When I was in grade 11, I had a massive crush on the girl who sat in front of me in math class. There was only one problem; she was way cooler than I was. In the social hierarchy of high school, she was the equivalent of nobility, while I was more a Third Estate type. She loved music. She could name all the coolest bands. In contrast, my musical knowledge consisted of whatever albums I could steal off my older siblings, and The Beatles. So, in addition to trying to sit next to her in the cafeteria, I took it upon myself to learn all I could about what she liked to listen to. I spent my first paycheque from my part time job on two cd’s: Weezer’s Blue album, and Definitely Maybe by Oasis. She never did go out with me, but the experience changed my life in a fundamental way. While I still had no girlfriend, my love affair with music had just begun.
Recently, I moved back to St. Catharines. The city has changed a great deal, but the music scene lives on. A bit like monarchy – the King is dead, long live the King. After a few conversations with a local videographer, I decided to revisit my passion for music, and make a documentary about it. Although it’s still early days, I’ve had a few interesting conversations. One theme in particular struck me yesterday: the idea of a ‘Golden Era’. Specifically, that it’s bull shit.
I could tell you that the golden era of music in St. Catharines was between 2000 and 2005. Throughout these years, my friends and I practically lived at The Hideaway. I mean c’mon, Alexisonfire, Bedlam Society, the resurgence of the SCENE music festival – who could argue with that? Well, just about every generation of music lover. The fact is that 2000 – 2005 wasn’t a golden era, it was MY golden era. We all have them. Our parents have them. Every generation that has been, or ever will be, has a golden era, or what Springsteen would call – glory days.
A few years back, I had the chance to make friends with a Toronto music archivist. The man could sit for hours and tell stories about the ‘good ol’ days’ of rock n’ roll in Toronto. He would go on about the 1960s and 70s, when anyone who was anyone played places like The Edison Hotel, The Bluenote, or the legendary Rock Pile. You could hit ‘Yorkvile’ and catch Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, or David Clayton Thomas strumming a guitar at The Penny Farthing or The Gaslight. If you’re sitting there agreeing that maybe my friend was right, just remember, the music industry has changed since those days. Back then, there was no spotify or youtube to contend with. Artists didn’t have to worry as much about people stealing their music – unless they happened to be friends with a young Bob Dylan.
Comparing bands of different eras is an exercise in apples and oranges. The rules aren’t the same. The music industry is a different game in 2017 than it was in 2003, 1995 or 1967. Anyone with a laptop and some software can produce their own music, and there is no shortage of platforms for them to share it on. Some labels aren’t even bothering to press cd’s anymore, preferring digital releases. Despite all the avenues for artists to get their tunes in your ears, being a musician is arguably harder. Gone are the days when record sales would guarantee an artist’s “mailbox money” (royalty cheques). Given these changes, we could be past the era of super bands and millions in records sales. That doesn’t mean there is any less of a scene, or that it’s any less golden.
In doing research for the documentary, I sat down with local promoter, label owner and musician, Steve Stumble. Steve, along with Joel Carriere (now of Dine Alone fame), took over running SCENE festival in 2000. When I asked about the history of music in the city, he pointed to 1995 being the high water mark – a full 5 years before I even knew there was a scene. For Stumble, this city had its heyday in the late 90s. Like myself, the majority of the venues that hold memories for him are now gone.
My first week back in town, I stopped off to grab a coffee on St. Paul St. I spotted a new record shop on James St, Mindbomb Records. I figured the name came from the now defunct music venue that was just across from Mansion House. Nostalgia is nice, but it’s not reality. Today, the downtown core of the city is undergoing significant infrastructure changes meant to make the arts a focus. Pedestrian friendly sidewalks, a new arena, and a performing arts centre are just some of the new features. However, St. Catharines isn’t betting big on a new concept, but on the track record of a pre-existing arts community.
This past spring, Erik Dickson, owner of record label IndoorShoes, opened the city’s first dedicated music venue, The Warehouse. Unlike the venues that came before, mostly local bars willing to let a band play, The Warehouse is a venue that puts the music first. It’s a place where artists know they can at least get a proper sound check. Let’s face it, as attached as I was to The Hideaway, I have to admit the acoustics weren’t always the best. Changes like this indicate a bright future for the local music scene, and reinforce the idea that golden eras are just a matter of perception. As I was speaking with Erik, it became clear to me that over indulging in memories of yesteryear is a disservice to today’s scene, and the artists in it.
Personally, I’m done with golden eras, and legendary venues. After all, re-invention is what Rock n’ Roll is all about. St. Catharines in undergoing a re-invention right now, and it could mean I’m in for an era of music that might just put my glory days to shame – as long as I’m open to it. As Erik sat rhyming off bands like: Heavy Hearts, The Mandevilles, Daniel Romano, Limestone Chorus and many more, it’s clear to me the scene in this city is alive and well. Neil Young was right, rock n’ roll will never die.