Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Moby, "Porcelain" (book)

After reading only a few chapters of Moby's new memoir, "Porcelain", I had already decided that it is one of the finest music autobiographies I've ever read.  The subject matter (NYC clubs, English raves) is fresh in the world of musician bios and certainly in need of chronicling, and his writing style is unlike any other star bio I've read.  In most bios, the story unfurls linearly, tracing the key steps in the advancement of the star's career.  In Moby's book, which is part coming of age story, part mish mash of moralist anecdotes, while his career somehow takes shape during his unpredictable journey.

The first chapter is about heading out from his 100 square foot "apartment" in an abandoned factory in Connecticut, and taking the train to New York to drop off a mix tape at a club in the hopes of getting hired as a DJ.  The style of this chapter sets the pattern for the entire book.  Moby the writer has a talent for turning the mundane into the spectacular, crystallizing the feel, look and smells of his functionally homeless life and the decaying atmosphere of NYC before it cleaned itself up.  It's a collection of stories and moments, oddball conversations and unhinged characters.  Most chapters take you into the weird minutiae of a particular day in his life but are page turners thanks to his gifts as a storyteller.  This includes a fair bit of cynicism and self deprecating humour -- 2016 Moby knows how messed up and insane things were, but stays in the moment to relate how things were, at all times.  In the meantime, his career slowly develops, almost as a backdrop to the stories he's telling. 

The first part of the book covers 1989-90, but the subject matter is equally NYC as it is Moby.  It's about recording the seediness of its neighbourhoods and of the club scene for posterity, Moby is almost a passive participant in these event who just happened to be around to observe all of it.  The second part covers the early 90's rave years in much the same way, and he himself becomes more of a central figure in what's going on.  Once we hit the "Everything Is Wrong" period, the narrative becomes less focused on a particular place, and jumps from one drunken exploit to another, with casts of characters and interesting hookups that vary depending on the city.  Somewhere in the chaos his career briefly flourishes, and then collapses. 

The wildness and debauchery keeps ramping up, and things never get any better.  At the start of the book he's desperately poor and eager to launch a music career (despite having no clue how to go about it), and talks at length about how happy he was living in what he calls the best city in the world.  By the end, he's at his lowest point, lonely and depressed despite having no shortage of parties or women in his life, clearly convinced that his career was over.  In the final chapter, he's listening to an early version of "Play" during a late night drive, which only serves to convince him that it was a badly produced mess that nobody will want to listen to.  He'd already begun planning to move back to Connecticut and start a different career.  And just like that, the book ends.  There's no light at the end of the tunnel, and no sense that things might start getting better. 

Of course this opens the door for a second memoir quite nicely, and in fact Moby has already begun writing it.  But sometimes the journey to stardom is far more captivating, and brings out better writing, than the stardom itself.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Tragically Hip live at the Kingston K-Rock Centre

Like millions of other Canadians, I was able to watch the  Tragically Hip's final (?) concert thanks to the CBC (in my case via their Youtube channel).  During the show, I found myself flipping occasionally to WWE's live Takeover Brooklyn special, which served to remind me about some important lessons about how to produce live TV.

Pro wrestling is all about the interaction between the performers and the audience, perhaps more so than any other entertainment medium.  Watching bits and pieces of Takeover, I could feel the intensity of the crowd at the most important moments -- the thunderous crowd pops at the end of matches, during the entrances, and during special moments like the farewell ovation to Bayley at the conclusion of her match.  Bayley spent four months building toward a rematch to regain her title after being streamrolled by Asuka in April, and her spirited loss to Asuka signified a conclusive end to the story.  There's nothing left for her to do in NXT, and although it was never acknowledged on TV, the fans know what happens next.  She'll end up on the main WWE roster soon enough (probably in two days), performing in front of bigger but perhaps not better or more caring crowds.  Tears were shed, the camera panned the crowds so that the people watching at home could feel, see, and hear the reactions, the crowd mics were cranked way up, the commentators stayed quiet and let the crowd tell the story.   

There was very little of that in tonight's Tragically Hip concert.  Plenty of credit goes to the CBC for broadcasting this, and I have no doubt that the six thousand in attendance were losing their minds all night, but you wouldn't have known it from tonight's broadcast.  It was shot just like any other concert.  The camera zoomed in tight on Gord Downie for most of the show, oblivious to the fact that especially on this night, it wasn't about micro-analyzing the movements of the lead singer, it was about the interactions between a great band and its hometown fans.  The band doesn't perform in front of the fans, they perform with the fans, tonight more so than ever.

Many videos have been uploaded to youtube showing the raw exhilaration of these final (?) Hip shows.  Only during the quieter moments of the CBC broadcast (e.g. "Fiddler's Green") did we really get to experience that (discounting the odd, spoken word tributes to Justin Trudeau that came off disturbingly like paid shills for the Liberal Party.  What was with that?)  Also thanks to youtube, I got to see Downie's incredible, white knuckle intense performance at the end of "Grace, Too" in Toronto.  If I hadn't already see that, his similar performance tonight near the conclusion of the concert would have been almost unbearably difficult to watch.  But I had seen it before -- a very well executed bit of drama by a consummate actor.  

During the third encore, and towards the end of final song ("Ahead By a Century"), Downie carefully placed the microphone back on the stand and took a few moments to blow kisses to the crowd.  When the song finished, the band posed on stage, arms around each other, and soaked in the cheers.  Downie looked exhausted.  Happy, relieved, and certainly humbled, but also exhausted.  He probably could have stood there all night, but it really seemed to me that he needed to go home and rest.  Who could deny him otherwise.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Denise Benson, "Then & Now"

In the Forward to Denise Benson's history of 48 influential Toronto clubs, Stuart Berman writes: "no matter if your dancing days were defined by bell bottoms or dog collars, glow sticks or glue sniffs, you played some part in this story." I probably rolled my eyes the first time I read that line, a variation on the tried and true musical trope "we couldn't have done it without the support of you fans".  Berman's line could have been written by the book's publicist and slapped on the back cover.  But as I made my way through the book, and nostalgia kicked in hard -- even for the clubs I'd never attended -- it all started making sense.

"Then & Now" isn't a comprehensive history of Toronto club culture.  However, you can infer the evolution of the city's night life by studying the map of club locations in the book's final pages, tracking the epicentre of underground nightlife as it flowed between neighbourhoods within the city.  The book doesn't read like a history either, there's no narrative to connect the chapters -- each one profiling a single club -- or any attempt to track musical trends over the years.  The writing does get repetitive after a while (everyone was accepted, there was a real sense of community, it was "more than just a club", etc.), and the profiles are overloaded with names and places that makes for heavy reading at times.  It's not a book for everyone, and you might not get much out of it if you didn't grow up in Toronto and didn't go to at least a handful of these clubs.

But enough about what this book is not.  "Then & Now" is an indispensable source of information about the Toronto club scene.  If Benson hadn't done all of this research, and had access to so many of the principals owing to her long standing presence in the Toronto music scene, where else could you possibly find all this information?  She's done every Toronto music fan a service by cataloging this information for posterity, archiving rare photos, interviewing everyone from the DJ's to the bartenders to the security staff to the clubgoers themselves.  She writes with an attention to detail that could have only been filtered through the lens of someone who was there.  In one example, she notes how every speck of lint on your clothes would shine under the fluorescent lights at the Limelight.  For many, this reads as a passing comments about the club's interior, but for any past regular (e.g. me), this type of detail will take you back immediately.

Benson doesn't need to philosophize and provide historical context, that's not what the book is about.  It's part clubbing scrapbook, part story behind the story of the clubs you knew, loved, danced at, and then forgot about.  Your memories will provide the context, and her job is to help you recall them.

However, if I were to look for a turning point in the Toronto club scene, using the book as a representative sample, everything pivots around Industry nightclub.  As we see, in the 80's, cool clubbing meant 80's alternative staples (Depeche Mode, New Order, Human League, goths, punks, Cure fans, etc.) and proto house, electro, and techno.  A lot of the 90's clubs were run by 80's veterans and catered to the natural descendants (e.g me) of those 80's scenes.  But Industry was something different entirely.  As the city cracked down on outdoor raves, the parties moved indoors.  The club denizens didn't grow up with CFNY (which was purely a rock station by the mid-90's anyway), and weren't looking to dance to underground hits they might have heard on the radio.  Stories about bartenders getting grandfathered into DJ roles dry up, and expert mixers spinning purely electronic genres completely take over.