In which the author joins together with the bands
Once upon a time I had a box full of concert ticket stubs. After my wife died in 2012, that box went up in metaphorical smoke. I think it went into the recycling in fact. It was a magical box, and, yes, I have regrets about tossing that thing full of things. I tossed a sizeable chunk of my personal archive, keeping what seemed “essential.”
Why did I do this? Because I was asking: What am I to do with Kate’s stuff? Sort through it; keep what’s essential. But what’s essential? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. So, surely, I should go through my stuff first, set a standard of some kind. Draw the line. So, I did. Went through my stuff, tossed a sizeable chunk. Then I went through Kate’s stuff and kept … pretty much everything. Not totally everything, but almost.
There are no rules about these things, and Kate had two still smallish children when she died, and eventually I will turn her everything of things over to them. But realistically, that’s not going to be any time soon, so I remain Kate’s archivist, a role I will have far longer than we were married.
That box of concert tickets would be useful to this post, which is going to be stories and memories of concerts attended through the years. Once upon a time, I thought I might make a collage of the concert tickets, but they’re gone now. The collage exists in my head, and what will exist instead is this story or collection of stories, which is the end state for just about all things, isn’t it?
“Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.”
In May 1992, I had my convocation at the University of Waterloo. I picked up my gown in the morning, and the ceremony must have been in the afternoon. In any case, I wore my convocation gown to lunch at the Bombshelter, the campus pub, where I discovered that Paul James had set up an amp and was running through a set of songs. When he paused for a break, I asked if he would take a request. He would. I requested “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
“On a jingle jangle morning, I’ll come following you.”
When he came back on, he said, “This next song is for the guy in the back wearing the robe.”
I had read a story about Bob Dylan dropping in on a Paul James show at a bar in Toronto, so I felt confident for a good Bob vibe.
In 1986 at Toronto’s Nags Head, James, spinning through the audience playing guitar behind his head, literally spun right into Robert Zimmerman himself. With Dylan’s face suddenly inches from his own,
Paul thought he was hallucinating. For the last set that night, Dylan joined James on stage after being introduced as "a hitchhiker from Vancouver.”
On November 8, 2001, during a Dylan show at Air Canada Centre, Paul James emerged from backstage and played with the band for a couple of songs, the thrill of a lifetime for him, I’m sure. Many of the concert stories I’m about to tell were thrills for me, but they may just read like a list of shows to others. I’ll try to make it interesting by adding what spice I can. What are the stakes? I hear the editor in the back row. Who’s the antagonist? Where’s the tension?
The tension is the fight with my memory. As the Tragically Hip sang, you remember what you remember.
It would seem to me
I remember every single fucking thing I know
— At The Hundredth Meridian (1992)
Okay, they said it better.
The first concert I ever attended was April 18, 1985, Massey Hall, Julian Lennon , who was touring his first album Valotte (1984). Later I saw him at Canada’s Wonderland, when he was touring his second album, The Secret Value of Daydreaming (1986). In the mid-1980s I was a huge Beatles fan. The first LP I ever bought was the Beatles red album, the early hits (1962-1966). I bought it at Thorncliffe Park, probably in 1983. I bought a denim jacket at that plaza around that same time, perhaps at the same time. I still have the jacket and the LP. I was 15.
When Kate was dying, one of the mental health people around asked me how I was coping, and I said that I was listening to a lot of the music I used to listen to when I was a teenager. It seemed to ground me. I speculated that I was returning to a stage of my life that “was my core, my foundation, the basis of my personality. My internal 15-year-old, who will get me through this.”
“Good luck with that,” the mental health professional said.
I’m unsure if my internal 15-year-old got me through it, but I got through it. My internal 15-year-old wouldn’t have wanted me to toss those concert ticket stubs, though.
In 2006, my brother bought two tickets to see Sean Lennon at the Opera House in Toronto, so I ended up seeing both of John Lennon’s sons. Sean looked like his father a lot but sounded nothing like him. Julian sounded a lot like John, but his little brother carved out a more singular, innovative space. At Sean’s show, someone kept calling out titles of Beatles’ songs, so frequently that Sean addressed it: “To the Beatles’ fans out there, you’re really tiresome.” I felt sorry for the guy; he was doing interesting things.
But it is tiresome, right? The nostalgia? Trying to catch a bit of that lightning in a bottle? I became a Beatles’ fan, strange but likely true, because John Lennon was shot. In December 1980, I was 12. I have no memory of the Beatles before John was shot, but I have a memory of the Donato cartoon in the Toronto Sun of the shattered Lennon glasses. My junior high music teacher clipped it and taped it to the front of the room.
In my high school, there was a crew of us who felt we’d missed out. The Sixties. The Seventies. It was all over. Now the latest hit makers were Madonna and Duran Duran. We weren’t into this. I was into the Beatles. One buddy was into Led Zeppelin. Another digged CCR. Around the cafeteria the big debate was: Pink Floyd or Rush? In 1983, the Who had ended their career as an active band with a final concert at Maple Leaf Gardens. I remember the hype, even as I probably had no idea who they were. They were from the Sixties! They were important! They were over! (Or maybe not. LOL.) In my art class, where I painted a Beatles’ logo, one girl told me they sucked. “They’re not as good as the Stones.” There was a classic conflict.
In 1985, my family visited England—visit to the grandparents, tour around. We look in the Lake District, Cambridge, Blenheim Palace, Gloucester Cathedral—and Strawberry Fields. In Liverpool, we also drove past the house John Lennon grew up in, and my brother and I insisted we get a hotel room with a TV because we just had to, had to watch Live Aid … because the Who were going to reunite to play. My parents went out for a long walk, seeing Liverpool’s new cathedral. My brother and I watched 12+ hours of television. This was not Woodstock, but it was ours.
Speaking of Woodstock. Remember Saturday afternoon television? You had no idea what might be on, so you just sat waiting for something to happen. One afternoon it was Woodstock, and I was transfixed. Joe Cocker. Richie Havens. Crosby, Stills, Nash. Ten Years After. Santana. Jimi Hendrix. The Who. (Santana is coming to Toronto in August 2022. Just bought myself a ticket.)
Some other Sunday I saw the 1969 concert at Varsity Stadium, featuring a so-called “Rock and Roll Revival”: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis. (Film: “Sweet Toronto,” by D.A. Pennebaker.) My mind was blown, but what I didn’t know then was that John Lennon appeared at that concert, fronting a thrown-together band that included Eric Clapton. Maybe they showed footage of that, too? I don’t remember. After the Skydome opened in 1989, I attended a “Rock and Roll Revival” concert there, my first concert at that venue. My first time inside the Dome, I believe. Little Richard played, so did Chuck Berry, and Frankie Avalon, I think. Jerry Lee did not attend, but I saw him around the same time at the Ontario Place Forum, and when he smashed into “Great Balls of Fire,” a dozen greased and gussied up 50s-style dancers rushed the stage and started doing the twist all around the stage. Goodness gracious.
But I put SRV (1987) at the top of this, because: Stevie Ray Vaughan. I saw him on July 23 that summer, the summer between high school and university, at Canada’s Wonderland, from the front row. It was a sweltering day, hot and deeply humid, and SRV wore his black wide-brimmed hat as perspiration drenched his face and he tore new holes in his fingers, I’m sure, mind melding us all to his blistering guitar’s sonic sensations. I don’t have the language to give it justice; it was something sweet. On May 10, 1988, I went with my same buddy, TB, to Maple Leaf Gardens to see SRV play on a double bill with Robert Plant. SRV came first, but it would be false to say he “opened.” He played at least 90 minutes, and the house was alert to his every move. Plant had to follow, and I don’t remember much about his performance. His guitar player was loud, but no Jimmy Page. No SRV.
I wrote earlier about seeing the Rolling Stones in Montreal in 1989. I should include that I got caught up in the Pink Floyd hype in the cafeteria in 1987. They had come out of retirement, and everyone was, like, can you believe it? I joined a crew on the sidewalk, camping overnight to ensure we would score tickets when they went on sale in the morning. I later did something similar for REM (April 12, 1989), who had the Indigo Girls open for them, and it’s them I remember more. “Closer to Fine.” Nice. The Pink Floyd concert was in the fall of 1987, Exhibition Stadium, and they floated the giant pig. Like, whatever, dudes. I was unimpressed.
That year had included U2 (October 3), also at Exhibition Stadium, touring The Joshua Tree LP. I bought the t-shirt; I still have the t-shirt. On June 23, 2017, when U2 toured again on The Joshua Tree (30th anniversary), I went again, wearing the original t-shirt, this time accompanied by my stepson, then 18, the same age I was at the 1987 concert. We had floor tickets this time and were pretty close to the stage. I found I most liked the early, early stuff they played, when they were more punk than pop. Still, The Joshua Tree was “my” U2 album, the first many bought on CD, because that’s when the music format changed, and—“have you heard this? Total silence, no hiss!!” The Joshua Tree also had Mennonites playing on it, some string musicians connected to some Toronto area Mennos. The synchronicity seemed important then.
See also Sarah McLachlan (1989, Waterloo; 1990, Toronto & Ottawa).
My first-year roommate at Waterloo, Conrad Grebel College, JU, a Mennonite from Leamington, announced one day that there was a band we needed to see, playing at Phil’s Grandson’s Place. This is the name of a bar/club in Waterloo. It’s still in operation. Online, it says Phil’s opened in 1988, but I’m pretty sure this event I’m about to describe happened in October 1987, because I had just turned 19 and could legally drink. Anyway, I had never heard of the band, which was called: The Forgotten Rebels. One of Toronto’s home-grown punk originals. I remember sitting waiting for the show to start, and the band walked in, the lead singer looking distinct with poofed hair and a kind of Sergeant Pepper’s uniform. He looked deeply hungover or worn down. My roommate was ecstatic.
“He looks like Rod Stewart!”
Sure, Rod Steward crossed with Steve Tyler crossed with Johnny Rotten.
The Forgotten Rebels’s big songs were “Surfing on Heroin,” “Elvis is Dead,” and “Bomb the Boats.”
“Elvis is dead, Elvis is dead, that big fat guy is dead, dead, dead. So spend your money on our records instead.”
“Bomb the Boats” is about the Vietnamese Boat People: “bomb the boats, feed the fish.” It is as racist a lyric as you will find anywhere.
At the end of the evening, we stumbled home.
Other residents of Conrad Grebel College had other musical tastes, which helped take me to two Jane Siberry concerts, the first at Hagey Hall, University of Waterloo, which was terrific.
The following summer (May 27, 1988) I saw Siberry again, this time at the Ontario Place Forum, where a Saskatchewan folk singer opened for her with catchy tunes I still recall.
“Don Freed, Don Free-eed. He built the mighty railroad across this mighty land.”
A couple years later, I lived in Saskatoon, and Don Freed cut an LP over two nights, and I attended one of those nights. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the night when Colin James dropped in to play along. I think Freed’s song, “Talkin’ Louis Riel Day Blues,” is a classic, and I wish I had a copy of it. The LP Freed taped was released as a cassette only, which I think I still have, but I have nothing to play it on, and it doesn’t seem to be available in digital format anywhere, which is so strange. Isn’t everything on the internet? Nope.
Jeff Healey came to the University of Waterloo on November 21, 1987. Maybe that was the 1987 concert, my first legal drinking outing. He was terrific, and as I think of it now I saw him only months after seeing SRV, quite a double line-up. Everyone was loving Spirit of the West that year, too, and they came to the Bomber, I believe, but I didn’t see them there. Saw them at the Ontario Place Forum, probably summer 1988 or later. Damn, those lost ticket stubs again. SOTW had a song (“Profiteers”) about the inflated price of real estate (perpetually timely) that they introduced saying how Expo ‘86 had driven real estate beyond the reach of ordinary people. When they did that at the Ontario Place show, someone yelled in response: “Bunch of communists!” Something like that. Point, counterpoint.
I’m going to add here now some non-musicians I saw. I’ll get back to musicians—including Dylan—below.
As I noted in an earlier post (1990), I once saw the film Growing up in America, and in a large way it framed how I saw the world. The Sixties offered promise. The Eighties were crushing it. Hunter S. Thompson wrote a book called Generation of Swine (1988). He meant my generation. The cultural conflict was illustrated in a series of debates that former radical colleagues, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were having. Once paired as co-defendants in the Chicago 7 trial, now they faced off in: Yippies vs Yuppies. Hoffman called the 80s the era of “designer brains.” Once famous for saying he didn’t trust anyone over 30, he now said he didn’t trust anyone under 30.
Hoffman had gone underground in the 1970s, after skipping bail on a drug charge and hiding out in Montreal. Later, he re-emerged but found it hard to be relevant. He killed himself, April 12, 1989. No, I didn’t see Hoffman, but I could have. He spoke at the University of Guelph on September 13, 1988. Audio of Hoffman from that visit is available online, amazingly. I later read Hoffman’s book, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture (1980), and his brother’s later biography of the Sixties most charismatic radical, whom Saul Alinsky said “couldn’t organize his way out of a wet paper bag.”
One Sixties radical who came to the University of Waterloo when I was there was Kwame Ture (once Black Panther Stokley Carmichael). In March 1990, I dragged a couple of friends to an engineering lecture hall to hear him quote Marx and confidently predict that the revolution was coming. Historical logic could not be refuted.
The weirdest Sixties radical re-enactment I experienced happened in Saskatoon, one of the two schools in North America in the 1960s that hosted scientific trials of LSD (PDF). Yes, Timothy Leary came to Saskatoon circa 1993 and talked over a very wild Powerpoint presentation. You might even say it was psychedelic. He’s the one who noted U of S was sister school to Harvard, where he taught and studied acid, back in the day. There’s a book about Leary that’s apparently good: I Have America Surrounded (2006) by J.M.R. Higgs. He had no one surrounded at U of S. Seemed more dropped out than tuned in or turned on.
The two public lectures I attended while at the University of Waterloo in the late 1980s, strangely perhaps, were held in the Wilfred Laurier gymnasium: one was Gwynn Dyer, the other Jean Chrétien. Both spoke to full houses. Dyer remains a public intellectual on geopolitical conflict, and as 80s children we all thought for sure we would get blown up, but Dyer was optimistic about the rise of democracies and the waning of major conflicts. True for a while. Chrétien was out of politics at the time, but of course never really out of politics. He had lost the Liberal leadership to John Turner, who I saw one time in the 1990s on the subway in Toronto. I also saw Preston Manning on the subway, and one time the sprinter Ben Johnson, too. (Someone asked him, “Are you Ben Johnson?” He said, “Yeah.”) Anyway, Chrétien was Chrétien. Charismatic, funny, self-deprecating to a point, partisan.
He said, “The Americans didn’t know they had a trade deficit with Canada until Mulroney told them. Why would we tell them? Everything was okay. Just leave it alone!”
Aiaiai. Two more non-musicians. Hockey players. My Waterloo roommate wanted to see Guy Lafleur, who had returned from retirement and was playing for the New York Rangers. On one visit back to Toronto, I went to Maple Leaf Gardens and got two standing room tickets for the next time the Rangers were in town. We squeezed in at the end of the rink and screamed: “Guy! Guy!” He took a super passive approach to the power play, leaving the opponents zone and then standing just the other side of the blue line, while he wanted for his teammates to retrieve the puck. The other hockey story involves Marcel Dionne, who launched his memoir at a west end Toronto bar. I went with my cousin, DW, who chatted up Marcel before the gig. Marcel, one of the most prolific goal scorers in the history of the NHL, told us how he didn’t like watching hockey. “Too boring now. Too much clutch and grab!” He and his wife preferred to go to musicals on Broadway. “At least you know at the end of the night you will have had a good time.”
Finally, I saw Dustin Hoffman interviewed in August 1989. He was in London, England, performing as Shylock in Merchant of Venice. Local theatre people asked if he would be available to be interviewed, so they could sell tickets as a fundraiser. He agreed. I was in London, read about it, and got inside. It thrilled me. In one exchange I remember, Hoffman insisted that taking on an artistic identity meant focusing on the verb. “If you are an actor, act; if you are a painter, paint; if you are a writer, write. I know too many people who call themselves actors, but all they do is wait tables. Think about the verb. Do it.”
A quick list of bands I saw, which will have no story attached: Blue Rodeo, Ray Charles, Kim Mitchell, TPOH, David Wilcox, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Georgia Satellites, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Terrence Blanchard, Kitty the Fool (Kathleen Edwards), Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Bryan Adams, Colin James (without Don Freed), Michelle Shocked, Art Bergman, Steve Earle, David Bryne, 54-40, Tanya Tagaq, the Police, Boston, Nelly Furtado, Bruce Cockburn, Buffy Saint Marie, Ani Difrano, Rheostatics, Phil Lesh, Bachman/Cummings, John McLaughlin.
Quick one-line stories. Saw Brian Wilson at Massey Hall, October 6, 2004. He couldn’t sing, and he couldn’t remember the words to his songs, but his band was terrific; the backing singers amazing; the song catalogue stellar. Saw Van Halen, with David Lee Roth out front, because RIM booked them for a corporate gig, and my brother took me as his guest. Afterwards I said: “So much talent, so little purpose.” But I learned that VH were the Beach Boys for a different generation. Surf City here we come. I saw CSNY at Maple Leaf Gardens, and they were all washed up except you know who. Neil. He led the band through a scorching version of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and Stephen Stills fell off the stage, bringing the show to a rapid and sudden conclusion. I saw Billy Bragg touring the album of Woody Guthrie songs he and and Wilco had given music to. The Guthrie family had a notebook of lyrics and no music. Bragg toured with a good band that wasn’t Wilco.
I saw the Pokeroo. How about that? Now that was a long time ago! Robbie Robertson sat for an interview at Indigo Books on Bloor Street after his memoir came out. I got there early so I had a good view. In 2006 I had gone with my father to the same location to see Leonard Cohen give a short show on the street. He was backed that day by the Bare Naked Ladies, and he seemed more interested in giving them the microphone to sing his songs than he did in fronting them. Everyone was clearly very, very happy. I took photos.
Back in the 1970s, my parents took us to see Tommy Hunter. We watched CBC Friday nights, and wasn’t it: the Beachcombers, the Irish Rovers, and Tommy Hunter? Ah, Old Canada. In 1997, I visited Halifax and saw a bar band play a Celtic fiddle version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Marvellous. Old Canada meets new. At one East York Canada Day event in Stan Wadlow Park, a local band played a sharp, loud version of The Police’s “I’m So Lonely.” I asked my buddy who they were. The lead singer was the son of a local preacher. Every summer I was in Saskatoon, the Arrogant Worms came through town, bringing with them the pirates of the prairies.
Well, you'd think the local farmers would know that I'm at large
But just the other day I found an unprotected barge
I snuck up right behind them and they were none the wiser,
I rammed their ship and sank it and I stole their fertilizer!
A bridge outside of Moose Jaw spans a mighty river
Farmers cross in so much fear their stomachs are a'quiver
Cause they know that Tractor Jack is hidin' in the bay
I'll jump the bridge and knock them cold and sail off with their hay!
And it's a heave-ho, hi-ho, comin' down the plains
Stealin' wheat and barley and all the other grains
It's a ho-hey, hi-hey farmers bar yer doors
When ya see the Jolly Roger on Regina's mighty shores
I saw Tom Waits (August 23, 1999) at what was once the O’Keefe, then the Hummingbird, and now it’s something else. He told a story about walking around Toronto and being accosted by a shy hot dog vendor, who simply said: “You’re the best!” As part of the encore, he asked for suggestions, and someone yelled out: “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.” Waits had written the song for the Ramones. He lit up. Yes! He played it.
In August 1981 (I think) I had a volunteer job at the Canadian National Exhibition. I was 12, about to turn 13, and I was a Boy Scout, and the Scouts volunteer to push wheelchair bound seniors around the Ex. I took the subway/bus by myself (or with friends) down to the CNE, spent all day there, then came home in the evenings. It was a lot of time away from home and a big taste of independence. I still remember that summer vividly. The Scout depot was near the bandstand, and every day a troupe of dancers and musicians would give the same show. They played Sly and the Family Stone (“Dance to the Music”) and Kool and the Gang (“Celebrate Good Times”). There was also a Beatles cover band that set up a stage near the Food Building and gave a concert at the same time every day, changing costumes in between songs representing the shifting phases of the Fab Four.
In 2003, my brother said we should go see Bruce Springsteen, so we did. The concert at the Rogers Centre was days after the death of Warren Zevon, and Bruce started with a Zevon song, “My Ride’s Here.” The recording of that performance later appeared on a Zevon tribute CD “Enjoy Every Sandwich” (and the performance is online). Enjoy Every Sandwich (2011) is also the title of a book by Lee Lipsenthal, which he wrote while dying of cancer. Kate’s brother bought it for her Christmas 2011, and that phrase became a kind of mantra around our house in the coming months.
Bruce was grade 11 for me. Born in the USA and the release of the 1975-1985 live box set. He seemed to come out of nowhere and insist that he was a big deal. In 2016 he wrote a memoir, which I listened to as an audio book, and it’s remarkable in its candor and in how he articulates the process of his self-acceptance and emerging self-awareness. Clearly in the early days he was driven by something he wasn’t sure what, and it got him fame and fortune and nothing close to what he thought he was looking for. That took a different process, a different sort of drive and honesty.
Maybe we could say Gord Downie had a similar kind of thing. His best line might be: “Canada is not Canada.” I’ve already written about seeing The Tragically Hip in Ottawa (1989). I think I later saw them twice at Federation Hall, University of Waterloo, and maybe once at the Ontario Place Forum. Never saw them in a stadium or arena. Never wanted to. At the Ottawa show, a Toronto band, the Phantoms opened. They had great Indy Rock energy and a swinging front man in Jerome Godboo. I saw them every chance I could for several years, including seeing Godboo solo with his harmonica on Spadina at Grossman’s, a Canadian literary landmark as the site of the 1970 People’s Poetry Award to Milton Acorn.
When I caught up with John Forgarty in the summer on July 11, 2016, it seemed almost absurd. Are the Sixties Rockers still out there? Do I still care? Yes. He was great. He had his son standing beside him in his band, touring with him that summer, before he went off to graduate school in September. They were having a great time together, and when he lit into “Fortunate Son,” you knew this was a Rock God. That guitar. That sound. That song. What a song to write in the middle of a war.
A year earlier I had jumped for joy when I got tickets for Joan Jett (opening for Boston). This was my generation: “I love rock and roll, put another dime in the juke box baby!” Snarl, kick. Thump thump, snare. Black leather and tough chicks. Nice.
In 2002, I took myself out to a club, following a breakup that was sad, sad, sad, and went to see an act written up in that week’s NOW: Baltimore’s own Mary Prankster. Another tough, punk rock chick, thick with attitude and humour. I loved her instantly and just thought wow, wow, wow. She played without a band. Had great hair, a brilliant smile, and leather. I bought the CD and mailed away later for the rest. Mary Prankster is, of course, a stage name, playing on the Merry Pranksters, Neal Cassidy, et al.
We’re getting near the end, and I haven’t written about Dylan. We’re getting there. First, though, two other Bobs: Wiseman and Snider.
I first saw Bob Wiseman when he was part of Blue Rodeo. I saw them at the Ontario Place Forum, and there was Bob on that great organ solo in “Diamond Mine.” He also took a spot at the mike and the band backed up one of Wiseman’s songs: “Airplane on the Highway.” It was the most interesting song of the night. After he left Blue Rodeo, he gigged around, and I saw him in KW first, then later a couple of times in Saskatoon, then later again in Toronto, once at the Rivoli where fronted an all-female band. In Saskatoon, I took a photo of him outside Amigos, the venue. In the mid-90s, I wrote an article about him that I sent to Shift magazine, though I don’t know if they ever published it. I visited Wiseman at his countryside studio. We chatted about Bob Dylan, and Bob Snider, whom he’d produced. I saw Wiseman at every opportunity, sure he was a true genius on the keyboard. 1994’s “Beware of Bob,” recorded live at the University of Guelph, captures the chaos and the glitter. Lightning in a bottle. Just the other day, Wiseman wrote on FB: “Mendelson Joe told me thirty years ago if I present music that zig zags as much as I did on the Lake Michigan Soda record, I will be unliked by music critics. From his view to present more than one type of music as your identity solidifies a forever uphill struggle. I think there is a flip side which is that celebrated and accepted doesn't necessarily mean people are listening deeply.” We’re listening, Bob. Some of us. When I interviewed him, one the other things he told me is that his song, “Diary of a U.S. crop duster…” came from research from an article in Alternatives Journal. I’d spent the summer of 1992 as their editorial assistant.
“What the Astronaut Noticed & then Suggested (Taylor Field)”: Bob Wiseman (1991)
Bob Snider I saw initially, I think, at the Free Times Cafe in the fall of 1989. He appeared there semi-regularly, and I went back several times. His plain spoken, clear and direct folk songs and gentle self-deprecating humour marked him out as keenly interesting. His CD, produced by Bob Wiseman, Caterwaul & Doggerel (1995) still gets regular playing time. “What An Idiot He Is” killed us.
Another band I saw over and over in the KW days was The Rhinos, featuring Kitchener’s own Danny Michel. I was not a ska fan, particularly. But these guys played a bouncy happy style—and they wrote their own catchy tunes.
Julie’s mother saw her first UFO the other day
Now she’s been up on the roof with a video cam since yesterday
Julie your mom’s gone mad
But, baby, don’t be sad
Because the sun always shines in a different part of the world
In the summer of 1992, I’d graduated, but I was still in town, and still writing arts bits and bobs for the student newspaper. I wrote something about the band and hung out with them for an afternoon. I mentioned that James Brown would be coming to the Ontario Place Forum. They said, “Can you get tickets?” I said, “Do you have wheels to get to Toronto?” Well, yes and yes. I bought the tickets, and they provided the wheels. I remember riding down the 401 in the back of a van with my buddy, CI, as he quizzed one of the band’s buddies about the skater shop he owned. Yes, the dude owned the skater shop. He’d dropped out of high school and opened the shop, it just grew and grew, and then he bought his mother a house. James Brown was terrific.
On January 6, 2006, I saw JB again, this time at Casino Rama with my buddy, PP. Again, the Godfather of Soul was terrific, but 90 minutes after the show started, the show ended (casino contract rules), but the band kept playing. They probably played a 20-minute version of “Sex Machine” with JB repeating, “We want to stay, but we have to go. We want to stay, but we have to go. STAY ON THE SCENE. LIKE A SEX MACHINE.” Yeow! The hardest working man in show business. King.
Did I mention The Who? When I last mentioned The Who, they were playing Live Aid in 1985. I thought that would be it, after missing their “last show” in 1983. But in 1989 they came back to Toronto, Exhibition Stadium, inexplicably with a brass band backing, and it sucked. Then in 2006 I had another chance and said OKAY, and it was amazing. There were no brass backup players; they played like a power quartet, with Zack Starkey (Ringo’s son) pounding the melons like a properly deranged orchestral drummer channeling Keith Moon. (If you’re counting, that’s three Beatles’ kids now.) After that show, my Who fix was sated, but they came back again, and again, and again, and again. Yes, I believe I’ve seen them four times since 2006, but I lost count (and no longer have the tickets). One of those shows was all Quadrophenia, which was amazing. The last one, in September 3, 2019, I took my stepson, who told me after we were there that he couldn’t name a single song by the band. Later, he said he recognized “Baba O’Riley,” as it’s used as the intro music to a TV show. His first concert was seeing Ozzy. Not with me.
I will have to dig into the big Who-related themes another time. In high school, I read Pete Townshend’s book of short stories, Horse’s Neck (1985). One day my English class had a substitute, and he asked us to spend the period reading, while he read the Townshend book at his desk. At the end of the class, I asked how he liked it just to see the shock on his face. I remember going to the Roxy cinema on the Danforth around the same time to see the Who concert film/documentary, “The Kids Are Alright” (1979) which felt like a concert, the sound was turned up so loud. Of course, I liked Pete best (not Pete Best, though), because he was literary, sullen, introspective, smashed his guitars. In 2006, The Who released “Endless Wire,” first album of new material in decades, and they introduced one of the softer songs. Pete said, “I wrote these quieter ones, so I don’t have to do this all of the time.” On “this” he ripped a crashing power chord of feedback—and the crowd of course screamed for more. In 2019, Pete was 74, and crashing power chords left and right, not seeking the quiet corners. And he was having a bloody good time, too. The audience had teenagers and folks in their 80s. Hope I die before I get old? What can that possibly even mean any more? They’re booked to come to Toronto, again, in October. I may go. Why? Not why. Who! At the end of each concert, the band lined up at the front of the stage and the audience stood in applause, wave after wave of applause. Who are you? Join together with the band. The emotional loop between the band and the audience was incredible. We applauded and applauded. Thank you for everything. An amazing journey. Stay on the scene!
At the end of the 1987 Joshua Tree concert, U2 played “40,” and the audience sang along, and it was still singing along as we boarded the streetcars out of the CNE parking lot. It was spine tingling.
Okay, now for the tambourine man. Bob Dylan. John Lennon was the gateway drug to Dylan. The more I got into the Beatles in the 80s, the more I dug into Lennon, the more I dug into the Sixties and the whole context of the thing, including the song writing competition between Bob and John, if it really was a competition, or just a dick swinging contest, but Lennon had his insecurities and if Dylan could do it, then he could, too, and Dylan could definitely do it, go into the weird abstract places of absurdism, and Lennon—Goon Show-inspired and all—went deep. Coo Coo Ka Choo! But for the longest time, Dylan seemed like an artifact of the Sixties, not a human being. Catching up with everything he did after Blonde on Blonde (1966) was not my bag, initially. Later, I dug through many Dylan tunnels and made a promise to self to see him at every opportunity. The first opportunity came on June 5, 1990 at the place formerly the O’Keefe Centre, then the Hummingbird, and now something else. I went with JM, LU, and AL, a pretty sharp foursome at the time. We had balcony tickets, and it was nice, but it was about to get even better. Two songs in, Dylan leaned into the microphone and said, “You folks at the back, there’s some room up here if you’d like to move up.” We scrambled and move up we did. We beat it down the stairs, down the aisle, and right close the stage. Dylan was 20 feet from us. We could see the sweat dripping off his face, the spit that flew out as he sang. And he sang pretty good that night. The band started electric, switched to acoustic, then back to electric. And when they played loud, they played loud and hard. Most memorable from that concert, was a version of “Times They Are A-Changin’,” which had been rearranged and was unrecognizable, except for the lyrics. I couldn’t believe it. He was singing, this?
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen Dylan. A dozen, maybe. Later, I would see him sing “Song for Woody,” which seemed even more incredible. Incredible, too, that he later wrote: “Things Have Changed” (1999). The best show, though, was the one at Maple Leaf Gardens (October 29, 1998), which began with Joni Mitchell. It was her first concert in Toronto in decades, and it was unbelievable.
Just going to end that paragraph right there.
Dylan’s band in the late-90s, early-aughts, had a fluidity that I don’t know how to describe. Dylan has done so many different things, and they were capable of doing it all. Play harder, play softer, play folk, play country, play rock, play a blues shuffle, mix and match. Charlie Sexton and Dylan would get into dueling guitars, bending the sound back and forth, and this was the sweet moment in any song, when the band would drift off, improvise, mix up what Dylan called “that liquid mercury sound,” that thing he said he was always seeking–but never quite finding? I think they found it in those moments. Just sweetness. And the re-arrangements were always stunning. Who else does this? Re-organize their catalogue, frequently? The last time I saw Dylan, he was touring Triplicate (2017), his triple album of American standards, which is stunning—and of course weird. Dylan stepped to the front of the stage and crooned: “That old black magic…..” And I laughed, because surely he knows it’s ridiculous. But he’s delivering it, honestly, because he can do anything, right? Win the Nobel Prize even. (Oh, Patti Smith, what a show!)
One of the Dylan shows was at an arena in Oshawa. It was maybe the worst Dylan show, but it was the one I went to with my wife, and she laughed all the way through it because it was so bad. She had to admit, though, that the Dylan Christmas CD (2009) wasn’t all terrible. Not ALL terrible. He is a poet of chaos with a mind like Shakespeare. Or else a charlatan, man of many masks. All of the above probably. I’ll have to explore that down to the dirt another time. For now, am I remembering correctly if I think Jay Roach told a story on the WTF podcast (2019) about dating Dylan’s daughter and walking into the house one day to hear: “I’m not paying for any more noses!” Maybe it was someone else?
In 2020, I had tickets to see Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins, but COVID cancelled that. The shows are back this year, and as I mentioned I have a ticket to see Santana in August. I may yet decide to applaud The Who one more time. But in May, I’ll be back at Casino Rama to see, yes, a Beatle. Little Richie Starkey. The amazing Ringo. I saw the show advertised and thought, yes, it’s time. My father-in-law grew up in Liverpool around the corner from the Starkeys, and he knew Ringo as a child, which is why I called him Little Richie. That’s how he was known, back in the day, and that’s how Ted told the story. It’s one of Granddad’s stories now, and I’m taking my stepdaughter. Closing a time warp loop. With a little help from my friends.
ADDENDEUM: I suddenly remembered that about 20 years ago, maybe 2005 or so, I saw The Spoons at a bar on Danforth near Broadview with my cousin, DW. The Spoons were (are?) a Toronto band from the early/mid 80s. Their big hit was “Romantic Traffic.” It was strange to see them and kind of re-enter the 80s. They brought that 80s sound right back. But why was it weird? Wasn’t I chasing the 60s through sound? Didn’t I think the 60s could be kept alive through sound? Also, the band, it turned out, weren’t much older than I was, which I could have guessed but didn’t expect. Also, I think I saw Platinum Blonde one New Year’s Eve at Nathan Phillip’s Square….