Culture

We All Wondered What Happened

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It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize, somewhere around age 25, that the part I liked best about going out drinking was the “coming home” part.

I’d be in a cab going back to my apartment after downing ten bucks’ worth of 80 cent drafts at some “ladies entrance”-type “hotel” out on the then-ungentrified stretch of Queen West.

The blessedly silent driver would have on some jazz station I could never, ever find on my own radio dial when I tried.

As the car swept through puddles, I savored the simple, best-of-both-worlds sensation of “going somewhere” at deliberate speed without actually having to exert myself.

It was dark. I could see semi-cool stuff out the window — the somewhat glamorous, slightly menacing city at night — but none of it could see (or touch) me.

How much cheaper and easier it was, I discovered, to just stay home alone on Saturday night, listening to music I already knew I liked.

No lousy service or sight lines. Toilet paper in the bathroom!

The beer was cheaper, the weather didn’t matter, and transportation no longer a hassle.

I don’t envy people who got degrees.

I do, however, experience more than a tinge of regret when I hear someone else’s epic pub-crawling and concert-going tales.

And this being Toronto, I’ll hear about “that time” at Fort Goof or Kathedral B and can actually feel myself physically shrinking, like a reverse Hulk, at my own now-irredeemable loser-ness.

Just reading the Amazon description of Gavin McInnes’ memoir left me depressed for two days.

I tried, briefly, to be One Of Those People and failed miserably.

(My next book is tentatively titled Confessions of a Failed Slut.)

My “drunkalogue” (as we’re not supposed to call it) is the most pathetic one I’ve ever heard, not counting that old lady I met in AA who joined because she got catastrophically plastered on the same single night every year, the annual bowling banquet in her tiny hometown.

(Believe me: It was SOME night, OK? But still.)

Around November 9 — if my own blog can be trusted — I started thinking about a song from my un-misspent youth.

At the time, the song had haunted me: a driving yet tender, R.E.M-ish, vaguely “spiritual” song (whatever the hell that means) by a local band.

I thought I remembered the title but I’d forgotten the name of the band, although I was pretty sure it had a “P” in it.

I typed in what I remembered of the lyrics. Nothing.

I typed in keywords: Canadian. Alt. Group. 1980s — hoping to stumble onto something via something else.

Nope.

Then a few days later I was just about to doze off when the band’s name popped into my head:

Plasterscene Replicas.

Yes, that’s the correct spelling.

I jumped out of bed, turned the computer back on, and even then, information was hard to find.

At least I found the song — “We Can Walk” — and the video.

I played it again and again, thinking — probably too much for my own good — about lots of stupid things I’d said and done in those days, and about all the stupid things I hadn’t (see above).

The next morning I posted it on my blog.

I heard from a few people who’d seen the band live.

Some sent me links to playlists at CBC Radio and Last.Fm, where the Plasterscene Replicas were categorized as “Obscure 80s.”

People tweeted me that they still had the band’s would-be breakthrough album Glow.

We all wondered:

What happened?

Why do some bands make it and others fail?

Can we blame the generalized pokiness of the Canadian “music industry”?

Not really; even talented bands that get tons of breaks implode nevertheless, all over the West — one-hit wonders and never-weres.

So how much of it is self-sabotage?

Like this stuff:

A pro photographer who shot this scene told me about taking publicity photos for free for one band — who then complained that the results looked… “too professional.”

That kind of thing — being so afraid of “selling out” that you never do anything.

But then, what if “self-sabotage” is actually a kind of sanity, the realization that your odds of making it are so infinitesimally low that you might as well forget it?

We were all still debating this stuff when I got another tweet:

 

 

Local musician and journalist Dave Bidini’s touching remembrance in the National Post was an obituary of a time and a place and a way of life, not just a man.

Maybe you had to be there — as I say, I hardly was — but still…

Once we started playing — coming downtown in one of our parents’ sedans with synths and crummy guitars stuffed in the back — we saw the gigs not as the pathway to fame, but as a test of survival: after-hours shows in dank tenements and falling-in warehouses where we were heckled by hard cases (…)

Through all of this, there were also the beauties and the angels who weren’t famous either. One of those angels — soft-spoken, strange-minded, and brilliant — was a fellow named Charlie Salmon, Chas, who was the lead guitarist and principal singer for the Plasterscene Replicas, and who came from the same kind of place we did. Although, to my mind, Charlie always seemed as if he came from elsewhere: left by a blinking spacecraft on a new planet not his own.

The first time I met him, I felt like I was meeting Bowie or David Byrne. Among all of us, we thought Charlie would be the most famous.

His songs were beyond good: Turtle Song and I’m a Child and Pull Out and, especially, We Can Walk, which, to those who heard it or knew it, can easily be recognized as one of the greatest songs this city has ever produced: careening, melodic and deeply sad, yet joyful in the colour of its words and chords: “I’m a strange pill/You are too/We swallow one another.”

Hearing it for the first time was one of those rare instances where I knew I would forever remember the moment while it was happening. As a young songwriter, I thought: “Wow. A musician can do that?”

For a few summers in Toronto — maybe two or three — the songs of Charlie Salmon were songs that we all aspired to create.

Joshua Kloke wrote something similar in the city’s alt-weekly, NOW:

Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, I appreciated Queen Street from a distance. I knew of it because it was referenced to no end on a number of then-important radio programs I’d listen to, including CFNY’s All Request Breakfast. I’d wake up early to be exposed, hesitantly of course, to the Toronto I didn’t know. Punk threw up too many barriers and new wave was challenging in scope. But the Plasterscene Replicas and their standout track Things You Hold struck a powerful chord whenever it was played.

The song, and Salmon’s driving voice, leapt out of the speakers and invited me along for the ride. It was a song that forced me to stare a little longer down the 401 as I’d accompany my father on rides into the city. And there was a grace in his voice. Toronto and Queen West were better places because of Salmon. Bands like Plasterscene Replicas and voices like Salmon’s were warm, honest and inviting.

If anything, Salmon’s death should force those who bear an affinity to influential Toronto rock to dig a little deeper through the crates and find the beauty that is often hidden, much like Salmon was. Talents like him are rare. Hopefully, his ability to engage listeners will not be.

As to what happened:

Salmon (…) had suffered from and beaten leukemia of late. His was a brave struggle and he sometimes seemed bewildered at the complexity of the medical procedures he had to endure. But he beat cancer.

Unfortunately, this struggle left him physically weakened and with horrific lingering physical discomforts. Salmon took his own life on the morning of November 20. He was 53 years old.