Northern Wish The CanRock Renaissance Goes On Record

Northern Wish The CanRock Renaissance Goes On Record
With Have Not Been The Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-95, co-authors Michael Barclay, Ian A. D. Jack and Jason Schneider (Barclay and Schneider are both Exclaim! contributors) have issued one of the most comprehensive Canadian music treatises ever published, not to mention one of the only works (so far, at least) to focus primarily on the titular era. And it's no breezy overview, either. At over 700 pages, the book weighs in more like a textbook than an account of indie-rock pioneers and other original artists searching for, and finding, a place of their own in the annals of the oft-disenfranchised Canadian music scene.

Both indie geeks and mainstream enthusiasts ought to find plenty to interest them. The authors were careful to cast their nets wide enough to capture the stories of well-known artists like the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and the Barenaked Ladies, along with underground heroes like Montreal's Deja Voodoo, Toronto band A Neon Rome and Vancouver's Slow (whose signature song provided the book's title). Art Bergmann, Sloan, Men Without Hats, Cowboy Junkies, NoMeansNo, Change of Heart, Spirit of the West and the Pursuit of Happiness are just a few of the dozens more acts chronicled. A variety of timely institutions get a thorough going-over, too, including MuchMusic (which, by all accounts, was infinitely cooler in its infancy) and CBC Radio concerns Brave New Waves and Night Lines, as well as upstart indie labels like Sonic Unyon, Og and Mint Records.

Although the focus of each of this journalistic effort's 17 chapters is maintained with an informed narrative, the vast majority of the overall content is derived from interviews with the musicians themselves. And for the most part, the life-and-times routine pays insightful first-hand dividends. Occasionally, though, the authors give too much credit to their subjects. Take, for example, the rambling opening paragraph of the chapter entitled "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," wherein Groovy Religion vocalist William New is afforded the first 120 words to wave a flag and attempt some sort of our-folk-is-better-than-theirs spiel. "The quality of the folk music we were listening to up here was so high," says New, citing the material of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. He would be correct, too, except that three of those four artists are renowned for having enjoyed a greater listenership outside of their home country.
Attempting to chronicle this massive country's many music scenes over a ten-year period is an extremely ambitious undertaking — one that is guaranteed to suffer some pangs of omission. As such, Barclay, Jack and Schneider issue a pre-foreword disclaimer apologising to anyone who was left out. Still, some gaping holes beg for an explanation. Where, for instance, is Winnipeg hardcore institution Propagandhi — a Canadian unit that, by 1995, had sold more records and made more of an international impact than some of the subjects afforded full paragraphs here? And what of the massive indie-cum-international success of Winnipeg's Crash Test Dummies? Surely there was more going on in Manitoba than trendy radio hounds the Watchmen, who are issued two pages. (Winnipeggers like me have come to expect a degree of journalistic laziness and arrogance in this regard from the mainstream national media, but not from authors so otherwise in tune with Canada's cultural pulse.) The size of the book and abundance of detail provided on many of its subjects (ever wonder what the parents of each member of Sloan did for a living?) further exacerbates that frustration.

Overall, Have Not Been The Same is a worthwhile read for all but the most underground fans of Canadian music. The inclusion of a selected discography and "cast of characters" makes it a useful reference tool as well. As impressive as the book's size may be, though, there's little doubt it would have benefited from a judicious editor. Also, the ongoing corporatisation of the Canadian music industry and its current emphasis on disposable pop casts some doubt on the very notion of a recent Canadian rock renaissance and the enlightenment that is supposed to be gleaned from such an episode. As the authors themselves state in the book's disclaimer, "the great changes wrought by the Renaissance are already in danger of being forgotten or taken for granted." Maybe some of those changes weren't so great after all.