The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #28/250: Stereo by The Watchmen

Pearson Airport at midnight.

It is just after midnight. After a long day of travel, I find myself at Pearson Airport in Toronto. From what I can tell, we are the last flight of the day to arrive. All of the shops are shuttered. There are no other people here except for a few folks in uniform pushing brooms or pulling vacuum cleaners. Canada’s busiest airport is empty and silent. If my life was a television show or a movie, my fellow passengers and I would break out in song, flash mob style! The baggage carousel is ours to surf should our hearts so desire. But, no one dances or sings at this hour of the day. Slump-shouldered and bleary-eyed, we allow opportunity to pass us by. We trudge silently toward the doors and the night air beyond. We all just want to go home.

Nothing but the open road before me.

The airplanes are tucked snugly into their hangars. The sky above Pearson appears calm. There is no one else moving on the roof of the Sheraton Hotel as I pick up my faithful car. It is just me and a sky filled with stars. I pull out of the parking garage and on to Canada’s busiest highway, known simply as the 401. In the wee hours of the morning, the 401 unfurls before my wheels. There are only truckers and me as we roll past empty shopping malls and darkened apartment buildings. Even the CN Tower has turned off its lights and gone to sleep for the night. The truckers and I, we drive ever onward unencumbered.

It has been a very long day of travel delays and flight cancellations. Although the driving is easy across the top of Toronto, I can feel my body wanting to shut itself down. I am tired but still far from home. In order to help myself stay alert, I call upon an old friend for company. I turn on the radio and punch in the call numbers for CFNY-FM. This is the radio station immortalized in the RUSH song, “Spirit of Radio”. *(I wrote a post about that song that you can read by clicking here). CFNY-FM (or 102.1 the Edge, as they have branded themselves today) has been the home of alternative music in Toronto since I moved into the city in 1982. It was where I first heard bands such as Yaz, Depeche Mode, Rough Trade, The Constantines and early U2. I have always felt an affinity for CFNY-FM so it seems only natural that in my moment of need I turn to them to provide the soundtrack for this final leg of my journey home. They do not disappoint.

One of the great things about listening to radio after midnight is that the tightly controlled structure of their day time playlists relaxes somewhat. There is more freedom for DJs to programme what they want, and so the early hours of the morning often offer a window into the creative heart of those on the other side of the microphone. On this night, I hear a smorgasbord of classic alternative and more modern fare. I hear female bands, male solo acts, synth Pop bands and straight-ahead rockers like the Foo Fighters. But the very first song I hear as I head out into the night is “Stereo” by the Canadian band, The Watchmen. “Stereo” is a terrific song. It was a big hit for The Watchmen in the mid-1990s and helped solidify their claim as being one of Canada’s top musical acts during that decade.

My life’s a stereo

How loud does it go?

What songs do I know?

What ever happened to my plans?

What ever happened to the life I thought I’d have?

My life’s a stereo.

Kind of cheaply made though

How bad does it show?

Whatever did become of all my friends?

Whatever happened to the likes of all of them?

My life’s a stereo.

Turn me on and let’s go.

Turn me up louder

I’ll scream as loud and clear as I can scream

If you like what you’re hearing then please hang on to me.

The Watchmen: Ken Tizzard, Daniel Greaves, Sammy Kohn and Joey Serlin.

Hearing “Stereo” blasting away as I sail past the usually artery-clogging exit for the Don Valley Parkway fills me with a sense of pleasure. I am instantly transported back to much younger days when I first encountered the vocal prowess of lead singer Daniel Greaves on a song called “Boneyard Tree”. Greaves and his bandmates Joey Serlin, Sammy Kohn and Ken Tizzard were fixtures on Much Music and were members of a wave of Canadian musical acts such as The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and Sloan that formed a sort of musical renaissance in this country. The Watchmen released five albums during the 1990s, earning one platinum and three gold records along the way, along with several Juno Award nominations. They were never the biggest band in the land, headlining sold out shows in stadiums and twenty thousand seat arenas. Instead, The Watchmen were the sort of band that showed up in your own town. They could fill one thousand seat theatres with ease. They were regulars on the festival circuit. They loved the atmosphere of bars like The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. They played every university and college in the country. In fact, the birth of the band took place in the furnace room of the McLaren Hotel in Winnipeg (where the band is from) and gave rise to the title of their debut album, McLaren Furnace Room. As I leave the lights of Toronto behind and enter the suburbs of Scarborough, I remind myself that The Watchmen were the sort of band that often did what I was doing at that very moment. Traveling from city to city, town to town in the stillness of the night after having ripped it up mere hours earlier for another throng of sweat-soaked fans.

Scarborough. Pickering. Ajax, Whitby. Oshawa…all signposts on the side of the highway on this night. The further east I drive, the darker it becomes as the 401 enters the rolling hills of Northumberland County that I call home. CFNY-FM is rocking seemingly louder than ever (Sum 41, I believe) as I pass by forests and farmers’ fields. Bowmanville. Newcastle. Newtonville. Port Hope. Cobourg. Home. I bid adieu to my trucker companions and exit off of the 401 and enter my hometown of Cobourg. Now that I am driving more slowly and entering my sleepy hometown, the music seems excessively loud so I turn it down without giving it a thought. I am the only driver on the streets of my hometown. It is two in the morning now when I pull into my driveway. The house is dark. My wife and daughters are dreaming away in their beds as I turn off the radio and exit the car. Before coming inside, I take a moment and stand in the darkness in front of my house. The stars shine above. I can hear the water flowing in a nearby brook. A breeze rustles the branches of the pine tree next to me. I may seem to be alone but I am part of so much more, even at 2:00AM. This is my world. Finally, I am home.

The link to the video for the song “Stereo” by The Watchmen can be found here.

***The lyrics version can be found here. Please note that the only lyrics version I could find is a remix and, as such, it sounds slightly different that the original version.

The link to the official website for The Watchmen can be found here.

The link to the official website for radio station CFNY-FM (102.1 the Edge) in Toronto can be found here.

The link to a news article about the history of The McLaren Hotel in Winnipeg (where The Watchmen got their start) can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

5 thoughts on “The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #28/250: Stereo by The Watchmen”

  1. Very well written ! I can relate to so many touch points there, the empty Airport, the drive on the 401, except I was usually headed west. Most of CFNY, back in the day a lot of stuff you wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

  2. Will this comment add to, or detract from your story, I cannot say.
    The McLaren Hotel was built along the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks that ran through then downtown Winnipeg. It had a glorious past. But by the time I came of age in the 60s, downtown had moved from Main St. to Portage Ave. The old downtown area had lost its opulence, and was considered Winnipeg’s biggest eyesore. City Hall wanted to tear down the McLaren and a number of other hotels and businesses in the area (they did succeed in tearing down the Royal Alexandra Hotel run by the CPR, one of Winnipeg’s finest hotels once upon a time, just half a block off Main St.) but those hotels by then were home to Winnipeg’s working poor, and almost homeless. As a preteen I walked that area of Winnipeg often with a friend on the way to the cheap theatres that played all the B movies in triple bills, three movies for 10 cents. A whole days worth of entertainment. The cokes were a dime, the popcorn 5 cents. We whiled away the hours on our 25 cent allowances!
    But that aside, we never knew if we would make it to the theatres through the hotel area. Stories were rampant of people being robbed and even knifed. But nothing ever happened to us, so we were lucky.
    The thing is, “normal people” avoided this area like the plague. Main St., with its underpass below the railway lines was a main corridor from the city’s North End, but people locked their car doors while driving through the area, fearing for their lives. Which was stupid, of course, the people frequenting the area just wanted to live in peace, but there were a lot of fights between themselves, and foot patrol police in teams of two presence was quite high.
    Mostly though, the danger occurred at night, after the bars had been open for hours. Poor people would drink cheap booze all day, stumble into each other on the way home, and fights would start over nothing at all. Who pushed who.
    The McLaren Hotel was considered a dive. Even the live music it did have, when bands woould agree to play there, could not attract the cityfolk. No one would venture there unless they already lived there.
    To hear The Watchmen practised there means the area must have gone through a sea change after I left Winnipeg, or else The Watchmen must have got the Furnace Room (should that even be capitalized?) really cheap. I hope it was the former, but I cannot say.
    The music itself was okay, but the mention of the McLaren Hotel really got my attention. That is real history, though not all of it the kind Winnipeg really wants to promote.
    Thanks for the memories, Tom.

    1. Thanks for the excellent backgrounder. In the article that I link to in the post (from the Winnipeg Heritage Comm.), they gave some background into the nature of how the hotels in Winnipeg have come and gone, except for the McLaren (which they dubbed as “low income housing”). If we are being honest, we both know that “low income housing” is never placed in the shiner side of town. I always assume that most hotels such as the McLaren have fallen on hard times. If your hotel is not a chain hotel these days then it is hard to make a grand income. As for The Watchmen renting out the furnace room, that was a story that was told right from the start of their career. They had no money for fancy studio space so they got what they could afford. From everything that I have read, they knew exactly where they were. I never got the sense that they were scared or offended to be there. I think in the beginning that they took what they could get and made the best of it. In any case, when I write the post and decided to mention the McLaren angle, I figured you would have some insight to add. Thanks for doing so. Take care. 😀

      1. It was only certain people who were “offended” by that part of town, but I will admit I was nervous whenever I walked through it. The hype was much worse than the actuality, but that is par for the couse. I lived in the East Side of Vancouver in the 60s and the 90s and I never had any trouble, but listen to the “good citizens” and they would gave you believe it was a hell hole. I presume Toronto hsd similar areas, but I never found them in the 3 months I tried living there.That city is so big I could never find the Village. I guess I landed in the wrong part of town.

  3. That was so well written I felt like I was in the car with you !
    So glad you finally made it home, safe and sound ❤️

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