Gordon Thomas (1916-2016)

Photo by Lee Towndrow
Photo by Lee Towndrow

Sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, I heard the music of Gordon Thomas for the first time via my friends Mocky and Taylor Savvy. It was on a tape, that had clearly been copied a bunch of times, with a surprisingly large number of songs on it. The singer’s strange voice and simple lyrics contrasted the slick, full-band jazz arrangements; plus, the music had a weirdly timeless quality—that is to say, there were no obvious signposts to indicate in what era it had been recorded.

Stacey and I were fascinated and curious to know more, but nobody seemed to have much info about this singer apart from his name, Gordon Thomas. In 2001, sitting on a patio in Berlin, we and Mocky came up with the idea of making a documentary about trying to find him.

Long story short, with a bit of old-fashioned journalistic/detective work, we were able to find him in his lifelong hometown of New York City. When we met him, he was 86, still fully lucid and, to our surprise, full of optimism and future plans for his music career.

He’d played trombone in big bands in the 40s, most notably with Dizzy Gillespie, and since the big band era petered out, he’d been working odd jobs and using his meagre earnings to record and self-release his music. The film became a portrait of his life, music and philosophy.

 

Everything’s Coming My Way was completed in 2005 and has shown at festivals, on TV and even, thanks to the diligent efforts of our sales agent, on airlines, in classrooms and in other strange markets around the world. And when the film had had its life, we continued to visit him as often as we could, and helped him out by selling his music online (you can stream or download much of his catalogue on Bandcamp; future earnings will go to an appropriate charity to be determined or in accordance with his will, as the case may be).

Getting to know Gordon was a joy and a privilege. Ever optimistic and positive, wise, funny and spiritually rich, he brought happiness and inspiration to everyone he met. He was a bridge to another time—when he grew up, people still rode around Harlem on horses and buggies, and the modern world was a bit of a mystery to him, but he always rolled with it.

It bothered me a bit when people referred to Gordon as “childlike.” He was a fully functioning adult, a union dues-paying musician, and a lot smarter than he let on. He was certainly eccentric, but not more so than any number of artists I’ve known. I eventually concluded that his naïve persona was a bit of a put-on, a defence mechanism against the world’s cruelties, but his optimism was very real.

Gordon was always full of fantastic stories, and at times you couldn’t tell if they were real memories or just dreams or fantasies. (The one about Miles Davis having planned to write a song for him was particularly suspicious.) That said, some of the things we did with him, like seeing him perform in front of adoring fans in Montreal or going to his birthplace of Bermuda for a film festival, where he was treated like a total rock star, probably sounded like tall tales to people he told—but I can confirm they’re true!

As the years went by and his health deteriorated, Gordon talked less about his future plans, but every time we spoke he’d still say that we should aim for Hollywood. The last time we hung out, in the summer of 2015, he spoke openly about wanting to die and wondering why he was still alive. With his friends mostly passed away, and his health getting worse, he didn’t feel he had a lot to live for. It was a hard conversation to have, but there wasn’t much we could say.

Gordon spent the last years of his life in a seniors’ home, and the level of care he received was pretty minimal. It was a sobering reality check of what happens to you in the USA if you’re old, black, poor and alone. Luckily for him he had health insurance from the Veterans’ Administration after having briefly served in the army during WWII, as well as a pension from the musicians’ union, which along with his Social Security covered his expenses and basic needs.

I wish we could have helped him more, but our resources were limited and, if I’m honest, so was the audience for his music. The very things in his songs that appealed to me turned the average listener off, while at the same time his music lacked the dark or “edgy” quality that endears certain obscure artists to an underground audience. His fan base was the definition of “small but devoted,” and spanned the entire world. Just a few weeks ago I received a CD order from Wales, not the first or the furthest such order from around the globe.

Last week, I got a call from a good friend of Gordon’s. He had suffered a stroke and become unresponsive. I flew down to New York and visited him at a nursing home in the upper Bronx. He was rail-thin and couldn’t speak, but he kept trying to get out of bed, though he was too weak to complete the action. It was heartbreaking to see. “It’s OK Gordie, you don’t have to get up, just rest,” I kept saying. I’m hardly the first person to note that the very elderly, in their fragile and dependent state, revert in a circular way to being a little like babies, and here I was speaking to him in the same tone that I use to soothe my one-year-old son.

I held his hand and talked to him a bit. I told him that I loved him, that Stacey sent her love too, that his music had meant a lot to people, and that he would soon be with the friends he always talked about wanting to reunite with in the next life. At one point, he opened his eyes, squeezed my hand and smiled. He also made one of his classic expressions, a sort of facial shrug that communicated “Whaddya gonna do?”

Another friend of his from the seniors’ home came to visit. He had a different take on the situation, encouraging “Mr. Gordon” to get better soon so he could celebrate his 100th birthday. It was a very appropriately GT-esque expression of optimism, but I wasn’t sure I could share it.

As I walked down 7th Avenue to the train station, I looked around New York with a strange feeling. Would it ever be the same without Gordon Thomas? Then I noticed the eccentric characters floating by me on every corner. Each one of them could probably star in their own documentary.

A few days later, I got another call. Gordon passed away on January 25, 2016. He would have been 100 years old on February 7. He touched my life in a profound way and he’ll always stay with me. I feel sad that he’s gone, but he lived a long, meaningful life, and it was time. I love you Gordie, rest in peace.

2015: The Year in World Providing

stink-snack
Montreal’s finest Police cover band at one of Montreal’s finest venues, Snack n’ Blues. Photo by Richmond Lam.

I only did two WP shows this year (plus one with the Police cover band Stinkronicity, possibly/probably our last). I was mainly occupied with being a parent. Both were old-school solo WP shows: likely to be happening more and more, though I plan to bring Stacey and the guys back onstage when it’s logistically possible.

I enjoyed doing these shows, though I now have to spend some time rethinking the solo act so that I’m not just doing the same thing I was 10-15 years ago. I’m always happy to perform my old songs and routines, but I need to add new ingredients to the broth as well.

Performing with Corpusse (that's me in the background with the silver makeup) at Casa on Halloween. Photo by Simon Lacroix.
Performing with Corpusse (that’s me in the background with the silver makeup) at Casa on Halloween. Photo by Simon Lacroix.

On Halloween I did a show with Corpusse at Casa del popolo. In addition to performing as the WP, I also accompanied Corpusse onstage, which was really fun. Unfortunately (and unbeknownst to me), during my show two guys got in a fight. I was honestly shocked to find out something like this would happen at Casa, which I always thought of as more or less a safe space with like-minded people. But in addition to this other, much more serious, incident, this reminded me that no place is immune to douchery.

Not long after the show, I released a new song called “Autumn Wheels” on the WP Soundcloud page. It’s from the sessions I did last year, which I’m now preparing to release in some kind of “official” way in the spring of 2016.

The Globe and Mail’s Sean Michaels included “Autumn Wheels” in his weekly compendium of “songs you need to hear.” I’m not sure what Sean meant when he said that I’ve written “songs that are smart as border collies and dumb as cuckoos” – that my songs are both smart and dumb? (probably true), or that I have some smart ones and some dumb ones? (also quite possible, though I couldn’t say which is which). At any rate, I appreciated his kind words, and was flattered to be included in such illustrious company.

What else did I do this year? I reissued the WP’s 2008 album Hard Feelings on our Bandcamp page, adding a few previously hard-to-find tracks from the vaults.

I spoke to artist and musician Steve Kado about the demise of the Blocks Recording Club for Weird Canada. This was intended to be part of a longer piece on a bigger topic. Right now that project is on the back burner, we’ll see what happens…

I also wrote about:

the alleged death and mysterious persistence of the CD format,

the mixed feelings brought up when friends move from Montreal to Toronto,

the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit and the issues it raises for all us accidental plagiarists,

and the second installment of my chronicles of the best and worst WP shows of all time.

 

key-change

My favourite records of the year are:

Mocky, Key Change

Peaches, Rub

Chilly Gonzales, Chambers

The Dears, Times Infinity Vol. 1

Violence, Le Théâtre EP

Pecora Pecora, Le satellite perdu

And yes—each and every single one of these is by personal friends of mine. What can I say? I know a lot of talented people… and I have good taste.

I didn’t see nearly as many movies as I used to, but I liked Sicoria, It Follows and Entertainment quite a lot. TV… mostly British crime series that I often fall asleep while watching. Books… I’ve only recently started to be able to read them again. Baby brain is a real thing.

See you in 2016.

Bad times, good reads


I only ever knew the Glen Campbell version of this song, which I love; the Toussaint original is quite beautiful as well.

As Clara-Swan, host of one of my favourite radio shows (Free Kick on CKUT) said on Sunday, “this was a bad week.” Starting with the deaths of Allen Toussaint and Motorhead’s Phil Taylor, and ending with the awful attacks in Beirut and Paris, it’s hard to argue.

We got to know the guys from Eagles of Death Metal a bit some years ago, when we opened for them and Peaches on two shows of their tour. We always say they were the nicest guys we’ve ever met in the music game, super friendly and supportive. So although the Paris attack would have been horrible no matter who was involved, having a personal connection like that really made it hit closer to home. My heart goes out to all the people who lost their lives, and to their loved ones. (Also, I won’t get into this, but if you’re one of those who think that the attacks in Paris got a disproportionate amount of attention or coverage, I highly recommend you check out this and this.)

But in the midst of all this tragedy, some stuff was published that you might have overlooked if you (like me) were caught up in world events.

First, I would be remiss in not mentioning that our song “Autumn Wheels” was declared a “song you need to hear” by Sean Michaels in the Globe and Mail. Needless to say, I was honoured by the kind words and flattered to be held in the company of the other artists mentioned.

Old friend Louise Philips‘ story “Panygere” was published on Columbia Journal.

Writer (and fellow veteran of the early-2000s synth rock scene in Montreal) Adam Gollner connected the dots between two of my favourite artistic genres, 19th-century French literature and early punk, for the New Yorker blog.

Finally, I was devastated earlier this year when Lee Towndrow, a longtime friend and WP collaborator, and his partner Amber Scorah lost their little son Karl. Amber wrote a powerful piece for the New York Times about the experience and the activism it inspired them to take on.

Here’s wishing the best for you reading this, wherever you are. I don’t have any solutions for the state of the world right now, except to try to be good to each other.

Hard Feelings

cvr-hard-feelings

I recently uploaded the WP’s 2008 album Hard Feelings to our Bandcamp page.

I started recording this collection of music in 2005 at the Breakglass Studio. It was completed over the next few years in fits and starts whenever I could afford to go into the studio. It was a very fun, productive series of sessions. Jace and Dave had really stepped up their studio since the Enabler days and there was a lot of gear to work with. Our motto was “over the top.”

I initially intended it to be a series of EPs (starting with Lost Illusions which came out in ’06). And as much as I hate to use the past conditional, I probably should have. I started to get impatient with my label at the time and decided to release it as a full album, even though there are (at least) three distinct musical vibes going on that don’t always fit together.

There’s a kind of “soft rock” angle (heavily influenced by longtime WP cohort Steve Raegele)…

…a few tunes that were recorded live off the floor with the all-girl synth rock version of the WP, trying to capture our live sound at the time:

and a handful of tracks in the classic WP casio rock anthem style that we really took a lot of care to produce well, including audience faves like the title track, “Volunteers” and “Valentine” (featuring Feist), which remains the WP’s greatest hit to date for some mysterious reason.

At one point there was a fairly big American indie label that seemed to be interested in releasing it. A bunch of my friends were experiencing success at that time and I allowed myself to get a little cocky that the same might happen to me. I was setting myself up for a humbling and I got one, one that continues to this day.

But I don’t want to dwell on the failings of Hard Feelings because ultimately, I think it’s a good collection that has a lot of the WP’s best songs. As a bonus for this reissue, I threw in two tunes from Lost Illusions, long since unavailable elsewhere—“Soft Rocks” and “Creativity is Wonderful”—that happen to be some of my personal faves.

The album also has a really good package, designed by Todd Stewart and featuring original artwork by Dawn Boyd, Matt Collins, Julia Kennedy, Billy Mavreas and Joe Ollman, along with a bunch of jokes and puzzles. I was really going for a “post-CD” kind of experience, though we ended up pressing some CDs under pressure from the distributor (who since went bankrupt… but that’s a whole other story).

Whether you’re revisiting it or listening for the first time, I hope you enjoy it.

My New Radio Show!

maison-sociale-retina

I’m excited to be hosting a show on the Maison Sociale‘s Green Room Radio.

This new Montreal coffee shop, bar and restaurant also has a nice little booth from which guest DJs play music into the space and online. You can listen to it here. Archives will be uploaded to Mixcloud (eventually).

The World Provider show is on Fridays from 4-5pm. At the moment, I’m mainly playing music – gems from my record collection, ranging from easy listening to old folk and country to classic metal, as well as stuff by contemporary bands with a focus on Montreal locals, people coming to Montreal in the days following each broadcast, and of course my super talented friends and family. I hope to expand the show into different directions as time goes on. I’ve always loved doing radio, from my stints on the midnight shift on Ottawa’s CKCU as a teenager to recent guest spots on Montreal’s CKUT, so this is a great pleasure for me.

Tune in and check it out, or if you’re in Montreal, come down in person to 5386 St-Laurent, it’s a nice spot.

UPDATE, August 2015: after a few months, this experiment in radio has come to a close. My obligations to family, work and other projects are simply taking up too much time and mental energy for me to be able to properly commit. I really enjoyed doing the show and I hope to take to the airwaves again before too long.

 

On Facebook

I got this image from endoskeptic.com. Not trying to make any statement, just thought it was funny.
I got this image from endoskeptic.com. Not trying to make any statement, just thought it was funny.

I was talking with some friends on the topic of things that annoy us about Facebook.

One friend cited people who just use it as a venue to show off their luxurious lives and possessions. I couldn’t relate. I know a few wealthy people, but they’re pretty discreet about it—even, in some cases, a little embarrassed.

Someone else mentioned people who are always posting about their boring, normal lives. I stayed silent. I guess either my friends are all really interesting, or I don’t find their normal lives boring. (I could go on about the phenomenon of contempt for “normals”—near the top of my list of things I can’t stand about my own community—but I feel that would be off-topic.)

It was my turn to chime in. “What about people who do nothing but post angry, embittered left-wing rants, all day, every day?”

Nobody else had any friends like that. I’d say that describes about two-thirds of my Facebook feed at any given moment. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I like my Facebook friends anyway.

Speaking of Facebook, if you are a fan of the WP, please come and give your Likes to The World Provider Facebook page. I’ll be honest with you, I simply need to boost my number of followers to impress the kind of people who are impressed by this kind of thing. I promise not to over-post or do anything really annoying. It’s all a part of my grand strategy to build the WP’s slow-building rise to world domination…

The Undead Format

CD

Recent figures show that digital music sales have overtaken physical ones for the first time. Some might be surprised that it didn’t happen years ago, or that physical sales still exist. We’re constantly told that the CD is dead, physical formats are dead, the future is digital. And yet the CD persists. The record stores (another thing that continues to exist despite declarations of its death) are stocked with new CDs. The programmers on campus radio (again, still exists) prefer CDs to the trauma of fishing through the sea of harder-to-manage-or-archive digital files or streaming options.

But there’s no doubt that the CD occupies a weird transitional space at this particular moment in time.

In 2008, I swallowed whole the gospel of post-CDism and released an album as a printed booklet with a download code. I called in favours with almost every artist I knew, and my designer and I put a lot of effort into to making the booklet look nice.

But when it was on the merch table at the release shows, all I’d hear was “where’s the CD?”

I’d be like, “the CD is dead, man, what do you mean?”

At the release show in Montreal, some guy was like, “Why should I pay $10 for a piece of paper?”

My argument that a CD is merely a piece of plastic was unpersuasive. The fact that I’d spent thousands of dollars of my own money on recording, mixing and mastering the album as well as printing the paper, equally so.

As I was preparing to release another album in 2011, the question of format was vexing. Among the hipster community, it’s self-evident received wisdom that vinyl is the only format worth releasing (or, even further underground, cassettes—which is a whole other topic).

But vinyl is expensive to produce. A guy a know from a once-prominent Montreal indie label told me that they had to sell every single vinyl record they produced to make a profit. And that was a label with over a decade’s experience and a solid reputation.

When the publicist I hired told me that I’d need a certain number of CDs for promo, I thought, fuck it, I’ll just produce CDs.

I had 500 made and used about 100 for promo. The second box of 250 is still sitting in my office, opened only recently. When I give them out to people as gifts, they’re regarded as a quaintly obscure item—at best. Recently, I gave a CD to a friend. She seemed perplexed and explained to me that, since the new Mac laptops no longer have a CD drive, she actually had no way to play it.

The only people I know who regularly buy CDs are my parents. I sometimes suspect that, aside from the format’s continued importance in the promotional arm of the music industry, the continued commercial relevance of CDs is attributable entirely to the boomer demographic, whether for themselves or as gifts for their children or (no doubt bewildered) grandchildren.

But then, in the spring of 2013, I interviewed Marie LeBlanc Flanagan of the music blog Weird Canada about their initiative to start a record distribution centre. She told me that the CD was experiencing a renaissance in the underground scene, as vinyl and cassettes had before. This was so counter-intuitive to everything we’ve been told, it left me speechless and stammering (which was inconvenient seeing as it was a live radio interview).

But the “backlash against digital” she described made a lot of sense: people like something they can put their hands on. Digital culture is so overwhelming, there’s a certain relief in the simple pleasures of a physical format.

Still, as it is with the recording industry, as long as manufacturers keep prices high, releasing stuff physically is going to stay stratified between those who can afford to do it properly, and those who don’t mind doing it in a sloppy DIY style.

Is there any love for the CD out there? Enough to bother manufacturing a batch for my next record? Or should I just burn a few CDRs from my laptop for the remaining market?

At the very least, I’ll burn a copy for my parents.

Montreal and Toronto

401

A few friends of mine have recently announced plans to move from Montreal to Toronto. These friends include the great Miranda Campbell, as passionate an advocate of the Montreal lifestyle as there ever was.

I’m all in favour of people making changes and blazing new trails, but something about these friends moving made me sad. Not just because they won’t be around—there’s something deeper that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Moving from Montreal to Toronto is a thing people do. They get tired of the bureaucracy, the corruption, the endless language wars, and above all, the difficulty of finding work.

I moved from Toronto to Montreal in 2001. When we announced the move, I would say 9 out of 10 Torontonians replied with a version of “Oh, I wish I could move to Montreal—but I can’t because of work.” I thought this was a weird thing to say, particularly when coming from people in their early twenties who had their whole lives ahead of them and were a little young to be shackled to a job.

But there’s no doubt that Montreal is a different economy.

When I lived in Toronto, I would routinely go grocery shopping without even looking at how much items cost.

Now, I’m like “Three limes for a dollar? Fuck that, I can get a better deal at the other place.”

The first time I paid for my groceries with a sock full of nickels and dimes, it was kind of romantic. The last time I did that, which was more recently than I care to admit, it just felt shameful.

In my early days in Montreal, I used to sometimes walk past the cafés of Mile End with a wistful sense of longing. I couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee.

Now, things have changed. My bills are paid, my debts are at a reasonable level, and I have money to spend on the odd indulgence. I’m able to buy a coffee, usually.

But it’s still nothing like the Toronto days, when I would go out for dinner several times a week, drink an entire bottle of wine with dinner every night, and buy new clothes whenever I felt like it. Today, none of those things apply.

A friend of my wife’s once told her, “In Toronto, people brag about how much they have on the go. In Montreal, they brag about how little they’re doing.”

It’s not quite like that anymore, but some of that spirit still remains.

In Montreal, I know several people who pay around $500 a month in rent. People whose rent is in the four digits tend to have really nice places in good neighbourhoods.

In Toronto, $1500 is considered a good deal for a high-rise apartment in the suburbs. In Vancouver, that’ll get you a one-room basement apartment.

That seems crazy to me, but I’ve been in the Montreal reality for over a decade now.

I once spent a few days in Kelowna, in the B.C. Interior. In the less than 36 hours I was there, I heard no fewer than three people say a variation on “Yeah, Kelowna sucks, but where else are you gonna go?”

I thought that was lame and might have even said so. But today, I find myself feeling similarly about Montreal. It’s a trap, a vortex. It sucks, but where else are you gonna go?

I live in a city of lost souls.

People get trapped here, they can’t imagine an alternative—or it’s too late, they couldn’t function anywhere else. They barely function here. But in this town, functioning is overrated. It’s considered bourgeois.

Montreal’s dysfunction is part of its appeal somehow. If it ran more smoothly, it would lose some of its ramshackle charm. Like a lot of its inhabitants, it can barely hold itself together.

The reasons to live in Montreal, especially as an anglophone, are not logical per se. But like romantic love, or religious belief, the attraction to Montreal is irrational at its root. It comes from the heart, not from the brain. My brain is constantly listing reasons why I should leave. My heart won’t budge. I fear it might stay here even if I moved on.