Thursday, July 16, 2020

Boat Repositioning 2020 - From Turkey Point to Sarnia

As we rounded the end of Lake Erie’s Long Point and turned Bella Blue into the wind and waves it became clear we were in for a rough ride. I asked the crew if they were up for the 130 mile trip to Pelee Island, because we could still throw in the towel and sail back to Turkey Point, but Marty and Adam were eager to continue, despite the greenish hue overcoming their facial complexions.

We were now officially one day behind an already tight schedule to sail Bella Blue all the way to Sarnia over a three day period so it was unlikely we were going to make it all the way at this point, but we could at least take her part of the way there. We arrived at the boat one day before, on Friday, to torrential rain, strong winds, and lightning storms with weather warnings on the whole of Lake Erie so I jumped into my favourite hobby (fixing broken stuff on the boat) while the lads helped where they could, did some fishing off the dock with gigantic rubber rat and duck lures, and drank a couple of beers with the dock master Tony, whose boat slip we were currently squatting in. By late evening the weather forecast had not improved, making even tomorrow’s departure uncertain, so we focused our attention on drinking beer and found a deck of giant oversized playing cards, which were tough to hold and sort, but easy to see with blurred vision so we enjoyed round after round of “Asshole” late into the night as the ideas began to flow. As Marty is from Ottawa there was mention of him bringing Justin Trudeau along for the trip, but in retrospect it is good that he didn’t because we probably would have just been embarrassed by whatever dandy sailor outfit he surely would have worn.

I awoke to parched insides and a horrible smell of diesel, which made the grinding headache even worse. I discovered the source of the smell was a leaking fuel filter so the boys and I got to work troubleshooting it, getting soaked in diesel throughout the process which really supercharged the migraine. We had breakfast then enjoyed a hot coffee with Angela and Tony in their cabin before making the decision to sail out to the end of Long Point despite the bad weather and small craft advisory on the lake. The initial sail was excellent with a strong wind at our back and achieving speeds over 8 knots surfing down the large waves, and we reached the lighthouse at the end of Long Point in just a few hours.

The afternoon sail westward across the open lake was rough, stomach turning, wet, and very lonely as we were seemingly the only boat out there. The wind was coming directly from where we wanted to go, so we had to motor instead of sail, resulting in the boat smashing into the 6 foot waves over and over, rocking the vessels and its passengers. At one point I offered the boys a can of iced tea, but Marty replied that he was getting plenty to drink in the cockpit as yet another rogue wave hit the boat and splashed right into his face. The rough seas and turned stomachs resulted in a little vomit spilled and our icy cold beers were left undrunk but not forgotten.

By evening the weather had markedly improved, and before long the sky was clear and winds manageable. In fact everybody was feeling good enough to have a bit of food so I heated up the shepherd’s pie I had made and frozen the week before, and we even dipped into my father-in-law’s Portuguese hot pepper sauce to give it a bit of heat. Things were back on track, morale was sky high, and we were on course for Pelee Island.

With a cloudless night and under a blanket of stars we took shifts minding the helm, seeing no other boats, and having an easy and peaceful passage with a shifted north wind that allowed us to get the full sails out and pick up the pace. Dawn broke, and to start off the sunny and warm day (so much for the dreadful weather forecast) we whipped up a huge breakfast of eggs, ham, re-imagined shepherd’s pie, toast, and coffee and enjoyed a big meal in the cabin while the autopilot did its job and held our course. The original plan was to have arrived at Pelee Island the evening before, spent the night, then left early in the morning for our next stop, but we actually arrived at 11am, and decided to just stop to fill up with diesel then continue on. As we were pulling up to the gas dock I radioed into the marina:

“Scudder marina, Scudder marina, this is sailing vessel Bella Blue looking for a diesel fill.”

“This is Scudder marina, we don’t sell diesel.”

“Uhhhhhhhhhh. Ok. Uhhhhhh, do you know anybody that does?”

“The closest place is Leamington.”

“Ok, uhhh thanks. Bella Blue out, I guess.”

It was the shortest visit to Pelee Island ever. It may not even count as a visit as we didn’t touch the dock. I was so dumbfounded by this information that I forgot what I was doing and nearly drove the boat into the lighthouse. I had called here weeks before and spoke to a nice lady who told me transient dock reservations were not necessary and they did in fact sell diesel. So much for my project planning skills.

We were faced with a decision: backtrack to Leamington, which would burn up at least four hours, and put us into the heart of COVID-19 country, or push ahead and hope we had enough diesel to get to Windsor or find some place along the way that would sell us some. Of course, we took the more daring option, and the three of us sent off a flurry of texts and phone calls to identify a diesel seller as Bella Blue turned westward towards the mouth of the Detroit River. We eventually connected with the Amherstburg Yacht Club who confirmed they did sell diesel and would be open until 5pm. I did some calculations using the GPS chartplotter and figured that if we moved as fast as possible we just might be able to make it. Sadly, that left no time to stop for a swim in the 29 degree water, nor to throw out a fishing line, so to avoid a possible mutiny I made sure there was at least a bunch of cold beer available to make it feel a bit less like Mission Impossible and more like a party weekend with the boys.

The water current in the Detroit River was around 2 – 3 knots and with the engine chugging away and the sails up we averaged a speed of around 4 – 5 knots. Steaming up the river is an interesting ride as the Canada/US border runs right up the middle of it and you can compare the towering mansions on the US side with the cottages (or sometimes just ducks and weeds) on the Canadian side. After the peace and quiet of the Lake Erie crossing it is a jarring return to civilization with the constant buzz of activity on the river and boats everywhere. We motor hard, hour after hour, watching the estimated arrival time on the GPS chartplotter inch closer and closer to 5pm. At 4:30 we were within 3 miles. At 4:45 we could finally see the marina and gas dock in the distance. I put the throttle down to maximum and the Yanmar diesel worked even harder, and took us right into the gas dock, but the young fella at the gas dock didn’t seem to have a clue what he was doing and screwed up our lines on the first pass, so we did a loop around and stuck the landing on the second attempt. As the dock hand finished tying our lines with crude granny knots I checked the time - 4:59:40. Nothing like making it to your destination with 20 seconds to spare! I gassed up the boat, flipped the dock hand my credit card, and gave him a ten dollar tip, which Marty suggested (in range of our ears only) he use to buy a book on knots. We pulled out at 5:08, setting another record for the fastest boat fueling ever, and were on our way back up the river headed for Windsor.

Remember that fuel issue we fixed on the first day? Well it turned out our fix wasn’t that good because it was still leaking fuel into the engine compartment, which then drained into the bilge causing an awful smell and a real mess so we spent a hell of a long time dumping buckets of water into the bilge, then draining it to try and clean it up and get rid of the smell. I think I got some diesel in my nose, because I kept smelling diesel when nobody else did, but Adam proposed a solution. I should assign specific fingers for specific tasks to keep them separated. For example, the left index finger is for dipping into the bilge to test for diesel, while the right index finger is reserved for picking my nose. The left middle finger is for butt scratching, while the right middle finger is for greeting the marine police boats on the water. He also told me to use another finger for spreading mayonnaise on the sandwiches, and then another one for picking my teeth, but then I got them all confused and the sandwiches tasted like shit, mayonnaise clogged the bilge pump, I got diesel fingerprint stains on the bum of my shorts, and I started giving the pinky finger to the cops and they couldn’t figure what the hell that was all about.

After passing right by Detroit and Windsor and all the smoke belching factories, blackened industrial sites void of life, giant lake freighters, tourist sightseeing boats on the US side full of unmasked people all jammed together, the impressive General Motors head office, and the empty Caesar’s Casino on the Windsor side, we arrived at the Windsor Yacht Club and did a magnificent docking despite the swirling current, wind, and lack of light, capping off a lengthy 35 straight hours on the water. But with that, we were firmly back on schedule! We celebrated with a big steak dinner, a few beers, and then capped off the evening by hanging up a shower curtain in the cabin and using my new projector to watch the first 20 minutes of Blazing Saddles, a movie whose crude satire has matured into something even more wicked over the years.

By 6 the next morning we were up and back on the water. We had an amazing sail across Lake St Clair as the  strong, steady wind pushed Bella Blue’s rails nearly into the water and left us with that special feeling of being slightly out of control – an exhilarating feeling on a sailboat. For brekkie I whipped out the two frozen quiches that Stella and I made the week before, tossed them into the oven for 30 minutes, then we enjoyed a classy breakfast in the cockpit, and discussed the merits of real hardcore men like us eating egg pastry and agreed that it was A-OK.

The end of Lake St Clair led us into the St Clair River, and the colour transformation from the greyish brown water to the beautiful blue hue of the Lake Huron water was striking. Adam and Marty spent most of the time at the helm while I goofed around cleaning bilges, mopping up the boat, and tried to keep my finger functions straight. I also produced a mind blowing lunch for the lads by taking all the leftover food and crafting it into a proper English tea. We had a dazzling arrangement of double fried pierogies infiltrated with carrots, mature ham slices with cheese greased into damp hot dog buns with mustard and mayo, and of course the leftover cold quiche. Plus some cans of Mill Street Organic Lager to wash it all down. Shockingly, we ate everything, but that’s what good sailors do.

We spent a lovely day on the river, slowly winding our way up closer and closer to Sarnia, with the miles steadily dropping away, enjoying the sites from both countries. As usual, we arrived right on time – 15 minutes before the closing of the gas dock and office at the Bridgeview Marina at 4:45, and Ana and the kids were there to cheer us in. We filled up with diesel, pumped out the waste tank, paid for dockage, and then motored over to our assigned slip and got tied up. Within half an hour we had the boat cleaned, everything unloaded and packed into the van, and were on our way back to Paris headed for a final meal together and a few laughs at the Camp-31 Barbeque restaurant.

Cheers to another successful boat move with an amazing crew and a few unexpected surprises along the way. Thanks boys!

Next stop – the North Channel.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Are We Going Sailing? 100%!

The other day I was on a work call and somebody asked me if we should take a particular course of action. I said, “100%!” Then I stopped and thought, why the hell did I just say that? I don’t know if it’s just around here, or maybe all over Ontario, or maybe it’s country or continent-wide, but in the past six months or so people have replaced the words “Yes”, “For Sure”, “Absolutely” and “OK” with the term “100%”. And it’s always delivered with the utmost confidence, so that it actually means more than yes. It is an absolutely unwavering yes. It is like a blood pledge. If you say 100% then later it turns out to be wrong, I think it would really damage your reputation, whereas being wrong after a regular yes is no big Hollywood movie. I have yet to hear somebody to say 110%, but if they do then the profundity of that statement would be hard to comprehend.

Where on earth did this come from? And how has it leeched into our everyday speech without anybody noticing it? Are Americans saying it? How about the Aussies? I hope the Brits aren’t. I suppose it is the natural growth of the language, and the English language is known to be rather promiscuous, and not too concerned with the quality or sense of its evolution, unlike the French who police their language with assault rifles and tanks. I admit to being one of those people who gets a little picky about language. For example, earlier this year while visiting our friends down in Ellicottville, NY, Ana and I were browsing through the shops and I found what I believe to be the greatest shirt ever created. It was a white t-shirt with black letters on the front that said, “THERE. THEIR. THEY’RE.” I was ready to buy it until I realized it was nearly thirty bucks, which gets me almost exactly thirty t-shirts from Value Village so I sadly put it back on the rack. But I still dream about that inspiring product and hope they’re thinking of selling their shirts both there and here.

I suppose there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with saying 100% instead of yes, I would just like to know who thought it up and started spreading it around. Probably Kevin Bacon.

In other non-grammar related news, today Bella Blue departs for the first leg of her journey, with my brother Marty, my cousin-in-law Adam, and myself completing the crew. The weather in south-western Ontario has been hot and dry and beautiful for three weeks. The next four days (the expected duration of the sail from here to Sarnia) is expected to the thunderstormy, overcast, and wet. Then it goes back to sunny and hot. This is the story of sailing, and life really.

We’ve had our boat docked at our friends Tony and Angela’s cabin at Turkey Point for the past couple of weeks and have been busy with boat maintenance projects – fixing the wind instrument, tightening keel bolts, fixing leaks, changing hoses, replacing filters, refinishing wood, and so on. I had to climb up to the top of the mast twice – a terrifying job if there ever was one – but fortunately it stayed upright and I did not die. We installed a new spinnaker line which has opened up all sorts of possibilities for new fun and injuries on the boat. We tied an empty yellow Prestone antifreeze bottle to the end of it and used it as a fantastic rope swing. We used it to hoist the kids up in the boson’s chair while underway, allowing them to float around and get a lovely ride. In more practical terms, we’ll be able to use it to winch up our dingy onto the boat deck instead of how we used to do it, which usually resulted in crippling back spasms, scratches in the fiberglass, stretched life lines, and a lot of yelling and screaming.

So after all that work the Bella Blue is ready to sail. Marty has been with me on two previous boat moves and just last year Adam helped us sail her through the Welland Canal so I have no doubt this crew will take us through to our destination in fine form. We are looking at a few very long sailing days (traveling 450 kilometres over about 50 hours), but hopefully the winds are favourable, temperatures are good, boat performs well, beer stays cold, and we don’t get forked by lightning along the way.

Let's sail!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

How’s the COVID going, eh?

I am going to look back on this blog in ten years and wonder, “Why wasn’t I writing more about COVID and what it was like? It was quite a big deal.” I often look back at old blogs, thinking I’ll find my viewpoint or commentary on something important that happened in the past, but usually I don’t find anything. So this is a note directed to Future Kris. I don’t usually worry too much about Future Kris, in fact I can be downright mean to him sometimes. Like when there’s something important I need to do, but it doesn’t have to be done for several months, I will say, “Stuff that. I really don’t feel like doing it now – Future Kris will take care of it.” And he does. And hardly complains. But he can’t really, can he? Because Future Kris always turns into Present Kris, and then Present Kris wonders what the hell Past Kris was thinking when he procrastinated for so long. So Past Kris takes the blame, but Present Kris always has to clean up the shit, unless he manages to sluff it off to Future Kris again. It’s a vicious, but rather predictable cycle.

My last day of work in the office was March 16 which was over three months ago. Since then our world has completely changed – far more than during any of the previous Black Swans, such as the 911 attacks or the Great Recession. I have been working from home every day since then, as has Ana, and the kids have been learning remotely. We only go into shops when absolutely necessary and always wear masks. We don't have friends over. We haven't been able to hug our nieces or Ana's folks. When we watch tv, it seems unnatural seeing scenes with big crowds, or people at dinner parties, or bunches of kids hanging out together. We haven't been into a bar or restaurant. And we've explored every inch of ground for miles around during our lunchtime and evening walks. Nearly all of our time is spent at home.

And yet, we adjusted quickly and I must say that we have done well as a family and quite enjoyed the time together, minus the odd battle over personal space, computer access, cooking duties and that sort of thing. Stella has been laser-focused on her school work and has probably put in twice as much effort as she would have normally, to the point of it actually becoming a problem at times. But we are very proud of her dedication and unstoppable work ethic. Magnus has done the amount of school work required to get the grades he wants, and has devoted the rest of his time to developing new hobbies, in particular wood-working and knife-making. We have been so impressed with what he has done, and if it weren’t for the pandemic, he never would have developed these skills.

What are the long term consequences of this pandemic? I don’t know. I’d like to hope that we have a new appreciation for the simple things, and don’t feel the need to be constantly on the go, or out buying stuff, or otherwise racking up unnecessary miles. I hope we have rediscovered what it is like to live in a free country like Canada, where we can go where we want, see who we want, and do whatever we want at all times, because we’ve lived without these luxuries for the past three months. Set against the backdrop of COVID has been the Black Lives Matter movement and the worldwide protests against the systemic racism which exists everywhere, which has made us more aware of this serious issue and compelled us to analyze our own behaviors. Seeing how the pandemic has unfairly brought the majority of the damage to non-white, economically disadvantaged people, but also how most governments have stepped in to financially support their citizens has certainly brought some lessons too. Lastly, the environment. We’ve given the Earth a little break. Not much, but a little. I hope that people took notice of what it is like to live with less air pollution, less planes overhead, less traffic, and have reconnected with nature through the long walks that nearly everybody I know has been taking.

To me, this time has been a gift, and one that we may never see again in our lifetimes. Or maybe we will experience it regularly, nobody knows. But I for one am hoping that things never go back to “normal”, because this pandemic has shown us there are better ways to do things and that societies can change quickly and efficiently when it becomes necessary. And change is necessary. I hope we remember that as we begin the slow process of re-opening society.

Stella came up with this strange game the other day as we were all out for hike on one of the nature trails near home. She said, “I’ll name an animal and you guys have to say what it represents in the world.” She named off a few animals and we answered – the cardinal represented freedom, the bee represented how we’re doing things that would have seemed impossible before, and so on. Then she mentioned chipmunks. This year there have been chipmunks everywhere – dozens of them running around everywhere you look. Ana’s research told us it was because of the mild winters and the resulting abundance of acorns that chipmunks thrive on. So Stella says, “What do chipmunks represent?”

Magnus says, “Abandoned plans.”

He was spot on. Our own family’s abandoned plans include a four week trip to Malaysia, Borneo, and Bali which we have been planning for over a year. And because of the popularity of Borneo and Bali at this time of year, we were forced to book nearly all of our hotels and flights in advance, something we never do on these trips as we prefer spontaneity and to book as we go. So Ana’s been battling with the airlines and hotels to get refunds and the battle continues, but if anybody can do it, she can.

We weren’t going to let our four weeks of vacation go to waste, so we decided to instead put the sailboat in the water this year and do a trip up to Georgian Bay and the North Channel of Lake Huron. We’ve spend the past few weekends working on the boat, getting it all ready for the trip, and Magnus and I just put her in the water today. This will be the longest sailing trip we’ve ever done so we are both giddy with anticipation but also a little apprehensive over the required long sailing days and nights we will need to do. I’ve recruited my brother Marty and cousin-in-law Adam to help me sail her from Port Dover to Sarnia as the first leg of the journey, then the family and I will leave the following weekend for the full trip. Our favourite traveling companions, the Henriques, will be meeting up with us along the way, and we are looking forward to many exciting days on the water. If you are not a boater you probably don’t know that the word “exciting” is actually a code word for “boat disaster”, because you know one or both boats are going to break down, but you just don’t know what the exact breakdown will be, how much the repairs will cost, or how badly it will screw up the trip. That’s the exciting part!

This trip will give us a chance to forget about Covid-19 for a little while, ignore the media-revved stupidity and chaos coming from our neighbours from the south, take a break from work, and spend some quality time together as a family. HA! As if we haven’t been doing enough of that lately, but now we’re going to jam all that family love into 150 square feet of claustrophobic boat space with kids who are physically twice the size as they were the last time we did this. We are always up for a challenge.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Cake’s “Prolonging the Magic”

After nearly two weeks of prodding, poking, and analyzing my musical genetic code I have realized that at this point in my life (over halfway through) there are 13 essential albums that sum up what I like in music. If I really thought about I could probably find a few more, for example I do like classical guitar, symphonies, funk, retro swing, bluegrass, and some pop, but I could probably live quite happily without these if I had to.

My final album is Cake’s “Prolonging the Magic” (but it could have been any Cake release) and this album and choice represents all the bands I love that don’t fit cleanly into a category. Every time I start writing these journals I think of another band I like, and I was usually able to fit them into one of the earlier sets, but I ended up with this list of bands that just didn’t fit anywhere. And that is why they are so special. The best music is the kind that cuts across boundaries, and surprises us, and challenges us, and isn’t always easily understood. I could say the same thing about the best people that I know.

Cake is a band from Sacramento, California led by a guy named John McCrea who looks like any regular blue collar hoser you would see filling up their blue Chevy with gas at Costco. He’s not a great singer, nor is he a great guitar player, but he creates magic with both and writes some of the craftiest, cutting, most vivid and sometimes impenetrable lyrics of any musician out there. Cake has never really broken through into the mainstream, and I think they like it that way because they command a small army of cultish devoted fans. I’ve only seen them play once, at the Ottawa Bluesfest with my brother Marty. The singer was playing a guitar that he might have picked up at a garage sale on the way to the show for twenty bucks. But it was all he needed to make his point. The band is completed by a solid drummer, an amazing bass player and a trumpeter that completes the Cake sound.

I discovered Frank Zappa only after he had been dead for twenty years. I listened to a radio series called “Alpha Beta Zappa” on the listener-supported CKUA station out of Edmonton (best station in the world). I became a fan instantly and worked my way through his bizarre, scatological, sex-charged, profane, and anti-establishment catalogue, wincing with every new obscene discovery.  Despite the strangeness of it all, I learned that Zappa hired only the best musicians to perform with him and you can hear it in the music.

Listen to a Doors album. It sounds experimental and exciting, despite being recorded over 50 years ago. Not everything they wrote was fantastic, but much of it was so out there and so ahead of its time that it is timeless. No other band has been able to successfully pick up where the Doors left off.

The Mars Volta is (was, is?) an experimental, progressive, psychedelic rock band whose main members Omar and Cedric have produced such a massive quantity of music that it’s hard to comprehend. Their music is challenging and sometimes hard to understand, and it sounds like it came from another dimension.

The first time I became aware of Gogol Bordello was the soundtrack from the movie “Everything is Illuminated” which featured the singer of the band Eugene Hutz as an obnoxious but sweet Ukrainian tour guide who successfully butchers the English language. This New York City based gypsy-punk band is a collection of ragamuffin immigrants from all over the world that tours constantly and cause mayhem wherever they go through their passionate high octane live shows and revolutionary music that is thick with accordion, violin, guitar, and fire buckets. They tell the story of living as an outsider, trying to make it in the world, but struggling to stay authentic. Don’t all of us feel like that sometimes? I am infatuated with this band.

Lastly, Beck. Here is one outsider that has broken through to the mainstream, but still somehow feels like he is not really in the club. His sound changes from album to album, sometimes folky, sometimes electronic, sometimes country, sometimes rock, but always experimental. He sounds like he is persistently searching for something he never quite finds and leaves it up to us try and figure it out.

Music is one of the most important parts of my life. Just like the soundtrack to a movie can make all the difference, the soundtrack to one’s life flavours everything we do. I attach myself to people who are also infatuated with music, such as my brother-in-law Mark who has turned me onto so many amazing bands and is a damn encyclopedia of musical history.

One day Magnus stopped me in my tracks with something he said. He told me, “Dad, I realized something about friendship. Good friends will tell you about cool things, introduce you to new people, and take you to new places. But great friends introduce you to new music.”

How true.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Bob Marley’s “Legend”

Reggae music is the sound of summer. My happy place is being on my sailboat on Lake Erie, anchored out for lunch with friends or family aboard, a cold beer in my hand, and Bob Marley playing on the stereo. Life is never better than during those moments and I treasure them every time they happen.

Reggae music was originally the sound of Jamaica, but the overwhelming popularity of reggae has spread far and wide over the years and you can hear reggae in pretty much any country on earth. Bob Marley and the Wailers were the biggest reason for this, and this global proliferation of Jamaican culture didn’t stop at reggae – it also included Rastafarianism, dreadlocks, and the love of the ganja weed. Additionally, there are massively popular offshoots of the reggae genre, such as dub, hip hop, dancehall, and reggaeton.

I really do not remember the first time I heard Bob Marley, but I do remember the last time – this week. And it’s always “this week”. There is no more popular go-to band in the Olson household than Bob Marley. When I think back to some of the most memorable times in my life, many of them were enjoyed to sounds of his music. I even started a reggae band last year with a bunch of friends and we jammed mainly Bob Marley tunes, buuuut we got too good too fast and the power and beauty of the music frightened us so much that we thought continuing on would lead to fame and fortune and jeopardize our regular lives, so we put that band in hiatus. Once we are ready as a group for this inevitable worldwide domination, we will be back.

To be honest, I have not dug deeply into the reggae genre, beyond other top shelf reggae artists such as Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and Burning Spear. But with the advent of these amazing online streaming services, I usually just pull up one of the hundreds of reggae playlists, crank it up, and don’t have a clue who I am listening to most of the time. But it’s all good.

Bob Marley’s music has led me to plenty of other artists that may not be strictly reggae, but certainly are cut from the same cloth. A British artist named Finlay Quaye released an album in 1997 called “Maverick A Strike” and this could very well be my favourite album of all time across all genres. It’s that good. Jack Johnston’s lazy, playful, mellowed-out tunes are no stranger to our playlists. For something a little bit harder, I love Sean Paul’s reggaeton vibes and one of my favourite albums ever is “Emigrante” from Cuban band Orishas, which is kinda reggae but entirely amazing.

Now excuse me while I crack a cold one, light up a spleef, and cue some Bob!

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Corb Lund's "Five Dollar Bill"

I’ve never much liked country music. At all really. And it wasn’t for lack of exposure – as a kid there was plenty of country music around. My folks played an album by Alabama a lot, plus one by the Charlie Daniels Band with that crazy fiddle tune "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". And of course Kenny Rogers. And there might have been a bit of Willie Nelson now and again. But they weren’t big country music fans. As a kid I spent a lot of time in my parents’ home town of Foam Lake (population 1,123), where you’d think country music must run through their veins. But I heard a lot more Kiss, AC/DC, and April Wine than country back then, coming from the open truck windows of the vehicles cruising up and down Main Street.

But then one day in 2002 my brother Curt whipped out this cd and said I just had to listen to it. He said it was country, and the guys’s name was Corb Lund. I eyed him suspiciously, because I knew he liked country even less than me. Then I heard the opening lyrics, “I wrote my new song on a five dollar bill…” and heard the tale of an Albertan bootlegger running whisky across the border to the US, where he stole five bucks from a good ole boy who later stole it back. At first I wasn’t sure. Then something clicked. And I had found the first country album I liked, and would later come to love.

I’m still not entirely sure what I like about Corb Lund’s music. The lyrics are fantastic, rich with detail, clever, and each song tells a story. A real story, or at least that’s how it feels. Plus the music is good, with some fine guitar work and ripping stand-up bass. It could be his voice too. He sounds like a kid I went to Sunday school with back in Foam Lake. Actually he reminds me of everybody I went to Sunday school with in Foam Lake. Genuine. A bit guarded. Resilient. The capacity for craziness.

Where did my explorations of the country genre go from here? Not very far. I like some Johnny Cash stuff, but especially that album where he did a bunch of covers, including “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarden which was a masterpiece. And Sturgill Simpson, who started out as a country guy but it was all a ploy because deep down he’s no country guy at all – he’s a progressive rock, musical explorer and made the best album of 2019 – “Sound & Fury”, which followed the best album of 2016 – “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”.

What I’ve learned from Corb Lund is that you may not like a genre of music, but if you wait awhile the genre might change to better suit your tastes. Or what’s more likely, is that you might change to better suit the genre.

In any case, you know when you hear good music, genre be damned.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Jarabe De Palo’s “La Flaca”

Ana and I met in The Bahamas in 1998 and after a wild and exciting 6 month courtship she decided to leave her apartment, quit her job, give away her cat, and say goodbye to Canada to come and join me on my next contract job - in El Salvador.

Neither of us had ever traveled in Central America, nor spoke a word of Spanish beyond “La cerveza mas fina” which is imprinted on every Corona beer bottle. I had never paid any attention whatsoever to Latino music as I really hadn’t been exposed to much of it and it simply didn’t interest me. Well, it doesn’t take long living in a Latin American country to realize that music is an integral piece of the social fabric and encapsulates so much of what it means to be Hispanic.

Since we were living a Marriot hotel room in San Salvador we spent a lot of time out and about in cafes, bars and restaurants and were soon saturated with Latino music. At first it all sounded the same, but as I heard more and more of it I started to recognize some of the songs. One song in particular caught my attention and I kept hearing it everywhere so finally asked a server in a restaurant what song it was. She told me, “La Flaca” then also said the name of the band but I couldn’t make out what she was saying, never mind try to write it down. So I asked my Spanish teacher Hugo about the song and he immediately started singing it and then we used it as a project to translate the lyrics into English. The song, by Jarabe De Palo is about a man who would give anything for a single kiss from a skinny woman he sees in the bar who dances and drinks all night long and never gets fat. I would soon realize that every Latino song is about love or dancing or usually both.

We lived in the Caribbean and Central America for several years and learned to love Latino music of all types – salso, merengue, bachata, Latin pop, Latin rock, reggaeton. Some of artists we discovered during this time were Elvis Crespo, Shakira (her first albums were amazing), Mana, Gipsy Kings, Daddy Yankee, Paulina Rubio, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Molotov, and so many more. The time spent in the Caribbean also exposed me to soca music and I since then I have been a closet soca fan – especially the music of Square One. And although he really doesn’t fit into this category, Jimmy Buffett has been a constant presence in my playlists for years. Nothing captures the magic of the Caribbean and the pull of the ocean quite like the ballads of Jimmy Buffett.

Our winter trips to Cuba give us an annual January dose of Latino magic and there’s nothing better than hearing that ping-ping-ping of the bachata as you enjoy that first all-inclusive drink while your pasty white skin sizzles from the powerful sun. Latin music is like an infection that never goes away once you catch it, but is a fine infection indeed.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Portishead’s “Dummy”

Trip Hop – “a fusion of hip and hop and electronica until neither one is recognizable.”
Trip Hop – “dance music for the head, rather than the feet.”
Trip Hop – “the Bristol sound”

It was 2002 when Ana and I set out on a round-the-world backpacking trip, and one of our early stops was South Africa where we spent six weeks exploring the country. One of many beautiful towns we visited was St Lucia, located on the eastern coast and the sort of place where you can see a hippo or crocodile saunter across the road and not be too surprised. We were staying at Bib’s International Backpackers – a beautifully stereotypical budget hostel where you felt like a member of the family as soon as you walked through the door. Now this was in the days before smart phones, when travelers used to actually talk to each other, and I remember one evening we were relaxing and chatting with others in the common gathering area of the hostel after a particularly long day of touring a local game park. I remember sitting in a big comfy chair, with a cold Castle beer, surveying my enviable surroundings, and listening to the creeped out sounds of Portishead oozing in through the speakers. Despite being past their commercial peak, during those months it seemed like every hostel we visited was playing Portishead on constant repeat. There is something about that music that strikes a chord with backpackers, and it certainly struck a chord with me. It is hypnotic, engrossing, gritty, and irresistible. The genre was called trip hop, but besides Massive Attack and Tricky, I didn’t dive too deeply into other trip hop bands. Portishead was enough for me. I think I bought my first Portishead album in the UK in 1996 and was somewhat of a fan before that trip, but music discovered (or re-discovered) and consumed during life changing trips tends to impact one’s soul more than normal.

It is hard to draw a straight line between Portishead and anybody else, but I’m going to going out on a limb and name a few bands that I tend to gravitate to before or after listening to Portishead. Morcheeba is another British group and was introduced to me by my buddy James Hooley, turning me into a huge fan. Bjork has done some amazing albums, but my favourite one by far is “Dancer in the Dark” – a soundtrack from the movie of the same name and one of the most impactful, sad, and tortured albums I own. On it she does a stunning duet with Thom York from Radiohead, a band I’ve been listening to since “The Bends” but went full scale Radiohead freak after the “OK Computer” and “Kid A” albums. I went through a phase in the 90’s with my buddy Evan when practically all we listed to was Enya, and despite her rarely putting out anything new, I still listen to her music all the time. The unmistakable Lhasa de Sela, rest her soul, takes me on a spiritual journey every time I listen to “La Llorona” or “The Living Road”.

This may be a stretch, but there are three bands I’ve been addicted to for years that somehow seem to fit into this category – Gorillaz, Beck, and Queens of the Stone Age. Gorillaz for their innovative hip hop vibe and surprises bursting forth on every album. Queens for the dense wall of instrumentation and somber themes, and Beck for his profound catalogue of mysterious sounds and visionary lyrics. These bands express the most vital elements of trip hop but are decidedly not in that genre.

Lastly, I love so many bands that fit nowhere else but in this category of music, such as A Tribe Called Red, Tame Impala, War on Drugs, Beast, The Knife, Vacationer, Roosevelt and especially Toronto based Austra. These are all my go-to music for the post-party late-night listening sessions, which don’t happen very often these days, but when they do, that’s what’s on the playlist…mixed in with some Portishead.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Dance Mix UK

I left Canada in 1995 as a 23 year old prairie boy ready to take on the world. After a whirlwind backpacking trip through Europe I landed in London, England and shacked up with my buddies Stillman and Colin from university. It was a time of great change in my life. Goodbye rye & coke, hello pints of warm beer. Goodbye jeans and t-shirt, hello business suit. Good riddance frigid winters, hello rain and lukewarm gloom year round. Goodbye peanut butter, hello Marmite. But mostly, I had to part ways with rock and metal and start experiencing new music. I realized quite quickly that living in a big city meant you went clubbing, and when you went clubbing, there was dance music. Of course I just called it “dance music” as a negative term because I had previously through dance music was for losers. But when you find yourself in the Ministry of Sound nightclub wearing classy club clothes, with the bass driving your heartbeat, mood-altering substances coursing through your body, surrounded by beautiful people, and dancing like nobody is watching, your opinion of electronic music evolves rapidly indeed.

I started to listening to electronic music regularly and discovered a world of exciting sounds and beats I never knew existed. Trance, techno, dubstep, house, drum and bass, downtempo, chill –it was all new and very exciting to me. But I happened to be in the UK right during the resurgence of Brit Pop, when British bands were sounding more British again, and carving out new sounds, rivalries, and fans across the Atlantic and further. Oasis was everywhere, with Wonderwall blasting out of nearly every bar you passed by. I also listened to Blur, Pulp, Ocean Colour Scene, Placebo, Chemical Brothers, Stone Roses, The Prodigy, Travis, The Verve, and Supergrass.

This led to a much better appreciation for "danceable" music and I found bands such as Chromeo, Daft Punk, and David Guetta whose music is perfect for those situations when you just gotta get on the dance floor.

It was an exciting time in my life and I’d probably never experienced as much new music as I did during those 18 months in London. And much of it stuck with me.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”

The Master of Puppets, he’s pulling your strings.

While I was deep into the 80’s hair bands, I slowly began discovering metal music. My brother Marty was way ahead of me as he had been introduced to Slayer and Metallica by his buddy Todd Tarasoff years before that. I didn’t care for it at first, but like all music, it starts to grow on you the more you listen to it. It was so much more powerful than the glam metal, and it seemed like these bands had more to say, and played faster, harder, and with more precision. I think my brother loaned me his “Master of Puppets” cassette, so I cut my teeth on that one and then consumed all the rest greedily.

After savouring Metallica’s discography, I moved onto Anthrax, Megadeth, Sepultura, Pantera and explored the thrash and groove metal genres. Then the grunge metal scene was born and after hearing Alice in Chain’s “Facelift”, I was obsessed. My buddy Evan Wappel was the first guy who bought that album and it blew our minds. It was slower than the metal music I was used to, but just as heavy, and the lyrics were darker, grimmer, and in some cases decidedly disturbing. I didn’t like all of the grunge bands and stuck mainly with Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, and the other Chris Cornell offshoots.

The death of the grunge era birthed a new genre of music called nu metal and I dove into bands such as Slipknot, Korn, Linkin Park, Rage Against the Machine, Soulfly, and especially System of a Down. Our kids were barely walking when System of a Down came out and I’d take them downstairs and teach them all the classic metal moves – devil horns, neck rotations, the “windmill” guitar strum, the scissor kick, and mosh pit elbowing, usually to System of a Down cranked to 9 and I’d just scream over the music whenever the eff-shots came up in the lyrics. The kids loved it, although I’ve failed miserably at turning either of them into metalheads.

Along the way many progressive metal acts surfaced and I love bands like Ghost, Baroness, Animals as Leaders, Tauk, Umphrey’s McGee, Russian Circles, and Opeth, but truly worship Tool and Mastodon. In fact the Tool album “Undertow” was nearly the choice for this post…it’s so hard picking just one.

As I get older, my metal interests seem to be going in one direction – heavier. My morning playlists usually contain songs by Cannibal Corpse, Amon Amarth, Gorguts, Behemoth, Death, Slipknot, and always Gojira – my current favourite metal band.

I met a right cool dude named Chris T at a party our friends Dave and Silvia were having a few years ago and we started talking music and I learned he was the guitarist/vocalist in a metal band called “With Authority”. I was intrigued and we talked about his band and the metal scene in Toronto. I then asked him what metal bands he liked and he started naming off bands and genres I’d never heard of, so I grabbed my phone and started hastily taking notes. I then asked, “What other sorts of music do you listen to?”

“Just metal,” he replied.

“Just metal?”

“Just metal.”

“So you don’t listen to any classic rock, no progressive rock, nothing like Rush or any experimental stuff, or even any pop or electronica?”
He looked at me and said, “Just metal.”

Now there’s a guy dedicated to the genre!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Rush’s “Chronicles” and Primus’s “Sailing the Seas of Cheese”

You may be thinking, “Hey, why did he include two albums here?” I will answer this as well as I can. You see there is no need to differentiate Rush and Primus because they are the same band. You heard me right. But you may not understand, so allow me to elaborate.

The reason they are the same band is because once you discover Rush or Primus there is nowhere else to go. The journey ends at Primus and Rush. You never hear somebody say, “Yeah, I discovered Rush, but that just led me to (insert random band name here)”. Once you discover Rush, you don’t need to go anywhere else. You have everything you could ever possibly need. You may have thought of your musical journey as an infinite line that just kept expanding forever into the future, but the line stops at Rush. There is nothing else to move onto. Except maybe Primus.

I don’t even remember when I heard my first Rush song, but I do know the first cassette I bought was the double set “Chronicles” which was sort of a greatest hits package released in 1990. From there I moved on to a bunch of the early stuff then worked my way through the entire catalogue. And I don’t use that term “worked” lightly, because it is work. You don’t really get Rush the first time you hear them. It takes time and if you don’t devote enough of it to the band, then you will probably never get them. There have been times in my life where I have gone for months listening to nothing other than Rush, then I will put them down for a while, but it’s never long before I return for another fix. Sadly, the drummer Neal Peart died of brain cancer this year so Rush as a band no longer exists, saddening millions of fanatical, cultish fans all around the world. There is simply no other band that has put out so much challenging and original work for so long and kept it up right until the end, which was never going to be anything other than the death of one of the members.

I do remember hearing my first Primus song. It was during university and in the home of Jon Bath, who lived there with fellow North Battlefordians Evan Wappel and Ryan Tondevold. This place was such a dump that it would have taken 50 grand worth of renovations to upgrade it to a shithole. There was all sorts of weirdness going on in that house all the time, but I never heard anything weirder than when Jon put on “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” by this band called Primus and freaked us all out by making us listen to the whole thing. I started having clown nightmares shortly after that. But I grew to love the band dearly. And the bass player/singer Les Claypool has done things with the bass guitar hitherto unknown on Earth and probably throughout the rest of the universe. And who does he claim as his main inspiration? You guessed it – Rush’s bass player/singer Geddy Lee. See, they are the same band.

I will finish with a story. My first big backing trip was in Europe when I was 23. I was exploring Rome when I found out Primus was playing the next night in Vienna. So I jumped on the train and spent 15 or 20 hours traveling to Austria. I miraculously found the small club, but the show had already started. And worse, the concert was sold out and there were no tickets left. The best I could do was to gather with the rest of the unfortunate fans in the back alley of the venue with our ears pressed up against a set of locked doors listening to the sweet mayhem going on inside. One of the dudes couldn’t take it anymore and pushed everyone out of the way then ran at the doors and drop kicked them, breaking the lock, and we all watched in amazement as they swung open, spilling out hot human vapours and clouds of marijuana smoke. We pushed in as fast as we could and before I knew it I was riding the wave of bliss in the mosh pit getting pulverized. The place was so packed that some people had climbed the walls and were hanging off of lights and balconies. Les Claypool was up there with a giant fan blowing on him and he was ripping on the bass in a frenzy of madness and delight. I had never been happier in my life and it was the best rock show I’ve ever seen.

The music of Rush and Primus has taught me to never be afraid of challenging music. Within the challenge lies great rewards.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Extreme’s “Extreme”

Did you realize that you used to pay $56 for a cd back in the 80’s? Adjusting for inflation, this was the average cost of a single album cd when they were exploding in popularity. But the way I like to think about it is this - with a minimum wage of around $4 in 1984, a young person would have to work for approximately 5 to 6 hours to afford to buy one cd. Now, in 2020 with a minimum wage of $14 per hour, a young person can work just one hour and afford a month’s worth (that’s 730 hours) of unlimited listening to practically any album ever recorded, using a service like Spotify or Apple Music. Type in any song or artist and it magically pops up. That is so mind-bendingly incredible that it is hard to fathom, never mind explain this concept to a young person now. Buying a cd back in the day was a major decision because you could only afford to buy one or two per month, so you took the utmost care in what you chose because buying a dud could result in months of remorse and double shifts at the convenience store. In Europe, the prices were even worse – this weekend I came across an old receipt from when we lived in the Netherlands, and in 2002 I paid 22 euro for a Starsailor cd – that’s something like $35 in Canadian funds!

The first cd I ever bought was Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” and I remember paying $25 bucks for it from Sam the Record Man in Saskatoon. My mom and dad had spent a fortune on a ghetto blaster with a cd player, but when I put that cd on and the opening guitar rang out, those long hours I had to work to afford it was were all worthwhile as the sound was so much better than cassette tapes (into which I had invested a small fortune).

When it comes to hair metal, I could easily list out dozens of influential albums I loved, but the one I am choosing to represent them all is Extreme’s self-titled debut. Their image wasn’t stupid like many of them (Stryper anybody?), the singing was solid and not off-putting, they didn’t wear makeup, the guitar playing was nutso, and they weren’t overly popular yet. During that time in my life I was spending most of my time with my buddies Darren Bessette, Martin Lepage, and Jemal Kobussen driving around in our crappy, yet awesome, first cars, blasting the music as loud as the stereo would go. I had also met a crazy dude from Denmark – Martin Olsen - who had been banished by his family for various misdeeds and sent to live with his uncle in Saskatoon. A damning punishment indeed – especially when his first month was February. He started hanging around with us and LOVED Extreme, just like we did. 

Remember, it wasn’t called “hair metal” or “glam metal” back then – I think we just called it hard rock. Many (most) of those albums haven’t aged that well (Tora Tora, Bulletboys, Poison, Cinderella, Ratt, Warrant, Bang Tango, Tesla, Britny Fox, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns, and Lord Tracy are a few that come to mind) but some of them have, including Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, Skid Row, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, and Aerosmith.

I have never lost my love of glam metal, but my tastes certainly have moved onto much heavier and more extreme rock genres. But without that early exposure to glam metal, I’d probably still be listening to Wang Chung and Tears for Fears.

Lastly, just this past week I made a startling confession to my family. I have this strange thing where there’s almost always a song playing in my head, over and over again. And there’s one song that’s stuck in there about 90% of the time. That song is Smoke Signals by Extreme. Specifically, it’s the guitar riff at the beginning of the song. Thankfully it’s a masterful intro, so I don’t mind it, but this is why Extreme is never far from my mind.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Does anybody remember the sex scene in the movie, “An American Werewolf in London”? I think it was probably the first movie sex scene I saw as a kid, but I was so young I probably didn’t even know what was going on. But I do remember loving the song that was playing in the background while they were rubbing up against each other in the steamy shower, although it took me years to figure out what song it was. You see, this was in the days before the internet, so you couldn’t just go to Google and type “song playing during sex scene in werewolf movie” and BANG, the answer magically appears. I didn’t realize at the time that you could wait until the ending credits to see the song names, so many years went by before I figured it out. It was “Moondance” by Van Morrison.

While there is no doubt that “Moondance” is a magnificent album, I feel that the greatest song ever written and performed in the history of mankind is on this album. “Into the Mystic” is a magical song and one that takes me on a spiritual journey every time I hear it. It’s a song about religion. It’s a song about sailing. It’s a song about enduring love. It’s a song about longing, but also hope. It is a song about death. The bass line is gorgeous, the piano is sparse but perfectly placed, the vocals are heartfelt and true, and there are maracas and horns, and guitar fingerpicking throughout, with simple guitar strumming layered in. The drums are understated and perfect, including the beautiful rhythm on the symbol at the start of the song that makes you feel like you are embarking on a long, difficult journey, but are ready for it. The mixing is incredible and there are sounds coming at you from all directions, at just the right time. The song builds, and grows thicker, and by the end instead of wanting for more, you feel fulfilled. If you are down, it lifts you up and carries you forward. If you are feeling good, it makes you feel better. When I listen to this song all my pain and worries drift away and I’m left with a sense of stillness. This is the song I want to be played at my funeral.

And Van Morrison did all this in three minutes and twenty-six seconds.

This discovery led me to purchase several Van Morrison albums (including the indescribable “Astral Weeks”), but also music from “Them”, his original band, whose monster hit songs like “Gloria”, “Brown Eyed Girl”, and “Here Comes The Night” really brought Van Morrison to prominence.  But the greatest impact the bluesy/soul/gospel/folk music of Van Morrison had on me was leading me into the world of jazz where I discovered the music of the jazz masters like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane, but also newer jazz influenced artists - especially Sade, who holds a prominent place in our family playlists. I’ve never become a hip cat, daddy-o, jazz buff that can list off the best jazz percussionists or saxophone players by memory, but I do love the genre, and if you’ve ever joined us for dinner at our home, you are well acquainted with Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” album whether you knew it or not, as that is my go-to standard for dinner party music! 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Paul Simon’s “Graceland”

Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, released in 1986, was what one might now call a Black Swan - its success was totally unpredictable, it had a massive impact, and in retrospect its impact almost looked predictable. This album directly resulted in the birth of the term “world music”, a term that would stick hard and only now 35 years later, has finally become irrelevant.

As youngsters, my parents did play music at home and in the car, but they were not obsessive about music, nor were they really that picky, and they certainly didn’t make a point of exposing us to any particular style of music they wanted us to like. So we listened to a lot of generic, mainstream stuff such as Hall and Oates, Journey, Elvis, Chicago, Electric Light Orchestra, Queen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, J. Guiles Band, Steve Miller, CCR, and Nazareth but also Canadian bands like Loverboy, Chilliwack, The Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot and Bryan Adams. It was all good, but mainly a white bread musical diet.

But in 1986 my dad brought home this Graceland album and we simply didn’t know what to make of it. There was African chanting, elaborate percussion, hooting and howling, twangy and trebled out guitars, unusual chords, bizarre instruments, and lyrics thick with spine tingling imagery, exotic words, and stories so poignant that they cannot have been imagined. I can’t remember if we liked it right way (I suspect not), but we all learned to love it, and I distinctly remember air guitaring madly to the bass solo in “You Can Call Me Al”.

This album was, without a doubt, my first exposure to world music. And I think it really laid the groundwork for enabling me to appreciate so many different kinds of music. I’ve been fortunate to have travelled to and lived in a lot of different countries around the world, and a highlight of these travels has been the music. While traveling it might be possible to bypass the local music and stick to your Guns ‘n Roses set list, but I think that experiencing the “Graceland” album as a kid helped me to absorb local music with an open ear and discover so many amazing artists from all over the world. I’ve discovered Eastern European gypsy music, Bollywood soundtracks, Punjabi dance music, Spanish rock, Jewish klezmer, Caribbean soca, Jamaican dub, Norwegian death metal, Mongolian throat metal, and Peruvian pan flutes. Just kidding on the last one – I HATE Peruvian pan flutes.

Several of my favourite "world music" bands actually hail from Canada or have strong ties to it. Jeszcze Raz is a Montreal based band that plays a mix of klezmer, gypsy and French accordion music and the singer Paul Kunigis bounces back and forth effortlessly between Hebrew, French, Polish, and Arabic. Lhasa de Sela was a genius songwriter who also bounced between several languages and released three haunting, beautiful albums.

With the advent of music streaming services now you don't even need to leave your comfy chair to discover new and amazing types of music from around the world.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Red Hot Chili Peppers “The Red Hot Chili Peppers”

One day, sometime in the mid to late 80’s, I paid a visit to my grandparents at their condo in Saskatoon. I was looking around in my grandpa’s office as he always had cool stuff in there – stacks of coin and stamp books, Life and National Geographic magazines, old war photos, and if I dug around in the drawers, the discoveries became even more wondrous. But during this particular visit, sitting on top of a filing cabinet were two cassettes, which I learned had been “stored” there (which probably meant “abandoned”) by my uncle Michael who has always had a keen sense of music and has turned me on to many amazing bands since then. The first cassette was Men at Work’s “Business As Usual” and I’d already heard of this band as they were getting radio play and I liked their music. In fact, the first concert I ever attended was a Men at Work show in Saskatoon with my mom, but it only happened because my dad got called out of town unexpectedly for work and couldn’t go with her. I only remember flashes of the concert, but  it really came full circle 20 years later when Ana and I attended a show by Colin Hay, the singer from Men at Work, at the Ironwood Bar and Grill in Calgary, Alberta. He put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen (incredible voice and hilarious stories), for a crowd of less than a hundred people. After the show, I walked up and talked to him and told him about my first concert experience and he was so happy to hear it. I didn’t expect he would remember one show of the thousands they probably played, but he told me he remembered that show well because Canada was one of the first countries they played in when they started getting famous and they received an amazing reception in Saskatoon and everywhere else they played. He also said he I was very lucky that my first concert had been with my mom! I’ve been a huge Men at Work/Colin Hay fan since then.

The second cassette was the Red Hot Chili Peppers self-titled debut. I’d never heard of the band, but I assumed they must be pretty cool if my uncle bought it. Now, you’re probably thinking I stole the two cassettes from my grandpa’s office, took them home, and listened to them until they melted. But that was not the case. I wouldn’t really rediscover the Red Hots until years later, and I think the first album I bought was The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. After buying one, I was hooked, but not just me – my two brothers Marty and Curtis became rabid Chilis fans. For a few years those albums were practically all we listened to. We even had my grandma make us a blanket with the Red Hot Chili Peppers band logo on it which was awesome, but made even more badass when grandma accidently spelled it “Chile”. We also made a giant Chili Peppers banner that we used to hang up in the house and take to parties when we wanted to get crazy.

Their sound was fresh, vulgar, spastic, intense, and funny. The singer Anthony Kiedis couldn’t sing worth a damn and still can’t (although he tries much harder now), but what a front man! Of course Flea is one of the most famous bass players in the world and he took the slapping/popping technique to a different punk rock fueled level. The guitarists and drummers would come and go with the band, but all were epic players. The best Chilis poster ever made displays the band members totally naked except for the dirty  sport socks cloaking their packages, a move we would try to replicate many times over the years under the influence of alcohol, but never quite get right.

This band ignited the love of the bass guitar in me, and I probably started playing bass because of their music. Once you love the bass, it will be the first instrument you hear in any song. From the Chilis I’d dive into so many other bass-led bands such as Primus, Rush, Cake, Tool, The Police, and Morphine. I’d be lying if I said I’ve followed the Chili Peppers throughout their entire career, as I haven’t been interested in much of anything they have done after Blood Sugar Sex Magik and One Hot Minute as their lost a lot of their youthful vigor and experimentation and stopped singing about magical dolphins, true men not killing coyotes, skinny sweaty men, purple stains, and police helicopters and instead started singing about love and other adult topics, which is way too grown up for me.

I’ve seen the Chili Peppers play live twice, the second time was in Amsterdam during the One Hot Minute tour, and it was nuts. The stadium with thick with marijuana smoke and got me instantly stoned without smoking a thing. The band played the latter part of the concert completely naked and I was so close to the front I was getting hit by droplets of sweat from Flea’s nutsack. It happened to be Flea’s birthday so at the end of the show some roadies came out singing Happy Birthday with a cake that they shoved in his face, which turned into a full band cake fight, and since they were in a violent mood they turned on their instruments and completely destroyed the drum kit by beating it to pieces with their guitars. Fucking punk rock!

Friday, May 15, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Led Zeppelin Boxed Set

In 1990 a four CD boxed set of remastered Led Zeppelin tracks was released and it was carefully curated collection of songs that chronologically tracked the band’s development and experimentation. I am sure my folks must have played Led Zeppelin albums at home, but the first time the band came to my attention was when I heard Heartbreaker on the radio. I asked my dad what band that was because I loved the song and wanted to buy the album, thinking it was a new release. Of course, he laughed and told me they had been around for a long time, but encouraged me to buy the album and said, “If you buy one, you will end up buying them all.” And I did. So by the time the boxed set came out I already owned every Led Zeppelin cassette (thanks Columbia House!) and listened to them all the time. But the boxed set was special because their best tunes were consolidated into just 4 cds, and you could pick a cd to match your mood. If you were in a party mood, you put on the first one and were hit with “Whole Lotta Love”, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “Dazed and Confused”, and “Ramble On”. If you wanted to learn some new and interesting guitar chords and practice your harmonies, you put on the second one and could get absorbed in “Tangerine”, “Over the Hills and Far Away”, and “Gallows Pole”. Feeling melancholy, suicidal, or just want to be alone for a while with your headphones on? Then it was the third one with “Kashmir”, “In My Time of Dying”, “When the Levee Breaks”, and “Achilles Last Stand”. And if you are feeling happy and chipper, then the fourth one was perfect with “The Ocean”, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, “Poor Tom”, and “In the Evening”.

Led Zeppelin was my first “classic rock” discovery, but that just drew me deeper into the genre and I dug into so many of their contemporaries such as Black Sabbath, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Rush, Fleetwood Mac and later on Van Halen, Queen, Aerosmith, AC/DC and the list really goes on and on. Saying that, I do not love classic rock as a genre carte blanche. In fact, some of the most popular bands during this time such as The Who, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan do not excite me in the least and I’m flipping to the next FM station whenever these tracks come up.

Zeppelin’s sound laid the groundwork for the many branches of rock genres and heavier sounds that would follow, in particular the world of metal – a world I love indeed. And a world that wouldn’t exist in quite the same way if Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham hadn’t come together to create some of the greatest music ever recorded.

Several times during the university days I’d get together with a group of friends and we’d have a “Led Zeppelin Fest”. Everybody brought a bottle of rye whiskey to somebody’s house and we’d play the board game Risk while listening to the entire 4 cd boxed set from start to finish. We’d rarely get through the whole thing as somebody would pass out or an argument would erupt (should have stuck to beer) or we’d abandon the whole project and take off for the bar, pie-eyed and looking for action. Fond memories indeed – enjoying great music with great friends.

If I could only listen to the catalogue of one band for the rest of my life, it would be Led Zeppelin.