Say Hello To Heaven – R.I.P Chris Cornell

On Monday, I was at a memorial. A catholic service. The deceased had killed himself. Mixed with the grief was a disbelief – an incomprehensible place where nothing can possibly make sense. I was trying to explain depression to a friend. It wasn’t working. A hushed conversation in the back of a funeral parlour isn’t going to do it. Where is a good place?

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Some people talk to me about music. It’s built into the description of being a music geek. Like minded people communicate in that somewhat nuanced language, and others will ask you about it when something happens… usually a tragedy. As I walk into my son’s school yard another parent begins.

“Did you hear about Chris Corn…”

“Stop.” I reply. “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I don’t want to talk about it. Especially in the school yard. And definitely not as a casual conversation.”

He stumbles with his next words. “Sorry, I just…”

“No problem. Just not going to talk about it.” And with those words I deliver my child to the door of the school and walk home.

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My turntable spins. A line keeps coming back to me. I grab the liner notes to verify it. Fuck Wikipedia and the second-hand sources that screw up lyrics on the best of days.

“He hurt so bad / like a soul breaking / but he never said nothing to me…”

In the spring of 1991 I picked up this record – Temple Of The Dog. It was before Soundgarden had released Badmotorfinger in October, and I was telling a recently met acquaintance/friend about it. I hadn’t realized he was the Entertainment Editor at the campus paper until he asked me to write a review. Although, “Hunger Strike” would go on to be a hit the following year, it was “Say Hello To Heaven” that had sold me on the record. It was a song Chris Cornell had written after his former roommate Andrew Wood had died of an overdose. Wood, the vocalist for Mother Love Bone passed before the bands debut record had hit the streets. Like all overdose deaths tend to do, the lines between substance abuse and mental illness get blurred. Wood’s public persona had been one of fun loving and flamboyance, Cornell’s interpretation said something far more personal.

“Since you can’t say to me / now how the dogs broke your bone / there’s just one thing left to be said…”

Cornell’s voice soars into what I think is his most poignant moment. “Say hello to heaven.”

The turntable spins.

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Other people talk to me about depression. I’ve been pretty open about my own battles with it. But, trust me when I say that like minded people do not communicate with conversations about it. You don’t walk up to someone on the street and say, “so, I hear you feel like you’ve been run over and dragged on gravel.” Or… if they do, I’ve not joined that club. Those that have gone through it will either talk about their own experience, or listen as someone talks about theirs. Usually, these take place either one on one, or, if you’ve ever been hospitalized, a group setting. I tend to try and bring a sense of the ridiculous when I do open up, mentioning the full on weeping despair I once had over not finding a clean pair of socks. While a person’s tone can be jocular or matter of fact, there is nothing casual about depression, anxiety or mental illness. Still, my lack of foot covering story gets a laugh as a ‘WTF’ moment.

Still, life can be wonderful and then you have an episode…

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In June 2001, I was looking out the window of a hospital room down upon a place I had dubbed the “crop circle refueling station.” A fire hydrant in the middle of a large grass field, mowed in circles until it reached the concrete of the building itself. Detoxing off of thirteen prescriptions given for a mixture of pain and overwhelming sadness. It had been six months since I cried about the socks. Three months since the back surgery to remove two herniated discs, one of which had been calcified and impaled the sciatic nerve. The doctors hadn’t caught onto the fact that the ‘Oxy’ mixed with an already diagnosed ‘clinical depression’ was causing a severe reaction.

My life was good, but it felt like shit.

I was so heavily medicated I wasn’t sure which thoughts were real and which were the drugs. What I do remember most about that time in my life… an eternity worth of sleep seemed a whole lot better for me and everybody else than sitting around and waiting for the pain to subside. Three days after I arrived in the hospital, down to just my meds for cholesterol, it felt like a fog was lifting off my brain. Looking down on the “crop circle refueling station” I wondered what the fuck had happened to me.

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April 2001. A month after my surgery.

The meds say half a pill before bed. That was an hour earlier. I want to be better. I want to sleep. Fuck it! I’m taking more.

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Chris Cornell’s wife released a statement on Thursday. She believes her husband had taken a few extra Ativan tablets after his concert on Wednesday night. A medication that helps with anxiety when taken in low dosage.

Problem with anxiety… patience for medication to kick in doesn’t work so well. If you are having a panic attack, or looking darkness in the eye waiting isn’t something you are prone to do.  In a moment like that, when the abyss creeps in, it’s easy to over medicate. And that’s when the real shit begins.

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Friday afternoon the CD player is shooting a laser on a plastic disc and I’m being flooded with traces of doom. Every god damned lyric has me projecting bullshit about how dark everything must have gotten over the years. I’m looking for reasons. Except, you know, they just don’t exist. What am I searching for…

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A month ago, I was talking to my thirteen-year-old son about Vic Chesnutt. His suicide came up and we both cried. He asked why, and if it was wrong. It went something like this…

My head began to hurt. “I don’t have a good answer for that. Some people will hold up a Bible and tell you it is a sin. Others will talk about how selfish it is to hurt the people you love by ending your own life. Personally, I don’t buy into that. I believe that mental illness… depression; it takes away the hope you have for a good future. It only leaves you with the impression that your pain needs to end, and that you are a burden on those who suffer through it beside you.”

“That doesn’t make sense!”

“What?”

“The burden thing. Mommy pays for you to be home with us. You’re not a burden. So what if he owes money.”

“Part of being an adult is the desire to be self sustaining. That our own life should not impede or lower the people we care about.”

“THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE! When Grandma and Grumpa got sick you moved and took care of them didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Were they a burden?”

“No. I was exactly where I needed to be. Where I wanted to be. However, they didn’t see it that way. Grandma saw me leave my family to take care of her and it really bugged her.”

“That’s what I mean, if you were sick I would want to be with you.”

“That is how depression works. You forget that people really want to be there for you. You don’t want to ask for help. You don’t want to hold people back from their own lives. You just want to end the pain.”

The conversation went on… it never really reached a satisfying conclusion.

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Looking through the scores of articles published in the first 24 hours, I come across one in the Huffpost, from Julie A. Fast, an expert on mental illness and a survivor herself. I’m struck by a small paragraph near the end of the piece.

“If he has a brain like mine, he has an illness and his brain was triggered by something that resulted in a suicidal episode. It may have had nothing to do with his amazing life. Sometimes an illness is simply stronger than the person. Sometimes medications mess with our sensitive brain chemicals.”

The words hit me with a mix of confirmation, resignation and an awful strong desire to say “No shit – Sherlock.” I’m pissed off at everyone and no one at all. I resist the idea of opening a bottle of wine as Cornell’s epic voice pleads “reach down, and pick the crowd up.”

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The day Kurt Cobain died I was the Entertainment Editor of my campus paper. Quite a few people were bugging me to write an obituary. When I didn’t, a couple staff blamed the EIC (Editor In Chief), actually suggesting she didn’t want one. It was ludicrous. She knew why I didn’t, and I never had to explain myself. She could always see right through me. It was personal. As someone who had visited dark places, I wasn’t prepared to go there. I couldn’t express myself in terms that would bring anything remotely insightful. It had nothing to do with all that ‘voice of a generation’ crap, just a sadness that I couldn’t comprehend. Always regretted not saying something, but I simply can’t find words for it. Still haven’t got them.

Kurt Cobain – Elliott Smith – Mark Linkous – Vic Chesnutt – Chris Cornell. All artists I adored.

What’s the old saying… there but for the grace of God, go I?

I don’t know these people, but I know that place. I can’t help but take it personally. Every suicide I hear about hits me. My ears burn. I ache. I place it in a compartment tagged “to deal with later” and wait until I have time alone. Then I ache some more.

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Last year a friend posted an article on Facebook – Suicide Rates Amongst Middle Aged Men Rises 43% in the last 15 years. Chris Cornell was 52. I turn 50 in July.

Fuckin’ Facebook and its fuckin’ statistics.

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Twenty-four news cycle, major media, outlets that only mention artists when tragedy strikes, headlines about a voice silenced, and I feel rage. Misdirected rage. Quite honestly, why should I give a shit about all the talk about ‘grunge’ and ‘Seattle’ and ‘vocal range’ and the hyperbole surrounding it. 1990’s superlatives that lessen the time to a cliché. I’m smart enough to know what I’m searching for; the need to find something – someone to articulate how I’m feeling. Words that parallel my thoughts and give them voice. A smarter person than I to bring perspective. I’m searching, listening, searching and listening. Nothing so far.

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It’s Saturday morning. It starts with “Big Dumb Sex.” Cornell sreams ‘fuck’ enough times to make even Zac De La Rocha blush. This back before Soundgarden could fill a stadium. Before metalheads and alt-rock fans had been hearing “Jesus Christ Pose” on Walkman’s. Before people were bringing his voice up in conversations about rock’s greatest vocalists. It’s just a stupid fuckin’ song by a barely twenty something guy. The hook is the fact that he is using profanity to the point of hilarity, as a means to say “this is my version of pop music.” A parody of all the glam metal/big hair bands of the day. Essentially, it was meant to make you laugh. No deep meaning. Just a moment of being a dumbass.

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Outside the funeral home my friend and I get a bit into the whole self-referential morbid mortality thing. He wonders how people can catch up inside a funeral home. How laughter can continue in a room with the deceased. I take a different angle.

“Do me a favor. If or when I go – laugh. I don’t care what the circumstances are – laugh. I don’t want how I died to define me. I don’t want singular moments of when I was exceptional or unexceptional being the focus. I want The Lemonheads punk version of “Amazing Grace” played at the memorial. I want stupid stories regaled for all to hear.”

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I didn’t know Chris Cornell. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want Wednesday night in Detroit to be his epitaph. So, If, like me, you are looking for something to make sense of it… stop.

Just go put on a record.

Don’t watch the latest CNN updates.

Just put on a record.

Listen.

Repeat.

I suggest the Soundgarden cover of Devo’s “Girl You Want” from the EP SOMMS. It’s awesome fun and a great way to remember a person in their happier “dumbass” moments.

A Parenting Lesson & the Vic Chesnutt reissues…

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It can be difficult to explain pain to people. Words wrapped in metaphors trying to communicate the signals of nerve endings setting your brain alight. Both physical and mental anguish causing a torment that it often seems no one can relate with. I’ve visited these worlds from time to time; laid in a hospital bed and stared at the ceiling with a morphine high; taken pain killers to merely dull the excruciating; ingested medications to keep you from being overwhelmed by the thoughts manufactured by the prescriptions given for the original injury. I was a fan of Vic Chesnutt before I really understood these things, but I found a whole new appreciation once a calcified disc had pierced my sciatic nerve.

Recovering, I spent a great deal of time with Chesnutt’s early catalogue. Hearing it as if for the first time. It had become a part of the soundtrack of that time in my life. Songs that could be depended upon to show up right when I needed a good cry or laugh. His songs had given my own screwed up existence a voice I could recognize.

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Driving through the east coast of Canada over a three-week trip, Drunk, West of Rome, and Is The Actor Happy were in constant rotation. At one point, I had to stop the car in Fundy National Park as a porcupine had decided to point its quilled ass in my direction. Just as Chesnutt sang those ever so visual lyrics from “Dodge” … “I showed my behind so frequently, my dear old mother wouldn’t recognise me” the damn beast pulled its ‘pedestrian right of way’ bullshit, giving me its own version of the middle finger salute. A few seconds up the road a moose gives us a completely ambivalent look as if telling us that this particular occurrence happens everyday. A kind of “get over it” gaze of communication. Fuckin’ nature! Get over yourself!

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Fast forward seventeen years and my first born says “you’ve had this band on a lot, who is it?”

“Artist. Vic Chesnutt.”

“You going to see him in concert?”

“No. That really isn’t possible anymore. He died around the same time as Grandma and Grumpa.”

“From cancer like them…”

Now, I’ll be honest with ya… I kinda suck at this whole parenting thing. My thirteen-year-old son is the most empathetic child I have ever met. Having worked with and around kids since I was one myself, I can say this without the interference of parental pride. He is a soul that feels things deeply, and this conversation can’t end well. So basically, I’m stuck. He’s thirteen. Old enough to find out about things on his own. Dilemma, do I use this as a teachable moment, or just let it pass. As I said, I do suck at this.

“No.”

“A disease?”

“Are you sure you want to keep asking?”

“Why?”

Sigh. “This conversation could go to places you don’t like.”

“Was it a disease.”

How exactly do you answer this? I’m not a therapist. My own father wasn’t exactly the model of ‘after school special/ Dad of the year/ or ‘Dawson’s Creek’ perfectly scripted answers.

“Yes, but not in the way you are thinking.”

“Then what?”

Not sure how long I stared at my toes before I replied. It felt like enough time to have studied and gotten a psychology degree, but as I looked up my son was still standing in front of me with polar bear pajamas and a determined look.

“He overdosed on prescribed medications. Most people believe he committed suicide.”

“But…”

He teared up. I teared up. My nine-year-old walked down the stairs, looked at us, scoffed, went back up the stairs and started building his next Lego battle.

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I began speaking. Or maybe it was stammering. Perhaps pleading. Somewhere in the mix of trying to find words I talked about depression, physical pain, Canadian vs US health care, debt and back to depression. You know what… not a bit of it sufficed.

“Isn’t it wrong to do that, you know, kill yourself?”

My head began to hurt. “I don’t have a good answer for that. Some people will hold up a Bible and tell you it is a sin. Others will talk about how selfish it is to hurt the people you love by ending your own life. Personally, I don’t buy into that. I believe that mental illness… depression; it takes away the hope you have for a good future. It only leaves you with the impression that your pain needs to end, and that you are a burden on those who suffer through it beside you.”

“That doesn’t make sense!”

“What?”

“The burden thing. Mommy pays for you to be home with us. You’re not a burden. So what if he owes money.”

“Part of being an adult is the desire to be self sustaining. That our own life should not impede or lower the people we care about.”

“THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE! When Grandma and Grumpa got sick you moved and took care of them didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Were they a burden?”

“No. I was exactly where I needed to be. Where I wanted to be. However, they didn’t see it that way. Grandma saw me leave my family to take care of her and it really bugged her.”

“That’s what I mean, if you were sick I would want to be with you.”

“I understand that. But it would suck to need or ask for help. That is how depression works. You forget that people really want to be there for you. You don’t want to ask for help. You don’t want to hold people back from their own lives. You just want to end the pain.”

He thought on it for a while.

“Doesn’t his music make you sad now?”

“Some of it always did. Some of it makes me laugh, some of it makes me cringe, sometimes he can make me laugh and cry in the same song. But I’m not really answering your question, right.”

“Yep.”

“Since grade one, you’ve had friends that have moved away.”

“Yeah.”

“When you think of them do you only think of the fact that they’re gone, or do you think of the fun you had when they were here?”

“The fun.”

“A person shouldn’t be defined by how they died, but by how they lived. Vic Chesnutt was an artist who I really appreciated. His music means a lot to me. Look, I’m not great at talking about this. It sucks that he died, especially how he died. But I still love the music he gave us to enjoy. I don’t hear his death, I hear his voice.”

That thought gets left hanging, and it just doesn’t feel like it should end on this note.

“You know, when I play my battered up old 12 string.”

“The one you bought from a weird old guy, and is difficult to tune because the neck was broken.”

“Yeah. I think of Chesnutt every time I play it.”

He catches me on this and calls me out. “You said the same thing about that guy in The Lemons and Wilco, and that lady Victoria.”

“Yeah. And it’s all true. I think about all those people. It’s just that they all have a unique voice. Not singing style. It is an overall, way of phrasing ideas that connects with me. I love that old piece of crap guitar because it doesn’t sound like any other guitar I’ve heard from anyone. Sometimes when I play it, I feel a whole range of emotions. All of them, coming from different places and all moments I wish I could bottle and stay in a little longer than is actually possible. The music ends, and even when I try to play it again, it just isn’t the same. The music that I keep playing, and paying for, it does that too. Those artists… Vic Chesnutt… they help me find moments that connect to … I don’t know… connect to living. To not being alone. Sometimes you can find moments like that on your own, but other times, it’s great artists that pull out those moments and share them.”

“You’re sounding all weird Dad.”

“I suppose I am.”

Anyway. The Vic Chesnutt reissues have caused a bit of a stir in the house. So far, the three that have arrived sound absolutely perfect. My complaint, has nothing to do with the quality, but rather the shipping costs. Despite much lower priced options available, most companies still choose methods that can nearly double the transaction price. For some of my favorite records I went and purchased the coloured vinyl. However, others will have to wait until they become available at my local record store before I can purchase them. Essentially, shipping is pricing me out of the market. Seeing the chat rooms, I’m not the only one.

P.S. West Of Rome will be out on Record Store Day 2017… next week folks.

Not One Of Us: Peter Gabriel – eponymous (1980, 3, III or Melt)

gabriel3At the time of its 1980 release, I had no idea Melt was a political record. In fact, I didn’t know Peter Gabriel had been in Genesis. I was twelve and only knew that this record led to some good songs on the radio. It would be a couple of years later that I would really ‘hear’ it. The kind of record that revealed new things after both multiple listens and a few more years of life experience.

Long before social media and Google, the political inspirations didn’t hit me immediately. However, as a young teen the theme of isolation sure struck home. In addition, it mixed pub-rock with instruments I wasn’t used to hearing in my straight rock records. It was the first connection. Unlike Genesis, which had gone in a more pop-like direction under Phil Collins’ leadership, Gabriel had decided his art should contain a confrontational viewpoint. Hell, even the Robert Fripp guitar work sounded antagonistic at times. Then later as an older teen and twenty-something the world views started becoming clear. This wasn’t some self-indulgent statement about personal disconnection, it was about the failure of people to recognize the humanity in others.

“Not One Of Us” went from being a first person song about seclusion to a tune about segregation.

As a twelve year old, “Biko” was a fable about a situation a world away. By fifteen I understood it as an injustice. An assassination of a good man to silence his voice.

The kid in me heard “I Don’t Remember” as a song about amnesia, which of course it is not. If anything, you can see it as the dehumanization of the “other” from the “others” point of view.

Today in 2017, Melt is a warning. The themes are just as relevant today as when Peter Gabriel recorded them. As I watch the news, a right-wing extremist has walked into a mosque… a place of worship, and murdered. Years of political ramblings and talk-radio idiocy catering to the lowest common denominator had normalized hate. Pulled it out of the shadows and normalized it. We had turned Muslim-Canadians into the “other” and as such dehumanized them. In another case of life imitating art, Melt could have written yesterday. Innocence being tossed into a world of xenophobia with the end result being the death of good people….

For those of you looking to add it to your vinyl collection, the choices are limited but very good. The original pressing is widely available in all kinds of conditions and price points. For new copies, you have four real choices. In 2002, the first remaster was put out in all formats including a 200 gram limited vinyl edition. Despite hitting several websites, I couldn’t get a number for just how limited it was.

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In 2010, another limited run was put out in a much more special fashion. This was a 4 disc, single-sided, 200 gram vinyl edition that plays at 45 rpm. Good luck getting one for a decent price. While the 2002 disc will set you back about $100 CAD, the 2010 set goes from between $250 and $500.

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A fresh remaster was done in 2015, resulting in the newest editions. 10,000 copies of Melt were being offered to the public as a 200 gram, 2 disc set that plays at 45 rpm. Placed in a gatefold cover, this was also a numbered edition. Even though this release was less than 2 years old, I was unable to track any down in my local record stores and Gabriel’s own site is sold out of this edition. However, online retailers are still offering it at regular prices.

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In addition, just this past December (2016) a new version was released on 180 gram vinyl using the latest remaster. While there are none of the ‘bells and whistles’ of the other versions, it does indeed sound great and can be found in the usual $20 range.

Regardless of how you listen to it, Melt is both an important and amazing piece of work and remains a beloved part of my collection.

17 Great Songs if the Inauguration Made You See Red!!!!

A lot of people are happy… and even more are angry!!! The world in one day seems more divisive than ever. President Trump’s Inauguration hasn’t been a celebration but rather a clear indication of the deep divisions that separate people throughout the world. Although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure when politics were going all that smoothly. Watching the Women’s rights marches today reminds me of all the past protests over the years. Gender, sexuality, race, and war remain the themes and the only thing that ever changes are the people singing the songs. For those of you looking for a quick soundtrack to all the crap going on… here is one to add to your list.

Sonic Youth – Youth Against Fascism

With the first Gulf War (Iraq) as the background, Sonic Youth vent their frustration and overall hatred of the stupidity in their country. In what is almost a laundry list of issues and various assholes, Thurston Moore calls out poverty, racism, Judge Clarence Thomas, fascists, skinheads, the Christian right and finally, in their drop the mic moment, delivers a line for George Bush himself. “Yeah the President sucks / He’s a war pig fuck / His shit is out of luck / It’s the song I hate”.

Credence Clearwater Revival – Effigy

From the same record that spawned the much more popular anti-war tune “Fortunate Son”, deep cut “Effigy” is clearly the more desperate and impassioned younger brother. While the subject of the ‘burn’ is ambiguous, the emotional content is anything but. John Fogerty lets his voice trail and moan as he laments “The palace door / Silent majority weren’t keepin’ quiet anymore / Who is burnin’ / Effigy.” Watching protests world wide, this song always comes to mind.

Staples Singers – For What It’s Worth

Starting out as a more Gospel oriented band, by the 60’s the Staples Singers had joined the civil rights movement and their music reflected it. Something about this cover being stripped of Neil Young’s signature guitar and leaving only the Staples’ family vocals and Pops’ understated blues guitar make it powerful. Like a whisper, “For What It’s Worth” comes off more sorrowful than the angry original Buffalo Springfield classic. The result is that it demands your attention.

Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come

A virtual anthem of the civil rights era by one of the greatest voices to grace this planet, Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is both enlightening and heartbreaking simultaneously. Written as both a challenge and answer to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”, Cooke’s classic seems more heartfelt and honest with its mixture of despair and gospel belief. To this day, it is impossible to listen to without goosebumps appearing on the skin and a need for tear suppression.

Green Day – American Idiot

You would think that the song and album would say it all, but the band really try to put it all out there in what would become a signature moment for the band. With the second Gulf War (Iraq) in the backdrop, Green Day takes a shot George W Bush and tries to antagonize his supporters with the lyrics “Maybe I’m the faggot America / Not a part of your redneck agenda.” They pulled the song out two days before the election at MTV EMA’s Awards in November changing the lyrics from “mind-fuck” to “Subliminal mind-Trump America.”

Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer – Redemption Song

Something about Cash and Strummer, both unknowingly not far from the grave themselves, singing about regret and not standing idly rings true. Bob Marley’s words (lifted from a speech by Marcus Garvey) “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” takes on a more significant meaning in the era of media hatred and laments that all news is fake news. Once you add the gravity of broken voices, it becomes that much more urgent. Of course, Marley himself was already suffering from cancer when he wrote this song and was quite reflective about the fragility of life.

The Dirtbombs – Living For The City

Stevie Wonder wrote “Living In The City” as a stroll through the failure of the American Dream. A place where people are casually left behind. The irony is that you need to really listen to the lyrics to catch the anger in the original, as Wonder plays up his pop sensibilities. The Dirtbombs cover leaves nothing ambiguous about it. Mick Collins’ garage/blues guitar lines and more ferocious vocal treatment bring this family story right into the moment. A song that was once angry becomes “livid.”

Bob Marley & the Wailers – Get Up, Stand Up

A tour of Haiti influenced Bob Marley to begin writing this anthem with Peter Tosh. The song was so important to the Wailers that differing versions would appear throughout the 1970’s. It appears first as a Wailers single, then a Bob Marley & the Wailers track, then a Peter Tosh solo single and finally as a solo performance by Bunny Wailer. It would eventually be the final song Bob Marley would play live before his death in 1981. Regardless of the performer, it’s meaning can’t be misinterpreted, and the warning to so-called leaders is obvious… “You can fool some people sometimes / But You Can’t fool all the people all the time”.

Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name

Between Tom Morello’s insane guitar work and Zac de la Rocha’s screams of pure anger “Killing In The Name” could make even Chuck Norris blush. Another song released in the Bush Sr years, Rage Against The Machine pull no punches in this expletive-filled song against institutional racism and police brutality. It’s kind of hard to miss the implication of lyrics “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.”  In the end, it’s a pretty simple message for both those ordered to do wrong, and those standing against it… “Fuck You! I won’t do what ya tell me!” repeat over and over folks.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Gaye may have been blessed with one of the sexiest damn voices on this earth, but he could also tell you just how fucked up the world really is at the same time. Rather than professing anger, Gaye goes for the high road as he tries to de-escalate problems with love. He too looks at “brutality” but suggests we move past it to love one another.

Hole – Plump

People have made a career going after Courtney Love. Yet in one fell swoop, she writes a song that is ambiguous enough to take on several meanings, and powerful enough to be one giant middle finger to media hysterics, the double standards and stupidity of slut shaming, body shaming and celebrity obsession. Who else could sing “I don’t do the dishes, I throw them in the crib” with both a wink and a snarl. It may indeed be a personal sounding protest, but it is a little more universal than most would admit. It’s brilliant!

Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA

After years of playing it as a rallying cry for jingoistic Republican rallies, now Trump fans are booing “Born In The USA”… I guess the songs’ true meaning is out. Not quite. Republican’s were just pissed “The Boss” was actively campaigning for Clinton. Despite it’s anthemic chorus, “Born In The USA” was and remains a powerful rebuke against nationalism and war.

Peter Gabriel – Biko

In a world that often looks at protesters as instigators of problems, people often forget the price that is paid for using your voice. “Biko” is one of the most powerful songs ever written about a man who was murdered for daring to fight for equality in his nation. Stephen Biko’s death in 1977 was the rock that started the avalanche towards the end of apartheid and Gabriel’s song helped focus the worlds’ attention on South Africa in 1980. As a reminder, he often ends concerts with it.

Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam

Like many protest songs, “Mississippi Goddam” was written in direct response to the worst of humanity. In this case, it was the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the later bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Simone laments about the slow pace of change while people die, “Alabama got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.” The song became a civil rights anthem. In fact, her next record Sings The Blues included a reply (“Backlash Blues”) to the backlash she received over “Mississippi Goddam”. She had no regrets because none were required.

The Clash – White Riot

Some idiots thought the Clash were trying to incite race riots with this song. Those people really missed the point. Instead Joe Strummer was telling white kids to protest for a real reason and do away with their misplaced angry bullshit. After watching the rhetoric fly in the election I find this song to be more relevant that ever. Lots of blame, but is it really directed where it should be? Don’t look at me for an answer… I’m just asking the question.

NWA – F*** Tha Police

People get upset when you put down “the boys in blue” but when a massive part of the population is afraid of them, there is a serious problem. NWA put the police straight into the middle of their musical crosshairs and let loose, finding the LAPD to be guilty of being a “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker.” Spend ten minutes watching the news and you’ll see that sentiment still rings true for minorities throughout the western world.

Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man In A White World

The only song I’ve included from 2016, it features the exact same themes carried from the socially conscious songs throughout the 20th century. Except that we are well into the second decade of the 21st century and the world requires new voices to keep singing. Kiwanuka highlights that despite the fact that many people view the world as having changed, it really hasn’t changed much at all. Worse, unlike Cooke, Gaye, Marley, and Simone, Kiwanuka’s song leaves one not with hope but resignation. I want to believe he’s wrong… but… optimism does seem in short supply these days.

Helen Reddy – I Am Woman

In the 21st Century, “I Am Woman” sounds almost cliché and rather obvious. It is a straight-forward list of equality and empowerment. It is almost embarrassing that this needed to be stated at all in 1972. Except that the current President of the United States of America has been caught saying that he can get away with grabbing women by the pussy because he is a rich celebrity. The embarrassment here is that 45 years after it achieved being a #1 single, it is still relevant. In fact, as I’m writing this more women are marching in Washington to protest the President’s antiquated sense of morality than people that actually showed up to celebrate his inauguration. Ouch!

Big Star + Rock Hall = An Inductee That Would Really Matter… or… Big Star – Complete Columbia: Live at University of Missouri

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A friend asked me “Why, of all the albums being released on Record Store Day 2016, are you waiting in line for a 90’s live album from a 70’s band?” The tone and nature of the question was meant to be mocking, as he loves to have lively music debates, particularly ones that push my buttons. However, instead of just reacting, I took a deep breath and thought about it. Then, just to be annoying I told him I would ‘write the answer.’ (hehehe…)

The reasons are three-fold.

Like many people, the album I first attach to a band tends to have the greatest impact. While I heard songs by Big Star from time to time, it wasn’t until the release of Columbia that I had a complete work in front of me which represented the band as a whole. A world opened up. Here was a collection of songs that didn’t need to be ‘epic’ stories of human struggle (ie. Bruce Springsteen) or carry images of Mordor (ie. Led Zeppelin) to have powerful depth. They also didn’t include anthem-like clichés to get people fist pumping in the air (pick your own example, as there are so many). “In The Street”, “Back Of A Car” and “September Gurls” leapt out of my speakers and made my own angst seem to matter. These songs were simple coming-of-age tales detailing everyday experiences without the ‘syrup’ provided by many of the ‘so-called’ classic rock bands of the day. Instead, Big Star gave us the kind of tunes that made you want to pick up a guitar and learn to play. Furthermore, you found yourself singing, not in some vain attempt to impress or attract anyone, but as an outlet to express yourself. Which is perhaps why I had been hearing covers of their songs by other artists as time went on; The Lemonheads, Matthew Sweet, The Bangles, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub and later Beck were all doing renditions of the songs of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell. The Replacements even wrote a song entitled “Alex Chilton”, dropping the line “never go far, without a little Big Star.” All of it was packed into this one album.

Next, this wasn’t an example of a band cashing in on fame. Big Star never had the kind of fame you could cash in on. Columbia was quite literally a concert put together by fans for fans and later released in a similar fashion. Two campus radio staffers at the University of Missouri quite literally asked Big Star alumni Jody Stephens if he would be willing to do a reunion show, and got a yes if Alex Chilton was up for it. Surprisingly, Chilton agreed and, with the addition of the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow to cover for Chris Bell (deceased) and Andy Hummel (left the music business), the band played an amazing set to (merely) an estimated 200 people. Yet even with a small venue, they managed to attract much of the music world. That show got glowing write-ups in all the major music magazines of the day. It was pretty unanimous amongst the press that those not lucky enough to be in attendance had missed something special. Fortunately, this record gives us a glimpse of a show that has attained somewhat legendary status.

Finally, Columbia solidifies my absolute belief that Big Star should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. All three of their initial studio releases (#1 Record, Radio City, Sister Lovers/Third) land consistently on various magazines’ Top Albums of all-time lists; all three are referenced by multiple generations of artists as being influential in their music; and all three are revered by fans lucky enough to have heard them as being close to their hearts. More importantly, their music has endured through the most insanely bad luck of any band in rock history. Their 1971 debut #1 Record was hailed as triumphant by music critics, but due to poor distribution and marketing by Stax, no one could find a copy to purchase, even when songs were played on the radio. Follow up Radio City suffered a similar fate, with Columbia records refusing to distribute the record because of a disagreement with their newly acquired Stax label. By the time Big Star released the gorgeous yet challenging Sister Lovers/Third, the band had completely disintegrated with only Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens remaining. They went their separate ways and that should have ended the story… but it didn’t.

Fans exchanged cassettes with Big Star tunes. Those in the know kept talking and searching until a market was created for re-releases. More than two decades removed from their first record and people were seeking them out based on little more than conversations and scratchy recordings emanating from a tape deck. By the early 90’s, Ryko had reissued Sister Lovers/Third and a put out a compilation of Chris Bell’s solo material, I Am The Cosmos. Then Columbia was released in 1993.  A tribute album was recorded by a virtual who’s who of 90’s alt-rock artists (ironically, it also suffered from bad luck and wasn’t released until years afterward). When Columbia was released, it may still have been hard to find the first two Big Star records in stores, but here were the songs; live, rough and glorious in their presentations. All members were taking on vocal duties, with Jon Auer doing an incredible job on the solo Chris Bell single “I Am The Cosmos.” As the 90’s continued, That 70’s Show used “In The Street” as their theme song and a new generation started to discover the band. Finally, their albums could be found in record stores.

Somehow, without radio backing or touring, people were seeking out this music.

Which brings me to the Rock Hall…

If, as I believe, rock ‘n’ roll is about more than money or popularity, then Big Star should be inducted and Columbia is a perfect example of why. Here is a band whose art transcended obscurity by nothing more than word of mouth and shared recordings. Without the help of corporate money and radio exposure, their music found a way to not only be heard, but in fact influence generations of future musicians. Hell, the entire sub-genre of “power-pop” can’t even be considered without Big Star being mentioned as its greatest practitioners. It is hard to picture the sounds of the 90’s alternative music scene without the influence of songs that Alex Chilton and Chris Bell provided. Then, you add the Big Star reunion to the mix.

Complete Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri 4/25/93 exemplifies the very idea that great music will find fans and that record sales are not as important as the art itself. On-stage that day in ’93 were two musicians who had created some music playing with two other musicians that had been directly inspired by it. Twenty years separating their careers, yet you could hear just how much Big Star had meant to the future of rock music. They weren’t just another band that you hummed along to distractedly on a transistor radio; they were the band you sought out and told anyone and everyone willing to listen that Big Star were “FUCKING AWESOME!!!”

So my friend… you ask me why I’m arriving early on RSD 2016 to line up for a copy of Columbia… or even, why they should be in the Rock Hall… well, it’s because Big Star created music that really matters… what other reason is there?

New Replacements vinyl box – The Sire Years to be released on March 29th

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For some hard core fans, The Replacements are the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. Hyperbole aside, they are definitely one of the most important and influential acts from the 80’s.

The last few weeks have given Mat’s fans a few interesting developments to cheer about. First, Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield introduced the world to their recent collaboration The I Don’t Cares. On March 1st, a new biography by acclaimed rock critic Bob Mehr entitled Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements saw the light of day. Just this past week a new interview in Spin had Westerberg clarify that the Replacements reunion “DID NOT” end with them breaking up again; implying that we may indeed see them reunite in the future. Finally, Rhino records have announced a new vinyl box set – The Replacements: The Sire Years.

The set includes four records the band recorded on Sire between 1985 and 1990: Tim (1985), Pleased To Meet Me (1987), Don’t Tell A Soul (1989) and All Shook Down (1990).

Tim saw Westerberg explore different aspects of his song writing prowess. Songs like “Swingin Party” and “Kiss Me On The Bus” had a more playful ‘house party’ feel that was contrasted by the anthemic “Bastards Of The Young” & “Lay It Down Clown.” Eventually, Rolling Stone would hail it as #136 in their ‘Top 500 Albums of All Time’ and Alternative Press ranked it as 4th in the Greatest Records recorded between ’85 and ’95 list.

Pleased To Meet Me contains some of the most recognized Replacements numbers including their nod to Big Star luminary “Alex Chilton” and the life affirming “Skyway.” The video for “The Ledge” had the distinction of being banned by MTV for its theme of suicide. While Tim still contained elements of the band’s more punk origins, Pleased To Meet Me had moments where you could mockingly envision men in smoking jackets drinking martini’s. Paste magazine ranked it at #70 in their Top 80 of the 80’s list.

Don’t Tell A Soul was the first record to feature Slim Dunlap on guitar after Bob Stinson’s unceremonious departure. In contrast to the two previous more adventurous records, this was pretty much a straight forward rock ‘n’ roll album featuring the Replacements only ‘real’ hit single “I’ll Be You.” Although lacking some of the historical accolades of other albums, Don’t Tell A Soul was both a ‘tongue in cheek’ nod to lack of success while at the same time an attempt to achieve what they so despised. “Talent Show” and “Achin’ To Be” both stand out as highlight tracks.

The Replacements’ epilogue came just as the band was beginning to get mainstream attention with All Shook Down. “When It Began” was nominated for an MTV video award and the LP as a whole found the band nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the 1991 Grammy’s. Featuring a slew of guests including John Cale (The Velvet Underground), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), and Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde); All Shook Down saw the disintegration of the band in a glorious sounding finale.

Unlike many recent vinyl retrospectives The Replacements: The Sire Years is downright affordable, with retailers asking just over $70.00 for the four LP set. Any indie/alt rock fan looking to include some Mats tunes on the turntable should be extremely happy with this release. However, act quick… the set is limited to 8700 numbered copies, with some pre-orders containing a bonus 7” of “Can’t Hardly Wait” (Tim version) with “Portland” on the B-side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give Me Crap If You Must… or… Temple Of The Dog – Eponymous

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Right now… as I’m writing this, I’m feeling an epic moment of personal nostalgia. Looking over at a recently purchased purple piece of vinyl spinning on my turntable I can’t help but reflect back nearly twenty-five years. Usually when someone says that an album changed their life it is pure hyperbole. It is something said by someone to say they connected in a deep way to a certain record. In my case it literally shaped my entire university experience and the lifelong friends I made.

Let me explain. In the summer of 1991 I found myself really getting into an album that almost no one had heard of – Temple Of The Dog. Remember, this was before Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger; before Pearl Jam had released Ten and even predates Nirvana’s Nevermind. Hell, Soundgarden’s most commercial song to this point was probably “Big Dumb Sex” which had Chris Cornell screaming fuck enough to get the old “explicit lyrics” sticker on the front of Louder Than Love.

As school resumed in September I had started taking a film course and was regaling a new acquaintance on the perfection that was Temple Of The Dog. After a few moments, he interjected with… “Why don’t you review it for me?” I must admit, I was more than a little dumbfounded and probably had that “um, yeah, um, ok” look in my eyes until he explained that he was the entertainment editor at the campus paper. The next day I showed up with a hand written review and from that point on, I became an arts critic during a very interesting time in the musical universe.

Little more than a month after that conversation Pearl Jam was playing an industry gig at the Rivoli in Toronto. Trust me when I say this… the Rivoli is small, very frickin’ small. Ten had been released, but no one was caught up in it yet, and I retold the story again to my friend trying to sell him on the idea of an interview. Mike, who has a bit of a poker face, didn’t seem to think it would be a problem. It would be the first time I would stick a microphone in front of a band, so I was a little nervous and started checking my schedule the next day. My memory at this point gets a bit fuzzy on certain details, but what I remember with absolute clarity is this – I had an exam the morning after the interview. So I returned to Mike and let him know I wouldn’t be able to do it. Casually… between two friends, I cancelled an audience with Pearl Jam before they were “PEARL JAM.”

It wouldn’t be until the next summer I’d do my first interview with The Skydiggers, and from there I did have chats with a lot of great bands. Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Cracker and the Lemonheads all come to mind. However… um…, what can I say? I did well on the exam.

Now many years later I found myself searching for a vinyl copy and apparently it is a very hot commodity. Discogs has selling the original 1991 LP for $1000 USD with the average of past sales coming up at over $200 and a recent sale over $500. The same record made in Europe goes for a much more reasonable $80.

That same year a limited edition picture disc was released but I couldn’t find any for sale to fix a price point.

In 1992, with the success of both Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the album was given a huge push behind the release of the single “Hunger Strike.” Several European editions were released on red vinyl and all seem to go between $50 and $100.

Eight years later, a vinyl reissue hit the market on clear vinyl that has a history of selling under $50.

Jump to 2013 and Music on Vinyl did a complete remaster of the record on 2 pieces of black 180 gram vinyl with an etched side 4. Simultaneously, they also released a limited edition hand numbered purple LP set. A&M also reissued the record on a single red platter.

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Finally, last year, Music on Vinyl reissued 1200 copies of the purple set on 180 gram vinyl to be sold through Newbury Comics. The two, while described as purple, are differing shades, making it slightly cooler than the last batch. However… it seems to have already sold out. You can find copies through Discogs or e-bay for under $50 USD, or just grab the regular black vinyl which is still widely available at the usual retailers.

The Volume is a Little Lower: Goodbye Glenn Frey

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Identity and youth is such a strange thing. What one is willing to grasp on to in order to fill a void can seem like a whim but have implications that last a lifetime. For whatever reason, the music of the Eagles was what attached itself to me, and I in return, clung to them for more years than they themselves remained together in their initial run.

I remember hearing them from the crackling transistor AM radios that my older siblings owned and through the fuzz of the car stereo on the trips up north as a child. There was something that made them stick. I wasn’t even 10 when Hotel California was released, but it was the first album that I didn’t just want to buy, but somehow be a part of. More than the Beatles or the Stones, the Eagles were who I identified with. Of course, as a kid it was an oversimplified Scooby Doo type community I craved, but at that age you’re allowed to project those desires into your favourite tunes.

As I became a teen, my notebooks and textbooks would have the lyrics of their songs hand written into the covers. I knew that J.D. Souther was a frequent collaborator and that Jackson Browne had co-written “Take It Easy.” I was familiar with previous bands too; that Randy Meisner had once been in a band called Poco, that Bernie Leadon had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, that Joe Walsh had opened for the Who as a part of The James Gang and mostly, that Glenn Frey and Don Henley were members of Linda Ronstadt and ultimately the masterminds behind my favourite band.

This wasn’t in the days of Google and Wikipedia. Every bit of information you got about the artists you loved was from careful study of an LP’s liner notes; gathered from magazine articles you were lucky enough to have picked up; or even books you searched for in the library… which was strange, because I only seemed to be there for this very reason. I learned about these artists from the radio itself. For years, I was tuning into Q107’s Six O’Clock Rock Report to get any little scrap of information about all my favourite bands. Before I even hit high school, I was a huge music fan with a doctorate in The Eagles. I could wax poetic about tons upon tons of rock bands; bore you with details about groups from the Beatles to Barnstorm, but the kings of the Southern California sound were my first love.

To that end, the passing of Glenn Frey hits home and hits hard. No, I never met him, and to be honest, his image as seen through History of The Eagles is that of someone who is wrapped in arrogance… but that doesn’t mean much to me. What mattered was that he helped provide a soundtrack to my life. His music gave me a reason to socialize and interact in a world that I felt desperately alone in during those early formative years. When I later lost interest in their music, it was still that initial connection that drove me to take a further interest in the sounds of other bands. Even as a music journalist, I would hear artists through a lens, that for better or worse was established with the same enthusiasm I had for The Eagles when I was child. As an adult now, I can both sing their praises and slam them in a single breath… but the truth is; every record from their debut to Eagles Live is sitting just a few inches from my turntable. In the basement, where an old stereo with a cassette deck is ready to resume work with a single button push, my old Eagles/Don Henley/Glenn Frey/Joe Walsh and James Gang cassettes wait to roll.

Earlier in the week, as I was discussing the death of David Bowie with an acquaintance, I said to him that “I’m hitting a crappy age.” It’s a time when the heroes, friends and mentors of our childhood start to disappear; a time when we seemingly attend more funerals than celebrations. Glenn Frey will live on through his family and his music… but platitudes seem rather empty at the moment. Today another part of my youth died, and no matter how much I wish for it, life will never sound the same. Still great sounding, but the volume is forever a little lower.

RIP Glenn Frey

Aimee Mann: She isn’t the Ramones… but she is pretty damn cool! (A first concert story)

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Back in university there was only one major thing I was envious about regarding my roommate/friend – his first concert. The first band he ever saw live was the Ramones; only the ‘coolest’ band to have ever graced the planet earth. Oh, you can mention ‘better’ or ‘more popular’ bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Smiths, the Cure, etc and so forth… but unless you can tell me you saw James Brown live at the Apollo, or the B 52’s in an Athens dive as your first show, he had you beat.

Of course, his first concert outshone mine easily. I’m embarrassed to say, but that first for me was in the freezing cold at Nathan Phillips Square featuring Platinum Blonde. Sure, there are many bands that could rank worse as a first show, and it wasn’t a bad night either, but “It Doesn’t Really Matter” isn’t exactly “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” A few years later, with one four year old at my feet, and another child on the way, I vowed to make sure that my kids would get a cool first concert; something ‘worthy’ of telling college roommates about in a childish game of ‘mine is better than yours.’

So it was that in 2008, a couple things had lined themselves up. Local record store Sonic Boom (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World filmed a couple scenes in there) had acoustic concerts every so often in the basement of their Bloor Street location. I attended a Nada Surf show with the ‘former roomy’ and when it finished I saw the bands singer/songwriter Matthew Caws hanging out with some kids. Not ‘kids’ as in a middle-aged definition of people of the teenaged variety… but honest to goodness children. Not being the most perceptive of individuals, it only dawned on me right then, that… well, um, a record store is a safe and… dare I add, perhaps even ‘cool’ place to see a concert.

!!!LIGHTBULB!!!!

Five months after watching Nada Surf, and barely 8 weeks after my second child was born a quick e-mail announced that Aimee Mann was going to be playing a set at Sonic Boom. Since the early 90’s I had become a pretty big fan of Mann’s music. She had put together a consistent string of outstanding records that caught a great balance between power-pop (Big Star), new-wave (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe), and the alt-rock scene of the times. Bachelor #2 was a staple in my house as the new millennium began and 2005’s concept album The Forgotten Arm seemed to be just more proof that she should be a household name. In other words, Mann had become an essential part of my life’s soundtrack. Alas, critical praise doesn’t always result in record sales. Of course, and from a purely selfish perspective, it also meant that seeing a ‘bucket list’ artist in a strange different style venue was about to happen.

So it was that during the early evening May 9th, 08 my wife and I took the boys out to see Aimee Mann. Needless to say, the youngest was in a car seat hanging out with my wife just in case he expressed any discomfort with the noise level. However, my 4 year old and I were sitting cross-legged in front of the small riser where he began to ask me a thousand questions about the small soundboard and the instruments on stage. He had a poster clutched in his hands and was smiling from ear to ear. Since his birth he had seen me playing guitar and singing songs and was now completely enthralled by the prospect of seeing a real music artist. Mann didn’t disappoint. Playing a few selections from @#%&*! Smilers, which was due for release a couple weeks later, she had everyone in a great mood. By the end of the set my son was convinced that Mann was the world’s greatest songwriter, and that she was smiling at him between songs. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him she was looking at where she was placing the capo on her guitar… and that the neck of the instrument was pointed in his direction.)

After the set, we waited around for about 30 minutes to see if we could get the poster signed. I’m not usually one for signatures, but I figured a momentous occasion like a first concert would be a great opportunity for my kids to have a keepsake. So we looked at the vinyl and cassettes which shared the basement with the stage, and kept an eye on the door for her exit. Unfortunately, whoever was interviewing her after the show was getting a really good chat, because she just never came out of the backroom in time for my son to get it signed. The baby needed to get home, and so we jumped into the rusty old minivan with a poster, our memories and a great first concert story.

Eighteen months later, my first born would get his second concert poster signed by a confused looking J. Mascis and a very gracious Lou Barlow after a Dinosaur Jr. acoustic set at Sonic Boom. (I mean come on, how many times do alt-rock legends get five year-olds walking up for an autograph.) Since then we’ve been to a bunch of small sets or shows. Both my boys (now just about to turn 12 and 8) enjoy going to shows at Sugar Beach where they can play in the sand before a band breaks into song.

Over the years, I’ve seen Mann perform a couple times, each time more impressive than the last and yet she still remains on my bucket list for a couple reasons. One, I’d eventually like to get to one of her annual Christmas shows. But, even more importantly, I’d like to have the kids go to a full concert that they’ll actually remember without daddy reminding them of when playing music on the stereo. When she last came to Toronto with The Both we were away on holidays and missed the chance. All joking about bragging rights aside, taking my kids to a concert isn’t about bravado, it is about bonding. Doing those things that allow memories to grow and be sustained.

So my old roommate has the Ramones… and that is pretty cool. But, on some future day when they’re at college and a friend asks “what was your first show?” both my children will be able to give a sly grin and reply – “Aimee Mann… and I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet.” The older one can even add “and, it’s on youtube. You can see my dad and I on the floor waiting for the music to start.”

Thanks for the memory Aimee