[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
What would the world would be like if the only politically-informed tunes we could listen to were rap, "women's music," and tedious rap/metal and rap/rock hybrids like Consolidated and Rage Against the Machine? Ugh. Things are bad enough already. However, there are a couple of luminaries of the polemic circuit – if you're willing to stomach a Difficult Listening Hour or two.
Bob used to play keyboards in Blue Rodeo – a task which seemed to occupy about 3% of his available brainpower – and would meander and grimace and stare into space while playing, though he doesn't hum the way Glenn Gould did. Bob is something of an acquired taste; while filled to the brim with musical talent, his solo albums have seen him join a spare instrumental accompaniment to lyrics you could call political in a broad sense sung in his twangy yet endearing voice. A couple of years back on his album In Her Dream, the song "Bhopal," the angriest, jazziest oom-pah number you ever heard, took on Union Carbide. And hey, they deserved it.
Bob's newish album City of Wood offers more of the same. He wants me to point out that his song "Have a Nice Day" is "about Douglas Christie who defended boors that tampered in Winnipeg with an anti-homophobic hotline, not to mention starting up a Ku Klux Klan chapter." The title track hits harder: "He's a parasite, a married man, a well-groomed, perfumed president of the company. Smells like shit to me. He's the scum that tried to hit her. He's like the ones that marched for Hitler and the thing that scares me most is that he's out there walking free." Be afraid. Be very afraid. And buy Bob's album.
Declaration of conflict of interest: I've known Montreal writer/poet/crooner Ian Stephens for a few years and even receive thanks on the liner notes of his new album, Wining Dining Drilling (commas optional). It's a small world after all, as they say. Ian specializes in a species of dirge-like, bass- and wah-wah-pedal-heavy song structure that may bring Bauhaus and Ministry to mind. But Ian mumbles more, and besides, he has the guts to include a few tracks of spoken-word poetry on the album. He never wanted to hit the Top 40 anyway.
If the titles of the songs and poems don't snare you ("Coroner Wants a Kiss," "Loser w/ a Hard-On," "Sex is Dog," "Queer in Amerika"), the imagery will. "I started to get sick in New York, started to cough all the time. Every time I look out the window, cold, cold rain. I knew it was time to get back, to get back, so I walked up and gave a cold dry kiss to this guy, know I'll never see him again... And I just wanted to write to tell you that I'm doing OK. People have been very kind, I guess."
"Diary of a Trademark" says: "No matter if I read about it or not, reality obtrudes – people dying, really dead this time, friends, acquaintances, rivals, jerks, saints, lovers... The anger graduates into white screaming fury at those who do nothing and, through nothing, kill... I walk with scarfed-up lesbians and remember passing Tony and Masha trying to light a candle. Within two years both are dead and it occurs to me, cold-boned idiot that I am, at Tony's memorial service that churches were created for funerals, the sweet-voiced tenors celebrating his friend's and family's grief. The priest, despite his organization's official hate policy, tries to wrap it up, hypocritical bastard."
Imagine you're a billionaire like Bill Gates of Microsoft, only queer. In your new acid-rain-proof, earthquake-resistant, UV-screening Biosphere-like mansion you install floor-to-ceiling LCD screens on which works of art can be made to appear. Whenever your T-cells are threateningly low you always dial up some David Wojnarowicz paintings, some old ACT UP posters (ah, those were the days), some pointed splashes of Futura Extra Bold Italic from Barbara Kruger ("You are not yourself"; "Admit nothing. Blame everyone. Be bitter"). As one image dissolves into the next, your [DVD]-ROM drive randomly selects tracks from Wining Dining Drilling, a few by Diamanda Galás, and some spitting, angry numbers by Fatima Mansions. And you feel for a moment that you are not alone, that while you may still stick out you are not the only sore thumb.
NOTE: Ian Stephens died on March 22, 1996 of AIDS-related complications. Further compilations of his writing and music are being contemplated, including possible Web uploading. Check here periodically.