JAIMIE VERNON – INDEPENDENCE IS OUR FUTURE
As I type this music retailer HMV is either in receivership or heading into it after one of the chain’s creditors called in their chips. The retail giant has been floundering for years and managed to escape an industry crash that took out the likes of Sam The Record Man and Tower Records stateside a decade ago. HMV’s position as one of the last giants standing (Sunrise has rallied to fill in the hole left by Sam’s), was only delaying the inevitable.
To maintain a healthy retail life-span, it’s important to indoctrinate future generations to the in-person experience. Unfortunately, the retail model globally is in trouble. Online shopping now dominates the habits of millennials. That means it’s on the shoulders of older shoppers to maintain the life blood of all retail chains – clothing, house wares, and entertainment.
The big box store model has decentralized the shopping experience and online has put a hole in a leaky boat. You can now buy everything except snow tires and bananas from Amazon. I expect they’ll cover that oversight in due course.
What happens to music then? The idea of hitting HMV on a Saturday to catch the new releases and take in the downtown rush has been reduced to clicking a button on Amazon and waiting 2 days for it to be delivered to your front door. Do people even know what Yonge Street looks like now? I haven’t been at the HMV Superstore in Toronto in 10 years. I’ve looked at Google maps. The entire retail strip is pretty much gone – making way for boutiques and restaurants and smartphone stores.
HMV in Toronto had been one of the retailers to spearhead independent distribution in 1992 when the superstore opened. They embraced the unheard of practice of allowing local artists to not only put their product in the store but perform there as well. Yeah, Sam The Record Man had done a similar thing over the years, but if Sam didn’t like you, personally, you were shit out of luck. HMV broke The Barenaked Ladies with the release of the band’s independently produced ‘Yellow’ cassette. A cassette!! It was unheard of during a time when vinyl was in its death throes and CDs were the new shiny toy everyone wanted. BNL moved 80,000 tapes before being scooped up by US label Sire Records in a landmark recording contract.
Who is going to wave the flag for upstart artists now? Even the independent retail franchises have followed the fad trail by going back to vinyl as that market continues to grow annually. Not every artist can afford vinyl (which is, on average, 5x more expensive than it was at its peak in the 1980s). Independent artists are back to floating on a sea of uncertainty. Do they release CDs? Do they rely on digital streaming and dying downloading sales?
One has to wonder about the motivation to record a collection of songs at all. The goal can no longer be to sell music to make a living. We are returning to an era of music for art’s sake. And thank God there are still artists doing it for that reason only. It keeps the art honest not that there’s anything wrong with selling yourself up stream. I’m lucky to be able to catch these acts in their safe zones of being creative without interference. It might be time to nurture that end of the culture. Money will come eventually, right now it’s time to cultivate and grow the farm teams of our musical future. To whit:
ALEX RADEFF & DONKEY
I’ve known Alex since 1988 when he answered an ad in a Toronto newspaper for my dream Paul McCartney tribute band called, obviously, Band of the Run. I was looking strictly for players to recreate the McCartney solo oeuvre, and he wondered aloud if a Lennon/McCartney post-Beatles tribute might be better. He may have been onto something – his Lennon to my McCartney – as most tributes were strictly 1962 – 1970s Beatles output. We never got to find out as we never found a Linda McCartney to Paul’s love triangle.
Alex and I stayed in touch and as I launched Great White Noise music magazine in 1990, he began sending me demos of his band project titled, simply, Donkey. It was an odd name, but seemed strangely appropriate for Alex’s unconventional brand of alternative rock and pop. He was able to serve up an eclectic mix of several genres into a single song idea and still come out the other end with catchy, melodic ditties that fit perfectly with the long-standing vibe of Toronto’s Queen Street West bohemian music scene.
Demos tapes evolved into full-length releases and my label, Bullseye Records, distributed Alex’s first foray on compact disc in 1999 called ‘Kickback’. To this day, it’s still one of my most favourite releases to be filtered through my label’s 200 title catalogue.
‘Nodding At the Universe’ followed in 2003 and Donkey was featured on Bullseye’s ‘It Was 40 Years Ago Today: A Tribute To the Beatles’ doing a fine recreation of Lennon’s “Because”. Donkey carried on working on another batch of original material that appeared in 2009 on ‘The Calling of the Streets’ through Alex’s own label as had the previous discs.
Donkey has been performing non-stop for nearly 25 years around Toronto. The live line up for Donkey is Alex Radeff on guitar and vocals, Joe Spina on bass and Mario Molinaro on drums and percussion. They are unsung heroes of the Canadian independent music scene because Alex has never been trapped by the excesses of an industry that eats its young. He’s just gone about his business creating the music that has populated each of these releases from the small rehearsal facility he has occupied in Toronto’s west end.
With a reel-to-reel machine and infinite patience he records old school analog until he’s satisfied. A process that takes the better part of 4 or 5 years while her raises the funds to finance the release. The latest album, ‘Furthermore…’ is no exception. The album is an often times serious and dark walk through the real life and metaphorical struggles of the modern world; the punk driven “Nocturnal Awake” calls on the challenges faced by insomniacs (too much thinking mostly); “Tent City” explores the underground life of those living precariously on the edge in Toronto’s homeless community while “Strange Cat” is an allegorical exploration of the life of an alley cat…or someone who is mentally ill. The line is blurred between the existence of both through Alex’s pointed lyrics.
It’s not all doom and gloom on the CD, however, as Donkey injects its long-standing brand of pop leaning rock into the proceedings. The opening track “I Beg To Differ” is radio ready as is “I Should Be With You”. Even the closing number, “The Day We Say Goodbye”, feels like a nod to Alex’s Beatles influence with full throated harmonies and pastoral melody.
Where the album really shines is when Alex Radeff and Donkey take the path less chosen. There are no genre barriers on this record and a song like “I Stayed In Hamburg” steps into jazz confidently – with Alex recounting what it would have been like to follow the Hamburg music scene post-Beatles as told through the lyrics of a say Leonard Cohen or even Bob Dylan.
Similarly, “Template” takes a page out of some of rock’s biggest poetry books and pushes the listener to question the status quo cause at the end of life’s journey one must be able to answer to the rules in heaven itself.
Two tunes on this CD are worth the price of admission alone as they show an evolution in the Donkey musical brand. Alex is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and shows his musical chops specifically on “The Donkey & The Unicorn” – a beautiful Victoria-styled children’s lullaby featuring exceptional guitar work and baroque harmonies. Meanwhile, the short and effective instrumental “Years Later” showcases his guitar like no other song before it with plaintive Pink Floydian gravitas.
As producer, writer and performer Alex Radeff has found a comfort zone and has honed Donkey into one of Toronto’s least known, but widely respected acts. I highly recommend picking this up from the band and delving backwards through Donkey’s older releases to appreciate the tenacity and evolution of Alex Radeff’s genre-defying vision of modern pop.
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon