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Tang Reunion

I was at the dentist this morning for my “once over”. I go about three times a year, not so much because I need it, but because my insurance covers it and my dentist likes to go on nice holidays. He always asks the same thing, like “any plans for Spring Break?”, and while wealthy and successful people may respond, “Well, yes. We are heading to: #Hawaii #Disneyland #Disneyworld #Arizona #Victoria #PalmSprings” or other such exotic locales, I told him we are heading to a small prairie city a couple hours drive west of here for their “Winter Exhibition”. Which is in itself a misnomer, as we are clearly into Spring now. (Okay, there is still snow on the ground, and as I look out the window this minute there are flurries in the air, but THE CALENDAR DOES NOT LIE [unless it is one of them “Hijri calendars” or my sweet U2 calendar from 1988 that I kept for years after the dates made no sense because I liked the pictures]). My dentist seemed to know about the winter carnival because he said the arena smells like a barn all week, and I agreed with him. “I have to take an antihistamine before I go near there, but my wife and daughter like petting all the small farm animals and I don’t mind watch the horse jumping all day long”. I realized I sounded like a bit of a simpleton, but it was the truth. They put some kind of covering on the arena floor. (Wood chips? Saw dust? Straw?) so you don’t ever hear the clop-clops of the horses’ hooves. (That apostrophe on ‘horses’ may be in violation of Strunk and White, but I can’t just bring myself to write horses’s and I wouldn’t want you to have to sound that out in your inner “reading voice”.)

Despite the sneezes and being around all those smelly animals for a day, I AM looking forward to our little getaway, and our hotel has a pool, so I might even risk a DIP at some point.

But this is all burying the lede, people. The main reason I am writing this post (in addition to writing one to not miss one in March. Not that missing one would be the end of the world, would it? I mean, really) is that I was reunited with my old hygienist today. (No, not Mary K. Long time readers may remember my favourite hygienist of all time. I wrote about her here way back in 2013.) Not her. That WOULD be something to celebrate. No. I’m talking about TANG, my hygienist who happens to be a MAN. Last time I was at the dentist, Tang wasn’t available so I was assigned to ANOTHER MAN. I don’t mean to sound sexist or ignorant here, but my impression (could be wrong, could be wrong!) is that dental hygienists tend to be women. In fact, up to and including Mary K, they had ALL been women for me. But now I’m wondering if there is something in my file that says, “He only takes dudes” now, because what are the chances that I would get not one, not two but THREE mangienists since Mary K’s tenure? (There was a short-lived guy name “Sam”, but no one ever saw him again after that first time). I did not care for Tang’s replacement last time. He was rough with his hands (and such big hands!) and he told me I wasn’t flossing enough, which I took the wrong way. I mean, sure, I’m not flossing after every meal. I’m not a serial killer. But I do make an effort to “eff and bee” every night before bed, and if I miss the occasional night, it only makes me more human and relatable. In short, we did not click.

So this morning, as I was sitting in the waiting room, I honestly couldn’t remember if I had booked with the Tang replacement, or the original flavour, so you can imagine my great surprise and joy when Tang 1.0 came out to the waiting room to collect me!

“It’s good to see you!” I gushed unrepentantly as I climbed up into the chair.

“You too, I missed you this winter” was Tang’s response.

“Really?”

“Well, I mean. It feels like its been awhile.”

“Yes, it has! I had that other guy last time. You weren’t here,” I said reproachfully.

And then we started talking about karaoke for some reason and I remembered how much I liked his laid back demeanour, his dry sense of humour, and his small, ALMOST LADYLIKE hands. FRIENDS AGAIN. Or, if not friends exactly, then a hygienist and a patient who seem to click.

We finished about 10 minutes early, and I commented, “Well, look at that. We are ahead of schedule.”

And Tang said, “That’s a testament to your good gums. There was even less plague on here that usual.”

“Welllllllllll. I’d say it is a testament to your ability as a hygienist. Why don’t we both take credit for our successes today?”

And Tang said, “That’s what we call around here Filling Each Others Buckets” and I didn’t like THAT term at ALL but I DO like Tang and made sure I booked in with him again in August. He wished me well at the winter fair, and I wished him well at his next Karaoke session, and I left with some floss, a toothbrush (green!), some paste, and ZERO cavaties.

 

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“Make Five Wieners, I’ll Eat Six”

Sad news recently in the world of radio. We learned this morning that Arthur Black, the long-time host of CBC Radio’s Basic Black died. He announced just a couple of weeks ago that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the “Mike Tyson of cancers” as he described it in a poignant, bittersweet blog post. That news brought back a flood of good memories for me, of spending a chunk of many, many Saturday mornings listening to Basic Black with my Dad. When I say, “listen with my Dad”, I don’t want to give the impression that he and I would sit around a radio, like a couple of old-timey rubes. That’s not what would typically happen. My Dad would play the CBC in the bathroom as he performed his “morning ablutions” (his words) and I would listen to it from my CASSETTE PLAYER/AMFM RADIO in my room, typically while I was still in bed. If my Dad was not in the bathroom DOING HIS ABLUTIONS, then he was probably upstairs in the kitchen puttering around, listening to it on his little transistor radio. I honestly don’t know what my Mom or brother were up to during these mornings, but I don’t think they ever listened to Basic Black. I think they surfaced around lunchtime, when Double Exposure took over the airwaves after Basic Black wrapped up for the week. Double Exposure was also a fun show. Just a half hour, it would lampoon weekly political news with skits and impressions of famous politicians of the day. Saturday mornings in our house were always that potent combination of Basic Black and Double Exposure, but today I want to focus on Basic Black.

I remember the theme song and Arthur Black’s cheery, “Good Saturday Morning, Canada!” which launched every show. And what a weird show it was! It was a smorgasbord of interviews with quirky people, skits, monologues, pre-recorded bits, and songs, both live and recorded. It seemed to me at the time that Arthur Black had complete creative control, but I imagine he had a team of writers and producers behind him to create this illusion of a single-minded vision. It was thanks to this show that I first heard Robbie Robertson and The Band. Arthur Black must have loved The Weight because it felt like it must have played it at least once a month on the show. I always thought the show did a great job of knitting together the various regions of Canada by taking calls from people from every corner, and creating this shared experience. You always kind of got the feeling you were in his circle, and you were in on the jokes.

A regular feature was the report from Sir George St. Jean Quimby…….in London. It always began with the chimes of Big Ben, and this weirdo correspondent would come on and report on odd things in the British zeitgeist. I never really knew if they were real news stories or made up. It didn’t matter, he was a part of the Basic Black family.

Joy Gallagher was another regular guest on Basic Black. She was always on doing a cooking segment with Arthur Black, and things always went horribly and hilariously wrong. She wrote a series of books called The Kitchen Klutzes Cookbook: No More than 4 Ingredient Recipes. For Christmas one year, I wanted to get one of these books for my Dad as a present. My Mom couldn’t understand why I wanted to get my Dad a cookbook, as he never took an interest in cooking (aside from wieners and beans night when my Mom was out), but I knew he would like it. I was right! He and I even tried out a few recipes from it, and I can tell you this: you should probably have more than 4 ingredients in your cooking for it to taste like anything, but it was still fun.

My favourite recurring bits were Arthur Black’s monologues. They were sort of like Rick Mercer’s street rants, but with less walking around, (and not as ranty, I don’t think). Just like E.B. White’s essays (ref to last blog post, you guys!), Arthur Black’s monologues would have easily fit into “blog post” form, I think. Speaking of blogs, the man himself started one just weeks ago when he received his diagnosis. You can find it at http://basicblack.homestead.com/ .

He sadly only made it to seven posts, but you can really get a sense of his humour and wit from them, if you are not familiar with his show. I just ordered one of his books from another library, so I’ll probably have more to say about him later.

After my Dad died, I drifted away from the show. As much as I enjoyed listening to it, it was more that it was something my Dad and I would do together. After he was gone, I didn’t really have a reason to continue listening. Life changes and you move on. I kind of regret that now.

Years passed.

So it was to my great surprise and delight that on Saturday, June 29, 2002 my then girlfriend/now wife and I were heading out to my Aunt and Uncle’s cottage for the long weekend, and when we put the radio on, can you guess what greeted us? That’s right! “Good Saturday Morning, Canada!” It happened to be the VERY LAST Basic Black, broadcast live from Thunder Bay. We listened to it the whole way out, and it was a lovely way to say goodbye. I didn’t know it until then, but my wife listened to Basic Black in the ’90s when she worked Saturday mornings at a toy store. It’s doubtful that we ever overlapped in our listening, but still.

The CBC’s Early Edition posted a link to his last show today. I’m not sure how long it will be up but you can listen to it here. I’ve been listening to it while I’ve been writing this post. It’s so goofy.

Towards the end of every show, Arthur Black would give out the show’s address if you wanted to write to him. This was before the days of email and social media so you had to actually WRITE LETTERS WITH ACTUAL PENS OR TYPEWRITERS. The CBC’s postal code in Toronto was (and is, I guess) M5W 1E6, and to remember it, he would always give out the address and end it with “Make Five Wieners, I’ll Eat Six”, which always made me smile, it was so stupid. Stupid, but a great blog post title.

 

 

 

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Thing(s) I Love 2018

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” Dorothy Parker

Okay. So we are doing this again? The Valentines’ Day post? (Or is it Valentine’s? Valentine’s, right? Because the Saint is called Valentine, and it is his day?). Are we all good with “Valentine’s”? I mean, the punctuation, are we good with it?

God, what an awkward start to this year’s Thing(s) I Love post. I really stumbled out of the gate. Even the punctuation in the title of these series of posts is questionable. “Is it a singular or a plural?” It can’t be both. We’re not doing quantum mechanics here, Keanu.

I was going to write about SOMETHING ELSE for this year’s “Thing(s) I Love” post, but now with all of this grammar and spelling kerfuffle at the top of this post, maybe I should write about ANOTHER thing (actually it’s not a THING, it’s a MAN: spoiler). That’s right. I’m talking about E.B. White, one half of that famous style manual, Strunk and White. (Well I guess  the actual title is The Elements of Style but anyone in the know calls it Strunk and White). And for you style enthusiasts, are you pleased with my use of the “it’s” in the first part of this paragraph. You see, it is a conjunction for “it is” which makes the apostrophe appropriate. If I were using “its” as a possessive, like “The cat hurt its paw”, then no apostrophe. I’M GLAD WE CLEARED ALL THAT UP. (All caps for emphasis).

Another reason to talk about E.B. White and The Elements of Style is that this year is the 100th anniversary of its (see what I did there?) creation. Now, back in 1918, White didn’t have anything to do with it. He didn’t come along and edit, expand and update it until 1959, when it became known as “Strunk and White”. Did people refer to the original 1918 version as just “The Strunk”? I like to think so, as in literary types shouting across a room to each other, “Pass me the Strunk!” Strunk struck out on his own, a hundred years ago, and created this manual because as an English professor at Cornell he was tired of seeing poor English usage among his students. In 1918! What would Strunk think of the world of social media today, with its LOLs, IMHOs, and emojis? Luckily we can ask him because in addition to being a former professor of English, Strunk is also a LORD OF THE DARK ARTS and traded his humanity for immortality in 1924. Thing is, he is kind of hard to track down and he is notoriously shy, so I couldn’t really find a useful quotation.

But enough about Strunk! I don’t love him, I love E.B. White! Let’s talk about him for a little bit. E.B. White was a student of Strunk’s at Cornell, which explains his connection to The Elements of Style.

I first came across  The Elements of Style in 2000, when I read Stephen King’s On Writing. For those who haven’t read On Writing, it’s all about SK’s take on the craft of writing, and he swears by Strunk and White as the guidepost and bible for all writers. I got so curious I went out and got my own copy of it, and yeah: It’s great. The first thing I noticed that it is short and to the point, which interestingly is one of the points of the book. “Remove unnecessary words”, to which any reader of this blog will know that I often do not adhere. Another rule is “avoid a succession of loose sentences”. Look, I never said I was a GOOD writer, you guys. And I, for one, welcome all sentences, loose or chaste. (The loose ones are a bit more fun). The second takeaway is that they are strong believers in the Oxford comma and I agree, affirm, and support this take. The third thing is that many of the things they discuss no longer apply in the digital era. For example, the whole idea of telling us when to break up words at the ends of lines really doesn’t matter with a word processor that can automatically justify any line width. But Strunk and White didn’t know about this in 1959. They were living in the age of typewriters. Despite Strunk’s play at immortality, he wasn’t a fortune-teller. (Still isn’t!).

Even though I like the idea of Strunk and White, I don’t agree with EVERYTHING in there. Like their first rule about possessives. They say you should stick an apostrophe and “S” after EVERY case of single possession, even those words that naturally end in “S”, so get situations like Charles’s. I’d be inclined to write Charles’ in cases like this. I don’t know if it is right, but it FEELS right to me. Don’t even get me started on plural possessives.

Well, what else is there to say about Strunk and White? Time magazine named it one of the 100 “best and most influential books written in English since 1923”. I guess they were talking about the 1959 version, and I still consult it from time to time, even if some of its advice is a bit questionable to this modern man. I wondered why Time seemingly chose an arbitrary date of 1923, but I looked it up and that was the year that Time began publishing, so I guess it makes sense.

But this post isn’t just about Strunk and White, you guys. I want to talk about some of the other stuff that White got up to while Strunk was buying incense and mail-order wizard’s robes. He wrote a book that actually turned out to be the first chapter book I ever read. Yes, that’s right. Charlotte’s Web. My grade two teacher read it to us, chapter by chapter, and we were supposed to follow along the best we could with our own scholastic copies. Of course I fell in love with Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern and even that rascal Templeton over a few weeks of reading together. A couple of the more clever kids in my class would “read ahead”, either independently or with their parents, and know what was coming next, but I thought that was dumb. Why would you not just let the story unfold at the pace Mrs. Lajeunnesse intended? We are all going to get there at the same time, pal. I wasn’t prepared for the “kick in the crotch” ending E.B. White lays on us. I was in grade two! I know there’s the whole “circle of life” business but STILL. The poignancy of the ending stayed with me a long time after we were done.

And up until very recently, aside from The Elements of Style, that was the only E. B. White book I ever read.

A couple of years ago, I reread Charlotte’s Web for the first time to my daughter. I think she enjoyed it, and I know it rubbed off on her because we had a guy come by to do some drywalling who she mistakenly called Wilbur. (His name was Weldon and didn’t seem to mind). I choked up a little reading the sad ending again, 35 years later, but it didn’t seem to leave much of an impression on my daughter. She’s made of tougher stuff than me, I think.

We went on to read The Trumpet of the Swan together shortly after that. That’s a bit of weird one, huh? A mute swan (Louis) ends up using a stolen trumpet to communicate. He gets odd jobs as a bugler at a summer camp, working for the Swan Boats in Boston Common, and later on in the Philadelphia zoo, reconnecting with his girlfriend and bargaining with the zookeeper for their freedom by dropping off a sacrificial swan now and again. Still, it was a rather lovely story, and inspirational in the sense that despite facing numerous hurdles, this swan is able to adapt and overcome them and lead a fairly successful life. I mean, how many swans do YOU know that can play trumpet, write on a slate and make cash dollars? An even better question: how many swans do you know, full stop? My point exactly.

E.B. White’s third classic was Stuart Little. I am a little ashamed to admit that I have never read it, or seen any movies or TV or puppets shows based on it. I was always a Mouse and the Motorcycle man when I was a kid, #teambeverlycleary and I just didn’t have room in my life for another talking mouse. Beverly Cleary is still alive you guys! She’s 101! Maybe she drank some of the ol’ “Strunk Juice”? Beverly Cleary is better known as the author of the Ramona books, and I can tell you after a recent reread of them with my daughter: they still hold up, although I sympathize with the parents now throughout. Hopefully I’ll get to Stuart Little with my daughter before she grows out of the age where she wants stories read to her. I understand it’s a dystopian look at what happens when a human woman gives birth to a horrible mutation that takes the shape of a talking mouse. Chilling.

Aside from the style book and his children’s novels, E.B. White wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker. Many of these eventually became collected as The Essays of E.B. White. I read this collection last summer and was moved by their excellence. Many of them were little “slices of life” either of his life as a writer in New York, or his adventures in owning a farm in Brooklin, Maine. They struck me as being very “blog posty”, and perhaps E.B. White would have published an entertaining and popular blog if he had only followed in Strunk’s footsteps and remained alive to this day. As I made my way through the essays, I found myself reading passages out loud to my wife because I didn’t want to hog the pleasure. Some of them sounded even better out loud than they did in my head. His one essay about driving from New York to Maine and all the feelings it evokes as he gets closer to his destination sent shivers up my spine, and I still recite the little poem from the essay in my head on a regular basis: “The river flows through Orland every day.”

More recently E.B. White was referenced tangentially throughout John Hodgman’s book of essays, Vacationland. Although he never mentions him by name, he does say that he is his wife’s favourite author and quotes from one of his poems. In one of the essays, Hodgman toys with the idea of buying E.B. White’s old farmhouse, but thinks better of it. The spirit of E.B. White is felt throughout this collection, and is just one more reason why he gets my nod for 2018’s Thing(s) I Love. You could even say that I think E.B. White is TERRIFIC.

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Some Pig.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!

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A Hectic Morning

As has become tradition in the lighthouse, we like to celebrate the anniversary of this blog each year on February 9. Seven years ago now! Each year I wonder how much longer will this thing go on? At first, I thought: a year would be cool, then it quickly became two. Five seemed like a good place to wrap things up, but then it sort of kept going. Some months it is almost impossible to find inspiration and motivation to write anything, and other months see multiple posts. I’ve never missed a month in the past 7 years, (I don’t think), and I wear that minimal consistency with a bit of pride, I have to admit.

So here is our 8th “Morning” post. Looking ahead, maybe we’ll even make it to an even ten years? I think, looking back on this project, being able to say I’ve “maintained a blog” for a DECADE sounds way cooler than saying ALMOST A DECADE, right? Our daughter will be almost 12 by then, on the cusp of being a teenager. Probably a good time to turn the lens off of family life at that point, for her sake and ours. (I can hear all of you saying, “Darn, just when it’s about to get good!”)

But that means we still have three years together, you and I. (God willing). And to quote Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption, “And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further?”

I called this post “A Hectic Morning” because in addition to one of my staff taking a “family sick” day, another staff person is super sick with a cold but still dragged herself in to do a couple of children’s programs (but most likely will head home after that) and most of my part-time staff are either working at other branches, maxed out on hours, or are out-of-town, so it may be the ol’ champ here this afternoon, manning the library/lighthouse singlehandedly. (Well, not actually single-handedly, but AT DIMINISHED CAPACITY). And yet I still find a quick moment to honour the day with a blog post. I have my priorities, you guys.

Speaking of our daughter, I overheard this little exchange on the schoolyard this morning that I thought you might enjoy it. It involves my daughter and one of her little pals, Marcos, who is in her grade (three) but not in her class this year. Marcos came up to her and gave her a big hug and said:

Marcos: “Hey A______, remember in grade one when we would talk all the time about Paw Patrol and then watch Paw Patrol? That was fun”.

Daughter: “Yeah”.

Marcos (a little hestitant): “Do you still like Paw Patrol“?

Daughter: “Yeah”.

Marcos (quickly and softly): “Me too”.

Daughter: “SORT of”.

Happy Anniversary, Mountains Beyond Mountains! There always seems to be another mountain to check out. Glad you are checking them out with me.

Oh, and Happy Winter Olympics, everybody! Cue the David Foster!

 

 

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Half Time Show

So I happened to catch the half time show for the Super Bowl last night. I wasn’t planning on it, but my wife did not want to miss the special episode of NBC’s This is Us which was supposed to come on afterwards. So I stuck on the TV to see how far along we were in the game, and it turned out it was just at half time. Half Time! I think I read somewhere that Justin Timberlake was going to be the performer, and so I thought, “Why the hell don’t I watch it?” and so I did. My daughter was in pyjamas by the point, and was half tucked, but sensing there might have been any reason to delay bedtime, she appeared and snuggled her self in next to my wife. How bad could it be, really? I mean, it was thanks to Justin Timberlake’s LAST appearance at the Super Bowl half time show that the FCC imposed a 5 second delay on all live broadcasts. Do you guys remember that? He was performing with Janet Jackson and he pulled off a section of her costume at the end of the song AND OUT POPPED HER BOOB for a few precious seconds and then the screen went black and air raid sirens went off and it almost was the end of everything because someone’s tit made an appearance in the open air. The term “Wardrobe Malfunction” was coined that night, and when you read up on it, apparently JT was SUPPOSED to remove a section of Janet Jackson’s costume to reveal a RED BRA underneath (lame) but instead he went for it and took the bra and all. (At least that’s the official version) because it was supposed to match the lyrics which were something like “I’m gonna get you naked by the end of this song” which just kind of sounds aggressive and gross. That was 2004, and I remember watching the Super Bowl over at my Mom’s place with my father-in-law. Everyone was around, but us two guys were the only ones that had any interest in the game and we were the only ones in the room when the boob appeared. It happened so fast that when you saw it the first time you weren’t really even sure what you were seeing. I think my father-in-law turned to me and said, “Interesting ending” and went back to his chips. I nodded, and refilled my drink. It wasn’t until the next day that we knew we saw something special that night. A lady’s boob.

So all of this was in the back of my mind last night when JT started doing his thing. It seemed like a typical half time show, in that the artist did a medley of his biggest hits, got in, did them, got out, and back to the game. I was surprised at how many my daughter knew. She was up and dancing and singing along as soon as it started. I think she hears them in gym class. I only recognized a couple. The one where he promises to bring “Sexxxy Back” and the one from the Trolls movie. This is how dumb I am: remember last year’s Oscars? I mean, before there was that screw up where La La Land thought it won best picture but it really was Moonlight, (or was it the other way around?), before all that, do you remember how the show opened? It opened with JT singing that song from the Trolls movie. I thought it was super cool and fun to have the awards show open with a song, but I didn’t realize at the time that JT was nominated for an Oscar for that song. He actually had a reason to be there. I thought he was just playing it because it was fun. This is how much I know sometimes.

And also: apologies for those extra “exes” in “Sexyback” up there. I got all excited because I thought that’s how Prince would have spelled the song title if he had written it. Which brings me to another section of the half time show that some people didn’t like. In I guess what was the “middle” section, JT sits down at a piano and starts to play “I would die 4 U”. Uh oh. This is/was a Prince song you guys, and remember how cagey he used to be about his music, his image, his everything? I remember seeing him in concert in 2011, and I had never before seen such aggressive ushers during the show, taking people’s phones from them if they were trying to take pictures or video. Beforehand, there were signs up that respectfully asked us to refrain from any recordings. The night was “for our memories”, one of the signs said. So what was about to happen here?

Actually, nothing TOO terrible. There were rumours that there was going to be a “hologram Prince” that would sing and dance along with JT, which would have been awful and super cringe-worthy. As it was, they had some kind of giant sheet up that was fluttering away, and on it they projected some footage of Prince. I mean, as tributes go, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. At one point, they showed the outside of the stadium turning purple and purple light shot out of it in all directions which turned in the “Prince Symbol” which I thought was pretty cool, even if it was all CGI. Back to the fluttery sheet for a sec: Interestingly, one of the shots they used was from Prince’s own Super Bowl half time show way back in 2007, where his silhouette was shown holding his guitar. It was controversial at the time, because it sort of looked like his genitals IN PROFILE. I mean, that’s what some people thought. I don’t know. I haven’t seen enough genitals to really make a ruling, (he said unconvincingly). I mean, I’m no genital expert, as my friends can attest. At best, I am an amateur genital enthusiast.

Still though, the moment quickly moved on and he finished up with the Trolls song and everyone seemed to like it. I don’t have a problem with JT. It seems like a good hearted boob (NO PUN INTENDED YOU GUYS). Sort of like a muppet in human form. The only way you could find him offensive would be if you found super safe, unintimidating middle of the road white dudes who can dance offensive, and I’m sure some of us can. And at least this time he kept his hands to himself.

It got me thinking, though about half time shows in general, and how did evolve to this huge production numbers that people dissect and talk about for hours, if not days, after? I turned to my wife at one point during JT’s show and said, “weren’t these half time shows at one time just some marching band playing “Louie Louie” or whatever?” and she didn’t know.

So I had to check.

Sure enough, getting big stars to perform at the Super Bowl really only started in 1993, when they got Michael Jackson (of course). After that, the NFL was all, “Jesus, this could be a huge money-maker for us”. It only took them 25 years to figure this out. For the first few Super Bowls, you DID get a bunch of marching bands, performing things like “A Salute to America!” or “A Tribute to our Military” or “Boobies All The Time”. (I’m not sure about that last one, but it WAS the 1960s.) Then you got this pseudo-Christian feel-good group, “Up with People” who were asked back 5 times in the 1970’s and ’80s to perform songs like “Everyone is Great and so are you” and “I like turtlenecks and unicorns!” or whatever.

In 1987, when U2 was about to take America by storm with The Joshua Tree tour, the half time show featured George Burns and Mickey Rooney, for God’s sake.

In a particularly messed up one, (1995) the theme was Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. I know. It sounds obscene, but it apparently was a Disney attraction so some executive must have thought it would be a great idea for a half time show to watch a stunt man dressed up like Indiana Jones run through obstacles while Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett sing songs? I mean, COME ON.

The first half time show I ever really wanted to watch was in 2002. U2, of course. They were brought in to perform at the first Super Bowl after 9/11, and it was pretty damn great. They had their heart-shaped stage which they had just toured around the world with for their Elevation tour (the same tour where I met Bono in Calgary the previous April, you guys, in case you forgot that story!) It was the perfect short set. Just three songs, but three FULL songs. They started with “Beautiful Day”, then segued into a prayerful “MLK”, during which all the names of those killed in the 9/11 attacks were scrolled on a sheet behind the stage, grouped by their flight number, first responder group, or location. Then, they brought it all home with a transformative and redemptive “Where the Streets Have No Name” and it was so beautiful and wonderful. Nothing compares. (Prince ref!).

After that, you really saw the biggest acts in the world play the Super Bowl half time show. The Rolling Stones, The Who, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry (with her weird shark dancers), Madonna (with her “Cleopatra entrance”), and Lady GaGA. Even Coldplay had their turn (although they kind of got sideswiped by Bruno Mars and Beyoncé). It’s almost become as big, if not bigger, than the football game itself. Megan Amram summed it up perfectly with this joke tweet last night:

I kind of wish we would get to see Janet Jackson again at the half time show, maybe solo this time. Maybe without anyone grabbing her boobs. Or failing that, MARCHING BANDS. But until then, we got to see THIS at least:

“This is what it looks like, when eyes lie”.

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To the Faithful Departed

“I have decided to leave you forever and I have decided to start things from here.

Thunder and Lightning won’t change what I’m feeling, oh oh.

And the daffodils look lovely today…

And the daffodils look lovely today….” Dolores O’Riordan, Daffodil Lament

You couldn’t really go anywhere in ’94 and ’95 without hearing that song, Zombie, by The Cranberries. In amongst Carnival by Natalie Merchant, No More I love Yous by Annie Lennox and anything off of Jagged Little Pill from Alanis Morissette, there was this song with a thundery bassline and female lead with a storm of a voice. I actually didn’t really like it at first, but then I found out it was IRISH and I was ON BOARD. She was singing about The Troubles! And she references the 1916 rebellion! It wasn’t long after that song made peak saturation that I picked up the CD, No Need to Argue from HMV. From the very first track, Ode to my Family, I knew this album was going to be special. The way the lead singer, (who I eventually came to know was Dolores O’Riordan from Limerick), sang out, “Does anyone care? Does anyone care?” at the end made me smile. I was in a wilderness period with my other beloved Irish Band, U2, (This was that odd period between Zooropa and Pop where it was uncertain if they would ever bounce back), and was happy to turn my attention, at least for a little while, to another group of artists from my ancestral homeland. The fire really kicks in with the next track, I can’t be with you but the next song spoke to me directly. Twenty One. I remember listening to this album in a god damn DISCMAN on the bus home to St. James and noting at the time that I was 21 too. It was as if Dolores was singing to me. Then you get that popular outlier, Zombie, four songs in. It’s interesting because that song doesn’t really sound like anything else on that album, but that’s the song for which The Cranberries will probably be most remembered. (Maybe tied with Dreams from the previous album). The second half of that album has some gems, too. The longingly beautiful Dreaming my Dreams, the “fuck you” to depression song, Ridiculous Thoughts, Daffodil Lament (my wife’s personal fave, I think) and that calm after the storm/relationship/illness is over, the titular No Need to Argue. I fell in love with that album, and I fell in love with Dolores O’Riordan. I loved how it was so steeped in melancholy but didn’t feel sad to me. It felt angry, and wistful maybe, but never just sad. I didn’t know melancholy could have so much energy. Keep in mind that this was the year after I got let out the hospital after being on a psych ward for 4 months getting all manner of treatment for Depression and my own brand of “Ridiculous Thoughts”. It was a rebirth of sorts for me (I’ve talked about this before) and a part of this rebirth was trying new things, finding new sounds, going to new places, and The Cranberries were definitely a part of that. I went back and got their earlier album, and loved it almost as much as No Need to Argue. I say “almost” because you never quite get over your first love, do you? Of course the two standouts off of the first album are Dreams and Linger (no surprise there).

And can we talk about Dolores’ voice for a second? It is pitch perfect, and I can’t really think of anyone else who can sound so strong and so fragile at almost the same time. I loved seeing her on late night talk shows, and to hear her lovely Limerick accent answering questions from the likes of David Letterman and (ugh) Jay Leno.

I also loved how her songs would show up in the oddest of places, like in a café scene towards the end of Mission Impossible where Ving Rhames and Tom Cruise are parting ways (SPOILERS ON A 22 YEAR OLD MOVIE YOU GUYS), and in You Got Mail when you see Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan going about their days. That’s a pretty versatile song, people.

Even though I loved those first two albums to bits, then it was the third release, 1996’s To the Faithful Departed that provided my best Cranberries memory. They were coming to town! Someone I worked with was as big a fan as me, and put the word out to see if anyone wanted to go to the show. I spoke up right away, and my co-worker came through with the goods. This third album didn’t do as well in sales as No Need to Argue (how could it?) and critically it placed 25 on Q’s list of “The worst 50 albums ever” in 2006, but I loved it almost as much. It is kind of trapped in a particular ‘late ’90s’ feel, being preoccupied with the war in Balkans on many tracks, this coming from Dolores’ work with the War Child charity. In fact, one of the more quiet, lovelier songs on this album is called War Child. It is a product of its time.

The chorus to one of their big singles, Free to Decide, goes like this:

“I’m free to decide, I’m free to decide. Well I’m not so suicidal after all”

and it always kind of bothered me that she made explicit reference to suicide in such a big song. But I sort of took it again in the spirit of Ridiculous Thoughts from the previous album. Maybe if we name it we take its power away from it. Maybe we can conquer it, overcome it. I read a recent article online about Doug Ault (digression time: feel free to go refill your drinks). It’s a long article so feel like you have to go read it, but it’s about the Toronto Blue Jays’ first real star from 1977 and his career and how in 2004 the world lost him through suicide. The article makes the point that with suicide victims it’s not really like their life is great and then it takes a terrible turn, but rather that every day is a struggle and a victory of hope over despair, until the day that it isn’t. I never really thought of it that way before, and it was heartening and revolutionary to me to think of a person surviving (and maybe even thriving sometimes) despite having ridiculous thoughts (and bad sleeps) on a regular basis. It was about the dawn coming after the darkness, and I cautiously embraced the idea.

Anyway, the darkness is never fall from the surface in a Cranberries song. But neither is the wit. My favourite song off the album (and I maybe foolishly tweeted that this was favourite Cranberries song of all to Amanda Palmer today) is Forever Yellow Skies. It is fast and loud and full-on PRESENT and I am HERE FOR THIS SONG. The chorus is clever in that it goes, “Forever, forever I’ll be, forever holding you. Forever, forever I’ll be forever holding you…” and you’re thinking “how lovely” but then like German grammar you gotta wait for the last word in the sentence for it all to make sense and Dolores sings, “responsible, responsible, responsible, responsible oh oh oh!” and it’s funny and cheeky and oh so Irish.

So you can imagine my excitement in 1996 to be ROW NINE with a group of like-minded co-workers and the lights went down and the opening drum beat of Forever Yellow Skies opens the show. “Dolores must love this song as much as I do if she’s making it the opener!” I thought to myself, and then the bassist appeared on stage playing the bouncy counterpoint to the frenetic drumming, and then a moment later the guitarist (I don’t know any of their names except Dolores, obvs) comes on and begins his part and by that point we are all on our feet and……..out steps Dolores to centre stage and she grabs the mic and wails into it. The buildup was longer and more dramatic live, and she didn’t start the “oh oh ohs” until after the guitar part (the reverse of what you hear on the album but if you click on this link you’ll get a sense of what I am talking about).

We were all wondering how she’d be, because just a week earlier she had injured her leg in a skiing accident, so there was some concern that she wouldn’t be as mobile as she’d like, but she seemed to be in fine form. The only concession to the injury was that she wore a leg brace, but it didn’t seem to slow her down. The concert flew by, and it was so wonderful to finally see this band, this woman with whom I had such an emotional attachment perform live. When it came time to play Zombie, she kind of turned to her bandmates, smiled and turned back to us and said, “It’s that time of the noight.” and I think a full shiver went up my spine at that particular moment. By the encores, Dolores had taken off the leg brace altogether. I imagined her backstage saying, “Fook it. It’s jyst in the whey anywhey.”

When I see a concert I really like, (I’m looking at you, Arcade Fire 2010 amd Coldplay 2012!) I often will make a playlist of the concert order so I can relive it in my own way, even if I am just using album versions of the songs. It’s a lot easier now to create playlists (and on my iPod I do have one called “Cranberries 96” which is this very concert), but in the 90s it was all done with CDs getting dubbed onto cassettes. Still, I made one, and probably played it just as much as I did the first two albums. It sort of became a supercut of the best off of those three albums, and I play it still. Most recently I stuck it on for a drive out to Brandon in November. When those opening beats of Forever Yellow Skies blasted out of the speakers, my wife gave me an approving nod.

The Cranberries went on to release a couple more albums after To the Faithful Departed, but they didn’t really resonate with me in the same way as those first three did. I still bought them. 1999’s Bury the Hatchet and 2001’s Wake up and Smell the Coffee. A greatest hits album followed that, and a “reimagining of their songs acoustically with an orchestra” album came next. I didn’t bother with either. The band disappeared from the public eye. I just found out today that about 10 years ago Dolores released a couple of solo albums. I don’t know how that wasn’t on my radar, but I had moved on, maybe.

I had always hoped for a reunion, and another tour. Maybe even a new album and a renaissance of sorts. I regret that my wife never saw them live, but then again, how could anything compare to what I remember from 1996?

We got news today that Dolores Mary O’Riordan of Limerick, Ireland died suddenly and unexpectedly in London. She was 46. She was the lead singer of a band called “The Cranberries” and enjoyed moderate international success in the mid 1990s. Cause of death: unknown.

That may be how newspapers will report the news tomorrow. For me, she was a wonderful singer, a clever songwriter, a broken, damaged soul who suffered from ridiculous thoughts but who was able to take those ridiculous thoughts and spin them into hauntingly beautiful songs that touched many lives. Many of whom may not have had the ability to express their feelings but felt a connection to her words and music.

And remember: every day is a victory of hope over despair, until it isn’t.

Rest peacefully, Dolores O’Riordan of Limerick.

 

“Outside my door, I’ll see you no more.” Forever Yellow Skies, The Cranberries

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Playing for Peanuts

Our local “Theatre for Young People” recently put on a production based on Charlie Brown. It was actually a mash-up of two stories. “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special”.

I saw it yesterday.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for that lovable loser, Charlie Brown. I had flannel Charlie Brown sheets and pillow cases when I was a kid, so he was literally the last thing I’d see every night and the first thing I’d see every morning. The sheets were of a hockey scene, and on one side of the pillow case Snoopy is giving Lucy a big “SMAK” of a kiss, and on the sheets you can see Snoopy is in the Penalty Box. It is uncertain he is there for the unsolicited kiss (#metoo) or if it was from some infraction on the ice, but those were the sheets of my childhood winters.

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In addition to the daily black and white comics and the weekend colour strips, Charlie Brown would pop up periodically throughout the year, most famously at Thanksgiving (with the great pumpkin special) and at Christmas (with the famous pageant and sad tree story). I have a Great Pumpkin t-shirt that I used to wear to work on Halloween, although I haven’t in the past couple of years since Peppermint Patty is wearing an Indigenous-style feather in her hair and I feel like maybe THAT part of it hasn’t aged very well. The Christmas one holds up a bit better, I think. In fact, it never really feels like Christmas until I’ve sat down and watched that special, and heard Linus’ speech about what Christmas is actually about. (Or at the very least had at least one run-through of the soundtrack).

In the late ’70’s and early 80’s there were even a few feature-length movies produced with the Peanuts gang. I remember going with a friend and his Dad to a double feature of these in some run down theatre in the West End on some Saturday afternoon. I was probably in grade 2. I don’t remember the first one, but internet research (and the “80’s All Over” podcast) has helped me confirm that the second one was called “Race for your Life, Charlie Brown” where the gang ends up at summer camp.

I was never into  drawing much as a kid, but I DO remember sitting down with the Weekend Comics and copying out my versions of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, carefully copying Schultz’s swirls and curls for hair, and the careful lines that made up Snoopy’s snout and nose. I don’t know what ever happened to those drawings, but they should be in a museum, obviously. Proto-fanfic. Seriously though, have you ever looked at a Peanuts character’s head up close?  There are a lot of little squiggles that go into making one.

I don’t think I appreciated how much the music in the Charlie Brown specials helped create that “Charlie Brown” mood, until I was in my 20s. There were two albums that came out within a year of each other, “Joe Cool’s Blues” by Wynton Marsalis (1995) and “Linus and Lucy” by George Winston (1996) that borrow heavily from Vince Guaraldi’s original themes. I’ve since lost contact with my Marsalis, but my George Winston is still in regular rotation, more than 20 years later. The first track on the Winston album, a Guaraldi (but not a CHARLIE BROWN Guaraldi) never fails to give me chills. I love the way the last note just seems to hang there in the air forever. Even its name suggests a leap of faith into the unknown: “Cast your Fate to the Wind“.

 

And I’ll never forget where I was when I first heard Winston’s interpretation of  Guaraldi’s “Skating”. I was driving up to Lockport along Henderson Hwy on a perfect snowy day in early December. It suddenly came on “Disc Drive”, a classical music show that used to run on the CBC in the afternoons. I was so taken with it, that I stopped in at a music store that same day when I got back to the city to buy the album.

 

Shortly after I got my first iPod Touch a few years ago, one of the first games I got into was this thing called “Snoopy’s Street Fair” (I think?!) where you earn coins and you can buy things for this Charlie Brown themed neighbourhood. I actually don’t even remember when I stopped playing it. I just did. It was fun, as I recall, and it scratched all my “Charlie Brown” feelings. My current wallpaper on my iPod is of Charlie Brown and Linus leaning against a brick wall, with snow falling around them, to give you a bit of an idea of how subtly the Peanuts world seems to have seeped into my life.

So, all of this is to say that I have a bit of a history with Charlie Brown, and was curious to see what they could make of it on the stage. I was also curious to see how my eight year old daughter would respond to it, since she hasn’t grown up with the Peanuts gang in any real way. A couple of years ago, Paul Feig produced “The Peanuts Movie”, and I took her to see it. She seemed to enjoy it, and I was happy that it stayed true to the look and feel of the original specials, but as we were driving home I was surprised when my daughter asked, “What was the dog’s name again?” “You mean SNOOPY?!?!?!” Who doesn’t know Snoopy on sight? I guess a whole generation of kids.

The original Broadway production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” debuted in the late 1960’s with M.A.S.H.’S Gary Burghoff in the titular role, along with Bob Balaban as “Linus”. It was revived in the late ’90s with Anthony Rapp as Charlie and B.D. Wong (from TV’s “Oz”!) as Linus, along with that bundle of energy, Kristin Chenowith as Sally. Oddly enough, the original version did not have a Sally.

Since “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is a full length musical, the production we saw yesterday was an abridged version (so they could tack on the Christmas Special and still have it all fit into 90 minutes. The target audience is children, after all, so it’s unusual for any of these plays to go longer than an hour).

Not being familiar with the Broadway show at all, I didn’t know what was cut, but it still felt like most of the show was represented. Luckily, a friend of ours (who is a huge musical theatre fan, and actually starred in a church production of this play) was in attendance and was able to fill in the gaps for me.

Bottom line: it was really wonderful. (and our musical theatre pal shared our enthusiasm). When you go to enough of the “plays for young people” you get to see some of the same cast over and over, and so I recognized the chap who played Charlie Brown from last year’s Alligator Pie. You may be interested to know that they went with some diversity in their casting choices. Charlie Brown was a person of colour, Sally had dark brown hair, and Lucy was a blonde. (It took me QUITE SOME TIME to keep the two of them straight) and Snoopy was played by the head of our local Jewish Theatre, and I think we can all agree that Snoopy is a Lutheran. There was a live band on one corner of the stage (the seating was on all four sides of the stage. I believe theatre people call that “in the ROUND” although “in the SQUARE” might have been more accurate). The cool thing about the band was that each person was also a character in the play. PigPen was on drums, Frieda was on Bass, and Schroeder, of course, was on keyboards.

The first section takes you through a day in the life of Charlie Brown (which I’m guessing maybe is what the full version does as well?), with a series of short scenes and songs, Godspell style. Snoopy actually speaks and sings in this one, instead of just giving a physical performance (as he does in the second half for the Christmas Special). All the tropes are covered: anxiety over the little red-haired girl, the psychiatrist’s booth, the baseball game, Linus’ blanket, Snoopy’s house and dish, you name it. Even Woodstock and his pals make a lovely cameo appearance at one point. They were all familiar call-backs to my childhood, but maybe new for our daughter?  They don’t take any time introducing the characters; they just assume you know who’s who. When you think of it, I guess all of the seasonal specials operate on this same assumption. They just assume you know that Sally and Charlie are siblings, as are Linus and Lucy, and that Peppermint Patty and Marcie are in an untraditional but loving relationship. I don’t know what PigPen’s deal is, and Schroeder is usually just seen as a “love interest” for Lucy, I guess. I looked over at my daughter a few times throughout, and she was FULLY ENGAGED. This was one of the first times that she didn’t seem overly bored or distracted, not even towards the end when you might expect. And we couldn’t get her to wind down when we got home. She was singing and dancing and so full of energy (not songs from the show, but just music. Joyful sounds.) It was lovely to see.

The first section ends with a snowfall, which gives the actors a break and the stagehands a chance to set up the stage for the Christmas Special.

Although the Christmas Special clocks in at just over 20 minutes (and this version is not much longer), it’s where you get the full Vince Guaraldi treatment from the band, and these characters now feel familiar to you after having seen them run through their paces in the first half. Heck, I could even keep Sally and Lucy straight by the time they strapped on inline skates and transformed the stage into a skating rink.

(Cue “Skating” performed by Schroeder, Frieda and Pigpen and I was in my early 20s again, driving up to Lockport for a quick treat on a snowy day 20 years ago. If I closed my eyes I was even further back, eight maybe, crawling into a fully flanneled bed with a library copy of a John Bellairs book or a Hardy Boys next to my Snoopy pillow, safe and secure).

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

(For Steve. Thinking of you today. We’ll assault the heck out of Hoth when you feel up to it.)

 

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Royal Wedding

I pranced into the kitchen this morning, proudly announcing that there was a date set for the Royal Wedding.

“May 19!” I announced excitedly.

My wife looked up from her breakfast and said, “I thought you were staying off of social media until you saw The Last Jedi.”

This was true. I made that announcement last night, especially since the earliest screenings for the general public began on Thursday evening. The premiere was a week ago, and there have been a smattering of press screenings this week, but I have so far avoided all reviews, even those that claim to be “spoiler free” because I REALLY REALLY don’t want to hear anything about it ahead of time, good or bad. I even stopped watching trailers and tv spots about a month ago, on the urging of director Rian Johnson. He said that he doesn’t know what Disney plans to show beforehand, but if it were up to him, he’d avoid anything released after mid October. Makes sense, and I like that dude so I am just following his lead.

“Welllllllll. I wasn’t really on social media. It was a news alert that popped up on my iPod” I said unconvincingly.

A royal wedding! How fun! Something to look forward to throughout this long cold winter. I immediately looked up the date. It’s the Saturday of the May Long Weekend and even better, I am not working that day. I remember that April morning way back in 2011 when I got up before dawn to watch William and Kate get hitched. I think I may have even booked the day off work for it? Is that even possible? I suppose all things are possible through our Lord Jesus Christ, aren’t they? I remember Westminster Abbey was all dressed up with greenery reminiscent of Minas Tirith and it was the moment the world fell in love with Pippa Middleton. Shortly after that blessed event, I became the president of the local chapter of the Pippa Middleton fan club, and it has been my greatest honour, both professionally and personally, to serve in that capacity lo all these years.

Royal Weddings are always at their best when it is a Royal who is marrying a NON-ROYAL, because all of us commoners can imagine ourselves as that non-royal. They became our surrogate into the magical world of kings and princes. (Or in the 2011 Royal Wedding’s case, the bride’s SISTER became our surrogate, didn’t she?)

This next Royal Wedding will be a little different for all of us, because the ROYAL in question, Prince Harry, has decided to take for his princess A DIVORCED BLACK WOMAN FROM A FOREIGN LAND (America) WHO MAKES MOVIES AND TV SHOWS. Now, this is especially exciting because  I think we all have a little bit of a divorced black American lady in us, don’t we? (I mean, some of us LITERALLY do, if I am reading the results of my 23 and Me report correctly). Marrying a divorced person a generation ago would get you thrown of out the monarchy, if not the actual Commonwealth, so it goes to show how far along the Royal Family has come. Heck, Prince Charles even got to marry that lady with the horse face and that seems to be working out okay. So, best of luck to you, Harry and Meghan!

I’m hoping that the blessed event will be televised. Is it possible that it won’t be?? I love all the excitement that surrounds something like this. The CBC usually sets up shop outside, and in addition to a familiar Canadian face, they usually get some eccentric weirdo who is a “royal expert” and who is good is explaining who is related to whom and why they are there and who is in line for the throne, as well as making commentaries on their fancy hats and their howdy whatsits (IF I MAY USE THAT TERM). I wonder what Pippa will wear??

Sure, some people like to point out that in this day and age why even HAVE a monarchy? Those people are monsters. If we didn’t have a monarchy, who would we put on our money? And how would we know which products have been officially endorsed by the queen if they didn’t have that little crest on it? It is comforting to sit down with a cup of Twinings tea, for example, and know that somewhere on the other side of the world the QUEEN HERSELF is very likely ALSO enjoying that same brand of tea. It’s what connects us, and it makes the world a little bit smaller and friendlier. It’s the kind of thing that connects a lonely lighthouse keeper with the sister of the future queen of England, TO TAKE JUST ONE RANDOM EXAMPLE.

So, you can rest assured that next May 19th the lighthouse will be fully lit in royal colours, the kettle will be boiled for tea, and perhaps later on that day a British themed meal will be planned. Croquet on the lawn, even? We all have a role to play, and I AM HERE FOR IT.

p.s. does anyone have Pippa’s updated contact information? My emails keep bouncing back.

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In Remembrance

cantata

/kænˈtɑːtə/

noun

1.

a musical setting of a text, esp a religious text, consisting of arias, duets, and choruses interspersed with recitatives

Word Origin

C18: from Italian, from cantare to sing, from Latin

It’s always interesting to me how a piece of music can open a flood of memories. This happened to me unexpectedly last week in the middle of choir practice. We started in on a piece called “In Remembrance of Me” filled with communion imagery. It starts with a little simple chord progression, then the choir comes in. You get a little four part harmony towards the end and it wraps up without much fanfare. It’s a lovely little piece of music on its own, and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if it wasn’t for the notes on the first page. The anthem was from a larger piece of music, a cantata actually, called “Celebrate Life!” by the suspiciously named Buryl Red. Celebrate Life! I haven’t thought of that cantata for a long time. A long time. A quarter century, in fact. I felt the way I imagine Ben Kenobi must have felt when Luke asked him if he knew Obi Wan.
In the church I grew up, we had a charismatic choir director named Bert Kroeker. That guy was probably retired from teaching by the time I knew him, but nothing seemed to stop him. He was a shameless self-promoter, and unabashed lover of choral music. I really think one of the main reasons why our church was doing so well then was because of all the choral fundraisers Mr. Kroeker would organize throughout the year. If he wasn’t talking about how great the last one was, he was promoting the next one on the schedule. Mr. Kroeker’s favourite form was the “cantata” which was like a musical, but without any acting. Just music with soloists and MAYBE some spoken word sections. In fact the canata form was so closely connected to Mr. Kroeker that when I got home from choir that night, I told my wife we were singing something from a cantata and I asked her who she thought of when she heard the word “cantata” and her answer right away? You got it. “Bert Kroeker”.
Even though our church seemed to revolve around music growing up, I avoided the senior choir even when I was the appropriate age for it, for the simple reason that it was my Dad’s thing and even though I loved my Dad, I didn’t want to do the same thing as him. Maybe he would have liked singing in a choir with his son, or maybe not. Maybe he was happy to have his thing, and being Irish, if I ever got the sense that I was wanted to expected to do something, my natural response is to do the opposite. In any case, it never seemed an issue with my Dad. He loved singing in that choir, sitting between Harry Pauls, my future high school English teacher (and star of several blog post mentions here at MBM), and Marv Johnson, a music teacher who was also a composer. Sandwiched between an English teacher and a composer, my Dad was in his happy place Wednesday evenings from 7:30 to 9 pm, and I was happy to fend off Mr. Kroeker’s repeated requests to join up. His wife had taught the junior choir in our church, which I had faithfully attended all through my elementary school years, but when my voice broke that was the end of my boy soprano career, and even though I still loved music and never rebelled about going to church, I took a minor stand when it came to senior choir.
That changed in the Spring of 1991, when I was in grade 11. I was still a year away from getting Mr. Pauls as an English teacher, but I knew him through church, and also through the drama department. That was the year our school attempted to put on an ambitious production of Pippin, with yours truly in the lead role. I’ve talked in detail about that doomed production and how we eventually had to abandon it in other posts. It was also the Spring when my Dad was hospitalized for Depression. AGAIN. This disease was becoming QUITE a pain in the neck for me, and I was really impatient, waiting for my Dad to get better and back to his old fun self again. (I guess I was a bit of a selfish dingus back then. Who’s to say I’ve changed?)
I mention my Dad’s illness because it was reason why I joined the senior choir that Spring. Mr. Kroeker asked me in the context that they were short some basses (my Dad, for one, obviously), and would I consider joining “just for the cantata”. I thought, “Why the hell not?” It was a short-term commitment, and I knew my Dad would be pleased that the bass section wouldn’t suffer TOO badly if his part was being covered. (And I secretly liked to sing, you guys, so here was a chance for me to do it without looking like I was giving in to Mr. Kroeker.)
I had a great time, taking my Dad’s place between Mr. Pauls and Marv. Weird that it was never “Mr. Johnson”, just “Marv”, but always “Mr. Pauls”, never just “Harry”. It just seemed right to me.
As the weeks rolled by, I kept hoping my Dad would get better and make a triumphant return to the choir loft. I had to field weekly questions about my Dad from well-intentioned choristers but who in reality were pains in the asses to me. I never really knew how to give a progress report on Depression. It wasn’t like a broken leg or even something tangible like cancer where I could say how the treatments were going. He always just sort of seemed the same to me, (i.e. not great) and I got tired of saying that. So did my Mom, and Mom stayed away from church that Spring. “I’m just tired of saying the same thing over and over”, she’d say, and I understood what she meant. I wish I could give positive reports, and sometimes I would just make stuff up to make people happy, like ‘Oh, well, he seemed a bit better this week (he didn’t), or I think he’s coming along (he wasn’t)’. Still, like I said: I think it was all well-intentioned, but being a selfish teenager, it was all about, “Ugh these annoying nosey people. Get a life”.
The irony didn’t escape me that we were singing a thing called “Celebrate Life” when I was feeling anything but celebratory. I hoped (and I think my Dad hoped too) that he would have been well enough to at least attend the performance, but life doesn’t always work out like a Hallmark movie, and when it came time to put it on, he was still too ill to attend. I wished he was there, in the end, the way he always found a way to make it to our school choir concerts, even when I didn’t tell him about them. Somehow he always found out! But not that time. That last time.
All of these memories of that time in my life flooded back into me last Thursday, and by fate or luck, one of those two influential men that sang in that choir then sing in my church choir now. After practice I worked up the nerve to go up to Marv and ask him if he remembered singing the whole cantata about 25 years ago. His eyes lit up, and he said, “I sure do.” And then, a moment, and he said in a quieter voice, “I really miss Bert Kroeker” and I said, “I miss Harry Pauls”, and the missing person that used to sit in between was on both of our minds, I’m sure, but we didn’t say anything else. It was a lovely moment. A moment to remember. I’ll sing that anthem this Sunday, filled with remembrance of that Spring, and the only time I joined the senior choir to sing a “cantata”.

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Infinitely Content: An Album Review of Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now”

“I love you, always forever, near and far, closer together. Everywhere I will be with you, everything I will do for you.” Donna Lewis

“Keep you waiting, hour after hour. Every night in your lonely tower. Looking down at all the wreckage. When we met you’d never expect this.” Arcade Fire

 

Arcade Fire released their 5th studio album at the end of July, but I was slow to get around to listening to it. I think that was partially due to the fact that I was HOLDING A GRUDGE against them for not scheduling a concert in my hometown. And also, I guess I didn’t feel a real immediacy to learn their new songs before seeing them live again. No deadline.

I’ve seem them in concert twice before. Once in September 2010 in support of their Grammy winning “The Surburbs” album, and once in August 2014 in support of their ambitious double album “Reflektor”. Both concerts were memorable in different ways. I’ll never forget that special night that I saw them live for the first time, at a time when I maybe knew two of their songs, and the feelings/emotions that whole evening woke in me. That concert was so transformative that it was still resonating in me months later when I decided to start up this silly little blog and was trying to come up with an appropriate name for it. I always liked the idea of looking forward to that next thing, that mountain peak just beyond the ones we can see. It was something that I dreamed about ever since I had my first literal “mountaintop experience” as a child in Jasper National Park, and continued well into the digital age as I adopted the city of Calgary’s slogan as my personal hashtag: #onward. So calling my blog “Mountains Beyond Mountains” after that Arcade Fire song, seemed like a no brainer at the time. I think the name wears well. If that first concert was transformative, the second one was a celebration of sorts. Again, we were on the floor, so we could get as close to the stage as our elbows allowed, but this time we participated in some goofy parlour games led by DJ Dan Deacon before the that really seemed to bring a group of strangers together in a weirdly genuine way. Also, people were encouraged to wear costumes, so my wife had a couple of black t-shirts made up with silver lettering. Mine said “Scream” and hers said “Shout” (in reference to the chorus in “Afterlife”). We also wore mardi gras masks and boas and whatnot. Most people seemed to dress up in some way and get into the spirit of it, even if it was just a little “glitter on the cheeks”, if I may use that term. The band all wore masks and costumes and came through the crowd on their way to the stage. While the first concert felt like the beginning of something new, the second one felt like a confirmation of something great, and I was looking forward to whatever they would produce next.

What they produced next was this summer’s “Everything Now” album, and as I’ve already said, I was slow to give it a try (because I can be petty when the dark mood strikes). But one morning I was making coffee in the kitchen with CBC FM on in the background. It was playing this upbeat, hummable song that I immediately liked. It was like ABBA took the theme music for that PBS kids science show from the 1980s “3-2-1 Contact” and wrote a mash-up with members from Men Without Hats. It was high energy and I just loved how the band spit out the word “EVERYTHING” as a quick dotted eighth rhythm before landing on the next word, “NOW” on the chorus. I waited for the announcer to tell me what the song was, but it was of those situations where they must have announced it before the song started, so I didn’t find out. A couple of days later I was passing through the kitchen again and again that song was on the radio. I started singing along to the end of it and asked my wife if she knew what it was. “You don’t recognize the singer?” she said. “That’s the new Arcade Fire”. DAMN IT. It was so good my mood started to thaw, and I realized that in fact I was acting like the entitled, 21st century demanding consumer that the song was commenting on. I was the guy who wanted “Everything Now”, including a concert in his hometown, and all the songs beamed into my head. A particular lyric stuck with me: “Every song that I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd.” I WAS THAT GUY. I’ve also felt that way for a while now. The guy who can’t keep up with all the content being produced and released each week, not to mention all the content that has been created since the beginning of human history that I still haven’t got around too. It’s enough to drive you to distraction, but I happy to see that one of my favourite bands was addressing the issue.

Maybe this “not seeing Arcade Fire on this tour” business would be good for my soul. At least, that’s the lie I was telling myself. So, towards the end of summer, I decided to give the album a listen.

I started a blog post on my review around then, but it got lost in the business and busyness of autumn, like so many other sparks of inspiration. But it’s back on the front burner this week because a FRIEND OF THE BLOG  (and a friend IRL, [that’s my code for ‘in real life’]) plus another POSSIBLE friend of the blog (I don’t know if she reads it) but NOT a friend IRL (only because I have never met her but I have a good feeling that we would INDEED be friends, if not good friends, or perhaps even DEAR friends (not THAT way, perv) if we ever did meet, just from the little things I have heard about her over the years that I have not known her ARE BOTH GOING TO SEE ARCADE FIRE THIS VERY FRIDAY IN OUR NATION’S SPIRITUAL IF NOT POLITICAL CAPITAL, TORONTO.

I don’t know if the PERSON WHO IS NOT MY FRIEND has been listening to the new album, but I know for a fact that the PERSON WHO IS A FRIEND OF THE BLOG AND A FRIEND IRL has NOT been listening up until today at least, so I consider this a PUBLIC SERVICE to two people, a friend and a NON-FRIEND but potential friend if life worked out differently to review the new album on these very pages today. A little “primer” in case you don’t get around to listen before Friday’s show.

It’s been a while since I’ve done an album review, so I’m a bit rusty. Do I do an overview first? It feels like Arcade Fire is just picking up where they left off with their last album, “Reflektor”. My favourite songs off that album come at the very end, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry”. The same thing happened with “The Suburbs”, with MBM bringing up the rear. Let me just check their first two albums and see what’s going on at the end there…be right back…okay: maybe not. Their first one ends with something called “In the Backseat”. I’ve honestly never heard that one, but it sounds a little…..you know. (And the previously one is “Rebellion (Lies)”, which I kind of hate, but it’s their “signature” song and so gets played at every concert. The only part I like about that song is when the play it before the encores, and if you get a good crowd, the crowd with keep singing the “Oh Oh Oh” part over and over until they come back to the stage, in the style of the “woah woah oh ohs” in U2’s “Pride”). For “Neon Bible”, you’ve got “My Body is a Cage “which isn’t exactly their best song off that album either. Here’s another thing I’ve just realized you guys: I don’t think I tend to listen to Arcade Fire as albums, but rather as playlists of the two concerts I’ve attended, and there are several songs that are not known to me, even to this day. Good lord, did you know there was a song called “The Well and the Lighthouse”? I mean, gosh: It actually has a lighthouse in the title. I guess I like what I like, and listen to what I like, and just reinforce that. (And no, I’m not about to start listening to the albums as albums you guys. I’m too set in my ways).

Having said all that, I think “Everything Now” works really well as an album, in the same way that “The Suburbs” does. (And maybe the others too for those of you who prefer their Arcade Fire in album groupings). The band seemed to have fun this summer promoting it too, going so far as created a fake “Everything Now” social media campaign management company that would often get into “fights” with the band and with people in the entertainment world. A good example of this was their appearance on Stephen Colbert, where they provided him with a list of absurd demands, and he happily played along. It was fun following their campaign from afar. In a moment of life imitating art, I was on Amazon the other day, and realized they have a little icon of a globe with the letters EN underneath (I assumed this was an icon indicating that I was on the English site), but the globe icon was the exact same one used by the Everything Now people, and it looked like Arcade Fire had infiltrated Amazon. It was a fun little moment for me, and I showed it to my co-worker who was not as impressed as me. In fact, I think she may have said, “at least you’re onto something different from Star Wars”. But the joke is on her, because I AM STILL DEEPLY INVESTED in Star Wars. In fact, I can’t wait for her to get in to work today so I can show her the new tv spot that has LUKE standing in the cockpit of the FALCON and I realized the last time we saw Luke on the Falcon was at the end of “Empire Strikes Back” when he was rescued from Bespin. He looks so sad standing there, no doubt thinking of his old buddy Han and the sacrifices HE made for the rebellion. I’ll probably see “The Last Jedi” about a dozen times in the theatre, you guys.

How did you guys get me started talking about Star Wars in an Arcade Fire album review? Back to the music: The album plays with the digital reality that if you are listening to this thing on anything other than vinyl, you are probably playing it on repeat, so the first and last tracks sync up into a lovely sonic Mobius strip reflecting the “Infiniteness” of their “Content” (see what I did there?) And based on computer file naming conventions, the first track is called “Everything_Now (continued)” and the last one is “Everything Now (Continued)”, not to be confused with the actual banger that blasted out of my kitchen radio all summer long, “Everything Now”, or indeed the album name, “Everything Now”. They do a similar thing at the midpoint of the album where they have two tracks back to back called Infinite Content and (you guessed it) Infinite_Content. It’s the same song, you guys, but played in two very different styles. The first being loud and upbeat and repetitive and the second being laid back, slow in the style of Iron and Wine, or maybe Calexico, and repetitive. On either side of these “Infinites Content” and in between of these “Everythings Now” you get a solid Arcade Fire album with a few notable standouts.

They start out strong with “Everything Now”, which also is the opener for their fall tour. (Okay, spoilers. Since I knew I wasn’t seeing them live, I watched their Montreal show through several different video clips on Youtube. I’m only human, you guys.) Then you get this great little number called “Signs of Life” which opens with a very Dave Brubeckian drum beat cribbed from his “Unsquare Dance”. That song made it back into the zeitgeist a little bit at the beginning of summer because there’s a scene in that movie “Baby Driver” where Kevin Spacey (BEFORE WE KNEW HE WAS A MONSTER BUT AFTER WE SUSPECTED HE WAS GAY. Those are different things Mr. Spacey but now you’ve got everyone all confused and off kilter and OH GOD here’s a new story about DUSTIN HOFFMAN so I guess we will stop talking about Kevin Spacey now and just let all this disillusionment fill us to the brim until we can’t or won’t trust or admire anyone or maybe instead we will stop and realize that there are tons of good, decent people out there who are also talented actors, directors, authors, artists and we should support those people and that maybe we CAN’T or SHOULDN’T separate the art from the person or the politics anymore and oh god I feel a headache coming on and even though “Hannah and Her Sisters” is one of my favourite movies I’m done with Woody Allen now and for good and I’m probably done with Joss Whedon and I just hope to GOD J.J. Abrams is a decent dude because I really have to see episode IX whenever they film that one oh God I am swamped by the infinite content) is telling the group the plan for the heist and there’s Baby with his Walkman on, blasting Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” so that all you can hear is the music in that scene and it’s a montage of Kevin Spacey’s lips moving and writing on a chalk board and pointing and whatnot and at the end of the scene Kevin Spacey’s character suspects that Baby wasn’t listening to the plan and gets him to repeat it and he’s able to repeat it perfectly because it’s a savant or something. (I didn’t really follow a lot of what was going on in that movie, but I think that was my favourite scene). I’m just leaving this link to Unsquare Dance right here. You don’t have to click on it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yExwkQYcp0

 

Next up is “Creature Comfort” which could very well be my favourite song on the album. It sounds like a classic AF tune, with a reliable, confident baseline which gives you the feeling this song knows where it’s going from the very first beat. Confident AF, you might even say. It’s a pretty hard take on suicide which I wasn’t expecting but it worked for me. “…Saying GOD, make me famous, and if you can’t then just make it painless. Just make it painless”. And later on, “It’s not painless. She was a friend of mine, a friend of mine.” And at the end, a plea for choosing to live: “Well if you’re not sure better safe than SORRY.” Reader, this song hits me in all the right spots, and it’s got a cool music video too. The band is filmed on stage in black and white, but just from the waist down, so whenever Win sings, he has to bend down to get in the frame, and then he gets out of the way when Regine picks up the “On and On” part during the chorus. It’s simple but I like it.

Not too much to say about “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry” except that they are solid tunes and grew on me after repeated listens. Then you get that weird little “Infinites Content/_Content” interlude and we are onto “Side B” for those hipsters out there who bought the vinyl.

“Electric Blue” sounds like something that Michael Jackson might have left behind for us, and it’s one of the few songs on this album where Regine takes the lead, so you know it is going to be awesome. I have a musical crush on that lady, and I’m not ashamed to admit. Is there anything she can’t do? I’m going to stop talking about Regine now, because this blog post is already at the 2500 word mark and I could easily write another 2500 words about how much I like her, so let’s just move on.

“Good God, Damn” is a somber, reflective song that sounds like it could be from the band’s “Neon Bible” era, but the cool thing about it is that it is written from the perspective of the girl in “Creature Comfort”, the girl who “fills up her bathtub” and puts on the band’s first record as she contemplates killing herself. Her faith in God is the only thing that pulls her back from the brink with the line, “Maybe there’s a good God? Damn.” And the song ends with this lovely sentiment: “Maybe there’s a good God if He made you.” That kind of gives me shivers.

“Put your Money on Me” is an upbeat, poppy number that has even more ABBAesque feel than the lead off “Everything Now”, and is just a lovely plea/love song about putting your trust in someone, despite everything else that’s going on.

And that brings us to the last song, which actually IS my favourite of the album. (“Creature Comfort” comes close, but if I had to pick just one. it would be “We don’t deserve love”).

I love the quiet, introspectiveness this song evokes; its unashamed religious imagery and direct questions to God, wondering if we still deserve love after all that we’ve done to this world, or do we deserve to be abandoned? “Mary, roll away that stone. The men that you love always leave you alone.” I like this line too, “If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then burn it all down. And bring the ashes to me.” and how it goes into that pseudo-chorus that makes me think of the chorus of Donna Lewis’ “I love you, always forever, near and far, closer together. Everywhere I will be with you, everything I will do for you.” In many ways, “Always Forever” is a perfect companion piece to “We don’t deserve Love” and I can’t help wonder if Win and Regine had this song in mind when they wrote, “Keep you waiting, hour after hour. Every night in your lonely tower. Looking down at all the wreckage. When we met you’d never expect this.” And you get those beautiful haunting harmonies from Regine that float over the rest of the song before the end which I can’t help but sing along with every time I hear it. It brought me to a stop the first time I heard it, and it still makes me want to come back again and again. Maybe it’s true that we don’t deserve love, or a concert in our own city, or any of the great things we have in our lives right now. Maybe we can’t see the grace through all the noise, but it’s there. This song reminds us of it.

And before we can think too long or deeply on this, we are swept back into the infinite loop of Everything Now (Continued) and we kick things off again from the top with another run through. The anguish of “Creature Comfort” is given deeper meaning now that we know about “Good God, Damn”‘s perspective, and we now know we get to hear the beauty and heartbreak of “We don’t deserve Love” again and again.

What more could you ask for from an album?

Just one or two more things and then you’re free to go. It wouldn’t be a MBM blog post without a list or ranking of some sort, so how does “Everything Now” fit into the rankings of the rest of the AF albums, I hear you asking?

5. Funeral. Come at me, hipsters! I know this is their debut album, and I’m sure it’s the only good one and after that they sold out, etc etc, but I can’t listen to it. It makes me feel cold and sad, all those songs back to back. I can take some individual songs one by one, like Neighbour #1 (Tunnels) with all that imagery of digging tunnels between kids’ bedrooms and whatnot. I revealed earlier that I don’t like “Rebellion (Lies)” and I also don’t really like “Wake Up”, but for a different reason. I don’t like it because it means their concert is about to come to an end, and that makes me sad too. So I guess if I was in a super good mood and feeling pretty good about myself then maybe I’d put this album on to bring me back to Earth? It hasn’t happened yet. I can relate to the unnamed woman in “Creature Comfort” who chose this album when she was thinking about suicide. That sounds about right.

4. Neon Bible. Okay, I know this album has some great songs, like “No Cars Go”, “Intervention” “Keep the Car Running” and “AntiChrist Television Blues” but it doesn’t really hold together for me, and songs like “Neon Bible” “Black Mirror” and “My Body is a Cage” suck the life out of me. If I can say anything positive about these first two albums, it’s that they show great potential, and the band keeps getting better and better as they go along.

3. Reflektor. Maybe the sprawling double album concept resulted in a lack of focus or theme for most people, but there is some really great stuff here, and I love to make my way through all of the songs on here when I put it on. My daughter used to call “Bring on the Night Time” the “song that goes slow and then goes fast” so I always think of that when I listen to it, and of course I think of that fun night in August 2014 where I was reunited with my musical pals. And “Afterlife” is right up there along with “Mountains Beyond Mountains” for me, with all of its New Orderly goodness.

2. Everything Now. No joke, I’m sticking this one at #2. Maybe because it is still fresh in my ears and I’m giving it a little bit of “recent bias”, but I like what this album has to say about the state of our world, I love the songs, the messages, and am grateful that even though we might not deserve love, we are still getting love in the form of this beautiful album.

1. The Suburbs. No surprise here, right? It was this album with which I first connected to Arcade Fire, and so it will always remain number one in my heart. “2009, 2010. I want to make a record of how I felt then” pretty much sums it up. I think of autumn, of new friends, of the excitement of new beginnings, of bitter nostalgia, of escaping on road trips, unexpected emotions, and the promise and hope of Mountains Beyond Mountains.

 

 

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