TEN YEARS AGO, in 2003, an acquaintance of mine named Elaina Martin created Westfest. This free-of-charge Ottawa street music festival first took place on June 12, 2004, the year that Jane Sibbery was the headlining act. Elaina was then, as she would remain, what is generally termed a force. Every June since, with the help of local businesses and community volunteers, she has steered the festival to harbour. One of the highlights of my time in Ottawa was performing at Westfest 2010, on a bill with Sloan, a memory which came to the surface as the festival once again took to the stage on Thursday June 6, 2013.
Around the time Westfest was being created I was starting a music project I called Bloomistry, a neologism triggered by ‘Soundmaster’ Hy Bloom‘s MacLaren street shopfront, past which I walked every day en route to the office. The year was 2004, and I was on the horizon of my fourth decade, placing me no less than ten years past rock ‘n roll’s best before date. I had a four year-old son and was about to acquire a house with a full basement, one-half of which was to become a playground for the boy. The other half became a recording studio, or in other words a playground for an adult.
For years the gear I had assembled in my twenties had been molding in the basement of my parents’ house. Now that I had a room of one’s own, I rented a van and brought my stuff out of its long hibernation. And I necessarily, and or in some cases unnecessarily, augmented that stuff with vintage gear I found on eBay. Between 2004 and 2010, I recorded six full-length Bloomistry albums, mostly in the hours between 10 pm and 6 am. By 2004 we were already well along in the digital age, but for reasons having to do with economy and the principle of least resistance, I stayed with analogue. Not only that, I recorded on cassette tape, of all things. When I was done doing what I did I lugged my antiquated console to the studios of Dave Draves (Little Bullhorn) and the Bovas Phil Jr and Sr (Bova Sound) for mixing and mastering. They received me and my anachronistic bag of tricks with good humour (I had to bring, for instance, a clutch of special cables to attach my machinery to theirs). Right up until the day I sold my house and took to apartment living the studio was where you would often find me at the midnight hour.
Around 2007 I decided to form a band, something I hadn’t done since the early 1990s. I had taken to performance again in 2005, arranging my new material for solo presentation. St. Ambroise, the superb Montreal-based brewery, sponsored a Monday night show at the excellent and subterranean Manx Pub on Elgin Street, as indeed they do at many venues. I knew the manager as well as many of the staff — a definite bonus — and so in little time I was pushing aside the corner tables for a bit, and a very little bit at that, of felsensraum. A few years later the Manx ‘stage’ which barely accommodated a solo act featured my new band. In the meanwhile I played shows across the city and beyond, both alone and with my three band mates.
In the 1980s I was delusional enough to allow myself to think I might make a living of music. By the 2000s I was under no illusions. This was a hobby, just another of my serial dabblings. If you’ve never undertaken to re-invent yourself for the sheer hell of it, allow me to commend it. There’s never been any money, nor fame, nor glory in rock, where I am concerned. Some of my shows were epic disasters. A small few were blissful. Most landed in the betweens. Playing to an empty room is only one of the pits into which aspirations might tumble, and it’s not the worst either. Other hazards of the musician are stolen gear, getting lost on the way to gigs, opening acts which drive away your audience, club owners who make sudden angry demands and/or withhold pay, and performances which for unknown and perhaps unknowable reasons go wrong. I’d played for years and never had stage fright, yet I found myself one evening having panic attacks in the middle of a show. I would forget the chords and words to songs I’d played hundreds of times. One night I put my capo on the wrong fret of my guitar and out came the opening chords of the opening song — or rather, out they didn’t come, in their stead a dissonant mess. Then there was my good friend Flecton, who in opening an Ottawa Bloomistry show spontaneously decided to make it into an Andy Kauffman styled confrontation, to see just how much he could offend the audience before they would stomp to the exit. (Answer: quite a fat lot, actually.)
It wasn’t all oh-well and rot. I did the radio circuit and always got a charge out of hearing my songs in the air. It didn’t happen often, but people did approach me to say they really liked a song or album of mine. There was a woman who came to my shows and said she “loved” me. (Here I have to acknowledge the real danger posed by stalkers, who you may be surprised to learn fixate not only on famous musicians but unknown ones as well, including an Ottawa musician with whom I sometimes performed.) One can never entirely separate performance from vanity, and it happened that at this time I shed some pounds and let my hair go in an unequivocally not-for-the-office direction. But above and beyond these Spinal Tap affectations is the very real and electrical surge of live musical performance, the making of a mighty and joyful noise of one’s own. I feel sorry for anyone who will never know what it feels like to get on a stage before an audience to ROCK OUT. That was the hit that compensated for the chronic disappointments and the loading and unloading of heavy gear and the no-shows and the snafus. I half-envy the few lucky superannuated teenagers like Keith Richards who’ve made not just a fabulous life of it but a fabulous living. Only it’s never just what you see on the stage, and I’m doubtful that I’d take up the hotel-and-road life of the rock star, especially in a wintry continental nation where markets are separated by vast stretches of sweet nothing much. Not that anyone has offered.