Sunday, March 25, 2007

Northern Wishes: Rheostatics p1

Tonight marks the first of the final three Rheostatics shows, at the Starlight Club in Waterloo; the next two are on Thursday at the Horseshoe Tavern, and Friday at Massey Hall.

I've said a lot about the Rheostatics since I first fell in love with them around 1992. Oddly, I couldn't actually stand their music prior to my Damascene conversion, which was one wintry morning on Guelph's CFRU when my favourite local DJ, Sara Sosklone, played "Northern Wish," a song I'd already heard many times, on her radio show. And for whatever reason, it suddenly all became crystal clear just what a unique band this was, how they managed to be progressive and very specifically steeped in regional influences that were very dear to me.

In short time, they would become the one and only band that I've ever truly loved: the one band whose records I learned how to play, the one band I've seen live more than any other, the one band I kept coming back to no matter how disappointing one particular show or album might be.

I've been making up for my early skepticism ever since. But perhaps because I've been part of the unofficial stenography team over the years, I was unable to find a professional writing outlet to commemorate this historic week: after a 27-year career, either the Canadian press is tired of talking about the Rheostatics (which was the gist of one reply to my pitch) or, after 15 years of my cheerleading (albeit often with articulated reservations), they're tired of me in particular talking about the Rheostatics. Fair enough.

I'll be attending all three farewell shows, naturally, despite the fact that it's going to wreak havoc on the 9-5 contract job I've had for the month of March. And I'm sure reflections on the next week will appear on this space. But in the meantime, I present excerpts from the 2001 book Have Not Been the Same, a book I co-authored about Canadian music between 1985-1995. You know, long before Texas bands were envious of Canadian control of the musical blogosphere.

The Rheostatics were the main reason I wanted to write this book, because I knew that unlike similarly influential yet obscure American and British bands, no one else was going to step up to the plate and herald that particular moment in Canadian music. Unless bands like the Rheostatics were immortalized in book format--not just fleeting praise in free weeklies and monthlies--that stories like theirs would be lost forever. Of course, the Rheos have an added advantage in that guitarist Dave Bidini is particularly good at self-mythology: check out his On a Cold Road if you haven't already, a vital piece of CanRock writing--a genre that is admittedly miniscule, especially in a book format.

The Rheostatics chapter in the book is called "Northern Wishes and Visionary Flounders," and along with the tale of the Rheos it interweaves the stories of Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O'Hara, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Barenaked Ladies' early days, Dinner is Ruined, and producer Michael Philip Wojewoda (who later became the Rheos' drummer for the last six years of their career). I've edited out most of the chapter and just left the story of Dave Bidini, Tim Vesely, Martin Tielli, Dave Clark and Don Kerr.

Each chapter in Have Not Been the Same--including this one--was written by one of the three authors, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge the great influence that my co-authors Jason Schneider and Ian A.D. Jack had on this work. It was written in 2000 and published in 2001. Some of the interview subjects would likely have different things to say today; certainly the author would--I've been re-editing this in my mind ever since it was published.

Part one of four:

Sitting in his basement on an insufferably humid Toronto afternoon, Rheostatics guitarist/vocalist Martin Tielli is contemplating his formative musical influences. “Bizarrely enough, I’d say it was 80 per cent Canadian bands. I don’t know why,” he says, fondling his trademark Steinberger guitar, surrounded by his paintings and Rheostatics memorabilia. “I’m not patriotic when it comes to music, but really, everything I liked was coming from Canada: Jane Siberry, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young. Easygoing yet progressive. I’d like to figure out exactly what it is, the characteristic that I like about Canadian music.”

Citing his aforementioned influences, Tielli pauses, then continues, “It would be an understanding of the sublime, the beauty, fragility, and a certain complexity combined with a certain eclectism borrowing from all kinds of different things.”

Unwittingly, he’s summed up much of what has made his band the “quintessential” Canadian band, a term they themselves tired of hearing long ago. But it’s unavoidable; the Rheostatics truly don’t sound like anyone else. Furthermore, their eclecticism doesn’t sound like it could have come from anywhere else but here, and their collected body of work encapsulates what it meant to be a Canadian rock band between 1985 and 1995.

Their self-consciously Canadiana lyrics can be found accompanying music that alternates between suburban psychedelic rock epics, acoustic folk anthems, pure pop, country hoedowns, Crazy Horse workouts, spoken word, children’s music, punk, Euro cabaret, space rock and cinematic soundscapes. All of these genres are approached with a joyous sense of discovery, a flagrant disregard for what may or may not be considered cool, and a monstrously talented musical collective capable of the utmost subtlety and the most grandiose drama—and, for better and worse, an inability to fear the ridiculous. Their ambition alone is admirable enough.

More than any other single band of the CanRock Renaissance, the Rheostatics’ work, on stage and on albums, epitomizes the creativity and diversity that Canadian bands were, and are, capable of. Their odd career also embodies the trajectory of CanRock’s musical maturation. They start off as derivative mimics of British and American forms – new wave and funk, respectively – before leaving their suburban basements to travel the country. Somewhere across the prairie spine, en route to an independent music festival in Vancouver, the four lads find their voice, and after a few bumps and a brief break-up, start unleashing classic albums into the canon. Two singles (“Claire,” “Bad Time To Be Poor”) crack the consciousness of the mainstream media, but for the most part they win their fans over one at a time at gigs and over the people’s radio. Several of their former opening bands go on to worldwide success, and as a result our heroes get a crack at the American market with a big-budget record that ultimately doesn’t expand their cult audience any more than their traditional word-of-mouth appeal.

Twenty years, several record labels and one drummer later, they find themselves creating music for all the right reasons only, with a devoted fan base across the country that’s still pulling in young converts. Not to mention a secure place in the hearts of many of their peers – some of whom are the biggest bands in Canada and the world, some of whom are quietly practising their craft down the street– whom they inspired to strive for greater artistic heights.

The musical bond between Dave Bidini and Tim Vesely began in 1979, when both budding musicians were 15 and attending Kipling Collegiate in Etobicoke, a western suburb of Toronto. Bidini had just started playing guitar, and Vesely played double bass in their high school orchestra. They enlisted high school friends Rod Weslake on drums and Dave Crosby on keyboards, and started germinating their brand of “original new wave rock,” finding the name Rheostatics in a physics textbook. After two years, Weslake was replaced with Graeme Kirkland, who would later become Toronto’s most renowned professional busker and who can still be found playing a set of buckets outside of the Rivoli club. [ed note: Kirkland retired in the early 00s to become a financial analyst.]

In a neighbourhood not too far away, at Martingrove Collegiate, Dave Clark was already a professional drummer at the age of 14, playing Israeli and Italian weddings. Kirkland shared a drum teacher with Clark, and the pair played hockey together. Clark hooked up with the fledgling band, and was initially reluctant to dig his teeth into the Rheostatics’ “really goofy music.” Clark says, “I was a jazzbo. I played in big bands, and I thought all this stuff was stupid. But I was having fun – I soon realized that I was the stupid one, and that this was a really good time. I didn’t have much connection to kids my age. I thought that going out on weekends and getting pissed up was a real waste of time, compared to playing music. These guys wanted to have fun and write music. It was a very positive way to grow up.”

Like most teenage bands, the Rheostatics played their high school, where they did a reggae version of Talking Heads’ “Heaven.” But unlike other teenagers, they started playing downtown and out-of-town gigs almost immediately. Their first big show was at The Edge club in February, 1980. The opening band that night was the Space Invaders, featuring guitarist Paul Myers [brother of comedian Mike] and drummer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who would later go on to produce the band’s seminal work of the early ‘90s.

“I was very annoyed with Dave Clark because he brought his drum professor’s Northwood drum kit,” recalls Wojewoda. “It filled the stage and commandeered the place.” Also in the audience that night was Graham Stairs, who was in a band playing later that weekend called Popular Spies, and who would later release Melville and Whale Music on his Intrepid Records label.

The band’s first out-of-town gig was later that year at the Kent Hotel in Waterloo, where they opened for L’Etranger [a band featuring current NDP MP Charles Angus and Now Magazine writer Andrew Cash]. “It was the first time we’d encountered a real band in a real dressing room in a real club,” says Bidini. “They had just come from opening for the Dead Kennedys, and they were freaked out because they had been spat at. They were shaking, they were so nervous. But they had leather jackets on, and torn jeans – they were a real fucking band, and we just borrowed our parents’ car to go to the gig. I thought at the time: ‘I don’t want to be like that. I don’t ever want to have to do rock’n’roll, don’t ever want to have to be opening for the Dead Kennedys.’”

The few gigs the band would play garnered more attention than the average high school band, mostly because of the ambition of the young Dave Bidini. “We had a lot of support from students at Dave’s school,” says Clark. “Dave was a popular guy, for good reasons – he’s very affable. We got a lot of press early on, because Dave knew how to contact people, and that gave us an edge over others.”

Dave Crosby left in 1981, after they recorded a 7” of “Satellite Dancing,” backed with a Devo-esque take on The Who’s “My Generation.” James Gray, later of Blue Rodeo, was in the band briefly, but “had too much talent,” according to Bidini. To fill in the gaps, in 1983 they enlisted a three-piece horn section that Dave Clark met while enrolled in Humber College’s music program for one semester. The horns were dubbed The Trans-Canada Soul Patrol, and they came from a rather different school of music. “These guys were real rubes,” says Bidini. “They had never heard ‘Louie Louie’ before. They only knew Brothers Johnson and all these lite jazz fusion-type cats.” Most of the material, which sounded like British neo-funk band Level 42, was written by Bidini, and sung by Vesely. “Dave couldn’t sing very well then, he was pretty off-key,” says Vesely. “I could shout a little closer to key.”

In the summer of 1985, Bidini left to study in Ireland, while Vesely took up an offer to play with Andrew Cash and L’Etranger, a year-long venture that would encourage him to pick up the guitar and begin to write his own songs on Cash’s four-track. The horn section had been reduced to one occasional saxophonist by this time, and Dave Clark thought the Rheostatics were “at a bit of a dead end,” so he too started working outside of the band. He would soon meet the missing piece of the puzzle that would alter the course of the Rheostatics.

In 1984, Martin Tielli joined his first band, called Water Tower. “We played live seven times, including one battle of the bands,” he recalls. “Our bass player broke it up because he couldn’t handle the clichés of being in a band. To him, he felt like an idiot when we ‘counted in’ a song; he said it felt too much like the Partridge Family: ‘One! Two! Three! Four!’ I figured that enduring clichés was worth the outcome.”

Dave Clark joined Water Tower shortly before their demise, and was struck by Tielli’s original material. Tielli had seen the Rheostatics play live, and he was intrigued by “the fact that they were so comfortable on stage, and I was so uncomfortable on stage,” he says. “Musically, nothing really attracted me to them. I thought it was fun and good but it wasn’t my kind of music at all. But they were famous, as far as I was concerned – I was being asked to join the famous band. And the first thing I was doing was playing funk, which was not the kind of music I knew.”

Bidini had seen Water Tower play, and wasn’t as taken with Tielli as Clark was. “I saw this little kid and it freaked me out that he looked so much like Neil Young then; Martin dressed so much like him, had the fringe jacket and everything. It made an impression, and I hated Neil Young at the time. I felt sorry for him and thought this poor kid was locked in the ‘70s.”

When Water Tower broke up in 1985, Clark invited Tielli to jam with the Rheos, to the objections of Bidini, who had just returned from Ireland. Bidini recalls, “When he showed up for practice it was like, this is the guy? He was way better than me the minute he started playing. I was intimidated and threatened. But it was my own fault, because I never considered myself to be any good anyway. I was a very limited guitar player. I thought that I had better a) practice really hard, or b) if you can’t beat him, join him. I didn’t practice any harder, though.”

Tielli started playing gigs with the band, including one at the large lakeshore venue RPM, where he looked like he was going to die, according to Clark. “Martin did a few gigs with the horn section,” says Bidini. “It wasn’t even like he was going to be a serious part of the band, it was just to have another guy, trying to get some interesting new sounds involved. When the horn section left, we realized he could play the horn parts on his guitar. That became his job for a bit. That’s when we started to write and find our own sound.”

Although Bidini and Vesely were already getting into folk music via Stompin’ Tom Connors, Tielli had been immersed in folk for as long as he could remember, mostly because of what he calls his “Neil Young disease” of the time.

“Everything about [Young’s] music represented everything I loved: dirt roads, fields, open space, and stuff that isn’t clean and polished,” says Tielli. “Everything sounds like it’s breaking down. When I first got into music at the age of 14, I was a folk environmentalist fascist. I was not going to play any electrical instrument, ever. I wanted to experiment using natural sounds, natural reverb and building instruments, and perform in an acoustic trio, with acoustic bass, guitar, and a snare. Until I got out of my Catholic school, I knew zero musicians. By then I could afford an electric guitar. I can’t tell you how fast that [acoustic philosophy] died, once I got my hands on an electric guitar.”

The material that would appear on their 1987 debut Greatest Hits was worlds away from the band’s funk beginnings. As their tastes broadened, they started discovering records by Camper Van Beethoven and Willie P. Bennett, as well as country and the Celtic music Bidini had heard in Ireland. They weren’t trying to fit into any downtown scene. “We were still pretty Etobicoke-based in our whole approach,” says Vesely. “The music scene was something to do on the weekend – come downtown to play a show, go home and hang out. We were in awe of a lot of things, Queen Street bands like the Vital Sines and the Rent Boys, all those funky, dark things. We saw all that stuff but it didn’t really echo with us.”

There was at least one person who decried the band’s shift from funk to folk. But then again, Jaymz Bee – bandleader of the decidedly bizarre Look People – has strange taste in music. “At the time they were a three-piece funk band, they played a show with me and [star of 70s CBC-TV sitcom King of Kensington] Al Waxman,” says Bee. “The Rheostatics did a really hot set, without the horn section, and rocked the house down. This was way pre-Tielli. Bidini was the coolest, guitar-playing, dancing-around, being-weird guy, like a David Byrne character. I thought they were the coolest band ever.”

Bee tried to recruit Bidini into the Look People for an extended European stay. “He played a couple of gigs with us, but he didn’t go to Europe,” says Bee. “He said that his band was really happening and that I should come out to see them. I went to see them, and I couldn’t stand it! I said, ‘You guys are country! What the fuck is this?’ I’m sure I really offended him. I thought Martin was just in outer space; I didn’t like him. But it wasn’t that I didn’t like him, it was that I walked in expecting this funk band, and I got this weird thing. So I thought, ‘Well, obviously Bidini’s lost his mind. He’s not coming to Europe to tour with our amazing, best band in the world – he’s going to stay with this Canadian country act.’

“I saw them again when we came back. And because I had decided that I was a bit harsh and maybe I should give them a chance, they absolutely blew me away. Martin did the opposite: rather than me thinking he’s a creepy guy with no talent, I thought he was a genius, like Mary Margaret O’Hara. He went into a special land all of his own.”

-end of part one of four-

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