It was very early in the morning — or, from my perspective, very late at night — at the end of February in 1995. It was probably February 26th. I was in my apartment in the Beach — 2451 Queen Street East. My circadian rhythms hadn’t been in synch with most of the population’s since sometime in my late teens. And after seven years working the eleven o’clock news, I wasn’t any closer to being diurnal. So when the phone rang at about 5:00 a.m., I was wide awake; I hadn’t gone to bed yet.
“Want to go to New York?” It was Chris Brown. His main gig at the time was as composer, vocalist and keyboard player for the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir — a Hammond A-100 (through a Leslie, natch), a Hohner D6 clavinet, mainly. “Ashley’s doing this gig. He wants me and Mercer to back him up. We can stay at my sister’s; she lives in the Village. It’ll just be food and chipping in for gas.”
Brown explained the gig: the annual benefit for Robert Thurman’s Tibet House at Carnegie Hall. Ashley MacIsaac — then at the white-hot zenith of his first flush of fame, before he was far too candid about his off-hours recreational preferences or his orientation — was on the bill, along with David Byrne, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, Spalding Gray, the Gyuto Monks, Katelle Keineg and Natalie Merchant. He didn’t want to play solo, and he’d been doing pick-up and impromptu gigs around Toronto with Brown and Bourbons bassist Jason Mercer as well as dropping by their communal house on Dundas just west of Sherbourne, so he knew they meshed well musically and wanted them to pitch in at Carnegie Hall.
It sounded like a good thing to do. I had no pressing engagements. Employment was sporadic at the time. I was doing fill-in on-call work as a writer/producer for CBC Radio News and what was then CBC Newsworld, also newswriting and producing. I’d also been doing freelance entertainment reporting, although the people in charge always acted like they were doing me a big favor allowing me to report, giving me a “shot,” as it were, even though I’d been the CBC At Eleven’s arts/entertainment reporter for a couple of years a couple of years earlier.
(That ended in 1993 — almost two years to the day before the phone call from Chris Brown. I’m still not entirely sure why they canned me. Management couldn’t articulate their reasons for not wanting me to do the job well enough to just fire me. They had to buy out my contract. The exec who canned me got canned himself some a matter of weeks later because of the bang-up job he was doing managing the flagship affiliate’s news operation. The corporation asked him whether he’d prefer to jump or be thrown. He elected to jump. I heard he went into the hospitality business. The Fawlty Towers parallels suggest themselves too readily.)
Still, I was keeping my hand in with the arts/entertainment reporting. I did a piece on gray-market DBS satellite rigs, which were quite popular at the time (the Internet was still comparatively new, and as yet without the bandwidth to support downloading, video streaming…or audio streaming, for that matter.) I did a review of John Singleton’s ham-fisted movie “Higher Learning,” as a trailer which detailed the picture’s shortcomings as though they were selling points. There was a review of “Waterworld” — me singing about the movie’s unintentional hilarity and bloated budget to the tune of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme.
At the same time, seeking steadier employment, I’d been having a series of meetings with a series of functionaries and mid-level lieutenants at Citytv. They’d been rejecting a series of ideas I’d been pitching for an audition story. They’d loaned me a bright yellow water-resistant Sony 8mm video camera, sitting there in a bright yellow plastic road case in my apartment.
Of course: I phoned the producer I’d been running my freelance entertainment work through at the CBC.
“Hey, I’ve just been invited to this thing in New York. It’s a benefit for something called Tibet House. Uma Thurman’s father runs it. Every year they do a benefit at Carnegie Hall. This year one of the performers is Ashley MacIsaac, the fiddler. He’s getting two people from Toronto to back him up. They’re driving to New York, and they invited me to go with them. I have complete access; “with the band,” as it were. Philip Glass, David Byrne and Allen Ginsberg are also on the bill with a bunch of other people. Uh, Spalding Gray — the ‘Swimming To Cambodia’ guy — him. I have a camera. I’m thinking it could make a pretty good story. I can shoot it — soundcheck, rehearsals — get clips from the performers about why this benefit and the convergence of politics and art, that kind of thing — then cut it with an editor.” I knew who I wanted to cut it. We lived in the same apartment building. He’d cut the “Waterworld” and “Higher Learning” pieces.
“Nah,” said the CBC Newsworld producer. “What’s the hook? I don’t see it.” I tried the “Ashley-MacIsaac-holds-own-with-musical-heavyweights-in-Manhattan” angle. Nope. I tried the “maturing-downtown-alternative-folks-dig-Tibet” angle. Nope. I tried “Canuckleheads-in-Big-Apple-for-oppressed-monks.” Again, nope. “That-Ashley-MacIsaac-sure-gets-around”? No.
No. What would the point of that be? There wasn’t a story there, the producer assured me, so it was pointless for me to shoot the thing, since there was zero interest in the concert, the premise, the performers or their purpose.
Can’t say I didn’t try. I should have taken the camera and shot the thing anyway. I didn’t. I was a professional, and, as such, committed journalism to get paid for it. And back then, if it wasn’t going to go on TV, there wasn’t anywhere for it to go.
I can’t remember whether Brown and company picked me up out on the eastern edge of the Beach or whether I took the streetcar to Dundas and Sherbourne. Seems more likely I would’ve gone to their place, since the first leg of the trip could take us west on the QEW to get around the lake to the border, and driving out to the Beach would’ve been the opposite direction. However it happened, I was eventually in a van with Brown and Mercer and an aboriginal poet who was staying with them at the time and Pete Prelesnik — engineer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, mixer and fixer who’d also done some drumming (as “One-Beat Pete”) on a side project the Bourbons and their confederates had been working on.
It had started as kind of a joke in the basement of the house on Dundas St. on New Year’s Eve a couple of months earlier. Since most of the people ringing in 1995 at a party with the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir were musicians, as were most of the people who lived in the house, the basement rehearsal space was already full of instruments and amplification. A fluid and constantly changing mix of people were playing, singing and dancing and shifting between being the audience and performing. The repertoire was funk, soul, old R&B — upbeat party music, of course — and cheesy 1970s Top-40 jet trash and disco nuggets that the shallow post-boomer crowd got a jolt of guilty pleasure from knowing all the lyrics and chords to and “ironically” singing at the top of their lungs.
Within months, that party jam became Don’t Talk Dance, with the Barenaked Ladies’ Tyler Stewart on drums (when he wasn’t being spelled by One-Beat Pete), Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson on bass and Chris Brown playing keyboards — mostly that Hohner D6 clavinet through a wah pedal and a mess of overdrive distortion. Their one eponymously-titled LP was divided about evenly between studio recordings and live performances, some originals (“You’ve Been Instrumental”) and inventive, warped covers like “Fred and Barney Miller,” which mashes together the themes from “Barney Miller” and “The Flintstones” or Stompin’ Tom Connors’s “Ketchup Song” reimagined as a quiet-storm slow jam that’s probably one of the most suggestive numbers ever recorded about a condiment.
Crossing the border was complicated some by Brown and Mercer’s needing some kind of special dispensations as Canadian musicians performing in the United States. The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir had already played numerous dates in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S. by that point, so there were permits and forms or cards or bona fides of some kind which they were able to produce. There was a slight hitch while that was sorted out, but it didn’t take that long, and eventually we were on the Thomas E. Dewey New York State Thruway rolling east across the upper tier of New York state toward Albany, where people headed to Boston get on the Mass Pike and the Thruway right-angles south to follow the Hudson to New York.
Our vehicle was some kind of nondescript white panel van. It wasn’t the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir’s van. That was a modified gray thing with space for the eight band members and all their instruments — including the Hammond and its Leslie — and at least a couple of bunks in which people could sleep. I know that for a good part of the trip to New York, I was sitting on a wheel well or some kind of improvised seating which could’ve been a road case or a milk crate or something. I don’t recall it as being uncomfortable, though, and the heater must’ve worked, because I don’t remember being cold. The trip from Toronto to Manhattan takes about ten hours or so, depending on how many stops and what average speed you’re comfortable traveling on the Thruway. I’d been caught speeding and ticketed at least once. I bought a radar detector after that and did not get caught again, although I have no way of knowing whether that was because I’d bought a radar detector and thus karmically ensured the thing would never be needed. On this trip, I was not driving.
We arrived in Manhattan and got to Brown’s sister’s place in the Village. Pete and the rest of us felt extraordinarily lucky to find a parking space right in front of her building. We loaded our stuff out of the van and into her apartment. Hole’s Live Through This seemed to be on repeat in the CD player and wore thin pretty quickly. I seemed to be the only one who found that, though, so I kept quiet about it. I was a guest, after all.
We ate at erstwhile Robert De Niro girlfriend Toukie Smith’s restaurant, the imaginatively-named “Toukie’s.”
The next morning, the van was gone. The place it had been parked the night before was a parking space again — empty. The van was in a New York City Traffic Enforcement Authority impound lot. Pete and Brown made a series of phone calls and established this, and learned the location of the lot. The NYCTEA maintained the place was a no-parking zone. Bullshit, countered Pete and Brown. It was clearly posted, said the NYCTEA. If it had been, we would never have parked there, said Brown.
His sister had a Polaroid camera. They documented the lack of “No Parking” signage with the camera, then set off for the impound lot with a fistful of Polaroids of the parking space and the pole that did not have a “No Parking” sign bolted to it.
“No fine, no towing charge — nothing,” said Brown when they returned with the van. The photographs had convinced the NYCTEA “Brownies” that they’d made a mistake.
Brown kept a clavinet at his sister’s place in Manhattan. He also parked a gurney there, equipped with a portable guitar amp and a car battery. He’d strap the clavinet to the gurney, wheel it to Washington Square Park, plug it into the amp, power everything up and start playing. Every second person, Brown said, wanted “Superstition,” which Brown could play in his sleep and was happy to play as many times as folks wanted to hear it.
No busking this trip, though. We loaded the clav into the van and drove uptown to 881 7th Av (at 57 St) for the soundcheck.
I was trying to be useful as an invitee, helping to carry gear and fearing that once it became obvious I wasn’t a musician I’d be thrown out. I kept quiet. Besides, what could I possibly say to Allen Ginsberg or Philip Glass? I wasn’t there in a professional capacity. I figured I was lucky to be there at all in any capacity. And it was strange to be in a backstage greenroom in Carnegie Hall with the guy who wrote “Howl” and one of the chief architects of classical minimalism (or the guy who’d scored “Koyanisqaatsi”).
Ashley MacIsaac was the opposite of intimidated. He walked right up to everybody and offered them the greeting that was also the title of his new LP: “Hi, how are you today?” He’d always add some kind of Tourette-like tag, ranging from “Go fuck yourself,” to “Pee in my mouth.” It wasn’t clear whether this was some kind of challenge, a test, an effort to be offensive or what its purpose was. After hearing him say it to every single person he met without incident, it seemed like a tic he might have been unaware of, and that everybody he laid it on was too polite to note or comment. Or too stunned or nonplused to react.
Along with the musicians, the monologuist and the poet, there were the Gyuto monks — Tibetans in maroon and gold robes. They seemed completely unfazed. Monastery, Midtown — it didn’t seem to make any difference. They milled around backstage, coming and going as they pleased. They didn’t seem to talk to the other performers much. That may have been the language barrier and it may have been the deference everybody treated them with.
The soundchecks proceeded. I don’t remember Spalding Gray or Allen Ginsberg doing one. There was a podium with a vocal mic — probably a Shure SM58. A Carnegie Hall audio tech made sure that was working. “Check. Check TWO, check TWO. Sibilance. Sibilance. Check TWO.”
Okay. Good to go.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore ran through a couple of his numbers. They were deeply conflicted songs of acute self-consciousness and all kinds of second-guessing and doubt. Very different ground for a country-and-western artist, but sly and funny and well-suited to the kind of mopiness of the genre’s bluesier end, and a great twist on the standard song subjects. Like Hank Williams had tried therapy to vanquish his demons instead of alcohol and pills, then grudgingly acknowledging it had worked, but skeptical and still not entirely trusting it.
Katell Keineg wanted MacIsaac to sit in on at least a couple of numbers. As a Breton/Welsh singer working a folk idiom, she had a lot in common with him musically and he was a quick study. Brown and Mercer went through MacIsaac’s set with him. Everything was meshing. Done.
David Byrne really liked Brown’s clavinet. Would Brown sit in with him, too? Sure, why not? Byrne and his band outlined keys and changes and Brown had them down after a run-through or two.
If the Gyoto monks were miked, I don’t remember it, or they were miked using PZMs or something other than the standard SM58s. Their circular, buzzing, growling and overtone chanting filled the hall, amplified or not.
Once the soundchecks were complete, people scattered for dinner or whatever other commitments they had to deal with prior to showtime. There were tickets for me and Suzy Brown for the actual evening’s entertainment, which was thrilling, highly entertaining and nothing if not eclectic. Why couldn’t this kind of thing happen on a more regular basis? It brought back that old line attributed to Louis Armstrong — “Folk music? It’s all folk music, isn’t it? It’s music, played by folks for folks.” Or words to that effect, anyway.
The Tibet House website lists all kinds of details about every one of its benefit concerts. It tells us 1995 was a “Wood Pig year,” and it lists the performers, but unlike almost every other year, it doesn’t include a setlist. And I didn’t take notes.
Looking around the web indicates Harrison Ford was there. If I saw him at the after-party, I’ve forgotten it. I do remember Natalie Merchant saying very earnestly to the monks, “I hope you get to go back to your country soon.” The aboriginal poet muttered to Merchant, “I hope you go back to your country soon.” She didn’t seem to know quite what to make of that.
We drove back the Toronto the next day, rolling back up the Thruway at night. For what seemed like a good part of the trip, Brown was in an intense conversation with Pete about some emotional family stuff. I think that’s what they were talking about. But either they’d started the conversation with a set of commonly-understood facts and people they knew and I didn’t, or I wasn’t paying attention to the beginning and had missed the key details they were now well beyond.
Another reason I could’ve used that video camera, which was right where I’d left it, in my apartment on Queen Street East.
A NIGHT OUT (AND LATER IN) WITH LIAM GALLAGHER
The New York Times
May 28, 2010
By LIZA GHORBANI
SAUNTERING along Central Park West, Liam Gallagher looked as if he’d just stepped off Carnaby Street in London circa 1969. Turned out in a black velvet jacket with an upturned collar, skinny scarf around his neck and hair combed forward all modlike, the former Oasis frontman would have fit in well alongside Brian Jones and Ray Davies in their heyday as a factotum, dogsbody or hanger-on of some kind.
“Not a lot of people look cool these days — like my cool,” said Mr. Gallagher, 37, who turned more than a few heads, including this reporter’s, when sidling up to the bar in the Ritz-Carlton. “Everybody plays it down, don’t they?”
I didn’t know whether they did or did not play it down.
The Englishman was in New York promoting his clothing line, Pretty Green, which was introduced in Europe last year and in the United States in April. The name, like just about everything Mr. Gallagher has ever passed off as his own, was stolen — lifted, in this case, from a song about money by the mod revivalists The Jam. (Paul Weller could not be reached for a pithy but bemused dismissal of Mr. Gallagher and his works.) The former Oasis singer/empty-threat-issuer said he nicked the name because of a lyric that rings true for him: “And they didn’t teach me that in school/It’s something that I learnt on my own.” The notion of one “learning” to dress as people did 40 years ago or be a belligerent loudmouth of minimal talent and little ability is something only Mr. Gallagher could think possible.
“They didn’t teach Liam how to be a rock star,” said Steve Allen, his business partner and longtime friend. (His name was lifted from a popular American comedian and talk-show host.) The fact that no one taught Mr. Gallagher how to be a rock star may explain why he has never been one.
When it comes to his clothing line, Mr. Gallagher is the first to admit he is winging it. Pretty Green represents his personal style — parkas, desert boots and paisley scarves — and is popular in England with would-be musicians who like to dress the part although they can’t actually play an instrument, soccer players and chavs.
“I don’t want just anybody wearing it,” said Mr. Gallagher, who won’t put his name on any item of clothing that he himself would not wear. “And people go, ‘Oh, beggars can’t be choosers.’ Well, I ain’t a beggar, you know what I mean?” he said.
We did not know what he meant.
Nor is he the type who aims to be seen in the front row of fashion shows. He is, as he put it, “not Victoria Beckham.” Though they are both fixtures in the British press, and both have an inexplicable affection for squeaky-voiced, injury-prone soccer gnome David Beckham. The implosion of his band Oasis last year racked up quite a few column inches. A sibling squabble backstage in Paris ended with his brother, the guitarist Noel Gallagher, walking out on the band they had started some 18 years earlier, for what he said would be the last time.
“In hindsight it was the best thing that’s ever happened, because we’re free to do whatever we want,” said Liam Gallagher, who still has not spoken to Noel.
He plans to unveil his new band later this year, and for now is enjoying his recent anointing as the Greatest Frontman of All Time by the British rock magazine Q, which seems to have done so as some kind of particularly arch British joke. Is there an up-and-comer on the music scene to whom he is ready to pass the baton? Not yet — if ever, he said. “They gotta mug me for it.” Would there be a New York Times reporter sitting at his table to whom he he would be ready to pass a baton? “Only if I gotta mug you for it.”
It is easy to see why a charmer of Mr. Gallagher’s loutish ilk would be catnip to a certain type of reporter with cripplingly low self-esteem who’s easily impressed.
Reader, I slept with him.
And he never called.