Canada is not widely suspected of possessing its own brand of pop culture. Wherever rock and roll came from, it certainly wasn't The Great White North. Like it or not, the same can be said for television, comic books, surfboards, B movies, TV dinners, and various other commonly accepted elements of pop culture. We may end up doing it better, but we picked it all up from the Americans, except for the real culture-you know, ballet and poetry and stuff-which we picked up from Europe.
And yet, closer inspection reveals that we have, in fact, put our own stamp on pop culture. And I'm not talking about maple syrup, Niagara Falls, the Bluenose, or Ookpiks. Thanks to those Heritage Minute TV commercials, we know that Superman and Winnie the Pooh are rightfully ours, and of course the true stamp of approval came when Disney bought the rights to the RCMP Musical Ride. Our cultural bureaucrats may not find traditional Maritime Celtic music, semi-moronic comedy, animated kids' TV shows, hockey, and offbeat pop singers as appealing as more highbrow offerings, but that's too bad. This is our culture, and we support it. And we can export it too. While Canadians have long been peculiarly good at making Americans laugh-Jim Carrey, Leslie Nielsen, Mike Myers, and Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels spring to mind-recently there have been other successful cultural exports as well, most notably musicians like Alanis Morissette, k.d. lang, and Shania Twain, and film-makers like James Cameron. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to pop rather than "real" culture means that, in spite of the considerable impact of some of these names, intelligent analysis of their work is hard to find. The attitude seems to be that pop culture is disposable and without lasting value, so writing about it has to be too. That's a shame, as well as the waste of an opportunity to at least shed some light on it all.
In that context, we should probably welcome the appearance of a book like Mondo Canuck. Subtitled A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey, it's an encyclopaedia of Canadian pop culture by the film critic Geoff Pevere and the radio and TV producer Greig Dymond. The authors take an unabashedly low-brow approach, which means that icons like Glenn Gould, Tom Thomson, Margaret Laurence, Celia Franca, Cornelius Krieghoff, and Martha Henry are not included, and Karen Kain is mentioned only as having had a fling with Lee Majors during the filming of some forgettable tax-shelter movie. Instead, the authors discuss such phenomena as the Dionne Quintuplets, Stompin' Tom Connors, Trivial Pursuit, Don Cherry, Trudeaumania, David Cronenberg, Expo '67, Anne of Green Gables, Porky's, Peter Jennings, and Pierre Berton.
Although the book is attractively designed and though Dymond and Pevere cover an impressively large amount of ground in their odyssey, they have skipped some obvious destinations. We're supposed to be a visually dominated culture, but there's no mention in the book of painting, sculpture, or video art, even such pop-related names as Harold Town, Michael Snow, Video Cabaret, and Charlie Pachter. Surprisingly, in spite of a whole chapter about hockey, the book contains only two brief mentions of Wayne Gretzky, and nothing at all on Gordie Howe, even though the two of them are on the cover. Québécois culture is pretty well limited to Céline Dion and "A Selective Guide to Canada's Coolest French Language Films", and there's nothing on Canadian magazines-not even Maclean's or The Georgia Straight. The authors did, however, manage to find the space for The Great Canadian Babewatch, a list of models, actresses, VJs, and singers they presumably find attractive-perhaps to allow the inclusion of a picture of Pamela Anderson Lee on the cover-as well as an analysis of Hugh Hefner's penchant for Canadian Playboy playmates.
Worse, their disappointingly superficial analysis and smirking attitude preclude any really interesting commentary, and make one wonder what the ultimate purpose of this book might be. Reminding us of the mediocrity of Patsy Gallant, Bryan Adams, or Snow Job? Digging up camp gems like The Trouble with Tracy or Johnny Bower's "Honky The Christmas Goose"? Preaching to the converted by telling us that Dan Aykroyd is Canadian as well as funny, or retelling The Barenaked Ladies' story for the umpteenth time? Informing undoubtedly uninterested Americans just what we have given them? Or just settling heated games of Trivial Pursuit, which, ironically, has very little Canadian content? Whatever it is, and as fun as it might seem at first, Mondo Canuck has a limited appeal.
Even more limited in appeal is Rock & Roll Toronto: From Alanis to Zeppelin. John Goddard and Richard Crouse take us on a tour of Toronto rock and roll hotspots-places, one would think, where something of significance in music history happened. As a fairly large city with a long musical history, Toronto must indeed have some interesting, little-known landmarks for music fans to include in their pilgrimages, along with storied locales like Woodstock, Greenwich Village, and Newport.
Unfortunately, Goddard and Crouse don't seem to have found them. Remember Cathy Smith, the groupie who faced a murder charge in the death of John Belushi? Well, the Seahorse Hotel is where she slept with members of The Band, when they were The Hawks. Wow. The King Edward Hotel is where The Beatles stayed in 1965, when a girl named Carolyn Smart managed to get into their hotel room, after they had gone. The Bathurst subway station is where The Lost Dakotas busked, but "they never made it big." The Wash and Dry Self-Serve Laundry on Dupont Street is where Denny Doherty of The Mamas and The Papas and Zal Yanovsky of The Lovin' Spoonful hung out before they were successful. 504 Huron Street is where Joni Mitchell lived, before she was famous. 361 Soudan Avenue is where Neil Young was conceived-but never lived. Peer Music on John Street is where Alanis Morissette worked on a never-released song with the local singer Blair Packham. It's thrilling stuff, isn't it? Back to the drawing board, boys, or else Toronto is much more boring than we ever thought.
Speaking of Alanis Morissette-and anyone who can sell records like she can is spoken of quite a lot-there are two new biographies available of the young Ottawa-bred singer/songwriter. But don't pick either of them up if you're interested in her perspective on her spectacular success. Alanis stopped doing interviews with the press just as her career really began to skyrocket, so one of them (You Oughta Know), by the Ottawa journalist Paul Cantin, uses an old interview with her, while for the other (Ironic), Barry Grills didn't talk to her at all, just to observers and other journalists-like, for instance, Paul Cantin.
Both books take their titles from among Morissette's hit songs; both include photos from her embarrassing early days as a game-show cast member and dance-pop artist; both skirt around her emotional problems and the pressure to succeed from her family; both present her as a lovely and surprisingly well-adjusted person. But neither can disguise the gaping holes where her post-Number One quotes should be, or the fact that a twenty-three-year-old-even a Grammy-winning, multi-million-selling twenty-three-year-old-doesn't have much of a history to tell. While Cantin opts for the mundane, including lists of what Alanis and her crew eat while on tour, Grills indulges himself in an extensive and pompous discussion of Generation X's existential crisis, drags in Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf to discuss female oppression and anger and features long and more or less pointless portraits of other female singers. Either way, it's filler to plug the gaps in a potentially interesting but prematurely told story.
One musician who does have a considerable history to tell is Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas-born rockabilly singer who has done more to advance Canadian musicians over the course of his long career than a whole stack of CRTC regulations. The Hawk follows that career carefully, detailing the numerous band changes and paths that each stray member took; the long, frustrating search for a Number One hit; the story of Toronto's club scene in the '60s (which the authors of Rock & Roll Toronto might be advised to take note of) and the staggering number of talented, well-known musicians who got their start under Hawkins's tutelage, including members of The Band and Crowbar, Roy Buchanan, Larry Gowan, Domenic Troiano, King Biscuit Boy, Jack de Keyzer, David Foster, and Pat Travers.
Wallis is certainly thorough but perhaps a little too respectful of his subject; one gets the sense that there is a lot missing in the story, especially considering the high turnover of Hawkins's backing band and his reputation for stretching the truth in the service of a good yarn. A few of those colourful Hawkins anecdotes and quips are included, but there must be so many more, even if some are undoubtedly unprintable. Ultimately, though, the two biggest questions-why the Ontario club circuit was such a fertile territory for Hawkins and why he never had much success anywhere else-are not satisfactorily answered.
The movie Hard Core Logo, released a year ago, is a meeting-point of several crucial facets of Canadian pop culture: it's a film by the independent director Bruce McDonald, adapted from a book by the Vancouver poet Michael Turner, starring the rock singer Hugh Dillon, about a hapless Canadian punk band's disastrous reunion tour of western Canada in mid-winter (if only they played hockey as well, it would pretty much cover the spectrum). Turner's original work, a loose collection of poems, song lyrics, diary entries, notes, and other miscellany, was adapted into a workable screenplay by Noel S. Baker, so successfully that many people thought the dialogue was mostly improvised. But the movie received limited release, and quickly disappeared in spite of rave reviews. Baker's book Hard Core Roadshow details the long process of getting the film made-from casting to shooting and, most interestingly, dancing with government and corporate types in search of funding for the project-with humour, candour, and a refreshing lack of self-importance. Now that Hard Core Logo has apparently secured U.S. distribution, it will undoubtedly become an even better story-one that perhaps will make it into the next edition of Mondo Canuck.
Mary Dickie is the former editor of Impact magazine.