Thursday, May 19, 2016

Gerry Hannah: Of Punk, Pornography, Politics and Prison

This is an expanded version of the piece I did with Gerry Hannah for the Straight online awhile back, since he's playing the Fox (NOT the Commodore!) with Art Bergmann this weekend. I won't be there, Gerry, sorry! We talk about Todd Serious a bit near the end. The intro comes from an article I did for a German magazine... Enjoy...
 Gerry Hannah by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

That I know of, there's no story in the annals of punk rock more interesting, inspiring, or disturbing than that of former Subhumans (Canada) bassist Gerry Hannah. Back in the early 1980's, he followed his commitment to punk politics - his radicalism, his environmentalism, his feminism, his anti-war agitation - to the extent of dropping out of society and training as an urban guerrilla, something generally unheard of in recent Canadian history. Nevermind GG Allin flinging poo, this is the real dangerous edge of punk, the shit-or-get-off-the-pot decision to go all the way as a revolutionary.

There's revolutionary posturing throughout the subculture, of course, and certainly other sincere punk anti-fascists and anarchists committed to trying to better society; the late Todd Serious, of Vancouver band the Rebel Spell, was one such person (and a friend and fellow admirer of Gerry's to boot). But there's also a lot of "we mean it maaan" image-building in the subculture that, let's face it, is about as sincere as Slayer's Satanism.

No questioning Gerry Hannah's sincerity, though; in Vancouver, no one took it farther than he did, "walking the talk" of punk until he ended up in prison, serving five years of a ten year sentence, imprisoned with his compatriots in the group Direct Action - better known in the mainstream media as "the Squamish Five," after their 1983 takedown on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, just south of Squamish, BC. That's where the group had been training with weapons and planning to rob a Brinks truck, to help finance their life underground, while the RCMP built a case against them. 

The story is disturbing precisely because the Five - also including Hannah's then-girlfriend, Julie Belmas, who had briefly played in the Vancouver punk band No Exit - took it so far. A security guard, TerryChikowski, was nearly killed by a bomb set off by Belmas, Ann Hansen, and Brent Taylor, as an unintended result of their blowing up a building at Toronto's Litton Industries, where guidance systems for US Cruise Missiles were being manufactured.

Hannah was not charged with involvement in that particular action, but he still catches heat for it - most notoriously from Canadian political pundit, speechwriter, and former Hot Nasties member Warren Kinsella, who rather viciously smears Hannah in his 2005 book, Fury's Hour. But Kinsella is not the only person who questions the Five's methods. Even Hannah himself, in Susanne Tabata's documentary about the Vancouver punk scene, Bloodied But Unbowed, says pretty decisively that their actions were misguided, reasoning that if one group on the radical left claims the right to break the law and blow things up in response to sincere political commitments, surely equally sincere groups on the right - anti-abortion activists, say - can also claim that right? And nobody wants that…
The Subhumans (Canada) are no more. Hannah left the band in 2010, after what was perhaps their best-attended show since reuniting, opening for Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine at the Rickshaw Theatre, photos from which can be seen on the Big Takeover website (“Jello TakesVancouver”). The remaining members considered getting a replacement bassist, which is what they had done for their (excellent, under-rated) 1983 LP No Wishes, No Prayers, recorded when Hannah left the band the first time, in 1981; but it never happened. A few years after Hannah’s departure, in December 2014, Brian "Wimpy Roy" Goble, their lead singer, died of a sudden heart attack, at age 57 (RIP, Wimpy).

Gerry Hannah continues to perform with his folk-rock group the New Questioning Coyote Brigade, named after a pre-Direct Action activist group he was involved in, which practiced low-level political vandalism. That’s something Gerry is no longer involved in, but he retains a fondness for the name. The band's live repertoire includes re-workings of at least two Subhumans songs ("I Got Religion" and "21st Century" - rewritten slightly by Gerry, I believe, to avoid seeming to refer to premature ejaculation, though coming quickly and coming suddenly are pretty much equally problematic, by me, so he mighta just as well stuck with the original!).

Much else of their material is drawn from two solo releases of Hannah's. The first is a cassette-only, acoustic 1985 release, Songs From Underground, recorded while Gerry was in prison; the most famous songs on it are "Living With the Lies," which appeared on the soundtrack to Zale Dalen's cult film Terminal City Ricochet, and "Sure Looks That Way," which was memorably covered by Codeine, pushing the gloom-and-doom elements of the song to the fore. 2014 saw Hannah issue a full-band expansion and augmentation of several songs from that cassette, entitled Coming Home. The response from the punk community has been underwhelming, despite the appearance of Subhumans guitarist Mike Graham on a couple of tracks, so here's hoping this interview goes some way towards getting more people interested in the album, which can be purchasedthrough CD Baby.

The following interview took place in the summer of 2015. 

How did Songs from Underground end up getting recorded, originally?

It was recorded on a 4 track cassette tape recorder that was in Matsqui prison, that was purchased by the Matsqui Musicians Association with the help of the Sports and Recreation department. We raised money by having socials in the prison, where basically you'd have friends or relatives come out to an evening of music, or an afternoon of music. They'd pay $10 to come inside the prison and see the show, the concert, and that money would go towards the Musicians Association's budget. With that money we would buy various pieces of equipment. Among other things, we bought a 4 track recorder, and I recorded on that, with a single Dynamic microphone, and I also had access to a Poly-800 synthesizer. And I had my acoustic guitar inside the prison at that time, and the Musicians’ Association/ Sports and Recreation department already had a bass guitar. So I did bass, acoustic guitar and vocals myself. I played some synthesizer on some of the songs, and I got a couple of people who were also in prison with me to help out on background vocals and harmonica.

Did any local notables perform at these socials?

Not people that I knew. People later played Matsqui, like,  DOA played Matsqui and stuff, but not while I was in there. But we did get people -  Connie Kaldor and Roy Forbes [AKA Bim] came out and played at one social. I played at that one, as well. Those were probably the most notable celebrities we had. 

What are the oldest songs on Songs From Underground? Were any of them written before you were in prison? 

Yeah, "Like a Fire" was written before I went to prison, not long before. I think I wrote that shortly before I left the Subhumans for the first time in 1981. I think that maybe "Holy American Empire" was written around that time, too, and maybe a couple of others, I'm not sure. My memory is somewhat cloudy. But "Like a Fire" was written really a long time ago. And oddly enough, the style of the song was kind of based on David Bowie [Note: Bowie was still alive at the time of this interview]. You know the song "Andy Warhol," it was kinda similar to that, a similar style, or at least that's the way I envisioned it. As far as acoustic music went at that time, I was really into that sound, of Bowie when he did acoustic stuff. I guess it was kind of long ago. And I have to admit I was a huge Doors fan, so I think there's a bit of Doors in there too, probably. 

It's a powerful song - it's always been one of my favourites. But I wonder, that song, and "Cold Kechika Wind," both have a lot of youthful angst in them. I assume that last one didn't make it onto Coming Home because it's a little overwrought? Do you know what I mean?

Maybe. I definitely write songs a lot differently now, lyrically, than I used to back then, and I've probably got a different musical style too, to some extent. But yeah, "Cold Kechika Wind" did not end up on Coming Home, even though, the last time the Subhumans were in Quebec, we were in Quebec City and this person came  up to me who had heard the tape, Songs From Underground, from when I was in jail, and that was her favourite song. She sang the thing to me in the dressing room! It was quite moving, actually. But I wasn't that keen on the lyrics to "Cold Kechika Wind," I thought they needed quite a bit of work to be presentable at this stage of the game, and I wasn't willing to rework it for the album. It fell by the wayside, as did a few others, like the song "Waiting.” I took the songs that I thought were the best, that I felt the most comfortable with, happiest with at this time in my life.

Do you feel more attached to the material on Coming Home than you do to your Subhumans songs? Does it feel more personal, to you?

I wouldn't say that, no. It's obviously a different style of music, and it has a different emotional impact on me, but there are songs I wrote for the Subhumans that I feel passionately about. It's different, but one isn't more powerful for me than the other. It's just that I'm really not that interested in playing punk rock anymore; I don't like playing so fast that I feel, like - what did John Lennon - or, uh, Chuck Berry - say, in "Rock'n' Roll Music," about losing the beauty of the melody because they're playing it "too darn fast?" The other thing is, the formula for writing lyrics in punk rock - and I'm a slave to the punk rock formula -  is really in your face, there's no ambiguity whatsoever. "This is what we're telling you, and it's black and white." That's not really where I'm at it terms of lyric writing at the moment, I want to move beyond that. I'm not saying I do move beyond that, but ideally I would like to. And I think the songs on Coming Home are... there's a little bit more room for the listener to move around in the lyrics, without being hit in the head with a sledgehammer and told how to think. 

In fact, there's one I'm pretty sure I don't understand. You mention pornography in the liner notes, in regard to the song "Half-Life," but it's not really about pornography, right?

It's much more complex than that. It's more about the objectification of humanity. It's about viewing people as commodities and objects as opposed to having some kind of intimate, almost spiritual intercourse with someone that you care about or are affectionate with or love or whatever. It's more about that. That, to some extent, has fallen by the wayside in mainstream society, and we have a much more objectified view of what is attractive, and what deserves our affection, and what we should desire sexually. It has a lot more to do with objectification that it does with actually seeing a human being for who they are and how they feel and what they experience and what's going on inside their head, what their spirit is all about... it's about that. In the liner notes, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned pornography, because I'm not just talking about pornography that you go on the internet to see, or buy a video or something, I'm talking about pornography in its more general widespread sense, even in the way we sell clothes and cars and commodities. We use pornographic imagery, practically, to sell that stuff. And even our entertainers now practically have to be pornographic, in order to gain an audience. Or maybe they like being pornographic? But it's a whole different thing. It's only half or what's required in a real relationship. Certainly you want to have lust in a relationship, I think, that's great, in an intimate, sexual relationship. But you also want to have connection. What's behind those eyes, when you look into their eyes? 

And I'm not pointing a finger and going, "you guys are a bunch of fuckin' assholes, get your shit together." I'm looking at myself, and how all of this affects me, and how I end up looking at women. And it scares me, I don't like it, it freaks me out. (On stage, Hannah has drawn parallels between "Half-Life" and his Subhumans song, "Slave to My Dick.") 

I gotta segue into a question that you might not like, but how did you feel about the Wimmin's Fire Brigade? Did you support what they did? [Hannah's then-partner, Julie Belmas, participated along with other women in Direct Action in the 1982 fire bombings of three locations of Canadian video chain store Red Hot Video, who, in the early 1980's, were allegedly taking advantage of the lack of regulation of VHS tapes in Canada to distribute some fairly vile porn, including, or so it was rumoured, snuff]. 

Oh yeah, I supported it, because I knew what was going on at Red Hot Video, I knew what kind of films they were selling, and I thought they were horrendous. I'm not into aiding and abetting guys getting off on either the simulated or real murder of women. Why would I support that? I don't support heroin dealers getting kids in schoolyards hooked on heroin; why would I support helping to get men hooked and addicted to pornography that was all about torturing and murdering women? Of course I supported the Wimmin's Fire Brigade, because they were challenging that in a fundamental way. Nobody else was willing to go that far, but apparently that was what was necessary, because up until that point, nobody did anything about that. 

Yeah, it's interesting. I have a bit of history of working at video stores in the 1980's, and I remember getting lists of movies - and not just porn, it was everything from John Waters' Pink Flamingos, say, to Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS - that we were supposed to pull from the shelves, because they had been deemed offensive, pornographic, politically unacceptable or what-have-you. I've often wondered if the start of the classification of porn and other movies, if our current system of reviewing and regulating movies in BC, was a direct reaction to the Wimmin's Fire Brigade - if the authorities figured, "we better start regulating this, because we can't have this sort of thing happening." It's a bit of unwritten history.

I don't know anything about that... obviously somebody was making decisions about what movies were appropriate for a young audience and which weren't - the "restricted" thing at movies - long before the Wimmin's Fire Brigade attacked Red Hot Video. But... I really don't know! Censorship is one of those really tough calls. Most people who want a free and democratic society don't want censorship, but on the other hand, sometimes it seems necessary.
I have heard it said that one of the things the Fire Brigade was reacting to was an enema rape film - I think Julie said something about this, and I'm pretty sure she said the title was Water Power. Which is interesting. I haven't seen it, but that's a film that actually has a cult following among fans of extreme cinema, people like Robin Bougie of Cinema Sewer, or, I think Stephen Thrower has written about it...

I did an interview with BC Musician magazine not too long ago, and Leanne Nash asked me about the whole Red Hot Video thing, and I mentioned that we had seen a journalistic piece on Red Hot Video on BCTV, I think it was. And they actually showed footage of one of the films you could get from Red Hot Video, and it simulated a woman getting murdered by a forced water enema, tied up and basically being given an enema until she died, while she pleaded with the person who was giving her the enema to please stop. And eventually she goes limp and she dies. And when we saw that, we thought, "Okay, that is totally beyond the pale. Guys are renting that and going home and jerking off over that? That's disgusting!"

So what do you make of extreme horror movies, now? Because commercial cinema is almost that bad, now. 

Well, I think it's shit! I don't watch it. I try to avoid watching movies with gratuitous violence in them, unless it's outrageously tongue-in-cheek. For instance, Fight Club, which is about as far down that route as I go. Fight Club, I still like that movie. It's not one of my favourites, but it's got redeeming qualities for a mainstream movie. Or, well, I call it a mainstream movie. Some people might say it's got a lot of violence in it, but the violence in it is pretty tongue-in-cheek; it's not like somebody is gleefully torturing somebody else, and there's no explanation in the movie of why that's happening, and there's no redeeming factor for it being in there. Those kinds of movies I'm not interested in, and it disturbs me that lots of people really like those movies. I think, "maybe you ought to do an analysis - what is it that you like about watching someone suffer? Why do you like that? Would you like that in real life? Would you like to watch someone tortured or beaten to death in real life?" So yeah: I'm not big on that stuff. I'm not saying that we should be going and censoring all that stuff, I don't care for it. Michelle, my wife, and I, watched a movie not too long ago, about three young people, kinda hipsters, who share an apartment, I think in Scotland, and it has whatsisname from Trainspotting in it?

Ewan McGregor? You're talking about Shallow Grave. 

I didn't like that movie at all. I thought the violence in it was gratuitous and over the top. I'm sure lots of people thought it was a great movie. Maybe you liked it, because I know you like those offbeat, fairly violent movies...?

I do!

But I thought the violence in it was gratuitous. Did I really need to see from the inside of a bathtub what it looked like for a man to be forcibly drowned, and what his face looked like after the life had gone out of his body? I don't need to see that! What do I need to see that for? This shit's really happening, man, all over the world: people are being beheaded, people are having primer cord wrapped around their necks and having their heads blown off by ISIL. I mean, I know that terrible things are happening, and I don't think I'm the kind of person who would hide my head in the sand if I had to deal with really brutal acts happening in my face. In the past, I've sort of been able to deal with that. But I don't need to go and spend money to watch that happening. But that's just me. 

There are a fair number of people who would agree with you on that, though.

Well, I know I'm supposed to be this vicious terrorist guy who society should be protected against, because I'm ultra-violent - "look out, I might blow up your high school," or whatever the ultra-Conservative rhetoric is about Direct Action/ Squamish Five right now. But it's ridiculous, because actually I don't like violence. I don't like it at all. That's not to say that I don't crave justice to the point where I can be vengeful, practically. I am that way. I'm very passionate about my beliefs. But I don't like violence, I hate violence. It's horrible.

Let me segue into the topic of Julie. 
I want to ask about the song “The Woman Reborn” (The song deals with Belmas turning against her former comrades during her sentencing appeal, an action that infuriated many people on the radical left in Vancouver; graffiti shown in the book Lost History: Vancouver Street Art in 1985, by Ron Kearse, includes the slogan, "Crucify Belmas," on one wall]. Has she responded to it, at all? 

(Laughing): Nobody's responded to the record. Why would she bother responding to the song? Maybe Julie's gotten wise in her old age and she realizes when there's a point in typing on her computer keyboard and when there's not. To my knowledge she hasn't responded to it, she probably doesn't even know it exists. Last I heard, she hated my guts, and basically everybody in Direct Action’s guts, and, y'know, that's fine. I can't do anything about it. I've tried over the years to connect with Julie and talk with her and try to find out where she was at, and explain to her where I was at, and one minute she would be, like, "oh yeah, let's get together and talk," and the next, "I don't want anything to do with you," and tell my parole officer, "I don't want Gerry Hannah ever phoning me" and so on and so forth. It was almost like two personalities. For a long time there, Julie was saying it was all our fault that she was involved in Direct Action; that it was largely my fault, and that I should have done something to stop her. And now... I don't know what she's saying. 

There was a blog interview with her that's kind of disappeared from the internet, that seemed like she was actually endorsing direct action again, but I don't really remember what she said. It was kind of confusing. But were you at all ambivalent about putting this song in the world, were you worried that she might be upset, or...?

I can't say that it didn't cross my mind that she might have something to say about it, because she had something to say about a song that actually had nothing to do with her, and that was "Living With the Lies." She thought that I wrote that song about her, and I didn't. That song was written about three fellow prisoners, these three doofuses who shared a table with me at Matsqui, when I first got there, who were constantly putting me down and laughing at my political position, of how we believed in trying to bring about a revolution in Canada, and at my desire to keep alive my relationship with the person I was in love with at that time [ie, Julie]. They laughed at that stuff, they trashed it, they were sarcastic, they were dicks. They would tell me what was no doubt happening with Julie in Kingston Penitentiary (across the country from where Hannah was incarcerated), about how she was no doubt getting it on with women prisoners and how her love of me was no doubt completely forgotten. They were so negative and cynical that I ended up moving to a different table and taking my meals with some other people, who ended up being really nice, and great people. The first three guys were who that song was written about. "Living With the Lies." "You guys are so jaded, so cynical, that you can’t even see, you can’t even get close to being able to look at the truth anymore, you’re just hiding in this miserable, angry little world that you live in, and of course as soon as you get out, you’re going to go and fuck up again, and you’ll be right back in here, where you hate being." But Julie thought it was about her, and her sister actually wrote me a letter talking about how she was upset about that song, and I heard other people talk about how Julie felt it was really wrong for me to write that song about her. And she came onto my blogspot, Another Useless Subhuman, anonymously, but it was obviously her, and trashed that song, and it was never written about her!


The song that I did write about her was called “The Woman Reborn.” That song was written years later. And I know what you wrote about it in your review of Coming Home, and as I indicated to you, I disagree with your analysis. I don't think it's angry at all. It’s sad. And I don’t think it’s unfair or harsh to her. I say clearly in the song that I pity her and feel bad about what happened to her. I’m watching this person basically come unraveled before my very eyes. They’re in so much fear and pain that they’re basically inventing stories to try and get out of the horrible hellhole that they find themselves in. And I pity them! But at the same time, I can’t accept the stories that they’re inventing, that aren’t true. And that’s what that song’s saying. It’s not saying, "You’re a fuckin’ bitch, I hope you rot in hell," you know? I don’t say that, that’s not what that song says at all. That song says, "This is how I feel about what happened with my ex-girlfriend."

The angry part, to me, is coming out and saying that in public. 

It's history, man. It's Canadian history. Like, what happened in Romeo and Juliet, they made some fuckups, too, and it ended up in both of them being killed, but we want to know that story. The more we know about how human beings function and how they interact and what can happen in relationships, the better. Like, how does betrayal come about? It's like watching a movie about the dilemma that Palestinians find themselves in who end up being thrown in jail by the Israeli army, and being told, "look, you can either rot in jail for the next twenty years, because we know that you were involved this action against Israel, or you can go back to the West Bank or Gaza and you can be informer for us, and we'll pay you. Not only will we not keep you in prison, we'll pay you to tell us what we want to know." That is a very real situation, and I'm not one of those people who go, "they're rats, shoot'em all." Sometimes I'm angry with people who rat out and betray people, for sure, and I don't condone it, but it's a complicated situation, isn't it? It's not black and white, it's a difficult position to find yourself in. And I think the song "The Woman Reborn" explores that. And if I'm angry at anybody in that song, I'm angry at the authorities. I'm angry at CSIS. I'm angry at Kingston Prison for Women staff, that basically bamboozled her and made promises to her when she was in a desperate, fearful state, and they basically turned her against her own ideals and her own friends. That's who I'm angry with. I'm not angry with Julie... or, I'm angry with Julie, but not because of that. I'm angry with Julie because of all the horrible things she's said about me since then. I'm not angry with Julie because of what happened. I was at one time, I'm not now. She was put in a horrible situation, right? She didn't know what to do, she didn't have a support network to help her out, she was 2,000 miles away from her family and friends, and she was bamboozled and pressured to make a decision that was a bad one. In order to get her sentence reduced, she was supposed to say she was actually frightened for her life to leave the group. Which was absolute bullshit. There was no reason to be frightened. In fact, she did leave the group, one night, and then she came back. Her Dad met her somewhere in New Westminster, they had ice cream, and she decided "I'm not going to leave the group after all," and she came back. So she was not afraid. There was no pressure, other than, "Oh, come on, you're going to leave? Come on, we put all this work into it." That kind of pressure. That's as far as it went. I don't know if that clarifies my position at all... I'm trying to explain how a person that you care about can be taken from you and turned into someone you do not know, by forces that are completely beyond your control.

I have to beg your indulgence Gerry, because - and I think I speak for a lot of people here - I haven't been in a relationship remotely like yours with Julie. Ever. I haven't had a life remotely like yours. So listening to this album, I'm listening to it as an outsider trying to make sense of it. I think you're right that it has historical value - but it's also really kind of remote from me, y'know? But I'm curious - are there people who have picked up and bonded with you on this material, maybe people in prison, political radicals, who have "gotten" this material in ways maybe ordinary people can't? 

Well, I told you I met that woman in Quebec City who could sing "Cold Kechika Wind" to me word for word, and English was not her first language. And she loved that song, and she got the whole message behind that song. Which is actually another kind of allusion. Even though that song is apparently about the wolf cull - the old wolf cull, the one that was happening in 1982, as opposed to the current one in BC - even though that song is using that as a metaphor, it's also about losing your partner to the authorities. That image creeps up in that song as well. And this woman knew exactly what I was talking about. And my wife and I watch a lot of movies about Palestinian prisoners and south American prisoners, we study guerrilla history, and we read about, even, people who were guerrillas in Chile, after Pinochet took power - people who ended up settling in Vancouver. There's a great movie called The Legend of Rita [German title Die Stille nach dem Schuß]. I don't know if you know that movie or not, which explores the whole dynamics of being in a guerrilla movement, and what happens after that, and how one tries to hide in society. It's of interest to me, because I've been there, but there are people who have been there a hundred times deeper than I've been there. And I find it fascinating, because I think you learn a tremendous amount about humanity when you study that stuff, when you look at how people function in very difficult, very challenging, very isolated situations, where they basically depend upon a little tiny group of people for their basic survival. And what happens when those relationships sour? Or things get really heavy, and there's the threat of jail or death. I do think about these things. I guess they're not that remote, to me. People are going through this stuff all over the world right now, there are conflicts raging all over the Middle East, people are being taken prisoner, people are being killed, people are fighting guerrilla wars and conventional wars, if you will... this stuff is happening. Yeah, sure - we're removed from it, here in the Lower Mainland. But a huge part of the world is going through this shit every day.

Yeah, it's true... do you ever get tired of being under public scrutiny? Because in a way, I was almost surprised this album came out. When you left the Subhumans, I thought, "that's it, Gerry's had enough of being under the microscope." There's a lot of shit that's been thrown at you over the years...

It goes back and forth, to be honest with you. I'll get sick to death of the attention. I don't get that much, but the little attention I do get, I'll get sick to death of that, and go, "to hell with this, I'll just go out and do a long haul job on the highway, I'm not going to bother with music or art or whatever." And there are other times when I crave it, when I go, "I'm not hearing the analysis of this situation that I want to hear, where is the voice? Where is the public voice that I want to hear out there, saying the things that need to be said about this subject?" And that's when I suddenly go, "Well, I want to say it, then." I don’t want to have to build myself in any way, or pretend to be somebody I’m not, which is inevitably required of you if you want to be some kind of public figure, but on the other hand, I look and go, where is the real analysis of climate change, and what that will really mean in terms of lifestyle changes for us? If we really want to face what we need to do – when are people actually going to start talking about that? What are we really going to do about overpopulation? Whatever happened to that - you don’t even hear that word anymore, and that was a big thing in the 1970’s. It was on the tip of many people’s tongues – the earth is overpopulated, we’re stripping the planet, and it’s going to get way, way worse, and we need to do something about it. But everybody now, even progressive people, they seem to feel that it’s their sacred right to have as many kids as they want to have. And I’m thinking, how come nobody’s talking about this.


And let’s face it, if we really want to start talking about climate change, we’ve really gotta dramatically change our lifestyles. We’ve gotta dramatically alter the way we relate to the earth and nature. We cannot function on anywhere near as the same level as we have to. For one thing, we’ve got to stop pushing internal combustion engines on the population. I know it’s not true among the intellectuals and progressives in East Vancouver, so much, but everywhere else in the province, everybody wants to have a personal watercraft. Everybody wants to have a 200 horsepower speedboat with a stereo system that blasts across the lake, mounted on a bar across the top. Everybody wants to have skidoos. Everybody wants to have a fifth wheel trailer pulled around by a Dodge diesel. They’re still completely in that mindset. Everybody wants to have an ATV. Everybody wants to be able to drive everywhere, nobody wants to walk anywhere. Well, when are we going to start talking about this? When are we going to start going to people who sell internal combustion engine machines, for so called outdoor recreation, and say, you know, “this is the same as selling tobacco. This is the same as selling heroin. You’re encouraging people to go out and burn fossil fuels just for the fuck of it!

But hang on, Gerry – you’ve got a song, “Winding Ribbon of Dreams,” about how much you love driving!

I don’t mention the word driving, I say “the highway” (laughs). For all you know, I’m hitchhiking, buddy! Or maybe I’m riding a horse. But yeah, things are going to have to change. I’m going to have to curtail my travel; everybody’s going to have to curtail their travel. We’ve got people jetting all over the world. And at the same time talking about how they want to shut down the pipeline. You can’t shut down the pipeline and make twenty jet flights a year, and not have “hypocrisy” in a big glowing neon billboard over your head flashing off and on.

Right, right… Look… I’ve gotta ask you a question, it’s going to sound like I’m putting you down but I’m not, I enjoy talking with you, I agree with most of what you say, but I’ve never really understood where you’re coming from in this one line in the song, “Living With the Lies.” You have a line there, “because I don’t talk/ about everything I know.” And jeez, Gerry, that doesn’t fit my experience of you. Where did that come from? You are so articulate, and you do talk so passionately, what were you referring to?

Do you think I talk like this when I’m at work? Do you think I talked like this when I was in prison, sitting with a bunch of hardened criminals at a dinner table, chowing down on the crap? (Laughs). And I’m a different person, too. I’m a lot more in your face, now, than I was. A lot more. And with people like you, who I think can understand where I’m coming from, to my friends, again, who can understand where I’m coming from, I don’t have any problem saying what I think and why I think it and what historical fact I can pull out of my ass to back up my thoughts. But it depends who I’m talking to. With some people, I really have to pull in my horns, I have to dumb down my language sometimes, there’s certain topics I can’t really talk about, or at least not talk about the way I would talk to other people. The other thing is, that even people who understand what I’m saying, or should understand what I’m saying, they think I’m an idiot, or disagree with what I’m saying, or maybe both. So maybe they do think I’m an idiot, maybe they do think I don’t know shit. I would wager that there are people in Canada who are intellectuals, maybe at one time were progressive intellectuals, who now believe that if you criticize Israel and their occupation of Palestine, you’re anti-Semitic. Well, those people are going to dismiss me as being a dolt, and not knowing what I’m talking about, or worse – that I’m anti-Jewish or whatever. And I can’t pull out all the reasons - you know what it’s like when you’re in a discussion with somebody and you’re trying to make them understand why you disagree. They’re not going to really hear what you’re saying. They don’t have access to the historical stuff that you have access to necessarily, so your whole arguments lacks any context to them. So in that sense – “just because I don’t talk/ about everything I know” – well, you can’t talk about everything you know in a ten minute debate. You can’t usher in all the facts in a conversation, necessarily, that you need to usher in to make people go, “okay, I see what you’re saying.” Y’know? And maybe I am an idiot. Maybe my positions on some issues aren’t that together, maybe not? But I’m not a computer, I can’t store all the information from all the books I’ve read and usher it up in my argument. Some people are really good at that, and I really admire that they can do that, it’s amazing. Like, Noam Chomsky is pretty good at that, but I’m not that kind of person. I’ve got the passion but I lack the ability to read like an encyclopedia when necessary.

It’s just hard for me to imagine you censoring yourself. All my conversations with you go to like this. But we all kind of live with lies, to some extent. It’s kind of a pre-condition to living in the world we’re in now.

You have to be in denial. You have to be on some level of denial. Some people are extreme about it, of course.

Let me ask you about another song on the album, “You Can Take It From Me.” That’s, I think, the best song on the album that I’d never heard before in any format, it’s probably my favourite of the new songs. There’s another line I don’t understand, about how “at last the dead are living, it seems.”

It was referring to the possibility of creating artificial human beings, at least physically artificial. We’re to the point where technology is like – do you remember Barney, the heart patient? Maybe you were pretty young at that time, but this artificial heart was created for this person named Barney Clark [Clark, a 61 year old dentist, received an artificial heart in 1982 and died 112 days later, in 1983]. And his doctor was showing the world how well the heart was working, to have this heart transplant. And he gave his patient a beer, and he was having a beer after this heart transplant. And there was something about that… I was already kind of anti-technological. Back when we were in Direct Action, we were kind of anti-technological; we didn’t have that figured out too carefully, but we had some kind of instinctual understanding that this belief that technology was going to set us free and solve all our problems, we had some instinctual feeling, the five of us did, that there was something horribly wrong with this idea, right. And in fact, we needed to simplify our technology, we needed to go back to the basic technology that served to make people’s lives not pure drudgery. But we needed to not go too far with technology, and not make it a new religion, and that’s kind of what’s happening in that song. I’m kind of using Barney and the artificial heart as a metaphor for how we’re going to solve everything with technology, so that eventually, we’re not going to die anymore. We’re going to basically just have artificial bodies. That’s what I was talking about in the line “at last the dead are living, it seems.”

But the overall song is about being led into your parole officer’s office and being lectured by him, right?

Right… it almost is two separate ideas in one song. But the difference is, in both instances, it’s someone saying, “Hey, this is how it is, I know, I’m an expert on the subject, and you can take it from me, you don’t need to take it any further.” One is the technocrats, the technocracy, saying “we’re going to be able to feed the world’s population ten times over with this new genetically modified wheat that we’ve created. Technology is going to set everybody free,” right? They don’t bother saying that they could have fed the world two times over already, twenty years ago, but nobody’s going to do it, because it’s a capitalist society and we want money for our wheat. It doesn’t matter how much wheat we can grow, we want money for it, and if you’re some starving beggar in some third world country, and you can’t pay for the wheat, you’re not going to get it; it doesn’t matter how much we can create, it’s irrelevant…


But that’s a side issue. So verse one is talking about technology and poking at the idea that technology is going to set us free, and… it’s almost free-form thinking: from technology, we go to the marketplace, and have a stockbroker who is thankful for the invention of nuclear weapons, because devices are now going to be invented for the delivery systems of nuclear weapons, just like artificial hearts are going to be invented, and this helps fuel a capitalist system and makes some people a lot of money. So okay, then the voice says, “this is what I’ve found, you can take it from me.” This is the voice of authority. The predominant voice of authority on our system is saying that capitalism is good, it’s good that technology is going to set us free, it’s good that people are employed at Boeing and Lockheed, even though they’re making jets and bombs to kill people over in other countries… and then when it goes to the parole officer, he’s saying, basically, “the way you want to do things is completely wrong, you’ve got to do things the way I say you’ve got to do them.” Again, the voice of authority is telling you how you should think. I realize it’s a slightly convoluted song, but somehow the emotion ties it together. It’s basically attacking, questioning the things authoritative voices tell us. It’s questioning those things, and it’s questioning the voice itself, and saying, “should we be listening to this voice, or should we be thinking for ourselves? Maybe there’s a problem with all of these ideas?”

I’m nodding.

Are you nodding out? (Laughs).

Heh. No. But I have to ask about a few more things - leaving the Subhumans, Brian, and Todd. Why did you decide you didn’t want to do the Subhumans anymore?

I guess – there were a few reasons of course, but I guess the main reason was, I was starting to find it embarrassing. I was embarrassed to have to ask clubs like Lee's Palace in Toronto and other people for guarantees of $1200 and $1500 dollars when I knew that we would be lucky if we could draw a hundred people to the show. And in fact, the last show that we played at Lee's Palace, we drew 99 paying customers, and we had been given a $1200 guarantee. I got tired of that! Because you gotta hype the band. We didn't have a manager. I kind of served to some extent as the manager and to a large extent as the booking agent. So that meant I had to sell the band across the country, tell everybody why the Subhumans were relevant, why they mattered, why they deserved a $1200 or $1500 guarantee. And I felt pressure on me to get top dollar, because we were legendary – in a few people’s minds. And I got tired of doing it, because I really could see... In every city in this country, there's a handful of people who think the Subhumans are really great, were really great. They still might not come out to a show, because they got other shit on the go. They might have to take their kids out to, y’know, hockey or maybe they're tired at night because both the husband and wife worked, or the husband and husband worked, or the wife and wife worked, or whatever, right, and they don't want to go to a show. But the point is, attendance had just dropped through the floor. And there comes a time when, you're trying to sell the band for all they're worth so you can make enough money to pay at least most of the expenses for a tour or such, but you realize that it's like trying to sell a car that doesn't run, and you're trying to make it sound like the greatest new car that's just rolled off the assembly line, and after a while it feels kind of fraudulent.

That’s sad, man. The Subhumans were a great band.

Well, you think so. But the majority of Canadians do not. The vast majority of Canadians don't even know who the Subhumans are, and of the ones that do, only a handful of them think the Subhumans were good. So we have to face facts. And if I'm going to play tiny audiences, I'd rather play my acoustic guitar, you know what I mean? I don't want to sell THE SUBHUMANS. That was the biggest reason.  

I was really happy – one of the things that really touched me at a concert in the last few years – was seeing Jello Biafra standing at the Rickshaw saying, “I never thought I’d get to see the Subhumans again.” And how happy he was to be seeing you guys play. I was really happy for him, that he got to see you guys. And you were in top form that night. That was the last show you ever did, right?

That’s right. That was really a great show – I thought we played really well. Although Jello was kind of unhappy with us after the show because we didn’t do enough political ranting in between songs. He felt like we should have been ranting and raving about the oil sands and whatnot, but that’s just not the way it worked. Brian wasn’t really into giving long political spiels from the stage in between songs. He would do kind of a slapstick thing, or make some kind of joke, but Brian was never that good at doing a real long political analysis, verbally, onstage, between songs. He did a lot of other things really well, but – that’s kind of his job as a frontman, and because we were a politically charged band. We were probably one of the most political punk bands in North America, and Jello kind of felt that was our job. But Brian wasn’t that good at it, and me not being the frontman, it guess it didn’t really seem appropriate for me to be doing it. And I know that some people in the band just wanted to get going with the songs, they didn’t want to have a bunch of talk between songs.

I mean, I don’t mean to run him down, but [Subhumans drummer] Jon Card has gone on record as saying you talk a lot

All I’m going to say there was a little bit of pressure from in the band, definitely for me not to go into some kind of long winded talk onstage. I think Brian could have got away with it, but it wasn’t really his forte.

Did you see Brian in the last couple of years of his life? Did he hear Coming Home?

No, he never heard Coming Home. I don’t think he necessarily would have liked it that much, but he never heard it. He died, I believe, December 7th, and Coming Home came out December 2nd. So no, he didn’t hear it.

So you weren’t in touch with him in the last while.

No, not really. I think we exchanged one email in the last year prior to his death. I mean, he was kind of involved in the Trespassers with Jon Card, and whoever else was in that band [The vocalist was the Scrambler’s Howard Rix, also since departed].

Let me ask, then: how close were you to Todd?

I wasn’t super close to Todd. I knew Stepha in the band, their original drummer, better than Todd, because Stepha’s mother is an old friend of mine, who I’ve known for many years. But I’d run into him now and then, and we both had a lot of respect for each other. We both had kind of a Williams Lake connection. He came from Williams Lake, and I lived in Williams Lake for a few years, and I loved Williams Lake, I loved a lot of people in Williams Lake. And then we were both in political punk rock bands, and he felt the Subhumans were an important band. But I wasn’t super close to him.

You didn’t do outdoors stuff with him?

No. I wanted to. I was thinking of moving up to Lillooet – I still am – and one of the things that appealed to me was that Todd was living there, and he was really into the outdoors, of course [Todd Serious, born Todd Jenkins, was an avid rock climber, which is how he died, on March 7th, 2015]. And he was also really into political ideas and alternative music, so he seemed like a good ally to have in a small town. But then that didn’t happen. We had a few conversations that I felt were good conversations and stuff, but I didn’t hang out with him much. I would have liked to.

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