Published Nov 21, 2007To some, Nardwuar the Human Serviette (born John Ruskin) is the greatest pop culture historian in North America, with an intense attention to detail and arcane knowledge that shames the research skills of more respectable journalists. To others, he's a squealing pest of a man-child who has overstayed his welcome for 20 years. He's a fiercely proud Canadian and Vancouver citizen who was raised on Pacific Northwestern punk and garage rock, which he plays as singer and keyboardist in the Evaporators. During his time at CITR campus radio and on MuchMusic, he's also become an expert on hair metal and gangsta rap – each play into his love of the absurd, as someone who regularly interviews conspiracy theorists, porn stars, ex-presidents and prime ministers. He's not playing a character: he is as excitable and enthusiastic in his everyday life as he is in front of a mic. He goes guerilla when he has to, which earned the respect of Michael Moore. Over time, he has slowly convinced Jello Biafra, Thurston Moore, Courtney Love, Snoop Doggy Dogg and MuchMusic management that it's a mistake to underestimate Nardwuar the Human Serviette.
Nardwuar's mother, a high school history teacher in North Vancouver, co-writes a book about a mid-18th century Vancouver bar owner called Gastown's Gassy Jack. Years later, Nardwuar will sell copies of the book at the Evaporators' merch table, and write a song about the character on the title track of the 2007 Evaporators album Gassy Jack and Other Tales.
Sound Proof is a punk and new wave video show that debuts on Shaw Cable Access 10, hosted by Dave Toddington and Buzz E. Miller, which is wildly influential to Nardwuar and the entire city's music scene. Nardwuar's mother starts co-hosting a rather different cable show called Our Pioneers and Neighbours, interviewing local characters about their collection of railroad spikes. She brings young Nardwuar to historical society meetings, where he serves the coffee. She helps him write his Grade 3 speech about his cat Leo, which includes a punchline about baptizing the cat in the toilet. He wins first prize in his school's public speaking competition. Nardwuar tastes his first Chief Skookum Burger at the Tomahawk Diner in North Vancouver, a heart-stopping delicacy that includes a beef patty, a hot dog, a fried egg, bacon, cheddar cheese, and toppings. Years later, he will bring as many interview subjects as possible to the Tomahawk to sample the Skookum.
Nardwuar joins the cross-country track team. "There would be 50 people in the race, and I'd come 45th," he recalls. "Then, as I got older, kids keep dropping out. I was still coming 45th, but there were only 10 people in the race. There would be a huge gap between #9 and me, at #10. I was still right on schedule, where I should be. It's just that everyone else dropped out."
Nardwuar starts at Hillside Secondary School, where "kids would throw matches at my hair trying to light it on fire, because it was so greasy." By the end of the year, he runs for student council and wins. His job is to book local bands for school dances, and engages on a beautification scheme by enlisting students to paint the school's garbage cans.
Nardwuar books Art Bergmann's band Poisoned to play Hillside. They charge $1400; Nard talks them down to $1398. He brings a video camera backstage to interview Bergmann, and stumbles across the punk icon changing out of his jeans. "I saw someone naked during my first interview ever," he recalls. "It certainly made me feel like all artists are bare and ready to be stripped down. You have to get to the heart of the matter. If Art Bergmann is going to take off his clothes, I'm going to have to take off people's clothes – if not physically, then figuratively. I'm going to have to undress them to get information out. That sent the benchmark quite high."
The name Nardwuar the Human Serviette is born. "I was walking down 24th Street in West Vancouver, mumbling to myself and ['Nardwuar'] seemed like a neat word that I barked out. 'Human Serviette' came out because the Cramps had 'Human Fly.' When I was in the States with some clam chowder dripping down my chin, I asked for serviettes and they didn't know what the hell that was. They only knew napkins, so I became Nardwuar the Human Serviette." Now elected class president, Nardwuar forms the Evaporators at the prompting of drummer Scott Livingstone on February 26. They debut at the school's variety night, playing "Shot Down" by the Sonics and "Human Fly" by the Cramps. Tries to book the Dead Kennedys for the final school dance; Jello Biafra writes back and declines due to touring commitments. Nardwuar almost flunks out of school due to all his extra-curricular activities; he only gets into UBC because he got an A in Canadian history in Grade 11. Through his mom's connections, Nardwuar starts working at Shaw Cable 10 in the summer. Initially he is assigned to film city council meetings, but can't stop laughing and shaking the camera. Thankfully, he is re-assigned to his dream job on Sound Proof. Makes a Ferris Bueller-inspired short film that year at Expo 86 called Nardwuar's Day Off. During UBC Orientation, Nardwuar goes to see UB40 and Fine Young Cannibals and is talked into signing a CITR volunteer sheet. He starts out working production and voicing PSAs. The Evaporators' first gig outside of high school is at the Psycho 60s Garage Festival at North Vancouver Rec Centre, headlined by local heroes of the all-ages scene On The Go – a band featuring future Evaporator and New Pornographer John Colllins.
In August, Nardwuar presents his first downtown show, entitled Barbarella Psychedella. Afraid his parents will find out, he lists Smuggler Grant Lawrence's phone number as the info line; Lawrence's parents field calls for Nardwuar gigs for the next five years. Nardwuar gets his own CITR radio show on Friday afternoons, a slot he's held down ever since. He finds the task of playing an hour's worth of records so overwhelming that he interviews people to kill time. One of his first radio interviews is with DOA. He asks them what their favourite type of soap is.
Nardwuar books his first out-of-town headliner, the Gruesomes, at St. David's United Church. Opening act the Smugglers play their official debut. Nardwuar tells church staff that it's a community talent show with jugglers. He hires skinheads to do security, who have sex in the balcony pews and steal the door money. The next morning, the parking lot is littered with beer cans, and the church walls are stained with blood, vomit and diarrhea.
Nardwuar releases a compilation called Oh God My Mom's On Channel 10!, funded by money from his paper route and printed on recycled record sleeves. Acts include the Gruesomes, Vindicators, Smugglers, Enigmas, and Seattle's Young Fresh Fellows masquerading as the Mighty Squirrels. Interview snippets are interspersed between tracks, featuring Jello Biafra and Gerald Ford. Biafra writes to say, "I'm not going to sue you, but send me that videotape of you [trick-or-treating at BC billionaire] Jimmy Pattison's house."
Introducing Mudhoney at a sold-out show in front of 1200 people – his biggest show promotion to date – Nardwuar is booed and invites the audience to spit on him. They happily oblige, unleashing a flood of phlegm while Nardwuar adopts a crucifixion pose. He is sick for weeks.
Inspired by his fascination over Canada/U.S. relations, Nardwuar puts out the vinyl compilation Clam Chowder and Ice vs. Big Macs and Bombers, featuring bands from both sides of the border: Mudhoney, NoMeansNo, Beat Happening and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Nardwuar presents Fugazi with the Fastbacks, Me Mom and Morgantaler and the Smugglers in front of 3000 people at a North Vancouver hockey rink. The show is much bigger than anticipated and gets out of control, with fights breaking out everywhere. Fugazi's Ian Mackaye demands the lights be turned on and reins in the situation. After this, Nardwuar sticks to promoting Evaporators' release parties. He starts making occasional appearances on CBC's Night Lines.
Sonic Youth end a Nardwuar interview by smashing a seven-inch single he brought as a present and pretending to beat him up. Sloan's Chris Murphy walks out of his first Nardwuar interview; years later, they become close friends and collaborators. "He later told me some Geffen bigwigs were listening to the interview and he didn't want to be embarrassed in front of them," says Nardwuar. Pierre Berton talks to Nardwuar about smoking pot, and agrees to write the liner notes for Thee Headcoats' seven-inch single, "Louis Riel," on Nardwuar Records. Nardwuar compiles his best video clips for a one-hour special, Welcome to My Castle, on Cable 10; he dubs hundreds of copies and sells them via mail order. David Cross and Andrew W.K. are early fans. This material is re-issued on the 2007 DVD of the same name.
At a press conference with Mikhail Gorbachev, Nardwuar translates the phrase "keep on rockin' in the free world" into Russian, and asks the former Soviet leader which world leader has the biggest pants. Gorbachev is about to answer when the moderator cuts him off and Nardwuar is escorted out. At another press conference, he asks Trudeau about refusing to allow rock'n'roll at 24 Sussex while married to Margaret; it's the first time Trudeau has talked about his ex-wife in years. Nardwuar is recognized at a Bill Clinton/ Boris Yeltsin press conference and is kicked out before he can ask questions. Transcripts of Nardwuar's interviews start appearing in Chart magazine. Eleven years later, they put him on the cover.
Nardwuar stakes out Nirvana for two days before their Vancouver stadium date, finally landing an interview because Dave Grohl recognizes him from Thee Goblins – even though Nard wears a sheet over his head in that Evaporators' side project. Though the Nirvana interview goes well, their label-mate Beck hangs up on Nardwuar, prompting Geffen to ban him from interviewing their artists. As punk becomes mainstream, Nardwuar decide to take a different tack and start interviewing hair metal bands like Warrant and Enuff Znuff, at the suggestion of his friend Mark Kleiner. "He said, 'What the hell are you doing? Talk to some fun bands. Look at Slik Toxik – they smashed their limo on the night of the Juno Awards. There's a rumour that they're changing their name to Slack Toxik to jump on the Generation X bandwagon. Green Day are huge – the true underground is metal!'" Nardwuar starts asking mulletheads, "Are you ever going to sell out and go punk?" Most metal bands are thankful that anyone is interviewing them, but others don't take kindly to Nardwuar's inquisition. He is attacked by Skid Row's Sebastian Bach, who steals his toque and smashes a videotape with over an hour of Nardwuar interviews on it, including the one with Pierre Trudeau. Nardwuar rallies friends and holds a "Take Back the Toque" picket in front of the Skid Row concert; he doesn't realize it's a charity event organized by Bob Rock for children with Down's Syndrome. Bach's label, Warner, also bans Nardwuar from interviewing its artists.
Releases compilation Teenage Zit Rock Angst, featuring Eric's Trip, New Bomb Turks, Cub, Delgados, and 60s Quebecois garage oddities Platon et les Caves.
The Evaporators release their debut album, United Empire Loyalists, on vinyl with a free CD inside. It's also recorded over eight-track cassettes that Nardwuar buys off of a gospel singer in Spokane, Washington. Nardwuar is asked to be artist-in-residence at Vancouver Film School, who design a website for him.
After opening for Sleater-Kinney, the Evaporators are called the best live band in Vancouver by the Georgia Straight. Nardwuar breaks a huge Canadian story after protesters demonstrating at the APEC summit are attacked by Mounties with pepper spray. He shaves his head in order to be incognito at a sparse press conference with Jean Chretien. He asks Chretien if he would be a demonstrating outside if he were a young punk rocker today. Then he asks him about the pepper spray. "I was actually going to cut him off when he said, 'I don't know what that is,'" recalls Nardwuar. "I was going to say, 'You don't know what pepper spray is?! You're the Prime Minister of Canada!' Something told me to shut up, which rarely happens, and the next thing he said was, 'For me, I put pepper on my plate.'" The quote makes national headlines. "After the incident happened, Chretien said, 'Oh, I didn't understand what he was saying.' Now, in his actual memoirs 10 years later, he says, 'All at once everybody starting shouting something about pepper… If I had known what they were yelling out, I would not have been so light-hearted.'" Nardwuar is seldom allowed near political leaders after this.
Long-faded metal band Quiet Riot decide they don't like their Nardwuar interview and threaten him until he turns over the videotape. Says Nardwuar, "Now I do the metal interviews either over the phone, or I bring a fake tape to the interview so I can give it to them if they ask for it." In February 1999, Nardwuar finally appears on MuchMusic after sending them demo tapes for the past 12 years. In July, the Evaporators are preparing for their first-ever headlining show in Vancouver, a CD release for I Gotta Rash. The day before the gig, Nardwuar comes home from band practice and feels numbness in his arm. After returning from a clinic, he collapses in his bedroom of what is later diagnosed as a brain hemorrhage. On his way to the ambulance, he manages to establish that the driver is the brother of someone in local punk band DBS. "There was a blood vessel in my brain that's been waiting to go off since birth, and they had no idea why," he says, though friends had noticed irrational behaviour in the previous year. "I had minor bleeding. There was no aneurysm, no tumour." His hospitalization makes front-page headlines, and letters of support come from across the world, including from Sonic Youth, David Lee Roth and Courtney Love. Upon release, Nardwuar cuts back on his Skookum Chief Hamburgers to one a month; he even considers abandoning MuchMusic, but producer Chris Nelson lures him back to interview James Brown. Close friends say the brush with death gave Nardwuar a new determination to succeed. He starts working out at an upscale gym, sweating beside Sarah McLachlan and David Foster.
Nardwuar tracks down bodybuilder and Merv Griffin's favourite metal singer Thor, best known for bending steel between his teeth on stage, for an interview and invites him onstage with the Evaporators. This briefly resuscitates Thor's career. Nardwuar also lands his first interview with Snoop Doggy Dogg, who steals a Redd Foxx doll from him.
Nardwuar's presence on MuchMusic increases to a regular weekly slot on Going Coastal, but he remains faithful to his weekly CITR radio show. "MuchMusic is no more stressful than CITR," he insists. "If I thought that it was, than I shouldn't do CITR because I wouldn't be putting everything into it. It takes just as much effort to do something for either one. Either do it or I don't; it's on or off." He also starts interviewing hip-hop and R&B acts, whose perplexed reactions to Nardwuar make it an even funnier fit than his usual punk and metal beat. "Someone told me that rap was the new hair metal," he explains. "Plus, with someone like Snoop Doggy Dogg, he loves history, so it's like interviewing the Gruesomes. Rappers sample old records, they love old things, it was totally up my alley."
Snoop Dogg steals Richard Pryor and Blowfly records from Nardwuar during their second encounter. Oderus Ungerus of Gwar declares Nardwuar to be "the most annoying human I have ever met," before putting him in a headlock. Nardwuar is assaulted at a Strokes gig by thugs who steal his now-trademark tam hat. Grant Lawrence and Sloan's Chris Murphy pursue the thieves for several city blocks, capturing one and holding their eyeglasses hostage until the tam is returned – which it is, sheepishly. UBC's journalism program invites Nardwuar to speak.
During his third Snoop Dogg encounter, Nardwuar presents him with a poster for a Vancouver "dog poo removal service" called "Scoop Doggy Dogg." Nardwuar fulfills a lifelong dream by getting his own MuchMusic special, Nard Wars, hosted by Chris Murphy.
Nardwuar tries to get the three party leaders in the national election to do the "Hip Flip." Only Paul Martin agrees. Jack Layton takes a rain cheque. The Evaporators release Ripple Rock, their first CD not to be inserted in a vinyl sleeve. Packed with rave-up anthems like "I Feel Like a Fat Frustrated Fuck" and "Half Empty Halls," it gets the best reviews of their career – which isn't saying that much. Jello Biafra gives it a Stateside release on his label, Alternative Tentacles. Nardwuar charms hot new band Franz Ferdinand, who tell another MuchMusic interviewer that they want to tour Canada with the Evaporators. Their management rebuffs him, but CBC Radio 3's Mar Sellars finds the band directly through Friendster. The tour falls through, but they do play together in Montreal and New York City.
Nardwuar releases his first DVD, Doot Doola Doot Doo, compiling his two MuchMusic specials with hours of bonus extended footage – including a painful and fascinating look at Nardwuar waiting hours for Snoop Dogg to show up for a ten-minute interview. He puts out a 2007 calendar with veteran Vancouver punk photographer Bev Davies. Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos sings "Take Me Out" with the Evaporators at the Mint Records Xmas Party. Snoop Dogg appears in the Korn video for "Twisted Tranzistor," and is shown slapping an interviewer bearing a remarkable resemblance to Nardwuar.
Snoop admits the Korn video is not a coincidence; now displaying complete respect, he even invites Nardwuar to his house; the only day Nardwuar can get there with a MuchMusic camera, Snoop is busy attending an Anaheim Ducks/ Ottawa Senators hockey game. On November 1, Nardwuar celebrates his 20th year at CITR with 20 hours of non-stop archival radio; the same weekend MuchMusic airs his third special while he hosts release parties for both a new Evaporators disc, Gassy Jack and Other Tales, and DVD of early material called Welcome to My Castle, which includes lost material of Nirvana and Pierre Trudeau. Nardwuar still has one elusive goal: "I'm waiting for the day when I can sit back and someone says, 'Nardwuar! We have Brian Wilson on line one, Neil Young on line two. You don't have to go anywhere; they'll come to you.' I'd love to have my own TV show. I'd love to become a mainstream celebrity. Bring it on! Where do I sign?"