Writer/publisher/musician Dave Bidini has been one of the leading lights on the Canadian arts scene for four decades. He is a founding member of the Rheostatics, the author of books including On A Cold Road and Writing Gordon Lightfoot, and is the publisher of the new print newspaper, the West End Phoenix. To tie in with SiriusXM’s 150 Greatest Canadian Songs of All Time, which airs Canada Day on SiriusXM The Verge, we asked Dave to share with us a selection of songs that have been a part of his own Canadian musical experience.
Canada is filthy with songs, more so considering the size of the place– huge– and the paucity of citizens. That a distinctive catalogue of iconic songs has emerged is a tribute, I think, to the devotion to music that tries to explain the unexplainable: an enormous place that has simply too many elements, voices, cultures and histories to sum up in verse/chorus/verse. Still, we keep trying.
Here are four songs that arch towards defining sounds and words, and mean a lot to me in my own journey of musical discovery.
- “Across this Land,” Stompin’ Tom Connors. It may seem obvious– the references to provincial emblems and landmarks, and, literally, naming the provinces in song– but there were few people who were ever so self-reflexively Canadian at a time when it was almost shameful to recognize one’s nationality, being pushed upon, and culturally-enslaved, but colonial influences. Tom was always so forthright and defiant in his Canadianess that this song– and dozens others– are almost punk in their approach, using subject matter– ourselves– that was long explained to us as boring, or unworthy compared to American or British influences. Tom kicked stuff: his stomping board and our asses, to name two. You didn’t have to wear a cowboy hat or come from Cobokonk to get him or know why his music mattered, both hallmarks of the finest art: the kind that communicates before it is understood.
ACROSS THIS LAND WITH STOMPIN’ TOM CONNORS
- “High School Confidential,” Rough Trade. I love this song for so many reasons: the droll vocal, the cool bass/synth hook, the “Dagmar” chorus, the sensual, white R&B groove. Also, looking back, it was one of the first popular, radio-friendly songs that pointed forward: a lesbian torch anthem at a time when gay men and women were getting the shit kicked out of them on Yonge Street. I think it represents the best of Canada and the best of Toronto: outside music embraced by a greater audience, and showing the potential of music lovers to be progressive-minded despite living in a Loyalist culture. Rough Trade and Carole Pope also showed that you didn’t have to be a traditional songwriter to get your song on the radio. You could just be yourself and be good. Young writers and young people can’t learn that too many times.
HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL – ROUGH TRADE
- “Down by the Henry Moore,” Murray McLaughlin: It tropes along at a kind of slippere’d pace and it’s the sort of song your uncle would play at the cottage when all you wanted to do was listen to Kyuss on your headphones. But when I bought this 45 for my jukebox last year, the fact that I was listening to a song about Toronto– Kensington Market, the AGO, the Silver Dollar– while in Toronto, connected me to it the way it hadn’t before. It resonated as a song about place– significant in the same way Tom Connors is significant– but also about change: McLaughlin’s parochial folkscrub town doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, it’s thumping disco cars and whirring streets full of people from everywhere and whining dance club lights and indie bands packing rager shows in old abattoirs. Still, the song is so good that it’s easy to see the singer wandering through: still lost, still alone, still looking for the Henry Moore.
DOWN BY THE HENRY MOORE – MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN
- “The Enemy,” DOA: I wanted to put a West Coast song on here because the West Coast was always very good to the Rheostatics. People understood us there before anyone got us in Toronto, in our home town. In a way, we were perceived as exotic and interesting to people in Vancouver, partly the result of the punk scene doing what it did to the city through the 70s and 80s, often riding on the back of the legendary DOA. Once we had all of our equipment ripped off outside the Savoy Club, and DOA and friends held a benefit at their house to help raise money to send us back to Toronto. It was an amazing gesture from their musical “community,” a term that gets thrown around a lot, but somehow applied on Granville, Robson, and Davie. Through DOA, we learned that, as musicians, we’re all in the same lifeboat, and that week in 1988, they saved our asses. They’re on this list because they’re great, but they’re also on this list because if they hadn’t helped us– we ended up getting all of our gear back after a Crime Stoppers notice from a bus driver, Fred Smith, who discovered the stolen equipment– we might not be writing, playing, and keeping on in spite of everything.
THE ENEMY – DOA
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Rheostatics, JULY 1, canada day, regent theatre, Prince Edward County
Rheostatics, AUGUST 23, peterborough music fest