Monday, September 7, 2015

Old Workhorses and Fierce Joy

Last night I had the very great pleasure of seeing Canadian hair-band of the '80s Platinum Blonde in concert at the PNE. 
One of the obligatory Rock God poses. 
Now, if you had asked me before I went out last night if I was excited to see PB, my answer would have been "Um, nooo. Not really." We went because my sweetheart has a free pass to the fair, and I'd already been once that day so I could re-enter at will. Summer made a half-hearted reappearance this weekend after days of cold and rain, and we were both itching to get outside again. So off we went for one more night of overpriced booze and heart-stopping deep-fried treats. 

We got to the beer garden just before Platinum Blonde started their second set of the night. 

And you know what? It was a ton of fun. And it was a ton of fun not because the music was tight and catchy, or because the lighting was killer, or because the sound was crisp. These were all true. But it was fun because the band was having a blast. This was the small stage at the PNE, there were probably less than a thousand people in attendance, and these guys were rocking out as if their lives depended on it. And I saw the same thing (with a mellower vibe) when Vancouver rocker Barney Bentall hit the same stage the first week of the fair, with a much smaller audience. And to a certain extent when Darryl Hall and John Oates played the much bigger amphitheatre at the PNE last Friday. These guys are not playing fairgrounds and wineries and casinos to pay for their alimony or their drug habits. They're up there because making music together is still sheer joy for them. You could see it in Barney Bentall's eyes as he said "My grandkids are in the audience today" (!), or in Mark Holmes' over-the-top leaping and posturing as he sang the hits that made Platinum Blonde famous. He was clearly relishing the fact that he still had the body and the pipes that made him a teen idol 30 years ago. Hall and Oates were a little more workmanlike in their show, although the band was super-tight. But hey, these guys are pushing seventy, for god's sake. I want to look half as good as they do when I hit their age. It was a revelation to me, because I'd always been deeply cynical about "nostalgia acts". 

Here's why: The summer I turned 30- the night I turned 30 in fact-  a band I was in at the time played a fun little gig at Panorama Resort in eastern BC. As we were a small and little-known band, we had a great time playing our Celtic-Folk-Pop for the assembled crowd, and we got an extra kick out of knowing that we were opening for Doug & The Slugs, who were a favourite of mine and who I was pretty stoked to see. 

Unfortunately, "stoked" would clearly be the opposite of what Doug Bennett was feeling about playing that night. I think "tired", "embittered" and "couldn't give a rat's ass" would all be better descriptors. He told off-colour jokes, made bitter little wisecracks, and had to sit on a stool for much of the Slugs' set. I was saddened but not at all surprised when he died, only 2 months later. His let-down appearance in my life seemed like a cautionary tale: he was the only original "slug" in the band at that point; he seemed to be performing only because he had to, and he was only playing old stuff. There was no joy there. Was this what it was like to become famous early on and spend the rest of your life never measuring up to that? 

When he died, I read that Bennett had a wife and children. I hope he found a lot of happiness in his post-famous years, and that the performance I saw was simply an ill man having a rough night. But after that show I always thought that nostalgia bands doing the fairground or casino circuit must be just phoning it in, just doing it for the money. Why else would you continue to do the same thing year after year?

I've been wrestling lately with the whole concept of being a musician. I don't feel inspired to write songs right now and I don't feel inspired to practice my instruments. When I have gigs at seniors homes or street festivals I have a great time, but I don't seem able to find the drive to dig deep and practice, to play when there's nobody listening. 
Am I being lazy? Uncreative? I am driven to practice yoga every day. I write all the time. I've crocheted hats and shawls and granny squares. I've brainstormed story ideas with my guy. I take photographs, but then who doesn't these days? There is something happening, creatively speaking, most of the time. It just isn't music right now. 

Lately I talked to a dear friend whose drive to master her instrument has always both daunted and inspired me. She talked about how geography (she lives in the remote north) and circumstance (she has a young child) and happiness (she is finally with a really decent guy who treats her well) have blunted the ambitions she once held. She is no less wonderful a musician, but touring for little money, playing gigs with toxic bandmates, and steering projects towards exposure and success are no longer how she wants to spend her life. We're in our forties; our priorities have changed. 

I can't ever visualize a life without music. I am lucky to have natural talent as a singer and performer, and unlucky too, because it means I've never had to work very hard at it. But I will always identify as a musician, even if I don't always deserve to, even if life takes me in other directions. Now, when I see bands playing 30 year-old hits with such joy to crowds that may be smaller but are no less enthusiastic, I see people whose lives took them in many directions: father, doctor, drug addict, businessman, bluegrass player... and then, if they were lucky, they got to stand onstage and let their old songs pour out and feel so fortunate that this music has lasted to sustain them once again. 

My guy takes the time every day to practice his guitar for 15 minutes because it helps him to unwind from the work he does all day at home on his computer. In his daily routine, as he learns the simplest chords and strumming patterns,  I see the same fierce joy that I saw on the faces of those retro rockers at the PNE and I remember that there are as many ways for your creative work to sustain and nourish you as there are people doing it. 

Never assume that old workhorses are just phoning it in. I learned a lot from watching them the past few weeks. Amid all my struggles with music, and finding the drive to continue, I saw joy where I expected to find grim struggle and it was inspiring. 



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