Monday, July 24, 2017

The odd cult of David M: Lilith for Dudes and more - two free shows!


There is a weird phenomenon around David M. There is a small group of people who seem to turn up at his shows, over and over again. There are newcomers, too - for instance, at the Small Salute to David Bowie at Music Madhouse Records, which I shot footage of here and here, where some thirty or forty people I did not recognize complemented the four or five I did. But go to the Princeton, say (this Monday, July 24th, also known as tonight), or the Heritage Grill (on July 31st), and there's a fair chance you will see, besides performers (Dave Dedrick, Lester Interest, and Pete Campbell), and ignoring the incidental drunks and the newcomers, about ten people you might ALSO have seen there one of the last couple of times David played there - like Erika and I, Tim Chan and his wife Sarah, or Bob Hanham (recently glimpsed at the wiener dog races in a NO FUN shirt) and his wife Beth. There's sometimes a Judith Beeman, of late, and maybe a Pep Kay or Norah Holtby (hope y'all don't mind my naming names). There are a few other semi-regulars whose names I don't know, like "the guy with the impressive 60's beard" who made it across town to the Bowie event, or "the clean-cut bespecacled guy" who sits nearer the main tables than Erika and I do. Everyone probably saw NO FUN at least a few times back in the day, owned a cassette or two, and permanently associates the words "calico gingerbread" with "poo" and "Christmas." We're NO FUN fans, and there's this tiny little core club of us, intimate enough with each other and David, at this point, that once, when David couldn't find a venue for a show he wanted to do, we just met at his home and had the concert in his living room, with Ozzy, his dog, running happily amongst us, being friendly. (Ozzy left us last year, more on which later; the world is a lesser place without him).

It's all kind of strange. Never did I imagine when I got my father to pick up the Snivel box set for me at Track Records in the late 1980's, or when I was watching Gorgo ads on cable-access music TV (Soundproof), and sampling real-honest-to-god Gorgo with a friend at a Maple Ridge 7-11 - it's memorabily vile - that I'd be part of this little weird cult (not saying that we've been brainwashed, note, or that M. is in any way a "cult leader"). Though I'd seen David a few times over the years - including a few shows with Paul Leahy and even once with Pico, opening for Robyn Hitchcock at the Town Pump - the present "phase" of my fandom began around ten years ago when I attended a David M. solo concert at Chapters, and discovered myself the only member of the audience. Since I was writing for The Skinny back then, I did an article on it, riffing on the way that the audience-performer dynamic changes a little bit when the ratio is one to one. For his part, the ever-wry, unflappable David M. quipped that NO FUN was always "underground music," and that Chapters was "the New Underground." He did a full set, most of it just for me, until his then-not-yet-ex wife showed up and joined us.



David M., Dave Dedrick and Pete Campbell, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

Unusual or not, I had a very good time that day. As I remember it, David did Elvis and Beatles medleys, amidst the odd NO FUN original (or as yet unreleased solo songs like "Leonard Cohen Says Love"). He played the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" and a great Phil Ochs tune, "One Way Ticket Home." He also added some surprising covers, like Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl," which someone had requested a few shows before, and which worked surprisingly well, suiting both David's voice and body of work (it's less witty or wry than most of what David writes but it's not entirely dissimilar as popcraft; it's no "I'm Not Taking Suzy to the Be-In" but it can comfortably coexist in the same room). Later, in the context of David's Christmas shows, the song morphed, oddly enough, into "Santa's Girl," which might have made a few people raise their eyebrows. Where did this come from? they wondered - maybe two people, we're talking, but still - and I got to smile smugly and pat myself on the back for knowing the story, having been there to witness it... because those are the sorts of satisfactions you get from being in this elite, marginal group. ("Those who know," we call ourselves).

(No we don't).

David was very friendly about the whole exchange, that first day at Chapters. He asked if I had requests, and I am happy (though I would later suggest other covers that I was curious to hear him do) that the first song I asked him to do was his own, "Ambivalence," off Snivel. It remains one of my favourites of his songs, is as witty and catchy and smart a song to come out of Vancouver as anything written by the Pointed Sticks or Art Bergmann or Gerry Hannah, all of whom get a lot more respect and attention than David does. I'm pleased whenever "Ambivalence" turns up in one of his sets and give myself a little credit for recognizing its merits.

There are also times - often involving interminable and obnoxious Tributes to Elvis, which thankfully mostly remain on the recordings, unrealized in recent live sets - where I am less involved in what David is doing, and, though I own two NO FUN box sets now, I still mostly listen to my old favourite, 1894, when I break out the one, or The Five Wenceslases when I break out the other. I don't go to every show - though I do sometimes feel like I might be letting other members of "Team M" down  (or M. himself) if I skip out.

But I have no plans of stopping going to shows, either. It's kind of one of the more entertaining relationships I have with the music scene of Vancouver, and it's become it's own thing. It's not exactly like going over to a friend's house to see him play songs (even on the odd night, as mentioned above, when that's exactly the form it takes). But it's also not exactly like going to a concert, either, since it is absent so many of the features of a "normal" concert (like not knowing the other people in the audience or having to strain to ignore people who aren't there to pay attention to the show, since, the odd loud drunk who staggers through the Princeton aside, we ARE all there to hear the show - and we'll actually start heckling the drunks if they get on our nerves).

With two shows coming up, a happy memory of David performing at my wedding (singing a song we co-wrote!), and sad thoughts of the loss of both Ozzy and David's former longtime collaborator Paul Leahy, it seemed an appropriate time to do another David M. interview, this one by email. Bearing in mind that we're friends now, that the whole thing is driven by conflict of interest and nepotism, and that you may find yourself inexorably drawn into the cult yourself ("one of us! one of us!")... there are still many, many less entertaining things you could do tonight than head to the Princeton to see David M. play. (Or Heritage Grill next week, if you're out in New West).


(David M and Ozzy, by Erika Lax)


Allan: I feel sad and worried for you whenever you post a photo of Ozzy on Facebook, have you adjusted at all to not having him around? How many years was Ozzy your companion? Do you have any favourite Ozzy stories you want to share?


David: Not adjusted AT ALL, and I don't really want to be. I still talk to him as much as usual. He was my constant companion for 14 years, and that is my favourite Ozzy story.

What is the history of Lilith for Dudes? I recall you doing this a few years ago during "the Chapters years" but I don't know when you first did it, if it was originally a NO FUN thing, or...


"Lilith For Dudes" was only done once previously, on August 10, 2010, with Ed Hurrell, Pete Campbell, and Jim Cummins. Pete and Jim each did solo sets, as well as things with me. The 2017 version is different, with a real theme song and more of a through line. But I'm no judge.

Tell us about the Toys cover in the set? Are there other songs of Paul's present?


"Music Of Men," the first song/theme song of the show, is based on a Toys song that Paul wrote, and the band stretched out into something guaranteed to annoy bar audiences. I suggested recording it for "Snivel" ("Direction" was a Toys song that bar audiences loved because they liked The Paul Show) but Paul didn't want to, and I couldn't suggest a way to do it that seemed like an improvement. But thinking about it in terms of "Lilith For Dudes" helped, so it's Paul's basic idea tarted up and amplified in a way I think he'd have wanted to record for "Snivel". It will be on Leahy Stardust.



David M at the January tribute to Paul Leahy at the Rickshaw, photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

When is that coming out, by the way? What should we know about it?


Leahy Stardust, which just had three new songs added to it (two of which will be in the show tomorrow night), is a CD/DVD set. It will be available when I stop adding to it (which may have happened). I'll also be playing it as a live "small David Bowie salute" style set.

[As for other Paul Leahy-related songs,] "Cosmic Planet Rock" is in this show, along with "Father To Son/All The Young Dudes", "WDFD 2016", and something called "NO FUN Song", all of which are from Leahy Stardust. Lester and I will also be doing a variation on something that Paul and I used to do as a medley, and beat poems a la Paul are also in the show.

Can you tell the story of "You Need Your Tongue to Stand Up?" This stands as the final collaboration between you and Paul, right? I found it particularly interesting hearing that song during my tongue cancer debacle from last March.


As you might already know, Paul said "actually, it turns out You Need Your Tongue To Stand Up" as his reason for not being able to play back in 1997, a few days before a Friday, November 28th show at Chapters Langley that I ended up doing by myself. It was a striking turn of phrase, turned ominous 19 years later of course, but I played him the chorus of the song just as it ended up within days of him saying what he said. And he liked it.

My favourite recent 'discovery' of yours was "Robert Johnson Box Set." Will that be played at Lilith? Can you recount the history of that song? Did you record the original performance, or did you have to "reconstruct" any of the verses that you might not have remembered... or do you play it pretty much as Paul did?


"Robert Johnson Box Set" is a reconstruction, reconstructed to be as close to the original as possible. Paul's Robert Johnson-style guitar playing was much more accurate than mine, and for my version I came up with some of the words, but we collaborated that way all the time. "Big Boys" was something he played for me on his little keyboard, and when we went to record it, it wasn't as I remembered him playing it, so I played it for him as I remembered it, and that's what we recorded. So what was that? I don't know either, but that's how we did things. People would sometimes be there when we'd be recording guitar parts, and they'd find it odd that we weren't talking much, just recording takes until we'd stop. You could ask Dave Dedrick about that, as he was around for a bunch of that kind of thing.


Speaking of Lilith Fair, for posterity, could you tell the story about NO FUN introducing/ sharing a stage with Sarah McLachlan? Did you or Paul personally interact with her? Have you ever covered one of her songs? (Bear in mind that I have never seen a Lilith for Dudes show and don't quite know what to expect). What songs can we expect at Lilith for Dudes that haven't been at your recent Paul-themed shows?


This should answer most of your Sarah Mac questions. The songs in the "Lilith For Dudes" show are songs by, of, and for men and the women who put up with them. I count 14 previously-unperformed selections on tomorrow night's set list, including the first two new Gorgo ads since "I've Gorgo Bar the Eighth, I 'Ave" a decade or so ago. Keep ragging on Gorgo and see what happens!

While I understand Paul wanting to be known more for his own music than NO FUN, it seems like there's been some real weirdness in writing NO FUN out of his history at times, from some quarters, which must be hurtful to you. Have you ever figured out what was driving that? (Is there someone you need to make peace with, since you seem not to have had a problem with Paul himself...?). You've never mentioned a particular falling out the two of you might have had, so this seems to be coming from somewhere OTHER than Paul, but...


No comment, but I think you know what I'm not commenting on. Three people gave your video of my song at the Paul Rickshaw thing thumbs down within 24 hours of you posting it. What kind of person would do that? I could name them, and you probably could too, but grief is what it is. My own grief is also what it is, so to hell with them. They should get a grip. For what it's worth, I'm very proud of that video and I think it makes an appropriate statement in an impossible situation. Paul would absolutely have appreciated it, and been mortified by it.


A few other things... thoughts on seeing Robyn Hitchcock the other night?
The set was great, and I was surprised and pleased that he did "My Wife And My Dead Wife". Not taking the easy way out, very good. We played with him & the Egyptians twice, and him solo once, and he seemed like a nice man every time. He's based in Nashville now, and the new album (great, thanks again) has Gillian Welch on it. There's a kind of nouveau, ad hoc Fairport Convention thing going on in Nashville, with Alison Krauss, Welch/Rawlings, Jerry Douglas, etc. that you probably want to check out. These are country/bluegrass people who are also fans of 70's rock, and I'm not surprised that Robyn Hitchcock has gravitated to them.

By the way, what's your history with Jim Cummins? I realize he is not on the bill, but since he played the last event in 2010, do you have any favourite stories or interactions with him? (I believe I saw him get hit with a beer bottle when performing at the first ever punk gig I went to, the Dead Kennedys at the York Theatre, and keep on playing without so much as blinking, but when I chatted with him about it he didn't recall the specific moment).


Jim Cummins is a guy from Langley, who I've known casually for a long time, but we became friends at Chapters, where he'd drop in all the time. We had the shared experience of supporting elderly parents because the art weirdos in families stick around while the responsible siblings fuck off. I believe you understand the concept. Jim is a top-quality guy; Ozzy agreed.

How will the sets at the Princeton and the Heritage Grill be different?


They'll start and end the same; everything else is up for grabs, and there's so much stuff that could go into the show that there's bound to be a lot of grabbing.

Anything else I've missed?


It's free.

Todd Serious, The Poseidon Adventure and a trail of disturbing breadcrumbs...

(The Rebel Spell at 333 for the Last Run album release, photo by me)


I never figured George Strombolopolous for being a punk rocker. 

The other night, my wife and I were driving back from an ill-fated attempt to glimpse the Northern Lights from a dark road off Belcarra when her CD player began to crap out. It doesn't like it if we use it too much - it overheats and refuses to load and then, digital display flashing, it spits the CD out. So we flipped on the radio; Jack FM was playing something crappy, so we punched the preset for the CBC. 

Strombo was playing John K. Samson, on a repeated show from, presumably, last February. 

Apparently Samson was the bassist from Propagandhi - a band I don't really follow - so after a couple of (very enjoyable) solo tracks and urgings to catch Samson on tour - a tour long since completed - Strombo put on Propagandhi's cover of the Rebel Spell's "I am a Rifle."

It was nice to hear. I remember hearing what I think might have been a debut performance of that song at Under the Volcano, maybe the third or fourth time I saw the Rebel Spell, about ten years ago. Strombo made a little speech afterwards about Todd Serious - "a true punk with a true heart," he said, I believe, quoting someone from Propagandhi. He didn't get it all right: he mis-stated that the song had been covered in honour of Todd after he died, when if memory serves, Propagandhi recorded their version of the tune while Todd was very much still with us, though it does pop up on that posthumous Rebels Sing album, as well, in Todd’s tribute. But it was pretty cool to have Todd mentioned on the CBC, even if Strombo didn't do the next obvious cool thing and follow up by playing an actual song by the Rebel Spell.


It was also fun for my wife: Erika had helped prepare a giant vegan feast for the Rebel Spell when they played Adstock in Maple Ridge, the summer before Todd died, debuting a couple of songs off Last Run (I shot video that you can find on Youtube - the "last chance to hurt yourself" footage, with Todd himself wincing a bit, having injured his back in a previous rock climbing accident). Even though she doesn't really care for punk rock in any form - she vastly prefers Bell and Watchtower's reading of "Pride and Prejudice," for instance – and even though Todd was mostly concerned that day with hanging out with Gerry Hannah, also in town, than socializing with us, Erika admitted that it was pretty cool to have someone she had met and cooked for mentioned on her car radio. It was a little less unusual for me, but was still a nice moment.


Anyhow, it got me thinking about Todd again. As we drove, I played, from my phone, Jesse Lebourdais' song "You Were a Rifle," written in Todd's honour, and obviously referencing "I am a Rifle." (I haven't really come to terms with the whole of Jesse's striking new album but it is super-flattering that Jesse took the title of the album – Grief, Intensity, Friendship - from an interview I did with him awhile back, having asked my permission to do so, for the record; I often will try, as a writer, to reference someone's songs or album titles in my own titles for pieces, but this is the first time that my title influenced the title of a record not yet released). Erika and I got to talking about all the weird intimations of mortality that crop up on Last Run and on other albums by the Rebel Spell, previously discussed in conversation with Erin and Elliott from that group during an interview with West Ender, before one of those Todd-less concerts with various guest vocalists singing Todd’s songs. There are multiple references to death and dying and the brevity of life throughout the album, and elsewhere in Todd's body of work. There's even the album cover - which shows a man dying on a mountainside - and title (Todd told me in the last interview I did with him that it was, more than anything, a reference to the likelihood that their veggie oil van was going to crap out soon but it always had seemed more significant than that...).

By far, however, the creepiest discovery came after I revisited The Poseidon Adventure, awhile ago, playing it for Erika one night.


For those who haven't seen it, The Poseidon Adventure is a 1970's disaster movie - ignore the remake! - about a group of passengers on a cruise ship who have to try to find a way to survive and escape the ship after it is capsized in a freak storm. The leader of the group - also featuring Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell and Shelley Winters - ends up being an action-oriented, dynamic young priest, Reverend Scott, as played by Gene Hackman. He’s not much the type for sitting around waiting for God to intervene, as is made the explicit subject of an early sermon he gives, before the ship even capsizes (this is not a film shy about overt declarations of its theme). “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way.”

The Rebel Spell's song "Not a Prayer" abundantly of fits with this attitude. Hackman later lectures people who elect to stay where they are, praying for help and rescue, rather than trying to climb "up" and out before the ship sinks completely. “Sitting on our butts is not going to help us.... Maybe by climbing out of here, we can save ourselves. If you've got any sense, you'll come along with us.” He even gets into an argument with a colleague who elects to stay and comfort those who have decided not to try to climb out. He's pretty hostile to prayer, for a priest, but he's absolutely right that sitting and praying doesn't make a lot of sense, as the action of the film soon demonstrates: the people who elect to do it are soon drowned, while only those who try to climb up and out are eventually (for the most part) saved.

But there's a more disturbing parallel between the film and the song "Last Run." Having successfully led a small group of survivors through the bowels of the ship, to exit from a hatch near the propeller, Hackman finds that in order to open the hatch, he has to leap from a walkway and likely fall to his death, to turn a valve. He does so - but he also issues a final, angry prayer to God. I am trusting IMDB on the transcription, here:

"What more do you want of us? We've come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don't fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many more lives?"


Hackman hangs from the valve, about to fall, angrily accusing God for having taken a young girl's life just minutes before. Then - just as the valve turns, signaling rescue for everyone else, he shouts: "You want another life? Then take me!"

Then he lets go and falls to his death - just as Todd fell, on my birthday, March 7th, just over two years ago, in 2015. And that final “take me” gets a really creepy echo in the final verse of the song "Last Run": 
Blame the war on nature, blame the fear of green, blame the lazy cowards in huge machines,
Blame us all together as we poison the sea, blame the way we consume and breed and breed
or pesticides and the GMO wheat, the water you waste for the taste of meat
Blame acid rain, yes it’s still a thing, clear-cuts you can see from space
reactor leaks, open pits, massive dams and their floods of death
Blame our anthropocentric mind disease, science dragged out back and forced to its knees
Blame your own inaction while the world bleeds, blame that on the distractions of your silly scene
I know you need a sacrifice to your god of greed if it will help you can take me  blame me blame me blame me
It could, of course, be a coincidence. Todd may never have even seen The Poseidon Adventure. I would kind of prefer it if he hadn't, if this was all just some phantom in my film buff's head  I'm writing here of a guy who called me at least once, in that above-linked final interview, on overemphasizing the "distractions" of my silly film geek scene. I would much rather my head be up my ass on this one, because I don't really want to think of the implications of this: that maybe all the intimations of mortality in the Rebel Spell's lyrics, and especially on that last album, weren't actually part of some creepy supernatural coincidence, but had - sorry! - some active design behind them...?

Has anyone else ever speculated along these lines? I haven't encountered it in public, if so, and was too afraid to bring it up during the interview with Erin, Elliott, and Travis that I spoke of earlier, because I actually figure thinking this way might offend or hurt someone. During that conversation, we only got so far as to agree that the whole "cosmic coincidence" reading of events would have pissed Todd off to no end. If he had any tolerance for superstition, religion, or spirituality I never encountered it, not that I knew him that well. I tried, that last time I spoke to him at length, to tease out some possible inclinations of a mystical or spiritual streak in him and found nothing, even with songs like "I Heard You Singing" suggesting what CS Lewis would have called an encounter with the numinous.  I had actually presumed that he WAS describing, in that song, what I would comfortably call a "spiritual experience," but somewhat to my surprise, he would have none of it, seemed flatly disinterested in the angle. 

But how would Todd feel about people thinking the presumed accident that claimed his life was actually not an accident at all?

From time to time, a story starts to assemble itself in my head, proving - I'm sure Todd would glower at me here - that I have way too much free time: a story of an outwardly rationalist, action-oriented, materialist with no tolerance for mysticism at all, who nonetheless becomes convinced somehow that through sacrificing himself he can set a chain of actions in motion that will alter the world in some meaningful way, perhaps even moreso than by remaining alive. I think of Mishima, too, and Runaway Horses - which ends with a young, very pure-spirited Japanese insurgent choosing to commit hara-kiri, in the hopes that it will spur revolutionary change, than undergo the diminishments and compromises of aging. (I have even less reason to think Todd ever read Mishima). And of course, there was nothing of accident in Mishima's death...

I wonder about these things, and I look at the intimations of mortality on Last Run alone: the title of the album, sure, the cover art.


Then there’s the lyrics.

From "Hopeless:" "It hurts to be here but I can't leave/ And if I found a way to walk away, well where then what would I be? / I’d be useless to you and worse to me and I don’t get any better on self-pity/ I don’t get anything else just this bit of time..."

"Breathe" talks about drawing in a "last breath" before it's too late, talks about cheating death, and closes on the line that there's "nothing after death."

"Last Run" has the verse mentioned before, as well as another chorus inviting us to blame Todd, to take him as a sacrificial scapegoat if we need one so badly.

"Pride and Prejudice" seems mostly political, but ends on the exhortation to "scream and scream like you’re the one dying / And don’t stop screaming until your heartbeat stops."

There are a few songs, mostly on side two, that don’t fit the theme. "Grass Rat," the song Todd and Stepha co-wrote about Stepha's daughter, doesn't have that much to do with mortality, though it does have a lyric about sacrificing yourself for those you love. "Ten Thousand Years," "All This Costs," and "Fight for the Sun" also have little to do with what starts to emerge as a sort of theme on the album - of offering oneself as a sacrifice to help create a just world, of allowing oneself to become the scapegoat.

But some of that seems to inform "Let's Roll a Storm." Travis pointed out that he actually contributed some of these images, but there’s a verse about “standing on the edge of a cliff… One more step and you’ll be smashed to bits… the wind is at our back but we still refuse to jump.” The song also makes frequent mentions of sacrifice in the chorus (giving up “a piece of your bread.”)

There are also multiple references to "leaving"  - first in "Hopeless," above, but also in “I Heard You Singing," which has Todd imagining disappearing into nature, escaping the world, being tempted to heed “a call to be free.” It touches on the language of “leaving” in “Hopeless."

And then “TheT’silhqotin War” returns to imagery of dying in sacrifice so that the greater good might flourish, tabled also in “Last Run,” with Todd and collaborator Jeff Andrew singing, “climb the gallows/ take the blame,” referring to martyred warriors in an action to stop the building of a road.

I feel guilty speculating, but there's too much of this to seem a coincidence. I hope I don't offend anyone here, but - especially after having re-watched The Poseidon Adventure - it's kind of hard for me to shake all this. My mind finds myself drawn to it at unexpected times. I feel a bit bad that I've neglected both Alien Boys and Freak Dream shows to linger on thoughts of a band that is no more, of someone who is no longer with us. But it kind of haunts me, you know? I'm not saying he took his own life - I'm avoiding that actual formula - but when the above things align themselves, it's really hard to see his fall as accidental.

Sorry, folks.  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

RIP George A. Romero, John Heard

I love several of George A. Romero's films. Cronenbreg is richer, Carpenter is more surprising, but Romero gets closer to the heart, you know? I ranked my favourite films of his on Facebook shortly after he died. My favourite by far is Knightriders, followed by Day of the Dead (the cliche "contrarian" move, to rank Day above Dawn, but really, really - I do love that film more. Say hello to your Aunt Alicia!). But my "tribute" screening in his honour - the film I insisted Erika see, that she pay respects beside me - was "The Crate" from the anthology film Creepshow. 


What a fun little film: male rage imagined as a killer monkey that has been locked in a box for hundreds of years. I hope Hal Holbrook has fond memories of doing it; I am sure Adrienne Barbeau does. (Fritz Weaver died last year but he gets to cut loose a bit in his performance for this film, getting to emote a bit more than his roles usually require him to, so I'm sure he was proud of his work here, too). It's the standout episode of Creepshow but if you haven't seen that film in awhile, it really is fun, with Stephen King and Romero paying homage to vintage EC Comics (not part of my childhood, actually, but I had Creepy and Eerie and such so I can still identify utterly). It sells on blu for 2/ $20 at Sunrise Records, incidentally, and is a considerable upgrade from the old DVD, which doesn't look so hot in hi-def.

Also, though he only did two roles I cared about, I want to tip my hat briefly to the late John Heard, who passed earlier today (or yesterday?) at the age of 72. You might know him as the star of C.H.U.D., if you're a horror fan - and his line reading for "what ugly fuckers" is pretty delightful - but there's also a fantastic, gritty 1970's crime film called Cutter's Way that has a performance that must be seen to be believed. Heard plays a bitter, hard-living, irrepressibly angry Vietnam vet, missing one arm, one leg, and one eye, who develops a vendetta against a rich oilman after Heard's beach-bum friend, played by Jeff Bridges, sees him commit a murder (or something like that). The film is sort of about the "revenge of the downtrodden" on the wealthy, and Heard's performance demonstrates like none other in his career just how GOOD an actor he was. It's something you'd be forgiven for not noticing, otherwise, since he's seldom cast in roles that ask him to do much. He's not bad, ever - I guess he's okay in Paul Schrader's Cat People, too - but Cutter's Way is the film that really lets him act to the outer ranges of his acting ability; it stands to his career as Prince of the City does to Treat Williams'. It's a must-see, if you've missed it.

I have one other death-themed thing I'm working on, but I'm not sure how I feel about it... I've been kind of "too busy to blog," but I had to come here and pay my respects, briefly. RIP John Heard and George A. Romero.

Of Robyn Hitchcock, John Fogerty, and the Age of the Selfie


Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, by the great bev davies, not to be reused without permission. Note: I make almost no mention of the Psychedelic Furs below, but there are some vintage bev davies photos of the band in Vancouver here!

Sometimes, I don't enjoy a concert for reasons that make no sense to the people I tell about it (and which have very little to do with the artist in question). I don't always write about these experiences, because there's always a strong feeling of "maybe it's just me," and it seems like bad form to put the blame on any artist associated with the show.

Take John Fogerty at Deer Lake Park some ten years ago (almost exactly, in fact). I brought my uncle, who had come to town to visit his brother, my father, who was slowly dying of cancer. An ex (one I am on good terms with and was glad to see) was there with her new man. Esteemed colleague Adrian Mack was there. Hell, a whole park full of people were there, all of them apparently having a great time - certainly everyone I talked to did. And I cannot really fault Fogerty at all for my not being one of them: he smiled and played a long and energetic set (including unexpected tunes like "Ramble Tamble," the inclusion of which I recall impressed Mack a bunch). He looked great (are those his real teeth?), and said "how y'all doin'" to us a few times (which the Reverend Horton Heat - AKA Jim Heath - had once coached Vancouver audiences into responding to with a big "fuck you," since - he explained - it's one of the laziest ways to get applause you can resort to; Jim actually DRILLED us in this response one night at the Commodore some time ago, rather to my delight, so much so that I considered whipping it out myself that day at Deer Lake. I was pretty sure doing so would get me in trouble, though). Fogerty maybe didn't seem to be that SINCERE in his engagement with the event - for all I knew he was growling inside himself the whole time, because we gather he's a somewhat growly guy, about wanting to get off the stage or how applause is bullshit or blah blah; he could have been hating the whole experience, for all I knew. But if he was, he didn't let it show: he worked hard as hell and played his hits and some surprises and did it all well, and if he was maybe faking it a little - he did seem to be - it wasn't glaringly obvious. So I couldn't really justify the bad taste it left in my mouth, or my grumpy mood when it was all over.

In the end, I decided it wasn't on Fogerty at all. It was the fault of the audience. Though it was, properly speaking, not "the age of the selfie," back in July 2007, there was already a sort of narcissism that wafted off the crowd that day: the event, for them, seemed to be not about the music, but about themselves, being there to experience it. That's my theory, anyhow: going to the show was about standing in the aura of stardom, and more than that, the aura of 1960's rockstardom, and celebrating their own beauty and significance, their own participation in the lineage of that music, their being dressed up and seen and sharing the experience with their peers looking good amongst them, which the music and the artist only existed to facilitate. I couldn't help but think to myself how DIFFERENT the context of reception was from that in which the music of CCR had initially functioned (I presume; maybe rock music always has a bit of narcissism in it, but it's hard not to view the 1960's as some time very other, more sincere, authentic, engaged).

That same sort of narcissism, ten years later, could do something to explain why, a couple of nights ago at the Commodore - and very much in the age of the selfie - several hundred people, perhaps the majority of the audience, talked ceaselessly through Robyn Hitchcock's set, creating a background din of considerable depth and thickness (though because it was a bigger and better-attended venue, it was nothing akin to the wince-fest of the Wreckless Eric show at the Astoria which I wrote about here last year, then removed from the blog at Eric's request). "Why pay money to go to a show if you're going to talk all the way through it?" my wife observed, afterwards - a thought I've often had myself - but the sad answer is that a lot of people, in fact, don't pay money to go to a show to hear the music, these days; they go to be there, to be seen there, to partake in the "significance" of the event, and to have some of it conferred upon them, they hope. It is all about celebrating yourself; it has absolutely nothing to do with hearing music, which is a secondary, inconsequential aspect of the evening. You don't need to pay attention to anything external to you at all in order to pose for a selfie, it is just you and the camera and the thousands of people you imagine looking at the photo afterwards and being impressed. 

I don't remember it being like that, at all, when I saw Mr. Hitchcock at the Town Pump back in the 1990's, with NO FUN opening. It was a more intimate venue - as indeed RH acknowledged between songs, suggesting the next time he comes to town it will be at a "place like the Town Pump." (It prompted me to shout "Jimi Hendrix," riffing on my favourite memory of one of his shows there, but if he heard me or recalled the moment, he didn't let it show; some wag that night had called exactly that out when Robyn asked if we had any requests, and after drily retorting on the extreme unlikelihood that Hendrix would manifest on stage, Hitchcock proceeded to play an impromptu version of "And the Wind Cries Mary," which he obviously only half-knew, such that the audience occasionally shouted out chords to him when he couldn't recall them - one of the funniest, most inspired, and most memorable bits of "interactive performance" I have ever witnessed). Thinking back to the other night - I guess the past is always subject to idealization - it seemed to me that people knew how to listen better then; that they wanted to listen, that in fact, THEY HAD COME (mostly) to listen. Maybe it was never thus, maybe narcissism and "I was there"-ism have always been present in the rock transaction, but it seems to me now that it wasn't like that so much then.

It sure was like that last night

Of course, Hitchcock, going on mostly solo around 9pm (with some vocal support from a "Garfunkel" named Sean, I think) was blameless. He played brilliantly; there were some unfortunate loud pops from his guitar plug in, but he soldiered through and in fact kind of blew me away with his guitarcraft, which is not something I'd ever paid much attention to before (I'm more interested in him as a songwriter than player, but I was quite impressed by his flying fingers and his raga-moments; he had seemed a bit creaky when playing the opening tune, "I Pray When I'm Drunk," the most Merle Haggard-y song on the new album, but he warmed up really fast). Hitchcock was perhaps less chatty than he is at one of his own shows - I gather he was quite warm and friendly at the Biltmore last year, a show I missed due to illness - and his set was relatively short, but he sang songs that he obviously has a great investment in (a few of which I did not know, but there were three or four off the new album, plus a lovely reading of "Madonna of the Wasps," and a surprise inclusion of "Balloon Man" - a song we gather he is tired of, but which made perfect sense as a crowd-pleaser for a crowd running on nostalgia, since it is one of his bigger hits, and which I didn't mind hearing at all, since I am not tired of it). For me the high point was that he played "My Wife and My Dead Wife," which my living wife (I don't have a dead wife) knows from having heard David M. perform it a few years ago at Slickity Jim's; it was an even bigger treat in that David M. was standing with us last night, watching the same show. I'd bought him a ticket to thank him for performing at our wedding. Of course, it was doubly fitting that I had first seen David play live (with NO FUN) opening for Robyn Hitchcock at that very Town Pump show I mentioned (I gather Pico was in the house last night, too, since her boyfriend apparently was).

No, there was nothing that Hitchcock did that bothered me. He maybe was working hard to please - he spent nearly as much time as he was onstage at the merch table signing CDs, afterwards including one for me (The Man Upstairs, with him doing covers of the Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, and the Doors among his originals; I'm really glad to have it!). He was quite generous with fans, posing with total strangers for selfies. It seems to be increasingly an expectation of artists that they do that, that they break down the barrier with fans and meet them; Michael Gira, Lee Ranaldo, Pere Ubu and a ton of other bands I've seen come through town have made a point of making themselves available. In fact, one of the few shows I've been at in years where the artist wasn't hanging out to sign things or such - who actually declined the request - was Richard Thompson, who somehow impressed me for going against the grain (even though I had brought a Shoot Out the Lights LP to ask him to sign it; go figure).

In any event: I didn't really enjoy the night, and on consideration, once again, I think it comes down to the audience. There was a standout, telltale moment when I knew I was in the wrong place, in fact. I had gone back to the front of the stage to try to seek out David M., having left him there to go get a CD. As I weaved my way to the front of the crowd - seeing no M. anywhere - the house speakers started in with Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." And the crowd cheered (cheered for CANNED MUSIC, more loudly than they'd cheered for Robyn Hitchcock) and some of them began to dance enthusiastically, gyrating to that bass riff...

...And suddenly I was back in Deer Lake Park, grumpy all over again. Surely some of the people dancing to Depeche Mode had been the same people who talked through Hitchcock's set. And suddenly I really, really, really didn't want to be among them. 

By the time the Psychedelic Furs took the stage, I was in no mood. It wasn't improved at all by them looking EXACTLY like I'd imagined they would look; but they sounded fine, and hey, now I can say I've seen them, too (for half a song). Again, no judgment is implied: I'm glad to have reevaluated the band - an underrated group with some fantastic popcraft, even in their hits (though check out that first album sometime if you haven't, it's quite a bit darker and edgier than songs like "Heaven" or "Love My Way," more of an undergound new wave kind of thing, and just fantastic). As they delivered "Dumb Waiters," I think it was, I gave up my attempts to get Mr. Hitchcock's attention. I'd wanted to tell him that David M was in the house, ask if he remembered NO FUN, but he was, it seemed, uncomfortable with the "I want to talk to you" vibe I was projecting, had made eye contact with me a couple of times and looked away. I wasn't going to press the matter and add to his stressors. Plus Erika and I were both sore and tired after a long day at work, and both of us having to get up at 7am. We left; it was fine. The evening was worth it insofar as I closed a circle that began when I saw NO FUN open for Robyn Hitchcock some 25 or 30 years ago, by bringing David to the show. It was further worth it for Erika getting to hear Robyn sing a song she knew from David. And it was worth it, I suppose, to confirm once again that I really don't enjoy rock concerts that much anymore, and need to choose the ones I go to carefully. 

It did help me in appreciating the new Robyn Hitchcock album, mind you. I have now progressed past the obvious and immediate favourites on the album - "I Want to Tell You What I Want" and "I Pray When I'm Drunk," both on the set last night - and now am fascinated by the suicide-themed "Virginia Woolf" and the more elusive "Sayonara, Judge," one of the more haunting and ethereal tunes on the disc. Seeing a few of these songs performed live also helped me understand a couple of lyrics I'd been mishearing - that he sings about competing to shoot blood "furthest" into "the mouths of our cannibal overlords" rather than "first," and that in fact it is "Mad Shelley's Letterbox," not "My Chinese Letterbox," as I'd been mishearing it. There are still songs that are wholly mysterious to me on the album, that haven't given up their riches yet, but I fully intend to keep listening to it until I love every minute of it equally.

Finally, an amusing note: having thought cynical thoughts the whole time I was at the merch table about people wanting to take photos with a total stranger, and having resisted the urge to take a single photograph myself of the night - let alone a video - it turns out that Erika, while I briefly interacted with Robyn Hitchcock, was snapping photos of her own, of the two of us, as he signed my CD. Here are my favourites:




What is funnier still is that on David M's Facebook page, photographer Dan Harbord also posted a photo of Robyn Hitchcock where, if you look to the right, it is unmistakeably me, standing next to David M. (whose head is identified as Erika's, but I believe she is either not visible or visible as a glimpse of cheek on the far side of me). I didn't ASK for a single photo of myself at this show! I was trying to feel SUPERIOR to the people who were asking for photos of themselves at this show, for fucksake! And now I have more photos of me at this show than I have of me at any other concert I've been to in years. I have so many photos of me at this show I feel like the Pointed Sticks should have been taking some, too.

Photo by Dan Harbord, hope he doesn't mind my using it!

Speaking of being seen, I didn't see the Pointed Sticks, but I did see Tim Chan, Danny Nowak, and Dave Bowes in the audience. Hi to all of them. Hope you enjoyed yourselves, and I'd be very curious to hear how the rest of the evening went, as I grumped off home, muttering about "audiences these days." The nice thing about seeing local shows - like David M's upcoming Lilith for Dudes dates! - is that the people who aren't there to hear the music are usually just drunks who didn't pay to to get in, who are fair game for heckling and sometimes bring their own unusual dynamic to the event. I'd much rather see a show amongs a bunch of drunk working guys who don't give a shit about the band than a bunch of self-important selfie-takers, actually (though I'll take a devoted and attentive audience over either, any time).

Note: David M. has TWO SHOWS coming up this week, one in Vancouver, with added drunks, and one in New West, with no one but his friends and collaborators! Come see them! I will be at at least one of them! And they're probably even FREE!



Friday, July 14, 2017

I love Okja


I have seen three Bong Joon Ho movies now. I have seen The Host twice, once when the director personally introduced it at the VIFF a few years ago, to the cheers of a stunned, mostly-Korean audience who would never get to see him in so intimate a setting back home; and Snowpiercer once. I am glad to say that I loved Okja, his newest film, now streaming on Netflix, because I can't say I loved either of his other films that I've seen.

I kind of hated The Host, in fact. Despite all the esteem slathered on it, and much as I WANTED to like a Korean monster-movie eco-thriller that took a bite out of American practices overseas, it couldn't keep me from seeing the whole film, ultimately - thanks to its ending - as an engine by which an incompetent dad trades in a troublesome daughter he can't raise well for a much more welcome boychild. If you've missed it, the majority of the film involves a young girl protecting a younger boy from a river-dwelling giant mutant fish-thing while her family searches for her. That the daughter is, after considerable heroism, ultimately sacrificed - in a climax that teases us with her expected survival, then denies us - seemed a grossout betrayal of the audience, morally suspect in the way other child-deaths in movies haven't been (say, in The Mist, where it is utterly necessary to the narrative, if heartbreaking... Funnily enough I have no such problem with the ending of another well-made Korean genre film, Train to Busan, by which a father is sacrificed to protect his child; but what can I say, adult men are less objectionable as sacrificial offerings than little girls). That the father obviously takes to having a boy to raise instead of a girl makes it all the worse. The film was received with so much enthusiasm - with various Korean students of mine assuring me that I had misunderstood the film's intentions - that I actually watched it again, to no different effect; I enjoy much of the film, but that ending just pisses me off to no end.

Still, I was reasonably excited to see the director's cut of Bong's English-language debut, Snowpiercer, when it screened at the Vancity Theatre. I didn't find it objectionable, as I did The Host, but I can't say I enjoyed it; it didn't really satisfy me either as a thriller or political parable, and the ending, once again, proved its weakest point, with a crappy CGI polar bear taking me out of the film's world, in its last minutes, and into the land of cola commercials. That film I have felt no desire to revisit; the peak of the movie is the discovery that the food that the lower-class passengers have been eating is ground up cockroaches, which is, in a way, quite a rational emergency-measure foodstuff, while managing to be even less appealing than that other great proposed "mystery food" of the future, Soylent Green. I'd have to think long and hard about which I wanted to snack on, and thought it an inspired bit of filmmaking, but that doesn't make me want to revisit the movie just yet.

But there's obvious skill in what Bong Joon Ho does. Tarantino has compared him to Spielberg, and that seems apt, particularly given that Korean mainstream cinema borrows heavily on the filmic languages of Hollywood. I've been more excited by Park Chan Wook's movies, that I've seen, but I have also not seen the two films of Bong's that are his supposed masterpieces, Memories of Murder and Mother. It could easily be exactly the same with him as it is with Spielberg, really: maybe he only has a couple of films in his body of work that I will love (as with Jaws or Jurassic Park II) and some that I hold in contempt (Schindler's List). I might just not have seen the right movies.

Okja - Bong's new international co-production, reuniting him with Tilda Swinton (who co-stars and co-produces), and now screening on Netflix, who funded it - is the first Bong Joon Ho film I can say I loved. Having spent a few days sick at home, I got fed up of my past M.O. of saving good movies for watching with Erika, and tried in vain to get a whole sitting of Okja in on Thursday. I couldn't do it. I watched for something like 40 minutes - until the appearance of Steven Yeun (Glen of The Walking Dead). Finally I sighed and stopped: it was too good not to share.

Everything about the film is delightful - though at times dark. And watching the first third twice was welcome, and made me love the movie all the more.

Mind you, Okja deals with horrifying themes. It is not exactly a downer movie - there's a lot of feel-good stuff, a lot of humour, a lot of exciting action - Netflix describes it as an "action comedy" in its menu, and you can see why - but underneath that all, it is a story of mutant GMO animals raised by an amoral corporation, obviously meant to figure Monsanto, for human consumption, despite the fact that these animals (more hippo than pig) are strikingly intelligent, sensitive, and loyal creatures (as is the case with many domesticated animals, in fact). Its climax - this might be a mild spoiler, but you can kind of see it coming - takes place in a slaughterhouse, and draws on what might be the most morally interesting use of CGI technology ever. I suspect it would be very hard to get most viewers, outside of animal rights activists or the hardiest of cinephiles to sit down to footage of actual animals being slaughtered. I won't be trying to sit Erika down to Workingman's Death, or Blood of Beasts, or In a Year with 13 Moons, or, god help us all, Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat (the late Zev Asher's masterpiece, which contains no actual slaughterhouse footage, but which has a slaughterhouse at its moral centre; I have praised the film in her presence and gotten understandably horrified reactions, even more extreme than when I've tried to suggest we watch Devor and Mudede's Zoo). But in Okja, CGI allows us to go into a slaughterhouse where the fictional mutant superpigs are being killed. It adds just enough unreality to the proceedings that you can be confronted with the "realities" of a slaughterhouse in a safe, unreal way - something I am unaware of any other filmmaker having yet even attempted, to use CGI to present viewers with a reality most wouldn't dare look at otherwise. I think this is an important move: though I am not a vegan or even a vegetarian, I am a conflicted omnivore who believes vegans are my ethical and moral superior; and I think that if you're going to consume meat - this echoes arguments raised in Casuistry, actually - you should at least LOOK AT WHAT YOU'RE DOING, get over the denial, hypocrisy and sanitization that goes into the neat plastic packages of bloody animal flesh you buy. Even better if you kill the animal yourself: you're at least paying the full price for knowingly participating in the consumption of flesh. It is somehow less distasteful to me than lying to yourself and just chowing down on meat that has been all cleaned up and packaged by others; if you can't look killing in the face, you probably shouldn't be eating meat at all.

Another remarkable thing that Okja does requires an even bigger spoiler (you're safe for now, though).  The film deals with the relationship between one such mutant superpig who is raised in Korea, as part of an international PR move, and a little girl, Mija (a terrific Ahn Seo Hyun) who loves her and has a special degree of communication with her (Okja is, likably, female). As is the way in Korean cinema - which sometimes has a Mishima-like fixation on the moral purity of the young versus the corrupted compromises of adulthood - the girl is devastated to learn than her grandfather has been lying to her about Okja's fate, which is that she will be shipped off to America for slaughter when she's fully grown. There's more to it than that - a lot more, involving the ALF (lead by Paul Dano and The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun, making the most of his bilingualism)  and a debauched TV host (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a role so outrageous he seems to be channeling Sacha Baron Cohen). But, like I say, we end up in a slaughterhouse. People who share with me an aversion to Bong's The Host might reasonably be worried that the whole thing could end in a gigantic bummer. If you want to watch the film under the shadow of that worry, read no further, but - spoilertime - what's really great about the way the ending of Okja is structured is that while it DOES allow for a happy ending, in which Okja is allowed to return to South Korea with Mija, this isn't a comforting cure-all. Unlike the usual "special animal" movie pattern, where the success of an exceptional relationship between a human and an animal is offered as part of the heartwarming denial of the millions of animals slaughtered for meat each year, we are only allowed our "happy ending" to Okja at the cost of going INTO the slaughterhouse and confronting the reality that a vast herd of animals every bit as intelligent, caring, and sophisticated as Okja are going to die. (Actually I guess there are shades of Schindler's List here, except without Liam Neeson chewing the scenery about a pen he might have sold, or Spielberg himself appearing in the film to pat himself on the back over Schindler's grave). So you end up with a feelgood movie that is nonetheless morally challenging, and might still find yourself feeling a bit ambivalent about your bacon the next morning, if you haven't already given up eating meat...

There's lots else I could say about Okja - the creature itself is delightful, perhaps the most wondrous fictional animal to appear onscreen since Totoro, who seems to get a nod in a particular scene, where Mija is sleeping on her belly; and the film is deftly paced and fun throughout - but the above elements are the main reasons I loved the movie, and heartily recommend it.... though I might add that I was pleasantly surprised to see it was co-authored by Jon Ronson, best known for The Men Who Stare at Goats, but whose best book is probably Them: Adventures with Extremists, which contains his story of David Icke's controversial last attempt to speak in Vancouver - he is back again this September - and of his "investigating" Bohemian Grove with Alex Jones, who is presented - somewhat fondly - as a bullhorn-waving lunatic. It's a great read, though there's not much in it that will remind you of Okja. 

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Waking thoughts: Omar Khadr versus Nietzsche's master morality

Congratulations to Omar Khadr.

There's a strange dynamic going on with the powerful - more easily observed in a country slightly south of us, but also present here in Canada, where, threatened by changes in the world, the ruling classes are clinging all the more fervently to the reigns of power, and behaving in increasingly neurotic and destructive ways, resenting anything that could destabilize their regimes.

Witness, for a recent local example, the last days of Christy Clark's Premiership, as she flailingly tried to bribe the public with promises of all the money she could throw at them, while attempting to manipulate the mechanisms of power so she could remain Premier a few weeks longer. She wanted to drink from the cup to the last drop, wasn't going to let it go without a fight, because, clearly, being Premier gave her access to perks she knew she wouldn't have otherwise. I'm not corrupt, wealthy, or connected enough to know exactly what those perks might have been but she sure wasn't wanting to cling to power because of a humble, self-sacrificing determination to continue serving the people of BC.

The whole thing makes me think of Nietzsche - poor old mad Nietzsche, with his absurd mustache, crippling migraines, and somewhat pathetic desire to see himself as an aristocrat. He was, in a way, brilliant - positing that master morality and slave morality are very different things; except that in his desire to be part of the elite, his analysis skews master morality - which he conceives, more or less, as the overflowing abundance, creativity, and generosity of those who experience power and wish to express the joy it brings - to the positive, while slave morality (the weak's desire to protect themselves by positing institutions that keep the rich, or even others among the poor, from doing harm to them) is seen as something craven, contemptible and (Nietzsche would shudder with disdain) Christian.

Alas, democracy is the stuff of slave morality. We live in a slave morality world. Our laws and public institutions are all about the weak protecting themselves, which is why they're so often at odds with the whims of the wealthy and powerful. You can find examples in anything from courts repeatedly knocking down Trump's travel ban to the idiot caught speeding his Ferrari over the Lion's Gate bridge the other day, whose driver's license was rightly taken away for a longer-than-usual time. Our laws and institutions are often specifically designed to keep those who have wealth and power from abusing it - which is as it should be, because the Trumps of the world can do a great deal of damage if left unchecked. Even the jackass in the Ferrari stood to do more harm than some skid ripping off your car or stealing your CDs or whatnot.

What Nietzsche misses wholesale in his analysis - as far as I've seen, anyhow - is that master morality often contains within it a neurotic, destructive, and ugly side: the need for the wealthy to protect their wealth from any perceived threat. Like an animal standing over his kill, looking around nervously between bites to make sure no other, bigger animals are coming to take it away, the wealthy KNOW they've got it good, know that they have access to privileges that they could, if things go wrong, lose. That's why they fight to keep their position: they know its ephemeral, know its unusual, know its exceptional; but they LIKE it. So while the "slaves" of the world - I count myself - push for laws and institutions which will protect us and ensure public safety, the rich will try to impose a different set of laws, which shore up their power base and make it less vulnerable.

One of the things they have to defend against, one of the things that makes the "masters" particularly vulnerable, is their own excess. Nothing is as threatening to the powerful as being caught in the wrong, since it is being wrong about things that most often leads to punishment - like being stripped of your powers and sent to bed without supper (or deprived of your driver's license for a maddeningly long period of time).

So when the rulers of a nation are threatened by (perhaps deranged but nonetheless influential) populist/ nationalist movements dangerously close to their oil supply - one of the key sources of their wealth - the wealthy might start wars, create special prisons, dispense with due process, and start torturing people in the name of protecting their position. All of these things are transparently bad ideas, which anyone more likely to end up in such a prison than to find themselves running it will realize quite quickly. But once you've got these institutions in place - once you are transparently IN THE WRONG about how the world should be run, as America has been since the institution of Guantanamo Bay,  your grip on power becomes all the more precarious. To admit that you are wrong, to even be honest about what you've been doing, is dangerous. You have to lie about it, have to disguise it, because if you are caught in the wrong, well... you're screwed.

There isn't anything much wronger in this world than imprisoning and torturing a child.

If you've been disagreeing with me on any of this, stop and read that sentence again. Let it sink in, past whatever you've heard on Fox News, past whatever spin you've seen put on this story by the Harper administration (or even the Globe and Mail). Omar Khadr, when captured, was a child,  a victim of his parents' extremism. He was deprived of any semblance of due process, sent to a place where he was tortured for years and from which he doubtlessly feared he would never return. (If you're in any way unclear about any of this, there's an excellent documentary called You Don't LIke the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo that will hopefully change your mind; it's very educational and contains actual footage from Khadr's detention, taken from security camera footage; every Canadian should see it). If he indeed threw a grenade that killed a medic, it was in the context of defending his family from a siege of their compound, which a fifteen year old with jihadi parents was in no position to understand or resist; more importantly, the fact that he confessed to having done so, as a precondition on his ever being allowed to leave Gitmo, is no more meaningful than the condition placed on the West Memphis Three of having to admit to the crimes for which they'd been wrongly imprisoned as a precondition on ever being allowed to walk free. It's an ass-covering move, part of a propaganda war, akin to the "criminal record" Khadr has found waiting for him in Canada, which makes bizarre references to things like a "criminal youth court" in Guantanamo Bay. Excuse me? Such moves are nothing more (and nothing less) than evidence of a sort of forward-thinking mendacity on the part of the powerful, since they give sympathetic, right-leaning journalists tools to spin public opinion, allowing them to describe Khadr as a confessed war criminal in their editorials, where they, like Nietzsche, can suck up to the people they're hoping to curry favour with. Seems like horseshit to me, and likely to you, too - everyone I know on Facebook seems to be on the same page about Khadr, at least - but there are a lot of ill-informed people in the world these days, acting on very partial information, believing and doing some very confused things.

In fact, what really offends me in all this, almost as much as the fact that the Canadian government under Harper stood by and let it all happen, is that Khadr should be described by his Gitmo tribunal as a war criminal. It's an insult to language, common sense, and decency. While the invasion of Afghanistan in which Khadr was captured may not have been a war crime - unlike, say, the invasion of Iraq, by the same administration - the use of torture and enhanced interrogation, the suspension of due process - indefinite detention without trial or recourse to the rule of law - in an institution like Guantanamo Bay (still up and running, despite all of Obama's gum-flapping, with at least 41 detainees there) is surely that. Worse, subjecting a child to torture in such an institution - for both the Canadian and American government to disregard Khadr's rights as they did - is a further war crime. It is perversity in the extreme to call Khadr a war criminal; he is the victim of a war crime.

It is the start of justice for Khadr to receive money in compensation. As a friend on Facebook has rightly pointed out - a friend who has apparently since deleted her post, so I'll refrain from naming her - this isn't just about Khadr, either: it's about the failure of law in Canada, and a symbolic appeasement to all who might be concerned that such a thing could happen, who realize that if our institutions fail us, we too might be subject to such treatment.

The masters aren't done with their neurotic, evil flailings; but the compensation given to Khadr for his treatment - like the identical amount previously given another Canadian, Maher Arar - is a step in the right direction.

Congratulations, Omar Khadr. (And welcome back to Canada and to freedom).