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Punks in the House of Commons Add to ...

Thirty years ago, Andrew Cash was urgently strumming his Fender Telecaster, shout-singing lyrics of injustice and inequity like Joe Strummer of the Clash.

On bass in the Toronto punk band L'Étranger was Charlie Angus, Mr. Cash's friend since Grade 9 and now the NDP Member of Parliament from Timmins-James Bay.

"If I was Joe Strummer, who was Angus then?" Mr. Cash says laughing. "Tell him he was the Paul Simonon of L'Étranger," he adds, referring to the Clash's handsome but vaguely aloof bassist. "That'll either make his day or make him furious."

Now Mr. Cash will again, in a sense, be a band member with Mr. Angus, having won Toronto's west-side riding of Davenport for the NDP in last Monday's federal election, ending the Liberal party's 49-year winning streak there.

"I don't know if we ever thought we'd be working together in this kind of capacity," Mr. Cash says. "But I think we've both journeyed together - I think that's the best way to say it - even though our lives actually moved in quite different directions after L'Étranger," Mr. Cash says.

Taking its name from the Albert Camus novel, L'Étranger is often described as one of Toronto's seminal punk bands. Yet this was 1980s punk, with a little more social consciousness. After recording three discs, they disbanded in 1986.

Mr. Angus worked as community activist and formed the more country-oriented band Grievous Angels, moving back to Northern Ontario and founding HighGrader magazine in 1995, as well as writing about the region. He was also an organizer in the fight to stop Toronto's garbage from being dumped in Adams Mine.

When Mr. Angus entered politics and was elected in 2004, he and Mr. Cash continued their long political discussions, as they always had since they were kids. Mr. Cash remained a working musician throughout that time, primarily known for being one half of the Cash Brothers with sibling Peter, while also branching into journalism and writing regularly on politics for Now magazine.

Politics and that old do-it-yourself punk mentality increasingly meshed, Mr. Cash says, as he began talking seriously with Mr. Angus and his old friend, singer-songwriter Jason Collett, in the summer of 2009 about running for office himself.

"I remember coming to his place in Toronto," Mr. Angus says, "and we sat down for hours, talking about the riding, talking about mapping out a campaign that wasn't just for show, but to win."

Mr. Cash felt he could only do that with the same kind of fervour he brought to music - and in an atypical way: "I took the approach of my experience being in a band. If you don't believe that your band's the best band on the planet, and that your tunes are going to make it into the Top 10, then you're never going to do it. Even if you're delusional, right? If you don't believe it, no one else is going to believe it."

In turn, Mr. Cash felt he had to project this ethos not only to the voters, but to the musicians who were getting involved in the campaign.

Musicians naturally have an independent bent, Mr. Cash says. Even on purely professional terms, they quickly learn to recognize they are their own bosses. So Mr. Cash let his campaign take on that quality, letting it feel like independent voices organizing around a single candidate. He adds that he was lucky that party leader Jack Layton was enthusiastic about this strategy.

"It doesn't matter whether you're in a band or trying to get votes - or trying to get volunteers. People can tell whether you're mailing it in or whether you're a careerist just looking to put a new thing to put on your C.V," he says. "So the DIY approach is to do things in an authentic way, without waiting for someone to say you can do it this way."

Given his long track record in music, Mr. Cash started his campaign from that base, having already let the substance of his political views come out through his journalism. Mr. Collett and a host of other acts played fundraisers. Oh Susannah, Justin Rutledge and Latin-jazz singer Alejandra Ribera were among those musicians making appearances, Mr. Cash says. Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning also helped out.

"It was an amazing cast of characters that came in and out of this campaign from the music community," Mr. Cash says. Some, such as Mr. Collett, were in on the campaign from as far back as when Mr. Cash was announced as the NDP's official nominee-in-waiting for the riding back in October, 2009. Mr. Cash has known Mr. Collett since they played together in the 1990s band Ursula. Mr. Cash also produced Mr. Collett's first album, when Mr. Collett was performing under the moniker Bird.

"There's not a real tradition in English Canada of people in the music community participating in partisan politics. Of course there's a long tradition of all of us getting involved in causes. But not so much in partisan politics," Mr. Cash says.

Warren Kinsella, Toronto lawyer and Liberal consultant well known for his own punk-rock past, agrees that musicians have an innate reluctance to self-affix any political labels.

"Most musicians are outsiders. They're very suspicious of mainstream institutions, like political parties," Mr. Kinsella says. "Political parties often stand for the things musicians hate - conventions, caution, homogeneity. Punks, in particular, despise politics. But they've started to come to see it as a necessary evil."

So, as Mr. Kinsella adds, "tons of bands now donate songs and shows to help very specific candidates and causes. It allows them to help out, but hold onto their grimy, safety-pinned souls."

The irony is that musicians, older punks in particular, are a natural for rallying public interest and votes. "Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys ran, Joey (Shithead) Keithley of D.O.A. ran, a bunch of punks and former punks have sought public office, too," Mr. Kinsella notes.

"Punks tend to be politically, but not exclusively, progressive, and inevitably come up against the realization that they can only do so much in a band. They form the opinion that, if you're serious about changing the world, you need to do more. I see running for public office as a natural extension of being a punk," he says.

It's not just the politics. Being a musician by trade means having to go full on in order to make it. Mr. Cash felt he had to go just as hard to make it politically.

"If you come from a background of being an artist, you know that the only way to accomplish anything is to go full on, to really give it everything. It's very hard to make it in any kind of creative field. It's hard to become proficient in your chosen field, but it's a whole other thing to be successful in it. The only way to go is to go all in, and that's what we did with this campaign."

As Mr. Angus recounts, "You look at Davenport, and people would say, 'Oh the Portuguese community, that's a Liberal bloc.' [But]let's not look at anybody as a bloc, let's look at them as individuals. What are the issues are the door? How do you engage people? How do you actually get people excited?"

Although strategizing Mr. Cash's "Cash for Toronto" campaign was new, this kind of long head-to-head between Mr. Cash and Mr. Angus was just like what they used to do in their punk days.

"We haven't really changed much," Mr. Angus says. "People tend to think rock 'n' roll is exciting and sexy. But we tended to stay up all night and argue about politics and hockey, and we probably would still do that now if we could stay up all night."

Today, their discussions centre around Mr. Cash's platform of the needs of urban workers. Back then, it was the mélange of troubles facing the world, which most of the members of L'Étranger learned about in classes at Toronto's Neil McNeil Catholic high school.

Mr. Angus didn't go to that school, but Mr. Cash and the other band members did. The teachers would talk about the uprisings against repression in Latin America. At the same time, the Clash was releasing the album Sandinista!

"We were very political. We were active in community and grassroots organizations, the peace movement and Rock Against Racism back in the day. Yeah, we were the political band in Toronto," Mr. Angus says. "There was social justice, and there was the Clash. That was our world-political experience, and it served us well."

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