Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Maple Leaf Forever

I don't think I can write a better Canada-themed essay than I did last year. I just want to say, for all its flaws, and there are many, this is a great country and I'm glad to call it home.

Instead of rehashing the tired, and quintessentially Canadian, theme of "what it means to be Canadian" (I don't see many Spaniards musing on what it means to be Spanish), I'm going to give you a musical compendium: Canadian songs that have had an impact on me.

There've been quite a few. CanCon rules came into effect the year before I was born, so I was fed a steady diet of Canadian music I wouldn't have heard otherwise. In today's globalized culture, we can debate CanCon until the maple leaves fall off the trees,  but there's no denying it was a huge step up for Canadian bands, most of which really did deserve the recognition.

First up would be a song my Mom used to play when I was four and five years old...my first exposure to sad popular music, and the benchmark against which I have judged all sad songs since: Which Way You Goin', Billy?, The Poppy Family (1970). There have been sadder songs since: this one, for instance, sung four years later by Terry Jacks, who at one point was married to the singer of the previous song and whose guitar features in it. Or this one, which is Irish but which is sung here by the transplanted Canadian, John McDermott. I can't get through this one without a tear.

The first song I picked up by ear on the piano: Heart of Gold, by Neil Young...to this day the only Neil Young song I like. (This would be why: I can't hear Neil's voice without hearing Seán Cullen's.) One of the next songs I learned was Music Box Dancer, by Frank Mills...a man I got to meet and duet with, the highlight of my young life. Believe it or not, this instrumental piece went to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978. For many years, this was the song people thought of first when they thought of me: it's for that reason it was included in my wedding soundtrack.

When my stepdad came along in 1980, he brought his own music with him. He deeply mourned the death of John Lennon in December of that year, legitimizing something I already knew at eight years old: music has a deep and lasting effect far beyond the length of a song.
When John was in a good mood, or needed some energy, he cranked up Oowatonite, by April Wine, or Barracuda by Heart, a band Wikipedia claims is American. Much of Canada would dispute that, considering the band was officially formed here and found its first success here.

I didn't appreciate these two songs at first. You'll laugh, but disco was about the "hardest" thing I'd heard as a small child, and wailing electric guitars set my teeth on edge at first. My life has been characterized by a gradual expansion of musical horizons, such that I can appreciate some fairly heavy metal now. But back then I equated a driving beat and shrill guitars with violence, something I had a pathological aversion to.

The first, and to this day one of the very few, rock concerts I ever attended was Glass Tiger at Fanshawe Park in London. A group called Monkey See opened for them. The notable thing about that concert was that Eva was in the audience too. For all I know, I saw her. Somehow that wouldn't surprise me: we crossed paths a few times before meeting in early '99.

There's one Canadian song that I subconsciously change the lyrics to each time I hear it: Summer of '89 (oops, I did it again) by Britney Spe Bryan Adams. Here's my story...."standin' on your mother's porch/you told me that you'd wait forever/ ah, and when you held my hand/I knew that it was now or never..."
(It turned out to be "never". First romantic regret.)

University brought some new musical obsessions. The quartet of Canadian groups that meant the most to me were Spirit of the West -- this was not one of their hits, but it should have been -- Moxy Früvous, which I'm not going to link in light of their lead singer's alleged actions (and I really don't like having to put 'alleged' in there, either) -- and the Crash Test Dummies (who supplied me with this song I want played 'At My Funeral', not to mention my my first break-up song).  And last but not least, the Barenaked Ladies, whose song What A Good Boy was my anthem for many years.

'I go to school, I write exams
If I pass, if I fail, if I drop out, does anyone give a damn?
And if they do, they'll soon forget
'cause it won't take much for me to show my life ain't over yet...'

My second break-up song--well, that one was played for me, at top volume, on repeat,  from an empty room behind a locked door. Also Canadian. And damnit, this one's vicious. Had to leave the house after the third repeat: it still stings all these years later.

Two more icons of Canadian music I have to acknowledge have shaped my musical life. Here's a lesser-known song from Joni Mitchell, the lyrics of which are so very me apart from the gender. Credit Joni, too, for writing the single most profound, poetic song on life and love that I have ever heard. Joni is not doing well as I write this, and she has been in my thoughts and in heavy rotation in my playlists. She was ranked by Rolling Stone as the 72nd best guitarist in the history of rock. She's the only woman on the list.
The male version of Joni Mitchell -- poet, iconoclast, thinker, dreamer and lover -- is Leonard Cohen. Here's a cut off his latest album, which is also so very me...in so very many ways.

Music has brought us together and it keeps us that way. Happy Canada Day, one and all.


No comments: