On A Cold Road
McClelland & Stewart Inc. (1998)
“On a cold road, somewhere in the South of Ontario, There’s a crackle in the air, as they’re putting up the very last telephone pole” – Martin Tielli, Rheostatics.
Like the Trans-Canada Highway, the story of Canadian rock, full of twists, turns, hills and bumps, just keeps on going. It crawls through this country and stretches from one coast to the other. From St. John’s to Sydney to Halifax, Moncton to Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary to Vancouver and fingering all directions en route, paragraphs and chapters of this story are being written in clubs and church halls, arenas and basements on any given night. Some stories roll in and out of town, all but unnoticed in smelly, over-packed vans. Some travel in seemingly luxurious buses (typically with smelly, over-packed and unnoticed vans in tow), and some never leave their parents’ garage. For different generations and different groups of individuals, this story is represented in different ways and by different bands. For some it may be Triumph or Chilliwack. For others it might be The Dayglo Abortions, D.O.A. or The Unwanted Guests. For many, The Tragically Hip have come to epitomize Canadian Rock. No matter what the band or what the reason, many Canadians have been exposed to, made a connection with or a contribution to this on going story.
I was probably introduced to this story even earlier than my vague memory of the first Tarbot Festival. I was two at the time and even though I remember the Sloppy Joes at the chip wagon better than the actual music, it was an introduction to this spirit embodied in music. After a brief stop in the land of Cory Heart, I began to listen to stuff like Minglewood Band’s Out On A Limb, an album I listened to so many times I destroyed both it and several needles on my parents’ record player. This is the album which really sparked my interest in louder, raunchier, more honest music. Years later, bands like Change of Heart, Pigfarm, Bung and The Tragically Hip piqued my interest in this ever-broadening story. Eventually, and inevitably I suppose, I was introduced to the Rheostatics, a band who, in a live show at Sydney’s Club Capri, literally expanded my mind. I’m not speaking here of the physical brain but of that elusive entity in which exists comprehension, emotion and idea.
Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language defines a rheostat as “a variable resistance for the strength of an electric current” (like the dimmer switch in my mom’s living room). It is a combination of the Greek words rheos, meaning stream, and statos, meaning standing still. In other words, a rheostat creates in electricity the equivalent of dynamics in music. Upon listening to any of this band’s nine albums or in having the extreme pleasure and luxury of seeing them live, it becomes very clear that they truly are aptly named… they are rheostatic. They change the volume, the intensity and the mood of their music as effortlessly as most of us would throw a switch. Within the chapters of this story, Rheostatics seem to hold a high seat among many of their contemporaries; well respected within the Canadian music scene and well received by fans and followers all across the country.
Recognizing the depth and importance of the story of Canadian rock music, Rheostatics’ guitarist and part-time journalist Dave Bidini decided to make a document of the pieces of that story that he witnessed while on the road. The result of pages and pages of tour diaries and many interviews and conversations with Canadian musicians who shared their on tour experiences with Bidini is On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock. In this book, Bidini relates some of what faces the touring musician across this vast and often harsh country. The inner workings of a band, group dynamic and personal politics play an important and often painful role as Bidini relates such things with brutal honesty. This book goes a long way to connect many facets of the grand and wide body of Canadian rock music and the writer seems to place some importance in the belief that, indeed, it is all connected. This book seems fueled by the belief that kids in Port Hawkesbury wailing on guitars, indy bands in Hamilton struggling gig to gig and full time arena packers are connected in some small way within this huge open space. In a brief conversation at Halifax’s Word on the Street book festival, Dave Bidini told me that he was amazed that after playing to thirty people in Sydney, Nova Scotia, a show he remembered with an “ugh”, that he meets people spread all across the country who were there the night Sunfish and The Inbreds opened for Rheostatics at the Club Capri. For the Rheostatics this was one night among thousands. For the fans and friends who came out to the show on a Wednesday night in small-town Canada it was an event. For the story of Canadian Rock it was a piece of the puzzle.