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Good Times Gone

Canadian Police and Peace Officers’ National Memorial Day, Alberta Legislature, 24 September 2023

I had occasion to be in Edmonton in September.

While there, I was fortunate to meet several members of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. The Alberta UCC President, Orysia Boychuk, had just returned from Ottawa to welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his second diplomatic address to Canadian Parliament. Another tireless UCC volunteer, Cynthia Fedor, whose son is an RCMP officer, invited me that Sunday afternoon to the police and peace officers’ memorial ceremony taking place at the Alberta Legislature grounds.

Normally, honouring cops is not in my purview. I’m more like Hunter S. Thompson at a cop conference than anything approaching Jack Webb. My personal experience has been more ducking and running from cops than saluting them. But as time passes, and as violent incidents increase, I have come around to the police. I certainly have always respected their sacrifice to apply some semblance of order to a chaotic society. Not all cops are bastards.

In Zelensky’s speech to Parliament, he noted several times the need for what’s being called a “rules-based order,” upon which the world must function. We need rules. We need order. Order produces peace, on a local and global scale.

There’s no peace in a world where violence is more or less legal in this or that country, or where it is fine to exploit children in this or that region, or where nobody really pays any attention to what’s going on for an entire portion of the planet.

It’s one planet, it’s one-of-a-kind, and we need to start recognizing it as such. We have to begin to behave as if planet Earth is the irreplicable and irreplaceable home of life as we know it. Still for now, that’s what it is.

Everly Lux, Is It True?

Justice is incommensurate with capitalism because justice is inherently monopolistic. If we lived under true capitalism, someone would have come along long ago to deliver a fairer form of justice. Cheaper, too.

Catherine Lamb, Curvo Totalitas (2016), La Sala Rossa 2 October 2023

I missed Pop Montreal in its entirety this year. Not by choice, but by necessity. I’m still kicking myself. Happily, I was able to attend No Hay Banda’s season premiere, a more niche poptimism.

Valérie Blass, This Is Not a Metaphor, Darling Foundry, 8 September – 22 October 2023

Valérie Blass, This Is Not a Metaphor, photographed for NicheMTL.

Doubtless, the West is decadent. We’ve been decaying since the Enlightenment. Whether this is a permanent decline or just the low end of a sine wave that will arch back upwards at some point remains to be seen. Probably not in our lifetimes.

But there is no political or cultural alternative to decadence; only corruption of a different order, exploitation under another name. Putin is sleazier than Trump. Xi Jinping is sleazier than Putin. Kim Jong Un is sleazier than Xi Jinping. And the eye in the sky is sleazier than them all.

In the film Superpower, Sean Penn’s documentary about Zelensky, someone — a Ukrainian — says something like, “so long as there is corruption, there is justice.” Nowhere is that truer than in this great city, a rhapsody of virtue and vice, depravity and integrity.

To decadence.

Wu-Tang Clan

A common axiom goes, don’t meet your heroes. The implication is that our heroes will inevitably disappoint us because they could never live up to our heroic expectations. But there are two ways to cheat this. 1: Don’t have any expectations of your heroes; and 2: try to meet them when you’re least expecting it. Surprise them, too; don’t meet them where they’re normally met.

On Tuesday morning, I was walking along Rue de la Montagne with a colleague after a press conference at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. We had passed the entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel in front of which was parked a long, black tour bus. A tattooed and bearded and good-natured dude stood in front of the door, waiting.

I asked him who the bus was for, and he said, mysteriously, “my boss.” So I gently pressed him on who his boss was, and he said, RZA. I paused and confirmed that this bus was for the Wu-Tang Clan and he nodded with pride and told me that he was the RZA’s tour bus driver. He also told me that he would be right down and I might be able to say hello.

Moments later, there he was — the RZA, standing right in front of me. He had on his signature Carreras and looked fresh in a black velour track suit. I had nothing for him to autograph, and I didn’t much think to take a photo. I just introduced myself and said, ‘Mr. RZA, thank you for your music, and thank you for the teachings, which have changed — and possibly saved — my life.’

Mr. RZA responded with kindness and grace, thanking me for sharing the sentiment. He looked me in the eyes and called me by my name and bumped my fist. I’ve met many movie stars and musicians and wealthy people before, but none whose greatness was so immediately palpable, whose energy was so generous, whose aura was so contagious. I felt greater in his presence.

I still can’t believe that I was just walking downtown in Montreal on a Tuesday morning and almost tripped over one of Hip-Hop’s most brilliant and influential artists. I wasn’t lying. The Wu might be bigger than The Beatles. And they were bigger than Jesus. You can do the math.

And just as quickly, the boys were piling onto the bus, shuffling off to Buffalo for their next tour stop. So I wished them Godspeed and waved goodbye — and I might have accidentally slapped a NicheMTL sticker onto the back of their trailer as they pulled out and beyond the black horizon.◼︎

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The Smile’s Returning

Orchestre classique de Montréal, Illuminations, Magali Simard-Galdès, soprano, Pierre-Mercure Hall, 5 March 2023

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mel Brooks, the 96-year-old comedian, revealed that even at his age, he doesn’t shy away from controversy. Still, in 2023, Brooks isn’t afraid to tell a good Hitler joke.

Laughter can be the best medicine in even the sickest of times. But Brooks prefers to wield humour as a weapon. Being Jewish helps. It gives Brooks, and all Jewish comedians, a pass. Seinfeld did Nazi jokes, and in an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, opposite a young Jon Stewart, Jeffrey Tambor played a satirical game show host, in head-to-toe Hitler regalia, named ‘Adolph Hankler.’ But that was back in the 90’s, and a full fifty years after World War II.

Is it too soon to start making Putin jokes?

In the future, will it be considered politically incorrect to dress up as Putin, to get all oily and shirtless and ride a white horse, to wear Russian army surplus, to crack wise about the invasion of Ukraine? If so, I am glad that I’m Ukrainian. That means I’m covered for the foreseeable future from censure for mounting my long-planned musical, Springtime in Bakhmut.

Jerry Seinfeld believes that comedy is the closest we can come to justice. It’s impossible to fake a laugh. A joke is either funny or it’s not. Comedy is the real battlefield, and the funniest jokes always settle the fight.

The OCM’s 83rd season continues through 20 June 2023.

White Boy Scream + Wapiti/Pauly, La Salla Rossa, 13 March 2023

After the L.A.-based experimental opera singer Micaela Tobin’s outstanding performance as White Boy Scream on Monday night at Sala Rossa, conversation turned to the term “diaspora.” Somebody wondered aloud where the word comes from. I submitted that it refers to the Jewish dispersion across the globe: it stems from the Greek, diasperiō — to scatter, to spread out. And it has come today to refer to any dispersion of a people around the world: there is an Irish diaspora, a Filipino diaspora, a Ukrainian diaspora, even a French diaspora. Though colonization doesn’t technically count.

The way that cultures flow through the world and end up where they do is as fascinating a study as any natural phenomenon. It’s like watching a cloud of milk dissolve into a cup of coffee, tendrils wisping and disappearing and, in doing so, altering its entire texture and flavour. The reasons behind diasporic impulses are just as interesting to consider: war, oppression, and tyranny often drive people away; but hope, opportunity, and freedom are beacons that everyone can recognize, and that everyone seems to understand, even if we can seldom define and communicate these abstract notions adequately.

What diaspora really means is being an outcast. Displacement. Exile. Still, everyone agreed that it is a beautiful and lyrical word. Someone else suggested it sounded like a kind of elaborate garment. A cape of some sort, perhaps. On next year’s red carpet, will every Oscar nominee be draped in a Dior diaspora?

Bakunawa is released via Deathbomb Arc.

Mark Takeshi McGregor, H​ō​rai (Keiko Devaux), Starts and Stops (Redshift Music)

Following a triumphant foray into the experimental opera world — because classical and experimental music can only benefit from this overdue alliance — the Montreal composer Keiko Devaux goes from strength to strength with this contribution to a stellar compilation album by the flautist Mark Takeshi McGregor. These works combine the flute, one of the oldest-known instruments, with some of humankind’s most advanced modes of music-making. The results are profoundly moving and underscore the idea that history is not linear, that technology is not synonymous with progress, and that we can find harmonies in unexpected sonic configurations.

Starts and Stops is released via Redshift Music.

ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT, We Live On A Fucking Planet And Baby That’s The Sun, Darling The Dawn (Constellation Records)

The other day, a guy got on the metro, sat down right next to me, and lit a stick of incense. I was incensed. I said to the guy, have some sense and put out that incense, you insensitive bastard!

Darling The Dawn is released 21 April 2023 via Constellation Records.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with Moor Mother, MTelus, 9 March 2021

When Montreal’s unofficial house band announced their return in 2010, I vaguely remember that they did so with an apologetic metaphor hand-written on a yellow page torn from a notepad. Something about having left the bicycle outdoors all winter. The bike was meant to stand in for the band getting tuned up after a long, inactive period — locked to a stop sign, gears tarnished, rusty chain hanging loose from a weathered old frame. Or words to that effect.

Montreal’s indie rock scene possesses a characteristically rough, unpolished aesthetic, which Godspeed helped to define — a jangled and raw approach to playing live, to making recordings, and in general to assembling sound. The Emperisti — bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, as well as electronic acts that Godspeed’s artistic ethos influenced, like Tim Hecker and Marie Davidson — at once reflect and benefit from this image, this archetype of corroded Montreal culture.

If Godspeed was a rusty bike in 2010, they are verily a finely tuned machine in 2023. It sounds as if they might even intentionally fuck up, inserting wrong notes to undermine our expectations, to ruin the audience’s anticipatory gratification. But just when you think that they might have forgotten the song, the band thunder back, composed, in unison, and produce that serrated edge sound for which they are known the globe over, and than which there is nothing heavier.

Late capitalism might have produced Godspeed, but hyper-capitalism refined them. Their anthemic post-rock, tuned, tightened, and road-ready, never fails to lift our skinny fists, and spirits.◼︎

Godspeed You! Black Emperor is on tour through 29 April 2023.