Music and Arts

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December 14/15: “Jerusalem”, Blake/Perry, Royal Albert Hall

Posted by on 15 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

It snowed all day here yesterday, and there’s been just as much snow, unusually, in Jerusalem.


Which handily if somewhat clumsily gives me an opportunity to post about the Anglican hymn “Jerusalem,” which I only vaguely knew until I sang in an Anglican church choir in university. The poem by William Blake is beautiful, though it is still baffling to me how this became a standard hymn for church services: Satanic Mills, really? And where is God in this hymn?

Dylan and I won tickets to a Last Night at the Proms concert at the Anglican cathedral downtown a couple of years ago. It was like a ticket to secret parallel Anglophile world. (You can’t see them, but they’re all around you.) The program for the concert had an ad for a dating service to meet other Anglophile people, which would explain how they all manage to find each other. There were four encores — four! — of “Land of Hope and Glory,” and we were some of the only people who hadn’t brought a Union Jack to wave. We did enjoy singing “Jerusalem” with a big crowd, though, and it’s got to be even more fun to do this:

December 13: “La Luce Buona delle Stelle”, Eros Ramazzotti and Patsy Kensit

Posted by on 14 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

I am a magazine junkie. These days, that means I read voraciously both online and in paper form. When I was a teenager, I had the good fortune to work at a bookstore, where one of the many perks was the ability to take home “stripped” magazines, i.e., magazines with the title pages ripped off to prove they were unsold. Just as I am unable to explain my Russophilia, in full flower by the age of 5, so it is hard for me to trace back exactly how and why I came across and seized upon Patsy Kensit as a figure of interest. Let’s just  (charitably) say that I specialized in irony long before it became a sport in the hipster olympics.

A short recap for those unfamiliar with the Kensit oeuvre: Lead singer of her brother’s band Eighth Wonder for a few years. Star of “Absolute Beginners”, the messy technicolour musical adaptation of the Colin McInnes book, even more chaotic on recent viewing than I’d remembered. This was supposed to be the big British film of the 1980s, but flopped, leading to years of soul-searching in the British industry ended only, I’m guessing, by subsequent Richard Curtis successes.

Patsy Kensit was almost a cartoon character in those days, an ambitious and somewhat guileless starlet who the Pet Shop Boys wrote a song for, just because (see irony, above).

Unsurprisingly, the fluffy pop sounds (and attractive blonde frontgirl) of Eighth Wonder went over better in Europe, giving me the chance to use my French and newly acquired skill in German to translate articles. But it was Italy where Patsy really found a niche, and even a duet with a rising Italian star, Eros Ramazzotti. (It seems this was just the first of many Italian-English duets for Eros — Tina Turner and Cher are among later partners.) The words to this song are particularly dire: “Stars will shine brightly forever, as long as you  know my dream’s with you/Think of me as your light in a tunnel, think of me as your dream come true, come true.” They seem better in Italian — there are at least some changes in verb tense — but probably aren’t. Favourite part: Patsy’s “La luce buona, yeah.”

As a celebrity, Patsy Kensit has turned out to be a better choice than I could possibly have hoped. Four marriages, one to Liam Gallagher of Oasis, an increasingly cheesy movie career (“Kill Cruise”) followed by a lengthy tenure as a British soap opera star, reality show participant (“Strictly Come Dancing”) and, most recently, Weight Watchers rep with erratic behaviour blamed on “hormones.” Can’t wait to see what’s next.


December 12: “Montreal -40C”, Malajube

Posted by on 12 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

Il fait froid. But not as cold as this.

December 11: “Train from Kansas City”, Neko Case (Shangri-Las)

Posted by on 11 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Current Events, Music and Arts

This song doesn’t make sense without the two public services currently under attack in Canada: passenger rail and the mail. They’re being strangled off in the same way: starve them of necessary funding so service degrades and the public turns against the service, then move in and axe even more service, secure in the knowledge that this will be supported by those who already gave up on the service you made worse in the first place. Do it, if possible, after the House of Commons has risen so there will be no debate and little coverage. Extra points for splitting up urban and rural service levels, if possible, so that in the future any critics of cuts to services in the places where most Canadians live (that would be cities) can be made to sound like whiny elitists.

Make no mistake: the goal is to kill public services, not just reduce them. There was a plan to reduce mail service a few months ago — remember? Trial balloons were floated about reducing home delivery to three times a week. That’s a reduction. Spending money to build infrastructure so that home delivery can be treated as obsolete is not a reduction, it’s a transformation. The goal is to shrink the service until it is no longer useful enough to justify keeping at all, and nobody waves goodbye.

Well, you say, and I’ve read, I hardly get any mail these days anyway. I’m fully online. Well, bully for you. What is important, and will affect you in some way, at some time, is that the end goal of this is the replacement of a public service — free home mail delivery — by one that is not provided publicly — internet delivery.

And, you might say, my tax dollars could be better spent than subsidizing mail delivery or passenger rail service. Sure — except they won’t be. The goal is not to free up money to spend on other initiatives. The goal of our current federal government (imitated in remarkably clumsy form by the Ford administration) is to shrink the size of government overall.

Well, you might say, I don’t benefit from these things personally. And, we should all say back, that’s interesting, but that’s actually not how society works. My tax dollars subsidize your kids’ education; your tax dollars subsidize the three-times-a-week whistle stop some vision-impaired senior boards in Sinclair Mills, B.C.

Sounds like the train from Kansas City is in trouble, too.

December 9: “Sukiyaki”, Kyu Sakamoto

Posted by on 10 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

Another song with a whistle break and the only Japanese-language song ever to top the Billboard pop chart, “Sukiyaki” always makes me happy. The title has nothing to do with the song; it’s just the name of a Japanese dish easily pronounceable in English. (It’s a delicious dish.) The title in Japanese is “Ue o muite aruko,” “I look up when I walk,” which is also the first line of the song. 1963, 50 years ago, it was number 13 for the year, down the list from songs like “Blue Velvet” and “Surfin’ USA” that we still listen to today.

This performance is from a Japanese in 1984, and I think you’ll agree, the background singers make it. There’s also a poignancy to the date — Kyu Sakamoto died in a plane crash the year after this performance, along with 519 other people in what is still the deadliest single-airplane crash ever.

Sakamoto-san has a smile planted on his face through this performance and through the original, gritty-industrial video for the song. Don’t think this means the lyrics are happy, though — the narrator is remembering being with the now-departed love through the seasons, walking around looking at the sky with tears in his eyes to avoid crying.

December 8: “Jealous Guy”, Elliot Smith (John Lennon)

Posted by on 09 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

This will explain a lot: I don’t really know how to download. I’ve never figured out bittorrents either. In some early experimentation with it, though, I ended up with this live performance of Elliot Smith performing John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. The original was released in 1971 and then, like all of the Lennon canon, was in heavy rotation again after his sudden death on this day in 1980. I’ve had this cover version on my Shuffle for so long I’d forgot what the original sounded like: quite lovely, as it turns out, with some lush orchestration. The original video, which you can find on YouTube, is serene, with some soulful shots of Yoko.

This Elliot Smith version is more spare, but it highlights what a beautiful tune this is. This is a good test for many songs: is there any arc left to the song without orchestration? Can it withstand the most minimalist of treatment (by someone other than Elliot, who’s not around to provide it anymore)? Note — Smith nails the whistle break too.

December 7: “Living With the Masses”, Sloan

Posted by on 08 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

Music and running. Some people can’t run without music, even when they’re with other people: they’re the ones you see with earplugs in even when there’s a cheering crowd to buoy them. Then there are those who are as pious about never running with music as those Luddites are about not owning a television. I run with music frequently, but not always. I was part of an excellent running group for years. When I ran with them, I would try to pace myself to run just behind my chatty friend Janet so I could be entertained by stories of her friends, family, boyfriends and eventually her charming husband. After a hiatus from the group resulting from a stress fracture, I found I was no longer fast enough to hear Janet, and ended up with friendly slower runners eager for more of a two-way conversation. Sadly, this didn’t align well with my out-of-shape post-injury running regime – i.e., I couldn’t talk and run simultaneously — and I drifted away from the group into solo runs of varying, but mostly shorter, lengths.

Running magazines and message boards are full of thoughts about the perfect running mix. These generally involve high-energy dance tunes that will, supposedly, keep you energized. Through trial and error, I’ve come to my own conclusions about the best kind of music to listen to while running:

1. The Goldilocks principle: not too fast, not too slow. I’m aiming for distance, not speed, and those 3000 BPS pieces lead me to run too fast. A few minutes of disco beats and it’s going to be a short run.

Too slow is also a problem. Relying on an iPod shuffle with a playlist generated randomly from my iTunes collection can be hazardous: a sudden shift to early-70s Tom Waits or Iron and Wine and I’m down to a crawl. OK, sure, I could set up a playlist or something especially for running, but this keeps my index finger active.

2. Guitars and drums. This is a good time for crunchy chords and throw-everything-you’ve-got-at-the-drum-kit drummers. Sometimes it’s the bass chord progression that you can match to your footfall. Kind of boring songs you might not have much interest in at other times work here.

3. The best music for running changes all the time. Some days are faster than others, some days are angrier than others. Some days, you might throw something on your device just to tempt you out the door.

Without fear or favour, the last song that came on during my most recent run:

December 6: “Love This Town,” Joel Plaskett

Posted by on 07 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts


Youth= early 90s =Halifax, for me. It’s where I was on December 6, 1989, the day nine women were shot at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. It’s where I was when the Berlin wall fell, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, when the line in the sand was crossed, when the Charlottetown accord failed, and, sadly, where I was when the Blue Jays won their first world series.

It’s where I learned that cowering under a store awning doesn’t work when it’s rainy all day long. It’s where I fell in love for the first time, and also where I returned when I was heartbroken.

I recently encountered the show “Portlandia” and the delightful song in the first episode, the “Dream of the 90s.” I had a very nineties nineties, especially the first half in Halifax. A friend recently described the post-university year we spent, separately, in Vancouver as “a kind of exile from Halifax.” That’s certainly how it felt.

Halifax always felt like an optimistic place to me, where if there was something you wanted to do there was probably a niche for you to do it in. In a new article in the Chronicle-Herald , Brent Toderian, former chief planner of Vancouver, says, “Halifax is well-positioned to become a model for the other mid-sized Canadian cities — not just for ‘coolness’ but more importantly for well-designed, smart, sustainable city-making.”

Love that town? Absolutely. And wish it well, just like any other past love.

December 5: “Free Nelson Mandela,” The Special AKA

Posted by on 05 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Current Events, Music and Arts

I’m sure there are radio stations playing “Sun City” tonight in their reports on the late Nelson Mandela and his extraordinary life as an anti-apartheid leader and the first democratic president of South Africa, but around here, it’s The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela”. This is an energetic romp that you can enjoy without having the slightest idea what or who Nelson Mandela is, and I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it — either at school dance or on CFNY — that was the case. At the same time, the song gives you the highlights of the story (to that point, anyway) in a few short verses:

21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused, but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see (I say)

Free Nelson Mandela

(I’m begging you)

Pleaded the causes of the ANC
Only one man in a large army
Are you so blind that you cannot see
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear him (it’s clear)

If you don’t want to know more after hearing that, with horns and pennywhistle and back-up singers, there’s something wrong with you.

The cover of the copy of the “Free Nelson Mandela” single I have is exactly what you want for a message song: black and white, no nonsense, big photo, and extensive text on both the front:

FreeNMcover     photo copy

… and the back, picking up  the story where the song leaves off.


I went to see Nelson Mandela when he came to Toronto in 1990. After hearing so much about him for years I was amazed to see that in the flesh he was a normal-, not super-sized person, even smaller than some of the dignitaries on stage with him. He went to New York for a visit shortly thereafter and wore an all-Yankees uniform for several days of his American tour. Rest in peace, Nelson. Amandla Ngawhetu.

December 4: “Shalyai-Valyai”, Chaif

Posted by on 05 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

A friend who also studied Russian has been staying with me so I was happy to rewatch the delightful Russian film from 2008, “Stilyagi” (somewhat misleadingly translated as “Hipsters”) with her. The movie is a musical that takes place in 1950s Moscow, but the songs are from Russian bands in 1980s and early 1990s and would be familiar to Russian viewers by groups like Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), Kino, and others. Two of the best ones are by the Russian band Chaif, including the song that ends the movie, “Shalyai-Valyai”, which apparently translates as something like “without care” – not a phrase my well-thumbed Collins Gem Russian-English dictionary lists.

The movie is fast-paced, saturated with colour and filled with attractive young Russian actors. I enjoyed the songs enough that it made me think I should search through my cassettes to find the copies of Time Machine albums my Soviet pen pal sent me in the 1980s in exchange for the U2 ones I sent him. In the last scene, the hero turns a corner and is suddenly on Tverskaya Street in 21st century Moscow instead of Gorky Street in the 1950s. A crowd of diverse young people form around him: punks, drummers, laid back jeans-wearing hipsters and even (I’ll note given recent news from Russia) a lesbian couple or two. I don’t get all of the lyrics, but it’s all about saying goodbye to a dear friend too soon (which could be the Soviet Union) and there is an excellent line about “this divisive, evil, strange epoch” that jumps out at me every time I hear it.

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