Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Shakespeare… My Butt

Local webmag SoundProof recently polled local music-types asking for their top 20 Toronto albums of all time – I was asked to participate but it’s not a question I’ve ever really thought about so I wasn’t able to get a decent response together by their deadline and so the the final list lacks my input.

The exercise is interesting but the results rather dubious, with some of my main points of contention based more on the basis of whether I’d consider an act particularly “Torontonian” rather than their actual musical merit. For example, The Constantines are from Guelph and Guelph is not Toronto (as every Guelphie will tell you) and while Feist may have a mailing address here, she’s from Calgary originally and makes her records in France (I won’t comment on both her last two albums being included). And when I think of Neil Young, I simply think of Canada – and if I had to narrow it down to a city, it’d probably be Winnipeg.

But Toronto. Reading over the comments in the pertinent posts at Torontoist and Zoilus offer some good and lively discussion on the topic and for my part, I find it unfathomable that any such list would exclude records like Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet’s Savvy Show Stoppers or ANY Blue Rodeo (I would submit Diamond Mine, for the record). But most glaring is the omission of what is for me, for all time, the most ineffably Torontonian record ever – The Lowest Of The Low’s Shakespeare… My Butt.

It cannot be overstated how important this record was, and if I think about it probably still is, to me. Released in 1991, it didn’t reach my ears till 1992 when local “alt” radio station CFNY was playing it hard (there was a time when radio was actually a good way to discover new, local talent. Seriously.) and their blend of folk and rock served with punk attitude and literary lyricism that was simultaneously sardonic and heartfelt, personal and political, was like a light going off in my head like a million-watt bulb. The bands I’d loved to this point – the REMs, the U2s – were wonderful but they were international superstars, they belonged to the world. For a 17-year old kid in the suburbs of Toronto, the Low were real and local and they were mine alone.

They sang about life in a Toronto from a barstool in Sneaky Dee’s, about doomed romantic liasons on Bathurst St, about wasting days under the Carlaw Bridge. Places that I knew of or had even been to or by, and yet were made mythical through these songs. Theirs was the Toronto I wanted to live in, writing manifestos on bathroom walls, playing in bands and drinking away UI cheques whilst debating the Spanish civil war… and instead I got an engineering degree in the city that gave the world the Blackberry, learned I had the capacity for alcohol of a 12-year old and I’ve still never been to The Only. But I digress. I literally wore out my cassette of Shakespeare… in high school and though technically the CD should have been better, with it’s two extra tracks, it lacked the perfect side A/side B sequencing, with the former closing on Ron Hawkins’ solo performance on “Subversives” and the latter opening with the note-perfect heartbreaker of “Bleed A Little While Tonight”, a song that still rends me a little every time listen to it. I can still hear the auto-reverse on my cassette deck tripping between those two songs.

They were the first band I went out of my way to see live, starting with the Canada Day 1993 Edgefest. I went on my own and spent the day perched on one of the concrete supports of the old Ontario Place Forum, watching the cream of the Canadian indie scene at the time (The Waltons, The Watchmen, Crash Vegas, hHead, Odds amongst others) play on the venue’s revolving stage. It’s not exaggerating to say they would be the soundtrack of my life for the next couple years, not to mention a staple of my wardrobe – the “High In The Low ’90s” t-shirt I got at that Edgefest got worn almost to rags, and even then I remember one night at the Horseshoe six years ago or so a guy offered to buy it off my back. True story.

But they weren’t just mine, and as their profile and fanbase grew, they eventually signed a deal with A&M Records – a big deal for a band that had flown the indie banner so long and proud – and the resulting record, Hallucegenia, was released in early 1994. It got a bad rap at the time for reasons both musical and not, deserved and not. Some of it was the predictable “sellout” backlash but it’s true the record simply wasn’t as good as Shakespeare. While there’s still some stone-cold classics on it, Hallucegenia was darker and more riff-rocking and lyrically, it seemed that the band’s romanticism was turning a bit cynical. The tension evident on the record reflected the interpersonal dynamic of the band and in September of 1994, just over a week before they were due to play my university, the band split. I was gutted beyond words and for the next four years, the bus-shelter sized poster for that cancelled show was a staple of my bedroom wall wherever I lived. But as disappointed as I was, there was a part of me that appreciated the quintessentially rock’n’roll arc of the band’s career and that they’d burned out without anyone having to die.

Post-Low, lead singer/songwriter Ron Hawkins went on to a decent solo career, both under his own name and fronting his new band The Rusty Nails – his pen remained sharp and they were entertaining live, but for me and others – and unfairly so – he was never able to escape the shadow of the Low. The other guitarist Stephen Stanley, whose limited songwriting contributions to the two albums were always highlights, was said to be working on solo material forever but it never seemed to surface and bassist John Arnott started a new band called The Pollyannas from whom I think I still have a CD kicking around somewhere. But mostly the band became a fond memory and Shakespeare fell out of heavy rotation in my listening, replaced by newer, more “now” records. Time, as they say, munched on.

And then in 2000, unexpectedly, I got an email from a friend of mine asking me if I was getting tickets for the Lowest Of The Low reunion show. At first I thought it was a joke or a mistake, but indeed – hell had frozen over and they were getting the band back together for a one-off show at the Warehouse in November of that year. And while it’s true you can’t go home again, for that one night I did and it was amazing – I’d finally gotten that show they’d cancelled on me six years prior. I even got another LOTL t-shirt to potentially wear to death over the next five years.

But the buzz didn’t last – I was in the midst of discovering a slew of new bands from around the world (the internet was finally being useful) and it didn’t seem fashionable to devote valuable listening time to a band I’d loved in my high school days and who hardly rated as cool amongst the hip and beautiful indie kids whom I’d wished as my peers. The Lowest Of The Low shirt with the weiner dog on it seemed like it’d be out of place amongst the suits and skinny ties at the Britpop dance parties so it mostly stayed in the closet. And when the reunion ended up sticking, yielding first the Nothing Short Of A Bullet live record in 2001 and then the third album of new material, Sordid Fiction, in 2004, I gave them a pass. Partly because of what I think was the band’s perceived (lack of) fashionability, and more legitimately, a fear of watering down the perfect legacy they had in my memory. Whether this opinion was justified, I can’t really say – I still haven’t heard the new album and I’ve missed enough live shows since the reunion that the 1994 me would be tearing his hair out in disbelief. And while the band remains technically intact – John Arnott has apparently again left the band and there are two new additions, making it a five piece – it’s currently on hiatus while the band pursues solo projects. Stanley’s solo record That Thin, Wild Mercury came out in 2003 and Hawkins released a new solo record Chemical Sounds earlier this year.

But since I began thinking of doing this post, I’ve been spinning the first two records and goddamn do they hold up. I’m sure part of that is thanks to the petroleum jellied lens of nostalgia but also these songs are just that good. I still know all the words, unconscious and by heart, even the ones I got wrong, and could probably still botch the opening solo to “Bleed A Little While Tonight” just as well as I could fifteen years ago. And as I listened and reminisced, I had to wonder if this album was released today, if it’d still capture the hearts and minds of myself and Toronto as it did a decade and a half ago? Or would it be too simple and straightforward to catch on with the hyperkinetic and ADD nature of the present-day zeitgeist? Maybe it’s me being naive, but I’d like to think it would. This three-fingered devil salute goes out to the Lowest Of The Low. I’m wearing the weiner dog shirt to work today.

Chart, who’d always given the Low the respect they deserve including naming Shakespeare the 6th greatest Canadian album ever in 2000, found out what the band did with their “lost” years prior to the six-night club crawl they staged in 2001 on the occasion of the record’s 10th anniversary .

MP3: The Lowest Of The Low – “Bleed A Little While Tonight” (from Shakespeare… My Butt)
MP3: The Lowest Of The Low – “Subversives” (from Shakespeare… My Butt)
MP3: The Lowest Of The Low – “The Dogs Of February” (from Hallucegenia)
MP3: The Lowest Of The Low – “The Unbearable Lightness Of Jean” (live) (from Motel 30 single)
Video: The Lowest Of The Low – “The Last Recidivist” (YouTube) (from Sordid Fiction)
MySpace: The Lowest Of The Low

And while I’m waxing nostalgic about the Toronto that used to be and never was, a moment of silence for the Sam The Record Man flagship store on Yonge St which closed up forever this past Saturday. Like many, their Boxing Day sales were an annual tradition for me through the ’90s and I’ve bought a lot there over the years (though nothing since last Fall, I don’t think). Their demise doesn’t come as much of a surprise but it was still a sad day. The Toronto Star bid the local institution farewell as well as wondering what this means for record shopping in general while The National Post bids the store – and music shops as a whole – good riddance. Which is why people hate The National Post.

By : Frank Yang at 8:19 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. Jack says:

    National Post scribe: the staff at Sam’s were "working class". I sure hope he didn’t drop his monocle in his brandy snifter, over the appalling manners of the proletariat….

  2. Thierry says:

    Shouldn’t it read "1994" and not "2004" in that Lowest of the Low piece? Unless you will still be having that "bus-shelter sized poster" on your bedroom wall in 2008…

  3. Frank says:

    shut up, Cote. You’re banned from all contests from now on. BANNED.

  4. annie z says:

    what a great post! i loved reading this. thanks, frank.

  5. barclay says:

    nice work. there’s a lot of cultural amnesia on that list, and it’s nice to see people responding and taking up individual causes.
    this is indeed a quintessential toronto album, one that struck a deep chord in many. someone actually once sent me an unpublished novel loosely based on the low. i don’t know what went wrong with the reunion album–you’re not missing much there–but it didn’t measure up even to the solo album ron hawkins put out just before it. no matter, some bands really do only have one major spurt of brilliance, and there’s nothing wrong with that. one amazing album that speaks to so many people is much more than 99% of other artists can conjure up.

    and i highly recommend the weekend brunch at the only. it’s right at donlands station.

  6. xcanuck says:

    A great look back at the Low, Frank. But I’m disappointed you gave them a pass based "Partly because of what I think was the band’s perceived (lack of) fashionability…". Good music doesn’t always come from the fashionable or those otherwise anoited by the hipsters. And if you gave them a pass, you missed out on some find music in "Sordid Fiction" and some great shows. Did you catch the workshop they did with The Weakerthans at Hillside a few years back? Shame on you if you missed out on one of the best shows of that fabled weekend.

    I saw them last summer in Buffalo and they stated that they were going back on hiatus so my criticisms are moot, perhaps. I don’t want to detract from a nicely written post – just expressing some disappointment that "fashionability" plays a part in determining who you listen to (or worse, don’t).

  7. Frank says:

    the "fashionability" comment was past tense – I admit that was a factor in my not keeping up with the reunion proceedings six or seven years ago. I’m older and wiser now, hence this post. I hadn’t even listened to Shakespeare before last week for months, maybe even years, but now I can’t stop.

  8. Bob says:

    I always enjoy reading your blog but this was probably my favourite post to date. The incredibly articulate way in which you express your love of music always makes me envious and this post in particular brought me back to a great time for Canadian music. I remember when 102.1 was THE BEST place to go for new music. Hard to believe now. LOTL, along with Northern Pikes, Grapes of Wrath and TPOH were basically the soundtrack of my high school life. Thanks for taking me back Frank.

  9. David Topping says:

    <a href="…">The list that Torontoist’s staff put together for <em>SoundProof</em></a> (in the post that you linked to) totally includes <em>Shakespeare My Butt</em>. Our staff was semi-outraged when SoundProof’s list didn’t include ’em. We tried, really, we tried!

  10. David Topping says:

    Ick, sorry about the HTML Frank. You can modify as you please (this comment included).

  11. mike says:

    My one and only time seeing Lowest of the Low live was as part of the Taste of The Danforth festival in 2005. I wasn’t nearly as fanatic about them during their heyday as you were but "Shakespeare, My Butt" was one of the first Canadian indie releases I ever bought. Maybe I’ll pull it out and give it another listen.

  12. Karim Amir says:

    Sam’s gone…*sniff*
    I had some great times with my dad there in my younger days.
    Best radio station ever.

  13. Tualla says:

    Love to see a contest for the worst Toronto album. Lee Aaron? Lynx? The ‘Wine’?

    also wish that the Lost Dakotas got remembered in one of those best of lists. I still play ‘Last Train to Kipling’ every once in a while.

  14. Arn says:

    I pretty much hate Toronto and yet this post is clearly on the money (and not just because Shakespeare… coincided with my own undergrad years (in Ottawa). I saw the Low several times in O-town (even drinking, sorta, with them in the Bytown Tavern before an ear-splitting Penguin show) and they never failed to deliver a tight, electric set. Shakespeare was the apotheosis of that early-90s sound, all jangly and brushwork on the drums. And, yes, so very Toronto.