Blame Canada

BY Michael BarclayPublished Nov 17, 2016

Commenting 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 naïve 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.


After their first serious recording session, the band decides to either break up or tour. Through Vesely's L'Etranger connections, the Rheos book their first Western tour, a two-and-a-half month odyssey commemorated on Vesely's 2001 song "We Went West." Tielli describes his first-ever tour as a "mind rake," but finds lyrical and visual inspiration in the Prairies. On that tour they begin a mutual musical love affair with 13 Engines, and make huge impressions in Winnipeg and Vancouver. It's a formative experience for the band, both collectively and individually. Meanwhile, the debut Greatest Hits is released.


"Ballad of Wendel Clark Parts 1 and 2," an ode to the Toronto Maple Leaf, introduces the Rheostatics to David Wisdom, host of CBC's Night Lines radio program, who becomes an ardent champion. Says Bidini, "He sent us a postcard and said, ‘You're the greatest band in Canada.' I was just blown away, thinking, from that [album]?" They're also invited to play the first ever Brave New Waves session with Kevin Komoda. On their second Western tour, all their equipment in stolen in Vancouver after a Savoy gig. DOA organise a benefit show featuring 14 Vancouver bands. A cab driver discovers that his fare is the culprit and turns him in; all the equipment is retrieved. The band makes page three of the Vancouver Sun, jumping up and down on the steps of the courthouse with their instruments. Bidini returns to Ireland for a visit, and sets up a 28-day tour on a handshake. "We learned how much we hated each other," says Vesely of the Irish tour. Personal differences flare up all around, and Tielli leaves the band.


Bidini does some fill-in hosting for Brave New Waves, Vesely travels, Clark tours with Pigfarm, Tielli finishes his high school diploma and writes songs furiously at a self-serve gas station job. Vesely initiates a reunion to play a book launch party. Everything clicks, and during a five-day December session produced by Michael Phillip Wojewoda, they record a demo that becomes the Melville album. They crash Stompin' Tom's comeback party at the Matador club in Toronto. "We just climbed up on the stage," says Bidini. "We were all there in our Canadian tartan blazers and the party had petered out. By the time we got on the stage there were only 20 people in the room. Tom was pissed drunk, and would turn around occasionally and raise his beer in acknowledgement, but it was by no means a great embrace."


On a Northern Ontario tour protesting federal rail cutbacks, the Rheos meet pedal steel player Lewis Melville and violinist Dave Allen, who become regular on-stage guests. Naked in the snow in Kapuskasing, the Rheos' drunken antics and impromptu hotel steam baths make them the bad boys of the tour.


Melville is finally released, and is hailed for signalling a new era in Canadian songwriting. Says CBC's Nightlines host David Wisdom, "When I was being sworn in as a Canadian citizen, ‘Northern Wish' was the song running through my head. It still moves me deeply, that record." The increasingly popular Barenaked Ladies become huge fans and champion the Rheostatics at every turn, starring in the video for "Aliens." On tour with them, the Rheos' van breaks down in Brandon, Manitoba; they take a $350 cab ride to Winnipeg and arrive 15 minutes before their set.


Whale Music, named after the Paul Quarrington book, is recorded, and goes on to become their best-loved album. Says producer Wojewoda, "Even though Greatest Hits was already out, Whale Music had a sophomoric anxiety about it. I remember getting into big fights with Dave Clark about mixes, because he kept saying, ‘It's gotta be great. We have all this pressure, people have all these expectations.' Finally, everyone just went, ‘Fuck it!' For two days I couldn't even get them into the studio, and we only had two weeks to make the record. What I thought was amazing was Whale Music is even better, and went even further than Melville." Guests in the studio include Melville, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir members Chris Brown and Gene Hardy, and Rush drummer Neil Peart. "I didn't even want to have him out; I was too afraid of having a hero come out and play," says Clark of Peart. "I remember being in Reaction Studio the day he was supposed to come play, and just thinking, ‘omigod.' Bidini had called him up, and then I called and talked to him personally. And he knew who all the bands were, and was totally tied into the scene that was going on: the Barenaked Ladies and all the indie bands around. Great guy. Very funny. And a giant – literally, a physical giant, very tall man. I remember setting up my drums in the studio, and the door opened and I just about jumped out of my skin, because I was the only person there. But it was [Barenaked Ladies'] Ed Robertson, and he just started laughing. So Neil came out. The way he played drums, you could tell that he'd been playing stadiums all his life. The power, the conviction. It hurt my ears with the headphones on. He just laughed, we had a great time, so friendly. Very complimentary. We were jamming, getting sounds, and the control room was just full of people watching: the Barenaked Ladies, our band, others. And this was a big moment, because he was a CanRock god – well, international god. And the talkback button was on by mistake, and we heard [Barenaked Ladies'] Tyler Stewart say, ‘Look at Dave, man, he's out there shitting his pants!' I said, ‘No, I'm not! This is great!' When I was there this adrenaline took over me and I felt completely supercharged, like I could jump over walls. He was a supporter of the band in the press, and he'd wear our shirts when he did his interviews in Modern Drummer or in the Toronto Star. He had a lot of complimentary things to say about us, and it brought us some attention." The band plays a week of shows in Toronto that they call Green Sprouts Music Week, which becomes an annual tradition.


The Rheostatics become vocal champion of the Inbreds, which indirectly leads to a major label deal for the Kingston band; Clark co-produces several tracks on their seminal debut Hilario. Barenaked Ladies convince their manager to take on the Rheostatics, and they soon get a deal with Sire Records, who re-release Whale Music. Quarrington's Whale Music is adapted into a movie, and the Rheostatics get the soundtrack job after attempts to snare Stevie Wonder or Daniel Lanois fall through. The soundtrack is demo-ed at the Gas Station studio with Dale Morningstar and Don Kerr of Dinner is Ruined. At the same time, they were rehearsing with Jane Siberry to be her band for the release of her When I Was a Boy.

Says Bidini, "In the afternoon we were tortured by Jane Siberry, and in the evening we'd demo the Whale Music soundtrack. It was like these constipated afternoons trying to figure out how we were going to save this musical marriage made in hell, and then in the evening Jane would leave with all the baggage she had, and that brought Dale, Don and our band together. Freed of this neurotica, we were able to run as free as we wanted to be. Those were long, strange days, but they were a beautiful time when I think about it. They had such odd and interesting ways." Part of the Rheos' soundtrack assignment is to write the fictional character's hit song, "Claire," which a year later becomes their biggest real-life hit. "Dave Clark hated it," says Martin Tielli. "We were totally successful at what the assignment was. Nobody's picked up on how funny that is. The assignment was to write Desmond Howell's hit song, and we did it. And it's our only charting hit. It's funny as hell. We can do it if we want to. I don't want to, particularly."
In Montreal, the Rheostatics are ambushed by the young Local Rabbits at CKUT. Bidini recalls, "They said, ‘We do a version of "Record Body Count."' And I said, why don't you come down to Club Soda tonight and play it? They were about 15 at the time. At first they were like, ‘Oh, no way,' but they said they would, and we left the radio station and looked back through the window and they were high-fiving each other. Then they came down to the club and played it and it was unbelievable. That was before even the Super Duper EP, they were just starting out. When we toured with them about four years ago, there were a couple of nights in Edmonton where they just blew us away."

Later that year, Wojewoda convinces the Rheos to spend their newfound major label budget by recording Introducing Happiness in the Bahamas. "It was a thing of beauty," says Clark. "I stayed in Chris Frantz's villa beside Chris Blackwell's studio, swam in the ocean every day, recorded in this beautiful studio, the guy who ran the place recorded Led Zeppelin III, we were in a sunny environment, exercising and eating great food." Says Wojewoda, "Introducing Happiness is a celebration of excess. It was a tough one for me because I was very sick. I landed a sinus attack and an ear infection. Tinnitus, burning hot, and sick as a dog for the whole thing. I had no fun in the Bahamas; I just felt a burden of responsibility. That opening track, ‘Fan Letter to Michael Jackson,' is still that horrifyingly extreme beauty that they got, and you think as a first impression, ‘Fuck man, they're doing it again!' There's nuggets, there's moments, but everyone had to be served on that one. The need for democracy overtook clarity of the album. I worked very hard for two weeks, and then on the last night we partied our faces off. Before we left, Martin and I decided we were going to stay another week and just chill, and the rest wanted to get back. But we had all partied so hard that they slept in and missed their plane. It ended up costing them $800 American each to get back. Dave's on the phone yelling, ‘Hold the plane! Hold the plane!' because they woke up with ten minutes to spare. And I woke up, still drunk out of my mind, to people screaming, ‘NOOOO! FUCK! FUCK!' Also, Tim and I were in a restaurant when a gunman came in to rob the place."


Following the release of Introducing Happiness, Dave Clark becomes increasingly disenchanted on a UK tour. "We ended up getting stuck in business, which is the worst place for any band to be," says Clark. "We starting doing a lot of business, and I'm the type of person who doesn't deal well with an overload of negativity. We would go out live and have these incredibly ecstatic shows, with everything from the deepest angst from the darkest pits of our being to the brightest, happiest times. That time was beautiful. But we were working hard, and had girlfriends and were trying to get a life, and at the same time spending that much time with the same four people locked us into a pattern of socialising. We were really each others' family. So everything was a little bigger than it could have been. The business end started to drag things down. People started complaining, and you could see that people were getting tired. For me it was becoming less about the music and more about everything around it. I enjoyed the people – Dave, Tim and Martin were fun and really nice guys. Martin in particular is hilarious; no matter how much angst was going on between us, he was always very funny and is to this day. I get along with him really well. But the joy of it went out of me, and I knew I had to quit but I couldn't bring myself to do it, because it would be quitting something that had been such a huge part of my life." The Rheostatics play the biggest gig of their career at a Canada Day show curated by The Tragically Hip in Barrie, Ontario. At a two-night stint in Ottawa with openers Dinner is Ruined, Clark witnesses DIR get booed by a hostile Rheos audience; on the second night, he joins them on stage and has been with the band ever since. Clark's last Rheos gig is playing "Claire" on the Rita MacNeil CBC-TV variety show. Immediately afterwards, he forms the free-form improv orchestra the Woodchoppers Association.


After a month's downtime, the Rheostatics enlist Don Kerr, the ex-DIR drummer now playing with Bob Wiseman and his old friend Ron Sexsmith, whose international career is beginning to take off. Kerr's first Rheos gig is a secret Horseshoe show in Toronto; his second kicks off a Western tour in Calgary; in between, he opens for Tom Jones with Sexsmith in L.A. The band is quietly dropped by Sire. That summer, The Tragically Hip invite the Rheos on their Another Roadside Attraction tour along with The Inbreds and others. On that tour, they become hooked on a tape by Brandon, Manitoba hip-hop group Farm Fresh and invite them to Toronto to open up Green Sprouts Music Week. The National Art Gallery commissions the Rheos to write music to launch a Group of Seven retrospective; they in turn call on Kevin Hearn (Look People, Barenaked Ladies) and Farm Fresh to help compose and perform the work.


Music Inspired By the Group of Seven is released, and performed live in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver, the latter two with Wiseman replacing Hearn. Says Bidini, "The fact that that project became a reality, created its own momentum and had a life of its own, made me think that anything is possible. I didn't think we'd be able to pull it together, that people would like it and that it would be an important part of our career, but I think it has." Later that year, the raw rock record The Blue Hysteria is released and the Rheostatics open for The Tragically Hip in hockey arenas across the country. The Hip's live album, recorded in Detroit, opens with Rheos fan Gord Downie saying, "Thanks to the Rheostatics; we are all richer for having seen them tonight." Martin Tielli is crawling the rafters of Cobo Arena when Downie says this.


Double Live is released with low expectations, but becomes their second-biggest album and a touchstone for a new generation of fans. Says Bidini, "Double Live was the #1 campus radio record that year in Earshot, which freaked me out. Because, whatever, it was a live record sandwiched between albums. We didn't really do anything to promote it. We sold a lot; I think that and Melville are neck and neck. For whatever reason, that one registered." Improbable for aging Canadian cult heroes, the Rheostatics' audience starts to get younger. "I think it's just strong word of mouth, second wave," says Bidini. "We met these kids in London, Ontario, and the girl was 16. She said that her father used to play her the Whale Music soundtrack when she was 8 or 9 and that was the music she went to sleep to. I would be perfectly happy if we were playing to old people and the audience was still strong, but it's so much better that it's younger kids." A session for the final Nightlines show is recorded and released the following year, featuring plenty of Ween-ish four-track fuckery.


Tielli and Bidini have a chance encounter with Burton Cummings at the Saskatoon airport, who tells them that Whale Music is one of his favourite albums of all time alongside Sgt. Pepper. Bidini finishes his first book, On a Cold Road, which weaves Rheostatic history with anecdotes from '70s rock legends. Kerr juggles the Rheos with Ron Sexsmith's increasingly busy schedule; consequently, the Rheos become more of a part-time concern as Vesely also joins Sexsmith's band. Collaborator Kevin Hearn enters the hospital to be treated for leukemia; three weeks before, he performs with the band at Toronto's Music Hall. "That was so powerful for me," says Bidini. "None of us knew if we would ever play together again, and there were very heavy emotions that night. Martin blew ‘Shaved Head' [about a cancer victim] because he wanted it to be so perfect and poignant, and he was mortified that he'd forgotten the words. But that night had that effect on everyone, full of dread and joy. And in spite of all that, Tyler Stewart did manage to emerge from a drum case dressed as a giant bee, so the night did have a certain levity. Our experiences with Kevin have been so profound, musically, spiritually and socially."


Children's album The Story of Harmelodia, featuring contributions from Hearn, Downie, Sarah Harmer and Dave Merritt, is the band's most ambitious project ever. Not only is the music expansive, but it's accompanied by a story written by Bidini and illustrated by Tielli. Their tour mates of choice are the Weakerthans. Longtime Rheo fan Veda Hille enlists Tielli and Kerr to join her band for a European tour. "I think she represents all that's good about the West Coast music scene," says Bidini. "I love playing with her, she's amazing."


A week's worth of 20th anniversary shows are held in Toronto, opened by Sarah Harmer, Dave Merritt (Adam West, Golden Seals), Dave Teichroeb (DROG Records), Kevin Hearn, and Dinner is Ruined. Dave Clark sits in with the band for the encore on the final night. The Rheostatics perform at Belleville Centennial College in Eastern Ontario. "The music teacher charted out 20 songs and did an obsessively beautiful job, and the kids were great," says Bidini. "For their musical this year, they're adapting Harmelodia for the high school stage, because they always do Little Shop of Horrors but the kids revolted so they're doing this. They wrote a couple of new characters, and it's going along great."


Don Kerr reluctantly announces his departure in April, citing exhaustion from multiple commitments to the Gas Station studio and his 14-year working relationship with Ron Sexsmith. Says Bidini, "I remember Dale [Morningstar] once telling me that Don had quit Dinner is Ruined on the night they were supposed to leave for a Canadian tour, and Dale saying, ‘Careful!' I said, ‘Come on, Dale, that will never happen to us!'" Wojewoda fills in until the end of the year, including an eleven-night stint at Toronto's Horseshoe in November. Night of the Shooting Stars, their 11th album, is recorded by Ian Blurton and Alun Piggins and mixed by Wojewoda. Blurton was originally scheduled to produce the whole affair. "Ian's been in the same scene as us for 20 years, but we've never really crossed paths," says Bidini. "After working with him, I kind of know why. We cover totally different sides of the neighbourhood. Somewhere between us there's a strong common ground, but I don't think we were able to access it in that two-week [recording] period. Both of us have become who we are because we're vigilant about our aesthetics and the way we go about making our music; we've become that way because we're stubborn, so our stubbornness rubbed up against each other and ultimately wasn't able to resolve itself. Obviously the reason we wanted to work with him was his body of work and his aesthetic. When I listen to the record, I'm really happy with the results." The band searches for a new drummer to continue the legacy. On "We Went West," Tim Vesely sings, "We're still tightly knit, though years have come and gone."

[Portions of this article are excerpted from the recently published Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995 by Michael Barclay, Jason Schneider and Ian A.D. Jack]

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