State Broadcaster My Ass! 

When Conservatives attack the CBC using the argument that it competes with privately operated media they are deliberating clouding an important issue: the control of information.

Corporate media is no more threatened by the CBC than by any other public institution. Furthermore, the two operate on completely different premises. Corporate media is in the business of delivering you, the consumer, to lifestyle industries who pay millions of dollars for access to your attention (and libido). Their irresistible mix of sex, gossip and nostalgia is not the product but the bait.You are the product!

The public broadcaster's very mandate is to provide a stage for Canadian talent and ideas, and to provide a Canadian perspective on politics, culture, and world affairs. Music, drama, documentaries and news are purposely produced and arranged to reflect a Canadian identity, one that arguably did not exist before the creation of the CBC. Most of what we have learned about ourselves is due in large part to the CBC.

The accusation that the CBC is somehow subverting society with its liberal bias is sky high rhetoric. While those in the arts perhaps have slightly more liberal views on certain issues there is no evidence that the CBC is any more liberal than the society its programming reflects. On the other hand corporate media like Quebecor does have a blatant right wing bias and an obvious mandate to control the language of public debate and further the interests of corporate power.

The public should be alarmed and appalled by the fact that its own government is openly attacking and slowly dismantling one of our finest public institutions, one that stands with our parliamentary democracy, the justice system, and publicly funded health care and education, all of which are being similarly eroded and devalued. When your own democratically elected government begins to remove the mechanisms by which you are educated and informed of its actions it is indeed time to raise the alarm.

The Defense Calls Brother Kevin 

In 1993 I was asked to take on the job of music director for a Theatre Cambrian production of The Man Who Never Died, a play about the labour organizer Joe Hill. A Swedish immigrant and itinerant worker Joe Hill became the most famous of the "wobblies" (AKA the International Workers of the World or the I.W.W.) mostly for his songs but also for his untimely execution at the hands of a firing squad in Utah in 1915. Tried and convicted for the murder of a butcher shop owner and his son, Joe Hill always maintained his innocence. His death sentence was protested by the U.S. President and even Helen Keller but to no avail. His death and funeral were national news and he became an immediate martyr to the cause of working people even to this day.




I had become heavily involved in folk music by the time the music director job came my way and I was subsequently adopted by the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Local 598 (the sponsors of the production) as their go-to-guy for strike line support and labour events, a role I'm still proud to play. So I was more than full of zeal for Barrie Stavis' passionate play about the life and death of a true folk music hero. I studied Joe Hill's songs, got turned onto Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, The Grievous Angels and Stan Rogers, and just generally worked up a head of steam for all things folk and labour. I bought a bodhran, a banjo and a fiddle and forced my keyboard player to learn how to play an accordion. And yes I did take to wearing suspenders.



Not long after the play's run was over, the late great American folk singer Utah Phillips performed a concert at the Mine Mill Hall where the play had been staged. I had listened to Utah's music and was quite inspired by his persona and especially by his story telling. I later spent some time and even wrote a song with him in Port Elgin at the C.A.W. Education Centre where he told me, "Son, you gotta have a gaff" (He also taught me how to drink single malt scotch, neat). Utah was actually a longtime member of the I.W.W. and happened to have brought with him some recently discovered ashes which were supposed to be the lost (and last) remains of Joe Hill (thought to have all been scattered according to his wishes). Sitting at the front of the hall I sang Utah the song "Build Me A Bridge" which I had written specifically for the play. Upon hearing it he reached into his coat and pulled out the envelope containing the ashes and dropped a pinch into my Larrivee guitar.



I've written dozens of songs on that guitar since it officially became DNA evidence. It's been across Canada a few times, kept me company in hotel rooms, made me a better musician, but most importantly helped me find out who I am and what I want to say. I always think of Utah Phillips when I pull it out of its case. I don't know whether having the remains of a martyred folk singer floating around in my ax has helped my career but I'm certain that meeting and learning from Utah shaped who I am as a writer and performer. I learned that honesty and integrity are all an artist really has. If you tell the truth about who you are and what you see everything else will follow. If you chase after false dreams and vain desires you'll not only lose your way you'll lose yourself. And that is a hard thing to get back.



Oh, build me a road out of blood and bone
Let it join every city and town
And let it roll over sand and snow
May it lay on solid ground
And build it wide and pave with pride
Let it carry whoever may roam
Oh, build me this road, I will carry the load
'till every man is home

Then build me a bridge out heart and soul
Let it reach every shore in the world
And let it span every race of man
Let the banner be unfurled
And stay ye bold, never pay their toll
Let it stand for the weak and the poor
Oh, build me a bridge, no I won't budge an inch
'til every man cross o'er

Every man, every man
Every man, woman, child in the land
Oh, build me a land where there's power in the hand
Of every working man

Then build me a tower, oh, a tall, tall tower
Build it high as a eye ever saw
And pray thee keep its foundation deep
So that it may never fall
Then light me a light for to guard the night
Let it shine on the land of the free
Oh, build me a tower, I will count every hour
'til every man can see


John Newlands: The Nickel City Rundgren 

There are as many reasons to write a song as there are second-hand guitars but for John Newlands the reason is simple: he loves the process of making music.

John’s career as a songwriter and producer began simultaneously when he overdubbed his first original guitar riff using two old cassette recorders. “It seemed like a lot of fun and there was also the appeal of showing off the results to my family."

But however playful the roots of John’s music are his songs are anything but frivolous. “It has to mean something.” John says. “It’s important to respect people’s time.”

John feels very strongly about applying all his skill to making the best music he can. He cringes when talking about today's commercial music and he clearly feels that by pouring every bit of craft into his songs he is taking a stand. “I don’t want to cede anything, to abandon the field to the producers of junk,” he says.

How John works has remained the same since he began. “It always starts with the lyrics. I keep notebooks of phrases, titles, bits of verses and choruses. Then when something that’s compelling to me suggests a song I go through my notes and look for something that matches up.”

The music, which clearly echoes his idols the Beatles and the Beach Boys, has the riffy passion of rock but is still rooted in the classical training he received as a young music student. “I studied theory and learned about counterpoint but classical music bored me. I saw that there were rules that went against what sounded good and I started to wonder what other rules there were that should be broken.”

Studying jazz guitar and decades of playing covers has taught John what combinations of chords work best but he admits “it’s easy to make an imitation or to succumb to the defeatist idea that it’s all been done. But I just keep trying things until something works and doesn’t fail the ultimate test: does it sound good.”

And John’s strong stubborn streak has paid off. “By sticking to this I’m gradually building a body of work,” he says, “and how cool is that?”

When asked if he’s learned anything else about himself John is quick to point out that there are no underlying personal issues he’s trying to express. But he admits that when it comes to selling himself he’s a bit negligent. “To my detriment I avoid things that have a tendency to fail, like marketing and promotion.”

He is also wary of music business. "All the worst things you’ve heard about the industry are true,” he says referring to the excitement that was generated around his first CD, Learn Guitar Overnight. Record companies, lawyers and hangers-on were quick to jump on board and he found himself in meetings, showcasing in Toronto clubs and answering to the demands of people who “only make something so they can promote it.”

“The whole experience,” he sighs, “was just embarrassing.” Asked whether he still has hopes of breaking into the business John simply says, “I’m okay with being satisfied.”

“You have to remind yourself of the reasons why you do it. No matter what happens, making music is always its own reward. And,” he laughs, “with such a small fan base you can do what you want."

Asked about whether he's ever considered any other careers he says that he's very interested in alternative energy and passionate about social justice. "But in one form or another I won’t stop writing because there’s nothing else that feels like it and inside I’m still that ten year old kid with two tape recorders.”

Is Rock Dead? 

As a musician and songwriter I've thought a lot about whether rock music is valid and I believe the question has a complicated answer.
First: ALL commercial music including rock has become (some would say always has been) part of the lifestyle industry which sells products from alcohol to vacations to zit cream. Anyone who thinks they're part of some sort of cultural revolution when they play a hit song by a mainstream commercial artist is deluding themselves. You're being manipulated plain and simple.
Second: If you've been to a dance lately you know that rock and roll as music to groove to is just as fun and popular as it ever was. "Single Ladies" might get the biggest cheer today but "Spirit in the Sky" hasn't lost its ability to pack the floor every time. When you're putting a set list together it's always safest to stay away from pop trends (see Cotton Eyed Joe) and stick with Alan Jackson and AC/DC.
Third: Rock music is at its core guitar music so the question could be: is guitar - and especially electric guitar - still an instrument that a musician can use to express himself as powerfully as he might have in the 1960s and 70s? I can only speak for myself when I say that the guitar is as exciting to me now as it was when I first plugged in over thirty years ago. And judging by my guitar students the interest in guitar is waxing not waning.
Finally: Todd Rundgren said in the 90s that we are in the age of "retexturization", a phrase that resonated with me and seems to describe modern music perfectly. Computers allow musicians to incorporate hundreds of styles and sounds into their unique vision. A bluesy back beat or a power chord have become part of the language that an artist can use to tell a story or evoke a feeling (see Beck). I don't think rock music is any less valid a part of the musical language than pop, jazz or classical is. It evokes the raw, the primal, the sexual as powerfully now as it did when Elvis brought it to life.
So I say, rock on.