Thursday, June 21, 2012

Going on the journey

I know some of the other people involved - and more involved than me - have already written about last weekend's epic telling of The Odyssey: Marie Bilodeau and Tom Lips, in particular. I was there, as usual for storytelling events, as a cheerleader and booster (and, for my sins, offerer of handmade cross stitched Dalek T-shirts in exchange for donations to the Indiegogo fundraiser . . . I now have a dozen Daleks to stitch . . .)

They have nothing to do with The Odyssey, no. Except in that the Doctor is a lot like Odysseus in many ways. Traveling from one adventure to the next, defeating monsters, putting everyone traveling with him in mortal danger, and having very clever plans which he makes up as he goes along. Poseidon's kinda like the Black Guardian, come to think of it. . . and the rest of the gods could be the High Council of the Time Lords, exiling him, then randomly deciding to send him home. . .  someone stop me.
But to be totally honest, I think we all had our doubts. Would people really want to come to the NAC at 10:00 in the morning and commit themselves to a story until 10:00 at night? Is The Odyssey that timeless? Are people that curious?

As it turned out, they did, and it is, and they were.

My niece came up for the weekend from Montréal to see the show, intrigued by the idea. We got ourselves up and caffeinated in time to run some supplies over to the green room before the show at 8:30 a.m. - fruits, veggies, bread, dips, coffee, tea, chips, brownies, etc. - and I set them up while she went out and staked out a table. I'd been to a long telling before, a couple of years ago, when a group of storytellers took three days to tell the whole Norse myth cycle. This was different, though. This was more public, in a way. It was at the NAC, not under a tent in Jan Andrews and Jennifer Cayley's front lawn. It was more formal.

But the magic still happened - and people did come. At 10:00 the room was comfortably full of people who grabbed a coffee, found their seats, settled in, and got ready to go the distance with Odysseus, and we started out with the gods deciding what to do with him, as he was trapped on Calypso's island.

The time flew. There's no way I could reflect on every storyteller's performance (there were eighteen of them) but there were moments that stood out, and pairings that made perfect sense to me. Gail Anglin does the conversations of gods so well. Jacques Falquet's Calypso was, to be honest, dead sexy. Daniel Kletke's Cyclops was a wonderful juxtaposition of careful herdsman and vicious brute. Kim Kilpatrick's voice and humor were perfect for the scene with Nausicaa by the stream. Top Lips, in the protracted, viciously funny scene in the hall before Odysseus shows himself, was wonderful. When Marie Bilodeau's set was over, my niece leaned over to me and said that she guessed Marie got that bit so she could tell the part where Telemachus kicks Peisistratus awake at three in the morning because he's so impatient to get back to Ithaca, and I believe it: she made the two of them, in a couple of lines of dialogue, seem like college roommates, which is essentially what they are. Marta Singh made the scene where Odysseus first speaks with Penelope, and she thinks he's just a beggar, seem like a seduction, and when the nurse discovers who he is, she made me feel the vital importance of keeping her from spilling the secret. Katherine Grier's ending to her story, and the set, with Odysseus and Telemachus, finally revealed, armed, and side by side in the hall facing the suitors, "resplendent in bronze," rang for a few shocked seconds before the applause began. Jan Andrews' reflective style perfectly matched the final scenes, where Penelope and Odysseus are finally back together. . . and have no idea what to say to each other.

It's also a story about people, with so much humanity in it. There were things I'd never known about the story, like the way you get to watch Telemachus grow up, the way you get a sense of why those who stay loyal to Odysseus love him so much, the way Penelope is revealed to be far more complex than you'd think. And the way the ocean, and all those small rocky islands with their harbours and their seafaring people, are so prominently a part of the story.

There's something about committing to hearing a story the long way, sound by sound and word by word, that connects you to it. It takes time for things to happen. It takes nearly twenty minutes for Odysseus' great bow, which Penelope brings into the hall, to finally make it way inevitably into Odysseus' hands. Telemachus sails off, and a party of suitors follow to ambush and kill him on his way home, and hours and hours later you finally find out what happened. And I don't think I could have listened to a reading that was that long: but when it's storytellers, it's a different experience entirely.

I was also happy to see that although there were half-day tickets, starting at 4:30 (just after Odysseus lands in Ithaca, I believe) most people opted to come for the whole day, and take the whole journey. And very few, once they'd come in and started to listen, could bring themselves to leave. At the lunch and supper breaks, we wandered out into the bright daylight and found patios to sit on with other people from the audience, talked, ate, drank, and then headed back quickly, not wanting to miss a word.

The applause was resounding and long at the end, and then there was even more applause, and then Top Lips led everyone in a resounding chorus of "What Do You Do With A Drunken Suitor" ("Hey, hey, rosy fingers, earlie in the morning....") and there was more applause, and then people began, tired and with what my niece and I called "story-brain," to trickle away. But slowly: some of them not quite wanting to part company just yet. Not after having been on such a long journey together.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Talking to Bernie

This week on Literary Landscape I got to talk to Bernie Finkelstein - a life-long insider in the Canadian music scene and the founder of True North Records. He was Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan's manager; he produced records by Rough Trade, Kensington Market and Dan Hill. Basically, his life has followed the track of the Canadian music business from "Business? What business?" through the 60s Yorkville boom and the slow but sure building of the profile of Canadian artists. He's been influential in the creation of a lot of the support systems that have allowed new Canadian musicians to flourish, like FACTOR, MuchFACT, and a bunch of other initiatives that help new Canadian artists hold their own against the tidal wave of the American industry. I loved what he had to say about how being Canadian doesn't necessarily make you 'indie' in any trendy, hipster way, but it does in that it makes you think, a lot of the time, about the giant you're lying cheek by jowl with.

I read the book in a matter of about two days - partly because it was sent to me on Tuesday, and I had to interview Bernie on Thursday. But it wasn't a trial to read it in that time. It felt like a chat, in part because of his writing style, which was very conversational, but also because all he was doing with the book was talking about what happened to him. And without laying it on thick about the points he was making, he let incidents illustrate the point. Like the moment with the CNE, when he ran into a director who refused to have Murray McLauchlan perform, saying he wouldn't put "that kind of stuff" on the stage at a family show.

Murray McLauchlan. This guy:

Apparently the problem was the director didn't know the difference between Murray McLauchlan and Maclean and Maclean. These guys.

Clearly, people didn't know anything about their own music scene, the incident seemed to say. Clearly, Canadian talent had a long fight ahead of it to be recognized by its own national institutions... Anyway, I read the book and felt like I had an idea of the guy I was going to be talking to, but I was still a little nervous talking to someone who's talked to everyone else. What am I going to be able to say that's remotely intelligent about the music industry? I thought.

Turned out, as it usually does, that I didn't have to. Bernie was a great interview: of course, he's had decades of experience. But he also managed to lead me nicely from one of the questions I'd meant to ask to the next.  The whole thing went smoothly: I had time to get to the major points I wanted to nudge him into talking about, like the uneasy relationship with the American industry, his reasons for staying in Canada, not moving to New York like everyone else did in the early 60s, and talking about the 'bleep' that sold Rough Trade's single 'High School Confidential.' What I didn't get to, and wish I had, was his take on the disappearance of the 'single.' Wish I knew what he had to say about that. Maybe I'll ask him if I can make it to his reading at the Elmdale on Sunday (7:00: check it out at

The interview is posted here! Click to listen: about 30 minutes.

Some songs we talked about during the interview, for your infotainment: