Friends, Enemies, and Internet Losers: I have returned.

Bar Rants

“Leave the Gun; Take the Cannoli”: The fun and foibles of live music

“Leave the gun; take the cannoli” is possibly the greatest throwaway line ever. Delivered beautifully by Richard S. Castellano, as the affable but deadly Peter Clemenza in The Godfather, I consider it to be one of the best lines in the history of American Cinema. But what does it mean, and, perhaps more importantly, why would I bring it up in an article about live music?

When Paulie, Vito Corleone’s ex-driver, is murdered, Clemenza and his cohorts don’t dwell on it. Paulie is never mentioned again except when Clemenza lets Sonny know that the job is done: “Paulie? You ain’t going to see him no more.” Essentially, the dirty work is behind them; they move on. The gun is the awfulness of the immediate past. The cannoli is the anticipation of a sweet future.

As a medium, live music can be as exciting as it gets. There is a thrill of instant creation, a rush. It may not easily liken itself to skydiving or bungee jumping, but there is still the anxious possibility of a moment of glory and, equally, of a mistake. Luckily for musicians, such mistakes are rarely physically fatal. The death of one’s career, however, is sometimes a very real possibility. Unlike NASCAR though, very few people attend live music shows just to see if someone fucks up; they go to see a performance. And, provided that the mistakes are small enough, people rarely notice them. It is usually the solo burden of the musicians who are often the only ones in the room who know that something has gone awry. They should never be too hard on themselves though. We, the audience, are waiting for the next note, and, perhaps more importantly, we are waiting for the musicians to supply it, which they won’t if they are dwelling on the note that didn’t quite make it.

It is physically impossible to play the same song twice performing live; humans are not exact enough to do it. Even if a song could be perfectly replicated, the live moment originally accompanying it would be gone. The art of creating is fleeting. The effect or result of the moment of creation can be recorded in some fashion (tape, canvas, ink) but the actual moment is gone forever. It is a point in a dynamic process that exists for an instant and is then disappears to whatever realm it was pulled from in the first place. Creation moves forward. Where we were is not as important as where we are going and this is why live music forgives our little mistakes: what’s done is done and rarely remembered as it actually happened. Humans are also pretty lousy recorders of history, especially when our passions are aroused. So unless the DAT’s rolling, don’t sweat it. This of course is not to say that a musician doesn’t need to try on the previous note, only to make it up to us with the next one – we’re talking about small mistakes here, not shoddy musicianship. Also, if you really can’t play, you’re doomed. “They suck” is a pronouncement more difficult to revise than “murderer” or “whore.” Changing a crowd’s mind is simple enough with some practice but getting a crowd out to see a band that “sucks” is nigh on impossible.

But the mistakes can be glorious too. Most scientific discoveries don’t happen with a “Eureka!” but with a “How the hell did that happen?” Take Radiohead’s “Creep” for example: the seemingly out of place guitar crunches before the chorus are, as guitarist, Ed O’Brien, explains, “the sound of Jonny [Greenwood] trying to fuck the song up.” In the final cut, however, it is Jonny Greenwood’s “fuck ups” that end up being the most memorable part of a very memorable song.

So here is wisdom: If you flub a note, don’t sweat it. We’re waiting for the next one. In short, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli.”


Et Tu Brute? -or- If You Don’t Play Nicely With the Other Kids, You’ll Never Have Any Friends

Truth be told, I hang out with musicians for the inside information and free beer. One of the few problems, however, of hanging out with bands (my current idea for a tombstone inscription reads: Here Lies Baron – He Should Have Stopped Hanging Out With Musicians”) is that it is really hard not to like them. Granted there are a couple o’ few people whose presence tends to send me towards the door, but, on the whole, they’re a pretty good crowd. This is why I can’t understand why certain bands/band members continue to slam other bands.

Right now, I am sitting on a BC Ferry, thumbing through a well-worn Lester Bangs “reader”, and trying not to get too many errant cigarette ashes on the pages of my notebook. I am also listening to The Green Hour Band (Though I quite like the album, right now I am listening to it out of spite for reasons to be explained below).

I am taking a break from music this weekend. It is strange, however, that even though I am not at a live show in Vancouver right now (I should have seen The Smokes play last night but feared I would miss my 6:20am boat if I had) I still find myself thinking about them. For the most part, the bands in Vancouver are incredible to see live. There is, I concede, the odd band I’ve caught on stage that are better off in the studio and some bands are just downright terrible but they are by far the minority. With all the great music being played in this wonderful city, I don’t quite grasp why it is that they, the bands, can’t all get along.

The last inside info / free beer moment I had was in the parking lot outside The Biltmore. A band was preparing for a cross-Canada tour and discussing their plans with a bass player from another band who’d definitely been around the block a couple times and across the country a couple times more than that.

“Did you talk to X?” he asks. The bands’ faces go blank. “Because if you want any shows east of Toronto you have to talk to X.”

“We don’t know X,” the lead singer admits, somewhat embarrassed. “Can I get his number?”

“Fuck yeah! I’ll send him an email and tell him you guys are cool.”

The conversation continues for a few minutes with the bass playing tour sage passing along booking info to a captive audience. Then he said it. And the moment the words left his lips, my mind screamed my own “Fuck yeah!” in quiet jubilation.

If bands don’t compare notes there will never be a scene.”

Anyone who knows anything about Scottish history beyond sitting through Mel Gibson’s epic tribute to anachronistic, historical fallacy (otherwise known as Braveheart) knows that the Scots had to stop fighting themselves before they could stick it to the English. Strength in numbers is the oldest strategy known to any soldier (or Block Watch group for that matter). The easiest way to defeat any army is to find a way for them to scuttle their own efforts by self-imploding.

Yesterday, I was directed to a review of The Green Hour Band’s latest effort. Were it not for the inherent damage to any coherent musical movement in Vancouver that it represented, I would have had a good chuckle at bad writing and left it at that. When I looked into the author of the piece and discovered that he was a member of a local band of a slightly similar ilk, I was ready to spit nails. When an opening band blows the closers off stage, it should be done out of sheer musical talent with a total absence of malice. Using editorial clout to badmouth another band and then ridicule them for describing the Vancouver scene as “competitive” is so blatantly hypocritical that I feel the need to give money to Oral Roberts as the lesser of two evils.

If the author of the review thinks The Green Hour Band is really as terrible as he erroneously suggests, maybe a gig together should be arranged and we can let the audience decide. According to precedent and music legend, critics, myself included, are supposed to be failed musicians with an axe to grind. If the particular critic of whom I speak has decided to start early, that cannot bode well for his future in the scene. Besides, bad reviews are painfully easy to write, which is why they are almost always written by hack half-wits who find the only way to sound smart is to act like a smartass.

Everyone may have the right to their own opinion but some opinions are better than others (Apartheid, homophobia, the existence of WMDs anyone?). Opinions should be based on available fact and, therefore, subject to updates. An opinion that is stubbornly written in stone is not an opinion but a belief and about as useful to intelligent discourse as a Village Idiot missing the pin to his favourite hand grenade. Likewise, an opinion that is held or expressed solely for the purpose of promoting one’s self over the greater good is not an opinion but an agenda. And though I firmly side with the Good Doctor in believing that “objective journalism [….] is a pompous contradiction in terms,” an agenda should never be passed off as a valid opinion in the context of a record review.

As far as agendas are concerned, we’re all supposed to be on the same team here. When it comes to music scenes, what is good for one is good for all. Perhaps an odd example, but how many bands found their listenership trebled after Kurt Cobain mentioned them as an influence (hell, mentioned them at all)?

Some nights, it does seem as though there is a small and finite number of music fans in Vancouver. I have attended a couple of shows that I’d call “Crimes against Culture” in that, amazing sets by incredible bands were witnessed by only a small, lucky few. Some of this can be laid on the bands themselves, unfortunately. If you play every weekend, eventually only your friends will be coming out to the shows and then only for a while. It would seem that absence makes the ears grow fonder as well. Of course, none of this is helped in the least by reviews that are nothing more than thinly veiled competition hiding under the guise of journalism.

I try to go to at least one show a week. Doing the Review often forces me out to more but within personal limits; like many bands, I too am forced to “pay to play.” I have recorded and posted, at the time of writing this, twenty-eight reviews, covering over one hundred bands. I’ve seen a few more than that that didn’t make it onto the reviews because, well… I didn’t like them. But rather than give them grief by panning them, I stayed silent.

Because I won’t do bad reviews, I have been accused by some (well, one person at the Railway Club actually) of creating “puff” pieces, thereby negating any credibility I might have as a professional, music journalist. Charges such as this are quite easy to defend against: I am not, nor have I ever publically claimed to be, a music journalist in any serious matter. Likewise, I am not a music promoter but I do promote music. It’s really quite simple: bands play good music and then I show an international audience local bands’ music via the Internet and say nice things about it. Some of my similes, descriptions, and analogies may be inherently strange but everything I say or write is completely genuine and I would never say something I didn’t honestly mean just to say something nice. Besides, if you ever come across a band you, honestly, cannot concede a single good thing about, the band probably won’t last long and you’d be wasting your efforts in promoting their inevitable disappearance. If they do last, chances are it is you, not the band, who is out of the loop.

As for the members of other bands, if you really believe that your band is that much better than someone else’s, prove it. Talk, as always, is cheap. Lead by example and practice your craft. Cut your teeth on stage rather than running your mouth off stage. Bands that don’t communicate in a positive manner will never “compare notes” and any hopes of building another vibrant and rewarding scene in Vancouver will die on the blocks, your band along with it.

Baron S. Cameron

August 9-14, 2008

The Eternal Cow of Music: marinades, metaphors, and music

For many years now, my mother’s family has run a cattle ranch in the East Kootenays. Though the B-E Ranch has afforded many opportunities to be around cows, I still don’t know that much about them. Beef, however, and especially its value when in proximity to a barbeque, is something I do know a little about. What, I’m sure you’re all asking, does this have to do with music? I’m getting to that.

FACT: a good chef can make any cut of beef taste good.

FACT: a bad cook can destroy a tenderloin roast.

FACT: musicians are either good chefs or bad cooks.

FACT: all music is a steak, cut from The Eternal Cow of Music.

Because music comes from the same place, The Eternal Cow of Music, there really is no new or original music. Therefore, the quality of music is in how well it is served, i.e. a good or bad steak.

Even though we are discussing The Eternal Cow of Music, I’m going to beat this lousy metaphor like a dead horse ((Jesus, am I fired yet? Would you believe I teach kids to write?)

French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, once said something to the effect that until we discover/create a new language, nothing original can be written. He was right; however, he was also a damn good poet. Likewise, there is no original music (any “original” composition is merely a new garnish, placed on the “music steak’s” plate in an aesthetically pleasing manner).

Some bands are mind-numbingly good. Some bands are great to watch. Some bands suck. This is just the way that it is. But a lot of musicians serve music well. They take their selected cut from The Eternal Cow of Music and serve it to the public. In this sense, and looking towards Pop Music, Justin Timberlake is a good chef. He can take music of little or no substace or value and present it in a pleasing manner. Someone like Michael Buble on the other hand, takes the tried and true legacy of the velvet voiced crooner and soaks it in ketchup.

Currently in Vancouver we have bands like The Jolts, The Hotel Lobbyists, No Horses, and The Stumbler’s Inn (a miniscule cross-section of a huge scene) whose music can be traced back to an older style. The music itself is not %100 original but they play it so damn well that it can only be enjoyed with great passion. They are by no means knock-offs or a tribute/cover band (tribute/cover bands being, according to the current meat metaphor, the equivalent of the people who print the menus for The Keg). Essentially, it’s like almost any other job. Most jobs are done to the tried and true standards of the past. How well one does their job according to those standards is how they are judged as a worker.

This inability to achieve true originality is not to be lamented though. Sex has been done the same way for centuries and we all appreciateexpertise in that ancient art. Today’s musicians and bands work furiously from old recipes, updating them, adding new spice, experimenting with new ingredients. I can think of one performance I saw recently that left me with the distinct impression of having drawn from over 10 musical sources. This is not to say that it was wholly unoriginal or derivative, but I would have loved to rifle through their record collection because I am sure it was a good one.

In the end, it is simply a case of recognizing the value of a good steak and the ability to respect a good chef when you hear one.

A “Hanger-On” in Paradise

A sad fact of my life is that many of my happiest years are just a blur to me and I rely on people who were there to remind me of what they were like.

I got my job as a DJ at The Sandy Cove Cabaret during an unexpected Boxing Day rush. I just started spinning tunes when the bartender was unable to do so. What I didn’t know at that time was that being the club’s DJ also meant I had to mix the bands as well. I managed.

Thinking back on my “entrance” to the bar music scene I often wonder what the hell was I doing DJing on Boxing Day? Surely there was family about, other close ones to be with. The rush that night also meant that there were a lot of other people like me who wanted to be “out” that night. They became fellow travellers in a dark world.

I half-mananged to climb out of the hole that began developing back then. Today, I look back fondly at the music I heard in those days, the bands, the comraderie the bands felt…

Today, I seek not to re-capture the old feelings those old memories release, but to create new memories with a new crowd amongst old faces. I am The Aging Rockstar and I love every new minute of it.

The Last [Hu]Man Standing

Ever notice how people stopped writing folk songs about the I.R.A. when the Provos starting blowing up shopping malls? There is nothing heroic about being a bully. It would seem that the greatest number of folk songs and stories that deal with violence of any sort are usually about the proud few who stood, who refused to run in the face of overwhelming odds.

I feel that way sometimes. Looking out over the horizon of Western culture and seeing nothing but a wasteland of stunted potential.

In all but the rarest instances, the Ancient plays we study survived because they were popular, mass produced, thus increasing their odds of survival. Was Sophocles the Stephen King of his time? I sincerely hope not. But if history continues as it has, future civilizations will judge us as placing Dan Brown and Miley Ray Cyrus at the zenith of our cultural achievements. Argh…

So we fight.

Someday, while Dan Brown is held as high art, a singer will sing songs in a small cyber-cafe. On the wall behind them will be a poster of what trees and blue sky looked like and the customers will drink replicated coffee. The song will be about us, those who did not go gentle into that good night but cranked our tube amps up and kept the neighbours awake ’till dawn.


New Rules for “Cool”

The next person who uses “random” as a buzz word will be shot at dawn with a ball of their own shit. Here beginneth the rant.

When did “cool” cease to be a subjective thing? What ever happened to self assurance and personal style? When did a logo and a price tag take over as the means to being “cool”? It all happened a long time ago. I happened, in fact, on the very day I ceased to be “cool.”

In high school, I was the rebel leading his own pack. I was the front man for a hard rock band and had a lot of sex while doing so. My writing has been published, my screenplays produced, and my overly biased opinion taken for law in more bars than I can count. Now it seems as if my Chuck Taylors are either too new or too dirty, depending on which “never tell anyone my age” party girl happens to comment.

A 15 year-old kid accused me of killing Kurt Cobain. What the fuck? How could a kid who wasn’t even sperm when I was buying “Bleach” possilby know what I did or didn’t have to do with Cobain’s demise?

I think it comes down to the erasure of history. Every snot-nosed, little fucker in a Black Sabbath shirt is, as far as he is concerned, doing it “for the first time.” By comparison, I look like a geek because I’m some “old dude” acting like him (*Note: Check the date on your birth certificate there bub and you’ll note that I never stopped doing what you’re attempting). If he’d pick up a book (another of my old-man-at-35, geek habits) once in a while, he might come across The Genealogy of Morals and realize that only the vulgar need to tell or be told how cool they are.

Killing the Unborn Rebels

The Cambie Hotel Pub, known simply as “The Cambie,” is an interesting spot. It is one of those bars that is situated at the crossroads of the Universe. Most religions (excluding, of course, the Mormons), colours, and political theories are represented here. You are guaranteed to meet almost anyone in this bar and anyone who deigns The Cambie to be beneath them probably isn’t worth talking to anyway (unless you are looking to secure a home loan or a good lease on a new Jag).
The beer is cheap and the people are friendly; they need to be. The Cambie doesn’t have private tables. The pub is filled with massive wooden benches and tables that resemble a medieval mead hall more than a contemporary watering hole. At these massive, communal tables you can find yourself seated next to almost anyone. The bar, with its devilish brew of cheap booze and cool people, is almost always a good time out. As a lover of drink and the composer of bullshit fact, I am forced to approve.
D*****, a playwrite I am waiting for, is late. Either that or I can’t see him. He must be late because he usually stands out in a crowd and, after one beer, I’m not that drunk yet.
I can’t stop looking at the group beside me and it is becoming obvious to the group beside me that I can’t stop looking at the group beside me. D***** arrives in time to avert some awkward answers.
The truth of the matter was that I was simply entranced by the full-body tattoos of one of the women sitting in the group beside me. That, and she is pregnant. She doesn’t drink or smoke but sits, sipping a juice, listening to her friend lecture on new Marxist theory. D***** can sense that I am know longer paying attention to him and a look a terror grows on his face as he feels that a question for our neighbours is brewing somewhere in my twisted psyche.
I interrupt him with a quick “I’ll be right back” and before he can slap me in manacles I am sitting next to the tattooed, expectant mother.
Either we are dooming our society to anarchy or we are killing our rebels. How does a child rebel against a mother who is tattooed from head to toe? Join the Conservative Party? Buy a Volvo?
The Cambie being The Cambie, I was able to pose this question to the group beside me. Their answer was simple: Kids will always rebel. This I knew. But parents can lie to their kids about some of their past discrepancies; you can’t hide an inked out birthday suit from prying eyes. I want to know how kids would rebel against parents that couldn’t lie about or hide their own rebellious pasts. So if tattoos and piercing become the norm where do our kids go from there? Further or back?
The pregnant girl didn’t believe that she was rebelling but being herself. At that moment I worried for her child. Somewhere between my ears, I quietly questioned the fitness of any mother who doesn’t realize that, in this world and all those to follow, being yourself is the purest form of rebellion.