By Michael BarclayCommenting on the Rheostatics' 21st year altering the course of Canadian rock'n'roll, rhythm guitarist Dave Bidini muses, "I wish we could celebrate the 20th anniversary this year, because last year it didn't really feel right doing it. Maybe it was just a time of insecurity. We were between records, and we were a bit uncertain about the future. There are aspects of 20 years that you look back on and think, ‘I've only moved that far?'" But the distance the Rheostatics have traveled has spawned classic Canadian albums, inspired generations of fans, provided mentorships to today's most exciting new voices, and filled a scrapbook full of encounters with old guard icons. This has made them the vanguard band of the CanRock Renaissance and their new album, Night of the Shooting Stars, is as good proof as any.
Dave Bidini and Tim Vesely meet on Yonge St. after a Yes concert; Vesely plays double bass in his high school orchestra, while Bidini is learning to play guitar. When asked what keeps the two of them together after more than 20 years, Bidini says, "He's into anything, he's pretty game. I think it's trying to extend an arrested adolescence, because that's when you're discovering music and having the best time. If you can retain just a pearl of that throughout your musical career, you're okay. I think that's what he wants to do, and I'm a link to that and vice versa."
A four-song new wave demo tape is recorded, featuring "Suburb Shuffle." The underage Rheostatics' downtown debut is at Toronto's seminal Edge club, where a member of the headlining band gives Dave Bidini one piece of advice: "Never break up." Their third drummer is 14-year-old Dave Clark. Clark overcomes his initial suspicions and surrenders to the group's carefree nature. "I liked the spirit of people who liked to goof around," says Clark. "It wasn't until years later I realised, when my mom said, ‘You know, those guys were always stoned when they came around.' I was too naďve to even know it." During a downtown gig with the Space Invaders, Clark annoys that band's drummer, Michael Phillip Wojewoda, for hogging the stage with a Neil Peart-size drum kit. The Rheos' first out-of-town gig is in Kitchener opening for Andrew Cash's L'Etranger.
The band gets a gig backing a magician, but back out when they realise he just wanted them to build cabinets. They release a seven-inch single featuring a Devo-esque version of "My Generation."
Martin Tielli is in an adjacent neighbourhood, listening to Neil Young and Bruce Cockburn, playing acoustic guitar in his house and swearing to never use electric instruments. James Gray, later of Blue Rodeo, is a temporary keyboardist. Clark invites a horn section into the band, the Trans-Canada Soul Patrol, ushering in a heavy funk period for the Rheos. One night at York University, after getting into a fight with some "local hosers," Bidini, Vesely and a friend wander into a York University pub. "It was talent night," Bidini recalls, "and there was a guy with really long hair down to his shoulders playing ‘Needle and Damage Done.' It was John Critchley. We thought, ‘We're better than this guy!' So we borrowed a guitar and a bass, and played ‘Louie Louie.' Me and Tim sang and my friend just danced and clapped his hands, and we won the contest. It was only for two beers or something. Meeting those guys way later in 13 Engines, they said, ‘Hey, I remember you guys came and stole our thunder at that pub!'"
Clark moonlights with a band called Water Tower, featuring a young and nervous Martin Tielli. Jaymz Bee of the Look People tries to recruit Bidini for a European tour. "I was kind of scared by Jaymz and didn't really know what I was supposed to do in that band," says Bidini. "Could my weirdness at any point even have registered on their level? And even if it had, I don't know if I'd want to go in that direction. For my first performance with them, my way of fitting in with them was getting a Mohawk."
The horn section is let go and Clark invites the admittedly unfunky Tielli to join the funk-era Rheostatics, in which Bidini is the principal songwriter. Tielli is intimidated and excited because "as far as I was concerned, I was being asked to join the famous band!" Bidini initially resists Tielli's arrival because of Tielli's talent and Neil Young fetish. Bidini goes to Trinity College in Dublin for a semester, putting the new band on hiatus. There, he discovers a love for Stompin' Tom Connors. Vesely joins L'Etranger for one year, and is inspired to borrow Cash's four-track and start writing songs. Says Vesely, "Playing the sideman role made me feel like I should be doing more."
The band's sounds shifts considerably as Vesely starts listening to country, Tielli falls in love with Jane Siberry's music, and Clark picks up rhythmic tips from the Band. Bidini becomes obsessed with drawing Stompin' Tom Connors out of self-imposed cultural exile; he and Vesely crash Tom's 50th birthday party and Bidini writes about it in Toronto monthly Nerve. The article catches the attention of EMI Canada, who coax Tom back into recording in 1989.