How to disrespect The Rheostatics (and other important lessons in Canadian rock)

• 9th Sep, 15 •

 

“It’s disrespectful to us,” said the good natured head of security, “and frankly, I think it’s disrespectful to the Rheostatics.” 

That’s where this story ends, but it began a long way back. I am celebrating something of a personal moment here, but I think it translates. Maybe you and I can get to know each other a little more as a result. It starts like this: 

When I was but a child (or at least when I was young enough to remember drinking beer and not liking it at all), I saw a rock show that changed everything. It was long before I developed dreams of a musical life. Before it had even occurred to me that songs are something that need to be be written, let alone that I might write my own. In this story, my older brother - who was then (and remains) somewhat of a musical guide - brought me to a concert by a Canadian band that he loved and that I had never heard of. We grew up in a town without a record store in an era of particularly bad radio. In order to find interesting music, you had to know interested people. Thankfully, for me, osmosis brought his excellent sonic taste my way. The band he took me to was called The Rheostatics. 

We arrived late, and the only way to get a good view was to stand directly next to the iron radiator. It was winter, so we were both wrapped in a lot of layers. I don’t remember if we were too broke or too cheap to drop a dollar on coat check, but I remember being nauseously warm. 

Other than that, it’s mostly a blur. The years that have passed between then and now have turned any concrete recollections into thin veneers. Shapes around the edges of something that I know to be solid, but I can’t quite grasp. One thing, though, stands out in my emotional memory: Confusion. To be honest I don’t even know if I enjoyed the concert at the time, but the sheer bafflement was delightful. I was mesmerized by the fact that the softest, craftiest songs I had heard were couched within an aggressive cushion of relentless noise. 

How could something so pretty be so violent? How could something so playful be so serious? How could songs about this remarkably boring country be surrounded in such an air of excitement? How could three completely different songwriters produce a package of sound that was so coherent? How could such carefully crafted pieces of art be  so sloppily presented? How could aliens, hockey players, and painfully literal tales of life on the road come across as poetry worthy of Whitman? 

These questions left a mark. In part, the pursuit of this remarkable and contradictory balance has driven my artistic life ever since. 

I have never tried to be The Rheostatics. I would never try. But I have carried their lessons with me through every song I have written, every show I have watched, and every performance I have given: Be delicate; be crafty; be angry; don’t think too much; don’t be precious; be noisy; give it everything you have, always. 

Always. 

The Rheostatics are in a unique situation. For more than two decades they have more or less successfully eluded hits, rock-radio, and stadium-sized attention. At the same time they have occupied an extremely important space at the centre of an ultra-Canadian artistic and performance elite. And they have done both remarkably well. Dedicated fans will have seen them play in dusty Saskatchewan pubs, in arenas across the continent opening for The Tragically Hip, and in Toronto venues ranging in size from The Horseshoe to Massey Hall. Somehow, the band filled every space perfectly. They thrilled their fans. They changed the minds of the interesting. They confused the indifferent. And they probably alienated their fair share of folks along the way. 

Weaker bands would have made different decisions. They’d have been softer, or harder, or more precious. They’d have written three minute songs, used normal-shaped instruments, hired Bob Rock, or covered more universal subject matter. They didn’t. They haven’t. 

In the years since, I have been lucky enough to find some friends among their ranks. Dave Bidini has taken the time to teach me a thing or two about songwriting, touring, and being reckless. The guitar player of his post-Rheostatics ‘Bidiniband’ gives me weekly lessons. Drummer Don Kerr has been kind as well, offering support along the way. His absolutely outstanding band ‘Communism’ is sharing the bill with me at my CD Release party in Toronto next month. I’ve put out three records on a label operated by the band’s early days manager Richard Chapman. And at the end of a particularly messy festival night in which I played in the slot before Dave, he told me that I “reminded him of a young Martin Tielli.” I almost quit music right then and there, figuring that I’d probably peaked.  

Maybe these relationships have come as a result of an overzealous pursuit of my musical mentors. But I don’t think so. The more likely answer - I hope - is that these people love music. 

Business people write hits. Musicians write music. Record labels support bankable acts. Artists support art. 

The Rheos broke up in 2008. My brother attended their final show at Massey Hall, but I was a broke Masters student on Vancouver Island. I was prepared to fly from Vancouver to Toronto for their reunion show in 2012, but singer/guitarist Martin Tielli’s well documented stage fright  shut that show down moments before I booked my flight. 

You can only imagine my pleasure, then, when mere days after I had moved myself and all of my belongings from Vancouver to Toronto, the band announced three reunion shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario, celebrating 20 years since they released their absolutely perfect, (mostly) instrumental album of Music Inspired By The Group of Seven. 

I flipped. I called my brother and asked if he’d accompany me on a full-circle musical reunion of our own. But as I said, I had just moved myself and all of my belongings thousands of miles across a very large country - which is not a cheap endeavour. I had no job and nothing but a few Cameron House gigs to fund my first months here, so I couldn’t afford the good tickets. 

And therein lies the rub. I had come so far (literally). The band had come so far (metaphorically). The sound is not great anywhere in the AGO and it is particularly not great from the ‘cheap seats.’ I was determined to put myself where I belonged: Directly in front of the band. 

After the usual approaches of chatting up the guy at the exit door, faux-naively wandering into the expensive area, and subtle hints at bribery failed to make an impact, it was time to take decisive action. I simply stood by the railing dividing the haves from the have-less-es, and waited. Patiently, for a long time. 

In hindsight, I should have known that people who are professionally employed protecting priceless art would be a little bit better at their jobs then their respective counterparts at dingy nightclubs, and my dash for freedom was quickly shut down, bringing on a flurry of “frankly sirs” and accusations of disrespect (the gallery, the fans, the band). 

At the end of the day, I suppose, being escorted to the door by no less than the head of security (who had to be called in to deal with my particularly heinous case) is a pretty rock and roll way to finish up a trip down influence-lane. And as it happens, I managed to see the temporarily reunited rockers deliver four fantastic concerts, thanks to a few tip-offs about secret performances and a particularly generous fan from Nashville who hooked me up with closing night tickets. 

The band was unreal. Perfect. Silly. Angry. Sloppy. Serious. They filled me up. From an outsiders perspective, it looks like they filled themselves up as well. 

They’ve suggested in interviews that it’s nothing but a one off, but seeing Dave and Martin whisper and giggle to each other on stage over four nights left me with a  small bit of hope that I’ll have yet another chance to frankly disrespect this powerful batch of musicians again. 

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