Friday, October 31, 2014

Leaving Jian Ghomeshi's House Of Mirrors

Yo, Canadians in non-Ontario povinces/territories: are the rest of you as rattled by the Jian Ghomeshi news as we are? Or is it just Ontario? Or just Central Ontario?

Or is it just me?

No, I think I can safely vouch for the Toronto-and-environs portion of Ontario. We're reeling.

Since the bulk of this blog's traffic comes from the United States, it behooves me to give a little background, loath as I am to do it. I imagine most of you read the headlines and think, “Popular radio host. Scandalous — indeed indictable — behavior. Sacked by broadcaster. Legal action. Media shitstorm. Sounds like it's sorting itself out. What's so complicated for Canadians?”

Oh, but it is so very complicated. Perhaps some itemization will clarify.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: our national public broadcasting service. Canadians have, by and large, abandoned the television aspect of it, and joined the rest of the Netflixing lemmings. In contrast, CBC On-line is fairly solid.

In contrast to them both, however, is CBC Radio.

“It's kinda like NPR Radio,” an outside observer might say. Yes, but mostly not-at-all, because just about every Canadian has some reason to tune in at some point in their day to CBC Radio — especially new Canadians. Radio in this country is huge — as in, we'll buy tickets to watch it performed huge.

And Jian Ghomeshi was a huge part of that huge. So huge, in fact, that even Americans would buy tickets to watch his radio performance.

Charismatic guy, but not usually in a look-at-me way; more often in a well-this-is-interesting-tell-me-more way. With the exception of Billy Bob Thornton, he could get good interviews from notoriously difficult subjects — Lou Reed and Donald Fagen, for starters. As an on-air personality he was hip enough that my kids were fine with listening to him, and he was considerate enough to keep my parents listening also.

He was smart
He did good work
He knew his superiors
He disdained his inferiors
He was proud and dignified - T Bone Burnett, "House of Mirrors

When CBC announced out of nowhere that it had fired Ghomeshi, I was stunned. I thought, Look at the last four years in Toronto and ask yourself, what sort of behavior gets a public persona fired these days? When Ghomeshi came out in front of the story on Facebook, I thought, Well, IF the matter is as he frames it — weird, but consensual sex — he's probably got an air-tight case. And I posted words to that effect on FB.

Goes to show you what a rube I am, particularly in this BDSM business.

Within seconds of that little opinion of mine, my LGBTQ friends were furiously throwing out BDSM cries of “Foul!” like so many safety words. They smelled a rat, and it didn't take me long to agree with them (and remove my post).

This is likely the only link to Dan Savage you will ever find on this blog, in which he interviews one of Ghomeshi's sexual partners who's gone (anonymously) on record as saying their kinkiness was 100% consensual. If you would rather be spared details, Savage's summary is:

This isn't about some poor persecuted pervert, but about either an abuser hiding behind the BDSM scene's culture of consent (and a celebrity leveraging his fame and power) or a sociopath who believes that initiating violent sex is the same thing as asking for consent.

In a later update, Savage adds:

As I continue to read more about Ghomeshi . . . I now think my interpretation — my attempt to reconcile the experience of the woman I interviewed with the allegations of the eight women who now report being assaulted by the radio host — was entirely too charitable.

Any expression of regret from Savage's pen is notable, to say the least.

So where does this leave us — or me, at any rate?

At this point I don't ever want to hear his voice again. That could change — I've watched Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski. But about the latter, I'm reminded of a Kevin Smith tweet in response to Hollywood Elite calling for Polanski's pardon: “Look, I dig ROSEMARY'S BABY; but rape's rape.” Indeed.

And it leaves CBC Radio in a weakened and very vulnerable state. Every Canadian government I've experienced has been quietly antagonistic toward the CBC, but the Harper government's hostility is exceptional. I would hope, stupidly, but for the sake of our national condition, that the ruling Conservatives might ease up a bit on their dismantling this public service. If our recent history should teach us anything it is to be careful about bringing our sworn enemies to absolute ruination; the enemies that arise from those ashes are inevitably worse.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Holy And Humble Chatter, In The Wake Of Wednesday

One of the churchier e-letters* in my in-box raised my ire, by proclaiming Wednesday’s madness (surely the activity of a “radicalized” Muslim) a clear signature of “The nihilism of contemporary secularism” decades in the making, and its concomitant inability to provide our nation's youth with a sense of mission or purpose.
A moment of pious introspection, before I continue...
Well, were I to address this claim directly, I might decry the lazy, pejorative use of “secular,” then build an alternative case suggesting the failure is just as likely due to our ruling elites’ steady, Burkean dismantling of Canada’s vast liberal state apparatus, to the point where young fellas are faced with a future of under-employment if they don't migrate to the oil-fields of Alberta  a task begun somewhat inadvertently by Jean Chretien but carried out with particular vigour by our current PM, usually to nods of approval by the dudes** (still not too many women contributing to this “think tank”) who send me these e-letters.

And I might throw down the gauntlet and ask, how many churches*** can a young man recently graduated from high-school walk into and say, “I need a job, and a roof over my head,” and expect direct help on both those fronts? Since it’s my religion**** we’re discussing, lemme tell you: the percentages are pretty low. Kids get better help with these baseline concerns when they approach Mormons, Jews and Muslims.

Out here in the Wild West, “Christian community” is, by and large, ersatz community, with little beyond worship committees and Bible studies and the occasional “think tank” to distinguish it from bourgeois “secular” communities and their book clubs — that is what I might say, were I to build up a proper head of steam. Now, you might derive your life’s purpose from studying the Bible, provided you’ve got an adroit buttinsky in the room. But (I might add) if all you have when you wake up in the morning is a part-time job pushing carts across a parking lot, your sacred sense of purpose is going to erode at a dependably steady rate.

And I might also say . . . well, no. I’m done speculating on myself.
...gotta catch my breath...
Wednesday’s attack seems to me as likely the by-product of precarious mental health as it was of “radicalization.” Now, I've no doubt some earnest poindexter has penned a Christian theology of mental illness, but we’re still waiting for it to capture the attention, hearts and minds of the body at large. With or without such a theological construct, here in the West our beloved Bride of Christ foists the manifold challenges of dealing with the mentally ill on — surprise!The State.

Now, if you’re going to accuse our “secular” state of failing the mentally ill, that is a matter worth discussing and taking action on. But “lack of purpose”? Get your Burkean hooey outta my in-box. 

*I’m not going to point fingers, but the guy who wrote it is DUTCH!

**DUTCH, most of 'em.

***Of DUTCH origin, or otherwise.

****Which, in my case I will admit, does indeed have DUTCH roots, but of the shabby, Friesland variety.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Richard Marshall, The 3:AM Interviews

Richard Marshall has carved out an almost sui generis role in contemporary culture in doing highly intelligent interviews with a wide range of serious philosophers, and doing so in terms that are intelligible to those outside philosophy, indeed, intelligible in almost all cases to any educated person” — Brian Leiter (from here)
Richard Marshall: "biding his time," apparently.
I was set to call Marshall a super-smart hep-cat who engages with serious thinkers and restless interweb readers alike, but I think Leiter has the sharper take. Here are two recent 3:AM interviews I enjoyed and recommend: “On theism and explanation” with Greg Dawes and “Towards hope” with George Pattison.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Recalibration Of “Fun”: 'Delicate' by Martha and the Muffins

“The fun is over.”

A more compassionately adroit reader might have phrased the matter differently, or perhaps begun the Tarot session with the question of concern. As it stands, “The fun is over” is a blunt assessment of expectations, or to my mind an improvement on the old addiction canard: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

There are varieties of fun a person learns to surrender as they mature. Most of us got thrills putting our fingers near daddy’s face, so he could pretend to bite them. And for most of us, that fun was over by the time we turned five. So it goes. Life requires a continual recalibration of expectations and experience.
"We've only just begun..."
Leonard Nevarez is a huge Martha and the Muffins fan, and does some snappy deconstructing of their oeuvre (among other matters) over here. It sounds like the folks at 33 1/3 turned down his proposal for a booklet devoted to either This Is The Ice Age or Danseparc, I’m not sure which. It also sounds like the University of Toronto Press has agreed to a larger MatM-based project. A loss to the hipster press is an academic gain I look forward to reading. Excelsior, dude.

Anyway, I am deeply indebted to Nevarez for framing MatM’s aesthetic as a sort of cartography of longing (my words, not his), because it’s helped me identify what makes Delicate so appealing to my ears. Nevarez seems a tad non-plussed that this latest album appears to no longer chart out their earlier social-displacement within the Global Village — a more intimate location-by-location exploration of the sort of thing David Byrne & Co. gave the Reader’s Digest treatment, in “Cities.”

MatM’s focus may have shifted somewhat, but I think it’s a good thing. Real Life Massive Wallops tend to hone one’s focus on the intimate and immediate — the journey nevertheless continues, albeit on a vastly re-calibrated scale. Take a seemingly throw-away song like “Crosswalk,” an extended stream-of-consciousness riff appended to the chorus-chant, “All she wants to do is cross the street.” The collected words and images are surreal and harrowing — the soundtrack, perhaps, of a midlife mind in its ape’s journey as parental eyes watch a child negotiating with street traffic. Somehow the journey from here to there, across the street, concludes with life in balance.

Delicate touches on other adult concerns, from mortality to chafing against social/religious edict, the age-alteration of desire and expectation. The sound may not have quite the youthful stride of earlier MatM albums, but remains unmistakably Muffin-esque.

After 25 years of no Muffins on the eardrums, the overall effect of listening to Delicate was akin to enjoying a deep conversation with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. She hadn’t changed a bit — except in all the necessary ways.

Heaps of fun material await you here, at the official Martha and the Muffins site.

2019 Update: additional fun to be had here.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Daniel Lanois: “The Fun Is Over” Part 2

I spent the '90s hanging with musicians and performers. If that's never been your experience, and you wonder what it might be like, Jonathan Demme's '08 Anne Hathaway vehicle Rachel Getting Married pretty much nails it — psycho-social drama/trauma included.

The music and performing never stops with these people. And it's not just about seizing the spotlight: they're almost always good listeners, too. It's about staying focused and nimble, to better locate The Thing Itself: the sound, the pulse, the emotional ebb and flow of the Cosmos.*

If there was one performer from that decade who my performer friends held in the highest esteem, it was Daniel Lanois.

I, the hanger-on and rank amateur listener, found this curious. To my ears, Lanois's music was a bit too etherial to be anything other than an acquired taste. Lanois's production, on the other hand, clearly brought unusual surfaces and textures to light, particularly with performers whose delivery had become staid. That was the material I had no trouble raving about, but most of my friends considered that stuff tangential at best, a criminal distraction at worst. To their ears Lanois the performer was in hot pursuit of The Thing Itself, and they considered him very close indeed.

Shortly after I picked up Martha and the Muffins' Delicate, I downloaded Here Is What Is, the soundtrack to the Daniel Lanois documentary of the same name. Lanois's album came out a year or two before Delicate, and is pretty much what a listener should expect from him. When I was younger, I wasn't always fond of his patented echo-chamber. But on this album, he pares away previous flourishes and draws out the Lanois Palette with a winning patience and simplicity. Listening to it on a long drive through autumn colours is quite the experience. Maybe those circumstances flipped the switch for me, or perhaps age has better attuned my ears, but I now find Lanois's sonic textures and excavations have a deep, primordial reach.

I'm a little uneasy about comparing and contrasting Lanois with MatM — they have very little in common in terms of preferred styles and themes. But their shared point of origin, and strikingly different trajectories suggest a Venn Diagram that's difficult to resist.

The fun is over. I suspect that — and what follows is, I realize, all reckless speculation on my part — for Lanois, not only is the “fun” still very much in play, it will likely carry him into the grave. I can think of several reasons for this, the first being that his sense of fun has always leaned toward the esoteric. I've seen him perform in front of a couple thousand people at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and later in a room of dozens, and he seems equally at home with either. He is pursuing The Thing Itself.

I also suspect he doesn't have to worry about money. Given the people who have his number on their speed-dial, he probably pays somebody else to worry about his money.

To whom, if anybody, is he tethered? Does he have a Significant Other — a wife, or a husband? Does he have any children? The first page of a Google search turns up a big fat zero. I could get more creative in my search fields, and keep clicking until I turn up . . . something. But the message he's clearly sending is it's none of my business. The answers to those questions are not elements Lanois wishes his work to be framed by.*** It's his playground, his ball, his rules, and I'm either fine with that, or I can go look for another game in town.

I am fine with that, actually. But I'll tell you something else: a little self-disclosure goes a very long way to keeping my ears attuned to your work— particularly if this business of paying the bills and raising a family is something you're still figuring out.

*There's a reason why radio, television, movies, and even the most stridently rationalist podcast begin and conclude with a few bars of music.

**I'll never forget a party where someone dropped For The Beauty Of Wynona on the platter, and the entire room promptly shut up and gathered around the speakers.

***A characteristic he shares with his big-ticket clients.

Friday, October 03, 2014

“The Fun Is Over”: 'Delicate' by Martha and the Muffins: A Review In Two (Possibly More) Parts

Funny people are dangerous.

I once knew a very funny guy who did tarot card readings. A woman called, and he spent an hour doing the usual Q&A over the outlay. As their time approached a close, she remained pensive. He sensed he wasn’t getting to the nub of what she’d come to him for. He asked if perhaps she had questions she’d like answered before she left.

“I just want to know,” she said, “when is the fun coming back?”

“Oh. I see. May I ask: how old are you?”


He threw up his hands. “Oh, honey,” he said, “the fun is over.


In the summer of 1980 I went with my church youth group to Grand Beach, Lake Winnipeg. Typical youth group, typical beach activities. I drove back with a guy whose car had an AM radio.

“Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins was playing.

There were only two pop stations broadcasting out of Winnipeg, plus a third that played a mix of easy-listening and country.

“I’m not a fan of this song,” said the driver, punching the radio to the other pop station.

Within minutes, “Echo Beach” was playing. He switched to the country station. There was Glen Campbell, the Carpenters, then . . . 

“Unbelievable,” he said, punching it back to the first station. Ten minutes later they were playing it again.

I actually liked the song, especially after a day at the beach. It had a brooding quality that kept it tethered to the id. I mean, what an existence: My job is very boring/I’m an office clerk . . . The only thing that helps me pass the time away/Is knowing I’ll be back at Echo Beach some day. God, spare me!


The ‘80s were a decade that was good to MatM, in all the ways a young band wants a decade to be good to it. Which is to say, a big label came along, dropped a pile of money and made their lives a nightmare, until the founding members finally figured out what was going on, and got the right gears linked up with the proper chain.

A new label, a new lineup, a smaller contract, a much smaller budget — but considerably more freedom, so who cares? The bass player has family in Hamilton with their own mixing board in the basement. We’ll just get them to do it on the cheap. A couple of brothers, genuine nerds, freaky about getting the sound just exactly right, last name of “Lanois.” 

Two amazing albums came out of that arrangement — This Is The Ice Age and Danseparc. After that, things got blurry for me. Did MatM disappear? Or did they and I just move on to other scenes?


Delicate came out in 2010, and is MatM’s eighth studio album.

I picked it up a couple of months ago. A lot of history has passed since Danseparc, the last MatM album I listened to, including parenthood/kids, Parkinson's and cancer. Also, the band lineup has undergone yet another sea-change.

I gave the album a couple of spins. After listening to Delicate, I’d cue up This Is The Ice Age, or Danseparc. Then for a week or two I listened to nothing but Danseparc.

This Is The Ice Age is in some ways the more daring, and most accomplished MatM album, but Danseparc has its own unique thrill and thrall. It is the sound of a band completely in sync — with each other, and with the scene around them. And the music scene in Toronto, 1982, was wildly vibrant and not a little wacky, from-here-to-NYC-to-the-world global — and always super-danceable. 

Listening to Danseparc you can hear the influences of George Clinton, Adrian Belew, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Rough Trade — but it’s not as if MatM is “stealing” a synth-note from here, a hook from there, a tom-tom fill from that guy. Bands were swapping this stuff like LEGO pieces back then, reaching into the same enormous pile of smooth, brightly-colored oddly-shaped bricks, and pushing them together to make architecture you had to move your feet to. MatM was constructing and deconstructing with the very best of them, but Danseparc is a vibrant demonstration of a band that isn’t at the center of The Scene, it is actually somewhere near the edge of the wild frontier, producing sounds that prompt Brian Eno to speak with Steve Lilywhite about maybe getting that Irish band to call those Hamilton boys for the next album.

That is a very heady place to be. So if you toggle from Danseparc back to Delicate, you quickly realize: 

the fun is over.
M(artha Johnson) + M(ark Gane)

Or is it? Stay tuned . . .