You were a miner for the art of old

You were a miner for the art of old

The Junos are coming up this week in Regina. That probably has a lot of people wondering why they care.

When the Gemini Awards came to Regina in 2007 I covered them for the radio station I work at. I was on the red carpet talking to our Canadian movie and TV stars (Brent Butt! Mark McKinney! The cast of Little Mosque On The Prairie!), a role for which I was (and would remain to this day) woefully miscast. I was in the media room as part of the press corps interviewing winners backstage, Google-ing information about the programs that took home awards as fast as my fingers could carry me. It wasn’t just because I was too poor to afford cable for my television at the time, either; I hadn’t yet heard of shows like Slings & Arrows, even though it was in its final season (it’s one of my favourite shows ever now, let alone Canadian programming) but I also couldn’t have cared less. The whole affair just had an air of phoniness about it; it felt less like we were actually celebrating Canadian film and television than we were trying to convince ourselves that we could hold a big, glitzy award show just like America.

I’m obviously much more plugged into Canada’s music industry these days but I’m still not sure what to expect out of the Junos. As invested as I am in our musical culture I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full broadcast of the show. I know it has a history of casting a more diverse net than its American counterpart (why aren’t the Grammys ever referred to as America’s Junos?); I can recall a few prominent “indie” acts like The Weakerthans being crowned “Best New Artist” for critically-lauded second or third albums, often five, six, seven years into their careers. Still, like the Grammys, the show seems to glom on to the huge pop tropes of the year and celebrate them a little too thoroughly. If that sounds a little cynical then I guess I’m a little cynical about it.

I get the sense that Bob Wiseman, despite having won five Junos in the past, has some cynicism about it too. Call it coincidence, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Wiseman lately thanks to his new album Gulieta Masina At The Oscars Crying coming out in late January. In his previous life Wiseman collected five Junos for his work as keyboardist for Blue Rodeo. Yeah, that Blue Rodeo. Before and since leaving the group in 1992 he’s meandered through a solo career that has seen him release some curious records, be they a collection of piano-based improvisational numbers sarcastically titled Hits Of The 60s And 70s or his debut full-length, a critically-lauded record that saw its first pressing of 1,000 copies destroyed over his record label’s fears that one song in particular could be libelous because of its implications about American government and corporate involvement in what he believes was the assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende (officially ruled a suicide). He’s also the guy who tried to change his name to Prince when Prince changed his name to a symbol, leading to what was, I’m sure, a doozy of a legal filing. He sings about what’s on his mind, regardless of whether or not it’s a political or cultural powder keg.

Those kind of moments are all over Gulieta Masina At The Oscars Crying. In song Wiseman not only openly blames the RCMP for murdering Robert Dziekanski but also for what he insists is a conflict of interest in being allowed to investigate and exonerate its own officers for tasering the Polish immigrant to death at Vancouver’s airport. He excoriates the Canadian lobbyist sector using Bo Diddley and Little Richard as straw men representing those who put their financial interests before their country’s. He fetes Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti, its first to be democratically-elected, who Wiseman incredulously contends was edged out of power because his efforts at reform upset the American, French, and Canadian political and business interests getting rich exploiting that country and its people. His outrage over his own government muzzling scientists whose work runs counter to its agenda warrants a number here. He sings about the Toronto G20 protests and police being paid to brutalize peaceful protestors. One particularly jarring number, perhaps the album’s most beautiful musical arrangement, contrasts starkly with the lyrical reminder of the inherent racism and desperation of the Dirty Thirties in the USA, the ease with which white girls could falsely accuse a group of black men of rape and watch them head off to the gallows.

Obviously it’s no mistake that Wiseman has placed one of these songs squarely in the midst of the 2011 Juno Awards (at which Winnipeg-born Neil Young was awarded Artist Of The Year and The Allan Waters Humanitarian Award). “Neil Young At The Junos” displays Wiseman’s clear, albeit conflicted, adoration for the titular musical legend. Young is an inspiration to Wiseman, who lauds his better qualities: how his lyrics flowed from a “ballpoint on fire,” how he was “unafraid to point your finger in song” even if it made him enemies, and how he spent the money he made selling his music for charitable efforts like the Bridge School. Wiseman’s characterization speaks volumes about his analytical nature and his lens as a songwriter; for all the positives he doesn’t gloss over the negatives about Young’s career. He seems to view Young’s decision to leave Canada and sell his songs “for the highest bid” derisively, despite the good that came from it. “Tonight when you lay down your head,” he closes, “in some overpriced, fancy hotel bed remember if you die you leave behind more than a legacy of rhyme.” Why Wiseman feels compelled to plead with Young to stay humble after some 45 years in the music business on a song that is mostly laudatory only he knows for sure.

But he does paint a fairly cynical picture of Canada’s music awards. “Tonight they will honour your fame,” he tells Young, “They’ll engrave on a little plaque your name and then you’ll give an acceptance speech and everyone in this room will stand on their feet.” The suggestion seems to be that CARAS presented him with the awards he won that year (Best Alternative Album for Le Noise, Artist of the Year, the Allan Waters) not on the merit of his most recent release but because of his legacy; not a shining endorsement of how the awards are doled out. Wiseman characterizes the ceremony as hollow and weird, an incongruous place for an artist with the kind of depth and imperfect history as Young, as evidenced by his opening salvo: “People want their picture taken with you, secretly afraid that their hairdo will be wrong.” He recognizes that the youngsters riding the latest wave of what’s cool are the driver behind the program, with haircuts and pomp and vacuous, director-prompted standing ovations doing little to move the art form forward.

But again, perhaps that’s a cynic’s interpretation. I suppose I’ll find out this Sunday.