It's not "were the best band" yet. But it's coming.
My love affair with the Rheostatics started many, many years ago. Almost as far back as they are old. I was barely old enough to drink, and almost in university. And I was a fan of a Mr. David Wisdom on a CBC late-night radio program called "Brave New Waves". It came on at 11 on Friday and Saturday nights,. For years I had been listening to this gentleman spin mysterious records well into the night, interviewing musicians, performance artists and just talking about music. I even won a China Crisis album in one of his contests, and he sent along a note apologizing for not having the Ultravox album he promised...
One night, a band called the Rheostatics played live, on air. That was it for me.
They were one of the first bands I saw in person. Which was the only way, other than the aforementioned, that I was able to hear them in those lonely days before digital technology and the net. You scoured record stores for new releases (or, in my case, ended up working at Dr. Disc, the used/import record emporium, and devoured the catalogs as they came in, looking for ..them), and you hoped they would come to play somewhere you could get to within a couple of hours.
I saw them here, I saw them there. I saw them at the Hideaway, after yelling at the guys who owned the place (where I was a DJ working for moped gas money) for five years to book them. Sure, they booked the Look People, Deja Voodoo, the Shuffle Demons and a dozen other of the bands i suggested, but not until I moved away did they finally play there. I came back to town for them.
Imagine, if you will, Neil Young, Rush, Stompin' Tom, ELO, Toots and the Maytalls and Gordon Lightfoot all sitting in a bar. They all want to see a band. One band. Can you think of a show that they would all want to go to?
I can. It was in 1992 at the Bathurst Street Theatre. The Rheostatics, with their usual cast of thousands of special guests, decamped upon the stage of that astounding musical space and jammed and played and laughed and talked and entertained. I remember the show specifically, because they played a song called "Guns". On the album version, Neil Peart, drummer of Rush fame, provided skins for the tune. On stage, 5 (!) drummers came out to do his part. Later, snowflakes drifted from the rafters as the show ended. I drove in from Listowel for that show after work, met my brother and a friend, hung out after, and went home the same night. And I listened to Whale Music on a casette all the way home. Twice, as I recall.
I also have a family connection to this band. Sort of. My brother Robbie, known many years ago throughout certain parts of the Toronto music scene for, oh, let’s say, his energetic dancing and fervent devotion to local tunes, knows the band. He complains to me that the band likes me more than him, though he knew them first. They know me from some narratives, not unlike this one, that I have penned over the years and sent their way. Dave Bidini seems to be the one who answers the more troubling fan mail, and thus, after various life adventures (like pouring vodka over Sir John A’s grave, in tribute to a truly Canadian hero) I would scribble out a weird travelogue and send it to the band. Really to Dave. I wrote, I got ugly postcards with almost indecipherable script in return. And invites to upcoming shows, and book launches from Dave.
My friends know of the band because I never stopped talking about them. I even dragged out a few to various shows over the years. Some became fans, some became...puzzled. The Rheos never fit into a category, and thus was their fate, to hop from small label to small label, with a brief stop in the bigs when “Whale Music” came out. Every musician worth their maple syrup knows of the band, about 95% have played with them somewhere, maybe a festival,or during their decade of 10-night stands at the Horseshoe every winter.
Why are they Rock Gods?
They are responsible for pulling Stompin’ Tom Connors out of musical exile.
Their childrens record was performed as a musical at a high school in Ontario, and I have the t-shirt, found in a Goodwill in North Bay, to prove it. (A story I sent to the band, I believe).
Their first album was called Greatest Hits.
They were commissioned to write and perform music about the Group of Seven by the National Gallery of Canada.
They wrote me a letter and said,”Go ahead, tape our music from your friend’s CD” as I was holding on to vinyl with a hope beyond hope and owned nothing to play what they had released.
They wrote “The Ballad of Wendell Clark”, which should be enough to get them into heaven.
They sang the most evocative version of “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” anyone has ever heard (though there are rumours that Bernie Finklestein, Gordon Lightfoot’s agent...oh, never mind. Let there be mysteries...)
And every show is different. Every night is a musical surprise. Would they rock out like some crazy 80’s metal band? Would they play an evening of mostly instrumentals? Would they play a happy set? A sad set? A Martin wants to take it easy on the voice so let Dave sing everything night?
They are a force of nature. And now, after 20 plus years, they have announced their final show will be at Massey Hall in March of 2007. They will continue to play, apart and in groups, but they say this will be it for the lineup, and the band itself is done.
What of these men? Members of the band past and present?
Martin will sing. You’ll hear him, sometime, on the radio and think, “I know who that is...I think”.
Phillip will do what Phillip does, which is everything for everybody.
Tim will rock out, Violet Archers preparing for world domination, maybe in Bala, the new home of “Dock Rock”.
Don will make everyone else sound great and keep Ron Sexsmith’s fierce temper under control.
One Dave will drum elsewhere, working with young Canadian artists like Peter Elkas and Joel Plaskett.
The other Dave will continue to write books that I dislike finishing (because I buy them quick and hate to wait for the next one). With luck, he will not leave me the last man in Toronto to wear a fedora without irony.
But they will all be with me. Driving across Manitoba, hitting repeat on #3 on Songs Inspired by the Group of Seven and feeling the train. Cruising through Trenton, yelling “Legal Age Life” at the top of my voice through the car window, startling men in uniform. Humming “People’s Republic of Dave” on the subway platform. Singing “Popopolis” for no apparent reason. Mangling the french lyrics in “Chanson Les Ruelles” (a la Diefenbaker) walking through Byward Market...
This band has provided me with a soundtrack of my adult life, assuming your definition of adult is generous. It seems impossible that they will no longer exist. Will the Morningstars still compete for the Exclaim! Cup each year?
The tickets, already purchased and delivered, sit staring at me from the fridge door every time I walk in the kitchen. It will be the last live show. I’m not sure I want to go, but I know I will. I have seen Gordon Lightfoot do magic finger dances across the frets in that hall. I have heard Laurie Anderson describe how to cook hot dogs in hotel rooms using stripped table lamp wires. And I shall see the Rheostatics, for the last time, in my favourite musical venue. Finally.
And now, before my wife calls me to bed, I shall post this online. Tomorrow, I shall apply stamp to envelope and post it to the band. My band. The best band Canada has ever produced. As Canadian as...not knowing what to insert as a descriptor in the sentence “as Canadian as”.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the website. Like the band, it is understated. www.rheostatics.ca. Go, look. See what you have missed, and what you may yet find.
Lastly? The CD’s I taped? I’ve since bought them. Thanks for the 5-year free trial of your albums, guys. You knew I was good for it.
Thanks for everything.