PUNK WOODSTOCK MEETS THE UGLY AMERICAN
Just out of the Detroit-Windsor tunnel, a friend and I are fighting a losing battle. We’re trying to take Canada seriously. Here we are in actual Ontario, nary a snowshoe between us, on our way to Punk Woodstock by way of a route as exciting as Canada gets: Route 401, which begins at Windsor, heads for Toronto and then mysteriously vanishes into uncharted territory. Nobody, you see, has ever stayed awake long enough to find out exactly where it ends; if they have, presumably, then they’ve been kidnapped by vengeful baby seals and won’t ever be seen again.
After spending 12 Canadian dollars (?) on 48 liters (?) of gas, we’re confronted with a disturbing road sign which advises us to travel no faster than 100 kilometers (?) per hour–or else, we presume, neatly dressed Mounties will pull their respective horses adjacent to our car and threaten us with various Canadian obscentities which, peppered with appropriate “eh’s,” will only begin to prepare us for the difficult road ahead.
Outside Windsor, the pair of us–each good Americans–takes refuge in the comfort of a McDonald’s of Canada. There we eat breakfast, ponder the maple leaf that stares from each of our breakfast placemats, and briefly discuss our eventual destination. “Heatwave,” they call it, a Punk Woodstock to take place a few dozen kilometers (?) outside Toronto. Bowmanville, actually–at a speedway called Mosport Park. A one day conceptual anachronism featuring Elvis Costello, Rockpile, the Pretenders, Talking Heads, B-52’s and others.
Several kilometers (?) later we pull into another gas station. I confront a cigarette machine that insists upon $1.15 in Canadian funds (?) and promises a possible 30 brands of cigarettes no one in their right mind has ever heard of. “Craven Menthol” sound most appropriate, naturally, and so they are. It’s going to be a strange day.
After traveling a random amount of kilometers (who among us, after all, can deal with such insubstantial concepts?), we find ourselves near Bowmanville. We know this because a helpful road sign tells us so, while simultaneously boasting of a population of almost 10,000. Applying the NQR postulate (i.e. everything that seems normal in Canada is actually Not Quite Right), we reason that this figure must be skewed in one direction or another; uncertain if Canadians actually use the Arabic numerical system, we can only hazard vague guesses as to the real population total. My friend suggests that Canadians purposefully inflate their population figures so as to prove that people actually do live in Canada, even of their own choosing. We discuss this.
A line of cars–most with Ontario license plates–tells us we’re arrived. We pull the car into what’s obviously a farmer’s field of some sort, and emerge, shaken. Two shirtless gentlemen (“Where you guys from? Detroit? Wow, man, we’re from Boston…”) offer us a Canadian beer and suggest a “shortcut” to the festival site. “See,” they helpfully point out, “it’s really still two miles away!”
We follow the “shortcut.”
Only in Canada could this be a shortcut. We’ve walked through two miles of actual cornfields, following a trail of broken cornhusks and empty beer bottles that some Canadian farmer will undoubtedly be picking up tomorrow in preparation for his massive Canadian lawsuit. His name, I suppose, will probably be Yax Masgur and he’ll end up losing the suit. I trip over one of several white rocks and the geologist in me tells me such stones are the result of glacial erosion. The American realist in me, however, whispers “potato fields, Dave” and–wiping the sweat from my pale American brow–I silently refute my quarter-Irish heritage.
Meanwhile, in the distance, Rockpile plays on. I push away yet another cornstalk, risk castration over the fifth barbed-wire fence of the day and contemplate whether âshortcut” in Detroit might mean something entirely different in both Boston and Canada.
“You can’t come back here unless you have a backstage pass,” remarks a Heatwave security guard upon our final arrival.
Dripping with Yankee perspiration, I diplomatically differ.
“But wait,” say I, “where do I go to get a backstage pass?”
The Canadian security guard, unknowingly representing his country, smiles.
“Back here,” he says.
After subtle usage of Canadian logic (“Look, I don’t want a backstage pass and there’s no way you’ll ever give me one!!”), I take my new backstage pass and wander into the “Press Tent” region, a nebulous area where they’ve always “just run out” of free beer and nobody smart should be wandering in the first place. Everything stinks–photographers complain, writers complain: it’s too hot, where’s the free beer?–and this writer suggests that the Heatwave Festival may indeed soon replace Bruce Cockburn and become Canada’s newest Best-Kept Secret.
While Holly & the Italians unknowingly disgrace two more fourths of my heritage with their incredibly lousy music, I wander around outside and seriously ponder the Canadian Question. One: Given that there are actual “punks” still existing in Canada –i.e leather-clad, teased-and-sickly-colored hair, t-shirts with the word “punk” sprayed on them–will they at all, by their mere presence, detract from my enjoyment of the show? Two: Will I be able to resist walking up to the pathetic kid I spot who’s got actual safety pins sticking in his nose/cheeks/ears without sincerely asking “Hey, it’s 1980. Don’t you realize how stupid you look?” before he mumbles “fuck off” and walks away?
Third, and certainly equally as relevant: Will I be able to watch the Pretenders play without continually staring at the nubile 17-year-old next to me–who’s wearing Chrissie Hynde-ish fingerless gloves and mouthing the words to “Precious”–and not wonder how odd her Canadian hands will look tomorrow after the hot sun burns her arms and leaves her forearms and wrists completely white? What will she say to her parents? “Oh yeah,” will she explain, “I was just bowling under ultraviolet light, mom!” Momentarily taken with the thought, I decide her Canadian mom would then suggest she wear sunglasses next time she bowls and leave it at that. When her father comes home from the lumberyards, he’ll speak to her.
I watch the B-52’s and the Pretenders and am pleasantly surprised; the shows are excellent. Canada apparently affects different people in different ways. Examining a Canadian cigarette package that recommends “not inhaling,” I suggest to nearby friends that were it not for stray “cultural” signs (Canucks saying “aboot” when they mean “about”), I might well believe that I was in America circa 1977 or so, witnessing the “punk revolutionâ as it happens. But again, as it happens, I’m spending too much time watching the audience instead of the bands.
“You know something,” I mention to a friend, “I’ve seen Costello, Talking Heads and the B-52’s before, but I’ve never seen Canadian punks.”
“Yeah,” he says, “me neither.”
And there’d be much more to mention if things weren’t so very typical. And typical they were: Pretenders, B52’s, Talking Heads–all superb, especially the Heads, with their new expanded line-up: Busta Cherry Jones, Adrian Belew and Bernie Worrell, among others, adding the sounds Byrne & company have needed since their second album.
Elvis, of course, was Elvis, and that’s that.
But this all suggests something misleading: that the show was actually on the stage. And of course, it wasn’t. The show was there, sitting or standing in front of the stage: 70,000 estimated shows, really–and most of them Canadian. “Wanna be in a circus?” someone behind me asked a heavily made-up punkette, and she said yes. “Then sit on my face,” he leered, “and Iâll guess your weight!”
And so on, all the way back to the farmer’s field and to my car. The show’s over, and a Canadian policeman (mountie?) points the proper way back to Endless Route 401. Seconds later, we discuss the ramifications of truly being uncertain whether “right” and “left” have the same meaning in Canada; maybe, for instance, Canadians actually do drive in the left traffic lane as far as theyâre concerned. The implications here are enormous, a combination of the Parallel World concept with the Basic Polish Joke dictum. There’s much to discuss.
There is, we later decide, also much to be said about Canada.
Not all of it is good.
I have trouble remembering the concert and my entire stay in Canada the next day, in Detroit, when people ask me about it. Yellowish stains on the lower legs of my pants remind me of my earlier cornfield “shortcut,” playing Dorothy in search of the Canadian Oz, mumbling, “there’s no place like home” and hoping for a swift recovery in the American heartland.
Later, at the bank, I pull out my remaining wad of Canadian money and ask for its American equivalent. The teller, a middle-aged woman, looks at me closely, perhaps examining me for telltale signs of Canadianism. There’s something about me, her eyes suggest, that seems odd.
Not Quite Right, you might say.
(CREEM, November 1980)