The Unicorn by The Irish Rovers…Song #24: The Great Canadian Road Trip

A dear friend of mine who is a Teacher-Librarian at a nearby school to where I live recently wrote an impassioned blog post about the importance of reading aloud to children. She spoke about some of her favourite chapter books and how they were brought to life for her as a young girl because of the way her teachers read to her and her classmates. Her post *(which you can read here) seems like an obvious thing for a teacher to preach, but as she said, with the arrival of COVID-19 and the increased use of facial masks, along with a younger generation of teachers who, themselves, have grown up using technology to read their words, rather than books, she had noted a marked decrease in the number of classrooms in her school where being read to aloud was a regular part of a student’s day.

Her post struck a chord with me because when I was teaching, reading aloud to my students was my absolute favourite part of my day! I am an introverted person most of the time so reading great literature aloud gave me permission to tap into my theatrical side. I loved the cadence of wonderfully written language. I enjoyed reading “in character” by altering my voice and adopting accents and so on. But, most of all, I found great pleasure in inviting children into the magical world of stories. Helping to ignite a passion for reading is one of the most satisfying aspects of my job as a teacher. Not only is reading a crucial life skill but the ability to use your imagination, to be a problem-solver and to develop an appreciation for characters and cultures different from your own all play out in stories…especially, in stories read aloud by someone you trust.

The front cover of the book, "Where The Sidewalk Ends" by poet Shel Silverstein.

In June of 2018, as the date of my retirement approached, I tasked myself with the job of clearing out my classroom so that the incoming teacher wouldn’t have to deal with piles of resources that he or she may not have wanted. Among the resources to be cleared out were almost 2000 books. Over the course of my thirty year career, I had accumulated a vast in-class library of fiction and non-fiction books. I had them organized by subject in bins on shelves all around our classroom where they could be accessed by my students. As the end of that final school year approached, I was lucky to have another teacher come along and ask about what I intended to do with my classroom library. I ended up giving it all to her. The day she came to take them away, we discovered that I had seventy-two bins of books. Somehow she managed to get them all into a truck. I hope that some or all of those books turned out to be useful to her and that she is sharing them with her students even as I type these words. However, before this lady came to take my books away, I went through my own collection and pulled out thirty books that were important to me for various reasons….one book for each year that I was a classroom teacher. Those books I took home. Each time I look at them I am reminded of what it felt like to be involved in the journey that each child took when they walked through our classroom door and what a privilege it was to be their teacher. One of those thirty special books was a book of poetry for children called Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

A photograph of a copy of the page from "Where The Sidewalk Ends" that contains his poem, "The Unicorn".
At once a children’s poem and also a hit song for The Irish Rovers.

The poetry of Shel Silverstein was silly and subversive at the same time. It dealt with topics that young children could relate to such as fear of the dark, the perils of laziness, dealing with parents and/or siblings and much, much more. The language used by Silverstein was sometimes simple and many times lyrical. I used this book (and several of his other books of poetry) with every group of students I ever taught from the very first year I bought this book (Year #3 of my career), all the way to that very last class in 2018. By the time I took that book home with me in the summer sunshine, it was threadbare and falling apart from overuse…as all loved books should be. But something magical lay buried within the pages of this book. It was there in all those classrooms over the years. It was there before I ever bought the book. It lies there now for you to discover should you ever care to look for yourselves. The treasure buried within the pages of this great book is a hit song! It is true! On pages 76 and 77 of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is a poem called The Unicorn. This poem was written by Shel Silverstein as a commentary on religion and inclusion and silliness. It concerns the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and how he created a floating zoo and how the unicorns were invited in but were too busy playing games to see the danger all around them from the rising flood waters (which explains why children can never see a real unicorn in the wild anymore says Silverstein). This poem would have remained strictly a moralistic tale for children if not for the fact that a group of Irish immigrants to Canada chose it as a song for their debut album. That group became the Irish Rovers and their version of “The Unicorn” went all the way to #1 in Canada, selling over 8 million records in all, making it the biggest hit song in their whole career.

Four members of the Irish Rovers in a row holding an accordion, an acoustic guitar, nothing and an acoustic guitar.
The Irish Rovers in the early days.

The Irish Rovers got their name from an old song called The Irish Rover , which chronicles the journey taken by a ship back in the days of exploration and discovery. It is a fantastical tale of adventure and ruin and has been a popular drinking song in Ireland for generations. The Irish Rovers band was formed in the 1960s in Toronto when a man named Will Millar met another man named Jimmy Ferguson and the two spent the evening singing and drinking and singing some more. Millar introduced Ferguson to his brothers George, Joe and Ian who, in turn, were joined by an accordion player named John Reynolds. Together, the boys in the band became one of the driving forces behind making Irish/Celtic music popular in Canada and around the world. The Irish Rovers eventually became Canadian citizens at the behest of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who then proclaimed them to be official Canadian ambassadors of music and sent them off to tour around the world under the banner of the Canadian red maple leaf flag. The Irish Rovers launched their career with “The Unicorn”, but they had plenty of other hits, including “Wasn’t That a Party?!”, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Black Velvet Band”. Not only did the Irish Rovers have a number of hit songs, but they were also television stars in Canada. The Irish Rovers hosted several iterations of the same variety show over the course of two decades. The shows would be set in a pub-like locale and would see the band play several tunes, along with a few celebrity guests who would show up, from time to time. One of my favourite university memories was getting to go to a live taping of an episode of “Party With The Rovers” in 1983.

Lead singer of The Irish Rovers, Will Millar and the band's former manager, Les Weinstein, arm in arm, holding glasses of beer.
A recent photo of Will Millar of The Irish Rovers and Les Weinstein, the band’s former manager and father of my roommate in university, Lisa Weinstein.

During my first year of university I lived in a student apartment complex in Toronto called Neill-Wycik College. My building was twenty-three stories tall and consisted of apartment units that housed four, five or six students at a time. Each unit had a common kitchen/living room area, two shared bathrooms and a bedroom for each student. In my first year, I was part of a six-person unit. There were three guys and three girls living together in what became a sort of family set-up. Being new to such a big city, it was helpful to have a group of people to explore the city with and to learn how to develop consistent cooking, cleaning and studying routines. One of the girls I lived with was a young lady named Lisa Weinstein. Lisa was taking the same Radio and Television Broadcasting course that I was. But, for the sake of this story, what is most important to note about Lisa was that her father was a man named Les Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein was an executive with a fledgling Canadian record label named Nettwerk Records. Nettwerk Records began by signing and promoting bands such as Skinny Puppy and The Grapes of Wrath. They would eventually gain fame by signing and developing a young female singer from Halifax named Sarah McLachlan. One of the other bands that was managed by Mr. Weinstein at Nettwerk Records was The Irish Rovers. So, when they were filming for their new series, Lisa asked us, as her roommates, if we wanted to attend a taping. We readily agreed and off we went. As mentioned, the set was designed to look like an Irish pub. Instead of sitting behind the cameras in bleachers, where many shows place their audience, we were seated at round tables meant to resemble how tables would be set in a real pub. Because of this, the audience was on camera as much as the singers were. One of the rules we were given before taping began was that there could never be an empty beer glass seen on a table. So, between each take, crew members would wander around and refill every glass! My glass was refilled four or five times, at least! I can’t quite remember to be sure. The members of the band drank with us drink for drink. By the time the show ended with a boozy rendition of “The Black Velvet Band” with guest star, Tommy Makem, I can barely remember applauding and stumbling home. But I do remember how personable the Irish Rovers all were and that It was a fun evening. If Lisa had asked, I am sure we would have all gone back again and again to the tapings.

Five mugs of ice cold beer being held aloft.
Here’s to you all!!!

It is funny how life is sometimes. Men from Ireland formed a band in Canada named after an Irish sea shanty. They had a hit song with a children’s poem from a book that I valued more than most in my own classroom library. But, before ever becoming a teacher, I drank beers with the band on the set of their show simply because I had the great good fortune to be roommates with their manager’s daughter. Although it may be a good story, it is one that I never shared with my students because I didn’t feel as though a story about their teacher getting hammered on free beer with the Irish Rovers was a suitable tale to tell. But, let me tell you, every time I opened that book in class and saw that poem I remembered. I remembered every moment of it all. And furthermore, unlike every other Shel Silverstein poem in that book, “The Unicorn” was one I couldn’t just read….it was one I had to sing.

The link to the video for the song “The Unicorn” by The Irish Rovers can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

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

The link to the video for the original Irish song, “The Irish Rover” as performed by The Dubliners and The Pogues can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The studio in which the “Party With The Rovers” show was filmed was in Don Mills, Ontario. The official website for Don Mills, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot…Song #23/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip

As 1967 drew near, many plans were set into motion to mark the occasion of Canada’s 100th anniversary of becoming an independent country. For my family, we embarked on a cross-Canada tour that involved the three of us taking the train from Sydney, Nova Scotia, traveling all the way westward to Vancouver, British Columbia, and then driving back home in our family car that my father had shipped out to Vancouver on the train along with us. At the time of our trip, I was only three years old so I was not privy to any of the planning that had gone into organizing such a journey. However, with the hindsight of history to guide me, I know that my mom and dad were commemorating Canada’s centennial by traversing this great land using one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever: the creation of the Canadian National Railroad. Our history books like to wax nostalgic about the creation of the railroad being one of the great acts of national unification. All that I knew at the time was that being on a train for over ten days seemed like fun to me. Some of the earliest memories in my life are of the train stopping in the Rockies and me looking at how big the mountains seemed and how cool and fresh the air felt. From Stanley Park in Vancouver, to the endless wheat fields of the Prairies, the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Expo 67 in Montreal, the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and finally, back across the Maritimes to Cape Breton Island once again. We were home in this great land we call Canada.

Canadian singer, Gordon Lightfoot.
Gordon Lightfoot.

Our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) had planned a year long series of broadcasts that were aimed at telling “our story” as a country. To start it all off, the CBC contacted singer Gordon Lightfoot and asked him to compose a song about Canada. Lightfoot was not just a great singer and songwriter but he was a natural storyteller. So, when Gord put pen to paper, he opted to tell the story of the making of the railroad that ran from east to west. He called his song “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy”. The song debuted on January 1st, 1967. It was well received by many in Canada and has gone on to become one of Gordon Lightfoot’s signature songs in a catalogue filled with hits. Lightfoot created the structure for the song based upon a US song called “The Civil War Trilogy” that was originally sung there by The Limelighters. In Gord’s song, there are slow parts and speedier parts. This cadence was meant to resemble the chug-chug-chugging of a steam locomotive, which would have been the sort of train in use back when the railroad was built in the 1800s. For many who enjoy this song, The Canadian Railroad Trilogy stands as a testament to a moment in time when our nation was united and strong. For that reason, the song evoked a sense of national pride whenever it was played.

About fifty Chinese labourers posing by a segment of railroad track that they had built as part of the original Canadian National Railroad.
Chinese “navvies” who worked on the building of the Canadian National Railroad. Many lost their lives due to the dangerous nature of their work and to poor safety standards at the time.

But as we are becoming more aware, the telling of history is a fickle thing. Gordon Lightfoot deserves credit for dedicating a large portion of “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” to the navvies (or the immigrant Chinese workers), whose labour helped build each length of track. It was dangerous, back-breaking work and many Chinese labourers lost their lives completing the “national dream”. The navvies were paid less than English-speaking workers and they were required to perform the most dangerous tasks (such as blasting through the Rocky Mountains to make tunnels). It is generally acknowledged that 3-4 Chinese workers died for every mile of track created. Knowing the vastness of Canadian geography as we do, the death toll among Chinese workers stretches into the tens of thousands. In gratitude for the heroic nature of their work, the Chinese labourers were fired en masse once the last spike was driven in Craigellachie, British Columbia and were forced to find their own transportation back to wherever they were going to live next. Those workers were always considered expendable. But, at least, their existence was acknowledged by Gordon Lightfoot in his song, so there is that, I suppose.

But, the same can’t be said for the Indigenous Peoples of this land. The history of Canada is replete with example after example of Indigenous Peoples being on the short end of national expansionism. I want you to stop and think back to a time just prior to the arrival of European explorers such as Jacques Cartier, Giovanni Caboto and Samuel de Champlain. In those pre-contact times, the whole of the land that is now considered to be Canada was actually populated by Indigenous nations. These Nations existed from sea to sea to sea. Each Nation had its own customs and governance. All existed with the foundational thought that they were not above nature and animal life but were as one with it. Bison and beavers thrived at this time. The idea of taking what you need but no more, was a guiding principle that allowed the various Indigenous Peoples to survive for thousands of years. And then came the Europeans.

About fifty workers watch as a rich white man in a beard and tip hat hammers in the final spike to complete the building of the Canadian National Railroad at Craigellachie, British Columbia.
The “Last Spike” being driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia.

Say what you want about European settlers, but the actual facts from History show that they viewed this new land as theirs for the taking. The Indigenous Peoples were merely an obstacle to be overcome, either by negotiated treaty or by force. Even those negotiated treaties were very one-sided, with the settlers getting the best land and access to resources, while the Indigenous Peoples were shunted off to the side…of the land that they had lived on successfully for an eternity. One of the most lethal instruments of colonization of Indigenous lands was the Canadian National Railroad. Its creation was the political excuse used to appropriate Indigenous lands, especially across the Prairies and into British Columbia. It was the political excuse used to send troops into the Prairies so as to “safeguard” the work of railroad building and to help acquire additional territory along the way. It was opposition to the railroad, and more specifically, to the appropriation of Indigenous land that caused Louis Riel to take his famous stands at The Red River Valley (in what is now Manitoba) and later at Batoche (in what is now Saskatchewan), for which he paid the ultimate price with his life by being sentenced to death for treason. Much of what happened to Louis Riel and the Metis Peoples reverberated into Quebec and was the start of French nationalism there. The politics of the railroad entering British Columbia helped convince those settlers to officially enter into Confederation as the westernmost province in Canada. It goes on and on. The creation of the Canadian National Railroad has become synonymous with Canadian history, in general.

And so it was back in 1967, as the words of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” played out to great acclaim, my parents were inspired to recreate that journey and relive the national dream, creating memories to last a lifetime for themselves and their young son. The beauty and the vastness of the land is a memory that I retain to this day. As a toddler, I had no idea of the politics of railroad building, of the sacrifices made by so many underpaid Chinese labourers, nor of the devastating impact of the railroad on the lives of Indigenous Peoples ever since it went across this land. But I do know now. While it may not be for me to insist that those of you who read this rise up in anger and in protest, I think it is my place to insist that we, as the descendants of those who colonized this land, do our part to understand the true nature of its history. When we do, it forces us to regard the railroad as much more than a feat of engineering worth celebrating in song. I imagine that the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” must be a difficult song for Indigenous Peoples to have to listen to. I apologize in advance for any hurt that this post causes. As we make our way through the songs listed as being part of this Great Canadian Road Trip of mine, we should always be aware of the history of this land and what our role has been in shaping it as it exists today. It is, quite literally, the very least we can do.

The link to the video for the song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot can be found here. ***Lyrics version can be found here.

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

The link to the official website for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here. *(As you may know, this Commission reported mainly on the impact of the residential school system but, in doing so, it touched on many aspects of the impact of colonization upon the Indigenous Peoples of this land such as land appropriation, forced cultural assimilation, The Indian Act and much, much more). Its report and recommendations should be required reading for all who live in this country called Canada, imo).

The link to an article from the Globe and Mail newspaper about the use of the railroad as a tool of colonization and why, in reply, so many Indigenous protests involve railroad blockades can be found here.

The link to the official website for the town of Craigellachie, British Columbia can be found here. *(Craigellachie was the original terminus of the Canadian National Railroad. It was where the “last spike” was driven).

**As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins: Song #22/250…The Great Canadian Road Trip

Martha and the Muffins are often thought of as “one-hit wonders” because of the success of their debut single, “Echo Beach”, in 1981. While “Echo Beach” was a huge hit…in fact, it won the Juno Award for Single of the Year…the song was just one of many that charted in those early days of the burgeoning Alternative music in and around Toronto. However, Martha and the Muffins had an impactful career, not just because of the music they produced but also because of the people they worked with along the way. In fact, an argument can be made that it was because of the band giving a break to a teenage boy working out of his Mom’s house in Hamilton, Ontario, that the face of music around the world changed for the better as the 1980s rolled along. So, sit down, strap in and make yourself comfortable. Here is the story of “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins.

Martha and the Muffins.

The band Martha and the Muffins formed in the late 1970s at the Ontario College Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto. The original members were the Gane Brothers (Mark and Tim), along with friends, David Millar, Carl Finkle and singer, Martha Johnson. At the time, punk rock was exploding around the world. Bands like The Clash and The Damned were making a name for themselves. The members of Martha and the Muffins wanted to play a form of Art Rock but didn’t want a harsh sounding name for the group, so, as a lark, they called themselves Martha and the Muffins. They never intended to have that as the real name of their band, but the joke was soon on them. In 1980, they recorded their debut album and released their first single, which was “Echo Beach”. While the band members all felt that “Echo Beach” was a cool sounding song, no one was prepared for how quickly it caught fire and roared up the charts. It became such a smash hit that the band’s name became their brand, whether they wanted it to be or not. In later years, after several lineup changes, the core members tried to rebrand themselves as “M + M” but by then, they had become too well known as Martha and the Muffins to make that change come to fruition.

In this photo, you can see how small Sunnyside Beach actually is and how close it is to the Gardiner Expressway and the rest of the City of Toronto.

There is no actual beach in Canada called Echo Beach. When the song speaks of having a boring job and of daydreaming about this idyllic beach, that much is based in fact. The song was inspired by Mark Gane having a summer job in a wall paper factory. It was a terribly boring job (checking the paper for rips as it came off of the production line) and one that had him dreaming of being anywhere else but where he was. The beach Gane was actually thinking of was a real beach in Toronto called Sunnyside Beach. Sunnyside Beach is a small stretch of sand on the shores of Lake Ontario. It sits almost directly across from High Park, on the southern side of a major highway in Toronto known as the Gardiner Expressway. The Gardiner Expressway is the major road artery that brings vehicular traffic into the lower downtown area of Toronto. Over one hundred thousand cars a day travel on the Gardiner Expressway as it meanders along the Lake Ontario coastline. Just north of the Gardiner Expressway sits the city of Toronto proper and all two million of its residents. Sunnyside Beach exists amid it all as a tiny little oasis of calm. A series of trees shields the beach from the noise of the Gardiner Expressway. Once you are relaxing on the sand of Sunnyside Beach, you can almost imagine that you are somewhere else entirely, even as two million people go about their business less than a kilometre away. The song “Echo Beach” speaks of the universal desire for peace and relaxation and for getting away from the hustle and the grind of everyday life. It is not surprising that its message resonated so well with so many who heard it.

Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario. This was home base for Daniel Lanois when he started producing and recording music.

But, the story of Martha and the Muffins doesn’t end with this one great song. Their importance as a band stretches far beyond “Echo Beach”. The story goes that their one hit song had record executives clamouring for a follow-up. By the time the band was ready to start work on album #2, there had been several lineup changes. Most notably, they hired a new bassist named Jocelyne Lanois. *(When her time ended with Martha and the Muffins, Lanois helped form another Canadian band of note, Crash Vegas). In any case, besides bringing her musical skills to the forefront, Jocelyne Lanois’ most important contribution was recommending her seventeen-year-old brother for the job as producer. Her brother’s name was Daniel Lanois. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Starting in the 1980s, Daniel Lanois has become one of the most successful record producers and recording artists in the entire world. While he was a complete unknown when Martha and the Muffins came calling at his Grant Avenue Studios in his mom’s Hamilton, Ontario home, Lanois would go on to produce all of U2’s greatest albums during the 1980s including The Joshua Tree, as well as producing Peter Gabriel’s “So” album *(which was the very first CD I ever bought), Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Canada’s own The Tragically Hip and many many more.

Producer/musician extraordinaire Daniel Lanois.

The early 1980s, when Martha and the Muffins sought the services of a very young Daniel Lanois, was a time when the music industry was changing. The digitization of music was in its infancy. Compact discs were just starting to replace record albums as the format of choice for consumers. The process of digitization meant that recordings weren’t restricted to the sounds that artists could produce live, in studio. Now, sounds could be recorded, reformatted and tweaked in numerous electronic ways. Daniel Lanois was very interested in experimenting with the recording process. This involved everything from how microphones were used, to how many tracks could be laid over each other and so on. The members of Martha and the Muffins, having a background in Art and Design, were predisposed to liking the creative process of sound manipulation that Lanois was proposing. As a result, their second album was more experimental sounding. While the band liked their work, as did Daniel Lanois, there were no “hit songs” to emerge. After another album or two of music that was more cutting edge than it was commercial sounding, Martha and the Muffins were dropped by their record label. From this point on, the process of reinvention took place. The band tried to tour as “M + M” but to no avail. Eventually, the band members began releasing solo material. In fact, lead singer Martha Johnson created a children’s album and ended up winning her second Juno Award (for Best Children’s Recording).

The band eventually came to terms with the notion that they will always be Martha and the Muffins in the eyes of their fans and have started touring again. They now find themselves in a situation similar to bands such as Violent Femmes (with “Blister in the Sun”) and Pulp (with “Common People”) in that they have an entire catalogue filled with music they are proud of, but in the end, they know that their audiences usually come to hear that one hit song. They know that when they play those familiar opening notes that the roof will blow off of whatever venue they find themselves in, and, at least for that moment in time, they can help their own audience to remember those happy times when they, too, were able to get away from the hustle and grind for a while and feel the sunshine on their skin and be happy. To be able to do that for another is a gift worth giving. And so Martha and the Muffins continue to play “Echo Beach”, a song that is far away in time in more ways than one.

The link to the video for the song “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins can be found here.

***The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the video for the 30th anniversary reissue of “Echo Beach”…much slower and jazz-like…can be found here. Excellent video, btw.

The link to the official website for Martha and the Muffins can be found here.

The link to the official website for the City of Toronto beaches and parks directory can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of the post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Farewell To Nova Scotia as sung by Catherine McKinnon…Song #21/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

The former Glace Bay General Hospital. This was the view from the top of my street. MacQuarrie’s store was just to the left of where this photo was taken. Great memories of that store and the folks who worked there.

As a child, I often thought that I would always live in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. It was where my friends were. It was where my family was. It was where my school and my church and all of the stores I had ever shopped in were. Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store…where I spent my allowances buying O-Pee-Chee hockey cards and Richie Rich comic books was just at the top of my street, across from the hospital where my mother and aunt and two cousins all worked. The cemetery, where my father was buried, was there, too. Glace Bay was the world as I knew it then. I wanted to live there forever.

Well, forever lasted until the age of 18. As my final years of high school passed and visions of a career as a writer took shape in my head, I discovered that to further my career ambitions meant that I would have to move away from Nova Scotia. So, I planned accordingly. I applied to university in Toronto and was accepted. So I spent the summer as an 18 year old saying goodbye to my friends and my family, graduating from my school, walking out of my church for the last time, making the rounds of all the stores and restaurants that I used to frequent and getting ready to leave my home. By this time, even Mary MacQuarrie’s store had closed. The time seemed right to leave.

Seal Island Bridge as seen from the Bras d’Or Look-off on Kelly’s Mountain.

With my bags packed, I boarded the Via train out of Sydney. We chugged past the Newfoundland ferry in North Sydney. We crossed the beautiful Seal Island Bridge and began climbing Kelly’s Mountain (The tallest elevation on Cape Breton Island). We passed the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s Bay and soon found ourselves in Baddeck (The former home of inventor extraordinaire, Alexander Graham Bell and his wife). An hour after that we were crossing the Canso Causeway and had left Cape Breton Island for the mainland of Nova Scotia. At that point, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean gave way to the endless forests of Nova Scotia’s upper mainland and then, into New Brunswick. After a night of fitful sleep, sitting up in an economy class chair, we arrived in Montreal. We changed trains there. To my eighteen year old self, Montreal seemed very big and a little bit scary, I have to admit. There were so many people there and they all seemed to be in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. I remember feeling relieved when I found the line of people waiting to board my train to Toronto. I joined it hours before departure. I sat there on the floor of the Montreal station and quietly waited. I must have looked very small, sitting there amid my suitcases. I sure felt small. But, time passed, as it always does, and soon I was on the Via train to Toronto. At Union Station in Toronto, my cousin, Brent, was waiting to meet me. He was not thrilled that I had two suitcases and a steamer trunk to navigate through the rush hour crowds. But, just the same, he helped me. We made it safely out of there. I had arrived in the biggest city in Canada. As I stepped out of Union Station and looked up at the shiny skyscrapers that stood watch, I knew that I wasn’t in Glace Bay anymore.

Although I didn’t appreciate it then, my arrival in Toronto made me just the latest in a long line of Cape Bretoners who answered the siren song of dreams of a better life in the big cities of Ontario or oil fields and big money of Alberta. Outward migration is part of the cultural history of Cape Breton. Many young people leave each year and only a very small number ever return in any sort of permanent way. Most leave because there isn’t enough steady work on an island as geographically small as Cape Breton. The fisheries have been in decline for decades. Coal production has ceased to be an economically and environmentally viable enterprise. Even the Sydney Steel Plant, in whose shadow my mother and her family grew up, had long since been shuttered, dismantled and paved under. So, the young ones leave in hopes of finding career fulfillment elsewhere in Canada. I left in 1982. In fact, I have been “away” for three quarters of my entire life. In those three quarters of a lifetime, I have enjoyed a fruitful career as an elementary school teacher. I have married and become a father. I have made new friends and have acquired new family members along the way. I am used to shopping in new stores and eating at new restaurants. My house is paid for. My neighbours are terrific. There is a beautiful beach just five minutes walk from where I live. My life “away” has turned out to be pretty good. But, the funny thing is, I still call Cape Breton…home.

The Barra MacNeils performing in Oshawa, Ontario. Oshawa is about a 40-minute drive west of where I live.

There is just something in the blood of those of us who grew up there that we have taken with us wherever we have ended up settling. I prefer tea over coffee. I am drawn to tartan as a design aesthetic. But most of all, I still love the music of Cape Breton. I love the sound of bagpipes and fiddles. I try to see all of the Cape Breton-oriented musical acts that tour across Canada such as The Barra MacNeils, The Rankin Family, as well as Rita MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps, when she was alive and they toured together. Bringing a bit of Cape Breton to those of us from away is one way the connection to home is strengthened. The other way is to go back for vacation. My whole family and I go back home each summer and I do the same by myself in the winter. We go to see my mother and other family and friends who have stayed behind. But, as much as we do that, we also breathe in the salt air, we let the ocean’s water roll over our toes and, most of all, we simply bask in the beauty of one of the world’s great islands. Cape Breton Island will always be my home. It is part of who I am, even if I am far away from it for most of my days.

The parking lot on the left hand side of this photo is where Keri and I became engaged. The green bridge is the one that has the “Welcome to Cape Breton” sign attached to it. If you drive to the left, you enter Cape Breton. To the right, you are leaving it all behind. The causeway extends to the right slightly less than a kilometre more than what you see here.

The hardest part about visiting Cape Breton Island is that, sooner or later, I have to leave again. Although my Ontario home is fine, I am always sad on the day that it is time to leave Cape Breton. Having visited Cape Breton Island over one hundred times as an adult, I know from experience that it is emotionally easier to leave by plane than it is to leave by car. When traveling by plane, all you see is the inside of the cabin, the tops of the clouds and, if changing planes, the inside of another airport such as Stanfield Airport in Halifax. You don’t get to experience leaving Cape Breton the same way you do when you drive your way out. When we drive for Ontario in a car, we re-trace the route I took as an 18 year old on the Via train. Knowing what I am leaving behind makes it tougher to drive past the Newfoundland ferry terminal in North Sydney. The beauty of the scenery as we cross the Seal Island Bridge and begin to climb Kelly’s Mountain is amazing, but it is tough to see it in the rear view mirror. Baddeck is always gorgeous and peaceful and is a place for staying a while, not passing through on the way to somewhere else. But, onward we go. Eventually, we arrive at the Canso Causeway and prepare to leave the island. We always cast a glance to the right, to the parking lot next to the Causeway proper, where I proposed to my future wife because I wanted Cape Breton Island to always hold a special place in her heart, too. And then, it is gone. We are off to the Nova Scotia mainland and then New Brunswick, Quebec and back to Ontario. The girls are always excited to get back to their home in Ontario. But each time we leave, a little part of my heart stays behind.

Catherine McKinnon as she appeared on the CBC TV show, Singalong Jubilee, which was filmed in Halifax.

Leaving Cape Breton is something that many have experienced over the years. The lure of coming home is strong and the painful reality of knowing we have to leave again is something each of us feels. This has been true in Cape Breton for generations. It has also been true in the ancestral homeland of Nova Scotia, which is Scotland. For those who may not be aware, the words “Nova Scotia” translate as “New Scotland”. There is much about the geography and the cultural background of those who live in both places that are similar. In 1791, a Scottish poet named Robert Tanahill wrote a “lament” called “The Soldier’s Adieu”. It was about the emotional toll on Scottish soldiers who were forced to leave their highland homes to fight in wars in foreign lands. With Scottish culture such an integral part of the fabric of Nova Scotian life, it was not a surprise that “The Soldier’s Adieu” resurfaced just as World War I was in full swing and thousands of Canadian soldiers were flowing into Halifax to board ships that would take them across the Atlantic to England and onward to the battlefields of the Western Front. As these soldiers were taking wistful glances back at Halifax Harbour as they sailed away, “The Soldier’s Adieu” came to mind. Except this time, it was updated for the times and became known as “Farewell to Nova Scotia”. Even in times of peace, “Farewell to Nova Scotia” has been a song that holds a special place in the musical canon of Nova Scotia and of Cape Breton Island. When I was a child still living in Glace Bay, I used to hear “Farewell to Nova Scotia” sung by a lady named Catherine McKinnon on a CBC television show called, Singalong Jubilee. This show transitioned into another popular show called Don Messer’s Jubilee. Regardless of the show, Catherine McKinnon sang this song as if it was coming directly from her heart. Her rendition of “Farewell To Nova Scotia” became the definitive take on the song. So, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that for many years, whenever I drove my car across the island of Cape Breton as I returned to the real world in Ontario, I would do so to a soundtrack of the best of Cape Breton music. Catherine McKinnon’s “Farewell To Nova Scotia” was always one of those tunes that I heard as I drove across the Canso Causeway and off of the island. It is a song that makes me sad and happy at the same time because it is a song that is a fundamental part of who I am. And who I am is someone destined to always return home, only to have to eventually leave again. Maybe someday, I will get to return for good. Then, and only then, will “Farewell To Nova Scotia” cease to be a song that touches my heart.

The link to the video for the song “Farewell To Nova Scotia” by Catherine McKinnon can be found here.

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

The link to the official website for Cape Breton Island can be found here.

***PS: The photo at the top of this post is of Glace Bay Harbour.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written permission of the author. ©2022

Northern Touch by Rascalz ft. Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair and Thrust…Song #20/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

My eldest daughter has really begun to show an interest in our family history. She has become quite adept at going online and locating documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and records relating to military service for our relatives from three, four and even, five generations ago. She uses this information to tell us all stories about the people whose decisions influenced how our own lives turned out. However, one of the areas of her family history that she finds to be a source of frustration centers upon me. She is constantly encouraging me to tell her the stories of my own life. I have not ever been someone who tooted his own horn so, for that reason, I guess I have not been as open about the stories of my past as she would like. So, let’s remedy that a bit today. To my darling daughter, Leah, here is a true story about a man who has gone on to be known as the “Godfather of Canadian Hip Hop music” and how his example helped me decide to become a school teacher. His name was Ron Nelson and this is the story of a time when our divergent paths crossed.

Morrison Glace Bay High School: my academic home from 1978-82.

When I was in high school I began to find out what kind of person I was going to be as an adult. One of the things that happened was that I developed a reputation for being a writer. In those days, I was more apt to write plays or poetry than I was to write commentary, as I do now. I always used my friends as characters in these plays that I would write. Every spare moment of class time that I could wrest away from my studies was spent writing in my notebooks or scribblers, as we called them in Cape Breton. Fast forward to the end of my final year of high school, one of the traditions there was that every graduating class would have a story written about it that would be read aloud at the graduation prom during the dinner portion of the evening. I didn’t write the story for my class but I was one of the very first people mentioned when it was read aloud. In the story, it was being predicted that my future included becoming an author. When that was said aloud, many of those in attendance nodded their heads in agreement that this prediction stood a good chance of becoming true.

Ryerson Polytechnical University (now called Toronto Metropolitan University) and photographed from the roof of the building in which I lived. I lived on the 8th floor and faced this same direction. What a view of downtown Toronto I had for three years!

I enrolled in the Radio and Television Arts Programme at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto (now called Toronto Metropolitan University) in the belief that I would one day become a professional “script writer”. Because of the joy I got from writing plays and the positive feedback I received from everyone in high school, it seemed logical to my eighteen year old self that writing for a living was the way for me to go. I was one of only 100 applicants selected (out of 1200 who applied). At the time, my ego was such that I expected to be selected so when I was, I didn’t take it for the compliment that it was, I took it more as confirmation that I had what it took and that my experience in Toronto would mirror my experiences in high school. Oh boy! Was I ever in for a surprise!

I graduated from high school with a mark of 99% in English. So, I went into my first university writing class with much confidence. Our introductory assignment was to go to a movie theatre in Toronto, watch any movie our little hearts desired and then write a professional movie review (as if we were writing for one of the local Toronto newspapers). I went and watched a screwball comedy called, “Stir Crazy” that starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It was not the greatest movie ever written and I wrote my review accordingly. When I got my assignment back during the next class, I was shocked to see that I had been given a mark of 69%. That was a full thirty points lower than my high school English average! I had never received such a low mark in my entire school career! My head was swimming as I looked my assignment over and tried to distinguish my typewritten words amid the sea of red ink marks that littered my page. It turned out that I had tied for the top mark in the class for that assignment. That made no difference to me. My confidence was completely rattled right out of the gate. With that one assignment, I suddenly realized how out of my depth I really was and much harder I was going to have to work just to avoid failing.

As with many such things in life, I began to adjust and things settled down a bit. I developed a better study routine. I made connections with the new folks who were now my classmates. My professors got to know me better and I did likewise with them. However, I never quite shook off that initial feeling that I didn’t belong or that I wasn’t really good enough to warrant being there. What confirmed that for me was a second assignment (this time is audio class) that actually had nothing to do with how well I did or didn’t do. In fact, to be honest, I was relatively pleased with my own effort in my first audio assignment. But, what happened was that I was given the opportunity to see how high the bar was really set, as far as skill levels went. It was the day that a young man from the Caribbean named Ron Nelson chose to reveal himself as someone who would end up changing Canadian music history. It was also the day that I decided to become a teacher. Here is how it all happened.

Just one example of a K-Tel compilation album. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in the 1970s and 80s.

In our audio course, we were not yet working in a digital media field as we would be today. Back in the early 1980s, everything was still recorded and played on audio tape. So, one of the first lessons we were given in the audio course was how to record ourselves onto an audio tape and then how to make seamless edits. Making edits required us to use a razor and physically cut the audio tape and then tape it back together. Our first editing assignment was to create a 30-second “K-Tel” audio commercial. For anyone unaware of what I mean by a “K-Tel” commercial…back in the 1970s and early 80s, there was a record company called K-Tel. Their thing was releasing compilation albums. Thus, whenever there was an advertisement for the latest record they were releasing, they would play thirty seconds or so of music composed of short segments of some of the songs appearing on the album, with an hyped up announcer speaking over top of it all. For our assignment, I had to use 6-8 songs, edit them together in some coherent fashion and then lay down a voice-over track on top of the music. I was able to do this and was fairly pleased with my product which I called, “K-Tel presents: Rock of the Commonwealth”! It was music from the British Commonwealth of nations. It started off with “Everything She Does Is Magic” by The Police (out of England). I followed that with “Cuts Like a Knife” by our own Byran Adams. I remember using “Six Months In a Leaky Boat” by New Zealand’s Split Enz somewhere in there, too. I think I got a B- for it and I was ok with that as it was the very first time I had ever worked with audio tape and the editing process.

As we went through the class and listened to everyone’s “K-Tel” effort, all were reasonably good. Some were a little better than mine. Some were not quite as good. But all were satisfactory, at least. Then it came time to listen to the tape from Ron Nelson. Ron was a quiet, unassuming kind of guy when we first met. But he was friendly and willing to work with anyone. That was important to a shy guy like me. While we were never best friends or anything, he was one of the first people to willingly sit beside me and talk with me, which meant a lot. So, anyway, we were all sitting in class listening to these K-Tel tapes when the professor came to Ron and asked for his. As shocked as I was when I received that 69% in writing class, I was just as shocked now in audio class but for the opposite reason. Ron’s K-Tel tape was brilliant! It was stunningly good! In fact, there were so many things going on in the foreground, the middleground and the background of his thirty-second tape that we actually listened to his tape multiple times just to try to catch everything that Ron had done. When it was finished, the professor asked Ron to walk us through how he had created such a masterpiece. So, I sat there, slack-jawed, as Ron Nelson began to reveal his magic. His tape turned out to be a forerunner of Hip Hop sampling which was to explode in popularity as the 1980s rolled along. But, at that time, it was relatively unheard of in Canada and it completely blew our collective minds! I still remember listening to Ron dissect his tape and re-assemble it. There was an “aw-shucks” aspect of his presentation but there was also a glimmer in his eyes that I will never forget. The only time I can recall anything like it was when I watched the movie, Amadeus and, in particular, the scene toward the end of the movie when a dying Mozart asks his rival Salieri to record his Requiem March for him because he is too weak to do it himself. In agreeing to do so, Salieri is given a peek inside the genius that was Mozart’s mind. *(You can watch that scene here). I felt that way as I listened to Ron Nelson speak that day. I felt as Salieri must have, too. For I knew after listening to Ron Nelson that I could never do what he had just done. His skill was at an unobtainable level for the likes of someone like me. It was a moment of reckoning.

I remember returning to my dorm room that night and realizing that I would never be a star in the broadcasting business. I had just witnessed a real star in action and the only future for me was to strive to be competent at best. To be, as Salieri lamented, a mediocrity. That was not an acceptable life goal for me. So, at that very moment in my first year of the Radio and Television Broadcasting course, I decided to switch to Plan B, which was to become a teacher. I decided to stick with the broadcasting course and see it through because having a degree was a prerequisite to get into Teachers College. In some ways, tempering my broadcasting ambitions made the next two and a half years more tolerable and enjoyable. The pressure melted away. I learned a lot. I kept up my marks and, lo and behold, a few years later, I was accepted into the Education Programme at the University of Western Ontario. Many of the skills I learned at Ryerson translated well to the classroom. Consequently, I was always comfortable being in front of a classroom filled with children. As life has turned out, I believe that being a teacher was my true calling after all. I am very proud of my career and of being able to spend time with so many incredible children, families and staff over the years. But, no matter how far from the world of broadcasting I strayed, I always kept an eye out for my pal, Ron Nelson. For, unlike me, Ron had a lot of ambition when it came to his future. He ended up achieving a form of greatness that I am happy to acknowledge. Here is his story and why it matters.

My Ryerson classmate Ron Nelson on air at CKLN with his Fantastic Voyages show.

When I was in my first year of university and was learning such life skills as doing my own laundry properly and being able to cook basic meals, Ron Nelson was creating his own radio programme called Fantastic Voyages that aired weekly on the Ryerson campus radio station, CKLN. This radio station was more than the usual campus radio station because of its geographic location in the heart of downtown Toronto. So, even though it was primarily run by Ryerson students such as Ron, it broadcast to a potential audience over one million people. Fantastic Voyages was a radio show that was dedicated to the emerging genre of Hip Hop and, as such, it was the first show of its type anywhere in Canada. In order to provide some context as to how fresh and original Ron’s idea was…this was a full three years prior to Hip Hop supergroup Run-DMC teaming up with rockers, Aerosmith, to record a funked up rap version of the song, “Walk This Way”. That video gained lots of airplay on music video stations such as MTV (in the US) and Much Music (in Canada) and really helped introduce Hip Hop into the mainstream of the music world. But, years earlier, my classmate Ron Nelson was introducing Hip Hop to Canada’s biggest city while I was learning how to not burn my Kraft Dinner. The response to Fantastic Voyages went through the roof. For a while, ratings for Ron’s show were strong enough that they showed up with those of existing AM and FM stations throughout the city. That had never happened before to CKLN nor has it happened since. Buoyed by the positive reaction his programming was receiving, Ron began extending his reach by organizing local Hip Hop concerts and “Battle of the Bands”-type affairs. In a world where representation matters, Ron Nelson was giving people of colour in Toronto a chance to listen to their own history being put to music, to see successful people of colour singing songs about their own struggles and aspirations and, most importantly, he was giving wannabe rappers a venue for them to practice their craft and refine their skills. In doing so, Ron helped launch Hip Hop as a musical form in Canada. Not long after graduating from Ryerson, Ron opened his own recording studio. The first Canadian HIp Hop stars such as Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors recorded there. As the 1980s and 90s rolled on, Ron worked with everyone involved in Canadian Hip Hop, as well as many huge US acts such as Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B. & Rakim, Ice Cube and Queen Latifah. It is not for nothing that many people refer to Ron Nelson as “The Godfather of Hip Hop” in Canada.

The talented rappers behind the song, “Northern Touch” with their Juno Award for Rap Song of the Year.

This brings us to today’s song, “Northern Touch” by Vancouver-based Hip Hop stars, Rascalz. I have often been critical in my music posts about modern Hip Hop being needlessly explicit (in a sexual sense), often times profane for the sake of being profane and also being steeped in misogyny. As the new century dawned, Ron Nelson, too, grew disillusioned with the state of Hip Hop (especially in the US) and allowed Fantastic Voyages to come to a close. He kept his hand in the game by producing a radio show dedicated to reggae music, which was also close to his heart. But, for a while, the Canadian Hip Hop scene grew quiet. Almost a decade or more went by between the original hits of the Dream Warriors and Maestro Fresh Wes and the next wave of Canadian Hip Hop artists to emerge. Of those who did, most were Vancouverites or else, they hailed from the Greater Toronto Area. The song, “Northern Touch” was written by Rascalz but was always intended to be a collaborative effort between as many of the main players in the Canadian HIp Hop scene as was possible. As a result, verses were personally written and performed by artists such as Choclair, Thrust, Kardinal Offishall, as well as Checkmate. The result is the banger track, “Northern Touch”. This song ended up winning many Rap-oriented Juno Awards. It was also used as one of the theme songs for the Toronto Raptors basketball team the year before they won the NBA Championship in 2018. *(Watch the Kardinal Offishall remix here). For many, “Northern Touch” has become the official anthem of Canadian Hip Hop and has been widely praised for its swagger and positive energy.

Ron Nelson had many methods of creating a market for Hip Hop in Canada. One was through the creation of compilation mix tapes such as the one above.

You never know when a moment is going to come along and change your life. For me, one of the most significant was Ron Nelson’s little K-Tel compilation tape and his explanation of the creative process behind it. His genius allowed me to quickly see that my own creative talent and passion would be better served elsewhere. I do not take that as a failure on my part. Instead, I am grateful to Ron for allowing me to pivot early enough in my life so that I could start helping children sooner. Ron Nelson has no idea that he had a role in the direction of my life but he did. We don’t always get to choose our own destiny; oftentimes it is destiny that chooses us. I was destined to help children and tell stories that bring pleasure to others. Ron Nelson was destined to change the face of Canadian music in a culturally significant way for so many people who had been under-represented before his arrival on the scene. Yet, for a short time, he and I sat in the same chairs in the same rooms working on the same assignments. Whenever I hear from a former student about something special going on in their lives, I smile and feel as though I traveled along the path that was meant for me. Whenever I hear a great song like “Northern Touch”, with all of the confidence and pride and swagger it entails, I believe that Ron Nelson traveled down the right path for him, as well. To do so is about all one can hope for in life. Congratulations, Ron, for everything you have accomplished in life. For what it is worth, I am proud to know you even in the small way that I do. Thanks for bringing your best to all that you have done….starting with that K-Tel project for Professor Keast. 🙂

The link for the video of the song, “Northern Touch” by Rascalz, Checkmate, Kardinall Offishall, Choclair and Thrust can be found here.

The official website for Rascalz can be found here.

The official website for Checkmate can be found here.

The official website for Kardinal Offishall can be found here.

The official website for Thrust can be found here.

The official website for Choclair can be found here.

The official website for Ron Nelson can be found here.

The official website for radio station CKLN in Toronto can be found here.

Finally, the song, “Northern Touch” namedrops the city of Vancouver so, the official website for the city of Vancouver can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post should be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Spirit of Radio by Rush…Song 19/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

Rush: Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson.

Rush was a rock n’ roll band out of Toronto. They are composed of bassist/keyboardist/lead singer, Geddy Lee, guitarist, Alex Lifeson and drummer extraordinaire, Neil Peart. Rush formed in 1968 and played as a trio right up until 2018, when drummer Neil Peart passed away. For their career, Rush ranked third (trailing only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) in terms of the number of consecutive Gold records they achieved. In all, Rush produced 24 Gold records, 14 of which went on to achieve Platinum status. They sold over 40 million records worldwide and were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. They are generally considered to be the best rock band to come from Canada and one of the top ten rock bands in the entire history of rock n’ roll.

For the first decade of their career, Rush were known more as a Prog Rock band. They were lumped in with other such bands as Pink Floyd, early Genesis, Yes and so on. Many of the songs on their earliest albums exceeded ten minutes in length each. The themes of their music often lay in the realm of fantasy, myth and legend. Because of the nature of their music, the members of Rush were often allowed to showcase their musical virtuosity by indulging in long drum and/or guitar solos which then led to tightly woven sonic tapestries created by three men who tended to sound like many more. Rush had a very dedicated fan base and could have spent their whole career creating epic Prog Rock masterpieces if they so desired. However, rock bands, like the fans who adore them, do not exist in a vacuum. There is a world of innovation and change that goes on and quite often those changes wash up upon the shores of even the most successful of artists. And so it was that the members of Rush made the decision to tweak their creative formula slightly and try to produce some songs that were more “radio-friendly”. Some fans cried that doing so was selling out but Rush had some very pragmatic reasons for making a mid-career course correction. Here is the story of why Rush moved slightly away from Prog Rock. It all begins with the nature of radio at the time.

Up until the early 1970s, home radio operated on an AM frequency. But, as the 1970s rolled along, the FM frequency started to become more in demand by the public. The reason for this has to do with the nature of how radio waves are broadcast and received. In very simple terms, radio waves are like x-rays or light waves. They are not the same as sound waves. Sound waves are waves that alter the pattern of the air around us. They hit our eardrums in a certain manner, our brain decodes the vibrations and tells us what we are hearing. Radio waves, on the other hand, do not cause ripples in the air. Our ears cannot detect radio waves. In fact, there are radio waves all around you as you read these words but, just like light waves or x-rays, our human bodies are not equipped to receive radio waves. To do that, we need a transmitter and a receiver. Therefore, in most homes and cars, we have radio receivers present. These receivers are built to detect the radio waves being broadcast by radio stations from their tall towers or else, their satellite dishes. Each radio station broadcasts at a certain frequency along the AM or FM band so, by letting listeners know what the frequency is, we can tune our radio receivers accordingly and pick up the signal. That signal is then played through speakers that we have and is turned into sound waves that we can hear with our ears.

Now, prior to the 1970s, most home radio receivers were built to receive AM radio waves only. An AM radio wave is different from an FM radio wave in many ways but the most important difference is that AM radio waves are “taller” and cover more ground. FM waves are wider or broader and operate on a higher frequency range. In basic terms, you can hear an AM radio station from a greater distance but the sound quality will be more tin-like and shallow. An FM station’s signal doesn’t cover as much geographic ground but the quality of the sound is richer and deeper. From a business perspective, it was more cost effective to broadcast on the AM band because fewer stations were needed to cover the land. Thus, companies that produced home radio did so with AM dials and tuners pre-installed. For a while AM radio was the de facto method used when people spoke of radio.

When I grew up in the 1970s, our main radio stations were all AM stations. There was a good mix of news, talk radio programmes and music in those days. AM stations indulged in more talk radio style programmes because the sound quality of what was being broadcast was not as important as the content of what was being broadcast. So, two people debating the news of the day did not require stereo sound quality. As a result, I grew up (like most people) not even knowing that the stereo sounding quality of FM radio even existed. But, for a band such as Rush (who were making a name for themselves at the exact same time as I was listening to AM radio in my kitchen back home), the quality of their sound was extremely important to them. They wanted the sound quality of their live concert performances to be replicated for their audiences at home. However, the tinny quality of AM radio’s sound didn’t do that for Rush. So, throughout the 1970s, Rush concentrated on their live shows and their record albums. They poured their creative hearts into producing the most intricate and elaborate sound experience possible, using the technology that they had available at the time.

This is a retro AM/FM radio receiver. For any kids out there, note the large tuning knob. To access a radio station, you would rotate the tuning knob left or right. Doing so would move the long white line back and forth. As you passed various numbers, sounds from radio stations would pop up and you could decide to stay there and keep listening or else, keeping moving that dial. In a nutshell, that’s how radio worked back in my childhood days.

But a funny thing happened in the world of radio broadcasting as the 1970s unfolded. A few FM radio stations began broadcasting in larger cities. These stations began attracting new listeners who were excited by the richer, deeper sound quality they were able to achieve. Initially, FM radio was the haven of audiophiles who possessed great sound systems in their own homes and cars. It wasn’t music for the masses just yet. But, like all things that become popular, the business world began to take note. As the demand for radio receivers with FM capabilities began to grow, companies stepped up their production. Soon, the per unit price of an AM/FM radio began to drop, making it more affordable to the average consumer. Before too long, sales of FM radio receivers equaled AM receivers and then, in jig time, they surpassed them. FM radio had become a commercially viable broadcasting alternative. Artists and bands such as Rush took note. With the ability of listeners at home to hear their music as they had intended it to be heard, bands such as Rush took to these brave new airwaves with their music.

One of the most attractive features of FM radio in the early days for bands such as Rush was that FM radio was a relatively uncommercialized soundscape. FM DJs had much more freedom to programme the music that was played and, as such, they were able to play long form songs by bands such as Rush without fear that playing a twenty-minute song was taking away from air time that could be spent broadcasting commercial advertisements. FM radio was, initially, broadcast in a way that was wide open. Any kind of musical taste was indulged. New bands and artists were allowed to be played. A regional FM station was allowed to reflect the Arts scene from the area they were broadcasting from without worrying if folks in other parts of the country got what they were doing and why it was important.. There were lots of live, in-studio performances, too. But again, like all things that start to become popular and gain a following, the eyes of the business world gazed longingly upon that FM broadcast real estate and slowly, but surely, the world of FM radio began to become standardized and commercialized.

CFNY-FM…the Toronto-based FM radio station upon which the song, “Spirit of Radio” by Rush is based.

It was as this transitory process was happening that Rush decided to enter the fray and make a statement of solidarity with those who believed FM radio should be more open and free. They did this in the form of an album called Moving Pictures and a song called “Spirit of Radio”. Although it never mentions this by name, “Spirit of Radio” is dedicated to radio station CFNY-FM in Toronto. When I first arrived in Toronto for university, it was CFNY-FM (102.1 on the radio dial) that always seemed to be playing the newest and most vibrant music. It was on CFNY-FM that I first heard bands such as Joy Division, Yaz, The Cure, Depeche Mode, along with local Toronto area bands such as Constantines, Breeding Ground, Rough Trade and so on. If I wanted The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, I could tune into Q107 for my classic rock needs. But, for more modern takes on the expanding music world around me, it was always CFNY-FM that I went to. Their slogan was “CFNY: the Spirit of Radio”.

So, Rush wrote their song called, “Spirit of Radio”. It is a love letter to CFNY-FM, thanking them for operating in a manner that supported new and innovative artists and bands. The second half of the song is a lament for the growing standardization of the medium. It is this standardization of decision making based upon profits and revenue streams, rather than artistic merit, that Rush believed would end up killing radio as a medium for meaningful music distribution. In fact, Neil Peart, who wrote the ending of the song by borrowing from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”, when he mentions that the “words of the profits were written on the studio walls, concert halls”, along with the derisive line about “the sounds of salesmen”. “Spirit of Radio” went on to become one of Rush’s most popular and enduring songs. It remained a fixture of concert setlists throughout the remainder of their career.

Pink Floyd’s iconic album cover for “Dark Side of the Moon”. It is meant to show that radio waves are the same as light waves and as well, that AM radio waves are so small compared to the brand, rich radio waves of FM radio.

I will conclude with a couple of bits of trivia for you. If you want to get a sense of what FM radio meant to artists such as Rush and their compatriots such as PInk Floyd and Yes, take a look at the iconic album cover for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The image of light entering a prism and exploding in a rainbow on the other side is a visual depiction of FM radio. It shows how ordinary AM quality sound actually had so many deeper, richer tones embedded within it, awaiting release. FM radio was that release. As well, in the late 1970s, Hollywood released a movie about FM radio called, imaginatively enough “FM”. The gist of the movie had the staff at one of these early, independent FM stations trying to hold back the forces of commercialization. Lots of great artists and bands appeared in the movie (such as Tom Petty in the video I will share with you below). The theme song “FM” was written by Steely Dan and mentions attributes of this new medium such as “no static at all”. This soundtrack is one of my favourite movie soundtracks ever. Great 70s music throughout! Finally, for the video listed below for “Spirit of Radio” by Rush, I am going to use the very important performance that they gave in 2003 in Toronto at the SARsFest Benefit concert at Downsview Park. Last week, I played a clip of Sam Roberts Band opening this concert festival. *(You can read that post here). Today, we will have hometown heroes, Rush, delivering a blistering performance of the classic tune, “Spirit of Radio”. One thing to note about it as you watch is how the song is constructed. Alex Lifeson has stated that the song is structured to replicate the idea of tuning a radio. He says that the original guitar solo that starts off the songs is meant to act as the static that typified AM radio. He says the smoother sections are to indicate the FM stations. This includes the brief trip the band takes into Reggae in the middle of the song. So, not only is the song about radio, it is designed to function like radio, too. It is attention to detail such as this that has helped make Rush one of the greatest bands of all time!

The link to the video for the song, “Spirit of Radio” by Rush can be found here.

***The lyrics version can be found here.

***Note: this particular video starts with Rush playing a bit of “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones. They did this as a Thank You to the band for headlining the SARsFest concert.

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

The link to the scene from the movie “FM” in which Tom Petty appears and the station programmer argues with his bosses about commercials can be found here.

The link to the official website for CFNY-FM (which is now called “102.1 can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Toronto can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog can be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Where Have All The Good People Gone? by Sam Roberts Band…Song #18/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

We live in a potentially wondrous time. The whole of the world’s knowledge is available at our fingertips. We needn’t wonder any more about anything. All of the answers to any question we could possibly have are available at the push of a button on a keyboard. Not only can we learn about anything our little hearts desire, it is now possible to promote ourselves to the world at the push of a button, too. With a little planning and organization, complete nobodies can become internationally known somebodies without the help of multinational marketing campaigns. Many of today’s top musical acts such as Lil Nas X, Ed Sheeran and BTS all let their fans know of their latest musical creations by dropping hints on social media first. By using the power of the internet to connect with their audiences, today’s music stars can have viral hits the moment their songs go public because they have created a demand “behind the scenes” as it were. The old way of putting out a single, having radio stations play your song and then watching as the song moved up the record charts all seems somewhat quaint by today’s standards. Imagine what The Beatles might have been able to accomplish using social media!?

When I was still in high school, I had a summer job working at Seaside Cable TV Ltd. in Sydney, Nova Scotia. This was the summer that the specialty channels were unveiled and being promoted. My job was to monitor the video feed for our specialty channels. What that means is that I watched a lot of movies and got paid for it. 😉

But today’s story takes place at a time just before the internet came along and changed our lives forever. In the 1990s, if a singer or a band wanted to launch their career, they still went about it the way that groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did…they toured a lot, were “discovered” and signed to a record deal, they toured a lot to support that record, radio stations played their “hit song”, if they were lucky, the singer/band appeared on Canadian TV and then, if all was going really well and the song was a smash hit, they might end up going to the US, touring there and, by doing so, raising their profile back in Canada. This would lead them to putting out a second album which, hopefully, was well-received and maybe the artist/band could carve out a career for themselves in Canada. The one thing about doing this in the 1980s and 90s that made it slightly different for artists was something known as music videos. The early 1980s saw the emergence of a broadcasting phenomenon called Cable TV. Cable TV allowed Canadian homeowners to enjoy a larger selection of television channels that showed regular network programming from Canada and the US. Most homes started out with “Basic” Cable which was composed of the major Canadian network channels of CBC (English and French), CTV, TVO (in Ontario), as well as the major US networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. Throw in a channel for local programming, a TV Guide channel and you had your basic cable package. But what really helped artists in Canada and the US to market themselves a little more easily was when the Cable TV providers began offering specialty channels. Some of the most successful channels were dedicated to sports and movies. But one of the most successful of them all concerned music and that was MTV in the US and Much Music/Musique Plus in Canada.

The Much Music studios on Queen Street in Toronto. Note that Speakers Corner (which was used by The Barenaked Ladies to help launch their career) was located at this site, too.

In order to help Canadian artists establish themselves, the government passed a law that mandated all radio and television stations had to include a minimum amount of Canadian content as a condition of maintaining their broadcasting license. What this meant for Much Music was that it now needed to actively acquire and promote as wide a range of Canadian artists and bands as they could manage. The music video industry grew exponentially. Grants were issued that enabled new bands to have a chance to make a half-decent video and have that video showcased on the “nation’s music station”. One example of this that I can clearly remember happened while I was enrolled in the Radio and Television Arts Programme at what was then called Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. Our little section of the university was all agog one day when one of Canada’s hottest new bands, Platinum Blonde, used part of their grant money to film a music video in our studios. Some of the kids at school (not me unfortunately) got a chance to work behind the scenes as volunteers. When the video launched on Much Music, we were understandably proud of our small role in helping to make it happen. The late 1980s and into the 90s was a time of tremendous growth for the Canadian music scene all across the country. The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Blue Rodeo, Sloan, Jane Siberry, The Grapes of Wrath, Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies, The Cowboy Junkies, 54-40 and many more all got their start and were able to launch careers that achieved varying degrees of success. But make no mistake, Cancon rules and organizations such as Much Music played a huge part in helping bring the talent and imagination of many young Canadian musicians into the public spotlight.

Sam Roberts Band.

One of those musicians who benefited from it all was a band out of Montreal called The Sam Roberts Band. This band was led by a charismatic and handsome lead singer named Sam Roberts. They began in the late 1990s and were able to release their debut album called, We Are Born In A Flame in 2002. This album spawned several big hits such as “Don’t Walk Away Eileen”, “Brother Down”, “Hard Road” and “Where Have All The Good People Gone?” The band dutifully made music videos to accompany these songs and soon Sam Roberts’ face was appearing all across the nation on a regular basis. The band’s music was Canadian tuxedo-style rock n’ roll and was well-received by audiences. In fact, when the big SARs benefit concert was held in Toronto in 2003 (a concert that included Rush, The Guess Who, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones and Justin Timberlake), Sam Roberts Band opened the concert, playing for fifteen precious minutes in front of the largest crowd of their career. But, a decade or so prior to this, Much Music and the major record labels of the day came up with a unique and clever idea. Working in a rare spirit of cooperation and partnership, a new way to market Canadian artists was discussed and agreed upon that would help Canadian artists compete alongside their more successful American counterparts (who were still selling well in all Canadian markets). The plan that these executives came up with was to create their own special music compilation CD. That CD would feature songs that were popular on Much Music. It would include some of the top US hits of the day but it had to also carry just as many Canadian hits, too. In this way, if you bought this CD because you liked The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example, you would also be getting music by Canadian bands and artists, too. The compilation CD was to be sold under the banner of Much Music and became known as Big Shiny Tunes.

“Where Have All The Good People Gone?” was one of the great songs on Big Shiny Tunes 8.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I really was able to develop an appreciation for a broad swath of music in the 1980s. By the time the 1990s rolled around, I was now working as a teacher and had more disposable income to spend on my hobby. Thus, the Big Shiny Tunes series (of which there ended up being seventeen), arrived in the marketplace at around the same time as I arrived in the marketplace. Thus, these compilation CDs were one of the ways that I was able to quickly and affordably expand my own musical collection. It is a series that is still bearing fruit for me in weird ways even today. On Twitter, I follow a Canadian music site that features 1990s music. The site is called “Rave and Drool”, which was the name of a hit song by The Killjoys which, tying it all in, was one of the Canadian tracks that made it onto the very first Big Shiny Tunes CD which was released in 1996. Overall, the 17 Big Shiny Tunes CDs that were released have gone on to become Canada’s biggest selling music series with sales of over 5 million CDs. My first BST purchase was Big Shiny Tunes 2 which included Canadian bands such as Tea Party, Holly McNarland, Age of Electric, Wide Mouth Mason and Bran Van 3000, alongside such international heavyweights at the time as The Prodigy, Blur, Radiohead, Marilyn Manson and Collective Soul. The Sam Roberts Band appeared on Big Shiny Tunes 7 which was released in 2002 and just preceded the SARs benefit concert by a year. “Where Have All The Good People Gone?” appeared on Big Shiny Tunes 8 which was released the following year.

Like all good things, Big Shiny Tunes ran its course. By the time the final Big Shiny Tunes CD was assembled and released, the internet was becoming a bigger and more functional way for audiences to access their music. Eventually, the decision to end making new Big Shiny Tunes CDs was a simple case of the times changing and the series no longer making financial sense. To be honest, I cannot remember the last time I actually purchased a real CD. So, the decision to end Big Shiny Tunes was probably the correct one. However, having said that, Much Music helped change the way that Canadian artists and bands marketed themselves before the arrival of social media and the internet. For that reason, we all owe a big debt of gratitude to those imaginative folks who worked at Much Music and believed that, as a country, we had a music industry worth supporting. I don’t know about you but I love Canadian music and I say that without a hint of patriotism involved. I think that there is an awful lot of talent in our homeland and I enjoy listening to the music our artists are able to create. One of the bands I like most is The Sam Roberts Band. I hope that you like them, too. If you have any comments about Sam Roberts, Much Music, Big Shiny Tunes or any other Canadian acts that do it for you then please feel free to tell me all about it in the comments section below. Thanks for reading. It is a pleasure to have you here.

The link to the music video for the song, “Where Have All The Good People Gone?” by Sam Roberts Band can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to The Sam Roberts Band’s full set at SARs fest can be found here.

The link to the official website for Sam Roberts Band can be found here.

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

The link for the history of the Big Shiny Tunes series can be found here.

In today’s song, Sam RIberts namedrops his hometown of Montreal. The link to the official website for Montreal can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Escarpment Blues by Sarah Harmer…Song #17: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

Escarpment Blues by Sarah Harmer…Song #17: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

A very young Sarah Harmer and Weeping Tile.

Sarah Harmer has been a singer for most of her adult life. Her career on the musical stages in Canada began when she was in university. She first belonged to a group called The Saddletramps but really gained fame as a member of the Indie band, Weeping Tile. Harmer wrote and sang songs with Weeping Tile while she attended Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Weeping Tile were big on the Indie and College circuits and, as such, were able to formally release a seven-song cassette called Eepee (which is a clever play on the abbreviation “EP” which stands for an “extended play” or mini album. Releasing Eepee on cassette mirrored how the Barenaked Ladies released their first album…the “Yellow” cassette). I first heard of Sarah Harmer and Weeping Tile by way of a song called “Basement Apt.” which appeared on a compilation CD of Canadian Indie tunes. With the release of their cassette, Weeping Tile were soon signed to a recording contract and Eepee became their first album. Unfortunately, Weeping Tile were unable to rise above their Indie status and never had a breakthrough single. Music being the business that it is, if you aren’t selling enough albums, you end up getting dropped from your label which is what happened to Weeping Tile. The band ended up breaking up not long thereafter.

The very talented Sarah Harmer as a solo performer.

Sarah Harmer was still young and had her whole life in front of her. She was always interested in the politics of the environmental and women’s movements and started working with groups and politicians on the Left on Canada’s political spectrum. Harmer was always an admirer of Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party. She believed, as he did, that people have the power to make a difference but that it takes organization and courage to do so. As she became more involved in local issues of note in south western Ontario, Sarah Harmer still found time for music. In fact, as a Christmas gift for her father, Harmer put together an album of original songs and presented it to him. Those who heard this gift of song all felt that it was worthy of a wider audience. That Christmas gift became her debut solo album called Songs For Clem. It was at this time that Harmer realized the potential for combining the personal with the professional. While she knew that she didn’t want to stand on a stage and preach to her audiences, she did understand that she had a platform that was unavailable to most activists and concerned citizens and so she decided to give music a more concerted effort.

Gord Downie congratulates longtime friend Sarah Harmer onstage in 2013 at the end of the “Rock the Line” concert, put on at Toronto’s Mel Lastman Square by the musicians and their friends to protest Enbridge’s Line 9 oil pipeline.

Her follow-up album was called You Were Here, which made a hit out of her first song of note, “Basement Apt.”, as well as, “Don’t Get Your Back Up”. This album went Platinum in Canada and was rated by Time Magazine as being one of the best solo female albums of the year in 2000. As a solo artist, Sarah Harmer has won numerous Juno Awards, has two Gold records and one Platinum. She has toured with anyone and everyone of note in the Canadian music scene such as Blue Rodeo, the Tragically Hip, Ron Sexsmith, Kathleen Edwards, Great Big Sea and many more. But, as mentioned earlier, while she enjoys being a singer, Sarah Harmer has always found time to support causes near and dear to her heart. This brings us to her song, “Escarpment Blues”.

The view from Mount Nemo.

Harmer was born in Burlington, Ontario. She grew up around places like Hamilton, Brantford and along the shores of Lake Erie. While with her family, they often spent time at the Mount Nemo Conservation Area (which is situated between Hamilton and Burlington). This area is a protected area as granted by UNESCO. This conservation area is known for its biodiversity. It is also a place that houses many minerals that mining companies have coveted for decades. Thus, there have been ongoing battles waged by environmental groups (of which Sarah Harmer belongs) to protect Mount Nemo and, by extension, the environmental integrity of the larger area known as the Niagara Escarpment. As of the date of this post, Harmer’s groups have been successful in staving off the mining companies who keep applying for permits to mine Mount Nemo. However, in Ontario at the moment, we have a provincial government that seems to listen more to donors with dollars than they do to environmentalists with a passion for bogs and marshes. So, the threat to the Niagara Escarpment goes on. To help her side, Harmer recorded a song called “Escarpment Blues”. Like all great protest songs, “Escarpment Blues” takes her opponents to task. Sarah Harmer uses her voice to sing about the consequences to our aquifers when we choose roads over water systems. In the spirit of Bruce Cockburn’s, “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, Sarah Harmer has created a beautiful sounding song that packs a terrific punch. I hope that you will listen to it and learn a bit more about this issue, all the while enjoying Harmer’s beautiful and distinctive singing style. She is one of our best singer/songwriters for a reason.

Johnny Cash speaks for me when it comes to those who seek to pave over our Wetlands and biologically sensitive areas. Do we really need more subdivisions and highways for cars?

If you have any opinions on environmental issues, on the Niagara Escarpment or on the career of Canada’s own, Sarah Harmer, feel free to drop them off in the comment box below. I look forward to reading your replies.

The link to the video for the song, “Escarpment Blues” by Sarah Harmer can be found here. ***Sorry, there appears to not be a lyrics video for this song.

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

The link to the official website for the Mount Nemo Conservation Area can be found here.

***As always, all original content found within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post can be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Old Apartment by Barenaked Ladies: Song #16/250…The Great Canadian Road Trip.

The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.

The BNL lineup: Page, Creeggan, Robertson, Hearn and Stewart.

One of the most exhilarating about being a fan of a singer/band is finding out that they are even better in person than they are on their studio recordings. The Barenaked Ladies definitely fall into this category. Right from the very earliest days of their career, The Barenaked Ladies were known for the high entertainment factor that was always present in their live shows. Not only were the members of the band all very talented musicians in their own right but, they exuded a sense of charm that dazzled audiences everywhere. Many of their earliest songs such as “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “Be My Yoko Ono” came across as almost novelty-type songs because of the humorous tract the band followed. But the high energy nature of the way they played and the razor-sharp repartee between singers Ed Roberston and Steven Page allowed them to rise above the other bands that mined the same ground such as Moxy Fruvous, The Shuffle Demons and so on in the Toronto music scene of the late 1980s and into the 1990s. But, in addition to putting on great live shows, what really helped propel The Barenaked Ladies into the upper echelon of the Canadian music scene was how innovative they were when it came to marketing themselves. These guys should teach a course or write a book or both about how to develop and market a brand because they did an excellent job. The story of today’s song, “The Old Apartment” is but one example from many that illustrate how clever these guys truly were. Let’s have a look inside the music and marketing genius that was The Barenaked Ladies!

Originally, the band began waaaaaay back when Ed Robertson and Steven Page met in elementary school. They went to the same school and soon discovered that they followed the same bands and through that shared interest, they began to hang out and became best friends. One of the things that helped bond their friendship was the ability the boys had to offer witty observational commentary when watching other bands play. For instance, they once attended a Bob Dylan concert and proceeded to offer a running commentary of what they were seeing, as if they were play-by-play announcers. Apparently, they were more funny than annoying and soon were encouraged to develop their craft and share it with others. While appearing at open mic nights and battles-of-the-band competitions, Robertson and Page developed a reputation for being witty performers. The next phase of their development involved adding other musicians and becoming a real band, which they did with the additions of Stewart and, at the time, two Creeggan brothers, Jim and Andrew. They started performing as the opening act for the local Toronto-area comedic band, Corky and the Juice Pigs, which presented them with the type of audience that was perfectly suited for their particular brand of entertainment. But then, two things happened in close proximity to each other that launched the band into the national spotlight.

The first was that they got themselves some free publicity by being banned by the Mayor of Toronto from performing in front of City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square because their name was deemed inappropriate. Of course, there was nothing the least bit unseemly about the band members or the type of music they played so, in all the uproar over the rush to judgment by Mayor Rowlands, The Barenaked Ladies received a boatload of free publicity from the media. This helped open the door for the band, serving as a public introduction to the City of Toronto which was (and still is) Canada’s largest commercial market for music. With all of that publicity percolating away for the band, they looked for ways to get their own original songs out to the public in a free yet mass way. So, what they did next is how I first became aware of them. In Toronto there exists a local television station known as CITY-TV. In the 1980s, CITY-TV was at the forefront of a broadcasting experiment. That experiment was to remove the walls that separated broadcasters from their audience and make everything as open and transparent and interactive as possible. One of the things CITY-TV did was to place their broadcasting studios on the ground floor of a building on Queen Street that had huge windows at street level. This allowed passersby to see directly into the studios while they were live on-air, much the same way as shoppers passing department stores might look at the goods for sale in a store window. One additional thing City-TV did to encourage interactivity was to install a booth in the corner of their building that would allow anyone to stop by and record a message. This booth was called Speaker’s Corner and became a popular way for Torontonians to offer opinions, air grievances and to promote events such as charity drives and rallies. Robertson and Page saw Speaker’s Corner as a free and easy way to introduce themselves and their music to their audience. So the boys all squeezed into the tiny recording booth on Queen Street, introduced themselves and then sang “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “Be My Yoko Ono”. CITY-TV used to use the content of all those messages that were left on Speaker’s Corner and aired it as a packaged show. This is where I saw The Barenaked Ladies for the first time. It turned out that I was not alone.

The Gordon album featuring much younger versions of themselves.

Not long after this, the band started marketing a cassette tape of songs that they had recorded. This tape became known as the Yellow Tape and was made available at local record stores (when record stores were still a popular and vibrant enterprise). Demand for the Yellow Tape was so great that it became one of Toronto’s best selling musical recordings, outstripping musical heavyweights such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston in the local market. In fact, sales of the Yellow Tape were so great that it eventually reached Platinum status making it the very first independent recording to ever achieve that level of success. Needless to say, the very same record companies who turned down the band just one year earlier, mocking them as a novelty act, were all now rushing to sign them. Soon a contract was proffered and an official album named Gordon was released. This album contained the two songs they had sung on Speaker’s Corner, plus other hits like “Enid”, “Grade 9” and a song that would help launch them in the US, “Brian Wilson”. In the end, Gordon sold over one million copies.

The Barenaked Ladies terrific live album, Rock Spectacle which would launch the band in the US.

But, as I said off the top, being even better live than you are in-studio is such a bonus for an artist or a band. What The Barenaked Ladies had as their next inspiration was to bottle that live stage energy, as it were, in the form of an album that would be a recording of a live show or combination of live shows. This live album became known as Rock Spectacle. This album contained recordings of live concerts that the band played in Chicago, of all places. In any case, the magic of their showmanship was on full display all through Rock Spectacle. While all of the songs of this album came across well, the song “Brian Wilson” really turned out well and helped serve as the song that opened the door into the US market for the band. For those who don’t know, “Brian Wilson” tells the semi-autobiographical story of legendary musical genius, Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame. Wilson was one of the most innovative musicians ever but had a variety of mental and emotional issues following his experience making The Beach Boys seminal album, Pet Sounds. The Barenaked Ladies song, “Brian Wilson” takes a sympathetic look at his life while in the care of psychiatrists who may or may not have had his best interest at heart. There is a depth to the emotional story being told in this song that helped elevate the public view of The Barenaked Ladies as being something more than a band who sing songs laden with puns. In addition to “Brian Wilson”, Rock Spectacle contained two other songs that went on to become huge hits for the band…”One Week” and today’s song, “Old Apartment”.

The song “Old Apartment” is a song whose lyrical content foreshadowed, in some ways, how the band members themselves were dealing with their meteoric rise to fame. The song name drops a famous neighbourhood in Toronto called The Danforth. Like many major cities, Toronto has various neighbourhoods that have become known for specific things (many of those being ethnic-oriented) such as Chinatown or Little Italy. The Danforth area of Toronto was known for being the Greek enclave in the city. It was also undergoing a period of gentrification which meant that it was evolving into an area of the city where non-Greeks were moving to because it was becoming trendy and hip to be associated with that part of town. The song, “Old Apartment” talks about an experience that many young adults have when they first start out in the world. It talks about those first apartments we tended to live in. The ones that were in basements or above storefronts and were never viewed as being a forever home by anyone who moved in and moved out shortly thereafter. Those first apartments were just stepping stones on the road to where we really wanted to be. But, in many ways, those times spent in those dive apartments also corresponded with a time in our lives when we were unencumbered by many of the responsibilities of life and, in a way, were at our most free. There is a certain nostalgia factor at play that traps some people into believing that the past was the best that life has to offer. That is a tough way to deal with the present and the future where we all have to actually live our lives.

For The Barenaked Ladies, much greater fame and fortune awaited them after the success of Rock Spectacle. The band had several other hits, the most noteworthy of which was singing the theme song to the big TV show hit, The Big Bang Theory. The band was also featured on the television show, 90210 (Jason Priestly was a huge fan) and got to play a showcase of songs at the show’s musical venue, The Peach Pit. However, in time, the price of fame and fortune weighed heavily upon the band. Steven Page began having issues with drug addiction and, at one point, was arrested for possession as he attempted to cross the border. Eventually, he and his childhood friend, Ed Robertson stopped talking to each other and Page was fired from the band. While the remaining members of The Barenaked Ladies have soldiered on, Page’s firing effectively ended the era of greatest success for The Barenaked Ladies. There was much hope that if Steven Page entered drug rehab and got his life back on track that there would be a Barenaked Ladies reunion at some point. But, the truth of the matter is that the only time the original lineup has played together since the firing was when the band was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame. *(You can watch that clip here). That one-off concert seemed to go well and there was a lot of optimism that all would be well. But, as the song “Old Apartment” makes clear, living in the past is not really living at all. So, as for the future, the band has no plans for a reunion….at all.

However disappointing that may be, we must temper our feelings with an appreciation for how innovative The Barenaked Ladies were in their prime. In addition to taking advantage of avenues of access such as Speaker’s Corner in Toronto to market their Yellow Tape cassette, The Barenaked Ladies were among the very first bands to run their own website. On this website, they were one of the very first bands to employ such tools as interactive blogs, podcasts, free downloads and so much more. They were also one of the very first bands to sell a CD (Barenaked for the Holidays…their Christmas collection) and include with the CD an MP3 plug-in device so that listeners could take their music with them and plug it in anywhere there was a USB jack. This predates streaming technology that we enjoy today. The Barenaked Ladies always had one eye on the future. If only they could have taken all that was great about the future and marry it to all that was great about the past then their present would have been perfect.

The link to the video for the song, “Old Apartment” by The Barenaked Ladies can be found here. ***The link to the lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Brian Wilson” from the album Rock Spectacle by The Barenaked Ladies can be found here.

The link to the video that shows The Barenaked Ladies as they appeared on Speaker’s Corner in Toronto can be found here. ***Some cringey/interesting cameos by other “celebrities”, too.

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

The link to the official website for Taste Of The Danforth Cultural Festival 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 post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet by Blue Rodeo…Song #15/250 on The Great Canadian Road Trip.

These are the stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.

If I were to climb into my car and drive for approximately one half hour to the north east of where I live, I would arrive at a site where one of the most iconic albums in Canadian history was recorded. That location would be a farmhouse situated in a rural village called Kendal Valley. That farmhouse would be owned by none other than Mr. Greg Keelor, co-lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band, Blue Rodeo. The album that was recorded at his farmhouse was called Five Days in July. Many music critics rate Five Days in July as being one of the top twenty albums ever produced in Canada. The album is compared favourably to other legendary albums such as Neil Young’s Harvest album or Music From Big Pink by The Band. The big single to come from that album was “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”. This is the story of the band, the album and that superb single. Let’s go!

Blue Rodeo.

The story of Blue Rodeo began way back in high school when Greg Keelor and fellow co-lead singer, songwriter and guitarist, Jim Cuddy first became aware of each other. Like many young, aspiring musicians, Keelor and Cuddy played in and out of many bands during their pre-Blue Rodeo days. Some of the people they played with ended up joining them as members of Blue Rodeo while others, like the Timmins Brothers, ended up in other bands such as The Cowboy Junkies. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a good time in the history of Canadian music. While Blue Rodeo were gaining their sea legs, bands such as Sloan, The Tragically Hip, The Skydiggers, Jane Siberry, Andrew Cash and many others were all being signed to recording contracts and were releasing albums that met with various levels of acclaim and sales success. Into that environment came Blue Rodeo. The guys in the band had, for a while, left Toronto and had settled into New York City in order to jump start their career. While overnight success failed to materialize there, what did happen was that they were afforded lots of opportunity to play and to write. Out of that experience came the song, “Rose-Coloured Glasses”, which was one of four songs that they shopped around and which eventually landed them their own recording contract. Their first album was called Outskirts. The breakthrough single from that album was the stellar track, “Try”. That single launched Blue Rodeo into the upper levels of fame in Canada.

Like all bands, there are times when everything runs like a well-oiled machine and other times when the group dynamic is off and the band lacks cohesion. In the early days of Blue Rodeo’s existence, things went relatively well. They had several hit songs which have gone on to become woven into the fabric of our national musical soundscape such as “Diamond Mine”, “Rebel”, “Til I Am Myself Again”, “Trust Yourself”, “What Am I Doing Here?”, “Lost Together” and “Angels”, among many others. Blue Rodeo had mastered the country-rock sound. They toured all over Canada and the United States. Many people considered them to be worthy peers of the kings of Canadian music, The Tragically Hip. One of the main reasons for their distinct sound was the keyboard stylings of original member, Bob Wiseman. Wiseman was considered by Cuddy and Keelor to have been uniquely talented. His virtuosity on the keyboard was such that instead of the usual guitar or drum solos that rock bands perform when they are feeling great on stage, Blue Rodeo would incorporate keyboard solos to show off Wiseman’s skills. Because of the presence of Bob Wiseman, Blue Rodeo had an aspect to their sound that no other band could duplicate. However, as the years went by and the album count climbed, Bob Wiseman no longer felt like he wanted to remain with the band. He felt constrained by the structure of this rock band. So, after several acrimonious months, he quit the band. The rest of the band were not unhappy to see him go.

Greg Keelor at his farmhouse in Kendal, Ontario. Note the rolling hills directly behind him.

Around this time, Greg Keelor found himself on a train that was heading back to Toronto from Montreal, I believe. That train passed through a section of land near where I live that has been dubbed, “The Rolling Hills of Northumberland County”. Just to the north of where I reside sits some of the best farmland in Ontario. This land alternates between rounded mountains and green valleys. It is a very peaceful, serene stretch of land that so far, as of this moment, has managed to evade the greedy clutches of the land developers. The Rolling Hills of Northumberland County remain relatively pure and bucolic. This is what Greg Keelor saw as his train chugged along. With the departure of Bob Wiseman fresh in his mind, the sudden presence of this peaceful, green countryside filled Keelor with a sense of calm that he hadn’t known for many months. As soon as he arrived back in Toronto, Keelor grabbed the real estate listings for the area and found a farmhouse that was for sale. That farmhouse was in a village called Kendal. Keelor bought it immediately. This farmhouse became a sort of homebase for the band, much in the same way that The Tragically Hip have their own recording studio called The Bathouse in Bath, Ontario.

Five Days in July by Blue Rodeo.

With all of the turmoil of the past few months still echoing in his mind, Keelor decided that what he and the band needed to do most was to simply gather together, invite some friends along for a sleepover type of thing and just play music for the sake of playing music. So, the members of Blue Rodeo arrived in Kendal, as did musical friends such as Sarah MacLachlan, Colin Linden and many others. A small recording studio was set up in one of the rooms. Some beverages were consumed. Some weed was smoked. Good food was prepared and shared. Musical instruments came out. Voices joined in song. The sky was blue. The weather, warm. Soft breezes blew in through the open windows. Those who were there all say that those five days were among the most relaxed and enjoyable any of them have ever had. When that five day get-together began in July, no one thought that an entire album of original material would emerge from it. But, as we all know, sometimes when we are at our most mellow, we get the greatest ideas and inspirational thoughts. This was the case at the Kendal farmhouse. After the first day or so of singing and collaborating and of creating new songs, it was suggested that it would be a good idea to record the songs for posterity. By the time the fifth day had ended, all of the material that would end up on the Five Days in July album had been created and recorded. In fact, they were all so productive that half of the music for their follow-up album, Nowhere To Here was created and recorded during those five days, as well.

Many of the songs that were created by Keelor at the farmhouse, as well as many others he has written over the years alternate between themes of loss and of the excitement of new relationships. So, it is not a great surprise that a song such as “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” is about loss. Coming as it did during a period of major transition for the band, “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” reads like the feelings of someone who knew that change was afoot but remains stunned that it ended up happening just the same. We all deal with loss differently. For Blue Rodeo, the loss of Bob Wiseman and his brand of creative musicality allowed them to follow a new and satisfying path that resulted in one of the great Canadian albums of all time. The song is one of the few that mention Lake Ontario by name (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” being another notable song to do so). The video for “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” was filmed on a wintery day just north of Port Hope, Ontario. Port Hope is almost due south from Kendal and sits beside Lake Ontario. In the video, the boys in the band are burying someone (Wiseman?) in a field overlooking the Lake as the snow falls.

Hey! Hey! I guess it hasn’t hit me yet.

I fell through this crack and I kinda lost my way.

I stand transfixed before this streetlight,

Watching the snow fall on this cold December night

And out in the middle of Lake Ontario

The same snow is falling (the same snow is falling),

On the deep silent water (on the deep silent water),

The great dark wonder

Into the waves of my heart

Into the waves of my heart

Of my heart.”

Blue Rodeo continues to make music and tour all across Canada, stopping to play in places large and small for anyone who cares to come by and listen. The band has been inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame, as well as earning a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. They have definitely earned all of the kudos that have come their way. However, in spite of their success, they remain level headed and grounded individuals. It wasn’t all that long ago that Greg Keelor and I both found ourselves in a Port Hope grocery store shopping for onions and potatoes at the very same time. He wore dirty, baggy jeans and a faded sweater coat. Nobody bothered this gray-haired man as he rooted through the potato bin. But I knew who he was and I was secretly very pleased. I hope that he enjoyed his dinner back in Kendal which is, as you now know, only a half hour from my own house. We’re practically neighbours, Greg Keelor and I.

The link to the video for the song, “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” by Blue Rodeo can be found here. ***The link to the lyric version of this song can be found here.

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

There is no website for Kendal, Ontario nor is there one for Lake Ontario. So, instead, the link to the official website for Port Hope, Ontario…where the music video was shot and where I bumped into Greg Keelor at the grocery store…can be found here.

The header photo was taken by Port Hope photographer Davandra Cribbie. It shows Lake Ontario as viewed from Port Hope harbour in winter. The link to Davandra’s website can be found here.

***As always, all original content found within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022