Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Snow day at the schoolyard

 Living across from a schoolyard is sometimes quite charming. When it snows, for instance, there are often kids making snowmen. Given their transitory nature, I went downstairs last night to document a couple of them (the best one is already headless, this morning, so it was the right call). Took a few other photos, too...

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Rodney DeCroo on weathering the pandemic, Lucy, and Dr. Fishpants' Poems About Magical Creatures

Rodney DeCroo is a fairly intense fellow. Those who saw Didn't Hurt - his one-man theatrical piece about his troubled relationship with his father, his PTSD, his self-destructive tendencies and the healing value of Brazilian jiu jitsu - which Rodney and I spoke about here - were vividly struck by his capacity to lay his soul bare; there was a quality of self-exorcism to the proceedings, at times, with Rodney trusting his audience to travel with him into some of his darkest spaces. Seeing the show left you impressed by his courage, moved by his journey, and with a footnote-to-self to never make him angry (his performance bordered on the harrowing at times, as Rodney re-inhabited some of his past traumas, albeit in a controlled, actorly way).  

There's plenty of intensity to be found in his music, too - we spoke about his most recent album, 2017s Old Tenement Man - on this very blog. (We also spoke about Al Purdy, Charles Bukowski, and poetry for the Georgia Straight). But DeCroo's songs don't rip open the doors quite so violently as Didn't Hurt, even when its subjects are autobiographical. Maybe it's just that songs about painful experiences are by their nature gentler, easier to take in, than having someone telling you, live and in person, about the violent beatings they received as a child...?  

Street photography by Rodney DeCroo

For most Vancouverites, Didn't Hurt and the shows that clustered around the release of Old Tenement Man - and the performance discussed in the Straight piece - are the last we've heard from Rodney DeCroo, who wisely stepped away from live performance during the first couple of years of the pandemic, though he remained active on social media, posting poems and street photography, and has several projects coming to light over the next while. These include a book of poetry (in his usual mode) called Fishing For Leviathan, upcoming on Anvil Press, and a play called In the Belly of the Carp ("a big production with a live band onstage and several actors"). More relevant to the current post, however, he wrote a book's worth of playful rhyming verse about magical creatures, as described by (channeled through?) a fictional character, that eccentric pretender to the academy known as Dr. Theodore Fishpants, some of which he has adapted for a web series. (I did not realize that all three of Rodney's current projects had fish references in their titles, or I would have probably asked him about it, and put a fish in the title of this: Rodney DeCroo Gets Fishy? Maybe it's just as well). 

The Fishpants poems (and web series) - which will be the first of his COVID projects to see light, as of next week - are a bit of a departure for DeCroo, to say the least. There is still definitely emotional content to Dr. Fishpants' Poems About Magical Creatures, but I doubt anyone would describe them as harrowing. There is a temptation, even, to describe it as a children's book (see below on this), though Rodney does not see it that way ("It's a book of poems about magical creatures so it's meant to be fun but it's not entirely light. There is some violence in the poems. I like to think of it as a modern day Grimm's fairytales but as poems," he tells me). I wouldn't necessarily bring an eight-year-old to see them performed, or such - unless it was my "inner eight-year-old" - but nor would I append a footnote warning parents about the content, if that's what they were planning to do. 

But parents out there can make their own call, since on December 8th at the VIFF Centre, Rodney DeCroo will debut the web series that has been built around Dr. Fishpants - perhaps the most charming and unexpected alter-ego DeCroo could have concocted, which he did at the urgings of his friend Lucy (you'll remember her from Didn't Hurt, but if you don't, there's more below). The screening will be accompanied by a live performance from DeCroo, featuring new songs (and presumably some old ones) as accompanied by totally different instrumentation than you might be used to, including Roisin Adams on the piano and Clara Shandler on cello. While kids might enjoy the web series, there IS a footnote appended to the VIFF Centre listing about the concert ("Live performance portion contains mature subject matter; parental advisory is in effect"). But fans of Rodney DeCroo's songs will also find the series interesting and rewarding (don't just come for the music!). 

Rodney answered some email interview questions about Dr. Fishpants and DeCroo's other projects over the last couple of years. I'm in italics, Rodney is not. 

I realize you've explained this many times, but I would rather have it in your words, for people not familiar with your work: who is Lucy, and what's her hand in the series? Her name has come up in some of your concerts and in
Didn't Hurt - but is this series the first time she's been a direct inspiration for something you've done? Did any of the content of the poems or the web series come from her (did you run anything by her, accept any suggestions, or did you create the series to amuse her, without her input?).

Lucy is Kate Wattie's daughter. Kate manages artists and runs Tonic Records. A decade ago Kate became my manager and Tonic Records released my albums Campfires on the Moon and Old Tenement Man. Kate knew of me from the local music scene and we had friends in common like producer, guitarist, singer-songwriter Jon Woods who also worked at Not Just Another Music Shop which Kate managed. Mind you, Jon and I weren't on good terms after having worked together musically for several years. But hey, at least I was consistent because I wasn't on good terms with anyone in the music community after having burnt my life to the ground through untreated Complex PTSD. It's no secret that I was a volatile and unpredictable person. I pretty much fought with everyone I worked with and did not mix well with people in what they called the music industry- whatever that is. Jon said to me once "I know I'll cross a line with you someday and you'll turn on me." Unfortunately, he was right.

When Kate started working with me ( much to my surprise),  I'd been focusing on trauma therapy and recovery for a few years. I'd stopped touring and would only do the occasional local show, though I'd published a book of poetry Allegheny, BC with Nightwood Editions and wrote a play called Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town that toured western Canada. I was focused on staying clean and sober, learning to manage C-PTSD, cleaning up the wreckage I'd created and healing. God, I still cringe when I write or say the word healing, but that was what I needed to do. I guess I still to some extent internalize my Marine Corps father's macho code! I can hear him in my mind asking "Do you want a warm glass of milk with your healing, sweetheart?" Mind you, my father softened a lot near the end of his life. He was just a kid when he joined the USMC and went to Vietnam and it warped him and our family. I've been lucky because I found help. There wasn't much help for him.

One night early on in our artist / manager relationship Kate had me over for a working dinner. We were putting a grant application together. She lived with her daughter Lucy in an apartment just a couple blocks from where I lived on Commercial Drive. I was sitting in the living room when I met Lucy. She was nearly four. She was tiny and had big blue eyes. She stood next to where her mom was sitting on a sofa and stared at me for what seemed like a long time. I was extremely uncomfortable. Kids terrified me. Their presence often triggered the trauma I carried from my childhood which was painful. You have to remember I'd been an extremely reactive person for a long time. If something triggered me and I was flooded with traumatic emotions I often reacted badly because I didn't know how to deal with flashbacks. I didn't want a kid to be around me when I was like that. Eventually Lucy tugged her mom's sleeve and Kate leaned down and Lucy whispered something in her ear. Kate said "You'll have to ask him." Lucy came over to me and asked "Can I sit on your knee?" I don't know how to explain it, but what happened next changed my life. This was basically my worst nightmare. I didn't want to pick her up but Kate was smiling and nodding her head, so I picked her up carefully and set her on my knee. She was so little and I was afraid I was going to break her somehow. I felt like my body turn to stone. I was so tense. She turned around and smiled at me and said "Hi!" I was stunned by how easily she seemed to trust me. My childhood had conditioned me to distrust everyone. But it seemed very important in that instant that I was worthy of her trust. I didn't know what that meant, but I definitely felt like that was something I needed to earn. And at the same time I wanted to get as far away from her as I could!

The next morning Kate called me. She asked me if I was doing anything that afternoon. She had woken me up and I wasn't thinking clearly so I told her the truth - that I was free all day. If I'd been actually conscious I would've sussed out what she wanted before answering her. She replied "Great. You can watch Lucy then!" So that's how I found myself later that day responsible for this little girl who talked a million miles an hour and wanted to play, play, play! I was EXHAUSTED and needed a break, or that's what I thought. I gave her some paper and crayons and told her to color while I worked on the computer. As I was looking at my Facebook page she walked over to me and said "You don't want to play with me." I felt horrible and for some reason I told her the truth. I said "I don't know how." And I'll never forget this. She grabbed my hand - well, a couple of my fingers - and said "Come on, I'll show you. It's easy!" And so basically that's what I've been doing for the last decade. She tells me what she needs or wants to do and I make it happen if it's in my power. And she was right. It's easy. When I'm with her she has my full attention because she's important to me. I get to stop fixating on myself.

You know, for many years I had this emptiness inside me. I call it an emptiness or a hole when actually I was full of pain, but it was a pain that came from a sense of emptiness that I had known from my childhood. I mean, I was terrified often as a child and felt utterly alone and unloved. As an adult I tried to get girlfriends, friends, drugs, acclaim etc to make it go away but I couldn't get rid of it. It doesn't work that way. One night I returned home after spending the entire day with Lucy. I felt calm, whole and tired in a good way. The pain wasn't there. I realized the pain hadn't been there for a while. It didn't dominate my life anymore. It had started to heal because I was caring for Lucy. This is old news. People have known this forever, but I didn't. And I wouldn't have figured it out on my own because my nature is to be self-centered. I had to be ambushed by Kate to become part of Lucy's life. Lucy is the best thing that ever happened to me. I see it as my job to be there when she needs me. I think this poem sums it up well. By the way, this isn't a Dr. Fishpants poem. It will be in my next book Fishing for Leviathan which Anvil Press is publishing in 2023.

The Hug

Since she was five

Lucy likes to give me

a hug by positioning me

on one side of the living room.

She retraces her steps

to the opposite side

then turns to charge at me.

When she gets a couple feet

away she launches herself into the air

like a human projectile.

It’s more tackle than a hug

except I’m expected to remain

standing to catch her. For which she’ll

give me a quick squeeze

like a reverse Heimlich maneuver

and abruptly let go. There.

she’ll say with a nod of her head

as if she’s conferred upon me

an enormous favor.

You can go home now.

But at thirteen it’s getting

harder to catch her.

Last week she caught me

flat footed and I stumbled

backwards onto my ass.

When I held out my hand

for her to help me up

she shook her head

and marched back

across the room.

You need practice. She said

and charged.

Dr. Fishpants' Poems about Magical Creatures came about during the isolation stage of the pandemic. Lucy and I would get on Zoom a couple hours a day to write silly poems about magical creatures. Lucy thinks my poems are a bit depressing, so she urged me to write my own collection of poems about magical creatures. I told her I wasn't a children's author and she told me to write them for grown-ups because they need magical creatures too. So the poems - and the web series - weren't written specifically for children. They're for adults mostly, but as Lucy says "Some kids will like them too."

I created the world of Dr. Fishpants for myself principally, but always in the back of my mind I was hoping that Lucy would enjoy them. I frequently ran poems by her and asked for her opinions. I changed the odd thing based on her reactions. But it was very much a healing project for myself. It was important for me to enter into this world that mingled mundane scenarios like working at a 24hr convenience store with the lives of these absurd and passionate magical creatures. I couldn't have written something like this before I met Lucy. She regularly shared with me her love for faeries, dragons, monsters, magical creatures of all kinds through books and movies like the Harry Potter series and others. When I emailed her while I was in Scotland that I was searching for faeries on my walks in the Highlands she contacted me to warn me that faeries could be dangerous especially for adults and if I met any I should immediately mention that Lucy was my friend because faeries like children and knew her. She wasn't joking around. She was serious. Her imagination was so rich and alive that she helped me recover that part of myself. I had shut myself off to those things as a child. People used to call me a the-forty-year-old-midget when I was a kid. I was so shut down and serious. I had no sense of wonder. I don't know why I needed to experience that as an adult, but I did.

Who came first, Dr. Fishpants or his poems? Is there any history to the name, "Theodore Fishpants?" Is there any aspect of yourself you are presenting (or poking fun at) in him? Did your relationship to him change over the course of working on the series?

I wrote a couple of the poems first. A character was clearly speaking so I started asking myself who is this guy? The name Dr. Theodore Fishpants came to me while I was on a junk food road run at Super-Valu at 2 AM ( I couldn't sleep) and it made me laugh. I mentioned it to Lucy later and she said it was "Not bad." so I used it. As I wrote the poems I became more interested in him. His backstory is pretty tragic actually. In order to live with the trauma he endured he's become delusional. I'm not going to give away the backstory because I'm writing a play with my friend Gary Jones ( he co-wrote the web series) about Dr. Theodore Fishpants and his niece. Gary and I have talked about him a lot. Because of trauma he became this other person Dr. Theodore Fishpants who is - or so he claims - a formerly world famous sociologist renowned for his studies of magical creatures which only he can see. But he was chased out of academia because of his colleagues' professional envy which motivated them to accuse him of being a fraud. So in his mind he is one of the few true academics; he's a pure scholar concerned solely with truth and beauty while the others are the real frauds, mediocrities, careerists and the like and he despises them. And so he's been living in seclusion in Nelson for twenty-five years writing his poems, which is where we meet him in the web series. In reality he's an alcoholic, shattered, deeply traumatized man hiding from a pain he can't cope with by living in a fantasy world of his own creation. He can't handle reality. But I would argue he has some wisdom to offer in his musings about the imagination (which has saved him in a way) and there is some value in the poems he's created about the magical creatures he claims to study.
And yes, there's a lot of myself in him. I mean I wrapped myself up in this ridiculous fantasy that I was a "true artist" creating songs and poems of genius that few people appreciated. I was a martyr for my art. I was pretty damn delusional. But that fantasy helped me to avoid the truth which seemed too hard to look at it. I was carrying all this trauma and pain and I was constantly making things worse by continually hurting myself and others, but anything was better - or so it seemed - than dealing with it because I'd have to look at what had happened to me. I had to nearly destroy myself before I was willing to do that work. Fortunately my art did have some merit. People did connect my songs and poetry. Maybe that's partially why people put up with me for so long. Maybe they had empathy for me and hoped that I could change. I don't know. I've been lucky because many people have been patient and have helped me. So yeah, Dr. Fishpants is based on aspects of myself. Also, two of my favorite characters in literature are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza - I like to think there is a bit of Don Quixote in Dr. Fishpants. My relationship with him has constantly changed and I'm sure it will continue as I write the play and edit the book. Well, I should say manuscript because I haven't found a publisher for the book yet. Oh, I should also mention that the poems are illustrated. My friend Rosie Schinners is a brilliant collage artist and she has created beautiful illustrations!

From the manuscript for Dr. Fishpants' Poems About Magical Creatures, illustration by Rosie Schinners. Click on the image for a larger version!

Some of the poems NOT in the web series seem to have a bit of a moral/ instructive quality to them - Fred the Dragon, for example, compensates for a lack of "fire" by compensatory acting out; I could see that as a useful psychological insight that someone might want to share with a younger audience. Curious what comes first in such cases - do you start with a lesson you want to teach or a theme you want to explore, and create a character who embodies it? (I kind of feel like JK Rowling works that way, for example). Or do you start with the character, with meaning emerging as a bi-product? (Do you feel more drawn to one style or the other, if you see what I mean - "meaning first" vs. "character first?")

Okay, so you encouraged me to argue with you if I wanted to, so now I'm going to! You observed in the above question about Fred's acting out behaviors "I could see that as a useful psychological insight that someone might want to share with a younger audience." First off, I didn't write the book for kids. I wrote it for adults hoping that kids could also enjoy them. But your statement contains a bit of an attitude towards younger people that Lucy dislikes. Trust me, she's called me on it many times. Why do you assume that younger audiences have something to learn here and not adults? When Lucy told me that adults need magical creatures as much as kids she wasn't being cute. If there is a lesson to learn- which is not what I necessarily aimed to do - I'd say it's more pertinent for adults. I see adults "acting out" all the time. And sadly, I see kids having to deal with the consequences. Much of the violence in my home as a child resulted from my parents and their friends "acting out" unresolved stuff they were mostly unaware of and a lot of it was directed at me because children don't have the power to hold adults responsible. That's the sad truth. Adults take out their stuff on children because they can. I have witnessed parents, teachers and authority figures lecturing children while being absolute hypocrites. If they think children can't see this they're out of their minds. Children often take away a totally different lesson than the one the adults think they're teaching them. They pay way more attention to what the adults do than the things they talk about.

I am chastened! Great points. But to return to the question, do you start with an image, a character, an intended meaning...? 

I mostly write poems and songs without much forethought. A line comes to me and I write it down and I wait for the next one. So any meaning people might pick up on is a bi-product of me following a thread. I'm not saying it's unintended. Obviously some part of me needs to say whatever the poem or song or character is saying, but I don't consciously predetermine the content or themes and I'm not fully aware of what's going on in my work as I create. I know enough to get it on paper so to speak, but that's it. These things are more like downloads. I'm just receiving the content. But writing a screenplay or a play is different. They have a lot of moving parts and the structure is more complex than a poem or a song, so it's easy to get lost. Gary and I talk a lot and create outlines etc before we write. Gary thinks a lot about themes. I find that helpful, but for me it's more about developing the characters, learning who they are, their backstory, and what drives them. Knowing that stuff helps the plot fall into place for me. Well, Gary is really into this process too, I should be clear about that. It's a new process to me - to spend tons of time thinking about these things before writing - and it's fun. But I realized recently most of what I learn about them comes to me the same way a line comes to me. I don't plan so much as open myself to listening and discovering.

Do you have any history with the cast (Dean Paul-Gibson, Lili Robinson, and Camille Legg), or are they professionals you hired? (I see you are credited with "casting" - curious to hear how that was done). Is there any history between yourself and the other co-creators of the project that we should talk about...?

Dean, Lili and Camille are professional actors and attended the same theatre school I attended - Studio 58. The director, Cheyenne Rouleau, also went to Studio 58 as well as two of the designers Stephanie Wong and Naomi Lazarus. I didn't ask them to work with us because they went to Studio 58 though. A lot of indie projects work this way in that you know artists through the community and previous projects. I don't think I could audition people I'm not familiar with. I need to know them first. I met Lili and Camille during a workshop for a new play I'm hoping to finally mount in 2023. David Bloom was collaborating with me on that project and he recommended them. Dean was part of that workshop too. During the workshop they blew me away with not only their acting chops but their insights into the script and the suggestions they made. They're all such gifted artists. Fortunately they saw something in the project that appealed to them because the money on an indie production is not great (Mind you in Dean's case I suspect he did it mostly because we're friends). Plus, because they're so phenomenally talented they all have lots going on - they're busy people. I think having Cheyenne Rouleau as the director and Annette Delmage co-producing really helped. It's all about the team. If good people are involved then other good people are more likely to join in.

Dean and I go back nearly thirty years. I met him during the Langara Faculty strike at Langara College and we walked picket lines together and protested against the provincial government. We became good friends through those experiences. I lived in a basement suite below him at one point for a year. I was drinking heavily and using a lot. I knocked on his door the morning after an awful binge. I had a horrible hangover and I was also in trouble. I expected him to invite me into his cozy kitchen for a cup of tea and a reassuring visit. I often turned to him after my binges for his kindness. Instead he looked me up and down and told me he couldn't do it anymore. He said he loved me but he wasn't going to help me kill myself and shut the door in my face. I sobered up shortly after that for a few years. When I was released from the hospital several years later after an overdose he barged into my office - I was working as a stock promoter on Howe Street - and he told me I needed to straighten up. So, I got clean again and sought help. Dean has been the person who could call me on my stuff when I needed it most. But he's also a warm, generous and caring friend. Not to mention insanely charismatic and talented. His work as an actor and director is respected across the country.

Street photography by Rodney DeCroo
Trivial detail - Dr. Fishpants' chair looks very comfortable and PERFECT for his character, but also old, heavy, an antique - probably not easily moved. Whose chair is that? Did it come with the location? (I have an uncle with chairs like that, but they're badly worn, being over 100 years old - Dr. Fishpants' chair seems to be holding up okay by comparison!).

Ah, the chair is deceptive. It's a nice old leather chair that Gary Jones gave me several years ago. I still have it. I've probably read a couple hundred books while relaxing in that chair. It's not an antique though and it's not that heavy either. Whatever impressive attributes it seems to possess on screen you can attribute to the movie making magic of DOP Belen Garcia , set designer Stephanie Wong and the director Cheyenne. I guess I get a little credit too because I suggested we use it. It seemed like the perfect chair for him.

There is a sort of narrative arc to the webisodes that seems to connect to the themes that emerge in the poems. Did you pick specific poems to build the story around? How? (Was anyone else involved in selecting which poems to use?). It seems like all the poems in the webisodes deal with characters who don't fit in and have hopes beyond their given roles - a boogeyman who wants to make cookies, a Sasquatch who wants to sing like Michael Buble - but that that's not the only kind of character in the book - did you choose which characters to put into these mini-movies to highlight this theme, or was there another criteria?

Yep, Gary and I went through all the poems and chose the ones that felt right. In the introduction to Paradise Lost, Milton writes that his goal is to "justify the ways of God to men." Well, as Gary and I discussed Fishpants' backstory, we realized the poems are all attempts by Dr. Fishpants to justify / explain to his niece (who is now an adult) why he abandoned her as a child when she needed him most. Again, this is backstory and not discussed in the web series, but it will come up in the play. The magical characters all deal with elements of himself or the people who impacted him, but of course, he's not aware of that. Also, the poems are metaphorical not literal accounts of his life. For example, the boogeyman is about Dr. Fishpants himself. He wanted to be there for his niece when she was a child like he promised to be, but the abuse he experienced as a child and the intergenerational trauma in his family resulted in him abandoning her. He didn't mean to hurt her ( See, not all boogeymen want to be mean / Larry feels bad as he makes you scream.) The whole reason he's filming the poems for the internet is that deep down he wants to reconnect with his niece. He thinks that he's decided it's time to break his silence because he has an obligation to share his knowledge with the common people as he puts it. So again, he's not consciously aware of his true motivations. Which I think is often the case for artists and the work they create. Hell, I think the same could be said for most of us and the choices we make in our lives. I'm not sure we actually know why we do the things we do. So in the end the poems we chose were more of a gut thing. We agreed that they felt like the right ones. It's a funny process. We spent a whole bunch of time discussing why he has decided to make these recordings and what they represent to him on a conscious and a subconscious level and we dug into his backstory, etc. But our final choices were intuitive.

You give the Sphinx poem to the character of Lucy. Was it written by the real Lucy (or anyone other than you?).

The Sphinx poem was written by Lili Robinson. I asked if they would be willing to write their character's poem and they agreed. Lili is a playwright as well as an actor. Their debut play Mx received a lot of praise and was awarded the Fringe New Play prize. The Cultch picked it up for part of their season.

Who plays the Sasquatch? Same actor in episodes two and four? (I hope you won't mind - I thought that the Sasquatch in episode four looked like it could have been played by you! Great mask...). 

Mike Klemak played the Sasquatch. He was our Set Dresser and he volunteered to be the Sasquatch.

Curious - in the webisode, Dr. Fishpants gets Michael Buble's name wrong, pronouncing it like "Booblaze." But it's spelled right in the book. So was that a happy accident that you rode with, or were you looking to undermine Dr. Fishpants' credibility, or...?

It was a happy accident. Dean said it during a take and it made me laugh. So we kept it. I'll probably change it in the book too. Everyone will get who Michale Boo-blaze is I think. I love stuff like that. But also yes, it helps undermine Dr. Fishpants. He is an autodidact and eccentric. He's no dummy, but he does get things wrong a lot in his attempts to appear professorial. He often uses quotes out of context or mispronounces words and so on.
Talking about the new songs and the concert, is "Strippers" autobiographical? (Are you describing a real bar?). Was it written to accompany this series? (Is the effect of making the strippers themselves seem like "magical creatures" an accident of the context in which I'm hearing the song?).

Yes, it's autobiographical. It was a place I frequented regularly in Clearwater, Florida. It was a black cinder block building on Interstate 19. It was a pit of total despair, but that appealed to me at the time, strange, right? Everything in Florida was shiny and corporate and soulless, but there were these seedy strip joints. They felt like bizarre portals into hell, but at least they had some soul and I felt like I could relate to the people there. You have to remember, I was a young addict and alcoholic paralyzed by trauma who felt completely alienated from "normal" society. The dancers were prostitutes and the strip joint owners were pimps and drug dealers. I'd buy meth, do it in the bathroom and then sit in the dark to drink and watch the dancers until the place closed. I talked to almost no one. Man, I hated Florida. I was working at an Albertson's SuperMarket when I was going to this strip joint. I had been a waiter at The Brown Derby but I got fired after showing up for work both drunk and visibly beaten up. Apparently tourists dislike being waited on by inebriated waiters with black eyes! Who knew!? 

Anyhow, I spent my days cutting a variety of fruits into bite sized pieces and keeping the salad bar stocked and tidy. I was paid $3 an hour. I had a boss who would come into the work area and scream at me for sitting on a stool while I cut fruit. For some reason he felt I was slacking off if I wasn't standing while I worked. One shift I snapped a rag at a young woman's butt who worked in the produce department. She was from Tennessee. Later on that day she came up behind me and held a knife to my throat and said if I ever touched her again she'd stab me. No shit. Weirdly enough we became friends after that. I liked her. We'd load cases of beer into the garbage buckets and wheel them outside and stash the beer so we could get drunk after work. Anyhow, the song has nothing to do with the series or anything to do with Fishpants. The concert is meant to be its own thing. Canada Council gave me a grant to explore other artistic projects outside my normal stuff, so it's a nice way to bring together different elements of my work in one event. Plus, we had to make a full night of it.

You mention that "Strippers" is a "stage/ performance piece" - are there cast members, sets, etc? What should we expect at the VIFF Centre performance, and will this apply to other songs? Do you HAVE any set decoration or such in mind for the performance?

No, there's no set decoration. It's a regular concert. I said some of the poems were performance pieces because they're not strictly songs; they're poems set to music but I don't like the term spoken word. The poems were written for the page, but because my poems are narrative poems they can also be performed.

Why the change in band/ music? Will you be adapting any of your previous material to the new instrumentation, or will the concert consist of material written with Roisin and Clara in mind?

I've always changed up my approach from album to album. My last three albums Campfires on the Moon, Old Tenement Man and Queen Mary Trash are all very different albums. And over the years I've made a habit of playing with different people and incorporating a variety of instruments and sounds. It helps to keep me interested and inspired. I like playing with Clara Shandler and Roisin Adams. They're great musicians and also lots of fun to be around. I don't necessarily become friends with everyone I play with, but they've become good friends. And they're great storytellers. Not all musicians care about that because they're exploring other artistic choices, but Clara and Roisin are good storytellers. And whether it's poetry, music, theatre or film, I'm a storyteller at heart. And I'm also really feeling the piano and the cello. I think those instruments allow for an intimacy and expressiveness that these new songs and poems require.

Do you have any observations you want to make about COVID, the government response to it, or so forth? How has weathering the pandemic been for you? (We would not have had Dr. Fishpants without the COVID lockdown, correct?).

The pandemic was a strangely productive time for me. I wrote the Dr. Fishpants manuscript, I wrote my third collection of poetry Fishing for Leviathan that Anvil Press has agreed to publish in 2023 and I wrote tons of songs for an album which I plan to record soon with my friend Adrian Mack. But that's how I've always dealt with hard times in my life. I write and make stuff. Canada Council created the PIVOT grants because they wanted to provide artists - especially performing artists like myself who weren't able to perform - an opportunity to create work they wouldn't necessarily do otherwise. So yeah, for a number of reasons the pandemic was responsible for bringing about Dr. Fishpants. I think as a person with C-PTSD and as a former addict/ alcoholic I'm quite used to isolating. I've lived with a lot of stress and uncertainty for most of my life. Also, I'm used to being poor. That's just business as usual. So the pandemic, while it was disruptive, wasn't as hard for me as it was for a lot of people. I think collectively though we kind of went crazy during the pandemic and people were often pretty cruel to each other. I think it's going to take years before we can look back and see this whole period with any clarity I think.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Dayglo Abortions at the Biltmore vs. Invasives at Buddha's: Who Wears Patchouli to a Punk Show?

Part One: Dayglo Abortions (with Barbarians, the Golers, and the Gnar Gnars), Nov. 25 2022

Unbelievably, I has been almost ten years since I was last at the Biltmore Cabaret. One of two shows was going on, that night; I do not recall which show it was, but both happened in close enough proximity to each other that they shared a gig poster, so I can definitely say it was in 2013, and either Pere Ubu or Lee Ranaldo was playing. Both shows were memorable in different ways; my favourite memory of Ubu was my friend Judith Beeman, having read David Thomas telling me that he signs everything with an incomprehensible squiggle, demanding at the merch table that Thomas print his name in block letters in The Book of Hieroglyphs that she was buying, which he did, no doubt smirking - but she won, is the point! I am actually not sure of how much of that I saw and how much of it I heard about afterwards, but Beeman besting (and amusing) the sometimes rather daunting David Thomas was really fun to contemplate. At the merch table for Lee, meanwhile, I got to very briefly chat with Steve Shelley about his time in the Crucifucks, though all he really mentioned was that the Doc Dart depicted in the article in Vice ("The Troublemaker") was unrecognizable as the Doc Dart he knew (Dart will no longer even say the name of his old band, apparently, referring to them as the "Christmas folks"). That and dancin' to Lee's unexpected cover of Neil Young's "Revolution Blues" (and getting stuff signed) were all high points of that show...

But I've never been wild about the sight lines for the Biltmore, and for a long time they didn't seem to be having many shows, AND there was COVID and my own unrelated health issues, so it's been awhile since I've been there. In the interim, the sound at the Biltmore sure seems to have gone downhill, or at least it had on Friday, when I went to see the Dayglo Abortions. It just sounded too quiet for a punk gig, for one thing - maybe because of noise laws in the neighbourhood, or such, but it wasn't that loud even right up front; it also seemed oddly muffled from several spots in the room, the sound fuzzier and less distinct than I recall the sound at the Biltmore having been before. I was also somewhat restless, not really feeling in the mood for the Golers' proficient, deranged class-warfare thrash or the Gnar Gnars' cheerfully lowbrow silliness (they seem to have a song about fucking their cat, for instance, which includes reassurances - if I understood correctly - that their dicks are too tiny to actually damage the kitty). I have enjoyed both bands in other contexts but I wasn't even sure I was in the mood to see the Dayglos, truth be known... it's been a long week... if I hadn't paid for a ticket, I probably would have stayed home. 

But that's just me, not a comment on the show. Am I even a punk, these days? Was I ever? I feel compelled to observe, to know what's going on, to try to document it a little - and I really do enjoy listening to Hate Speech, which I hold as a great Dayglos album, but I sure didn't feel like I was participating very deeply or enthusiastically last night. Certainly OTHER people seemed to be enjoying themselves!

The crowd was game and fearless in the mosh pit, which I tried to stay well away from, and people were singing along and regaling the bands gamely between songs (someone shouted at Murray as he stooped to adjust his wires, "Pull up your pants!"). It was interesting, too, to overhear a girl standing next to me remark to her friends, as Marc's kit was being set up, "Is the drummer for the Dayglo Abortions blind? That's so cool!" (I may do something on him in the near future, in regard to his Isolated Earthlings side-project, which just dropped on bandcamp this weekend!). 

There were other weird notes, including someone falling over in the grips of a health issue right outside the doors, smashing into the sidewalk and not regaining consciousness by the time 911 was confirmed to be on the way. She'd walked right by me while one of the security guards was checking my bag; the guard had refused to let me bring in a half-finished 500 ml bottle of Coke, so I was downing it joylessly on the sidewalk to the side of the doors, impatient to get in, when she just toppled over, too suddenly for anyone to react in time to break her fall. I think I overheard someone muttering that it would be good to give her naloxone just in case ("it can't hurt"), which I gather was done, but I heard later (actually the next day - I'm editing this on Saturday night) that in fact she'd had an aneurism and did not make it. Which is startling and horrible and must be very hard to process - she was a young, healthy looking woman, cut down in her prime. I really didn't know what to do last night and feel less sure how to write about it now. The people she was with, her family and such must be devastated. But - though you feel like you should be able to do something in a situation like that, standing there on the sidewalk, I soon realized there was nothing I could have done. The ambulance was on its way and a medic and one of the security people were attending to her, with many other people standing close by, so eventually I just went inside, just as the Barbarians were winding down their kinda 70's-pub-rock set, which I didn't really do even slight justice to. Someone essentially dying right in front of you, even a total stranger, is kind of distracting and unsettling. I eventually just went on with the evening, and am presently going to go on with the writing about it, but - whatever exactly happened - my condolences to the people affected...? (Is there a way to write this that does not feel shockingly inadequate?).    

Anyhow, I got no decent photos of any of the opening bands, sorry to say - the room was pretty dark, for the first few bands at least, though from my photos of the Dayglos, it must have eventually improved...

There were other odd cues through the night, too. Two people I have never seen before and did not recognize at all got into introducing themselves with booming "I know you" declarations, though we never established how (I did not know them, or did not know I knew them, if I did). A girl up front for the Dayglos kind of drew my ire, too, first by whipping around her deadly-weapon dreadlocks, nearly taking out my eyes, then by taking a big drag on her vaper so she could be photographed by her friend while exhaling a giant cloud of white, which this recent cancer patient could not help but inhale, since I was standing right up front with her. There was a bit of this the next night at Buddha's, too, which I hope venues will do something about - this is shit that should not be normalized. People in the pit MIGHT in fact be cancer survivors, and the last thing you want to do when you're a cancer survivor - especially one whose cancer probably correlates to YOUR OWN past as a smoker, which I was for most of my 20's - is breathe other people's cancer-causing fumes. I mean, I can't even smoke POT anymore, and I used to really enjoy a few puffs on my pipe now and then. If I can't smoke the smoke that's gonna soothe ME, why the fuck would I wanna smoke the smoke that's gonna soothe YOU? 

But a few minutes later, she did something even more astonishingly inconsiderate: she climbed over the monitors to rip Murray's set list off the floor when they were about three songs in, so she could look at it herself; I do not presume she replaced it. Like, Murray was still USING that, girl! Time to give up on this human: clearly a lost cause. I just moved away.  

EDIT: Matt Fiorito tells me on FB that whatever setlist she snatched wasn't the Dayglos: "We didn't have one." 

This, however, was not the strangest thing that happened: yet another girl completely floored me by unsubtly coming onto me in a way that has only happened to me with such blatancy twice in my life, previously: she practically sat in my lap where I was quietly checking my phone in the corner, saying something like, "Well, aren't you special?!" The flirtatious intent was not hard to read but I am not practiced at responding to such things. Do I hold up my left hand and say, "Sorry, I'm married?" and thus perhaps invite the wrath of the scorned, clearing her to accuse me of presumptuousness? Do I say, "More special than you realize" in my post-cancer weird-ass voice? (That would have been amusing for me, but would have possibly encouraged her to bounce something back at me, like her move was in some way welcome and I was flirting back). Or do I respond not to her clear intent, but to her words, which seemed superficially to be criticizing me for sitting around checking my cellphone, when I should have been moshing to "Dogfarts?"

That last in fact seemed the option most likely to end the conversation quickly and painlessly, so I played dumb and went with it. "Don't know what you mean - I'm just sitting here minding my own business," emphasizing the latter words to indicate that that was what I wished to continue to do.  

She heard my voice, took a minute to process it, and I think actually responded to my "accent" by saying "You seem to hear pretty well," which I think was her puzzling over how someone who talked like me must surely be deaf (but in which case, how was I hearing her?). No idea what she thought, really. She acknowledged that she would leave me to my own devices, walking away with maybe a slight "hrumpf" to her flounce, to retain her dignity perhaps, which, unless I was just imagining it, prolly made me feel fond of her. Sorry if I shot you down in flames, stranger-girl! I don't get to practice my skills in this department very often! 

Anyhoo, even with mediocre sound, I was made very happy by hearing the Gnar Gnars' do a raunchified version of "Lola" (which got the full house singing along) and to hear the Dayglos do a terrific "Sacks of Meat," which was the new song of theirs that sounded best last night, I thought. I enjoyed Murray's little explanation of it, too, that the band tries to rip off Black Sabbath at least one time on every album, and that "Sacks of Meat" was it on the new one. But mostly the crowd seemed much more into it than I was, singing along with "Proud to Be Canadian" or "Stupid Songs" with great gusto. For me, between the girl collapsing, the dreadlocks nearly blinding me, the unexpected inhalation of tobacco vapor, the chubby girl hitting on me, and the physical shock of being close to a mosh pit again - in a room with no health protocols visible anywhere, no one wearing a mask, nothin' - I was keen to just head home. I missed out on any jam between the Dayglos and the Golers, which would have been fun to see, but... sometimes you gotta just face it that you aren't in the mood (and as you see above, there is another gig in March that I can redeem myself at if I so choose). 

The ultimate effect of the off night was that, on the transit ride home, I felt pretty trepidatious about Saturday at Buddha's, the newest incarnation of the Smilin' Buddha - which gig I just got in from, in fact, since, as I say, I am now tidying this up for my part two, below. There had already been some controversy on Facebook, with Murray and Billy Hopeless rejecting the idea of going back to the venue now that Malcolm, who was the main force behind the SBC Cabaret, is not involved, but my having second thoughts had everything to do with feeling "too old for punk rock," too tired, and not wanting to have to weave my way between tents and keep an eye out for needles on the ground. 

To speak briefly of their apparent boycott of the place, though:  it's nice that Murray and Billy are loyal to their friends, and I'm sure Malcolm DID put some heart and soul into the SBC, but this is no Cobalt situation: Malcolm lost the Buddha in 2019, and it's sat vacant for a very long time. I can't comment on the REASONS he lost the place - though the Straight article on the closure suggests he was running it under a food-primary license, and food-primary is something which the SBC definitely was NOT, so that might have been a factor. (There was also the girl who got dragged out front; that was not the venue's fault, but I gather drew scrutiny to the whole area; thanks to Jorge for correcting me on this point - I'd written she was dragged to death, but am happy to read she in fact survived!). The truth is, its historical import aside, I never had that much of an investment in the SBC Cabaret - did not enjoy the space much, which requires negotiating a very desperate neighbourhood and had a very awkward pit that had curving ramps on either side for skateboarding purposes, which ramps I wiped out on more than once, stepping the wrong way and sliding down. They made the room too narrow and I'm kinda glad they're gone (of course, I'm not a skater, but...). I did see a few memorable shows there, and was glad people like DOA, the Furies, Gerry Hannah. and the Pointed Sticks got to play the venue, which had history for them. And I liked that for a long time, Bev's photos of the crowd, taken there back in the glory days of Vancouver punk, were up on the walls (they no longer are). But I never knew Malcolm, and it's not like the current operators of the space had a hand in edging him out, which feels like pretty old news now. A friend observed tonight that "he had his shot." I dunno - it really just does not feel like my war...

Part Two: Invasives with Rong and Pet Blessings at Buddha's, Nov. 26

So come Saturday, off I go to meet a gig buddy, Adam, at International Village, with a plan to walk to the 100 block of East Hastings down West Pender, which is less intense than Hastings. It's not a bad survival tip if you're coming to Vancouver and going to a gig or restaurant in the DTES or Gastown: plan your route there to avoid the stroll down East Hastings, if you're at all jittery about being in the presence of extreme poverty, addiction, mental illness and misery. It's not that it's unsafe so much that it is so fucking SAD. Truth is, tonight, the rain and cold had cleared the streets a bit, people no doubt huddling in their tents around whatever warmth they could create (I still remember a news story from ten years ago of someone inside a makeshift tent trying to start a fire to stay warm, which accidentally spread to the tent and ended up burning them to death). There was, indeed, a needle with a bared sharp end right by the door, which we stepped around. But as soon as we got inside, I realized that I liked the space a LOT more than the old SBC. It has a much roomier feel, given that there is no longer a ramp along either wall; the indoor graffiti was colourful and pleasant; the light was great, and - I mean, the Biltmore should be ashamed, really - the SOUND WAS FANTASTIC, too. Loud enough, but also much clearer. And while as I say I was dismayed to see the odd indoor vaper, I liked the vibe of the crowd much better. Attempts to photograph the mosh pit did not pay off, but boy, they looked like they were sure enjoying themselves - not the Biltmore's awkward, somewhat forced-seeming, pushin' and shovin', but people just having FUN.

And what a stacked bill... I haven't ever really gotten into Pet Blessings, but their performance was enthusiastic as hell, with the singer sticking around for both other bands and rockin' out for the rest of the night, which was really nice to see (was the drummer in the Jolts, is that where I know him from?). Rong were even stronger, with songs that very quickly sank deep hooks. And Invasives were tight and furious (though sadly they had to cut their set short before "Living Your Life Like It's Somebody Else's," which is my favourite tune by them, if a highly atypical one, ending instead on an incredibly tight, fast song off the second Married to Music CD (I didn't get the title but I shot some vid - that song, plus also "Abstract World," "Free the Leeches," and one Rong song the name of which I did not get, but which Kristy later commented on Facebook was "Moving On.").    

It also turned out to be a very social gig for me. Unlike the Biltmore, where the only people who said hi were the promoter and Matt Fiorito (and Talesha! Sorry, I forgot to mention you in part one!). Adam - said gig buddy, not the Slack brother - and I chatted about our histories with punk - he's a 50-something ol' hardcore fan like me, but has a slightly different orientation, bandwise, having been back east during his formative years, listening to band that toured through Toronto. Then Dave Bowes sat with us and reminisced about that crazy Nomeansno gig in 2009 where the Anza Club got pissed he'd oversold the venue, told him they wouldn't put the show on, and he had to scramble in short order for another place, which ended up being a fuckin' East Indian banquet hall on Kingsway usually used for weddings, the Royale, such that we saw Nomeansno playing a room with a half-dozen-or-so enormous chandeliers and two huge statues of Shiva (as Dave tells it - I don't recall the statues, myself, but will take his word for it). I can still remember dancing to an epic "Self-Pity" that night, and first concocting my theory that the rhyme in "Rags and Bones," "in the belly of the beast/ I shall be released" was in fact describing a moshpit (Rob did not care much for this theory when I asked about it during a subsequent interview, as I recall). Also in Buddha's was at least one member of the old Nomeansno forum, who I think used to post as JTD (a couple of forum members have re-connected with me since that John Wright/ Invasives feature, which is nice - that was a fun ol' forum), plus Tanya, my old editor at the Skinny, was there dancin', and, most delightfully, Vancouver's queen of transgressive burlesque, Betty Bathory herself (we gave each other a couple of big hugs but I was shy to ask for a selfie with her, tho' that woulda been fun. Betty did NOT recognize me at that Bully's show where I went in drag, it turns out... until I took my wig off...!)

I don't know what else I can say about the gig, because mostly - certainly for Invasives, a little bit for Rong - I was just up in front dancing (though not moshing). Also had a lot of fun taking photographs and (shh, don't tell my wife) used the money that Invasives did NOT charge me (thanks, guys!) for a couple of their records to invest in a Rong record, instead, which I'm now really excited to hear. It doesn't drop digitally until February so right now vinyl is the only option; they do an artful, high-energy, slightly poppy punk that I actually was not 100% sold on based on what I'd checked out online, but which - as sometimes happens - blew me away in the live execution: "Aha, THIS is how I'm supposed to listen to this band!" Kristy-Lee told Adam at the merch table that she started playing guitar when she was 12, and he surprised me (he's a bit socially awkward) by following that up with "How old are you now?" But great musicianship, fun, hooky, but sophisticated songs, and a confident, charismatic stage show: you can't ask for more (unless, you know, you're a big GG Allin fan and want someone to smear feces on you, but no one did that, not even Betty, and I for one was not complaining).  

In fact, about the only weird note tonight was the smell of the venue. I'm used to punk spaces that smell like crap - sometimes, in the case of the old Cobalt, quite literally. Buddha's smelled, when we first came in, of NAIL POLISH (or perhaps nail polish remover?), which is one of the very few smells I like LESS than the smell of crap, I think (there has never yet been a shit I've whiffed that gave me a splitting headache, but nail polish - or nail polish remover - can do that). Then later, and even weirder, up at the stage, I noticed a smell that I think might have been PATCHOULI. Which makes no sense to me, but maybe some audience member was wearing it?

Who wears patchouli to a punk show? 

I honestly don't think I have anything else to say about the gig (Sorry, Murray? Sorry Billy? Sorry Malcolm?) but I had ten times the fun tonight that I had yesterday, stayed to the very end, and took a SHIT TON OF PHOTOS. And some videos too (see above, I linked'em somewhere. I shot some Biltmore vid as well but the sound was so shitty I just deleted it). Great space, great night, great music. I don't think I have ever yet heard a band do a land acknowledgement, but Byron did. I also made a mistake I've been struggling to repress and, when saying hello, identified him as Brock, because somehow, Byron Slack and Brock Pytel are names I am prone to getting confused - perhaps because they both begin with B? any event, I'm guessing I am not too old and tired for punk rock after all. Now here's some photos! 

Pet Blessings vocalist rocking out to Rong

Invasives setlist

Oh, yeah, the toilet situation at Buddha's is pretty dire, so maybe try to do your business before you get there. Unless I was missing something, there was one working can. It took awhile to get in and was pretty cramped (though the toilet worked, so there's that).