“The day that Skinny Puppy’s “Live Shapes for Arms” tour thundered into Toronto, February 18, 2014, the music news world was focused on the fact that date was the 40th anniversary of the release of the first KISS album. No doubt that debut was important to rock ’n’ roll. But when it comes to celebrating the impact and longevity of a group, I am personally much more excited that next month marks 30 years since Skinny Puppy released its first cassette, Back and Forth.”
Things tagged with music
“Skinny Puppy’s music used to torture prisoners.” This news has been going around my social media all week since Cevin Key told the Phoenix New-Times about how the band wanted to invoice the US government for the use of their music at Guantanamo. Now, if you read Cevin’s whole interview it’s not like the band mailed Obama a bill. But it’s the kind outrageous, touchy situation that makes for good headlines so it’s been widely reported and retweeted. (By no less than the UK’s Independent, who, sadly, referred to the industrial icons as a “metal” band.)
I actually wrote about this last year, when I interviewed Ogre about the then-new album Weapons for Rue Morgue. Since RM doesn’t put their articles on-line, you’ll have to read it the olde-fashioned way, in a back-issue. But in the interest of adding more first-person information to this interesting story, I present here excerpts of my conversation with Ogre about the situation. Skinny Puppy has always been vocal about social justice issues in their music and interview. (I went vegetarian as a teen in large part because of VIVIsectVI and “Testure.” ) I’m thrilled that the band continues to exist/record/tour, and talk about the things that bug them, from animal welfare to Fukushima fall-out, to gun control and Guantanamo Bay. Music is a weapon, indeed.
Ogre from Skinny Puppy, April 2013:
The actual concept for Weapon came about on the Ohgr tour in 2011, based on meeting a Skinny Puppy fan who ended up being a guard in Guantanamo. He went from being Military Police to a two-week training to getting shipped over to Guantanamo to guard prisoners, high-risk prisoners. There, he heard of Skinny Puppy being used no less than 4 times to torture people. So the original idea, based on our interviews with him, was to do an album to torture people by. To make our album into a weapon.
At that time the Ohgr tour manager—who was a Renaissance Woman who is also a carny on the side— had the idea to get some of these sideshow people she knows and do interrogations on stage. But that concept got really bloated and obtuse.
When we were originally conceiving the Weapon record, I considered having bits and pieces in the native language of whoever was being tortured—Pashtun or whatever—of reassuring messages, saying things like “Even though this music sounds horrible and it’s being used to torture you, please know that in this country it’s used to fight the very thing that is torturing you right now.” Calming mantras. We were going to do that.
So one idea with Weapon is to actually do Freedom of Information requests about the music for torture, and do interviews. We were going to get information on the frequencies used, as much as we could compile, and based on that also give an instruction manual. But for now we’re not doing that.
The project was about going as far as we could, then to present to the US government, or whoever we could find that was responsible for torturing people with our music, an actual invoice for what they owe us for using our music. We would make the cover art the invoice. The idea of a free society to me, is not one that tortures people. I can’t live with that, and not call it out.
Ah, exhale. The end of another year. It feels that way tonight, surrounded by snow and twinkling lights and bits of shiny paper on the floor, with only a few squares remaining on the 2013 calendar. Time to plot the future. But first, a look back at the music, books, films that inspired me, excited me, provoked me, made me think, laugh, dance, rock out, dream, scream.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I find conflicts between my passion for all things tagged “goth” and “horror” and the reality of what I enjoyed and thought was good quality. I have never been a super fan of blind faith in terms of genre. Tell me a good story. If there be monsters, all the better. Sing me a song. If it’s sad and romantic and melodramatic, I shall sigh and swoon all the more. But I still get excited by many, many other genres of music, from folk to disco and beyond, as well as poetry and documentaries and all kinds of things. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Like what you like.
In 2013, I put out my own book, which impacted how much other stuff I could seek out, and really absorb, to recommend. But for the sake of posterity, and in the interest of spreading the word about what I find worthy and wonderful…. a few of my favourite things…
Live shows were more exciting to me than records this year. Probably because I saw Nick Cave perform two nights, back to back, and it was a much more satisfying experience than listening to his latest release Push the Sky Away on its own. First in Montreal, at the always amazing Metropolis club, than at the even more amazing Massey Hall, where I managed to push myself up to the front of the stage. There were strings and children’s choirs making the new songs sound great, and St. Nick doing “Stagger Lee” and “The Mercy Seat” with as much vigor as ever and my friend and I giving he and Warren flowers like lovesick teenagers and all I really remember is thinking how if I could see only one act in concert ever again for the rest of my life, it would be him. Hands down. Have I purchased tickets for his summer 2014 tour already? Hell, yes.
There were other live shows for the books, many of them verging on nostalgia trips — Rocket from the Crypt rocking my Riotfest, two intimate sets of triumphant, glorious Patti Smith at the AGO, Nine Inch Nails proving they can add funk and back-up singers and still blast out the industrial hits. But also some new favourites: The XX beautiful in the rain at Echo Beach, Iceland’s Legend at a basement bar, Majical Cloudz making my NXNE with his intense solo performance.
As for the records, I made a Top 10 Canadian Albums list for Huffington Post Music with my critic hat on; those that I personally adored were Basia Bulat’s Tall, Tall Shadow (heartbreaking folk), Majical Cloudz’ Impersonator (very minimal, very dark), Young Galaxy’s Ultramarine (fresh, feel-good synthpop), and Daniel Romano’s Come Cry with Me (hurtin’ traditional country).
Beyond our borders, I got and will give love to Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, was all over the Siouxsie-like post-punk of Savages’ Silence Yourself, realized I actually do like Alkaline Trio with My Shame is True, and finally discovered Agnes Obel thanks to Avetine — she’s my Goth Who Isn’t Goth alert for 2013.
Like everyone with a pulse, I also gleefully danced to “Get Lucky” way too many times.
Only Lovers Left Alive! Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse vampire movie, starring Tilda Swinton, is exquisite, and was a highlight of my TIFF 2013. Sadly, no actual release date in sight. Ditto Horns, the most excellent adaptation of the Joe Hill novel, transformed into a superior dark comedy/horror/fantasy. Watch out for those next year. I join the chorus celebrating American Mary the indie Canadian horror flick about body modification, for being smart, sexy, nasty and driven by kinky, crazy, outrageous female characters. Thanks Soska Sisters for bringing back Katherine “Ginger Snaps” Isabelle to the big screen. And I really dug the sweetness of Warm Bodies. A zombie who plays vinyl records for a girl is my kind of zombie. As for documentaries, I had much to ponder about violence and appropriation of voice after watching The Exhibition, about an artist painting women killed by Robert Pickton; and I couldn’t be happier to see BlackFish changing perceptions and policies about whales and dolphins in captivity.
Or, this is what I was doing alone in the dark when not obsessing over Klaus in The Vampire Diaries and The Originals.
It was a great year for me to see some of my favourite writers in the flesh, and hear them read aloud. After many years of adoring Anne Carson from afar, she came to town for the International Festival of Authors. My favourite living poet, she claimed in her humble introduction to lack charisma. Hardly. Her words make other worlds possible, and when she brings them to life in her own voice, even the most obtuse things became completely clear. (This particular event provided me the opportunity to experience a woman shhhhhushing a man for taking notes because she found the sound of his pencil on paper too loud. Seriously. ) Carson is a strange woman. The very best kind. I cannot recommend her books more highly. Also, did I wait several hours to talk to Neil Gaiman at the Toronto stop for his Last Tour Ever for Ocean at the End of the Lane? Indeed I did. His reading was marvellous, the Q&A hilarious, the long queue well worth it to chat with him after about my own new book. He continues to say very kind things to me about Gothica and it's such a blessing to have these interactions with someone so beloved, and so generous.
(For a list of the books I enjoyed reading this year, visit my Good Reads page.)
Neil signed my copy of Ocean that night with "Dream dangerous." And so I shall. In fact, it's my resolution for 2014. See you then/there.
Two nights ago, on the eve of the Polaris Music Prize gala, in which a Canadian album would be named the year’s best, and awarded a $30,000 cash prize as a result, I was listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Short Listed Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! I consider it a highly accomplished musical creation, one that I personally enjoyed enveloping myself in, and the more I listened the more I thought, “This could win.”
And then I dismissed it. In part because my favourites never win. (Hi Handsome Furs!) In part because it’s instrumental, with songs that are 20 minutes long, and that’s a hard sell, even to the expert open-eared music critics that make up the Polaris jury. And in part because Godspeed is, 20 years after first appearing on the fringes of Canada’s music scene, still pissing off critics, and Polaris is, after all, a critics’ prize.
Disclaimer: I was for many years a member of the Polaris Board of Directors. I also manged the jury, including moderating the final deliberations for the winner. I know more than anyone that those debates really are about the artistic merits of the album. It’s not a consensus vote, and the kind of of Borg-like hive mind that many people in the general public ascribe to the decision making is laughably speculative and false. There is no “let’s award a French act this year” or “that person is too rich to deserve to win.” It. Doesn’t. Happen.
But I know from private discussions with people who write about music for a (humble) living that sometimes when artists are mean to the media, talk shit about journalists, refuse to give interviews (or worse, waste people’s time by not showing up to scheduled ones) or generally act like we’re the enemy, their albums go the bottom of the listening pile. Media are people too, and they can have hurt feelings. I’m not suggesting that is a factor in that final Polaris debate (I certainly never witnessed it) but I did consider for a moment that Godspeed, notorious shunners of media attention, rejecters of interview requests, might not have enough friends in that room.
I’m so glad I was wrong. Last night, after several hours of joyous musical performances — highlighted by fiercely confident Zaki Ibrahim, ferociously pummelling METZ, and wickedly fun A Tribe Called Red — Godspeed was announced as the Polaris Music Prize winner for 2013. Post-gala, the question is always, “What did you think of the winner?” and this year, in all sincerity, I could say “Allelujah.”
It did not go unnoticed that this was the first time in the award’s history that the winner was not in attendance. This was by no means a surprise, knowing GY!BE. But it was a story. A rep from the band’s label explained the band would be giving the $30,000 prize to try and set up a programme to distribute musical instruments in prisons. People clapped at that, mostly. Then everyone went to the Drake and mingled and talked about music and got on with our lives.
This morning I woke to the band’s official statement, which starts off with “A FEW WORDS REGARDING THIS POLARIS PRIZE THING.” Right, this “thing.” This dismissive shrug bugged me. But it goes on to thank music writers for the prize, shout out struggling freelancers especially, express gratitude, and then:
“BUT HOLY SHIT AND HOLY COW- we’ve been plowing our field on the margins of weird culture for almost 20 years now, and “this scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show” is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds.3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.these are hard times for everybody. and musicians’ blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money, well then maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords. and maybe a party thusly is long overdue- it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn’t just lazy money patting itself on the back.”
And so now we have an even bigger story. Godspeed “slams” Polaris! My social media, full of music biz people, is awash with arguments about whether or not the band’s position is respectable or bullshit—or worse, shtick. Many call them hypocrites, dicks, fake anarchists, for accepting a prize if they don’t agree with what it represents.
Some people seem very angry about the whole thing. I am not.
Sure, it’s fun to argue. But really, I fail to see this as some crisis, some failure of either the prize or the band. For one, they’re not totally slamming the prize. They say thank you. They don’t particularly like the glitzy gala, sponsored by a car company, sure, but in general they mostly sound conflicted. Which is exactly how I would feel about being awarded a prize sponsored by corporations. Grateful, yes. But I’d still have questions and concerns. And I haven’t made my living, my brand, off being anti-corporate.
Many are suggesting the band should not have accepted the win. That they should have withdrawn from consideration months ago, at the Long List stage. And they especially should not be taking the money. I don’t know if that’s some lingering resentment over their anti-industry stance all these years or what. But I do know it’s bullshit.
If you have a point of view, a message even, it serves nobody to withdraw from public discourse.
By pulling out, rejecting their nomination, they would first and foremost deprive many new music lovers from discovering and hearing their album, which is pretty much the opposite of what most musicians I know want. There may have been a few blog posts about their decision but only people who already know who Godspeed are would ever read them. And they most definitely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take their views to mainstream media. To have a statement read on CBC Radio. To get a nation talking about the nature of arts awards. Even if their statement had its contradictions and flaws. Yeah, I know that their label Constellation has received government funding. I know they are going on a no-doubt gas-guzzling tour with NIN, playing venues named by banks and such. And it doesn’t bother me.
We are all compromised in our ethics. We all have to navigate a world that is for the most part not in line with our core beliefs of justice. Judging other people may be natural, but it’s petty. It’s like saying Tom Morello lost his activist cred by signing with Sony. It’s like tsking a vegetarian for wearing leather shoes to make yourself feel better for eating animals. If someone else is unpure in their convictions, well, then I guess my inaction is OK then.
We have no idea what goes in in other people’s heads, and hearts, and wallets. Maybe the band is giving their profits from the NIN tour to carbon offsets. Maybe Constellation used that funding to hire people to work in their office instead of exploiting intern slavery. I don’t know. And I actually don’t care. I’m still applauding a band for taking its 24 hours of spotlight to actually say something, about something, whatever that is. In my view, that’s what artists should do. It’s part of their job.
One point I am surprised to find overlooked is that the band chose a music journalist to speak on their behalf at the gala. For the first time, the Short Listed artists were given the opportunity to select their own presenters. Whitehorse picked Sarah McLachlan. Tegan and Sara picked Strombo. Godspeed could have picked any number of representatives — Sacheen Littlefeather, perhaps? — or none at all. But they picked Jessica Hopper, a music journalist. She read a short statement about why they would not attend, with a comment about what can be achieved when you “decide to say no.” It was kind of perfect. (Save for host Kathleen Edwards’ comment that Hopper is one of the “few and far between excellent women music writers,” which I found bewildering and offensive.) Here, their actions spoke.
Godspeed don’t hate everyone. They just don’t like everyone. Like their music, I can relate to that.
I can’t stop thinking about Peter Murphy. The “Godfather of Goth.” The Gothfather.
News surfaced last night that Peter was in jail in California, arrested Saturday “on suspicion of causing injuries while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, felony hit-and-run and possessing methamphetamine,” according to the L.A. Times. There was an ugly mug shot alongside the story. Peter is 55 but has always seemed immortal. Here he has that unshaven, blank look of someone who has been through the wringer. A criminal. The charges come after he allegedly rear-ended a vehicle and drove off. The story quotes police as saying he appeared to be “very confused.” They also reported finding a small bag of meth in the patrol car where he had been sitting. Peter denied it was his. Or drinking that day. He said he took only his prescription anti-depressants. He blamed the collision on jet lag.
Right away, my Twitter and Facebook feeds filled up with jokes. He was driving a Subaru Forester? Hilarious! The crime took place at 11:48 a.m. The vampire prince trying to drive in California high-noon? Well that explains everything. Peter Murphy and Bauhaus lyrics that could be considered ironic now were cut up and posted. Wink, wink. Plenty more wondered how their lives would be affected: would his upcoming tour dates be cancelled? Will I get a refund? It doesn’t escape me that when an artist we admire is sick, I mean physically sick, there is an outpouring of sympathy. But if someone is known to have depression, mental health struggles, relationship problems, addiction, well how quickly they are raked over the coals. Like it’s lame. Like it’s not sad.
I don’t think it’s funny. Not because he’s special, above ridicule. Just the opposite. Because he’s just a man. A man with problems, apparently.
We Goths, and plenty of 80s new wavers and 90s alt rockers, consider Peter Murphy A-list, an icon. Most people, like say the average L.A. Times reader, probably don’t know Peter Murphy from Adam Ant. They don’t remember “Cuts You Up” or “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” or his role in the Hunger. The paper tagged him as “lead singer of 1970s British goth-rock band Bauhaus.” That’s close enough to a celebrity to warrant news coverage. Which means we can expect more details to come out, probably not good. About why he’s on anti-depressants. About any personal issues that might shed a light on this behaviour. (Someone on his FB page posted he’s mourning the death of his sister.) They might rip apart his finances, although the fact that he is in jail because he can’t post the $500,000 bail and there’s been no swift press release or statement yet tells you he’s not exactly rolling with high-priced lawyers or pr firms these days. Fans can scream “leave him alone!” but that’s their job. the reporters, to report. And it’s his own fault. He didn’t have to crash that car. He didn’t have to drive away. Hit-and-run, that’s pretty low.
At least nobody was hurt. I’ve read The Dirt. I know how Vince Neil of Motley Crue drove drunk and killed Razzle from Hanoi Rocks — and got 30 days in jail for it. (Then went on to beat up people and drive drunk again but still get off free to date and fuck and marry models and Playmates, because he clearly does have expensive lawyers.) I thought that made him a pretty awful human being, but it didn’t affect me. All those Hollywood celebs, glam rockers, whatever. Let them be bad. They’re not my heroes. This time though, I can’t stop thinking about it. I worry that Peter is not like Vince Neil at all, but like Dave Gahan. I think about Gahan’s heroin addiction, his suicide attempt, his near-death experience. Or Trent Reznor, whose struggles with depression and drugs, his descent down the spiral, thankfully led him ultimately to rehab, not jail. I remember how back then, in the mid-90s and even early 2000s, you mostly heard about these things much later, when the person was ready to talk about it. Not like now. People on the scene tweeted fuzzy cell phone photos of Peter Murphy being arrested. The infamy is immediate. Whatever happens in court, Peter will never be able to erase that mugshot. His Wiki bio— and his obituary — will have that mark.
Yes, there is a tour at stake. And his ability to work and to travel, if convicted. I don’t care if the shows are cancelled. I hope his friends have called. (I’m looking at you, Trent Reznor.) I hope someone bails him out.
In 2011, Peter Murphy put out a damned fine solo record, Ninth. I saw him perform on that tour, and he was marvelous as ever. His voice sounded great. His aging body still had the moves. He was still a master manipulator of the stage, of shadow and light. On two occasions I had the chance to chat with him after the show. In these tiny, unglamorous dressing rooms he held court, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. One of my favourites was of him walking through the Leipzig Festival (the world’s biggest Goth gathering) without make-up or costume and not being recognized. I gave him a copy of my book and he said, typically, “But I’m not Goth!” My sassy girlfriend replied, typically, “Well then you will learn alot from this book.” Sometimes the people there were really annoying. Drunks or ubergoths or both. He smiled at them anyway, listened to them, shared his cigarettes. And when he got tired he simply waved and said goodnight and disappeared out the backdoor. I like to picture him wandering off into the night to read poetry or write a song or call his daughter or go to sleep. I like to picture him singing, dancing.
I don’t like to picture him in a mug shot, a meth user, a man on the edge. And so I will not.
Today the Cardinals go into enclave and vote on a new Pope. They literally lock themselves in a room with no communication devices except a chimney. Yes, the way they let the world know a decision has been made is by burning the ballots and letting the smoke rise out of the chimney into the air over the Vatican, using chemicals to control the colour. White smoke = new pope.
While the world speculates on who will be elected, I ponder who I would vote for if asked. I do, after all, have experience in sequestered voting, having managed the Polaris Music Prize Grand Jury for a number of years. And I was baptized Catholic and taught partly by nuns before becoming Born Again Heathen so I know a few things about the Church. (Mostly fun things to do with the communion Host if you don’t want to swallow it.) But my religion has always been music. And so if I was allowed into the secret chamber to place a ballot, I’d be inclined to write in a musician candidate. Why not? The only official criteria for Pope is “Catholic” and “male.” There’s no law that says a rocker can’t also be the Pope.
And so I present my Top 5 Papal Candidates.
5. MARILYN MANSON
Cred: Attended Christian elementary school
Potential Pope Name: “God of Fuck”; “Antichrist Superstar”
Pros: Looks good in skirt
Cons: Card-carrying member, Church of Satan
4. TOBIAS FORGE of GHOST
Cred: May be an actual Cardinal. Or a Bishop. Or just a Swedish metal dude in a cool costume.
Potential Pope Name: “Papa Emeritus” “Mary Goore”
Pros: Multilingual; good at keeping secrets
Cons: Um, that whole Swedish pagan thing.
3. DAVE GAHAN of DEPECHE MODE
Cred: Proponent of resurrection — died and came back to life after overdose
Potential Pope Name: “Personal Jesus”
Pros: Someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares
Cons: Divorced (twice)
Potential Pope Name: “Bono Vox”
Pros: Already acts like he has the job
Cons: An Irish Pope? Hahahhahahahaha.
1. CAROL POPE of ROUGH TRADE
Potential Pope Name: Ms. Pope the 1st
Pros: For God’s sake look at her name—she was literally born for this job! Also, 60s is considered prime age for starting your career in the papal arts.
Cons: Her band’s biggest hit is about same-sex crush on hot teenager, probably not the theme song the Church is looking for. Oh, and there’s that whole woman thing. Well, maybe next century….
“Sing me a song, you’re a singer …….do me a wrong, you’re a bringer of evil….”
Ronnie James Dio wrote that in 1979, for a Black Sabbath album that came out in 1980. It’s called “Heaven and Hell” and it’s one of his favourite songs. Mine too, although I didn’t know it until 2010, when I first heard it. I realize that for many rock and metal fans, that’s weird, like someone telling me they’d somehow not heard “She’s Lost Control” for 30 years. But that’s how I believe people discover music, not all at once on new release day but over time, for different reasons. So why do so many music fans then turn around and get so angry when someone younger, falls in love with a song they have long cherished. Especially when that person is a singer too, and decides to cover a classic. Why so much hate?
This is on my mind because of the Olympic closing ceremony. Poor Jesse J. I don’t really know who she is, but I’m guessing she’s a big star in the UK because she kept popping up like a bad blackhead all over the face of the broadcast. I’m not suggesting she’s a blight, far from it. I thought she was pretty and a perfectly fine pop star – who had the guts to tackle singing Queen’’s “We Will Rock You” in front of millions of people, people who would have been just as happy – neigh, happier! – with a backing track and a hologram of Queen’s late singer Freddie Mercury doing it. Because how blasphemous this was! This girl! This young pop tart! How dare she! Fans of classic rock hurled snark and vitriol through the internet. Many of these same people also freaked out over hearing Pink Floyd and The Who songs sung by young people they don’t know. They weren’t too happy about “Wonderwall” being performed by Liam Gallaghar without Oasis either, but the true horror seems to come when the voice changes. I think they’re being foolish. Hell, I bet many of these whiners regularly destroy the sanctity of their favourite songs at karaoke bars…
Cover versions have brought me to some of my favourite music in the world. In 1984, when perhaps you were listening to Black Sabbath, I was enthralled with the output of 4AD records. And so I bought an album called It’ll End in Tears by something called This Mortal Coil. Not a band, but a collective collaboration between the label’s boss and his various artists. I bought it because it had Elizabeth Frazer on it, one of my favourite singers, she of the Cocteau Twins. And then had my socks knocked off, my mind blown out, my heart exploded by track 2, “Song to the Siren.” I’m listening to it as a type this and it still gives me the literal shivers. My fingers shake, as does my breath. It’s a perfect song. And it wasn’t hers. I learned from the liner notes it was Tim Buckley’s. It would be years before I heard his original version (on the This Mortal Coil box-set actually). It’s beautiful too. But I didn’t need it. However, it was because of knowing that Tim Buckley wrote “Song to the Siren” that, ten years later, I went to the Supper Club in NYC to see another singer. Jeff Buckley.
Buckley was promoting his debut Grace at CMJ, which is full of glorious originals of his own that immediately had me in their thrall that night. But it was when he opened his mouth and warbled “I first saw you…. you had on blue jeans….”that I fell in love. He was singing “Kanga-Roo,” another song from It’ll End in Tears. I had worn the grooves of my vinyl copy of it out by then, playing that record. And here it was, alive. I remember that I cried. I then saw every Jeff Buckley gig I could get to, until he died. And I still hadn’t bothered to go listen to the original “Kanga-roo,” by Big Star. I didn’t need it.
I’m guessing there are fans of Tim Buckley and Big Star who hate that This Mortal Coil album. And that’s fine. They have their versions of those songs to love. And I have mine. There’s no blasphemy in that.
Next month, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I hope to get a ticket to see Greetings from Tim Buckley, a dramatized telling of Jeff Buckley’s relationship with his father – who had abandoned him as a child then died of a drug overdose—and the emotional journey Jeff took that led him to perform at a Tim Buckley tribute concert in 1991, a public debut that ended up launching his own career. What if he had been too worried about his father’s legacy to stand up and cover his “I Never Asked to be Your Mountain” that night? And if it were today, what would the twitterverse say? Would he have been virtually booed off the stage?
The song is the thing. It is meant to outlast the singer. That’s why Black Sabbath kept playing “Heaven and Hell” after Ronnie James Dio left the band, with other vocalists And it’s OK. More than OK, it’s the right thing to do. The original is still there for all to discover, whenever they need it. The song itself, well, it goes on and on and on…..
I am a girl. I like high heels and red lipstick and being called beautiful and having the umbrella held over my head for me when it rains by someone tall, pale and handsome; I by far prefer wearing dresses to pants. (Not that you can’t be a girl and the opposite of all that, of course.) When I ride, I ride a girl’s frame bike, with flowers on it. But when I write, I am a writer. Period. I don’t think of myself as a female writer, or a feminist writer. I don’t subscribe to the Women in Horror month/movement. I don’t study or cover gender relations. I want my work to be judged on its own merits, against my own work and other work of its kind, whether made by women, men, two-spirited people, or asexual aliens.
As a reader though, I do tend to gravitate towards other women writers. Particularly poets and novelists but also journalists, especially those who, like me, cover arts and culture. Well, for many years that’s what I did, reviewing CDs and concerts and when I was lucky interviewing really interesting people who make music. I work more in film and TV these days, but I still do it whenever I can, and I still care about the art of dancing about architecture. And so I read alot of women reviewers, maybe because I’m proud of them, I appreciate what they are doing on a professional level, and I want to support it. Or maybe because when women write about music, you generally don’t get articles like this profile of Canada’s Metric, by Ben Kaplan, in the National Post, in which he focuses on Metric singer Emily Haines as a smart sex symbol and muse who “attracts boys like free beer” and who he once (OMG!) had the opportunity to give an (unwanted) hug. Not suggesting female writers don’t ever crush on their subjects, or that sexy artists can’t be described as such, but I found the tone of this piece downright creepy, and was deeply confused about why the editors chose to run it as-is. (Besides being overworked and understaffed, but that’s another rant.) I’m guessing they too were men, who would find nothing untoward about it. Same as those who handled a piece that ran the same week in the Globe and Mail about Drake vs. Chris Brown by Brad Wheeler, which put Brown’s assault on Rhianna into parenthesis while referring to the singer as “the mother of all must-haves” and making the useless statement “other highly desired females in history include the widow Jackie Kennedy and Hollywood’s Marilyn Monroe.” As bad-ass heavy metal music writer Natalie Zina Walschots tweeted, can you imagine a paper printing “other highly desired males in history include Beowulf and Mick Jagger“? Ridiculous. These articles ignited a flurry of angry responses from male and female readers, including many other music critics. And they got me thinking about how grateful I am that in moments like that one can turn to read coverage written by women instead. The field of journalism is thankfully pretty open to women. Personally, I’ve never felt any discrimination in my career path because of gender and have worked for plenty of talented women editors and publishers. [Waves to Shirley Halperin and Carrie Borzillo]. I’ve looked around many times over the years and noticed how many of the music sections/publications in my country were being run by ladies. (Nostalgic nods to Mary Dickie, Mary-Lou Zeitoun, Betsey Powell, Denise Sheppard). I’ve never been treated like a groupie on the job. (Granted, I’ve never interviewed Gene Simmons.) However, I do recognize things aren’t in perfect balance. This TedTalk video by Megan Kamerick outlines that women make up under %40 of newsroom staff, and how women are underrepresented as subjects and experts in news stories and how all that spins the news towards victimizing and sexualizing women. It’s not specifically about music, but well worth 10 minutes of your time.
My response to all this is to praise those girls and women who are going good work reporting on music. Whose words rock my world as much as the sounds they cover. There are so many, but here are just a handful. Read them. They will inspire you, teach you, provoke you. They are unlikely to write about giving musicians unwanted hugs.
LIZ WORTH is the Toronto author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in TO and Beyond and the poetry collection Amphetamine Hearts. I believe our first encounter was her interviewing me for the Goth zine Raven’s Call several years back; our most recent was drinking slushies in the park waiting for an astrological phenomenon. She once gave me the awesome gift of a hardcover copy of Encyclopedia of Rock by Lillian Roxon. She is working on a novel now but I never know just what she’s going to do next. She is mysterious and brave. See what I mean on her Radio Forest blog or her Twitter.
AMY KLEIN is an American musician and writer I discovered when her piece “Tour Diary Day Four: Rock and Roll is Dead”was included in the Best Music Writing 2011. In it she examines how the lack of images of girls playing guitars or any instruments in Rolling Stone magazine, and what that means for public perception of women making music. I like her blog and when her byline pops up in unexpected places, like this list of Feminist Anthems for Spinner.
JAAN UHELSZKI was a founding editor of America’s legendary Creem magazine and has done more amazing things in her life than I could possibly list here, but much of which is revealed in this interview. When I was working on the TV series Metal Evolution, it was important to me to include female voices; in the world of metal this turned out to be tricky but I am glad we got Jaan in there talking about the Detroit scene in the ’60s and more. If you have an account with Rock’s Back Pages you should read her famed 1975 article “I Dreamed I was on-stage with KISS in my Maidenform Bra.”
ANUPA MISTRY is a hard-working Canadian freelancer and, relative to these others, a new kid on the block, but I find I always learn new things when I read her reviews. She writes mostly about hip-hop, a genre I do need more schooling in, and that can use more smart women commentators, for sure. Start with her feature on middle-class rap for Toronto Life then follow her on the Twitter.
GILLIAN G. GAAR is the Seattle-based author of She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock, published in 1992 and still my go-to guide for unearthing and understanding overlooked records made by ladies. She worked as a senior editor at the Rocket and was on the scene through the grunge explosion. According to this interview about her relationship/coverage of Nirvana, she got started writing for a Rocky Horror fanzine! Her next book on Nirvana is out this summer.
LISA ROBINSON is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and, to me, one of the best magazine writers out there, full stop. For decades now, she’s covered the biggest names in all genres of music for the publications that really matter and is a master of the celebrity interview. Yeah, you might know her for the big Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga profiles now but she was talking to Patti Smith in the 1970s for Hit Parader and her early coverage of The Ramones helped them land their first management deal. I aspire to her ability to be a confidante to her subjects without losing her reporter’s instincts. Of anyone, she has consistently inspired me the most. And she does a decent TV interview too:
I welcome your suggestions for others I should read, below…