Sitting in Joel Plaskett's studio the morning after Canada Day, both of us exhausted and at least one of us hungover, my phone burst to life. This being the first of many interviews for a book about the Halifax singer-songwriter, I tried to politely ignore my rumbling pocket as I pressed him on the allegories on his album Ashtray Rock. When we took a break an hour later, I finally saw what had happened. Half the journalists I knew had texted me: Had I heard The Grid was shutting down?
I loved The Grid – especially its music coverage. One of Toronto's last remaining alternative weeklies, it managed to feel like a definitive guide to city culture without trying to be everything for everyone. It had risen from the rubble of Eye Weekly and continued its mission of covering the city's music scenes, with writers such as Denise Benson and Stuart Berman guiding readers through Toronto's sonic past and future. Then, by July, 2014, it was gone.
Many of its alt-weekly ilk have disappeared too: FFWD in Calgary, the Mirror and Hour in Montreal, even New Brunswick's Here Magazine, where I got my start writing on culture. For all that print journalism has suffered this century, the slow death of the alt-weekly has choked out a special kind of arts coverage, especially about music. Chronicles and criticisms of scenes down the street, homages to hard-working artists near and far – hyper-local before the word lost all meaning, all in a paper you could grab on the corner. For Canadians, old-guard gathering places to learn about music and the minds behind it are fewer in number with each passing year.
Music journalism has found ways to carry on. A quick glimpse at the Polaris Music Prize jury reveals dozens of Canadian music writers working on new and renewed platforms. Beyond this largely digital rebirth, however, something new has been happening – on the printed page.
As Canada's regular repositories of music wisdom splinter and shift, its writers have been turning to books. Long works of journalism – clear-eyed, third-party journalism, if a little hagiographic – about disarmingly specific topics in popular music are becoming entrenched in publishing. Books are emerging about local scenes and venues, bands that died so that others might live, even the celebration of national identity through promotional compilation CDs.
You could call this swelling genre CanConCon, but let's not. More than a dozen such books have been published in the past few years, and two recent examples – Jason Murray's A Distorted Revolution and David McPherson's The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern – offer variations on the trend's potential.
As a New Brunswicker who spent two years working on an East Coast music book of my own, I was thrilled to hear last year that a full-length book was in the works about Eric's Trip, the Moncton band who signed to Sub Pop in the nineties and expanded what punk could sound like. The arguably most-famous band of my home province would finally be properly documented. Murray's sharply written A Distorted Revolution is the study of the long tail after a creative burst and the power of the connections you make along the way. It stops short, however, of revealing much about some of the personalities and stories behind Eric's Trip, teasing some details without diving in and veering a little too often into memoir to command eager attention. We don't meet a member of the band until more than 20 pages in.
The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, on the other hand, is a rigorously researched account of one of Canada's most storied music clubs. But, sometimes almost academic in voice, it lacks the passion with which such a venue could be chronicled. I've spent dozens of nights on those checkerboard floors in my eight years in Toronto, with countless stories to show for it. Every time I turned the page, I wanted to hear McPherson's own tales – vivid scenes to plant a stake in the place – but left with only breadcrumbs, castaway lines about downing Jack's from the bottle with the Drive-By Truckers, rather than whole passages.
You can't win every time. I'm delighted these books exist at all.
Books on music are hardly new, but the recent flurry of new titles is part of a broader cultural shift – a nascent one, with kinks to work out. New authors are working with small, scrappy publishers to get these stories into the world. With hope, this won't all be a blip and we'll be treated to long treatises on Canadian pop for years to come. There should be time for growing pains.
The spirit of fanzine culture has gifted us with brilliant music blogs for discovery, among them Weird Canada and Said the Gramophone. Like zines themselves, however, they can be hard for casual fans to come upon. CBC's digital music hub seems robust and well-funded, at least for as long as the Liberals are in power. And bless the tenacity of Exclaim!, now in its 25th year, the only magazine of its kind left with such a national reach – a feat buttressed by an expansion into film and comedy coverage.
Evasive, tenuous, diluted – these are the structural struggles of the digital era. Books are a complement and counterbalance. There have always been memoirs – including, recently, from the likes of Denise Donlon, Bif Naked and Robbie Robertson – just as there have long been literary works of music journalism. But who'd have imagined, in the heyday of MuchMusic, that someone would dedicate tens of thousands of words to its nineties-bred promotional CD series Big Shiny Tunes? Such is the specificity of this movement. A Big Shiny Legacy, by Mark Teo, will examine the compilations' triple-platinum-selling first volume when it's released in a few months by Eternal Cavalier Press.
Launched in 2013, Eternal Cavalier is at the forefront of this sea change, dedicated exclusively to Canadian music books. Starting with Escape Is at Hand, co-founder Joshua Kloke's thoughtful examination of his relationship with the Tragically Hip and how fandom evolves, it has so far published five titles from Canadian music writers.
Among them are Andrea Warner's We Oughta Know, which masterfully dismantles the sexist constructs often used to tear down the artistry of Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain. (She's now working on an authorized biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie.) Jesse Locke's Heavy Metalloid Music is the detail-rich tale of Hamilton's Simply Saucer, who laid down foundations for Canadian punk and the boosters who helped them. And the oral history Missing Like Teeth, by Winnipeg's Sheldon Birnie, documents a dozen years of that city's DIY scene, curated with the voice of an old buddy telling tales over Old Style Pilsners at a campfire.
As local journalism withers and media continues its coalescence in Toronto, the chronicling of community scenes is a crucial historical endeavour. Joining Birnie in doing so is Andrew Baulcomb, whose Evenings and Weekends examines Hamilton music from 2006 to 2011. Part scene chronicle, part memoir and part tale of the Arkells's ascendance to Juno-winning hometown heroes, the book builds a narrative that manages to feel familiar even to readers who've never set foot in Steeltown.
In the past few years, Canada has gotten books on the early days of MuchMusic (Is This Live? by Day 1 MuchMusic VJ Christopher Ward); the formative punk band Teenage Head (Gods of the Hammer, by Geoff Pevere); Vancouver indie rock band the Smugglers (Dirty Windshields, by band member and CBC personality Grant Lawrence); and the origin stories of Canadian heavy metal (Metal on Ice, by Sean Kelly) and punk (Perfect Youth, by Sam Sutherland). Many of these could have been written decades ago, but now their time has come.
The preponderance of rock and pop books here, of course, makes for a bad look. Canada has always been slow to support other homegrown genres, especially hip hop, and in publishing, it shows. But a handful of authors have cast aside the country's guitar obsession, including Dalton Higgins, who has written widely on culture and hip hop, including Far From Over, on Drake's early career; and former Grid writer Benson, whose Then & Now documents Toronto dance music and club culture.
If the past two decades of changes to short-form music journalism have nudged new authors into being, this moment in music-book publishing is equally the responsibility of hard, incremental work by a handful of authors and publishers. Rheostatics member Dave Bidini, for one, has been publishing books about music, sports and culture since the nineties; his On a Cold Road is in many ways the definitive tome about touring this country's vast expanses. In 2009, Berman's This Book Is Broken primed a deeper curiosity about this century's indie music. And in chronicling the Toronto region's punk scene in 2010's Treat Me Like Dirt, Liz Worth helped whet Canada's appetite for books such as Perfect Youth and Missing Like Teeth.
Globally, too, Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series on individual albums– with more than 125 entries, including Canadian Carl Wilson's lauded volume on Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love – opened the floodgates for impassioned long-form analysis of music and musicians when it launched last decade.
If one book deserves the most credit for inspiring today's rash of Canadian music literature, it's likely Have Not Been the Same, the nearly 800-page bible of Canadian alternative music history from 1985 to 1995, published first by ECW Press in 2001 and updated in 2011. By Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider, the book looks at the foundations of independent music here – itself becoming the foundation for a new era of literature. (Barclay's now working on a biography of Gord Downie and the Hip.)
Have Not Been the Same was, by a wide margin, the most important foundational text for my own book – a thorough primer for a writer who was too young to see bar shows in the nineties – and I've seen traces of it in countless others. There is no single work that's come up more in my discussions with fellow music writers. In documenting the explosion of music scenes across Canada's vast expanses – and the gatekeepers who encouraged them, like campus radio and CBC's Brave New Waves – it extended a publishing-industry arm to adventurous music writers: You can do this, too.
I hope more do. Because for all there is to celebrate with this movement, most of its writers and subjects still look a lot like me. Toward the end of We Oughta Know, Warner casts a crucial light on Have Not: "It's so heavy with dudes, I had a testosterone imbalance by the end." Its spiritual descendants aren't much different. Whatever this movement is, it's hardly begun. Publishers need to seek out more music books by and about Canadians who are Indigenous, who are people of colour, who are women, who are LGBTQ – more books on Canadian hip hop, electronic, experimental and Indigenous music and everything in between.
That's what the best alt-weeklies have always been good at: getting away from the halls of power and reflecting real life, in basements and garages and dive bars, in places such as Moncton, Hamilton and Winnipeg. They tell stories about artists who, against all odds, bring like-minded people together. With all these music books, publishers are letting more Canadians tell Canadian stories. Let's hope they explore more of Canada.
Josh O'Kane, a Globe and Mail reporter, is the author of Nowhere With You.