The Front-Man: An Endangered Species

With the sad news of Gord Downie’s death, a mere two weeks after the sudden death of Tom Petty, it put me in a reflective mood.  After the death of Prince in 2016, I wrote about the tragedy of losing too many musical icons too soon.  The past year has shed light on a different issue: the loss of Front-Men.  The guys who stand at the front of the stage, singing, leading and interacting with the crowd, are becoming more and more endangered.  Gord Downie, Tom Petty, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington and Greg Allman, all lost in 2017, were more than just part of a band, they WERE the band.  If personality was an instrument, most of these guys would be considered world class players.

Historically, bands who attempt to continue without the original lead singers, fall flat.  INXS, Van Halen, Foreigner and even Journey before they stumbled upon Arnel Pineda, were basically the answer to a trivia question.  I don’t expect The Tragically Hip, The Heartbreakers, Linkin Park or the Allman Bros Band to ever continue in their current form with a new singer.  Soundgarden may do a tribute tour with guys like Eddy Vedder and Dave Grohl filling in on vocals but the band as a whole is likely done.  The personality of a band hinges on the charisma of the Front-Man and they are becoming fewer and far between.

Dave Grohl is clearly the current king of Front-Men in a very small kingdom.  Obviously Bono and Eddy Vedder are exclusive to their bands but they have both been around forever.  Adam Levine is now better known as a judge on The Voice than as the singer for Maroon 5.  Can you name three lead singers for recent bands? I can’t name any.  That might point more to the fact that my tastes in music precede current acts but if there is a band out there with a lead singer who almost seems bigger than the band, I would like to know who.  Flipping through the Billboard charts, I find mostly solo acts.  Imagine Dragons are a decent band but I couldn’t name any of them.  Same goes for The Killers and The Chainsmokers.  Maybe you can make an argument for Coldplay but it would be a weak one.

I’m not sure if it is ego or just greed but there just seems to be a lack of band-focused artists.  Everyone seems to want their own name on the marquee and while there is nothing wrong with that, it is a subtle but massive change in the music landscape.  Image now comes before music and its not something that I see as a good thing moving forward.

So, while I mourn for Gord, Tom and the others, I’ll be celebrating bands like U2, Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam for being the last of something that used to be great.

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The Emmys Offer Further Proof That Awards Shows Need to Change or Go Away

It’s like a bad dream that everyone keeps having but its the same dream.  A room full of beautiful Hollywood people, many of them in horrendous dresses, have their names called to accept an award.  A look of shock and surprise crosses their face and is then used as an excuse as to why they are unable to eloquently deliver a one-page speech.  The problem is, it’s not a dream.  It’s every awards show ever and it seems to be getting worse.

Those of us who actually watch the broadcasts have no one else to blame because there are a million better things to do with our time.  I choose to watch and as that final unprepared speech is fumbled through at 11pm EST, I have nothing but regret for wasting the last three hours.  This is the cream of the crop? These people are the reason we spend unfair amounts of money every month for so-called “entertainment?” How is it possible that the people standing in front of that microphone can memorize hundreds of pages of material on-set but can not prepare and deliver a 60-second speech thanking their peers, regardless if they believe they are going to win? It is an embarrassment of the highest order.  Some of these people have won constantly over the years and are still unable to edit the “ums” and “awes” out of their presentations or remember the names of people they want to thank (even when the paper is in their hands!).  It needs to stop.  If producers and networks believe these shows need to continue, every nominee needs to be assigned a speechwriter and must go through a private audition process before the show.  Especially the ones who spend their time behind the cameras and are not normally expected to address a crowd.

Which brings me to my next point.  Obviously the producers believe it is a good idea to save the major categories for the end of the show so people will stick around but let’s be honest: the bad speeches mostly come from the minor categories earlier in the show.  We watch the winner of Best Writing in a Limited Series slowly drag his/her ass up the aisle from the very back of the room, which alone takes an extra 60 seconds, then as they fumble their way through the speech, the music starts playing and they don’t want to leave so they start talking faster, which makes it worse.  By the time they get off stage, at least three to four minutes of the show has been wasted and as that adds up through the night, it means that excellent speeches in major categories (such as Donald K. Sterling) get cut off because of time restraints.  I see two options for fixing this mess.  One option, you do the major categories earlier in the evening so they get their allotted speech time.  I know it’s a matter of viewership but let’s be honest, more people are following live online than watching on TV anyways so it is a necessary evil.  If that is not going to happen then the other option is making sure the first ten to fifteen rows of seats are for the nominees only. Why is Oprah sitting front row when she is only presenting and not until the very end of the night? When a show wins an award, they march every single person up on stage and some of them seem to be sitting in the parking lot.  The amount of time wasted on waiting for winners to get to the podium is unbearable.

One thing I must mention specific to this year’s show was the decision to use this DJ Jermaine Fowler as the announcer.  I hope right now as I write this, the CBS executive who made that decision is being escorted by security to clean out his office.  Not only was he not funny, witty or interesting, he had no idea how to edit his material into short passages and a couple of times almost spoke over the speech.  His voice was like listening to nails on a blackboard and he spoke at Kevin Hart speed but without the funny.  I don’t usually like to wish negative things on people but I hope his show, Superior Donuts, is cancelled immediately.

I suppose I should say something about host Stephen Colbert whom I like (but don’t love) as host of The Late Show.  I thought he had some strong ideas for bits but they didn’t deliver for the most part.  The Westworld hosting robot bit had promise but fell a little flat and the One-on-One with Emmy was doomed from the start.  I don’t understand why more hosts haven’t taken notes from Ricky Gervais when doing theses gigs.  Stand on stage, be blatantly honest about the show and the stars and don’t rely on silly pre-recorded bits.  It is the truest and easiest way to generate laughs.  The first thing to get cut for time restraints are the comedy bits so if you are going to get one or two in, they have to be strong, which they weren’t.

I’m sure all these issues will be fixed for the Oscars…I’ll be watching to make sure.

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Generations Apart: The Legacy of Chuck Berry

Chuck! Chuck! It’s Marvin….your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you’ve been looking for? Well, listen to this…

It is one of the most memorable scenes of the 1980s as Marty McFly from 1985 rocks out to the as-yet-unheard Johnny B. Goode at his future parents’ prom in 1955.  The movie is still one of the best ever made but beyond that, the performance of that song helped bring together two generations that could not have been more diametrically different, mine and my parents’ generations: Baby Boomers and Generation X.

I can’t remember why, but Johnny B. Goode was one of the first rock ‘n roll songs that I knew all the words to.  Maybe it was from listening to my dad’s Chuck Berry cassette constantly in his 1984 Cutlass Supreme or from watching Back to the Future over and over, giving the VHS tape a run for it’s money.  My father and I have the typical relationship that many Boomers and Xers have: I dispute everything he says because I know better,  But in my case, I actually do know better.  Despite all that, when it came to the classic rock ‘n roll sound of Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, to this day we can have a normal, adult conversation.  Chuck Berry was able to link our generations like no one else and with his death yesterday, I’m wondering if there will ever be a link like that between my generation and my kids’ Generation Z.

When Back to the Future came out, I was 9 (turning 10 that year) and it spoke to me on many levels including the music.  My oldest kid is 9 (turning 10 this year) and although she has seen and loved the movie, the same connection was not made.  It made me wonder if a musical link with her generation will ever be possible.  It’s hard to imagine the remake of Back to the Future in 2045 featuring Daniel Bieber texting his cousin Justin back in 2015 to check out a new video he just uploaded to YouTube with a sound he’s been searching for.  I had hoped that my obsession with Bruce Springsteen would have caught on and we could have found a song to be ours but so far it’s not looking good. Unfortunately, with Generation Z it feels like music is less about finding an emotional connection than to just bopping your head and dancing (which also speaks about the current quality of music but that’s a blog for another day).

My hope is that wherever Chuck is watching the world from now, he takes satisfaction knowing he did a lot for family relationships for parts of three generations.  Maybe one day when my oldest kid is re-watching Back to the Future, she will take note of that scene and start to ask questions about the music.  Not likely but a man can dream.


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‘Tis the Season to Be…Early?

You may have noticed that the Christmas season is underway. Unless you don’t go online, watch TV, listen to the radio or leave your house, chances are that you’re aware. Historically, the colourful argument for this time of year was ‘Real Vs. Artificial Tree’ but with the retail blitz on TV and radio, ‘Mall Santas’ starting up this weekend and city workers already adorning streets with wreaths and angels, it begs another question: Is it too early?

As a self-proclaimed Christmas-Meister, as far back as I can remember, once Halloween came and went the holiday season was in full flight.  When I was old enough to realize it, I adjusted that until after Remembrance Day as a sign of respect but with that said,  it is very likely that when the sun sets on November 12th my home has its exterior Christmas lights glowing.  The tree and interior decorations go up around December 1st and gift shopping is also generally done by that time but to be fair, my kids all have birthdays between mid-November and early December so we need to buy gifts anyway. It also seems that everyone wants to start hosting their seasonal parties by mid-November so since we are already entrenched in the season it only seems logical that November 12th is the unofficial start of Christmas Season.  I found out today that not everyone shares my view.

For years I always thought that my brother-in-law was a little off because he insisted the tree does not go up until December 23 and comes down on Boxing Day (my sister has since pushed him to get the tree up by mid-December).   A colleague at work also believes that November is way too early to be in Christmas mode.  He feels that December 1st is a fair timeline for outdoor lights and mid-December for decorations and a tree.  His argument is that most people are either unaware or uninterested in the actual meaning of the holiday and the earlier it all starts (meaning decorations and the retail blitz), the more commercialized and less meaningful the actual point of it becomes.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that view but I do not see the harm in my mother’s explanation for the way we have always done things.  She loves Christmas and since she always starts her baking by mid-November, we always had decorations, lights and a tree up by early December (we fall on the ‘Artificial’ side of the old argument).  When I asked her about it she told me that it made the house feel festive and since it was so much work to decorate, why not enjoy it a little longer.  I still live by that mantra.

Obviously, over the years the meaning of Christmas has become less obvious to the average person as the holiday has become more and more commercialized.  Charles Shulz used his Peanuts to discuss this exact issue back in 1965 when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired.  It was clearly becoming an issue back then and presently, in this age of acronyms and emojis, we seem to find a way to summarize instead of revisiting it fully.  We use the “Coles Notes” version of it if you will (absolutely no one under 30 will get that reference).  There is certainly room to share the true meaning and find some time to put up lights before the calendar turns to December.  The key is to find that happy median between enjoying the commercial elements and celebrating the true meaning of the season.  We can’t control some of the silliness but as long as we are using the season to spend time with family and friends and spread a little cheer, that solidifies the spirit of Christmas.

So regardless of your opinion of when decorations should go up, you can be sure that I am fully aware of exactly what we are celebrating.  Even if the outside of my house is glowing on November 12th.

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The Tragedy of the Hip

Over the past few months, leading up to the Tragically Hip’s final show in Kingston, there have been many articles written about the situation.  As a long-time fan of the band, I found myself unsure about a “final” tour.  Although I had been a fan since the beginning, I hadn’t bought an album or seen them in concert since the late 90s and over the years they had disappeared from my playlist.  Obviously, I thought it was sad news about Gord Downie’s condition but outside of that I really didn’t have a present feeling about the band one way or the other.  That was, until I watched the final concert.

I started high school in 1989, the same year as Up to Here was released.  Road Apples came out in 1991 in the midst of my teen angst and then Fully Completely dropped in 1993, the year I graduated.  To say those three albums were important to me is an understatement.  In addition to that,  Day For Night came out just before I started college.  Each of those four albums played a role in different parts of my life.  I also cite those four albums because after Day For Night, I felt some of the magic was gone with the albums that followed.  In my opinion, it happened to many bands who were a big part of me at some point.  Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, INXS, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, after three or maybe four albums, they just lost something (to this day, I still feel that the Stones’ last good album was Tattoo You in 1981).  Maybe my tastes had changed or maybe they were writing songs that no longer meant anything to me, but with the release of Trouble At The Henhouse, the disinterest in The Hip began to set in.  The band, whose first five albums were anthems to my life (I picked up the self-titled debut album at some point along the way), had become too slow, too boring.  So I did what any twenty-something male does after losing interest in something or someone: I moved on.

To be honest, I had hardly thought about the Hip over the past fifteen years until the news about Downie went public.  My initial reaction was “how the hell are Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steven Tyler, Axl Rose, Ozzy Osbourne and dozens more who lived on booze and hard drugs for most of their adult lives, still alive and mostly healthy in their 60s and 70s?”  Gord Downie, to my recollection,  never got arrested for public intoxication, smuggling drugs in an airport, soliciting prostitutes and never had any kind of public scandal but he is the one who gets dealt a bad hand.  He is the chosen one from the music industry who is going to pay the price for the others.  It’s not fair.

As I watched the final concert, I noticed how rough Downie’s vocals sounded, how he couldn’t hit a lot of notes he used to nail.  He also didn’t move around a ton, choosing to live at the front of the stage.  As I watched him kiss each of his band mates on the lips before, during and after the show it finally hit me: this concert truly was Gord Downie saying goodbye to The Tragically Hip.  To the music, the musicians, the crowds, the job title of Lead Vocalist, he was saying goodbye to all of it.  A rush of sadness hit me as I realized this.  The man whose vocals and storytelling brought me so much joy and excitement as a teen and young adult, was never going to perform live again.  Even though I hadn’t bought a concert ticket in many years, it felt like a sudden closing of a chapter. One more piece of my youth disappearing.

If that really is the last time Gord stands on a stage with the band, I just want to say thanks.  Thanks for writing great songs, putting on amazing shows and making the Canadian music industry a cool place.  You will always be more than “Another Roadside Attraction.”

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Netflix Does It Again With ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’

In case you haven’t noticed, this little streaming service called Netflix has been slowly taking over the world of film and television.  Not satisfied with just streaming existing movies and TV shows, CEO Reed Hastings decided it was time to move into original production.  It started a couple of years ago with the ambitious revival of Arrested Development, the phenomenal Fox comedy that was killed off in 2006 after three excellent seasons and somehow managed to get the entire cast back for more episodes.  Once that happened, the sky was the limit.

Their impressive run has included a lucrative contract with Marvel for its Defenders series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) along with some of the best dramas around like House of Cards, OITNB, Narcos and Bloodline and the continuing revival of classics with Full House and Gilmore Girls.  The genius of the revival game is that by renewing these old series, Netflix now owns the entire original run of episodes.  This one-time small service is now a financial juggernaut with no thanks to Blockbuster Video.  In case you didn’t know, Reed met with then-Blockbuster CEO John Antioco in 2000 and suggested a partnership to make Netflix their online service and was laughed out of the office.  Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

So, what were they to do after proving successful in producing television shows? Produce and distribute movies of course.  It started in 2015 with Beasts of No Nation followed by Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous 6 and this year got into the film revival business with a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and then Pee Wee’s Big Holiday.  After getting on the Ricky Gervais train with his show Derek, they also financed his movie Special Correspondents and his next film David Brent: Life on the Road.  While all these films are fun, they are also a little thin on respectability.  After doing dark television drama so well they needed a movie for grown-ups to prove they were serious about films.  Enter ‘The Fundamentals of Caring.’

Based on the novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, the film was shown at Sundance where Netflix secured distribution rights.  The story is about an out-of-work writer who takes a job as a caregiver to a teen with Muscular Dystrophy and they embark on a road trip together.  It looks and feels just like the indie film it is but Paul Rudd brings a certain credibility to his funny and heartfelt performance.  The film was adapted and directed by Rob Burnett, the long-time Executive Producer of David Letterman’s late night talk shows as well as Worldwide Pants, the production company that brought Everybody Loves Raymond and Ed to network television.

The brilliance in this film is how it never turns into a sad, tear-jerking or depressing story despite the subject matter.  There is a lot of drama but it gets inter-cut with streaks of subtle comedy which kept me engaged the entire time.  I actually believed that Ben (Rudd) and Trevor (Craig Roberts) were on this journey together.  Another reason I may have been drawn to this film is because I actually have a friend who has been wheel-chair bound most of his life from this exact disease and the portrayal of the situation was completely accurate: he is a regular guy with limited movement.

There is always a preconception that someone in a wheelchair is constantly suffering, either mentally or physically, which is definitely not the case judging by my friend.  He has one of the dirtiest minds in the world and makes more jokes about vaginas than anyone else I know.  The way Ben and the rest of the characters speak to Trevor shows they are very comfortable with his situation and don’t see him as different.  That is why the comedy in this film works so well, especially the self-deprecating jokes about being handicapped. Also, the conversations felt very real.  There is a discussion of not knowing how long Trevor will be around as Ben explains that Trevor “will be lucky to make it to thirty” which is exactly what my friend was told many years ago (he turned 39 a few months ago and is still going strong) proving that a sense of humour can help you live much longer.

While Netflix didn’t technically produce this film they should get a lot of credit for bringing it into the mainstream and getting way more eyes on it than it would have gotten in a theatrical run.  I don’t know if this film will make it into any of the categories at the Emmy Awards but in my opinion, it certainly deserves to be in the conversation.

I wonder if John Antioco enjoyed it?

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Musical Wellness for the Soul

“If music be the food of love, play on.”  That is a line from Twelfth Night and is the only line of Shakespeare that I remember from high school.  Funny how you don’t realize what is being taught to you until years later.

I come from a very musical family.  Many of my cousins have been involved in bands, songwriting and music camps for most of my life.  When I was in 7th grade, we were taught the basics of guitar as a class.  There were 30 acoustic guitars available so everyone had one to learn on.  That changed my life in a very positive way.  I stumbled onto something that I had absolute passion for.  Turns out, it was something I was good at as well.  While I always liked sports, I was an average athlete on my best day.  I realized that music was something I could really embrace and I would never had thought it would still play such an important, emotional role in my life thirty years later.

After being smitten with guitar in music class through 8th grade, I started taking lessons and in high school played in a couple of bands, eventually deciding I preferred being a solo act and writing songs.  Those songs were my therapy through high school and into college.  Meet a girl? Write a song about it.  Think back about the high school days? Write a song about it. A family member passes away? Write a song about it.  I literally could pour every feeling I had into a song and feel better by the time it was done.  It was very therapeutic but at the end of the day, listening and learning how to play all the incredible songs that were out there was the real answer.  Whether it was Springsteen, Tragically Hip, U2, Lenny Kravitz, John Mellencamp or Bob Marley, there was a song that I could learn and feel the emotion when I played it.  That feeling still rings true all these years later.  Even though I don’t play often, it still awakens a lot of emotions when I do.  That’s the power of music.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, just watch some of the performances on shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent.  If you’re not on the verge of tears after some of those than you must be a robot.  I cite those shows because the songs chosen are generally from genres that have heart and soul.  No one gets moved by dance music or hip hop.  It makes you want to dance which is great but there is little or no emotion associated with it.  Watching someone tell their personal story about being bullied or afraid to reveal their orientation and then belt out a song with everything they have is something to witness.  To be honest, I would probably never even watch those shows if not for my daughter but I’m thankful because those shows have given her a love for music and a motivation to learn piano.  Now when I hear her play I am reminded of how I embraced guitar when I was younger.  She’s not quite there on the emotional level yet but that will come.  I’ve even started teaching myself some piano chords and attempting to play some songs which is like learning all over again from the beginning.  If nothing else, it’s a bond that will last forever between her and I.

Sports and physical activities are amazing and every kid should be involved in them for the social and physical aspects.  But your kids are likely not going to play professional sports.  At the end of the day, they need something artistic and imaginative they can hang onto.  Music, drawing, painting, writing, something that they can still be doing at a high level as adults.  We all know there are those times when we get down or hit emotional roller coasters and physical activities don’t help with that.  We need to turn to something that can help us relay what we feel and give us an escape.  Instead of signing them up for four different sports over the course of the year, put them in two and let them find something creative to fill the rest of the time.  They will thank you when they get older.

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