Eighties’ best 100 redux: #97 The Box “L’affaire Dumoutier (Say to me)” (1985)

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My parents must’ve gotten tired of waking me up in time to go to school at some point a few years before high school because, one Christmas, I received as a gift my very own clock/radio. These are probably not in use as much these days with today’s youth, possibly opting instead for setting an alarm on their smartphones. However, it’s a gift I grew to love, not long after I got over the shock of unwrapping something other than games or chocolates or clothing. With the novelty of it, I plugged it in right away and placed it within arm’s reach of my single bed. I set the time and an alarm time around 7am and then, started playing with the other functions. I turned on the radio and found CFTR, an old AM radio station that has long since gone talk radio but at the time was playing current hits, and I likely didn’t touch the dial for quite a few years.

It was this clock/radio that started a habit that I didn’t break myself of until I moved in with my girlfriend, now wife, a decade and a half later. I discovered the sleep function and fell asleep to the sweet sounds of music every night, some nights I would have had to extend the sleep past the standard hour when it took longer. This is where I discovered a lot of music in my youth, some of which are still favourites and some appear on this list, including this song.

I definitely remember hearing “L’affaire Dumoutier (say to me)” quite often in the evenings while falling asleep or as the alarm went off in the mornings*. I didn’t know the name of it at the time, nor did I know who performed the song, I wouldn’t discover either of these until much, much later, during a period in the early 2000s when I started using the powers of the internet for good and ill and to reconnect with the long-lost favourites of my youth.

The Box was formed by Jean-Marc Pisapia in Montreal in 1981, a year after he left Men Without Hats**, and they released four full-length studio albums before disbanding a decade later. Little did I know that they were actually quite successful in the late 80s and had a string of hit singles on Canadian radio, many of which I actually knew and loved. I only discovered this last fact recently when I saw them advertised as touring here in Ontario with Chalk Circle, another classic Canadian alternative band, and decided to investigate songs other than “L’affaire Dumoutier”.

Although I can say now that I am more of a true fan of their work, this one is still my favourite. Based on a real news item that Pisapia had read that had haunted him, the song deals with mental illness and its dangers, a murder committed when its perpetrator was not in his right mind. The sound of the song is also haunting, the gonging of church bells interspersed with police sirens in the fog, the verses spoken as news reportage, including interviews and statements, both in English and French, and though I couldn’t understand it all when I was younger, I knew something dark was at play. Of course, the chorus as a counterpoint is a singalong and infinitely hummable, which I did at various points in my life whenever the song came back to me.

Original Eighties best 100 position: n/a

Favourite lyric:  “Non coupable! Pour cause d’aliénation mentale…” My French wasn’t strong enough for me to understand what this meant at the time but I still loved how this was spoken with such finality to end the song. Now that I can understand it, I appreciate it even more.

Where are they now?: Jean-Marc Pisapia revived the band back in 2004 with himself being the only original member. This new incarnation has since released two albums, an EP, and a bunch of singles and has toured quite regularly.

*Because, of course, I used to opt for radio rather alarm sound to wake me up.

**Another Canadian new wave group of whom some of you may have heard.

For the rest of the Eighties’ best 100 redux list, click here.


Best tunes of 1992: #7 Leonard Cohen “Closing time”

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Believe it or not, “Closing time” was the song that first turned me on to Mr. Cohen: the poet, novelist, singer, songwriter, and Canadian Icon. I loved his voice right from the start and his easy sing-speak delivery and his cool demeanour. Shortly afterwards, I connected Cohen to that awesome song that Christian Slater’s character used to open his pirate radio show in the film, “Pump up the volume” and well, a lifelong love affair was born. I didn’t know this then but “Closing time” was one of two singles released off what would be the last album he recorded before entering a Buddhist monastery, touching off a prolonged break. “The future” is now considered a classic album in his catalogue but it was a struggle to create for the man from beginning to end.

“Ah we’re drinking and we’re dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high”

Around the time that “Closing time” was making the rounds on MuchMusic, I was taking a driver’s training class with Young Drivers of Canada. I was getting my license later than many of my friends, mostly to beat the implementation of graduated licensing (yes, I’m that old), and yeah, so many of those in the class were a few years younger than I was. I remember there being a teen girl in the class who wore a Leonard Cohen concert T-shirt to class one day and we all ribbed her to no end. Leonard wasn’t a “cool” choice amongst all the alt-rock kids but a few of us in the know, came to her defence after things got carried away. No one should have to pay for being a fan of Cohen. I’m sure all those kids know that now as adults.

“All the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it’s partner found, it’s partner lost
and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops”

It was also around that time that my older brother Andrew came back to live at home for a while. After years of living in the States, he had been indoctrinated into listening to Country music, yes, he wore cowboy boots and the whole bit. Interestingly, “Closing time” got its hooks into him, perhaps it was the fiddle, which was part of what got its hooks into me. Unfortunately, though, that meant that the cassette tape I had this on was always in the player and he would replay it to the point where I was almost sick of it. Then, he would drag me out with him to country bars to pick up women, none of whose companions I was ever remotely interested in, and then, drunkenly sing the few lines he knew of “Closing time” over and over again as we were staggering home in the early hours of the morning.

“Yeah we’re drinking and we’re dancing
but there’s nothing really happening
and the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night
And my very close companion
gets me fumbling gets me laughing
she’s a hundred but she’s wearing
something tight”

I only recently learned that “Closing time” is Leonard Cohen’s love poem to Toronto’s famous dive/after hours bar, The Matador, sadly now defunct (though I hear plans to resurrect it are in the works). I have only ever been to the Matador once in my life and that was on my friend Tim’s birthday, probably more than a decade ago now. We were all rather drunk already, which made a surreal experience all the more surreal. Nobody seem to know its precise address but the mere mention of the name to the cab driver got us all there without incident. Once there, we stood in line for an unknown amount of time but I distinctly remember our friend Mark saying to me, “If they ask you if you’re a cop, just say ‘no’.” There are plenty more stories that I could tell of that evening inside The Matador but I’ll leave those for another evening over beers. Let’s just say that when closing time actually rolled around, we stumbled out blinking in the morning sun and into waiting cabs bound for our beds.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.


Best tunes of 2012: #24 John K. Samson “Heart of the continent”

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With apologies to my youngest brother Mike*, I didn’t really get into and start appreciating the songwriting of John K. Samson until somewhere between the time of The Weakerthans’ last record and when they went on the extended hiatus that continues to this day.

It’s not like I didn’t have my chances. I actually saw them live twice. The first time was in 2001, when I hadn’t yet heard of them at all. They were the opening act on a card supporting Billy Bragg and The Lowest of the Low in Toronto, the latter of whom I recall Samson claiming were a huge influence on his own songwriting. The second time I saw them was in 2008 and they played in the afternoon on the second day of Toronto Island’s Virgin Fest. I was much better prepared this time, having brushed up on pretty much all of their records, and even finding a few favourite tunes on these. Yet still, though I enjoyed their set quite a bit, I wasn’t quite as into it as was my friend Mark, though truth be told, his enjoyment might have been enhanced by the bit of cannabis he had partaken in just beforehand.

What really did it for me was a couple years after that second show when I happened to be in Winnipeg around the time of their renowned Folk Festival. One of the sets that I managed to catch there was an afternoon songwriting workshop that included members of Jon And Roy, Works Progress Administration, and Swell Season and which was led by a genial fellow that I thought looked familiar right from the beginning. It turned out that it was local legend and the unofficial poet laureate of Winnipeg, John K. Samson, and of course, the theme that afternoon was on writing about home.

This is something Samson does often. His hometown of Winnipeg and other bits of Canadiana often entered the conversational tone of the lyrics of The Weakerthans’ songs. And there is no good reason why he would change his thinking when he released his debut solo album, “Provincial”, in 2012, which is the host of today’s song, “Heart of the continent”. Indeed, the title of today’s song is Winnipeg’s slogan, which is why many consider it like a sequel of sorts to The Weakerthans’ “One great city”, which was, of course, Winnipeg’s old slogan.

“There’s a billboard by the highway
That says welcome to
(Bienvenue à)
But no sign to show you when you go away“

It’s a lovely tune. Samson’s lyrics take the front seat, his now recognizable voice all soft and wistful, while his fingers brush and pluck away at the strings of an acoustic guitar. It’s like he’s busking on his favourite street corner (perhaps on Memorial), complete with his foot stomping on the kick pedal drum. Little by little, the people passing to and fro join him in the chorus, perhaps there’s another guitar and snare that make their way out from the abandoned building in front of which Samson sings, his hat still empty in front of him.

Yep. With this tune and this album, I became a full fledged Samson fan.

*My youngest brother Mike is a pretty big Weakerthans fan and was behind “One great tribute”, a tribute album to the band that was released last year.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.