Alces alces (Moose on the Loose)

This weekend marks a few anniversaries in the Craven Hermit household.  It was eighteen years ago that I moved to Alberta to pursue a graduate degree in mechanical engineering.  The funny thing about moving away to go to school is that sometimes you forget to move back home after graduation.  I’ve now spent more of my life in Alberta than I spent on the farm in Manitoba where I grew up, which tends to blur the definition of ‘home’.

In the early 1970s, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote a song called “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” for a Detroit group called The Undisputed Truth.  Their version of the song didn’t trouble the top of the charts for long.  A year or two later, the Motown assembly line retooled “Papa” into an epic twelve-minute recording by The Temptations that took the R&B world by storm.  It features all the trademarks of the emerging funk-soul era – liquid bass lines, funky wah-wah guitar, Wurlitzer electric piano, hand claps, expansive drums, expressive vocals – the works.  Amid a dozen musical hooks, the song turns on the lyric:

Papa was a rollin’ stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone

I’m no philanderer (very far from it), but there’s something to be said for the idea of calling your primary residence your ‘home’.  Wherever you happen to find yourself in life’s rich pageant, home is the place where you can kick off your shoes, collapse onto the sofa with a cold beer, and chillax.

It was also ten years ago this weekend that I moved into my little townhouse in the suburbs.  There’s a whole shelf full of hats in the closet by the front door.  The condo fees are getting irritating and some of my neighbours are certifiably insane, but it still feels like home to me.

A lot of things have changed over the years.  When I first moved to Alberta:

  • Gasoline sold for 39.9 cents per litre;
  • A dozen decent beers sold for $12;
  • A ticket for new releases like “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump” at the movie theatre cost $5 on Tuesdays;
  • The engineering marvel known as the ‘Chunnel’ between France and England was opened;
  • A flip-to-talk cell phone was a real novelty;
  • My nicely-appointed Pentium PC had a 320 MB hard drive and a 56k dial-up modem;
  • Getting good seats for a rock show normally meant standing in line at a Ticketmaster kiosk at 6 am on Saturday morning;
  • “Loser” by Beck was at the top of the alternative rock charts;
  • Justin Bieber hadn’t yet learned how to crawl;
  • Pink Floyd was touring the world’s stadia;
  • Quebec City and Hartford still had NHL franchises;
  • Mark “Moose” Messier had just led his New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup victory.

The weather this weekend is unusually cool and cloudy, so I threw on a fleece jacket and headed out to the Strathcona Wilderness Centre for some hikes in the bush.  The place was pretty much deserted; it seemed more like a Tuesday morning in October than the Saturday of the Labour Day long weekend.  The leaden grey skies and threats of rain made the day feel more like fall than summer, even though the aspen and poplar leaves haven’t yet changed to yellow.  Adding to the autumnal ambiance was an abundance of mushrooms along the trails.  It’s been a humid summer by Alberta standards, so maybe that’s why there is a bumper crop of funky fungi like these:

One advantage of doing a wilderness walk on a sleepy Saturday is you have a better than usual chance of encountering some wildlife.  I could tell from the many hoof prints in the mud that there were moose on the loose:

Moose (Alces alces) are very shy animals.  Like white-tailed deer, moose tend to move around only at dawn and dusk and get anxious when they detect the presence of humans.  And, like the Craven Hermit, moose are solitary creatures, preferring to forage through the woods solo or in very small groups.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than three moose together at one time.  You would think that the world’s largest member of the deer family would bound gracefully through the bush, but moose look almost comical in full flight.  Their long legs and muscular shoulders are well adapted to walking through ponds and marshes in search of tasty water lilies, but when they run their limbs look like they’re going to fly off at any minute.  Moose can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, over virtually any kind of terrain, but their gait is much closer to ‘athletic’ than ‘pretty’.

About 5 km into my journey, I hiked around a corner on a hill and came upon a big cow moose on the trail.  I was down-wind and walking quietly, so I had a few moments to take in the scene.  I dug out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures before she noticed me.  This photo turned out okay, though I wish I’d remembered to bring my real camera with a proper lens and zoom:

A few seconds later, her adolescent calf emerged from the underbrush and the two of them high-tailed it into the poplars.  I kept walking for another couple of hours, but didn’t see any more woodland creatures apart from a few chipmunks and woodpeckers.  Still, crossing paths with a couple of free-ranging moose was one of those unplanned encounters that makes bundling up for a walk on a blustery day seem so worthwhile.

Preview: The Wall by Roger Waters

Once upon a time, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters had a message for his fans:

“Fuck you!”

While touring the world in support of the Animals record in 1977, Waters became disillusioned with the concert industry.  By all accounts, he hated performing in stadium venues because a significant number of fans had become more interested in the party and the festival atmosphere than the music.  Up until the release of Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had played to reverent, hushed, enraptured crowds in theatres.  But the collateral cost of the phenomenal success of DSotM and the follow-up Wish You Were Here album was the loss of intimacy with their audience.

Suddenly, fans were either relegated to the anonymity of Row 64 at the back of the venue (hundreds of feet from the stage) or they were so drunk and disorderly that they set off fireworks during the gig.  Things got so bad that, at one infamous show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Waters actually baited one particularly looney fan up to the front… and proceeded to gob in his face.

In retrospect, Waters was ashamed and horrified by what he’d done, but the event gave him a powerful idea for the next record.  What if we built a monstrous wall across the stage so that brick by brick the band could literally isolate themselves from the lunacy in the crowd?  Could there possibly be a bigger “Fuck You!” statement than a stark 30-foot-high wall between performer and audience?

As the story goes, Waters presented two ideas to the rest of Pink Floyd before they left for the south of France in 1979 to make their next record (the reasons why they went to France are worthy of a separate blog post).  One concept was the story of a hitchhiker, with a series of events unfolding over a late night on the open highway.  The other was the story of a gonzo rock star that isolated himself to ever-increasing degrees from his audience.  The band passed on the first concept, which went on to become Waters’ The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking record in the mid-1980s.  The second idea, with a less-developed demo but much greater musical and theatrical potential, was chosen by the band to become The Wall.

The Wall is essentially the story of Pink, a successful rock star who becomes increasingly displaced from his family, his lover, and reality.  The parallels between Pink and Roger Waters’ experience on the Animals tour are obvious enough.  But a simple “woe is me, the huge rock star” album would have been a complete disaster.  Nobody wants to hear a record about how ‘miserable’ it is to travel from city to city by private jet, with 24-hour instant access to mind-altering substances and hot & cold running women.

Partial credit for actually executing The Wall should be attributed to guitarist David Gilmour (who co-produced and served as musical director) and producer Bob Ezrin.  Ezrin suggested that the idea behind The Wall should be more generalized in order to broaden the appeal.  Everybody feels isolated in modern society; few people get to know their neighbours, socialize beyond a very select circle of friends, or have the opportunity to travel to far-off lands.  Everyone can relate to erecting a metaphorical wall between themselves and the world at large.  By opening up the concept and pairing the evocative lyrics to the memorable music created by Waters, Gilmour (who brought “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell” to the table), keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, The Wall double-album went on to be an influential, world-wide smash.  And that disco beat underpinning “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”?  You can credit that to Bob Ezrin, too.

The original Wall tour in 1980 and 1981 was limited to a select number of engagements in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Dortmund.  At the time, the technology to present the album in a live setting was prohibitively expensive, and it was unheard of to charge more than $20 or $25 for concert tickets.  Concert promoters backed up the money truck, imploring Pink Floyd to take the tour into stadiums where the economies of scale would make the gig profitable.  But this idea was so antithetical to what the band (particularly Waters and Gilmour) were about that a couple of dozen arena shows were all that ever transpired.

Until 1990.

In the 1980s, Waters had a falling out with his Pink Floyd band mates which culminated in his acrimonious departure from the group.  The divorce was extremely messy, but one of the things that Waters retained was the performance rights to the concept of The Wall.  While the Soviet Union was crumbling, Waters assembled a collection of all-star musicians to re-create The Wall in the Potsdamer Platz, a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall.  Re-staging the themes of metaphorical isolation next to a landmark of physical isolation was an inspired idea.  The show was an international phenomenon, but it was a one-time event.  And if we’re being honest, it was a bit of a logistical nightmare. Reports vary as to how much money was actually raised for charity… and did they really need to invite Cyndi Lauper?

Fast forward about twenty more years, and the concert industry has become a completely different experience.  People no longer go to a few gigs a month; these days, concerts are ‘events’ that are only attended once or twice a year.  Perhaps the biggest difference is the cost of admission.  If it used to cost $25 to see a primo show, today a $225 ticket price is not unusual.  As well, concert production has progressed leaps and bounds from the ‘good’ old days.  Multi-coloured laser lighting, high-definition projections, crystal-clear audio, and high-end computer processing power are readily available.  The seeds were sown for a proper tour of The Wall.

Over a period of three years, Waters worked with a group of experts to put together an arena production of The Wall that could travel from city to city.  The group worked on everything from brick assembly technology to synchronized video projections to inflatable puppets.  Everything was designed to bring The Wall to life in a concert setting.

And the results are staggering.

I was lucky enough to attend two shows on the 2010 tour.  I saw the Phoenix, AZ show in November, and two weeks later I caught another show in Vancouver, BC.  Waters’ touring production of The Wall is brilliant – equal parts rock show, Broadway musical, and technological tour-de-force.  The tour was so successful that it has been extended several times.  Waters is taking his band of happy minstrels around the world again in 2012, including two shows next week in Edmonton, Alberta and two more in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Live and in the flesh, The Wall is unlike any other show I’ve ever seen.  The quadrophonic sound is pristine, the musicianship is first-rate, and the video projections (first on the trademark Floydian circular screen, later directly onto the wall) are sublime.  HDTV technology has advanced to the point where the A/V guys can project different images onto individual bricks in the wall.  The show is so engrossing that the audience feels simultaneously overwhelmed by the spectacle, yet drawn into the performance.  It is simply over the top of ‘over-the-top’.

There are many great songs on the record, and the touring band do an excellent job of infusing them with life on stage.  I have never been too keen on Side 4 of the album, from “Waiting for the Worms” onward.  The whole sequence where Pink goes on trial before his peers always seemed a bit over-cooked.  Fortunately, the proceedings hold together a lot better in the live setting.  This is where the twisted theatre-style multi-media presentation really pays off.  Throughout the show, I felt emotionally invested in the story.

The whole show kicks ass on so many levels, but a few moments stand out.  It’s hard to beat the bombast of opening number “In The Flesh?”, with the fireworks, the flag-bearers on scissor lifts, and the special surprise at the end.  Throughout “Mother” and the “Another Brick In The Wall” suite, Gerald Scarfe’s puppets depicting the Mother, the Wife, and the Schoolmaster are simultaneously trippy and frightening.

The first half of the show concludes with the insertion of the last few bricks into the wall.  During the intermission, the audience stands face-to-face with a massive monument bearing the images of soldiers, freedom fighters, and everyday heroes lost to 20th and 21st century conflicts.  Among the bricks you’ll see a photo of Eric Fletcher Waters, Roger’s father, who perished in the Allied invasion of Anzio, Italy in 1944.

The tone of the performance has been updated in a variety of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways.  The loss of the father he never knew, neo-fascist paranoia,  oppressive educational institutions, and Orwellian military conflict were always cornerstones of the gig and remain so today.  But watch the videos closely and you’ll see insights into how Waters feels about crass commercialism, religious fundamentalism, and heavy-handed police states.  These are themes he dealt with more directly on 1992’s Amused to Death record, but now they form part of the Wall experience.  The premise is no longer “Fuck You!”; the updated tone is very much Waters AND his audience united against the manifestations of evil in the world.

When ace guitarist Dave Kilminster performs the solos for “Comfortably Numb” from the top of the wall, time seems to stand still.  Close your eyes for five seconds and you’ll be transported back in time to the early 1980s, when David Gilmour stood atop that wall and played his heart out every night.  Kilminster comes the closest to nailing Gilmour’s unique mid-boosted tone and bluesy feel of anyone I’ve seen in concert.  Snowy White does an admirable job on his guitar parts, too, bringing a little more Gibson Les Paul bark to the show.

The ending of the show is deliciously ambiguous.  Without giving too much away, the pinnacle of the show is the systematic destruction of the wall.  But it’s never particularly clear whether the collapse of the wall has released Pink from his fascist purgatory or condemned him to it.  Does he survive the exposition, or is he crushed under the sheer weight of the falling debris?  In a theatrical masterstroke, Waters leaves it up to the audience to decide.

If you have a chance to see this show during Waters’ victory lap around the world in 2012, I urge you to do so.  Whether you appreciate it for the spectacle, the theatricality, the stories or the musicianship, you will not regret it.

Upcoming Music Releases – February 2012

Yet again, February looks like a slow month for new releases.  A few albums are trickling out, but nothing too earth-shattering is on the radar. Expect to see the ‘mainstream indie’ release schedule pick up in March or April as bands get ready to tour behind new product.  New material is doubly important for festival season, which unofficially kicks off with California’s Coachella festival in April and continues throughout the summer across most of North America, Europe, and elsewhere.

7-February-2012:

Of Montreal releases their new album, Paralytic Stalks.  Expect it to sound like a gloriously weird melange of Beatles psychedelic-pop and obliquely modern alt-rock – unless Of Montreal go off on a completely different tangent this time out.

Air releases Le Voyage Dans La Lune.  Expect more Parisian coolness and languid, loopy bass lines on this modern-day soundtrack for a 100-year-old French science fiction film.  Perhaps these descendants of Pink Floyd’s trippy sci-fi soundtrack work will finally eclipse the sonic breadth of their heroes.

Sir Paul McCartney returns to popular music with Kisses On The Bottom.  The man’s credentials are well established, but has anyone really formed an emotional attachment to anything he’s released since the 1970s?  Tuesday will be the latest test of that hypothesis.

Van Halen’s comeback album, A Different Kind of Truth, also drops on 7-Feb-2012.  Since it features everyone’s favourite Electric Hebrew, ‘Diamond’ David Lee Roth back in the fold on lead vocals I’ll bet it’s interesting in its own way.  Advanced reviews suggest that Eddie can still bring the pyrotechnics like nobody else.  This album just has a LONG way to go to live up to the hype.

14-February-2012:

Valentine’s Day may remind people of loves lost and found.  On the same day, the UK’s Field Music releases an album called Plumb, which may or may not remind you of highly-polished English indie pop (think XTC for the modern set).

28-February-2012:

Montreal’s Plants and Animals release a new record called The End Of That.  This will be their third full-length album release, and should build on their modern-meets-retro rock bona fides.

Finally, another brick in Pink Floyd’s wall gets the deluxe reissue treatment, following up on recent reissues of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.  This time, the 1979 magnum opus The Wall gets the deluxe CD and LP treatment, with new sets containing various levels of opulence.  Put me down for a new double-LP version of the latest remaster. Rarely has misery sounded so universal and epic.

Music Challenge Day 27 – A Song You Wish You Could Play

Many people have heeded their calling to be musicians, and for this we should all be grateful.  The world would be an immeasurably more depressing place if there was no music.  Music is one of the great triumphs of humanity – it cuts across all racial and social and geographic boundaries.  While the way the notes are organized may vary from continent to continent, and the rhythms may vary from culture to culture, music is still a language that unites everyone.

While many musicians become very technically proficient at their craft, there is a select few that manage to have their own unique musical “voice”.  I was lucky enough to see Eric Clapton in concert around a decade ago; music emanates from his guitar like heat from a fire.  When he plays, it’s like he taps into something from another dimension, it just seems so effortless and pure.  Same thing for Steve Winwood at the Hammond organ.  Mark Knopfler and Keith Richards have very distinct voices when they strap on their electric guitars.  And there may never be another guitarist that will ever sound like Jimi Hendrix; he was so unconventional (backwards-strung guitar and HUGE hands) and he just seemed to be a conduit through which joyful, sexually-charged music freely flowed.

But if I have to choose one song that I wish I could play properly, it would be the guitar on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.  David Gilmour plays two solos on this song, both of which are staggering examples of fluidity and power.  Gilmour’s musical voice is unique.  It’s been said that the notes he doesn’t play are even more important than the ones he plays.  The chords to the verse are pretty basic (B minor, A, G, D/F#, E minor) and the chorus is even simpler (D, A, C, G), so I can plug along okay on rhythm guitar.  But the solos – my god what a glorious noise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wtiNzci1Wc

The first solo is very short, maybe eight bars long over the chorus chords.  It is just about perfect in its brevity.  I read in a magazine a long time ago that Gilmour’s distinctive guitar tone comes from using a ’57 Stratocaster modified with hi-gain EMG pickups.  The tone he gets on the first “Comfortably Numb” solo sounds like musical electricity.

The second solo is the famous one, the one where Gilmour stretches out a little differently each night and lets it rip.  This time he’s soloing over the verse chord progression.  To hear it live in all its glory is like watching volcanos erupt or a star go supernova.  This is the solo where the disco ball usually makes an appearance, bathing the audience in a thousand shafts of diffracted light.  I would give just about anything to play “Comfortably Numb” with the same feel and voice as David Gilmour.

Epilogue: you have to listen for it a bit more closely, but Richard Wright also had a very distinct voice on Pink Floyd’s records.  His organ and keyboard playing on everything from Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Wall, plus the latter-day album The Division Bell, gave the Floyd a much richer sonic palette.  Before he passed away, Wright toured with Gilmour’s band and played his ass off.  Maybe he knew his days were limited, I don’t know.  But if you can track down a copy of Gilmour’s Live at Gdansk album, listen to the organ on “Echoes”.  It is mindblowingly good.

Music Challenge Day 8 – A Song You Know All The Words To

I’ve noticed that you can group people into three reasonably distinct categories:

  • a select group of people are music fanatics (you see them in brick & mortar record stores, or at club gigs at midnight on Tuesday nights)
  • a larger subset of the population are music fans (appreciative of music, but can take it or leave it, and probably haven’t bought more than five albums since they finished school)
  • pretty much everyone else just don’t get into music at all (these people are weird and frighten me)

It also seems like you can split the fanatics into two fairly distinct camps: those who gravitate towards the music or those who tune into the lyrics.  Growing up, whenever a catchy song came on the radio, my mom would pick up on the melody while my dad always seemed to remember the lyrics.  Usually it’s the melodies and rhythms and dynamics that ensnare me, rather than the words.

But once in awhile, the music and the words come together in a way that bridges the gap.  “Time”, by Pink Floyd, from 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon is a fine example of a beautiful song where the melody is inextricable from the lyrics.  While all of my high school classmates were rockin’ like Dokken, or sewing Motley Crue patches onto their jean jackets, I was working my way through the Pink Floyd back catalogue.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUt7qmSvxLI

Roger Waters would have been about 28 years old when he wrote the words to “Time”.  Years later, when I was an impressionable teenager, they sounded like a cautionary tale from someone much older and wiser than myself.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then the one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

The message seemed to be “live every moment to the fullest and don’t get stuck in a rut, otherwise some day you’ll wake up and realize that half your life has evaporated with nothing to show for it”.  Maybe that propelled me forward through my university years; it’s hard to say.  I didn’t always live every moment to the fullest.

The second half of the song seemed to be a lament from a middle-aged man:

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

In the last few years, I’ve noticed how the seasons seem to fly by.  One day you’re slathering on sunscreen and walking around in shorts.  But seemingly the next day you’re raking the leaves, and the day after that you’re putting the snow tires on the car and digging your winter clothing out of the basement.  And I’m not even particularly busy away from work; I can only imagine what kind of acceleration my friends feel with spouses and kids and all their other commitments.  I try to make efficient use of my days, knowing that I’m only immortal for a limited time.  I can’t stand wasting time on low-value activities, either at work or at home.  I try to keep an even keel, but it drives me nuts when I have to wait 90 minutes at the government office to renew my passport, or when I’m expected to spend half a day at work taking care of some random detail that has no bearing on my designs.  Still, there’s been more than one occasion where I spent a Friday night or a Sunday morning curled up on the sofa doing sudoku puzzles.  It makes me feel guilty that I’m not living a ‘real’ life.

The way that Waters segues the lyrics of “Time” into a reprise of the song “Breathe” is also pretty brilliant:

Hanging on in quiet desparation is the English way
The time is gone the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

The line about ‘quiet desperation’ is so quintessentially English.  And then, of course, Waters does have something more to say.  The last part of “Time” is about being at home, curling up next to a fire to chase away the chills & demons:

Home, home again
I like to be here when I can
When I come home cold and tired
It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire
Far away across the field, the tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells

This reminds me of an old hound dog, one that’s protected his master’s property for a decade.  Now, with his days of chasing jackrabbits long behind him, he sleeps at his master’s feet in front of a smoky hearth, wagging his tail and dreaming of more fleet-footed days.  It seems like an apt metaphor for growing old and facing the inevitable.

Even though I know all the words to this song, don’t expect to see me rocking it at karaoke any time soon.  Despite its brilliance, it’s kind of a buzzkill.

Epilogue:  not much good came out of the Live 8 concerts in 2005.  But I will be eternally grateful that we got to see masters Gilmour, Mason, Waters and Wright back together for one last gig.