Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequence (Or, why Action Bronson fans can go fuck themselves)

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“Is he being unfairly targeted?”

The day Action Bronson’s headlining performance at Yonge and Dundas Square was cancelled by the organizers of NXNE, bowing to the pressure of a petition claiming the New York rapper’s music “glorifies gang-raping and murdering women,” which attracted 40 thousand signatures, I went on the news to talk about it. It’s a privilege I have as a music journalist who is not camera-shy, and something I personally enjoy, sharing my views with the masses, helping to provide context to the headlines of the day. On this day though, it kind of sucked. Because it meant I actually had to listen to Action Bronson. In advance of the taping I reviewed the song cited in the petition, “Consensual Rape” (highlights: “Your life is cheap like a hooker in the Philippines”; “Don’t get me pissed off, fuck around rip your tits off”) along with the video for “Brunch,” which shows him angrily, repeatedly spitting “fucking bitch, fucking bitch… you scumbag bitch” while stabbing the corpse of a dead women rolled up in a carpet and stuffed in his trunk. Brutal. And so when the host at CP24 asked if I thought this whole thing was unfair, I had a difficult time keeping my answers clean enough for live TV. And since there’s never enough time to express everything in those short bits, I wanted to write about it all here.

This is a story about 40 thousand people saying no to misogyny, and winning.

It takes a lot for me to cheer for someone’s gig getting the axe because they offended someone. Like most people, I abhor censorship, which is usually propagated by uninformed folks who put the “jerk” in knee-jerk, and scapegoats certain genres unfairly. My personal tastes in music and art run towards some pretty dark stuff, and even if they didn’t I’d still think it was fundamentally wrong to decide what others should enjoy. But I do make a distinction between art that is simply violent or explicit and art that is filled with hate. (It’s why I love gory, disturbing horror films but not exploitation films.) And after thinking about this situation for a few days, I have concluded this is not about censorship at all. It’s definitely not about rap music. Or policing art. It’s bigger than that. This is a story about 40 thousand people saying no to misogyny, and winning. And what a great victory that is.

Since the petition to remove the concert from a free public space was started, by Toronto’s Erica Shiner, there has been plenty of outcry from fans of Action Bronson and others, shouting about the right to free speech. Which means they have no clue what freedom of speech actually means.
Freedom of speech is the right to say what you want and not get arrested by the state for it. And even then, it’s not absolute. In Canada, we have a Broadcast Standards Council to regulate what can be said over the public airwaves. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, subject to “reasonable limits.” The hate propaganda section of our criminal code (319) makes illegal the public incitement or willful promotion of hatred against “any identifable group” and is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. It’s mostly used to shut down racist propaganda but also protects against intimidation, harrassment, physical force or threats of physical force motivated by hate against race, religion, ethnic origins, age, sexual orientation, disability and sex. Women have been protected by this law since October of 2014, when Bill C-13 was passed to amend the code, a very important step to recognize that hate can be gendered.  Note that gender is not on that list. Because we as a society have yet to recognize that half of the population is often a target of abuse. This is partly why, in 2000, attemps to ban Eminem entry to Canada to perform at Skydome on the grounds that his music promoted violence against women failed, because that’s not at that time it was not actually a crime.)  And if you still don’t believe that’s true, or a problem, This doesn’t eliminate the problem, of course. Take a look at the kind of Tweets that were lobbed at Shiner when her petition started to take off. (Warning: vile language and crimes against grammar ahead)


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Reading these made me furious. More furious than watching “Brunch.” It made me realize that I dislike Action Bronson’s supporters more than the rapper himself. They have no art to hide behind. This might be an unfair assumption but I’d bet they’re not activists working to free Pussy Riot or Iranian bloggers or stop Bill C-51. They are simply filled with hate. And they have no shame in saying these things publicly. Because they live in a world where women are objects to be talked about, to be talked at, any way they choose. And when you are angry with something a woman says or does, the appropriate and perfectly acceptable response is to call her a cunt who should get beat up. I know. It’s not my first day on the internet. Don’t read the comments and all that. But why should we let this go simply because everyone does it?

This isn’t about the lyrics of any one performer. It’s about how violently some react when women dare to present an opposing viewpoint that might mess with the fun they are having at our expense.

A lot of fans protesting the petition point to the fact that the song “Consensual Rape” is four years-old. This reminds me of when I tell my mother I don’t want to visit the friend of hers I know used to beat his wife when I was a kid and she says “Oh, he’s not like that anymore.” Like that makes it OK. They say there’s no way he was even going to play it at this concert. But from what little I know of Action Bronson (whose response to the petition was “FUCK ALL YALL HATERS BLOW DICK”), seems pretty likely he would have pulled that track out to play here just to piss off his detrators, to show who is boss.
That’s what this is about. Not about the lyrics of any one performer, however offensive they may be to some. It’s about how violently some men (and some women) react when women dare to present an opposing viewpoint that might mess with the fun they are having at our expense. Because: How. Dare. We.

This is about a sea change in the public’s acceptance of garbage being thrown at women, in the name of “boys will be boys” entertainment. It has has everything to do with Gamergate, and FHRITP, and female comedians speaking out against sexist hecklers. It’s about saying enough with this shit.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence. Go ahead, Action Bronson, put your art out into the world. I’m not going to stop you, or tell you your records should be burned or your lyrics blacked out, or kept out of stores or off the air. I’m not even going to sign a petition trying to ban you from playing in my city’s town square. Just know that you don’t get to say whatever you want about women anymore and expect them not to talk back. We are not props in the back of your trunk. We have freedom of speech too.

Note: Updated to reflect amendments to the Criminal Code made in October 20, 2014 which added gender to the list of identifiable groups protected by hate propaganda laws.

Why I hate #healthgoth

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On several nights over the past few weeks, I’ve sat down and attempted to write out my feelings about Healthgoth. Yeah, that thing. You may have read about it recently, in Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Guardian, and even Esquire for goth’s sake. And if you know me you probably forwarded me the link saying, “check this out!” and “thought of you” and “heard about this?” Yeah. I heard about it…. sometime in 2013, when I first saw the HealthGoth Facebook page. I thought it was a joke. I still do. Only now, titans of media are anointing it as a legitimate thing. And that Facebook page has, like 20K followers. Every time I saw a new article, which seemed to be popping up daily, I would guffaw. Don’t these reporters realize they are being bamboozled, ala Lamestain scandal of 1992? It’s just a couple of friends obsessed with black athletic wear and some sarcastic goths having a larf with hashtags, non?

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No pain, no…ah, forget it….

Then on December 17 I got an email. Subject: THE OFFICIAL HEALTH GOTH FITNESS MANIFESTO VIDEO RELEASE. Now, apart from the fact that any press release that uses ALL CAPS is generally promoting the worst music/product ever, this one was particular hilarious. To start: the accompanying photo, of a gang of randoms wearing black and posing at the gym. It looks like a spoof, some skit on Portlandia. Then this:

“Black Nike 5.0’s? Check. Black Under Armor long sleeve shirt? Check. Black Mesh crop top? Check. Welcome to Health Goth, a lifestyle trend that combines dark sith lord purveyors and the health conscious into one.”

Lifestyle trend. Riiiiight. I did not click on the video. But a lot of people did, many of whom kept forwarding it to me. I was starting to feel really angry about this. Because to me, this had absolutely nothing to do with Goth, that thing I love. But then I thought, who the hell am I to decide what can and can’t be goth? Sure, I did literally write the book on it, but I’m hardly the St. Peter of gothdom, judging who can get in through the gates. Although, I’m pretty bloody sure most of my Goth pals would agree that hiring a publicist to pimp your work-out video and promoting Nike is most definitely Not Goth.

OK then, deep breath. Let’s spend some time with this. Maybe I have it all wrong. I quickly realized that there were two distinct factions in this Health Goth story: Johnny Love, the Chicago DJ who also uses the name Deathface, is the “tastemaker” and “figurehead” (in the wording of that press release) behind that video. He maintains the site, where he mostly sells T-shirts that appropriate logos of big corporate brands into more “goth”-friendly messaging (Example: I Just Can’t) and promotes taking back the gym from bros. Then there are three guys from Portland who run that Healthgoth Facebook page. Mike Grabarek, Chris Cantino and Jeremy Scott are artists obsessed not with benchpressing but the aesthetics of sleek, shiny, futuristic fashion, mostly black but sometimes white, sometimes work-out gear but sometimes not, plus some kink I’ve never heard of — wearing your nice new tracksuits/shoes into the shower or pool and filming yourself getting soaking wet for other dudes who are into that. OK. Each camp claims to have invented this Health Goth thing. And they hate each other, of course.


At this point I’m pretty sure this has absolutely nothing to do with Goth culture as I know it. So why does it bug me so much? I went back to this great book I had read a few years ago when I was trying examine my bias against hipsters. Hip: The History by John Leland taught me plenty about black culture in America, and how hip and race are intertwined but not so much about why I got annoyed by the PBR-swilling beardos in my neighbourhood, beyond a reminder that the standard “get off my lawn” posture, which signals nothing if one’s own futile attempt to cling to hipness by dismissing everyone else as fakes, is as old as hip itself.

I try to keep those feelings in check, in general. And in terms of Goth, I’ve never been one of those “Elders” who gets mad at the younger generation for not bowing down to the same records I grew up on, or having the same interests. Take the Goth Lolita girls. On the surface, we have very little in common. They don’t listen to goth rock music at all. I don’t see them out at horror movies.  So they prefer to consume anime and aren’t afraid to wear tutus? I’m cool with that. Because I see in them, in their home-made outfits, in their world of elaborate tea parties and extreme girlieness, a polite resistance to the dominant Western youth culture. (Not to mention I appreciate their obsession with Victoriana, which is Goth Style 101.) They are creative, DIY, outrageous, and committed to making the world a more interesting place. They do more than just sit at home and regram other people’s photos, in other words. Or the GHE20G0TH1 club scene in New York. It’s not my scene, but it is a scene, with real creative people doing something in the real world. I feel less kind towards the crap bands operating under the Goth banner the past 10 years. (You know, that awful synthpop that’s like the power metal of goth – a joke some people take waaaaay to seriously.) But even they don’t make me angry. I just choose to listen to other things. So, again, why are the Health Goths pissing me off?


Because it’s not punk rock. That’s why. Both Love and the Portland trio are fetishizing products. And that’s it. That’s not culture. That’s not any kind of lifestyle I can get behind. What are they actually creating, or contributing? (Both parties do make music, but it seems unconnected to their HG pursuits.) One guy is just a fitness nut who is promoting himself and his cheap shirts with shockingly bad graphic design under the guise of anti-corporate rebellion. The others are just providing a steady scroll of eye candy on Facebook. Granted, the high-tech, far-out fashions and design they post are pretty drool-worthy (I’m all for more people dressing like we live in the Matrix/the Grid/that awesome Interpol video for reals) but how does posting/liking/sharing photos to corporate brands (however artfully composed) make a “community” worth celebrating in the New York Times? In this interview, they expound on Health Goth as “a hybrid of aesthetics we’re plugged into, including elements of biotechnology, sportswear, fetish culture, extreme cleanliness, dystopian advertisements, and rendered environments.” I should like these guys. They’re promoting clothes that are sexy and far-out and men who shave. But oh, look, Grabarek, Cantino and Scott have had meetings with Adidas. Because you know, that’s for sure about art.

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Goth, for all its permutations, was never about buying shit. Certainly not expensive designer shit. Which is why all those tabloid headlines screaming, “Rihanna/Jennifer Lawrence goes goth” are so ridiculous. (I particularly love the Lorde goes goth ones. Lorde IS goth, people.) It’s not a costume. It’s not a commodity. It’s not a trend. It is a subculture. It is a lifestyle. One with dozens of different looks and outlooks. You want to adopt the G-word to sell a product, to promote a business. Go ahead. I’m not the boss of you. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me throw up in my mouth a little. As for all those media outlets jumping on Love and his fitness manifesto? Screw you for playing into the idea that Goth by its very nature is somehow opposed to being healthy, making Health Goth such a surprising and titillating topic for you. Goths are just people. Some like to work out. Usually in their ratty Joy Division shirts or ill-advised Converse or maybe even some new Adidas their parents got them for Christmas or, most likely, the same boring work-out clothes everyone else is wearing. Some of them even play team sports! Whatevs. #notnews [Edit: As my friend Stephanie, a goth who runs, put it: “I find the whole health goth thing annoying because it perpetuates the stereotype that goths are so precious and pretentious that we can’t even work out without draping ourselves in lace, rivets and eyeliner.” Exactly!]

When I started running, I certainly wished there were more black shoe options. But after finally watching that “OFFICIAL” goth fitness manifesto video, I think I’m fine with my pink runners, thanks. Gonna lace those up, crank some Nitzer Ebb and go shake this whole HealthGoth thing off. Peace.


2014: A few of my favourite things


It’s the last night to do this. To make a year-end list. I’ve avoided it because I’ve been busy devouring everyone else’s lists. Media is full of them at this time of year—when fresh content is limited, looking back at the most popular people and moments of the year that was makes good editorial sense. And so with my journalist hat on, I’ve done it (here’s my list of Top Canadian Albums of 2014 for Huffington Post Music). But sitting here tonight, with less than 24 hours to go in this calendar, I think that I’m still not ready. To decide what is The Best. Even just to me. But I do want to document what moved me, what stuck with me. If there’s a theme, it is one of surprises, and of dreams.

The shows.

For as long as I’ve been going to concerts, they have been as important to me as records. In fact, I think a key reason I’m not so into bands that peaked before my time is that I never got to see them play, which is a huge factor in falling in love with artists and their songs. This was the year I got to see Kate Bush perform live. Something I never, ever, believed would happen. I wrote about it at length here. It remains the absolutely highlight of 2014 while at the same time being impossible to compare to anything else. But wait, there was also Nick Cave. At the Sony Centre. On fire. And me, pushing me way up to the front, where he spent a great deal of the show singing from within the crowd, buoyed by hands. When he came close to where we stood I reached out my left hand and placed it over his heart, while he looked over my head and sang to someone out of my view. I placed my right hand around his thigh, holding him up as he leaned forward, grabbing at those around me. I remember every moment of “Push the Sky Away,” title track from his most recent album, one of the best things he’s ever written, and how it hushed the room. I listen to that song on headphones in bed all the time. It’s my lullaby. A totally different trip was seeing Kraftwerk, in “3D”. Which means they give you silly cardboard glasses to watch their high-tech digital video backdrops. But man, what fun. The loudest show I saw was surprisingly not Swans at NXNE (outdoors, so probably not their fault) or even DFA’s very loud pop up show (again, outdoors) but Ben Frost at the Garrison. Punishing, minimal electronic music in the dark with strobes and fog is one of my favourite spaces and states to be in. I also love dancing, and discovery, and I got both at the debut gig for Operators at the Silver Dollar during NXNE. Literally from the very first notes my colleagues and I knew this was going to be our new favourite band. It’s what we chase all the time, that feeling, that you are witnessing something special unfold before you. So many feelings also watching Tanya Tagaq blow all of the minds at the Polaris Music Prize Gala and the return of The Constantines at Field Trip. Canadians have always made, and continue to make, some of the best fucking music in the world.


 The songs.

Pretty simple here. The songs I kept playing on repeat, and repeat, and repeat…

Against Me “Black Me Out”

FKA Twigs “Two Weeks”

Beyonce “Flawless”

Future Islands “Seasons”

Death from Above 1979 “Right On, Frankenstein”

Some movies.

It wasn’t one of those years full of cinema I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about. With two exceptions: 20,000 Days on Earth, a documentary about Nick Cave which is nothing like what you expect a documentary about Nick Cave to be and exactly like what you should expect a documentary about Nick Cave to be. Absolutely inspiring. And What We Do in the Shadows, hands-down the funniest film I’ve seen in a long time and the first to get the vampire comedy right in a very long time.


I want to put books here, and poems, and lectures and all kinds of cultural thing that made this year interesting. But most seemed to drift in and out of my view and my consciousness. Which is why I’ve started to write a new project all about memories, and how we preserve them. For when there are no more lists.




Godspeed, Polaris and the art of saying No.

Two nights ago, on the eve of the Polaris Music Prize gala, in which a Canadian album would be named the year’s best, and awarded a $30,000 cash prize as a result, I was listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Short Listed Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! I consider it a highly accomplished musical creation, one that I personally enjoyed enveloping myself in, and the more I listened the more I thought, “This could win.”


And then I dismissed it. In part because my favourites never win. (Hi Handsome Furs!) In part because it’s instrumental, with songs that are 20 minutes long, and that’s a hard sell, even to the expert open-eared music critics that make up the Polaris jury. And in part because Godspeed is, 20 years after first appearing on the fringes of Canada’s music scene, still pissing off critics, and Polaris is, after all, a critics’ prize.

Disclaimer: I was for many years a member of the Polaris Board of Directors. I also manged the jury, including moderating the final deliberations for the winner. I know more than anyone that those debates really are about the artistic merits of the album. It’s not a consensus vote, and the kind of of Borg-like hive mind that many people in the general public ascribe to the decision making is laughably speculative and false. There is no “let’s award a French act this year” or “that person is too rich to deserve to win.” It. Doesn’t. Happen.

But I know from private discussions with people who write about music for a (humble) living that sometimes when artists are mean to the media, talk shit about journalists, refuse to give interviews (or worse, waste people’s time by not showing up to scheduled ones) or generally act like we’re the enemy, their albums go the bottom of the listening pile. Media are people too, and they can have hurt feelings. I’m not suggesting that is a factor in that final Polaris debate (I certainly never witnessed it) but I did consider for a moment that Godspeed, notorious shunners of media attention, rejecters of interview requests, might not have enough friends in that room.

I’m so glad I was wrong. Last night, after several hours of joyous musical performances — highlighted by fiercely confident Zaki Ibrahim, ferociously pummelling METZ, and wickedly fun A Tribe Called Red — Godspeed was announced as the Polaris Music Prize winner for 2013. Post-gala, the question is always, “What did you think of the winner?” and this year, in all sincerity, I could say “Allelujah.”

It did not go unnoticed that this was the first time in the award’s history that the winner was not in attendance. This was by no means a surprise, knowing GY!BE.  But it was a story. A rep from the band’s label explained the band would be giving the $30,000 prize to try and set up a programme to distribute musical instruments in prisons. People clapped at that, mostly. Then everyone went to the Drake and mingled and talked about music and got on with our lives.

This morning I woke to the band’s official statement,  which starts off with “A FEW WORDS REGARDING THIS POLARIS PRIZE THING.” Right, this “thing.” This dismissive shrug bugged me. But it goes on to thank music writers for the prize, shout out struggling freelancers especially, express gratitude, and then:

BUT HOLY SHIT AND HOLY COW- we’ve been plowing our field on the margins of weird culture for almost 20 years now, and “this scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show” is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds.3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.these are hard times for everybody. and musicians’ blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money, well then maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords. and maybe a party thusly is long overdue- it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn’t just lazy money patting itself on the back.”

And so now we have an even bigger story. Godspeed “slams” Polaris! My social media, full of music biz people, is awash with arguments about whether or not the band’s position is respectable or bullshit—or worse, shtick. Many call them hypocrites, dicks, fake anarchists, for accepting a prize if they don’t agree with what it represents.

Some people seem very angry about the whole thing. I am not.

Sure, it’s fun to argue. But really, I fail to see this as some crisis, some failure of either the prize or the band. For one, they’re not totally slamming the prize. They say thank you. They don’t particularly like the glitzy gala, sponsored by a car company, sure, but in general they mostly sound conflicted. Which is exactly how I would feel about being awarded a prize sponsored by corporations. Grateful, yes. But I’d still have questions and concerns. And I haven’t made my living, my brand, off being anti-corporate.

Many are suggesting the band should not have accepted the win. That they should have withdrawn from consideration months ago, at the Long List stage. And they especially should not be taking the money. I don’t know if that’s some lingering resentment over their anti-industry stance all these years or what. But I do know it’s bullshit.

If you have a point of view, a message even, it serves nobody to withdraw from public discourse.

By pulling out, rejecting their nomination, they would first and foremost deprive many new music lovers from discovering and hearing their album, which is pretty much the opposite of what most musicians I know want. There may have been a few blog posts about their decision but only people who already know who Godspeed are would ever read them. And they most definitely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take their views to mainstream media. To have a statement read on CBC Radio. To get a nation talking about the nature of arts awards. Even if their statement had its contradictions and flaws. Yeah, I know that their label Constellation has received government funding. I know they are going on a no-doubt gas-guzzling tour with NIN, playing venues named by banks and such. And it doesn’t bother me.

We are all compromised in our ethics. We all have to navigate a world that is for the most part not in line with our core beliefs of justice. Judging other people may be natural, but it’s petty. It’s like saying Tom Morello lost his activist cred by signing with Sony. It’s like tsking a vegetarian for wearing leather shoes to make yourself feel better for eating animals. If someone else is unpure in their convictions, well, then I guess my inaction is OK then.

We have no idea what goes in in other people’s heads, and hearts, and wallets. Maybe the band is giving their profits from the NIN tour to carbon offsets. Maybe Constellation used that funding to hire people to work in their office instead of exploiting intern slavery. I don’t know. And I actually don’t care. I’m still applauding a band for taking its 24 hours of spotlight to actually say something, about something, whatever that is. In my view, that’s what artists should do. It’s part of their job.

One point I am surprised to find overlooked is that the band chose a music journalist to speak on their behalf at the gala. For the first time, the Short Listed artists were given the opportunity to select their own presenters. Whitehorse picked Sarah McLachlan. Tegan and Sara picked Strombo. Godspeed could have picked any number of representatives — Sacheen Littlefeather, perhaps? — or none at all. But they picked Jessica Hopper, a music journalist. She read a short statement about why they would not attend, with a comment about what can be achieved when you “decide to say no.” It was kind of perfect. (Save for host Kathleen Edwards’ comment that Hopper is one of the “few and far between excellent women music writers,” which I found bewildering and offensive.) Here, their actions spoke.

Godspeed don’t hate everyone. They just don’t like everyone. Like their music, I can relate to that.

Vampires at Midnight (aka, my picks for TIFF 2013)

Every year at this time I plan my 10-day movie-going adventure that is the Toronto International Film Festival. And every year at this time I try to convince my friends who don’t regularly “do” TIFF that despite how big and chaotic the festival is it’s really not that difficult to get tickets to great films, even at the last minute. If you look beyond the big premieres of films with Hollywood A-list guests you’ll find literally hundreds of movies to choose from. I always start with the Midnight Madness program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year—it’s the home of horror, action and general weirdness picked especially for the witching hour. The screenings can be closer to going to a rock show than a movie theatre. Expect lots of hollering. More and more, the Vanguard program, which describes itself as provocative, sexy and dangerous, is also where I find my new favourites. But then things that go “boo” jump out at me where I least expect them, too.

Because this month is all about vampires for me, I’m going to have to see everything I can in that genre. Thankfully, there are three interesting ones indeed.

"only lovers left alive"

Only Lovers Left Alive promises to be the coolest vampire movie since the Hunger, starring Tilda Swinton. Confession: I’ve never actually seen a Jim Jarmusch movie. I’m excited that this is premiering the first night of the festival, which should set me up well for the week ahead.

Story of My Death, an experimental film from Spain, mixes Cassanova with Count Dracula. This could be sumptuously, deliriously satisfying or totally odd. I’m going to find out.

Rigor Mortis. Chinese hopping vampires at Midnight Madness?! Hello! If you’ve never seen an Asian vampire movie, they’re generally a wild and fun ride.

Apart from these vamp flicks, I’m pretty keen to see the sexy sci-fi thriller Under the Skin, Alexander Aja’s adaption of Joe Hill’s Horns, the historical drama Mary, Queen of Scots, the Icelandic coming-of-age story Metalhead, and Tom at the Farm, a psychological thriller from Canadian wunderkid Xavier Dolan. Oh, and about 50 others!

See you there, in the dark.

Peter Murphy.

I can’t stop thinking about Peter Murphy. The “Godfather of Goth.” The Gothfather.

News surfaced last night that Peter was in jail in California, arrested Saturday  “on suspicion of causing injuries while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, felony hit-and-run and possessing methamphetamine,” according to the L.A. Times. There was an ugly mug shot alongside the story. Peter is 55 but has always seemed immortal. Here he has that unshaven, blank look of someone who has been through the wringer. A criminal. The charges come after he allegedly rear-ended a vehicle and drove off. The story quotes police as saying he appeared to be “very confused.” They also reported finding a small bag of meth in the patrol car where he had been sitting. Peter denied it was his. Or drinking that day. He said he took only his prescription anti-depressants. He blamed the collision on jet lag.

Right away, my Twitter and Facebook feeds filled up with jokes. He was driving a Subaru Forester? Hilarious! The crime took place at 11:48 a.m. The vampire prince trying to drive in California high-noon? Well that explains everything. Peter Murphy and Bauhaus lyrics that could be considered ironic now were cut up and posted. Wink, wink. Plenty more wondered how their lives would be affected: would his upcoming tour dates be cancelled? Will I get a refund? It doesn’t escape me that when an artist we admire is sick, I mean physically sick, there is an outpouring of sympathy. But if someone is known to have depression, mental health struggles, relationship problems, addiction, well how quickly they are raked over the coals. Like it’s lame. Like it’s not sad.

I don’t think it’s funny.  Not because he’s special, above ridicule. Just the opposite. Because he’s just a man. A man with problems, apparently.

Murphy Live at RPM. Better days.

We Goths, and plenty of 80s new wavers and 90s alt rockers, consider Peter Murphy A-list, an icon. Most people, like say the average L.A. Times reader, probably don’t know Peter Murphy from Adam Ant.  They don’t remember “Cuts You Up” or “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” or his role in the Hunger. The paper tagged him as “lead singer of 1970s British goth-rock band Bauhaus.” That’s close enough to a celebrity to warrant news coverage. Which means we can expect more details to come out, probably not good. About why he’s on anti-depressants. About any personal issues that might shed a light on this behaviour. (Someone on his FB page posted he’s mourning the death of his sister.) They might rip apart his finances, although the fact that he is in jail because he can’t post the $500,000 bail and there’s been no swift press release or statement yet tells you he’s not exactly rolling with high-priced lawyers or pr firms these days.  Fans can scream “leave him alone!” but that’s their job. the reporters, to report. And it’s his own fault. He didn’t have to crash that car. He didn’t have to drive away. Hit-and-run, that’s pretty low.

At least nobody was hurt.  I’ve read The Dirt. I know how Vince Neil of Motley Crue drove drunk and killed Razzle from Hanoi Rocks — and got 30 days in jail for it. (Then went on to beat up people and drive drunk again but still  get off free to date and fuck and marry models and Playmates, because he clearly does have expensive lawyers.)  I thought that made him a pretty awful human being, but it didn’t affect me. All those Hollywood celebs, glam rockers, whatever. Let them be bad. They’re not my heroes. This time though, I can’t stop thinking about it. I worry that Peter is not like Vince Neil at all, but like Dave Gahan. I think about Gahan’s heroin addiction, his suicide attempt, his near-death experience. Or Trent Reznor, whose struggles with depression and drugs, his descent down the spiral, thankfully led him ultimately to rehab, not jail. I remember how back then, in the mid-90s and even early 2000s, you mostly heard about these things much later, when the person was ready to talk about it. Not like now. People on the scene tweeted fuzzy cell phone photos of Peter Murphy being arrested. The infamy is immediate. Whatever happens in court, Peter will never be able to erase that mugshot. His Wiki bio— and his obituary — will have that mark.

Yes, there is a tour at stake. And his ability to work and to travel, if convicted.  I don’t care if the shows are cancelled. I hope his friends have called. (I’m looking at you, Trent Reznor.) I hope someone bails him out.

In 2011, Peter Murphy put out a damned fine solo record, Ninth. I saw him perform on that tour, and he was marvelous as ever. His voice sounded great. His aging body still had the moves. He was still a master manipulator of the stage, of shadow and light. On two occasions I had the chance to chat with him after the show. In these tiny, unglamorous dressing rooms he held court, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. One of my favourites was of him walking through the Leipzig Festival (the world’s biggest Goth gathering) without make-up or costume and not being recognized. I gave him a copy of my book and he said, typically, “But I’m not Goth!” My sassy girlfriend replied, typically, “Well then you will learn alot from this book.”  Sometimes the people there were really annoying. Drunks or ubergoths or both. He smiled at them anyway, listened to them, shared his cigarettes.  And when he got tired he simply waved and said goodnight and disappeared out the backdoor. I like to picture him wandering off into the night to read poetry or write a song or call his daughter or go to sleep. I like to picture him singing, dancing.

I don’t like to picture him in a mug shot, a meth user, a man on the edge. And so I will not.

Mr. Moonlight, 2011

My Top 5 picks for Pope

Today the Cardinals go into enclave and vote on a new Pope. They literally lock themselves in a room with no communication devices except a chimney. Yes, the way they let the world know a decision has been made is by burning the ballots and letting the smoke rise out of the chimney into the air over the Vatican, using chemicals to control the colour.  White smoke = new pope.

Hello, Vatican! Horns up!

While the world speculates on who will be elected, I ponder who I would vote for if asked. I do, after all, have experience in sequestered voting, having managed the Polaris Music Prize Grand Jury for a number of years. And I was baptized Catholic and taught partly by nuns before becoming Born Again Heathen so I know a few things about the Church. (Mostly fun things to do with the communion Host if you don’t want to swallow it.) But my religion has always been music. And so if I was allowed into the secret chamber to place a ballot, I’d be inclined to write in a musician candidate. Why not? The only official criteria for Pope is “Catholic” and “male.” There’s no law that says a rocker can’t also be the Pope.

And so I present my Top 5 Papal Candidates.

Age: 44
Cred: Attended Christian elementary school
Potential Pope Name: “God of Fuck”; “Antichrist Superstar”
Pros: Looks good in skirt
Cons: Card-carrying member, Church of Satan

Cred: May be an actual Cardinal. Or a Bishop. Or just a Swedish metal dude in a cool costume.
Potential Pope Name: “Papa Emeritus” “Mary Goore”
Pros: Multilingual; good at keeping secrets
Cons: Um, that whole Swedish pagan thing.

Age: 50
Cred: Proponent of resurrection — died and came back to life after overdose
Potential Pope Name: “Personal Jesus”
Pros: Someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares
Cons: Divorced (twice)

Age: 52
Cred: Half-Catholic
Potential Pope Name: “Bono Vox”
Pros: Already acts like he has the job
Cons: An Irish Pope? Hahahhahahahaha.

Age: 62
Potential Pope Name: Ms. Pope the 1st
Pros: For God’s sake look at her name—she was literally born for this job!  Also, 60s is considered prime age for starting your career in the papal arts.
Cons: Her band’s biggest hit is about same-sex crush on hot teenager, probably not the theme song the Church is looking for. Oh, and there’s that whole woman thing. Well, maybe next century….

2012: A few of my favourite things

It was the year of the Apocalypse. Nothing to do with the Mayan doomsday. More that so many things in my world came to an end, some for the better but mostly for worse. But then….life goes on. And art saves. These are some of the things from 2012 that made me think, made me dream, made me happy to be alive.

The Music.
For all that I talk about Goth, there is precious little Goth music I get excited about anymore. Well, of the stuff that gets tagged as Goth by its creators anyway. But there is a never-ending supply of new music that is dark and romantic, dangerous and danceable, minimal and macabre. In other words, Goth. They just file it somewhere else in the shops.

One of my favourite new-ish groups is Britain’s The XX, a love child of The Cure and various Northern soul, if said baby had died in childbirth and become a ghost. Their second album Co-Exist has been on repeat for me for months, a haunting listen in the truest sense. Bat For Lashes had a new one, and while I wish The Haunted Man was something more, something truly extraordinary, it has its moment of grace and beauty. The Raveonettes continue to delight me with fuzzy garage noise in a way the J&MC never quite could. Both their Into the Night EP and Obsverator album were never far from reach.

In the not at all Goth but still rocking my world category, I finally came ’round to overlooking the stupid band name Grizzly Bear and all the indie hipster accolades to embrace that band’s beautiful 21st century rock album Shields. Ditto psychedelic Aussies Tame Impala, but I guess with an album called Lonerism, I was destined to eventually fall for them.  …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead reminded me how much I used to dig that band with its raucous Lost Songs. I welcomed the return of the Deftones too. But of all the loud rock records this year I kept coming back to JapandroidsCelebration Rock. It made me dance wilder. Run faster. Scream louder. And feel better.

As for disappointments, well, I still can’t get into How to Destroy Angels. And that solo album from Interpol’s Paul Banks seems to have gone in one ear and out the other for me. But to make up for it, I had the discovery of Canada’s Cold Specks. Her debut album I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, a collection of very old-school mournful soul,  topped my ballot for the Polaris Music Prize here, and I had the pleasure of introducing her at the gala awards ceremony, where I did my best to convince the industry crowd that her “death blues”  was in fact, Goth. Also quite surprisingly, watching Dead Can Dance at the Sony Centre, live for the first time in a decade and realizing that, with the elimination of their organic (and presumably expensive) band of live drummers and the introduction of more samples and keyboards, they’ve finally turned into a Goth band. Next to hearing Lisa Gerrard sing “Sanvean” one more time, my most memorable live show was Justice headlining the Hard outdoor festival here at Fort York in the middle of a downpour. We didn’t know if the show would go on, but we waited, so, so, so soaked. And then it did. And we danced. And it was grand.

But what might in fact surprise you, gentle reader, is that my favourite album of the moment seems to be from Alicia KeysGirl on Fire doesn’t have the best title track/lead single, but “New Day” got me out of bed more than once, and the ballad “Not Even the King” is one of those tunes that I simply cannot listen to just once. I’ve worn out the replay button on that one. In years to come, I think it will be a classic. Here is it, for you….

The Films.
So many bummers. Dark Shadows. The Dark Knight Rises. And yes (sigh) even Prometheus, which I didn’t hate like most Alien fans but it certainly did not blow my mind as I had hoped.  Instead I had the insanely hilarious and clever Cabin in the Woods, a cinematic love letter to monster movie fans if ever there was. And thanks to more stellar programming from the Toronto International Film Festival, I thoroughly enjoyed tons of scary flicks new and old this year, from Neil Jordan’s return to vampires, Byzantium to Guillermo del Toro giving a master class in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Most arresting: the TIFF world premiere of West of Memphis, another documentary about the West Memphis Three case, but this time produced in part by Damien Echols himself, the man who spent almost 20 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, mostly because he was a freak in a very wrong place in a very wrong time. More than all the Paradise Lost films, it will shell-shock you by the injustice, then and now. Being in a theatre with Echols, now free, but not yet exonerated, was kind of surreal. So was witnessing what happens when you put Johnny Depp (one of the film’s producers) in a room. I thought I had seen celebrity frenzy before but this was some next level hysteria. I hope it brings attention to this powerful documentary, and to this case, which is not yet over.

The Books.
Truth be told, I spent most of this year writing my own new book, How to Kill a Vampire. Which meant powering through dozens of novels and non-fiction titles about the various aspects of the nosferatu. I was pretty happy to finally get around to reading all the American Vampire comics, because they seriously rock. But in all honestly, much of it is a blur. So tell me what to read next. I need new poetry, new horror, new cultural studies, new classics, to take me new places in 2013.

Run For Your Lives! Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse…

So this is crazy. I am soaking wet, having just voluntarily jumped into a pool of freezing cold water on a windy, chilly September day. I am covered in mud, having just crawled on my stomach under an electrified fence in the middle of a field. I’m officially dead. And I’m totally smiling. This is how I ended my experience at Run For Your Lives, a 5km zombie themed obstacle course race. This is crazy not because of the zombies or the mud or the threat of electric shock. It’s crazy because 11 weeks ago I could not run half a block to catch the bus. I’ve never been able to run very far, or fast. In fact, I have vivid memories of an elementary school gym class where I puked on the shoes of a poor volunteer trying to get me to run around the track one more time. But when I heard about this event I figured if there was any an occasion to put on ugly shoes and embarrass myself in public, it would be a race where a mob of zombies is trying to chase you down and eat your brains.

So my friends and I made a team. We even got team shirts, that said “Not a Zombie.” And then I set about training to do this. From couch to 5k, they say. I couldn’t have done it without my weekend running partner, who like me was starting from scratch. And my friend Rory Lindo, who is an actual fitness instructor and taught me many things and made sure I didn’t die. (She teaches a fantastic cardio class called Rock ‘n’ Roar at Sugarfoot Fitness in downtown Toronto, by the way. If you hate gym music and would rather work out to RATM and BRMC, this class is for you!) I even got a zombie running app for my phone for extra inspiration. And black running shoes. By September 22, I was ready.

I'm Not A Zombie! (Yet)

Everyone doing the Run For Your Lives wants to know things in advance. We all looked at the YouTube clips from past races to get a sense of how hard it would be. But each race is different. So all we really knew is that there would be 12 obstacles and many zombies trying to snatch the three flags on your belt, which makes you “dead”.  Having done it I would now add this: it’s not 5k of straight running. Unless you are super keen and get a head start, there are backlogs at the obstacles and other reasons you will be stopping or walking part of the time. There are many, many zombies, and they are not shy about grabbing your flags. I lost all three of mine in the first 10 minutes. Our obstacles included a dark room filled with fog and electrified wires, mud pits, barbed wire, and that dreaded climb/water slide/pool. Memorable moments included crawling under that barbed wire behind a young man dressed  like Robin. His green tights were pretty see-through. Alot of the zombies were in costume too — wedding dresses, Sailor Moon, etc. It’s like the zombie apocalypse happened during Halloween, or Comic-Con.

In the end, all members of our team “died” at the hands of the zombies. But all of us finished, muddy and happy. And if Run For Your Lives comes back to Canada in 2013, we’ll be there, with new strategies to survive alive. And even if I never run this race again, I feel better prepared for any undead takeover. Bring it on.

Part of our Team, Victorious!

In praise of women rock writers (who rock)

I am a girl. I like high heels and red lipstick and being called beautiful and having the umbrella held over my head for me when it rains by someone tall, pale and handsome; I by far prefer wearing dresses to pants. (Not that you can’t be a girl and the opposite of all that, of course.) When I ride, I ride a girl’s frame bike, with flowers on it. But when I write, I am a writer. Period. I don’t think of myself as a female writer, or a feminist writer. I don’t subscribe to the Women in Horror month/movement. I don’t study or cover gender relations. I want my work to be judged on its own merits, against my own work and other work of its kind, whether made by women, men, two-spirited people, or asexual aliens.

As a reader though, I do tend to gravitate towards other women writers. Particularly poets and novelists but also journalists, especially those who, like me, cover arts and culture. Well, for many years that’s what I did, reviewing CDs and concerts and when I was lucky interviewing really interesting people who make music. I work more in film and TV these days, but I still do it whenever I can, and I still care about the art of dancing about architecture. And so I read alot of women reviewers, maybe because I’m proud of them, I appreciate what they are doing on a professional level, and I want to support it. Or maybe because when women write about music, you generally don’t get articles like this profile of Canada’s Metric, by Ben Kaplan, in the National Post, in which he focuses on Metric singer Emily Haines as a smart sex symbol and muse who “attracts boys like free beer” and who he once (OMG!) had the opportunity to give an (unwanted) hug. Not suggesting female writers don’t ever crush on their subjects, or that sexy artists can’t be described as such, but I found the tone of this piece downright creepy, and was deeply confused about why the editors chose to run it as-is. (Besides being overworked and understaffed, but that’s another rant.) I’m guessing they too were men, who would find nothing untoward about it. Same as those who handled a piece that ran the same week in the Globe and Mail about Drake vs. Chris Brown by Brad Wheeler, which put Brown’s assault on Rhianna into parenthesis while referring to the singer as “the mother of all must-haves” and making the useless statement “other highly desired females in history include the widow Jackie Kennedy and Hollywood’s Marilyn Monroe.” As bad-ass heavy metal music writer Natalie Zina Walschots tweeted, can you imagine a paper printing “other highly desired males in history include Beowulf and Mick Jagger“? Ridiculous. These articles ignited a flurry of angry responses from male and female readers, including many other music critics. And they got me thinking about how grateful I am that in moments like that one can turn to read coverage written by women instead. The field of journalism is thankfully pretty open to women. Personally, I’ve never felt any discrimination in my career path because of gender and have worked for plenty of talented women editors and publishers. [Waves to Shirley Halperin and Carrie Borzillo]. I’ve looked around many times over the years and noticed how many of the music sections/publications in my country were being run by ladies. (Nostalgic nods to Mary Dickie, Mary-Lou Zeitoun, Betsey Powell, Denise Sheppard). I’ve never been treated like a groupie on the job. (Granted, I’ve never interviewed Gene Simmons.) However, I do recognize things aren’t in perfect balance. This TedTalk video by Megan Kamerick outlines that women make up under %40 of newsroom staff, and how women are underrepresented as subjects and experts in news stories and how all that spins the news towards victimizing and sexualizing women. It’s not specifically about music, but well worth 10 minutes of your time.

My response to all this is to praise those girls and women who are going good work reporting on music. Whose words rock my world as much as the sounds they cover. There are so many, but here are just a handful. Read them. They will inspire you, teach you, provoke you. They are unlikely to write about giving musicians unwanted hugs.

LIZ WORTH is the Toronto author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in TO and Beyond and the poetry collection Amphetamine Hearts. I believe our first encounter was her interviewing me for the Goth zine Raven’s Call several years back; our most recent was drinking slushies in the park waiting for an astrological phenomenon. She once gave me the awesome gift of a hardcover copy of Encyclopedia of Rock by Lillian Roxon. She is working on a novel now but I never know just what she’s going to do next. She is mysterious and brave. See what I mean on her Radio Forest blog or her Twitter.

AMY KLEIN is an American musician and writer I discovered when her piece “Tour Diary Day Four: Rock and Roll is Dead”was included in the Best Music Writing 2011.  In it she examines how the lack of images of girls playing guitars or any instruments in Rolling Stone magazine, and what that means for public perception of women making music. I like her blog and when her byline pops up in unexpected places, like this list of Feminist Anthems for Spinner.

JAAN UHELSZKI was a founding editor of America’s legendary Creem magazine and has done more amazing things in her life than I could possibly list here, but much of which is revealed in this interview. When I was working on the TV series Metal Evolution, it was important to me to include female voices; in the world of metal this turned out to be tricky but I am glad we got Jaan in there talking about the Detroit scene in the ’60s and more. If you have an account with Rock’s Back Pages you should read her famed 1975 article “I Dreamed I was on-stage with KISS in my Maidenform Bra.”

ANUPA MISTRY is a hard-working Canadian freelancer and, relative to these others, a new kid on the block, but I find I always learn new things when I read her reviews. She writes mostly about hip-hop, a genre I do need more schooling in, and that can use more smart women commentators, for sure.  Start with her feature on middle-class rap for Toronto Life then follow her on the Twitter.

GILLIAN G. GAAR is the Seattle-based author of She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock, published in 1992 and still my go-to guide for unearthing and understanding overlooked records made by ladies. She worked as a senior editor at the Rocket and was on the scene through the grunge explosion. According to this interview about her relationship/coverage of Nirvana, she got started writing for a Rocky Horror fanzine! Her next book on Nirvana is out this summer.

A must-have for your music reference library

LISA ROBINSON is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and, to me, one of the best magazine writers out there, full stop. For decades now, she’s covered the biggest names in all genres of music for the publications that really matter and is a master of the celebrity interview. Yeah, you might know her for the big Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga profiles now but she was talking to Patti Smith in the 1970s for Hit Parader and her early coverage of  The Ramones helped them land their first management deal.  I aspire to her ability to be a confidante to her subjects without losing her reporter’s instincts. Of anyone, she has consistently inspired me the most. And she does a decent TV interview too:

I welcome your suggestions for others I should read, below…