HOW THE SONG HAPPENED: RUTH LOWE’S “I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN”

Throughout history, tragedy, heartbreak, and unfathomable loss are experiences that have inspired artists to write songs. While they start from a personal place, when combined with the zeitgeist when they were written, these songs can resonate with generations long after the songwriter is gone – because of the shared feelings evoked by the words and the music.https://www.youtube.com/embed/il7DWoLySW8

“I’ll Never Smile Again” is one such song, inducted into both the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) and American Recording Hall of Fame, and a part of our country’s deep well of treasured compositions.

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Flash back to the 1930s. The Great Depression lingers. Unemployment is high. Europe edges closer to World War Two. In Toronto, 23-year-old Ruth Lowe writes a “I’ll Never Smile Again.” The sentimental ballad comes to her following not just one, but two huge losses: the death of her father in 1932, followed by the passing of her husband in 1939.

Lowe had a gift for music. After her father died, she supported the family by selling her songs and performing them. This was the start of the golden age of the Big Band era. Lowe climbed aboard. After hearing her sing in Toronto one night, bandleader Ina Ray Hutton invited her to join her all-female orchestra, full-time. Lowe agreed and hit the road.

After a gig one evening in Chicago, the songwriter had a blind date with song man Harold Cohen. The pair fell in love and soon married. After only one year of matrimony, tragedy struck Lowe for the second time when Cohen unexpectedly passed away.

“Losing the two men she loved in her life, in such a short time, inspired the song,” says Lowe’s son Tom Sandler. “My mom was so heartbroken. She said to my aunt, ‘I’ll never smile again without him,’ and the next day she sits down and quickly writes this haunting song.”

Lowe shared the song with Toronto bandleader Percy Faith. He loved it. With the songwriter’s permission, Faith arranged and recorded a 78 RPM single with his orchestra. Faith first broadcast the song in 1939 to CBC listeners on his regular program Music By Faith.

But Lowe knew she had a hit on her hands beyond Canada. The ambitious songwriter shared the recording and sheet music with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, through his guitar player – who happened to be dating one of Lowe’s girlfriends at the time. The bandleader listened to “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and like Faith, was moved.

Ruth Lowe, First Billboard Chart, I'll Never Smile Again

Dorsey arranged a new version of the song with his band, and then brought it to Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers to record. The sentimental song ended up launching Sinatra’s career; it was not only the crooner’s first No.1 Billboard hit, but the first No. 1 record on Billboard’s modern chart, staying atop it for 12 weeks, in 1941.

“With the war raging in Europe, there was a lot of heartbreak going on, and more to come,” says Sandler. “All these women were losing their loves and their husbands to war and then here comes a story of a woman losing her man. The song resonated. I call it a flashpoint in music history: Dorsey, my mom, Sinatra, the war… everything came together. It went through the roof on the charts!”

Like all great songs, more than a half-century later, “I’ll Never Smile Again” still stands the test of time. The composition inspired Frank Davies to create the CSHF. And through the decades, “I’ll Never Smile Again” has been covered by Fats Waller, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Big Joe Williams, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Eddie Arnold, The Platters, Carl Perkins, Cleo Laine, Barry Manilow, and Michael Bublé, among others.

On film, the song has been heard in Good Morning, Vietnam and The Color of Money, and on TV’s The FugitiveMcHale’s NavyLeave it to Beaver, and the Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, and Lawrence Welk shows.

An impressive legacy for a song written out of heartbreak, by a 23-year-old widow from Toronto.

To learn more about Ruth Lowe’s legacy in song, read the book Until I Smile at You, written by Sandler and Peter Jennings, published in 2020, or visit www.untilismileatyou.com

R.I.P The Tavern of The Damned – Logan’s Pub Another Casualty of Pandemic

A vital cog of the alternative and indie scene on Vancouver Island, this past October Logan’s Pub closed its doors for good. Another live music venue casualty due to the pandemic. For more than three decades, Victoria’s arts community found a home here. Live music rained from its rickety rafters six nights a week. From country to punk, death metal to alternative rock, all genres were represented. Many bands played this intimate venue before they were better known like Death Cab for Cutie, The Weakerthans, and Japandroids. Those that called it their local affectionately referred to this haven as The Tavern of the Damned. Long-time booker Mihkel Kaup has no idea who dubbed it this, but the moniker fit.

“It was damned alright!” he says. “The paint job was all red and the spirit of the place felt like it had ghosts; it also felt like the people there were damned: with our problems, our issues, our addictions, and our passions. We were all damned to make this a memorable time and damned to make music and art.”

Logan’s Pub was the proving ground for countless musicians. It’s where misfits and outcasts felt most at home in a conservative city, where their “otherness” was often feared. No surprise that the announcement this fall of its closure via Facebook sparked hundreds of comments and lamentations for this loss.

Courtesy of Logan’s Pub official Facebook page.

The venue opened at 1821 Cook Street in 1984 as Thursdays Sports Bar — a pub attached to a Nautilus Fitness Club. In 1997, brothers Chris, John, and Stuart Logan, along with another family member, purchased the venue. A couple of years later, they renamed it Logan’s Pub. This was the heyday for the music venue. Chris Logan recalls the beginnings of this seminal time in his life when Nirvana brought alternative music to the mainstream.

“I was 28, living in Halifax, and working at a bar called the Double Deuce, which was the centre of the local music scene,” he recalls. “The scene, like all scenes, eventually petered out and I decided to move to the other coast. I had no master plan, but I wanted to create a similar scene to what I felt at the Deuce.”

Enter Carolyn Mark. The alternative country singer-songwriter had already been booking shows at Thursdays. “She was really the catalyst for us starting to book shows,” Logan says. “We just built from that. There were not many other live music venues in town and word quickly got around.”

Mark shares one of her favourite stories. “When John [Logan] was alive, he would often draw the blinds after last call, indicating the bar was closed, but people wouldn’t have to leave. If they wanted more beer though, there was a price to pay. There was a bicycle with no seat in the bar and John made them ride the bike around the bar naked. One night, my drummer Garth returned home wearing a sheepish grin. ‘What’s up?’ I asked. ‘I rode the bike!’” he replied.

Chris Logan admits it took a while for them to figure things out and get the booking right. New Year’s Eve, 1999, was the first big show after a small stage was built near the front of the bar. Within two years, live music happened almost every night. The bar filled a niche. There was a real hunger for a local place to play. “We would book anything ‘weird,’” Logan comments. “There was a really good punk-rock and art-rock scene in Victoria at this time. That is when we changed from a neighbourhood sports bar to an alternative scene hangout and music venue.”

With a legal capacity of 150 (which the bar surpassed a few times before getting hit with too many violations), Logan’s represented a continuation of the DIY culture made popular by bands like Hüsker Dü and the circuit of clubs that supported these scenes, starting in the early 1980s. The former part-owner says it’s this legacy of which he is most proud. “We gave bands our PA, but they had to do all their own promotion,” he recalls. “It was a real DIY scene. Looking back, that is the real significance of Logan’s.”

BOOK IT MATEY

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As Logan’s’ booking agent from its heyday until its recent closure, Mihkel Kaup knows the ins and outs of the bar more than most. He grew up in Toronto but moved to Victoria in 2000. Today, he lives on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Fate brought him to The Tavern of the Damned. At first, it was his local – the pub around the corner from where he lived where he liked to hang out with like-minded souls and drink a few pints. He felt comfortable there, became friends with the staff, and even built the bar’s first stage with a friend. When Logan’s needed a new booking agent, despite little experience, he jumped at the opportunity.

“When I was younger and starting out I was really naïve,” Kaup says. “I remember my first big contract show was with The Sadies. I booked them for two nights and both sold out. I remember being very nervous. I locked all their money from the ticket sales in my office along with the keys! Luckily, it all worked out.”

Over the years Kaup booked everyone from Dick Dale to the Dayglo Abortions. He compares Logan’s to a ship taken over by pirates. “The ship is sinking, on fire, and everybody around it is terrified, but once you get on board, you realize these are our people – like-minded folks who believe in the counter culture and the music. There was always this sense of how long can we sustain this thing before it sinks. Sadly, COVID took it down. It’s a big loss for the city and for the community.”

Leeroy Stagger was a part of Logan’s’ DIY scene and one of Kaup’s mates. He wished those nights would last forever. In a previous life (that includes The Tavern of the Damned), he was a “straight-up wild child.” Logan’s is where he played his first shows with the Staggers and later his first solo performances. Over the years, he played there at least 30 times. “I don’t remember much about my first gig other than having my own pitcher of draft to myself on stage,” he recalls. “I’m pretty sure I was underage. After the show, I tried to walk through the Wendy’s drive-through unsuccessfully but a car full of cute UVIC girls took pity on me and let me hop in and even drove me home!”

In those early days, Chris Logan intimidated Stagger. “I remember I was always scared to go into his office, probably for fear of getting found out I was underage,” he says. “Chris was always back there smoking and cracking us all up although his humour was over my teenage punk-ass head. Ironically, Chris and I have become great friends later and much more sober in life.”

HOOT, HOOT, HOORAY!

Courtesy of  Logan’s Pub archives.

Carolyn Mark’s Hootenanny at Logan’s was as legendary as the bar. The alt-country singer-songwriter started this open mic at another pub before shifting it to Logan’s permanently when Chris Logan and his family took over operations.

“I ran this every Sunday afternoon for years,” Mark recalls, speaking from the farm where she now lives in rural Courtenay, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. “It was an open mic/open stage concept. There were moments of sublime beauty and moments of incredible shit! I liked it when touring bands stopped in … people behaved better. I always made sure they knew my Hootnanny was going on so I could lure them in.”

Stagger admits getting lured into this regular jam. Here is where his career as a solo artist really started thanks to Marks’ encouragement. At this Sunday open jam, over the years, anyone–and everyone–showed up from Wilco to Neko Case, Oh Susanna to Alejandro Escovedo. “I was the kid on the periphery, getting my education from the masters,” Stagger says.

Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter Greg MacPherson recalls a memorable show with Mark nearly 20 years ago. “She worked that whole room,” he says. “From the chairs to the windows to the servers, Carolyn was the atmosphere in that bar for over an hour.”

The loss of Logan’s is yet one more example of the cost of this pandemic on the live music ecosystem—leaving us with only memories to sustain us in the interim.

“I lament the loss of rooms like Logan’s because new venues may open eventually but they won’t have built up 20 years of memories or sit waiting for your arrival with the awkward years behind them, the sound system already figured out, regulars already dancing, years of sacrifice, hard decisions, and hundreds of performances still hanging in the air,” MacPherson concludes.

Record Rewind: 50 Years of Bad Manors

A little boogie-woogie, buckets of blues, and heaps of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s Crowbar. Frank Davies, owner of Daffodil Records, the label that released three LPs by these musical miscreants from Hamilton in the early 1970s, knows this cast of characters better than most. He introduces us to the band behind Bad Manors, Crowbar’s debut, which turns 50 in 2021.

Kelly Jay, aka ‘Captain Canada,’ the leader, singer, keyboardist, songwriter, immovable force behind and in front of the group, and promotion man extraordinaire – was rock ’n’ roll’s ‘Andre the Giant’! A walking mountain of a man and memorabilia, he would carry the Ghetto (John Gibbard) – lead guitar wailing, and Roly Greenway – yanking his oversized bass, on each of his shoulders while singing and playing boogie-woogie piano, all at the same time, to the delight of their many fans! The band was rounded out by the rock steady and always beaming drummer Sonnie “Come Va” Bernardi, and the ‘Frenchman’ Rhéal Lanthier from the Gatineau Hills – the other lead guitar – he of the silky soulful, smooth sounds and even sweeter disposition.

Released in February of 1971, Bad Manors garnered rave reviews from the Canadian music press. Major U.S. music publications, like the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, also took notice.

“Bad Manors is an important record in Canadian popular music history for many reasons,” Davies explains. “I am always hopeful that new, younger generations will continue to get to hear it because of its unpretentious infectious joy and wonderful musicianship, not to mention the anthem that helped make it famous.

“It was an unforgettable time that we didn’t want to end but knew it must,” he adds. “It had a carnival atmosphere surrounding it from the day we started until 8 a.m. on December 7, 1970, when I headed straight from the studio at the end of one of many all-night sessions to deliver the final mixed tapes to Capitol, our record distributor.”

Crowbar at Bad Manors front door, 1970. Photo by Annette Yorke. Courtesy of Frank Davies archives.

The album’s title is a nod to the six-bedroom century-old Georgian farmhouse along Mohawk Road on Hamilton Mountain where Crowbar and their friends partied, created, and even some members lived. Reflecting on the Bad Manors’ sessions, Davies recalls a joyful time. “It captured a group of musicians at their absolute peak.”

While “Oh What a Feeling” is the most well-known cut from Bad Manors, other notable songs include: “Murder in the First Degree,” “Too True Mama,” and a cover of The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept a Rollin.’”

TOBOGGAN PARTIES & PROCRASTINATION 

The primary memory the pair of surviving band members from these sessions (Gibbard and Bernardi) remember is how little time was spent on pre-preproduction. “Some of us were spending time ‘woodshedding’ on our individual instruments, and there were occasional jams at the house, sometimes involving visiting musicians and friends, but a fair amount of drinking and smoking of illegal substances also took place!” Gibbard says.

Toboggan parties on the attached hillside property were a regular occurrence during these carefree days; a lot of mulled wine was consumed out of wineskins.

One afternoon, one of Gibbard’s bandmates casually mentioned they were due to start recording in a week. Within the hour, short-term pre-production started.

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“Necessity being the mother of invention, one of the first ideas suggested was based on a James Brown medley that Roly, Rhéal, and Kelly had worked up pre-Crowbar for a club ‘house band’ they had in Winnipeg, named The Ascot Review,” Gibbard recalls. “The idea was to strip the lyrics and come up with our own. Someone came up with the hook melody, and everyone jumped in on harmonies. What we had was not anything sounding like James Brown. There was way too much of a rock ‘n’ roll feel involved, and the vocal harmonies also detracted from JB’s take. I discovered, years later, that the ‘Oh What A Feeling’ melody was likely drawn, unconsciously from memory, from the rain dance scene in Woodstock. I hadn’t seen the movie at that point, so that was a great surprise.”

COVERS & FLESHING OUT THE REST OF THE ALBUM

Gibbard says creating Bad Manors was a true collaboration with everyone contributing ideas: “Roly submitted ‘Mountain Fire’ and ‘Train Keep Rollin.’’ Kelly brought in ‘Too True Mama’ and ‘In The Dancin Hold.’ We also covered a few old hits: ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ and ‘Baby Let’s Play House.’ Joey Chirowski and Kelly doubled on piano for ‘The House of Blue Lights,’ and Rhéal covered an old country tune by Johnny Horton called ‘Cherokee Chief’.’ Crowbar had an additional member at this time named John Rutter. He went by the name of ‘Johnny Rhythm’ back before Crowbar (in the early to mid ’60s). He supplied the ‘Prince of Peace’ song and production idea.”

Under a time crunch, Gibbard admits there was no time to create an album full of originals. “Rhéal and I had been working on some little two-part guitar ditties for fun, and it was decided those could flesh out the rest of the album,” he adds. “Kelly recorded the short monologue part for ‘Oh What A Feeling’ on a hand-held cassette recorder in the bathroom, and that was added in a musical break-up part of the song.”

Guests on Bad Manors included Steve Kennedy, a well-known sax player from Dr. Music, who laid down a baritone sax solo on “Too True Mama.” “The first note of the solo was just below the range of the sax, so he accomplished it by sitting down and wrapping his foot into the bell of the horn, which resulted in the correct note,” Gibbard recalls.

“LET THE FOUR WINDS BLOW” & THE HIDDEN F-WORD

Davies shares some little-known trivia. “If you listen carefully during the Ghetto’s blazing guitar solo on the Bad Manors track ‘Let The 4 Winds Blow,’ you will hear lead singer Kelly Jay say, ‘Not that fucking guitar solo again,’ which has now been heard subliminally on radio thousands of times. Kelly was punching in his lead vocal over and over in the studio during the sessions for this particular song, and of course, we used the guitar solo as a cue for his entry/exit – to the point where on the 100th ‘take’ he could take no more and emitted those immortal words. It sounded so natural. I just couldn’t bear to take it out, so we buried it just under the track. The few of us who knew would smile every time we heard it!”

OH, WHAT A FEELING

Bop bada baa, Bop bada baa. This nonsensical phrase opens “Oh What a Feeling,” which was the first-ever CanCon hit single and the most popular track from Bad Manors. For those in the know, this phrase had meaning and was a bit of an inside joke: the password to gain entrance to Crowbar’s hangout Bad Manors in Ancaster, Ont. The song was co-written by lead singer Kelly Jay Fordham and Roly Greenway in the farmhouse on Mohawk Road that still stands. The single reached gold in Canada, but due to the perceived drug annotations in the song, it didn’t receive airplay south of the border. “It’s a song with just one chord,” Fordham told the Hamilton Spectator in 2011 when “Oh What a Feeling” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. “OK, there’s actually two. There’s a key change in the chorus, but basically, the whole thing is in the key of Bo Diddley.”

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Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond) still recalls the watershed moment when he first heard this key ingredient of Canadian rock songs. He was 10-years-old. Lying in the back seat of his parents’ Austin Mini, on the way to visit his aunt, the song blasted from the radio’s speakers, broadcast by local pioneering station CKOC-AM. “It rolled over me and ignited every pore in my body,” Wilson says. “The DJ came on after the song ended and said, ‘That was, “Oh What a Feeling” from Hamilton’s own Crowbar.’ I sat up in the back seat. I didn’t realize that any art of significance happened in my hometown. Hearing that song was the opening of the doors of opportunity and possibilities for me. I thought if somebody from Hamilton can make something this good, then anything was possible.”

The Hamiltonian never imagined more than 25 years later, a band he fronted (Junkhouse) would cover this song for the soundtrack of a Canadian television series (Due South). Then again, he jokes, it was appropriate that a “bunch of knuckleheads” from Hamilton paid homage to the Crowbar classic. Wilson admits until he was asked to cover the song, he didn’t know how to play it and felt daunted by this request from Frank Davies. “We brought everything we had to that recording,” the songwriter recalls. “Like all Junkhouse sessions, we just wanted to get the song down before we beat the shit out of each other!” Kelly Jay loved the Junkhouse version. That, for Wilson, was the ultimate compliment. Davies adds: “That cover proved yet again that when you put a great artist together with a classic song, it takes on a new life all over again.”

“Oh What A Feeling” accolades:

  • Used as the logo/theme for the 25th anniversary of the JUNO awards in 1996 and the title track of the biggest selling box set in Canadian music history: Oh What a Feeling.
  • The theme song of the Ontario government’s long-running Participaction public fitness program.
  • Inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011
  • Became a SOCAN Classic the same year (awarded by SOCAN to songs that have registered more than 100,000 logged broadcast performances).

BAD MANORS FAST FACTS

ARTIST: CROWBAR (featuring: John “The Ghetto” Gibbard; lead and slide guitars, vocals; Rheal Lanthier – lead guitar, vocals; Jozef Chirowski – organ, vocals, piano; Kelly Jay, piano/vocals; Roly Greenway, bass, vocals, percussion; and Sonnie Bernardi, drums, vocals, percussion)

ALBUM: BAD MANORS [Crowbar’s Golden Hits Vol.1]

RELEASED: January 18, 1971

STUDIO: *Toronto Sound Studios

LABEL: Daffodil Records

PRODUCER: Frank Davies

ENGINEER: Terry Brown

*Toronto Sound was Canada’s first sixteen-track recording facility and was designed, owned, and operated by studio manager/chief engineer Terry Brown.

Record Rewind: Rough Trade’s ‘For Those Who Think Young’ at 40

Rough Trade were innovators. Equal parts new wave, punk, and pop, this Toronto-based band led by Carole Pope and Kevan Staples marched to their own beat. Art, music, and theatre collided in their compositions. The band was a vehicle to have fun—and poke fun—at the world’s shortcomings through lyrics laced with social, sexual, and political satire.

Forty years ago, the band released its second album (For Those Who Think Young) on Bernie Finkelstein’s True North Records. The original title Pope toyed with was replacing Young with Jung (in reference to the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung). Finkelstein persuaded the band otherwise. He figured the reference might confuse and alienate a sector of their audience, while those who got it would still get the double entendre. Pope says when penning this title track she also had the tagline for Pepsi in mind.

When told For Those Who Think Young celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2021, Staples is surprised. “In many ways, it doesn’t seem that long ago, and sometimes it does,” he says. “Musicians tend to be young at heart and live in a perpetual state of teenagehood.”

Rough Trade started in the early 1970s, but their commercial peak came in the 1980s after signing with True North. Their first record for the homegrown label (Avoid Freud) was released in the fall of 1980. “High School Confidential,” the controversial, and sexually explicit single from this record was a Top 20 hit and in 2020 was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. For Those Who Think Young continued the band’s trajectory to stardom thanks to another hit single “All Touch,” which was Rough Trade’s biggest commercial success—reaching No.12 in Canada on the RPM charts and No. 58 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Looking back, Finkelstein feels this single could have cracked the Top 40 south of the border if it wasn’t for unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

“Our distributor in the U.S. went bankrupt the week when we hit No. 58 on Billboard with a bullet,” he recalls. “In the 1970s, ’80s—and even today—if you have a record that is climbing the charts and all of a sudden the record company can no longer ship singles to the stores, pay its promotion people, and deal with radio, your record dies. That is what happened with ‘All Touch.’ It took almost one year to get the rights back…it was a real mess.”

Despite this setback, the record was a huge success. The album brought Rough Trade to new audiences—especially garnering accolades and fans in Europe. The band toured to places they had never been before like Denmark and Holland. Staples doesn’t recall many details about the recording sessions since he, and the rest of the band back in the 1980s, were living in the moment and soaking in the social scene. What he recalls is this: For Those Who Think Young saw the band “stretching [its] creative spirit.” “The album got recognition in other parts of the world and we were well on our way to becoming international stars, but that didn’t quite pan out,” he laughs.

Staples’ three favourite cuts from this record are: “Attitude,” “Baptism of Fire,” and “Sacred and the Profane,” which featured background vocals from Dusty Springfield. “Every one of those songs, when I listen to them today, bring back memories of the people playing them,” says Staples. “I can visualize us on stage somewhere…they are like children, as people often say, songs are your babies, and when you are done, it’s like what next? I tend not to look back, but every once in a while, I’ll listen to one of our tracks and say, ‘That was pretty cool!’”

Carole Pope emanates cool. A leader in the LBGTQ+ community long before these terms existed, the singer-songwriter is not one to look back either. The septuagenarian British-born artist is currently workshopping and trying to finalize financing for Attitude: the Musical based on the life of her brother Howard, a New York-based musician who died of AIDS in 1996. The Pope-penned musical features new compositions as well as many Rough Trade songs, including a handful from For Those Who Think Young. If you listen to the record today, you can see why Pope is using these songs as they lend themselves to a theatrical setting.

Like Staples, Pope does not recall specifics about these sessions 40 years ago. On the sizzling single “All Touch,” the JUNO-winner says: “I don’t know exactly how it came about. It was just a statement of ‘get off me’ and a little bit about fame and vapid people.” The process for writing songs in those days between Staples and Pope was always collaborative. “Kevin would put his musical ideas down on a cassette tape, then I would write lyrics and obsess over them,” she adds.

Working with producer Gene Martynec, a founding member of Kensington Market, at Manta Sound was an incredible experience. This was a time long before Pro Tools and other recording software. “You had to be able to sing a whole track,” Pope says.

FOR THOSE WHO THINK YOUNG FAST FACTS:

ARTIST: Rough Trade (Carole Pope, Kevan Staples, David McMorrow, Terry Wilkins, Buck Berger; Backing vocals: Dusty Springfield, Shawne Jackson, and Colina Philips)

RECORD: For Those Who Think Young

YEAR: 1981

LABEL: True North Records (Canada); Boardwalk Records (U.S.)

STUDIO: Manta Sound (Toronto)

PRODUCER: Gene Martynec/Kevan Staples

ENGINEER: Gary Gray

ALBUM ART: General Idea (Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, AA Bronson)

TRACK LISTING:

  1. All Touch
  2. Attitude
  3. For Those Who Think Young
  4. Bodies in Collision
  5. Prisoner in my Skin
  6. The Sacred & The Profane
  7. Baptism of Fire
  8. Fakin’ It
  9. Blood Lust

Record Rewind: Rheostatics’ ‘Music Inspired by The Group of Seven’ Turns 25

Music and art are natural friends. Many musicians don’t just paint pictures with words and melodies; they also pour these creative thoughts onto canvases. Tom Wilson, Kurt Swinghammer, and Joni Mitchell are a few examples of multi-talented Canadian artists who express their creativity and imagination across disciplines.

In the fall of 1995, The National Gallery of Canada (NAC) in Ottawa, Ont., through a local DJ and promoter at CKCU-FM, approached alternative art-rock band the Rheostatics and commissioned them to write and perform a concert of original music to accompany a Group of Seven 75th anniversary retrospective. Most Canadians, even if they are not art collectors or art historians, are aware of the Group of Seven. Sometimes referred to as the Algonquin School, this collective of famed Canadian landscape artists included: Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, Frank Johnston, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Operating from 1920 to 1933, their evocative and impressionistic works symbolized our national identity.

The Rheostatics—one of Canada’s most beloved indie-rock bands of the last 35 years—were perfectly suited to capture the Group of Seven’s spirit through music. The band had so much fun in the studio writing and creating these instrumental songs that following the curated sold-out concert at the NAC, they returned to the studio to make a full-length record. The result—Music Inspired by The Group of Seven—was released 25 years ago, in 1996. “That record is interesting because we had just come off a cross-Canada jaunt with the Tragically Hip as part of the Another Roadside Attraction tour,” recalls Dave Bidini, a founding member of the band. “We had some relative commercial success with the single ‘Claire,’ at that time too and, through that tour, had made more inroads in the industry. We followed that success up with a completely instrumental record. That was a weird, and problematic career move, but it’s also a very Rheostatics thing to do.”

It was an honour, Bidini adds, just to be asked to participate in this project. “I remember the Hip guys saying to me at the time, ‘It’s not fair! You guys get to do all the cool records!’”

After agreeing to this cool commission, the Rheos gathered at Gas Station Studios in Toronto’s east end, the birthplace of many Canadian indie rock records, and set to work. Long before they picked up their instruments, or struck a note, they spent time creating the right mood for contemplation and creation. “It was more like a film shoot,” Bidini says. “We started off by collecting all of these materials and doing a lot of non-music work.” The band decorated the studio with art and other inspiring images. Guitarist Martin Tielli, also a talented visual artist, poured over books of the Group of Seven’s most famous works. Bidini brought in some records from his collection to play on the old gramophone in the studio. These unique LPs included speeches from former Prime Ministers including William Lyon Mackenzie King and John Diefenbaker as well as Queen Elizabeth, along with interview clips from Newsy Lalonde, an NHL player and professional lacrosse player from the early 20th century. Kevin Hearn brought in additional sampled wilderness sounds like frogs and crickets. Bidini describes these found sounds as: “Cool dashes of spice, sonically and historically, that helped tie us all back to the crazy size of the country and try to reflect that in this recording.”

Music Inspired by the Group of Seven was the first Rheos’ album to feature Don Kerr, who replaced original drummer Dave Clark. He brought a new energy to the group and a keen ear to the production. Kerr met the Rheostatics for the first time when the band recorded demos for their previous record (Introducing Happiness) at Gas Station Studios, which he co-owned and operated at the time with Dale Morningstar.

Kerr’s biggest contribution to this record was the idea to interview visual artist Addison Winchell Price. Kerr met the landscape painter, who worked alongside the Group of Seven, years before. Through a series of edited conversations, Price offered observations on the connection between art and music that provides a narrative thread that ties the album together.

“Dave had brought in funny recordings of people talking about trains and a poem read by the Queen and somewhere in there I was like, ‘I have this old family friend, who is an artist, is brilliant, and his voice is amazing, why don’t I interview him?’” Kerr recalls. “I called him up and talked to him for two hours and just recorded it. It was emotionally moving … so grand and beautiful the way he talked about the link between music and painting and being an artist. We combed through the recording, found the best stuff, and used these to string the songs together for the live show and later for the record. It was a nice addition…as close as we could get to having a Group of Seven member on there.” Bidini agrees: “That is the golden thread…where the album went from a collection of instrumental songs to a cohesive concept album.”

Kevin Hearn also concurs. “The conversations with Price are the heart and soul of the record.” Like Kerr, Hearn became an additional member of the Rheostatics for this album. Hearn was playing with the Look People then, and he had yet to join the Barenaked Ladies full-time. Hearn describes the Look People as “Frank Zappa meets Dr. Seuss.” They shared a rehearsal space with the Rheos and the keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist often sat in with them. They became fast friends and eventually they “invited [Hearn] into their orbit.” The Toronto native was a classically trained pianist, but with the Look People, Hearn was experimenting with synthesizer sounds on his Korg T3. Working on Music Inspired by The Group of Sevenwas a refreshing change and the experience renewed his childhood love for the piano. “There was a Yamaha piano at the Gas Station Studios and it felt right to use it,” Hearn recalls. “I got to go back in time to my roots. This album was a reconnection for me as a pianist and that was an amazing thing for me as an artist. It also fit perfectly with the palette of this music.

“I was not an art expert, but I knew who the Group of Seven were,” Hearn continues. “I remember thinking back then—even though I don’t know who did what—I know the source that inspired their art. All of the Rheos grew up in Canada and spent time in northern Ontario at summer camps, taking canoe trips, and going to cottages. I felt well suited to do this and I loved every minute of it.”

Once the band got down to writing the songs, despite the project’s vast scope, the songs came quickly. The studio became a rehearsal space. The process was a raw, spontaneous, fun, and collaborative affair. “I loved the harmonious way the Rheos worked,” Hearn says. “Each member brought an idea to the table and each idea was treated equally, respectably and enthusiastically. That made me feel comfortable, and for that I’m very grateful.”

The end result of this collaborative affair was a record of mostly instrumental mood music featuring a dozen songs that beautifully capture the Group of Seven’s spirit. Starting in the fall of 2015, to mark the 20th anniversary of the original NAC concert, the band performed the record in its entirety during a series of concerts at art galleries across Canada. Twenty-five years on, the record still resonates and deserves another listen.

“For me, because we were imagining music inspired by paintings and the north evoked by somebody who lived in the city, that record has as much High Park and Humber River in it as it does Tobermory,” Bidini concludes. “Even though I write about Canada—the country—I’m mostly a Torontonian. The album provided me with the liberty of imagining the north as opposed to portraying the north. From touring, I knew Canada from bar to bar, club to club, not from provincial park to natural landform. I, and the rest of the band, had the license to dream it, and we did! When I listen to the songs today, I can see and feel the corner of Liberty and Atlantic—pre hipster Toronto, pre Liberty Village, as much as I hear Algonquin Park.”

MUSIC INSPIRED BY THE GROUP OF SEVEN FAST FACTS

ARTIST: The Rheostatics (Dave Bidini, Martin Tielli, Tim Vesely, Don Kerr, Kevin Hearn)

RECORD: Music Inspired by The Group of Seven

YEAR: 1996

LABEL: Dave’s Records of Guelph (DROG)

STUDIO: The Gas Station Studios (Toronto)

PRODUCER: Don Kerr & The Rheostatics

MASTERED BY: Joao Carvalho at the Dub House

ALBUM COVER ART: Martin Tielli

Bruce Cockburn: 50 Years of Songs

“Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage/ Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage/ Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights/ What did they think the politics of panic would invite?/ Person in the street shrugs ‘Security comes first’/ But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse/ The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”—Bruce Cockburn “The Trouble with Normal”

Finding the right words to express the zeitgeist has never been a problem for Bruce Cockburn. Take the lyrics from the chorus of his 1983 hit cited above. Normal is what everyone pines to discover in a year marked by fear and uncertainty. Let’s hope when normalcy returns, it’s not a harbinger of the next wave of bad news. For more than 50 years, the iconic Canadian songwriter has been carefully crafting words and phrases into storied songs—some more politically charged than others. Over the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to share a half dozen conversations with the Canadian Songwriting Hall of Famer. Getting a good quote is never an issue. Finding a way to weave as many of his wise words as possible into my finished feature is the challenge.

Like everyone in the music industry, 2020 has been a challenging year for Bruce. His plans for 2020 are on hold. Shows cancelled, rebooked, and rescheduled until whenever it’s safe to play live again. This year was supposed to be a celebration of a milestone—50 years as a songwriter and the golden anniversary of his self-titled debut on the label founded by his manager Bernie Finkelstein. Instead, Cockburn released a limited edition vinyl box set via True North Records and participated in several multi-artist streamed shows.

“I’m not nostalgically inclined by nature, but it’s interesting to say I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” he reflects. “50 years is 50 years of being beaten by the weather, metaphoric, and actual, but it still feels like a milestone. I’m happy True North did this 50thbox set. More than anything, it finally gives vinyl versions of a couple of records I think are the best I’ve ever done.”

Asked about the secret to his 50-year business relationship—and friendship—with Cockburn, Finkelstein says: “I guess we are just two people that want to stay together. It’s that simple. I joke that since Bruce and I never had a formal management contract, he doesn’t know when it is over! We just are on the same track on what needs to be done. We’ve been right more than wrong and here we still are.”

The 50th anniversary vinyl package was limited to 750 copies personally signed by Cockburn. No surprise, it sold out within the first month. True North—A 50th Anniversary Box Set includes the songwriter’s debut Bruce Cockburn; and a pair of records that have never appeared before on vinyl: The Charity of Night (1997); and the JUNO-winning Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu (1999). Colin Linden, Cockburn’s long-time friend, producer, and frequent bandmate, re-mastered the records. Linden loved Cockburn as a fan long before the pair became friends. His brother had a copy of the songwriter’s debut and Linden recalls seeing the guitar virtuoso perform for the first time on his 11th birthday: April 16, 1971. Linden produced both The Charity of Nightand Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu; the Grammy-winning artist feels these albums are two of Cockburn’s best. He remembers well that night 24 years ago when Bruce showed up at his Toronto apartment with The Charity of Night demos. Linden says listening to sketches for songs like “Pacing the Cage” for the first time was “life-changing.” “It was just one brilliant song after another,” Linden says today from his Nashville, Tenn. home. “After Bruce left that night, I asked if I could do some overdubs on the demos. My wife [Janice] and I had some ideas for additional parts and textures. I made a rough mixtape of the songs with our overdubs and Bruce really liked them. That is how I got the call to produce that record.”

After laying down the bulk of the tracks at Toronto’s Reaction Studios, Linden and Cockburn travelled to the San Francisco Bay area to do some additional recording at Bob Weir’s studio where they also added vocals from Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur. New Orleans was the final stop where Calgary-born John Whynot mixed the record at Kingsway—Daniel Lanois’ studio. “Mixing in Lanois’ studio changed everything for me in terms of how I’ve made records for the last 25 years,” says Linden, “just the whole aesthetic of how Dan creates a recording environment. You can see the fruits of that in my home studio today. Making that record was a life-changing experience.”

Catching up with Cockburn in the middle of a pandemic finds him as contemplative as ever, happy to chat about his career, his approach to songwriting, and life in 2020. When we chat, the 75-year-old is enjoying some family time in the college town of Arcata, California with his wife and eight-year-old daughter. The family of three is in the midst of a road trip in an RV, cruising up the Pacific Coast, and visiting with friends—at a social distance of course. After three months shut-in at home in San Francisco, Cockburn needed a respite from the monotony of domesticity.

“I was expecting to be doing a whole bunch of shows,” he says. “It was unfortunate to have to let go of that. It’s hard to stay motivated at times with no gigs. And, I can’t get together with others to get inspired, so that is also a bit odd, but contrary to my expectations I’ve been very busy, helping my daughter with online classes and getting lunches made.”

In an election year, for a songwriter who has never shied away from making his opinion known on political matters, does he feel the need to capture his mood in a new song or two? “I feel like there is so much blather right now, I don’t need to add to it,” Cockburn says. “It’s not that all of what people are saying is not meaningful, but there are just so many voices clamouring I don’t have much to add to that conversation. I have opinions and feelings that will eventually show up, but at this point, what am I going to say about Trump that hasn’t been said and who needs it anyway?”

After 50 years of writing songs, I ask if his approach has changed. “The process is not so different,” he explains, “it’s just more deliberate now. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing songs. I didn’t understand how it all worked. I wait around for a good idea and write down anything that is useful: images, and other bits and pieces as they come. Eventually, some idea will show up that triggers an actual song. What is different now is I pay more attention to the details and I’m fussier, but it still takes an emotional trigger or a phrase of some sort to get it going. Sometimes I have an idea that sounds good and then realize I said that 40 years ago.”

Cockburn’s songwriting journey began more than five decades ago in Ottawa, Ontario. After a couple of years studying at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, majoring in composition, he dropped out of school in 1965 and returned to his hometown to start a band (The Children). Finkelstein recalls seeing a young Cockburn as part of this short-lived group when they opened for The Lovin’ Spoonful at a show in Kingston, Ontario. “The Children were interesting and good, but they left no great impression on me one way or the other. Bruce was just a member of the band.”

Once Bruce left The Children to pursue a solo career, and started to pen his own material, is when he really left an impression on Finkelstein—enough of an impression that he signed him to a record deal, the first for True North Records. The memorable gig occurred at The Pornographic Onion, a coffeehouse at Ryerson University run by Eugene Martynec. Martynec (who went on to produce Bruce’s first 10 records) heard his friend was starting a record label and told him he had an artist called Bruce Cockburn that Finkelstein had to hear. “I didn’t realize how good he was until after I signed him,” recalls Finkelstein, who sold True North Records in 2007, but still manages Cockburn. “He played ‘Going to the Country’ and my ears lit up. I thought that could be a hit. Within one month I signed Bruce and that December we went into Eastern Sound and made his debut album.”

Pornographic Onion poster featuring a young Bruce Cockburn courtesy of the Ryerson University archives.

 

Thirty-four albums later, 13 JUNO Awards, an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and an Officer of the Order of Canada, Cockburn could easily rest. Alas, putting down their notebook and ignoring the muse is not part of an artist’s DNA.   

Until a vaccine is found and it’s safe for a return to the new normal, whatever it looks like, Cockburn, like all artists, is waiting. He’s hopeful to hit the road and play selections from his half-century catalogue of songs to live audiences again sometime in 2021.

“There is reason to be hopeful, but right now it is a game of wait and see,” he concludes. “If people would just get more responsible – and take the steps necessary to get past this pandemic. If it follows the pattern of the 1918 Spanish Flu, it will run its course and eventually fade away and we will all forget about it until the next one comes along – and there will be a next one I’m sure. It’s really important that we as a species and culture use the stresses and openings that have been provided at this moment to move ourselves forward.”

How the Song Happened: Cory Marks’s “Outlaws & Outsiders”

 

Got a gypsy soul, I’m a rebel and rogue
And I’m always on the run
With a fire inside I ain’t ever gonna die
I’m a locked and loaded gun

– “Outlaws & Outsiders”

After a country-rock song you wrote surpasses 25 million cumulative streams worldwide, a move to Music City, where the heart of the industry lives, might feel like the logical next step.

Not for Cory Marks. Despite “Outlaws & Outsiders” reaching Top 10 on rock radio South of the border – and peaking at No. 3 in Germany – the songwriter is content to stay close to home. He lives in Sturgeon Falls (population 6,798), 39 km West, along the Trans-Canada Highway, from his hometown of North Bay. This fact is no surprise. As “Outlaws & Outsiders” suggests, Marks writes songs filled with truths learned from his rural upbringing. At heart, he, too, is an outsider.

“A lot of my songwriting is based on real and honest things that have happened to me, or close to me,” he says. “I would much rather write a true story – and [have] my own story really resonate – than create one with five or six other writers in a room with the hopes of a big hit. I always try to keep it real that way.”

Catching up with the songwriter on an autumn afternoon finds Marks enjoying time at home, writing more songs (he figures he probably has close to 50 set aside for his next record), hitting the gym, and finishing the requirements to obtain his private pilot’s license.

“Outlaws & Outsiders” started as simply a cool title for the cross-Canada tour Marks did with Aaron Pritchett five years ago. Canadian country radio is where the songwriter would love to land, but like the song’s title, he’s an outlier. His sound isn’t poppy enough to fit the mainstream mold. “I feel like I’m a country artist, first and foremost,” he says. “I want to give country radio something different for the fans and for the genre.”

“Country music needs change, and I want to be that change”

Before the song’s global success, the journey to 25 million streams started in Las Vegas in the fall of 2015. Marks joined Kevin Churko at the eight-time JUNO nominee’s studio, The Hideout. The pair wrote the bones for “Outlaws and Outsiders” in less than a day. Churko then used his influence to land some heavy-hitter guests: veteran country music icon Travis Tritt, Ivan Moody of Five Finger Death Punch, and Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe.

With or without the support of Canadian country radio, Marks will stay true to the outlaws and outsiders who inspired him: from Hank Williams to Buck Owens, Willie to Waylon, and Steve Earle to Sturgill Simpson. Growing up in North Bay, the artist was an aspiring hockey player, and picked up the drums as his first instrument. His dad turned him on to these country legends, and he simultaneously discovered hard rock, becoming a fan of bands like Rush, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, and Deep Purple.

“It’s unfortunate for artists like myself, with more of a rock edge, that we don’t often get the respect from the country establishment,” he says. “Country music needs change, and I want to be that change.”

Sno Babies Synch
As if the streaming success of “Outlaws & Outsiders” wasn’t enough, Marks also landed a synch with the song in Sno Babies (2020) – an independent film that looks at the dark realities of addiction. Better Noise Music, Marks’ label, produced the film, and the soundtrack, and felt his song fit well with the theme. “To watch the movie unfold, and have your song come on, that was such a cool moment,” he says. “As an artist, you dream of having a hit on the radio, but getting one of your creations featured in a film is also an incredible honor.” Come 2021, Marks’ song “Blame It on the Double” is set to appear in another Better Noise Films feature, The Retaliators.

Photo by Ed Regan

Elliott Brood: Trio Experiment with Vintage Instruments to complete their timeless new recording

“And the seasons change/ Everything gets rearranged/ But tonight I’m stuck in a yesterday haze.” “Stay Out” 

One thing the pandemic of 2020 has taught us is this: change is inevitable. No matter our job, or our financial situation, nothing is as it seems. We must adapt often. We must not fear change. We’ve been reminded what Greek philosophers said centuries ago: “Change is the only constant in this life.” No one understands this better than artists, who have chosen a career that — at the best of times — is one of the most precarious. As Elliott Brood captures in the lyrics quoted above, taken from the single “Stay Out,” everything gets rearranged; often, this leads to getting stuck. 

“Nothing is normal ever even though we state it is,” says band member Mark Sasso. “Along the lines of that – as a band – we are good at always adapting and that is the new norm. I like that aspect of it. We like to put hindrances on us when we are recording anyways: record in small places or record over a short time. We are just using the new norm.”

Luckily getting stuck is not something Elliott Brood believes in. The band formed in Toronto in 2002. And nearly two decades on, the trio of talented multi-instrumentalists: Casey Laforet, Sasso, and Stephen Pitkin are still making memorable music for its legions of fans. After a dozen years roaming around from label to label the JUNO-award winners returned to the little indie (Six Shooter Records) who released their first full-length LP (Ambassador) back in 2005. In their absence, the label has grown, but kept the same ethos espoused by founder Shauna de Cartier: “Life is too short to listen to shitty music.” 

“It’s good to be back,” Sasso says. “Casey was the first to suggest we should approach them again. They were our first family and have remained huge fans and supporters. We always felt like they are the ones that loved us, so it really felt like coming home. We’ve been wandering around and are now coming home to something familiar, to people who get everything we are doing and are 100 per cent behind it.” As de Cartier jokes, “the prodigal sons have returned!” 

These prodigal sons are now older and wiser, balancing families and living apart [Laforet lives in Los Angeles and Sasso and Pitkin live in Hamilton]; yet, they are still making timeless and progressive music. Songs are fragments. Put together they often form a whole. When it comes to folk-rock trio Elliott Brood, usually it’s a complete puzzle – each song connects to the next. That’s is the case on their latest – the brilliant soundscape that is Keeper; a keeper of a record indeed, featuring 10 new songs released on Six Shooter September 18.  

Fortunate for the band, Keeperwas more or less finished before the pandemic hit. It was mastered in March and originally scheduled for a May release. Keeper, a title Pitkin came up with, is all about relationships. We all have them. We all want them. And, sometimes – many times– we don’t know what to do with them. Laforet sums this theme up: 

“All these songs have to do with people and relationships that you keep even when they are tough or damaged,’ he explains. “You could be that person to someone else … you are a burden to someone but they won’t ever let you down or let you go. That is the idea that runs through all the tracks in one way or another. Once the title came [Keeper] it made way more sense. 

“We are still a full album band and are fans of that in the world of singles,” he adds. “We always try to put together a novel of sorts with some sort of story that flows through with sequencing.”

To help construct this novel of soundscapes and storylines in songs, Elliott Brood enlisted the help of some heavy hitters in the industry.  “Stay Out” one of the more poignant tracks that speaks to change, questioning, and uncertainty, and the overarching theme of relationships with these lines: “I got healthy kids and a beautiful wife/ But I don’t wanna go home/ I’m proud and thankful and terrified/ But I don’t wanna go home,”was mixed by Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers) and engineered by Daryl Neudorf (Neko Case).

The songs were written over the course of several years in a variety of locales, as the band is known to do. Songs were penned during a three-day sojourn last summer in a cabin in the Swiss Alps following a performance at CosmoJazz Festival in Chamonix/Mont Blanc.Other sounds and ideas were gathered during a five-day Artist in Residence stint at the National Music Centre (NMC) in Calgary, Alberta in 2018, where a band already known for experimenting with different instruments added some cool new sounds made with vintage instruments they discovered at this museum such as the world’s first synthesizer Novachord and the melotron. “We came out of there with some cool ideas, new tones, and a different palette,” says Laforet. This is seen most clearly on songs such as “Oh Me,” and “The Coast” with its synth folk-rock feel.

The pandemic has made the trio adapt in other ways: getting more familiar with technology and figuring out how to market and promote a new record without the usual cycle of touring. They enlisted an animator and made a video while in quarantine for the first single “ “ and they joke maybe they will make videos for every song on Keeper.  

“We might as well make videos,” says Sasso. “Maybe we will do a Beyoncéthing. The Lumineers did that; they made a short film for their last record. It was all a narrative, one long movie set to 10 songs. Regardless, we understand we need to get more creative and learn new stuff.” 

Despite the uncertainty of when the live music industry will return, Laforet is confident the band will survive and their legions of fans will stick around for the ride. 

“I think of our band as the small Canadian town of bands because we play those places,” he concludes. “Some of our best shows are in those places where no one goes. For us, it’s not about major markets, we can do a 10-town tour and that is what we will do when we get back to it. Those people keep coming back. I wouldn’t come see us 20 times, but it’s reassuring that they keep coming. I feel like what we’ve built over the last 18 years will be waiting on the other side.”

Published in the Summer/Autumn 2020 issue of Penguin Eggs.