, it was great to have him add his touch to those back up vocals.

The Germans in particular are very excited about the upcoming return to music for John Wright… have you played Germany before? (Are there places outside Vancouver where your music is particularly appreciated?). Any impressions of music fandom in Germany, stories about Germany...? 

We have played many shows in Germany though this goes back a few years so there are some cobwebs in my memory bank. Most of the touring we did overseas was concentrated in Germany and Eastern Europe.

I know that if you drive a van with Dutch plates in Germany you are going to get pulled over by the police over and over again because they think you are transporting contraband.

I had my toiletries bag stolen out of the van in Berlin but they left my laptop, very considerate on their part.

Great venues, great shows, lovely people we were very welcomed and well looked after. There are many folks I miss, it’s been too long and we would love to go back as soon as is possible. Much love Deutschland. 


Invasives by bev davies, 2015, I think at the Hindenburg (formerly John Barley's and maybe once a Cruel Elephant locale?), not to be reused without permission

If we could go back to your early days, what was the prehistory of the band? When did you first start playing live as Married to Music? (Had the Slack brothers been making music together before then...?). What was the musical context of your earliest shows – who were you opening for, where were you playing?  Has the lineup been consistent since, or have there been changes? 

Adam and I have played music together as far back as I can remember, our father ran the local FM radio station CKGO where we grew up in Hope BC. so music was always a part of our household. We have music that we recorded on a boom box dating back to the mid 80’s so it’s really something we do as a way to express ourselves together and still enjoy. We were in bands together in our teens during the 90’s and then through that process met Hans and decided to play in a group together around 2001. We played around Surrey and the lower mainland and eventually made the move to Vancouver after recording our first full length as Married to Music, The Worlds Gotta Go Round, in 2003.  

Very soon thereafter we found ourselves on the road opening for our heroes Removal and then SNFU who put out our sophomore effort Sweet Kicking and Screaming in 2005. We have been very lucky to have been supported by so many great bands. It’s been the same three guys in Invasives for all these years, it wouldn’t be Invasives if all three of us were not present. The sound we create is the result of us working with our strengths and producing something that we all feel is ours. We try and one up with each consecutive release, weather we do is up to the listener. It’s been a wonderful journey.

I caught an early Married to Music gig, maybe two, I think at the Red Room… once opening for Nomeansno, and once… did you open for SNFU there? (I seem to recall Mr. Chi Pig being present in a red shirt that Goony had gotten when he cleared out the estate of Ray Condo. but I'm not sure if he sang that night or was just THERE). I remember the vocals being a bit more abrasive but the band being quite tight… How do you feel about those early days now? How and when and WHY did you transition from being called Married to Music, anyhow? Do you still play any of the Married to Music songs, live?

We have transitioned our first two albums under the name “Married to Music” to be housed in our Invasives universe (Please see the streaming service of your choice). Yes we still do play many of those songs in our live set as there are some favorites of ours and fans alike. Sometimes still there are folks at shows who recognise us from 20 years ago and ask if we were ever in a band called Married to Music.

Due to our dislike of the name Married to Music and the opportunities at the time we bit the bullet and renamed ourselves Invasives, after invasive species. I like to think that it suits us well, three annoying guys that just won’t go away. Fitting right?  

Speaking of musical influences and the proggier side of the band, do you care about Rush? (I do not myself care about Rush – I respect them but I don’t want to listen to them much. You?). What about the minutemen? (Did you ever see the minutemen live, or share a stage with Watt?). 

I think Rush is great, tho I never choose to spin a record, I saw them live once and it was fantastic. I have only ever really listened to Double Nickels on The Dime by the Minutemen, another amazing band. Never met or shared a stage with the mighty Mike Watt. However, we get compared to both bands often, which is honorable in my mind.

I always wondered about the title of the album Desk Job at Castle Dracula. What was that in reference to? The cover art for that album is really striking – can you tell us about it?

Desk Job at Castle Dracula (2010) refers to the day job that is sucking your life’s blood. We thought it was fun and also something that people would identify with.. I feel like it’s one of our best artistic outings as well as one of our most challenging.

We commissioned the cover art to local Jordan Bent and had requested an image of Count Dracula as the Birth of Venus and what you see is what he returned with. Personally, I love it.

If I could ask about my two very favourite past Invasives songs, what was the context of writing “LivingYour Life Like It’s Somebody Else’s” and “Stop & Breathe?” They kind of stand out on Robot Stink - they're a bit poppier, a bit more tuneful, a bit less intense than the surrounding songs, like they could have been "radio hits" if bands like Invasives had radio hits ("Abstract World" seems to be their equivalent on the new album). But neither are the dominant mode of songwriting that Invasives do. Are different members of the band taking the foreground in the songwriting on those? Is there a conscious decision to put one or two "lighter" songs on the album? Or do you just end up with a few different flavours, when assembling an album? 

During the Robot Stink sessions we were attempting to write an album that was simple and psychedelic, kinda dreamy. Those two tunes are still favorites to play live and I can understand why they are considered poppy, especially “Living your Life”. We wrote sooooo many songs for that album and picked the ones that turned out the best. The further away I get from that album the more of an anomaly it seems. Ryan Merchant recorded it and Dave Ogilvie mixed that album and it turned out absolutely bananas. We get compliments on the bass sound still.  


Is Ford Pier involved on the new album? (“Abstract World” kind of has a Ford Pier flavour, but I wonder if that’s just an accident borne of his also being somewhat influenced by Nomeansno?). Do you have a favourite Ford Pier song? He’s filled in for members of the band at past gigs, hasn’t he? Any Ford Pier stories are welcome - I really like Ford, but I always kind of feel like he's smarter than I am.  

Ford was not involved in this album however I totally love Ford's music, I feel like our tune “Just Another Under The Sun” deserves more credit as a track that holds some of his influence, tho I can see some of that in “Abstract World”.  My favorite Ford track, that’s tough, I love “Legionnaire’s Song,” “Maybe It Cameat the Wong Time,” “When We Were Poor.” The last album with the Vengeance Trio, Expensive Tissue. is phenomenal as a whole. Ford is fearless when it comes to composing so many amazing tracks.

I agree. Coming back to Feel Good Live Forever, there’s stuff happening on “Ocean Park” that I don’t get, musically. There’s a quiet little swirl of what sounds like electronica in the first minute, but maybe that’s just guitar with effects? The solos that kick in about 1:15 in the song sound like it’s guitar being filtered through a harmonica or something. What am I hearing?  (Do I hear a reference to an "abstract world" in the lyrics at the end of that song, too? Is there a lyrical theme to the album, a conceptual continuity...?). 

No electronics on that number, just one guitar one bass and drums, I think that bit at the beginning you;re hearing is some harmonic runs up and down the guitar strings. It is an extremely stark track and for sure the wackiest on the record. I play the guitar solo at 1:15 and there is some heavy lifting on the whammy bar at wicked loud volumes, no harmonica necessary!  Yes, I do a call back to the song “Abstract World,” the album is a conversation regarding disillusionment and successfully lifting one’s self from the distortion of perceived personal shortcomings. We are all human, don’t sweat the small stuff, stardust dude, nothing really matters, Life Is But A Dream.

I wonder what the song “Cats Blood” is about? I can’t really make out the lyrics – can you provide them? “Free theLeeches” too – a very curious title. Are we talking literal or figurative leeches? ("Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed"-type leeches, preying on bands?). Trivially, I once put leeches on myself at a pond to see what it would feel like, and to practice removing them. I kind of like leeches, but then, I'm a music journalist.

"Cats Blood" is a break up song, classic right! The individual goes to some dark places as one does, but they do recognize that what they want is not going to help and not good for them, and either is the person they have parted ways with. So it’s a positive, the night is darkest before it starts to get light again …or something like that.

"Free the Leeches" is about taking a daypass into someone else’s distress and misfortune to which then the participant feels the audacity to share their experience and expertise of. Big opinions of individuals whose investment is benefiting them and not the community they are imagining to support.

 Is there a typical approach to songwriting...? Who writes the lyrics? Do you have the music before you add words to it, or…? 

I write the lyrics, and Adam, Hans and I work on the music, passing demos back and forth in email, or jamming out small ideas. Every song tends to form a little differently. I love the ones that seem to drop out of the air; "Cats Blood" was one of those. The music spurs the words, once there is a theme or feeling it builds out of that. Sometimes its vague, sometimes its right on the nose. For every 10 album tracks there are hordes of abandoned ideas and bad songs.

The COVER for this album is fantastic. Where are those fucking warthogs, anyhow? (Those are warthogs, right?). Where did that come up as a cover idea?

That is a real photo! Taken by a Mr. Filip Jandourek in Bangladesh, he was taking pictures of some other subjects and turned around and saw these two boars and snapped a shot. I came across the photo somewhere on line and reached out asking if our little Canadian band could utilize the image. He’s a lovely guy and we worked out the details.

I like to think of the album cover as Pink Floyd meets the Dayglo Abortions.

 [The title] Feel Good Live Forever rounded up the whole package perfectly, from there it was off to the races.

Why that title? Anything else we should say about the album, in terms of guest players, credits, or fun trivia? 

We were going to call the album “Abstract World” for the longest time, but after we attained the artwork we agreed that we needed a better title to go with the image. I was looking at positive affirmations like “Live laugh Love” or something ridiculous like that and was scanning the lyrics of the album track “Sundown” and saw the line “Do you Feel Good? Oh ya, Live Forever”.

The light bulb went pop, a lovely surprise just waiting there to be found.

Anything you want to say about the upcoming gig is welcome. How are gigs happening at Buddha’s again? (Does it still have that awkward skate ramp curvature on either side of the floor?). Any history with Rong or Pet Blessings? 

The show is going to be great, I love the bands that have joined the bill, Rong and Pet Blessings are both incredible two of the best bands in Vancouver, they are gonna destroy! We feel so lucky to have such amazing supportive friends and family participating in this event that celebrates a lot of hard work and the release of our noisy little record. Hope to see ya at the show.


Invasives courtesy Byron Slack. Gig information here - Nov. 26th at Buddha's (the former SBC Cabaret/ Smilin' Buddha location, which I gather is quite different from the SBC Cabaret days - the ramps are gone, for one thing (but so is the stage, so getting up front is advised, if you want to see stuff!). . 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Gig Regrets: Shows That I Could Have Seen and SHOULD Have Seen but CHOSE NOT TO GO TO for some damn reason or other


I remember, as a very young man, listening to ads for a Perryscope Production (I think) announcing that Frank Zappa was coming to town. I must have been eleven or twelve? Maybe in 1980, I think at the Coliseum - maybe this show in March? (I love that there is a detailed setlist for it available - not so for most other concerts I missed back then, but Zappa fans tend to be a bit obsessive about such matters. It might also have been this show, in 1981, however, which has nowhere near the detailed setlist). I don't recall the dates exactly, but I recall the context of learning about it. I had a small clock radio by my bed that my parents had given me. I woke up with music every day, listened to it before I went to sleep, and sometimes went out and bought 7"s by bands I liked. Of the early songs I remember hearing, I recall getting singles by Billy Joel ('It's Still Rock'n'Roll to Me," 1980) and the Alan Parsons Project ("Games People Play," 1981). That's the only way I can sort of date the concert - I remember buying those songs based on hearing them on the radio (probably CFOX) and hearing the Zappa ads for the same shows. I had been to a Johnny Cash and a Charley Pride concert with my parents, at that point, I think; and would, around this time, go see my first concert of my own choosing (Billy Joel on the Glass Houses tour). But even though my tastes were clearly not yet very evolved, I remember hearing a snippet of "I'm the Slime" as part of that radio ad (I think) and finding it kind of curious and compelling. My thought then - ate age 12! - was, "This is interesting music, but you never hear it on the radio. Why not?"

It was PROBABLY the first time I had that thought - my first discovery of "The Unheard Music," maybe, which I would grow to spend most of my life listening to: by 14, in 1982, I was self-defining as a punk, and would phone CFOX occasionally and request DOA or the Dead Kennedys and/ or ask the DJs why they didn't play punk. 

I had not heard of punk rock at the time of that Frank Zappa show, of course, but it was the start of my realizing that there was a whole world of music that I was never going to encounter on the radio. And while the odds were always against my going, at age 12 or 13, to that Frank Zappa show, I remember thinking, even then, "Maybe I should go to that?" 

I mean, considering how new I was to music fandom, I can forgive myself; I'm more impressed with myself that I even considered the show than I am regretful or bummed that I missed it, but it was the first show I ever considered, elected not to go to, and now I wish now I had chosen differently about.   

Here are a few others:

1. The time I maybe missed the Blasters? I only have a vague memory of skipping the opening act when I went to see the Kinks - a flash of conversation before the show of whether we wanted to see them or not. I am not sure what year it was, they had shows here in 1980, 1981, 1983, 1985; it was during the hamster wheel years on the Kinks' American arena rock circuit, when Ray's shtick involved spritzing the audience with beer from bottles during the intro to "Low Budget" (and, for that song sang "and dropping my drawers" in place of "so I can buy more"). I think they were touring Give the People What They Want, but it might have been State of Confusion. (Both shows started with "Round the Dial," according to what I can find online). There was a girl I liked that came with my friend and I, whom I was sort of awkwardly pursuing a crush on, which places things in junior high school (same school I went to with Rob Nesbitt, actually, of BUM and the SuiteSixteen). I remember being stressed out whether to put my arm around her or not, the night at that show. I think I chickened out, but I also vaguely remember a sore shoulder, so I might have gone for it, I don't know (she was just too pretty and I never had a chance and knew it, but wow I was impressed with her). A male buddy came with me - he and I had a falling out in junior high, sometime after that show, so I don't think it was the 1985 show, because I don't think we were very friendly anymore by then. But I also remember discussing with him whether we wanted to see the opening act, and vaguely recall words being said to the effect of,  " I don't want to see some shitty rockabilly band." Which would have been the Blasters, if it in fact was the 1985 show. Please tell me I didn't do that?  

Of course, dissing and skipping the Blasters is better, in terms of facepalm pain, than the possibility of my having missed the opening act in 1980, when it would have been the Angels (during the time when they were known over here as Angel City). I've come to adore them. I know people who went to that show, but I was too young, still - that was when I was going to see Billy Joel or, uh, Styx (touring Paradise Theatre). I think my fandom for the Angels and the Kinks (and the Who, whom I never saw, but whose music I loved) came a couple of years later than that, as I became more particular in what I listened to, more knowledgeable. 

Anyhow, I have no idea who the opening act was for the Kinks show I did get to see was. I'm glad I saw the Kinks, but whatever happened before they took the stage, whatever night that was, whichever year, is a deep void. Based on the junior-high school time frame, the shows in 1981 or 1983 make the most sense, but I don't think it was 1981, because I liked Red Rider's "Lunatic Fringe" and "White Hot," and they were the alleged support for that. I think I would have been interested to see them. But in 1983, it was the Ray Roper Band that opened - a Stonebolt offshoot. It's possible that that was the opener I missed?

No offense to Stonebolt fans out there, but I'd much rather have missed the Ray Roper Band than the Blasters or the Angels. 

2. The Pretenders at the Coliseum, I think in 1987. I had heard about Iggy Pop, who, as the opening act, was touring Blah-Blah-Blah, and realized by that point that - though I liked a few songs on that record - he had a much richer back catalogue. I had read about him in Creem magazine, talking about Zombie Birdhouse, and might have had that album by then, maybe even Party and Lust for Life (the first three Iggy Pop albums that I owned, I think). I was already getting snobbish about my music, already an elitist, and as I recall, thought the Pretenders (touring Get Close, I guess) were just some crap commercial pop band, unworthy of my time. I shared this thought with fellow punks on the way out of the Coliseum, who, as I recall, were disappointed by Iggy's show because he didn't do anything from Soldier. I didn't know that album, I don't think, but we bonded in this "fuck the Pretenders" sentiment - oddly also reinforced by a live clip of Iggy performing a song on a Toronto cable show (doing "Rock'n Roll Party," "Winter of My Discontent," and "Dum Dum Boys") where at one point, he addressed the audience and said something like, "what do you think this is - Chrissie Hynde? This is hardcore." 

Which it wasn't, but the next big show regret was...

3. The time I snubbed the Crucifucks. It wasn't until I saw the gig poster, years later, that the memory came flooding back to me (the poster was the same basic design, but was Vancouver-specific, with the opening bands listed; it's only online in black and white, however, so I'm electing for colour). The first night the openers were I, Braineater, the Bill of Rights, and the House of Commons, all bands I'm really glad I got to see back in the day. (Bags of Dirt apparently also played, but I either did not see them, or have no memory of them). But blogging about the gig back in 2012 - see that previous link - I discovered that the Crucifucks had been among the supporting acts the second night. 


After writing that 2012 piece, memories floated to the surface of seeing the poster before the show and being disturbed by the Crucifucks' name (the singer himself has, last he was a public figure, sworn off profanity, so to speak, and refers to his earlier band as "the Christmas folks." I was no longer a churchgoer at that point, but my Christian years weren't too far behind me; I can date my ceasing to go to church at around 1980, because it was that year - at age 12 - that I discovered the joys of masturbation, which I was prepared neither to give up nor confess. Something about sending 12 year old boys into dark alcoves to tell priests about their masturbatory habits - because what other sins does a 12 year old really HAVE, ferchrissake? - seemed off to me even then, and who knows what bullets I dodged. But even though I'd already apologized to God, telling him in prayer that I was going to give up both church and prayer, because I just didn't BELIEVE in him enough - "hope you'll forgive me if I'm wrong" - I believed in being respectful of institutions.. The Crucifucks was a "band name too far," it was frightening, made me worry what my parents would think, made me too afraid to want to see the show.

Of course, I really got into them, shortly after that. Steve Shelley, later of Sonic Youth, drums on that first album. That would have been something to talk about with him when he was at the merch table for that Lee Ranaldo gig...

(BTW no offense is intended to Death Sentence here, since I did actually see them shortly thereafter, so I don't kick myself for missing them the way I kick myself for missing the Crucifucks).

Those are the main shows I regret missing - Zappa, maybe the Blasters, the Pretenders, the Crucifucks - the shows that, if I could travel back in time and tell myself to go, I would. There are many others - Sonic Youth touring with Neil Young; Sonic Youth touring with L7 and the Beastie Boys; the Beastie Boys playing a Lollapallooza I was actually at, working a merch stand (I recall dimly hearing "Sabotage" start and making no effort to leave the stand, even though the merchant who I'd come along to help suggested I go; I was too much of a snob even then!). I think a 1980's version of Guided by Voices played that Lollapallooza, too, but I wouldn't even have known who they were. Then there was the time I missed the Butthole Surfers at a Lollapallooza I was at, and every other Butthole Surfers gig I didn't go to. Never saw Husker Du, never saw Tupelo Chain Sex, never saw Black Flag, never saw Nomeansno with Andy. I had a chance to see John Fahey in Japan that I missed, and also a reunion of 3/4s of Can, including Michael Karoli (Fahey and Karoli would die not too long after both shows). And of course, I missed every chance I had to see John Prine, and I'll never get another. 

I've seen my share of shows, though. I wonder if it will console me much, looking back? 

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Where Is The Friend's House, Know Your Place, Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, and recurring dreams

I'm fascinated by recurring dreams - how they speak to patterns in our psyches and give us access to our own deeply internalized, subconscious personal narratives, often poorly understood during our waking lives. Robert Stone - the novelist who wrote A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers (probably most widely remembered for its film adaptation, Who'll Stop the Rain?) talked about a recurring dream he had where he is arriving at a border by some means of transportation or other, carrying contraband. He knows he will be arrested almost immediately upon arrival. Many people around him are aware of his guilt, as well, and are planning to do absolutely nothing to help him; he has nothing to do but sit there with his impending sense of doom, waiting for the hammer to fall. You can see a bit of this structure echoed in Dog Soldiers/ Who'll Stop the Rain?, where the character of Converse, played by Michael Moriarty in the film, has set in motion the smuggling of a kilo of heroin out of Viet Nam, not realizing that corrupt feds are waiting for it and him to arrive, having been in on the deal from the outset. "I've been waiting my whole life to fuck up like this," Converse remarks on learning just how screwed he is. (I have long found it very easy to identify with Converse: "I fear, therefore I am"). It was fascinating to learn - in the book Writers Dreaming, by the way - that the deeper structure of this section of the novel owes directly to Stone's dreams (he has a short story, too, in Bear and His Daughter, that also draws on this dream, but I forget which one; perhaps "Under the Pitons?").  


I've never yet tried to incorporate it into fiction, but my own recurring dream structure involves having someone for whom I am responsible fall into jeopardy in an unfamiliar town, which I must go to to "save" them. There are different particulars: sometimes the person is a child (perhaps mine'; someone once suggested that the child in fact is me), but sometimes it's a woman, and once it was my father, shortly before he died. I have travelled, alone and without help, to this town to try to find or save this person, but do not know where to look, and in trying to find leads or clues or allies or such, I find myself falling prey to distraction. Often the distraction involves people with problems of their own, who enlist my help - which I begrudgingly provide, feeling my own commitment pulling at me, then - as I get sucked deeper and deeper into their problems - feeling my ability to exercise my responsibilities fading, growing dimmer... but sometimes the distraction is more trivial, and involves finding a really good record or book or video store (or thrift store with records and books and movies in it), and I end up almost forgetting my quest as I fall to shopping... which generally leaves me feeling even shittier about my priorities when I wake up. It would make a very unpopular movie: a quest narrative where in the end the quest will never be completed, where there is nothing but failure and distraction and a lessening of purpose, replaced by a growing sense of futility and failure and moral mediocrity... a hero's journey that never arrives where it is supposed to, just in gradual diminishment.

I haven't had a dream with that structure in awhile, and really, I don't mind, because it's not a good dream, seems almost like a warning, a sign that things are going wrong in my life. It's always a bit troubling waking up from having had it. Still, I'm fascinated by the fact that my brain has put that story together, without my conscious involvement, and offers it back to me periodically. None of us really know where the stories we tell come from, no one who creates is truly in charge of what they create; ideas swim up of their own accord, often half-formed by the time we become aware of them, without our knowing what they really mean or why they've come to us; we give ourselves credit for things that ultimately are mysterious in origin, assembled not by our waking selves but rather given to us out of the blackness within. And it's really interesting when that inner author, the one that assembles the dreams and sends them to us, the deeper self we barely know, actually comes up with a story that is elegant and meaningful and personal to us, so much so that the structure bears repeating: as with Robert Stone, I've had several variants on my dream structure - this failed rescue quest dream - through dozens of dreams. 


I asked Zia Mohajerjasbi, the writer/ director of the film Know Your Place - one of my favourite films at this past VIFF, which I wrote about here - about whether the story behind the film perhaps came from a dream or folktale. It has that feeling of elegant simplicity, an inner structure that is basic and expressive and meaningful unto itself - one that in fact resonates against my own recurring dream structure, even though the ending is quite a bit happier: a young person is entrusted with delivering something important, but finds himself foiled in every way possible, distractions and obstacles placed in his way, until a simple task becomes an ordeal. There is definitely a relationship with your general heroes' journey narrative structure found in popular films and stories (one could argue that The Lord of the Rings is also about an obstacle-laden quest to deliver something somewhere), but the smaller scale of the journey makes it feel more intimate, more real, more profound. I could see someone having dreams like this - in fact, if you allow for the difference that I never actually get to complete my quest, and the young protagonists of Know Your Place do, it's basically my own dream structure (but one without shopping for records). It has that elegance of a very basic, very profound, very deep story, swimming up out of the blackness...



...except Mohajerjasbi didn't base the structure on dreams, but - he explains in the interview that I linked above - rather drew inspiration from an Abbas Kiarostami film, Where Is the Friend's House?, which, based on his recommendation, I have now seen (in fact, twice). It was distributed as the first volume of The Koker Trilogy by Criterion, is within our library system, is  accessible via Kanopy, and has screened on Mubi (though it is not currently available there). If you happened to see Know Your Place, watching Where Is the Friend's House? feels like having another instance of the same recurring dream structure, though how the young hero of the journey comes to the quest is a bit different: our protagonist, a young boy named Ahmad, watches his classmate get a stern lecture from a hard-assed teacher about having done his homework not in his notebook, but on a loose sheet of paper. The classmate has a habit of forgetting his notebook, it seems - the teacher has warned him twice before - and is told that if he forgets his notebook again, he will be expelled. Ahmad then discovers, on returning home and setting about to do his own homework, that he has accidentally taken his friend's notebook home with him; he knows what the consequences will be if his friend doesn't get the notebook back before class next day, but discovers that no one he explains the problem to takes him seriously or understands the importance of his quest; his mother just wants him to do errands and finish his own homework, and his grandfather is more concerned about instilling random discipline, sending Ahmad on a quest for cigarettes that the grandfather knows full well are in his pocket. Leaving his family behind in Koker, he sets out alone on foot to try to find his friend's home in a neighbouring district. Along the way, there are obstacles and distractions - and, just as Know Your Place has commentary on gentrification in Seattle, there is a level of commentary on life in rural Iran, not limited to how children are treated, but also taking in rural-urban migration and about the effects of slow modernization. For one thing, people are getting their wooden doors replaced with iron ones, which leaves the makers of the wooden doors feeling somewhat sidelined and sad; it transpires that the most helpful stranger Ahmad encounters is a wooden doormaker, who explains his plight, while - if I understood correctly - one of the least helpful he encounters is an iron doormaker - a fat man on a small donkey. You feel for the donkey. 


We'll leave it unsaid here whether the quest is completed, because the ending of the film is quietly very potent, but whether you saw Know Your Place or not, the film is a must see. Babak Ahmadpour, who plays Ahmad (and is pictured above, as he tries to demonstrate how similar he and his friend's notebook are) is particularly great, earnest and sincere and entirely believable in his role. And while the other films in the so-called Koker Trilogy were not really intended by Kiarostami to be viewed as part of a trilogy, they do connect with Where Is the Friend's House? on more levels than just being filmed in Koker; the second film in the trilogy, for example, And Life Goes On, is a quasi-documentary in which the filmmakers return to Koker to see if the two stars of the earlier film survived a 1990 earthquake. Koker also figures in Through the Olive Trees, the third film in the trilogy, and was apparently the location for A Taste of Cherry, which Kiarostami himself felt deserved grouping with these other films. There's also Kiarostami's documentary Homework, which is an extra on the Koker Trilogy set, and which also comes highly recommended. Finally, there is a documentary called The Tree of Life, which apparently deals with the impact of having becoming a famous child actor on Babak Amadpour (and his brother, actually named Ahmad). 

Great cinema leads to more great cinema... grateful to Zia Mohajerjasbi for setting me on this road!