The Year of Whispered Warnings

In Manhattan’s Times Square, over half a million revelers cheered as the twelve-hundred-pound illuminated silver ball perched high above them began its flirtatiously slow, seventy-foot descent marking the final seconds of 1957. When it finally it came, there were screams, kisses, toasts, and Guy Lombardo’s Auld Lang Syne. Few noted that the ball had flickered off before the bottom and that the 1958 sign had sparked on a trifle too early. The glitch reflected warnings offered by the year just passed about many things that were no longer as they had been.

The Economy. After the Second World War there were more than enough new jobs for skilled and unskilled workers. Luck, timing, progressive governments, hard work, unionized labour, and the burgeoning manufacturing sector had helped create a thriving, urban middle class and economy that had never been so good for so long.

In 1957, however, growth fell from a decade of 6% per year to an anaemic 1%. Paramount among its causes was that Europe and Asia had rebuilt and needed less of our stuff. Our monetary policy was being clumsily adjusted to meet the new reality. The good times that many had come to believe would never end were ending. A recession was only months away.

Popular Culture. In 1957, for only the second year, rock ‘n’ roll gave voice to the young or young at heart who, perhaps unconsciously, rejected the white, Christian, male attitudes that reflected post-Depression and post-war cravings for calm, safety, and stability. Elvis Presley was rock ‘n’ roll’s most popular star. His concerts were always sold out and one Presley record or another was atop Billboard’s 1957 charts for 25 weeks. He epitomized everything that rock ‘n’ roll offered and threatened: a heterosexual in a gold lamé suit, a poor kid in a Cadillac, a white man singing black, and a mama’s boy who suggested all that mamas warned their daughters about.

The Year of Wispered Warnings

Elvis in Toronto, 1957

The flip side of rock ‘n’ roll was the Beat movement. The existential yearning at Beat’s core was expressed in Jack Kerouac’s scorching novel On The Road, published in September 1957. It followed Sal and Dean’s futile search for meaning in an America they found suffering from the emptiness of middle class consumerism.

Beat met rock ‘n’ roll in July 1957 when, at a Liverpool church fête, sixteen-year-old John Lennon met fourteen-year-old Paul McCartney. The name of the band they formed – the Beatles – was a pun that poked fun at their music while nodding to the Beats.

When times get tougher, pop culture always gets fluffier. When rebellions begin the grown ups fight back. Presley’s January 1957 TV performance showed him from the waist up to spare audiences the outrage of his gyrations. October saw the premiere of Leave It To Beaver. It joined similar TV fare legitimizing values that so many of the white, urban, middle class had internalized and assumed to be natural and perennial. They could be excused for not noticing so many of their children reading Kerouac, listening to Elvis, and that not everyone thought like Ward Cleaver or them.

Race. For decades, Jim Crow’s unwritten rules separated Black and White in American and Canadian cities and towns. In January 1957, Martin Luther King became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It drew legitimacy from the Bible, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution, and its non-violent tactics from Mahatma Ghandi. In September, inspired by Dr. King’s message, nine African American children attempted to enter Little Rock’s all-white Central High School. They were stopped by a screaming white mob. President Eisenhower sent federal troops. Every morning, armed paratroopers escorted the kids to class. Eisenhower introduced the first federal civil rights legislation in 82 years.

The Year of Whispered Warnings.

One of Little Rock Nine wading through racists to go to school.

While slavery is America’s original sin, Canada’s is her treatment of aboriginal people. In 1957, the government and churches continued to ignore the protests of aboriginal parents by dispatching police and priests to steal their children. Native kids were forced into Residential Schools where many were beaten, sexually abused, and subjected to quasi-scientific experiments while taught to reject their heritage and themselves. Six thousand children would eventually die at the schools.

In June 1957, Canadians elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He championed civil rights and cultural diversity within a unified Canada. He would enact legislation granting Native adults the right to vote and then a Bill of Rights declaring all citizens equal under the law.

Gender. Girls were taught in school and indoctrinated through movies, television, and advertising that their only responsible option and reasonable ambition was to marry and raise children. In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy participated in a debate at Hart House, the University of Toronto’s academic and cultural hub. He was escorted past twenty young women protesting that only men were allowed in Hart House. When asked his opinion, Kennedy said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

However, also in 1957, Betty Friedan was asked to undertake a survey among her Smith College classmates who were preparing for their 15th reunion. She found complaints of having a family but not happiness and household gadgets but not fulfillment. Friedan identified the problem without a name and was inspired to dig deeper. Her research became The Feminine Mystique. The book would unleash the second and most powerful wave of the women’s movement.

In June 1957, Prime Minister Diefenbaker appointed Ellen Fairclough to his cabinet. She was first woman to enjoy such a position.

Cold War. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Every orbital beep was a braggart’s boast; Soviet scientists had bested Americans who, for two years, had been working on their own satellite. Sputnik threatened that nuclear weapons could be delivered not just by bombers that could be shot down but also by rockets against which there was no defense.

Air raid siren tests pierced quiet afternoons. Emergency network drills interrupting television shows. People were taught to fear reds under their beds and over their heads. From now on, wars would have us all on the front line.

Some years are portentous for what occurred and others for the warnings they whispered. The Times Square New Year’s Eve glitches were metaphors for 1957’s cautioning us that change was coming and a great deal that had been perceived as right or permanent were neither. In many ways, we continue to rewrite the rules and retest the assumptions that 1957 told us no longer applied.

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Five Things I Know About Music

I blame Mike Nesmith. Also at fault are John Lennon, my Godmother, my cousin, and I suppose my grandmother. You see, my grandmother was the glue that kept our large, extended Ukrainian family together. Among my fondest childhood memories are Christmas parties in the big room downstairs that she had built for such occasions. After a meal set for three times the large number assembled, the tables and chairs were pushed aside for everyone to dance. But it was not records for us for my cousin had a band. And that’s where it began.

My cousin played a big red Guild guitar and it was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like every year, I sat close and watched his every move. When I was eight I was intently watching like usual when my Godmother, resting briefly from the dance floor she loved so much, sat beside me and said she had a special gift. If I loved music so much, she said, then I should study the best. She handed me a copy of Elvis Presley’s first album. Blue Suede Shoes was good but Trying to Get to You was art. I had no idea a singer was allowed to do things like that. The notes and words were putty; they were toys.

album_Elvis-Presley-Elvis-Presley

Just as I was wearing the album to dust, The Monkees debuted on television. Yes, they were a made-up band but there they were alongside the TV fluff of the day with their long hair and music and living on their own in a funky beach house and there was Mike Nesmith playing, and looking a lot like my cousin’s Guild, a great big Gretsch. That did it.

I told my father that I had to have a guitar. He promised to pay half if I saved the rest – a good Dad. I stopped buying Hardy Boys books and salted paper route earnings and cut lawns to make more and soon had what I needed. It was not a Gretsch. It was not even close. It was a cheap, guaranteed-not-to-crack Harmony acoustic. I still have it. I walked eight blocks for lessons every Saturday morning but grew frustrated that the teacher had me plunking away at the Mel Bay Guitar Method when all I wanted was to learn Beatle songs. Yes, I had graduated from Monkees to Beatles and from Mike to John. After three months, I quit and set out to learn on my own.

Harmony guitar The Harmony Guitar

My first gig was in Grade 8 when another skinny boy and I stood stiffly on the big school stage and nervously plucked out Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. In high school I partnered with a friend and we played coffee houses and pubs. While dangerously under age we did a month-long gig at a scruffy bar that was a motorcycle gang hang out. Arguments and fights regularly interrupted our country-rock tunes and earnest originals.

Later, an independent record label heard me in a little bar where I was making some extra cash to support my young family and signed to me a contract. We recorded three 45s (Google it if you have to) and they did OK. The second one did best and even made it to #2 in Sweden – damn Willie Nelson and Always on My Mind!

I still play every day. I still play Nesmith, Lennon, and Presley songs and still write new ones that few ever hear. I now even sing and play in a little band with two friends. We enjoy a gig a month at a local pub – music by neighbours for neighbours for nothing at stake but the fun old tunes provide for all.

From my grandmother’s Burlington party room to Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle Pub I have learned five things about music:

  1. Genres are junk. There is so much commonality between what critics, radio stations, music companies, I-Tunes, and the rest say are categories of music that the categories are meaningless. There is good music and bad music. Which is which? It’s up to you – enjoy the power to decide for yourself.
  2. The Best is Not Opinion but Math – Nearly every kind of music was available in every era. Which era was best is a mathematics question. Do the math and determine the years in which you were thirteen to seventeen years old. That era produced the best music ever made.
  3. Commitment Matters – Chickens are involved in breakfast but pigs are committed. It’s the same sliding scale with music. To be involved is to listen and to deepen your involvement is to see music played live. To be committed is to play music yourself and to be fully committed is to play with others where you need to not only play but listen. Watch any band that hits a groove and see the endorphins flow. You will know when it happens by their eye contact and at the end they will laugh. Playing music is fun. That’s why they call it playing.
  4. It’s in the Wires – Our brains are wired to learn, remember, and enjoy. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, has done extensive research and found that music hits all three. Music literally re-wires our neural pathways, enabling us to learn more, remember more, and enjoy more in our lives than if music were absent.
  5. It Never Goes – Those studying Alzheimer’s patients have found that long after sufferers forget everything, they remember music. Know that right now there are old people who cannot recall their names but can still play the piano and sing Sinatra songs. I shudder to think that someday there may be an addled old man in a home somewhere strumming a guitar and warbling I’m a Believer.

With this now written I will turn from my desk, pick up my Martin and we’ll enjoy an hour or so together. Maybe I’ll sing that old Elvis song and remember my Godmother. She’s doing the best she can these days but I bet that despite all that’s been forgotten, she remembers the words better than I do.

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Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society but books and music are the best evidence that the civilization is thriving. Let’s leave books aside for the moment and consider music. People far smarter than me have failed to determine exactly why music is so pleasurable. It can be a hot bath or a cold shower, a dose of valium or a hit of Red Bull; music can be stimulating, irritating, compensating and luxuriating.

If the best way to experience music is to play it with others then the second best is to experience it with others. A concert is a visual, auditory, sociological carnival. The difference between a concert and a recording is like between a movie and a play. The concert is immediate, existing only in the moment, and enjoyed in the dark with others. There is danger because mistakes can be made. It is enthralling because art is being created right before your eyes. It is art that will exist only for an instant and then be gone forever.

I have experienced a lot of concerts and will not bore you with the entire list. A few I’ve enjoyed include Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Buddy Guy, Ben Harper, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, John Hiatt, Jackson Browne, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, Phish, Bare Naked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, Chicago, Johnny Cash, Ricky Nelson, Ringo Starr, Kris Kristofferson and on and on.

Many concerts have disappointed. I saw Gordon Lightfoot in his prime but left wondering if he really wanted to be there. I saw B. B. King and Chuck Berry when their primes were in the rear view mirror. King rambled rather than played and twice during solos that he clumsily threw to his pick-up band Berry forgot what song he was singing.

Some concerts have delighted me. Bruce Springsteen was, well, he was Bruce for over three hours, outdoors, blasting into the summer breeze rock n roll played by grown men. All three Paul McCartney concerts left me amazed with the man’s energy, talent and catalogue. The first time I saw Elvis Presley I was thrilled by the musicianship of his band, his energy and charisma, and the power of his voice that in a couple ballads and gospel numbers seemed to shake the arena.

Image

Elvis in Niagara Falls, New York in 1975

I was once in Nashville. Arriving early to see Jerry Lee Lewis I found myself in a tiny, chicken BBQ juke-joint. I was told that the concert was out back and so walked through a small door and into a large parking lot with a thousand stacked-up folding chairs and a stage at one end. I pulled a steel chair from the pile, placed it in what would become the front row and a twelve-year-old boy offered to guard it for a dollar.  I returned an hour later to find the place packed and the boy good to his word. Lewis was terrific. He explained that when his career collapsed in scandal that the owner of the place was one of the few who would hire him and so he performed once a year to return the favour.

The best concerts are those that surprise me. One year at the Mariposa Folk Festival, back when it was on Toronto Island, we heard a deep baritone coming from a small stage. We spread our blanket and were captivated by the voice, songs and stories of Stan Rogers. Another Mariposa festival ended with John Prine. The brilliance of lyrics that combined humour, insight and bathos was magnificent and to top off a perfect show he was joined by his pal Steve Goodman. They played Souvenirs and Paradise and seemed lost in the joy of the songs, the crowd, and each other’s company. Music’s ability to unite strangers was evident with the sound (and aroma) of hundreds of us singing Paradise over and over again on the ferry back to the city.

Paul Simon’s Graceland tour was a special moment in cultural, political and musical history. Maple Leaf Gardens was an awful place to see a concert. I had seen the Good Brothers there and Jimmy Buffet and Neil Diamond and everyone always suffered the bad sight-lines and worse sound. That rainy night it did not matter. Nelson Mandela was still in jail and apartheid appeared invincible. But Lady Smith Black Mambazo danced with moves and rhythms that shocked and enchanted. They and others sang of their homeland sometimes in words we could not comprehend but with an emotional commitment that could not be denied. Simon was great but almost an afterthought as the singers, musicians and music of a country in pain beguiled us with a joyous spirit of undiminished hope.

Image Lady Smith Black Mambazo

The most surprising concert of all, and therefore my favorite, was close to home. The Pines is gone now. For generations it was an institution. The Pines was a smoke-smelling, falling-down, big box of a building just outside of my hometown that harkened back to the honkey tonks of the American south. At least, that’s what Ronnie Hawkins said one night as he led his band through old rock-a-billy songs while sipping vodka and orange juice from a beer pitcher.

Superman Song was on the radio at the time. It was funny and mournful. It was hopeful and sad. It spoke of Superman’s funeral, attended by his old superhero pals who were in awe of his life’s work but understood a man who felt unappreciated, unrewarded, and with an immigrant’s sense of homelessness. The band was called the Crash Test Dummies. The singer, Brad Roberts, sang so low and with a tone so melancholy that it suggested the voice of Methuselah; or maybe of God Himself. We bought tickets based on that one song.

Our surprising night began with the opening act. Lennie Gallant is from PEI and at that point had just recorded his first album. He had borrowed sound equipment from a friend; it was all stamped Rita McNeil. His voice was strong, his band was stronger and his songs were stronger still. They had catchy hooks, clever changes and lyrics that actually said something of life’s challenges and love’s trials and of a region of the country where there is a constant battle between hope, fear and fun. Every song was better than the last. At one point he sang a ballad of the sea, accompanying himself on an Irish bodran.  The night could have ended there, but then it got even better.

Image Lennie Gallant

The Crash Test Dummies exuded the perfect balance of show biz swagger and Canadian modesty. Roberts was obviously the leader and his voice the star. The harmony vocals of Ellen Reid were angelic. Her sarcastic banter and sly smile kept Roberts humble. Roberts introduced the band that included his older brother who he said was behind him and to the left but was smarter, more talented, better looking and more popular with women but still, he reminded us, behind him and to the left.

The songs were ingenious without being glib. The melodies were like all well-crafted songs in that they were fresh but instantly memorable and stirred an inkling that I’d had heard them before. Each offered a new perspective on an old idea. Each used interesting metaphors and offered unpredictable patterns and breaks, rhythms and instrumentation. Unlike some bands, no one showed off. They seemed to remember that when the songs are strong they will do the work; no one overpowered the songs or each other. You could see them playing for us but listening to each other and enjoying themselves; that’s why they call it playing. They sang their whole debut album and the Superman Song twice.

Image Crash Test Dummies

It was the best concert ever because I went expecting nothing and was surprised by everything. It was the music, the players, crowd, the venue, and those I was with – it was perfect. Canada has incredible musical talent. I’ve enjoyed concerts by Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo, the Sadies, Randy Bachman, Serena Ryder, Royal Wood, April Wine, the Guess Who, Cowboy Junkies, Valdy, Murray McLaughlin, Blackie and Rodeo Kings and many more but I always kind of knew what to expect. But that night at the Pines, way back in 1991 took me by surprise and left me dazzled. The Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – the best concert ever.

    Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

  1. Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – 1991
  2. Paul Simon – Graceland – 1986
  3. Bruce Springsteen – 2013
  4. Elvis Presley – 1975
  5. Paul McCartney – 2002