Category Archives: Newfoundland

Bob Dylan Vs. Alfred Nobel

“Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick, but when they will I can only guess.”

(“Idiot Wind,” 1974)

Dylan has received more than his share of criticism about his handling of the news on October 13 from the Nobel committee that he was the recipient of the coveted 2016 prize for literature – an honour bestowed thus far only on masters of the solely written word (read: no music attached to it). The committee’s choice created its own controversy as well, with literary types up in arms about the authenticity and value of Dylan as a literary figure. Of course anyone familiar with Dylan’s work beyond the obvious hits is not one bit surprised by the committee’s choice – or, for that matter, Dylan’s ensuing lack of emotion or interest in the award itself. Painfully shy and long since fed up with the prying and annoying general public, this award to Dylan primarily means another ceremony where people will ask him uncomfortable questions and act strangely around him. It means he will have to fly commercially for about ten hours, dealing with hassles the whole way. These scenarios alone would make him refuse to attend the ceremony. Even at a White House performance for the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, he couldn’t bear to attend the afternoon meet-and-greet, choosing to show up only for his performance and then bolting after a quick handshake with a delightfully amused Barack Obama, who later wrote this piece about the day Dylan came to visit:

“Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”

bob_dylan_portrait

(via Wikimedia Commons)

Obama, a Dylan fan, gets it. Obama’s note about his experience with Dylan in many ways explains why Dylan has refused to embrace the Nobel Prize with any kind of fervor or excitement. It seems that in the midst of all the grandiose explanations as to why Dylan is being so unappreciative about this are very simple reasons for his behavior, which stem back to his personal history and his music. Dylan fans are not surprised by his behaviour because they have been inspired by his work in profound ways. Dylan’s lyrics are a haven for the disaffected, the grieving, the struggling, and the proud. Dylan’s work gives hope to the fallen, encouragement to the hopeless, and attitude to the powerless. Most importantly, Dylan’s words make you question authority, institutions, and long-standing beliefs. They remind you to be wary. They urge you to trust, but carefully. In this way, Dylan’s treatment of the Nobel committee’s announcement is itself poetic in its silence. Dylan fans can see it.

Up until now, Nobel recipients have not treated this accolade in such a seemingly disrespectful way (a notable exception, Jean-Paul Sartre refused his in 1964. Read more about it here). But Dylan makes you ask important questions: “Why should we care about this prize?” “Why do we hold it in such high esteem?” “Why does Dylan’s refusal to acknowledge the award and attend the ceremony bother me so much?” These types of questions develop our intellect and sharpen our senses to institutions we have thus far not even bothered to question. Who made Alfred Nobel the purveyor of all that is great in humanity over the course of the last 115 years? Is it, at its core, simply another “prize” that highlights important achievements while promoting and propagating itself in the meantime? The beleaguered committee, already incredulous at Dylan’s refusal to attend the ceremony, has announced that he is “expected” to give a speech within six months – as if Dylan will do this just because he is expected to. Is this an award or a sentencing?

Awards at their root are all contests of sorts. Dylan has never solicited an award, nor has he ever created with “winning” in mind. If you’re competitive, chances are you’re annoyed by Dylan’s actions because you cannot relate to someone not caring about such a large “prize” or accolade. How could a guy just sleep on this opportunity? There has to be a motive. But there isn’t. We think there is because of the enormity of his talent, while part of his talent is simply making us think.

While you can interpret Dylan’s actions as rudeness or even a purposeful snub to prove a point, it’s very likely that both Dylan fans and detractors have put way more thought into this than the man himself. If you put it into perspective in light of his life and body of work, you can quickly see how accolades mean very little to him. The late great Leonard Cohen, himself a brilliant wordsmith, gave a short quote upon hearing of Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature: “To me,” he said, “[the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” There is a lot of weight in this quote. Cohen the great thinker, in comparing Dylan to Everest, asks this question: Does Everest need to be told it’s great? Does it care that it’s the highest mountain? People have tried to scale Everest in the same way that they’ve attempted to navigate the life and work of Dylan, and many have failed. Both are an enigma and a challenge, and neither will give up its secrets willingly. But one thing we know for certain: neither poet nor mountain will bear its identity being shaped objectively. If there is a root element at play here, perhaps it is this profound truth.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Newfoundland

Concert Review: Steve Earle and the Dukes, St. John’s (November 10th, 2016)

Last night Steve Earle and the Dukes rolled into St. John’s with the hammer down on the 30th anniversary of Guitar Town. Earle and band walked out onto the Holy Heart Auditorium stage at 8pm sharp to a roar from the audience as ushers’ flashlights reached into the aisles to assist flustered latecomers shuffling into their seats. Standing as bold, straight, and confident as he did in that now-iconic 1986 video for the title track, Earle strummed the unmistakable chugging opening G chord before singing that opening line of hillbilly testament: “Hey pretty baby are you ready for me, it’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee.” It’s what the crowd came to experience: a celebration of an album that still resonates with urgency and vitality. The Dukes kicked in with polished poise, sparking off what was to become a two-hour plus night of songwriting precision and performance. Earle’s voice is slightly more rough and gravelly than the original 1986 recording, but he has retained his signature tone and delivery with good pitch and volume. Both performer and audience have changed dramatically since that time, and Earle’s growth and metamorphosis as a songwriter throughout the decades is a testament to change as a very necessary element of life.

steve-earle-guitar-town-1

It is hard to believe that thirty years have passed since Nashville unleashed Steve Earle on a country music business that up until then typically featured stoic, motionless singers in polyester pants nodding into a camera on a TV show with wagon wheels and porch swings as stage props. Sure, we had Waylon and Willie to keep country honest; but we didn’t have anyone like Steve Earle: headband, jean tuxedo, bandanas wrapped around his wrists, broad-shouldered, fresh-faced, mean. Looking over his shoulder into the camera on the cover of that first album, we see a young man with both confident vision and guarded apprehension in his expression, foreshadowing the turmoil that would follow in the wake of his enormous success.

Earle entered the mainstream in his early 30s after ten years or more plugging away in Nashville as a songwriter in a city with thousands of others doing the exact same thing. Earle was personally mentored by his unsung heroes Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, giving him a unique edge and contributing to his originality as a songwriter and performer. Coming of age in the MTV generation, Earle’s rebel image was solidified worldwide in those early videos for “Guitar Town” and “I Ain’t Satisfied.” The left-leaning Steve Earle was not even on the horizon at this point and could hardly have been imagined. We still had a southern-tinged hillbilly star whose thoughtful, yet conservative lyrics leaned to the right while flipping the finger to the establishment. However, what truly set Earle aside from his peers was his potent mixture of country and pop. His verses were country, but his bridges were The Beatles. His guitars were country, but his drums were rock and roll. This sound propelled the country genre forward and influenced its growth in ways that were felt like an earthquake through the business as it rolled on into the unsteady ‘90s.

Besides his inaugural visit in 1989 during the Copperhead Road tour, Earle’s previous concerts in St. John’s have primarily featured material from his second coming as a politically-charged liberal intellectual whose lyrical themes leaned so far to the left that you’d swear the guy who put out that string of hits in the ‘80s was a historical imposter. Old favourites were played almost begrudgingly out of necessity to feed the hunger of an audience that wanted to be respectful of Earle’s songwriting talents yet yearned for the irresistible nature of the hits from his lean and hungry years. It’s a struggle that many music icons face, trying to make the new creativity matter while acknowledging what gave them the platform in the first place. On this tour, however, there is little confusion on material. The audience knows that it is getting Guitar Town in its entirety, and that alone is enough to push theatres to capacity. Earle’s delivery of this material feels fresh and renewed. His stories about the inception of the album reflect a sense of respect for what it’s become in the history of popular music. Acknowledging Nashville icon producer Richard Bennett as a key force in the making of the album, Earle reminisced about spending days in L.A. at Bennett’s place writing songs for the album and cutting demos for the later Nashville master sessions. Earle makes no effort to explain or highlight the differences between who he was then and who he is now, which is in keeping with a tendency to always be moving forward, both creatively and personally.

Earle and the Dukes made their way faithfully through Guitar Town, following the original track sequence. Houston guitarist Chris Masterson nailed the Telecaster intro to “Getting Tough” while Earle sang those eerie opening lines: “I got a job but it ain’t nearly enough, $20,000 pickup truck, belongs to me and the bank and some funny-talkin’ man from Iran.” These lines bear little resemblance to where Earle has gone politically since then. In the chorus, he claims that “nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good old boy.” Even more poignant is this line in relation to Trump’s victory Tuesday night. Cynically, perhaps it does again pay to be a good old boy in the good old USA, although Earle mentioned later in the night as an intro to “Devil’s Right Hand” that if he’d been in America Tuesday night he’d have shot himself in the head.

img_7868lr-3 Making their way through Guitar Town from start to finish, Steve Earle and The Dukes overcame some technical issues such as bad guitar cables and assorted extraneous noise to deliver a set of songs that resonated with an almost fevered sense of excitement. People sang every line of even the deepest cuts, displaying their affinity and familiarity with each groove from that record. Of course Earle and band had to endure a few drunks in the balcony shouting for “Galway Girl,” a song that Newfoundlanders have adopted as their own and subsequently played into annoying ubiquity. (They later got their wish, as Earle played it proudly and faithfully in the second set.)

After a short intermission, songwriter and band returned for a second spirited set of classics from the Steve Earle catalogue: “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” “Copperhead Road,” “Devil’s Right Hand,” “The Revolution Starts Now,” “Johnny Come Lately,” and more. Earle’s latest incarnation of The Dukes features long-time bassist Kelly Looney, guitarist Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, Chris Clarke on keys and steel, and newcomer Brad Pemberton from Ryan Adams’ Cardinals on drums. All skilled veterans, the sound was dead-on with a mixture of faithful accuracy to the hits and explorative musicality unique to this particular combination of musicians. Earle appears to be a generous bandleader who is less interested in micromanaging than he is melding with them as a fellow musician.

Toward the end of the show, Earle put on a Telecaster and played it very loud and proud until his final bow. I will avoid going into specifics about the encore in consideration of those going tonight, but let’s just say you’ll leave the venue sufficiently rocked after a full dose of Guitar Town and another full set of Steve Earle classics. If there’s ever a time to go see Steve Earle, this is the tour to take the plunge.

Leave a comment

Filed under Newfoundland

Nashville: The First Two Days

The time has come to make this record…and we are off to the races. We arrived in Music City Wednesday morning at 10:30 after taking the very early 5:40am Westjet flight from St. John’s to Pearson and then on to Nashville. My cousin and longtime musical compatriot Barry LeDrew is along with me to play drums, and his company/talent are greatly appreciated as I take on this daunting new venture. We wasted no time getting down to business, going into Resistor Studio at 2pm on zero sleep from the night before and a hurried lunch at the Turnip Truck on the way.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 1.32.41 AM

We spent most of Wednesday working through arrangements. We sat in a semi-circle in the main tracking room with my producer Joshua Grange and went through each song organically and methodically. Josh’s musical experience is deep and wide, having played and recorded with the best in the business. As a result, his demands are very direct and specific. This is nothing like Barry or I have ever experienced before. He is already pushing our boundaries and not compromising at all with regard to what he wants from us as musicians. His no-nonsense approach extends to lyrics as well. About ten days before the sessions started, Josh slashed many of the songs I had put forward for the record, stating very matter-of-factly that these songs were just not going to cut it for his tastes and purposes as a producer. I was taken aback at first. My initial response was, “there must be something wrong if you’re not seeing potential in these songs.” But after a day or two of licking my wounds (and at one point almost pulling the plug due to my wounded ego), I realized that Josh was truly committed to taking me out of my (admittedly isolated) comfort zone and into a brand new realm. And the only way to do this was to move beyond what I’ve been doing all these years musically. So I agreed to take his guidance and put my trust in him 100% going forward.

Fortunately there was material that he liked, and much of it came from our writing sessions in May. There was a cohesiveness he heard in this material that sounded more like an album than the mishmash of songs I had put forth to him weeks before. The only issue was that many of these ideas were yet to have lyrics, and the arrangements were not yet finished. Undaunted, Josh assured me that all would be well when we started and that the goal was to work our asses off for ten days and make a killer record. He reminded me that this was not a spa holiday and that I’d be spending a lot of my time pulling my hair out over lyrics while he and Barry were working out drum sounds or doing overdubs. After only two days in the studio, I realized that he was right. I did spend a lot of time in the past week or so working on lyrics for the new material, but after hearing these lyrics Josh is still pushing me to revisit certain lines, sections, concepts, etc. It shall be a challenging ten days lyrically, but the end result will no doubt be worth it.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 1.31.00 AM

Wednesday clued up with seven of the ten songs mostly arranged. Barry and I left the studio around 9pm, had some sushi, and hit the sack for the sleep of the dead – about ten solid hours. Our hotel was too far from the studio, so Thursday morning we moved to the Knight’s Inn in East Nashville to get closer the central goings-on. The only problem is that this hotel closely resembles the one in No Country for Old Men (yes, the last one where the big shootout happened). So after dropping our luggage to the front desk this morning (and praying it would be there when we got back), we headed to the studio to start in on basic tracks. I spent most of the first hour on the phone trying to cancel the Knight’s Inn reservation. Josh had set up a lyric-writing session with singer/songwriter Lera Lynn, who was also kind enough to get on the phone when we arrived and find Barry and me a room at the nearby Extended Stay Hotel. We actually started our writing session while still on hold with Knight’s Inn, who were initially adamant about not letting us cancel the remaining 9 days’ reservation but eventually relented.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 1.35.14 AM

Barry and Josh went off to Fork’s Drum Closet to look at some Ludwig snares while Lera and I started combing through some of my lyrics. She explained to me the concept of “hook fatigue,” which means, among other things, driving a melodic hook to death by adhering to it too closely or being too repetitious with it. Turns out I’m a master at this. Fortunately a lot of my lyrics were salvageable by tweaking lines here and there, moving some things around, and generally trying to loosen them up and not be so rigid and religious with the melody. It was an eye-opening and valuable session. Lera told me that while writing with T-Bone Burnett on the soundtrack to the series True Detective (in which she also acted), he told her that a song should not say the same thing in multiple verses. In other words, once you’ve expressed an idea or concept in a verse, move on. Lera is also very good at economizing phrasings and getting rid of the chaff in a song. Joshua produced her last two records The Avenues and Resistor, both of which showcase her deep talent as a singer and a writer.

As we were wrapping up our writing session, Barry and Josh were just finishing mic’ing and checking the kit. We went out and grabbed some lunch before getting down to business with a bed track for the first song on the list, “Fool to Stay.” This is a very old unreleased song of mine that caught Josh’s ear in our May sessions, and it’s getting a workover for this record. It is the only song on this album from another era in my writing. The rest are brand new. Lera and I reworked the lyrics quite a bit for this one today, and Josh leaned it out with a sparse, slower groove. After several takes (with Josh on bass in the control room), we decided that we had a solid one for referencing. Josh and Barry worked on a few drum overdubs, and I went off to another room to have a beer and work on some more lyrics. We then finished off the session with an acoustic guitar track, which I played. Josh was insistent that I was speeding up; it didn’t feel that way to me. After some disagreement on this issue, it was determined that earlier we had strayed a bit on the click during the beds and that I was stuck somewhere between the click and the main track. The stray was hardly noticeable yet throwing off the groove ever so slightly. We were all feeling the fatigue of a long day, so we decided to end the session at that point and disperse for some food and rest.

Before leaving, Josh sat at the grand piano for a minute and played the progression for “Fool to Stay” in very dramatic, beautiful flourishes and runs. Barry and I just stopped, listened, and smiled. Josh said, “Yeah, I can really hear this on the track. And Hammond.” We all nodded in agreement and walked on out of the studio with hugs all around and a bon voyage until tomorrow when we work on more bed tracks and…you guessed it: lyrics.

(See my Instagram feed for daily photo and video updates on my Nashville experience: @chrisledrew)

 

6 Comments

Filed under Newfoundland

My Nashville Album Campaign: Beyond the Financial

On Monday, May 23rd I launched a funding campaign on Indiegogo for my third solo album, tentatively titled “The Nashville Album.” Indiegogo is a site that manages financial backing for projects ranging from new technology to new artistic works and everything in between. Launching this campaign was a nerve-wracking venture, mostly because of my fear about people’s perceptions. I felt that some would view it as virtual panhandling, despite the fact that all contributions are in trade for product, experiences, or services and not set up as a one-way transaction. The only thing that did balance out this fear was that I had funded my first album in 1997 through a similar type of pre-sale offer, and many people in my life who had intended on buying the album anyway were only too happy to buy it in advance if it meant that it would get finished. Of course an online funding platform such as Indiegogo is so much more than simple pre-sales, so it was a leap of faith launching this to the world with the blind hope that people would actually engage without judgment or preconception.

I also knew that I was launching at exactly the same time that the Newfoundland government was handing down one of the most brutal budgets in its history as a province. In a time of austerity and (justified) tightening of purse strings, would my project and its $15,000 goal be seen as indulgent and out of touch with reality? With my Nashville producer Joshua Grange’s busy touring and recording schedule (which dictates that we make the record in early August), we had no choice but to launch when we did and hope for the best. To my delight, it was well-received and in the last few weeks has brought a whole new spark to my musical vision.

Back in February, I personally funded a trip to Nashville to make a pitch video and meet with Joshua in advance of the recording. My good friend and musical cohort Paul Kinsman came with me to film the video and capture some footage of Josh and me working together in his studio. I wanted potential backers to view this project as a serious one, and I felt that it was important to go to Nashville and come back with solid images and videos to prove that this was not a “vanity project” but a true musical collaboration between a Canadian and an American that could yield some very interesting musical results.

When the campaign was ready to be shared, I sent a note and campaign link to my Hotmail contacts a day before launching publicly; I wanted let all the principal contacts in my life (past and present) know about what I was doing before it hit social and conventional media. I received many positive replies of acknowledgment and support, and I reopened connections with so many people I had lost contact with over the years (mostly due to kids coming along and life revving into high gear). I’ve since had a few lunches with old friends, and I’ve made plans to connect with others in person as well. Just knowing I still have the support of these people gives me added confidence in my writing and musical abilities, which makes me even more determined to make the best record I can make. I learned through these renewed connections that contributions come in more forms than financial. Making a record requires much more than money; it requires faith from people in your life.

Sharing the campaign on social media was also a big motivator for me. When I saw the amount of people sharing, liking, and retweeting, I said to myself, “Wow, maybe people really do want to see me make a new solo album.” This may sound a bit insecure, but the truth is that musicians at all levels of success worry about these things. “Does anyone care? Will anyone listen? Am I living in a dream world wanting to make a new album at my age? What am I trying to prove?” I’ve been fortunate to meet some widely successful musicians over the years and have always been surprised at their openness about being unsure or insecure about new material or their place in music. Songwriters are always looking toward their next song, and they never know if anyone will think it’s any good or not. So it’s a big deal to have people’s faith in advance of releasing new material. Steele Communications, NTV, and the Newfoundland Herald have also been tremendously supportive early out of the gate, for which I am very grateful. As a result of this support, my writing has taken off in spades and I am creating like a man on fire. I’ve got three guitars set up around the house, all in different tunings. I pick them up constantly, working on ideas and recording snippets on voice memos. It’s the most prolific I’ve been in years.

Chris-4(wm)

While I do hope that we reach our goal by the time late July rolls around, that is not the only focus of this venture. The unexpected dividend of finding out that many people really do want to see me make a new recording is enough to inspire me to forge on and complete this record, no matter if we reach the goal or not. Some goals, such as reconnecting with old friends and finding out that I really do have a strong audience, have already long been met.

Much more than a funding opportunity, this campaign so far has proven to be a very accurate way to assess my true audience and also to interact with people on many other levels besides financially. Of course I would be dishonest in saying that it didn’t matter to me if people contributed to the campaign or not. It is, however, true that a venture such as this one yields other rewards besides financial backing. The knowledge that a solid audience of discerning, critical friends/family/associates are expecting me to make a quality product puts pressure on me to make the best record I’ve ever made. And I love working under pressure.

Thanks all!

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Newfoundland

Writing for OnStage Magazine

Hey everyone,

I wrote for a US online magazine called OnStage this past summer, so you can read some of my articles there:

http://www.onstagemagazine.com/writers/ledrew-writers/

Edit: I’ve recently moved back to LeDrew’s Muse, so the writing I’ve done between May and August can be found at OnStage, with my future posts back here.

All the best,

Chris

2 Comments

Filed under Newfoundland

Juno “Album of the Year” Award: Reliable Barometer of Greatness?

2010_statuette

Last night I tuned into the final half hour of the Junos to see K.D Lang perform. A buddy of mine, Josh Grange, plays pedal steel in her band and I wanted to check out his playing. I wasn’t too interested in much else about this year’s show. I would have liked to see Alan Doyle win for his excellent video, “Testify,” and another win for Amelia Curran would have been great. But other than that I wasn’t too engaged. Years ago, when I thought I was destined for musical stardom, I kept better track of the Junos. I don’t bother as much these days. I do know a lot of past nominees and winners – either as friends or people I’ve performed with over the years. I’ve gone to a few shows as a spectator or guest. As a Canadian music fan, I’ve been tuning in for decades. As a critical thinker, I recognize the sham behind much of it. But then again, so do the participants.

The inside operations of the Junos are a bit hazy. For the average Canadian music fan, the award show is simply a chance to see their favourite Canadian entertainers all under one roof. The public doesn’t have to think about the politics of the biz. It’s just an entertainment show to them. However, people in the music business know exactly how this award show works and how to use it. For emerging artists, it’s a chance to get exposure both in the form of a nomination and a performance spot on the telecast. For industry people, it’s a chance to network and make deals. For the veteran icons, it’s an opportunity to keep in the loop, use it as a springboard for new releases, and to hopefully get lifetime achievement accolades. It’s our version of the Grammys, and overall it’s a well-run entity that has endured several decades in a constantly evolving music business.

For perspective, I’ll take a minute to explain the process by which one wins a Juno award. The organization CARAS (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) has a membership consisting of musicians, promoters, agents, managers, producers, directors, publishers, and anyone else who has a stake in the Canadian music industry. Several months before the awards show, they receive ballots in the mail containing a list of nominees for each category (earlier selected by committee from a larger pool of acts) and they vote according to their preferences. The nominee who receives the most votes wins the award. It’s the same as the ECMAs on the east coast and many awards shows in other countries. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not this process is transparent and devoid of bias, or if it’s riddled with corruption and incestuous manipulation of votes.

Last night, the Juno Album of the Year was presented the end of the show, as is custom. The presenters were singer/songwriters Tom Cochrane and Colin James, two iconic Canadian musicians who have received numerous Juno accolades in the past. I have tremendous respect for both of them. Cochrane and James are organic rockers, each forging a unique sound and style from the bare essence of who they are as people. What you see is what you get. They get on stage with a great band, strap on their guitars, and captivate a room full of people with nothing but their life stories rendered skillfully in songs that have become part of the Canadian consciousness.

The winner they announced? Carly Rae Jepsen, for her album Kiss. Best known for her 2012 hit single “Call Me Maybe,” the B.C. native and former Canadian Idol contestant (roll eyes here) got a push from Bieber on Twitter and it catapulted her into the international spotlight. The industry hounds then descended and quickly pieced together a full-length release. The result is a bubblegum collection of flirty party tunes with loose plots centered around the retaining of one’s virginity. She accepted her award graciously, thanking mostly the fans but not having much else to say. Cochrane and James stood by politely, but you could sense a sort of bemusement on their faces. I do not wish to speak for them, but it’s hard not to think that inside they were shaking their heads in disbelief at the questionable caliber of album and artist eligible to receive this accolade. It begs the following question: Have the Junos ever been an accurate barometer of “best albums” in this country?

Carly Rae Jepsen wins Album of the year at the 2013 Juno awards.

Carly Rae Jepsen wins Album of the Year at the 2013 Juno Awards.

The first problem arises when discussing the highly subjective topic of what constitutes a great album. Celine Dion has won the most Junos in this category, followed by Michael Buble. They are great singers, to be sure. Great albums? I’m not convinced. When I think of great albums, I think of pieces of work that have unity of purpose and expression. Great “album artists” have originality and depth that is first rooted in an affinity for their own favourite albums and then rendered into a new hybrid of melody and lyric. These albums break new ground. They have a structured path from beginning to end that captures an artist or band at a certain time in their creative lives. Great albums punctuate people’s histories and emotionally place them in memorable moments and experiences. When I think of great albums, I think of Dark Side of the Moon, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Blonde on Blonde, Blue, Music From Big Pink, Led Zeppelin II, Abbey Road, After the Gold Rush, The Stranger, Tapestry, Nevermind, Machine Head, ad infinitum. I do not need to list the artists connected to the albums above. If you’re a true popular music fan, you know who made these albums. I wonder how many of these albums are in Carly Rae’s collection? I wonder if she’s even familiar with the catalogues of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the most basic staples for any self-respecting artist who purports to make real albums. The idea of someone winning Album of the Year in a popular music category without at least a shred of influence from the above list is preposterous to me.

When studying the past winner list for Juno Album of the Year, let’s first consider the following travesties against the true artistry of Rush. In 1980, Anne Murray’s New Kind of Feeling beat out Rush’s Hemispheres, and the next year her Greatest Hits won over Rush’s Permanent Waves. In 1982, Loverboy’s debut album beat out TWO Rush albums, Moving Pictures and Exit…Stage Left. In 1983, Loverboy’s Get Lucky won over Rush’s Signals. In 1986 Glass Tiger’s The Thin Red Line won over Rush’s Power Windows. How can a run of artistic greatness like Rush’s ‘80s output be overlooked by a membership of supposedly “informed” voters in the CARAS organization? Doesn’t it look a bit ridiculous in hindsight that forgettable pop acts with nothing musical to say and no new ground to break could overshadow the magnitude of Rush?

Some argue that the artists who won instead of Rush sold a lot more albums, and that is no doubt true. However, the CARAS voting process is not supposed to be based on sales. If it were, there’d be no need for a voting process. A committee could simply compile the sales data and present the award to the biggest seller. In fact, the Album of the Year Juno was actually called “Best-selling Album” in the 1970’s but was changed in 1980. Perhaps the “largest sales” mandate continued subversively in the CARAS membership throughout the industry despite the name change. I’m sure there’s always been a lot of pressure to vote for the money-making albums because they’re the ones paying everyone’s salaries. This dynamic is no doubt behind the Carly Rae win, although no one with a stake in the game wants to break the 40-year code of membership silence and be forever shunned from the fishbowl Canadian music business.

Rush's legendary 1982 album Moving Pictures (featuring the incredible "Tom Sawyer"), which lost out to Loverboy for Album of the Year.

Rush’s legendary 1982 album Moving Pictures (featuring the incredible “Tom Sawyer”), which lost out to Loverboy for Album of the Year.

In 1989 the award was finally given to what has now become a truly iconic record, the debut self-titled Robbie Robertson. This was finally some good insight from the CARAS voter base, although it helped that music mogul David Geffen’s logo was on the album sleeve. It must have boded well for CARAS to have the attention of the most influential music exec in the world by bestowing such an accolade on his newest solo artist. Robertson rightly won over Glass Tiger and Honeymoon Suite, but unfortunately another classic album, Blue Rodeo’s Outskirts, lost to Robertson’s debut. This touches on the contentious issue of Canadian exports stealing the spotlight from domestic artists. Stompin’ Tom went to his grave cursing the Junos over this controversial matter, having returned all his Junos decades earlier in protest. And he was right in his convictions. Robertson is native Canadian, but he is essentially an American now; he moved there in 1966 and achieved success far beyond what most domestic Canadian bands could ever dream. Robertson did not need that award half as much as Blue Rodeo did at the time.

Stompin' Tom sends his six Junos back to CARAS in 1978.

Stompin’ Tom sends his six Junos back to CARAS in 1978.

In the ‘90s we saw varying levels of artistry in the Juno Album of the Year winner’s list. Tom Cochrane was vindicated in 1992 with the award for the excellent Mad Mad World after losing out to Alannah Myles’ debut a few years earlier. K.D. Lang’s awe-inspiring Ingenue won out over Celine Dion’s self-titled release in 1993. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon took it home in 1994, although the fantastic Leonard Cohen album The Future lost out to Young. In 1995 Celine Dion’s campy release The Colour of My Love inexplicably won over Blue Rodeo’s masterpiece Five Days in July and Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Alanis Morrissette deservedly won in 1996 with her landmark Jagged Little Pill, and thankfully the Tragically Hip won over Celine Dion’s Falling into You in 1997 with Trouble at the Henhouse. However, Celine stole it back in 1999 when she beat out the Hip’s Phantom Power. The CARAS membership apparently has a lot of love for Celine Dion as an album-oriented artist.

Dion performs at the 2013 Junos.

Dion performs at the 2013 Junos.

The first worthy new millennium Juno Album of the Year (after several years of relative blandness) was awarded to Sam Roberts in 2004 for We Were Born in a Flame, giving Canadian rock a much-needed kick in the crotch after a yawn-inducing start to the new century. In 2008 Feist’s The Reminder beat out the usual suspects Michael Buble, Anne Murray and Celine Dion, which showed that the ambivalent and unpredictable CARAS membership was actually thinking straight. In 2009 Nickelback won. (Insert nothing here.) Buble took home the accolade in 2010 and 2012 with little serious competition, and the Arcade Fire slipped in to grab the award from Drake, Hedley, Bieber and Johnny Reid in 2011 with their third album The Suburbs.

Taking into account the varied and storied history of this particular Juno award category, I guess it’s not too surprising that someone like Jepsen could actually win. Out of all the albums that have received this award in the past three decades, only a small handful have persevered and become part of our Canadian vernacular. They are as follows:

Cuts Like a Knife, Bryan Adams

Reckless, Bryan Adams

Robbie Robertson, Robbie Roberston

Shaking Like a Human Being, Kim Mitchell

Mad, Mad World, Tom Cochrane

Ingenue, K.D. Lang

Harvest Moon, Neil Young

Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morrissette

Fortunately, CARAS does not influence the larger public vote for great Canadian albums. In fact, the nominee list from the history of this award contains many more iconic albums than the actual winner list:

The Rush catalogue, 1980-86

Hot Shots, Trooper

Outskirts, Blue Rodeo

Neruda, Red Rider

Black Cars, Gino Vannelli

Strange Animal, Gowan

Gordon, Barenaked Ladies

Reasons to Believe, Rita McNeil

Victory Day, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider

Waking up the Neighbours, Bryan Adams

Lost Together, Blue Rodeo

The Ghosts the Haunt Me, Crash Test Dummies

Fully Completely, Tragically Hip

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah Mclachlan

Five Days in July, Blue Rodeo

North Country, Rankin Family

The Future, Leonard Cohen

Happy?, Jann Arden

Granted, some newer albums such as The Suburbs, We Were Born in a Flame and The Reminder are too new to be canonized; but they may see that status in years to come. Will Carly Rae’s Kiss endure as an essential addition to our great Canadian musical history collection? Taste is subjective, but time is the great revealer. What is undeniably true about the Juno Awards is that the CARAS membership will continue to vote in favour of preserving the financial infrastructure of the Canadian music industry. And in no time has it ever been in as much danger of collapse as it is now.

10 Comments

Filed under Newfoundland

Scott Weiland: The Lingering Hangover of Stardom

Image

The only grunge album I bought in the early ‘90s was Nirvana’s Nevermind. Kurt Cobain transcended the genre in that he was simply a great writer of melody and chord structure. Although the other popular grunge bands of the era had their merits, Nirvana had a timeless quality that can only be achieved by having great material. I didn’t particularly like the style of Eddie Vedder’s vocals, and Alice in Chains was just dark and depressing to me. Soundgarden was too bombastic. I pretty much wrote off the genre at the time, sticking to classic rock as my musical muse.

One band of this era that initially presented themselves as clones of the others was Stone Temple Pilots. Formed in San Diego in the late ‘80s and signed in 1992 to Atlantic Records due to their great fit with the multi-platinum bands of its genre, STP were an overnight sensation in the grand scheme of the music business. But as I said, some saw them as an imitation band that drew from the most popular elements of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Their first album, Core (1992), is as grunge as it gets: chugging guitars, heavy drums, overdriven bass, and aggressive growling vocals. One cannot deny the influence of Eddie Vedder in the song “Plush” or Kurt Cobain in “Sex Type Thing.” Even though they were all talented musicians, I didn’t see or hear anything truly unique or new about their sound. I was spending way more time listening to other new releases such as the Black Crowes’ Southern Harmony and Musical Companion or Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.

One day in 1994 I was relaxing at my house listening to local radio station OZ-FM when a heavy, snarling tune came on. The song faded in, which was unique. The drums had an aggressive groove, and the electric guitars repeatedly strummed out a dissonant, distorted chord in the intro. When the song kicked in, it took on a great guitar/bass groove. It consisted of two single notes that syncopated along with the drums. The vocals gave away the band in question. Stone Temple Pilots’ frontman Scott Weiland had enough of his own inflections in the vocals of the first STP album to make him somewhat recognizable to my ear. But this song was a departure from their copycat style on Core. First of all, it was damn catchy. Second of all, it sounded like no other band I’d ever heard.

The song was “Vaseline,” and it is from their second album Purple. I was aware of their other hit from this album, “Interstate Love Song,” but to me that song sounded more like their first album. It retained that Eddie Vedder vocal style too much for my liking. I did like the video for “Interstate,” though. In fact, I realized after watching the videos for these two songs that I really enjoyed watching Scott Weiland perform. His hair had grown wavy and more stylish than the skinhead look of his previous few years, and he was starting to dress with more flare and less grunge. More graceful than Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, Weiland has an aggressive yet effeminate physical delivery that is a mixture between Bowie and Axl Rose. Even if you didn’t love the songs, you couldn’t help but be drawn to the way Weiland moved when performing. He masculinized femininity, if that makes any sense. The other members of the band were more tongue-in-cheek in visual approach, playing great foils to their singer while providing the soundtrack to his “interpretive dance” style. The whole STP visual experience, and Scott Weiland in particular, no doubt helped propel them into multi-platinum status as the decade came to a close several years later.

Unfortunately Weiland had a penchant for hard drugs, and as the 2000’s approached he inadvertently derailed STP due to busts, rehab, and other drug-related fallout. Not an original story in rock and roll, yet one that was way more visible than most due to the advent of high-speed internet as the new Millennium peaked over the horizon.

Fast forward a decade and we see a trail of destruction behind Weiland. In fact, it’s a miracle he’s still alive among the drugs, car accidents, seizures and domestic violence. He spent some time as lead singer of supergroup Velvet Revolver, but this stint was also marred by his erratic personal behavior. Recently the other members of STP have dumped him from the band (as if he’s somehow replaceable), and he’s currently finishing up a solo tour that’s been punctuated by late starts, boozing, unreliable performances, and quarrels with the audience. What exactly is wrong with Scott Weiland, and why is one of the best frontmen in rock history on a path of self-annihilation?

Last week while browsing Youtube I viewed Weiland’s 2011 interview with Howard Stern and his tactless co-host Robin. While I definitely understand that if someone goes on Stern they need to realize they’re going to get roasted, I couldn’t help but feel for Weiland when Stern and Robin bore down on him with insults, questions about his kids, enquiries about his personal finances, etc. It was hard to watch. In this video, and in several others of Weiland that I’ve watched since, I see a guy who has a “hunted” look in his eye. The media are downright predatory with Weiland, and tragically he answers time and time again their prying, tasteless questions with candour befitting a drunkard with no internal filter. It’s like he’s hoping that somehow a straight message might make its way through the media filter. Slim chance of that.

Even though many will say that Weiland has made his own bed due to selfish, destructive behavior, there seems to be something more at play here. He is an intelligent man, writes thoughtful if slightly opaque lyrics, and (when he’s on) performs with purposeful precision and poise. He has also co-written a biography and has launched a line of clothing out of England. And he manages to do all this while drunk and high 24/7? I don’t think so.

Scott Weiland Houston

The bigger picture here is that the media magnifies his faults in order to preserve the image of him that everyone wants to retain: the tragic trainwreck rock star. All that anyone outside his immediate sphere knows about him is via the media. So both Weiland and his fans are at the mercy of that lens, which can distort reality in significant ways. On Stern they made a big deal about him being 20 minutes late for the interview, catching his late arrival on video (it was scheduled for 8am). On TMZ footage they stalk him at the airport and ask mundane questions while filming him going through security. Youtube is filled with amateur footage of his latest shows, all of which emphasize his eccentricities. He is under the media microscope in a big way, and this is a decade after STP has had a major hit. So we can only surmise from this continued scrutiny that people are still interested in Scott Weiland the person, long after Scott Weiland the STP frontman has largely faded into obscurity. This supports the long-held notion that people are interested in many more elements of rock and roll than the music itself.

Since Elvis, the public has been conditioned to experience rock through visual media, namely television. The only difference between then and now, however, is that the visual has become a 24/7 process via the internet and other digital means. Consequently, the media and the public have responded to this demand by sharing videos on youtube on a daily basis, with up-to-the-minute footage. Hence, we can scrutinize every minute detail of a rock star’s life.

Regarding Scott Weiland, there is a lot to scrutinize. The aforementioned drug-fuelled behavior is fodder for the media-hungry general public who love to watch someone else hit rock bottom. Do you think that if a camera was following Lou Reed, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, or Bob Dylan during the ‘70s we would have seen any different? Rock stars of yore did not have to worry about this kind of scrutiny. They were able to have a trainwreck lifestyle and no one besides their inner circle and a few lucky (or unlucky) fans ever knew about it. Sure there were lots of print articles, but that involves reading. (And we know how much the general public actually likes to read.) Visual media is preferred because it takes no action on the part of the viewer. It is a completely passive pursuit. Therefore, we now have a culture where people sit back, passively view footage of celebrities, and form judgments and opinions. But they do not recognize or take into account the distorted lens through which they look. It takes critical thinking to properly digest and analyze this myriad of footage. Unfortunately, it’s no fun to give these celebrities credence; they’re all rich, spoiled, unappreciative assholes. Aren’t they?

Image

Well, herein lies the problem. In reality we don’t know anything about these people. Scott Weiland is a walking contradiction if you look closely at the ubiquitous youtube videos. He is supposedly a recovering drug addict who still drinks like a fish; however, we see a man who’s svelte, well-dressed, has pearly white teeth, and is able to perform night after night on a glamour-starved solo club tour. We see a man who’s able to do interviews and sell a book. Yes, many people can be functioning alcoholics. But anyone who knows the stamina it takes to tour and promote material knows that you can’t be consistently hung over and still function. So why do most people assume he’s a walking nightmare day and night who cannot get his act together?

Because we only see the dramatic parts of his life. They’re the only parts that interest us. The rest is boring. People can only judge a person on what they know. The trouble is that we don’t know Scott Weiland. Therefore, we have no idea what he’s like. Even if a person has briefly met him after a concert or in an airport, that’s still not Scott Weiland the person. The trouble for Weiland is that based on his “media” personality a lot of people still want to meet him and witness firsthand the “trainwreck.” Therefore, he lives with a constant expectation hanging over his head from others. Take a second to apply that expectation to your daily life and you’ll quickly realize the pressure he must be under. Most of us go to work, come home, head to the mall, or whatever. And basically no one approaches us or even looks twice. Those among us with a measure of success might get recognized and bothered for an autograph or picture from time to time, but it’s hardly ever aggressive or expectation-laden to the extreme that Weiland has to endure. And he knows the glory days are over. People used to hound him because of his music; now they hound him because of his notoriety. This must make him exasperated, which shows in how he treats those who approach him. See the vicious cycle?

Once we widen our focus and step back a bit, we start to get a more rational viewpoint on Weiland and many other celebrities who go through the same public shaming upon the demise of their careers. We start to see the things we initially admired, the reason why they captured the attention of millions in the first place. Then we can begin to appreciate their plight in this smartphone video micro lens of a world we live in today.

Image

Bob Dylan once remarked about being a famous musician:

“By being a celebrity, you lose your anonymity. It short-circuits your creative powers when people come up and interrupt your train of thought. They consider you completely approachable. And you can’t be rude to people, so basically you shut yourself down. I know I do. I shut myself down when people come up and want to shake my hand or want to talk. That’s just dead time.”

I can imagine that after all the scrutiny Scott Weiland has had to endure by the press, paparazzi, and fans with smartphones, he has probably long been shut down. And really, you cannot blame him. His arrests, rehab stints, and drug binges have nothing to do with us. All we are doing is measuring his personal failures against our own, hoping that we come out on top. This is what we do with all celebrities. But unless they are our friends or relatives, we have no right to judge. All we have a right to judge is their artistic output. Too bad the appeal of their artistry is often on the decline as their public scrutiny amps up. This is the troublesome dichotomy that we must recognize and rise above. If we have no use for their current creativity, then why drag the artist down the dirt road of demise in front of the whole world to watch? Yes, these artists often ask for or provoke this notoriety. But do we have to participate like a bunch at a Roman Gladiator fight, with the Internet the forum and our computer chairs the bleachers? Artists should be allowed to gracefully fade into obscurity and pursue their art with a measure of humility, without the lingering hangover of stardom dogging their every move. Weiland may to blame for his own lingering pursuit of fame, but in way we shoulder that blame as well.

7 Comments

Filed under Current Events, Music, Newfoundland