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They shoot, they score

[Originally published 1992 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

You should buy the Rheostatics' new album Whale Music for many reasons, not the least of which is its song "Queer." Five years ago, I would have fretted that my loyal homosexualist(rix) readers would leap out and buy the album solely for that song, as though the Rheostatics were doing us a favour. But times have changed, and now it's simply a sign of expected maturity that rock bands deal with "the gay issue." Written by the Rheostatics' two Daves, Bidini and Clark, "Queer" is brilliant in its encapsulation of the separate yet subtly converging tracks on which gay and straight brothers often find themselves. Unlike so many songs, the lyrics even work well on the page:

K.D. called on the weekend. She was crying on the telephone, 'cause father said as far as he's concerned you've been stricken from our home... Father raged like a soldier; he put his fist through the kitchen door when I said it would have been better if you had split on your own accord. I don't care about the damage, but I wish you were there to see it when I scored a hat-trick on the team that called you a fuckin' queer.

Hockey has played a big part in the Rheostatics' songs before; sports enthusiasts all (Bidini has hosted some very smart radio talk shows on hockey, and he and I are the only Canadians writing sports for the Village Voice), they've actually "taken a lot of flak for being a 'Ballad of Wendel Clark' hoser band," Bidini says, referring to their most notorious song. But, he says, "you can take that context and say something meaningful with it. It doesn't have to be Bob and Doug McKenzie." Here, the context is a man writing to the older gay brother, showing him how hockey is, as Bidini puts it, "his time to express himself. That's his reality."

This hits some nerves for me, someone who's only now discovering sports and the capacities of his own body – and just in time, too, at age 27. I led a fag's typical bookish, spindly, clumsy childhood. Weight-training over the last six years didn't help in a holistic sense; sure, I have some muscle now, but nothing compared to so many other guys, the ones who dismiss me almost as readily as they did when I didn't work out at all. Presently I get a thrill out of riding my new bike over hill and dale, and have discovered that I am, in fact, capable of an activity that requires strength, balance, stamina, and careful motor control. Among my friends, more accustomed to an allegedly intellectual Joe, this was seen as beating the odds – and when I first mentioned a year ago that I intended to start writing about sports, a friend told me to get real and try something more sensible, like becoming microwave-cooking editor for Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Bidini says he actually went through a similar coming-of-age, in that hockey was always a battleground as a kid; only as an adult, when he and the lads would get together once a week on whatever ice time they could scrounge, did the closeness, the joy, the genuine recreation of the sport hit him. "It's a love thing," he affirms, and he's not saying that to be cute. It is a love thing. That's why it's such a shame that so many gay kids grow up with no history of playing on teams, whose camaraderie is another brick in the foundations of male-male interaction. And gay men certainly have a stake in becoming good at that early on.

But back to the album. Anyone remotely concerned with the future of Canada – anyone, for example, who refused on principle to enter the recent U.S. visa lottery – could do worse than to tune into the Rheostatics' albums. Melville (1991) is an almost intimidatingly smart album, created, as it was, by hosers who woke up one morning to find they had brains. It's not a record amenable to background listening; the intense, often antiphonious vocals about strikes and the north and speaking French demand complete attention. It's emotionally draining, but that's to its credit. Whale Music lowers the emotional intensity, but that's mostly because it's longer and reaches farther afield. The band will probably get signed to some big U.S.-cum-Japanese label, but I predict Americans won't really get their drift. Other bands may be Canadian, but the Rheostatics have content. I'm not sure the Americans are ready for either.