My fan letter to DEVO...

I tend to go through repetitive phases in my musical tastes: sometimes alternative or new wave (Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cocteau Twins, Phillip Glass) or other genres...

I've been recently going through my latest "Devo phase". They have been the band I'm most interested in and listen to most often. During these phases, I will usually look at their web site (in this case, download songs (I know - evil John!), and buy an album or video.

This time, I bought a DVD called "DEVO: The Truth About De-evolution", and have watched it repeatedly. Now I'm listening to their two albums at work, "Greatest Hits" and "Greatest Misses" ("Misses" is the slightly better and more offbeat of the two, IMHO)

So, on Boxing Day, all this obsession finally culminated in a fan letter I wrote to Devo on their web site.

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I don't know if the Devos actually read or respond to emails sent to this address, but I sure hope so, since this is my first fan letter...

I'm John from Vancouver. I first heard "Whip It" on AM radio back in the late 70s or early 80s, and was amazed at how different Devo was from anything else I had ever seen or heard. Most of my musical taste at that time was in the realm of the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd: 60s and 70s blues-rock or heavy metal bands. And yet Devo did something so new and had such a different energy, well, you totally stood out from the pack for me. Having said that, it was not just the synthetic sounds that did it... Kraftwerk did that and sounded like cold and mechanical musical equivalents of the Futurist Manifesto. You guys went po-mo, using humour, absurdity, irony and contradiction to give (to me anyway) a multi-level message about for example, being *of* pop and yet against pop, or *of* mainstream urban values and yet rebelling against them.

Over the last 20 years, I've gone through multiple "Devo phases" where I remember the band and the songs and then tear out to buy an album, or most recently, the DVD "The Truth of Devolution". As I have gotten older, your depth as performance artists and musicians continues to reveal itself to me. The use (and gleeful abuse) of pop media and icons, the image and stylistics references to surrealism and Dadaism, and the overriding message of self-determination and "learn for yourself" - all of these messages are hugely important, and I cannot think of any other pop artists who have infused their work with such socially responsible and active examples.

Okay, so enough of the art school analysis :) Just "thanks for being original creative artists" and I hope you guys keep on doing it... :) "
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Kind of gushy, but also sincere.
Three days later, I got this reply:

"Thanks for getting it ! Gerald V. Casale"

Cool! I am such a fanboy :)

Coffee on Sunday

The Main Street Cafe distinguishes itself from the multitude of Vancouver coffee houses along this faded yet slightly dignified old street.

The two front windows of the cafe are actually large glass and metal "shipping ramp" doors - the kind that can be rolled up, causing a loud, loose metallic clattering.

Today, as I spend a quiet noon hour with my beloved wife, the large doors have been pulled all the way up, and even though we sit inside, we are privy to every sight, sound and smell going by, just 24 inches away.

Main Street is a mostly blur of wheels, rumbles and belches of exhaust. A thin but constant trail of people walk by bearing groceries, children and pets, and voices chatter in English, Filipino, and other languages, occasionally interrupted by squealing brakes or a siren a few blocks away. The sun disappears and reappears with our indecisive spring weather, and during each brief, blessed break in the noise, the songs sung by sparrows and chickadees can be heard.

Matching the drowned-out birdsong outside, and just as beautiful, is the music being played from the old upright piano in the rear corner of the Main Street Cafe. This is, in my coffee drinking experience, a rare, even unseen thing: non-commercial, non-programmed music in a coffee house in Vancouver! If you visit many other cafes in town, typically, you'll hear some selection of staff-picked CDs. If you go to Starbucks, you will hear the same music in heavy rotation at every Starbucks in Vancouver, usually tied in to some corporate promotion.

Today, we only hear the beautiful, clinky sounds of one middle-aged man who is playing music that he knows and enjoys. The only motive he seems to have is to apply his art to the cafe's old, out of tune upright piano, and to share the results with us. What a beautiful, non-commercial space it creates! It even makes up for the fact that the lady brought me hot chocolate instead of a Cafe Americano. It's all very unprogrammed and natural. I'm too happy to care, really.

"Oops. He hit a clinker on that last note!" "Oops! I got hot chocolate."

The afternoon promises to be beautiful in it's small imperfections and naturalness.

May 11, 2003

Happy Mother's Day Mum, wherever you are...

It startled me recently, remembering my Mother's worst frantic, screeching moments. I had been discussing her with my sister Kim yesterday, I suppose because Mother's Day was coming up. Kim reminded me of Mum's past violence and mood swings.

We had been told by relatives that Mum had been diagnosed as Manic-Depressive. At around 11 or 12, I found an empty bottle in Mum's coat pocket - a lithium prescription. I didn't find out until years later that this was commonly prescribed for manic depression.

Kim remembered Mum's screeching, erratic behaviour quite clearly. She remembered Mum taking too much of her Valium prescription one day. Kim watched Mum write on her palm with an imaginary pen. Kim asked her what she was doing, and Mum replied "I'm signing autographs".

I must have forgotten all these things, but Kim is right and I'm not sorry she reminded me.

I remember that Mum would scream at me to do the dishes - like really shriek at me. This was totally unfair, since I had only come home from school for lunch, while Mum had been laying on the couch all day in her pajamas, drinking Port.

Kim remembered Mum calling Kim's friend's house and shrieking for Kim to come home. Over the years, Kim had many nightmares of Mum shrieking at her in her high-pitched frantic tone.

I do recall a drunken, screaming fight between Mum and Dad when I was nine. We lived in Victoria with Poppy, Mum's father. I remember Mum's fingernails digging deeply into my scalp as she grabbed me roughly by the hair. Her voice was yelling and I was panicking with pain. I thought her long nails were going to go right through to my skull. This was the Mother that I had mostly forgotten until my sister reminded me.

Yes, my mother was a victim, but in her own way, she was also a perpetrator. I don't believe that she ever took responsibility for her bad actions to me or Kim. This is something her and our Dad have in common but as this is Mother's Day, that's another story in itself, perhaps best left for Father's Day.

I think over the years I have put Mum into a victim category and assigned her a fairly benign role in my psychological family history: a role of tragic figure, victim of her own history of abuse, and someone who had essentially lost out on having a fulfilling and meaningful life.

I became so used to the Angela that I got aquainted with in Riverview: quiet, distant, shaking with her involuntary tremors. She was very hard to know, with her simple reactions towards things like chocolate or wanting to go home. She loved chocolate and she always ate it so fast that she would end up coughing, choking, and spitting it back up. She said she wanted to go home, although it was never clear to me where she thought her home was - probably still her late father's house in Victoria.

Mum rarely ever walked or stood up by the time she was a patient in Riverview. Usually she had a bib around her neck, and little cloth straps to keep her from sliding out of her wheelchair. Toothless and skinny, with a short, institutional haircut, this was the woman who had been my mother up until I was about twelve, and whom ever since I had tried to get to know all over again.

Brain damage and long-term institutionalization seemed to be impassible obstacles between me and her - a glass wall through which I could observe but never really get to know her.

So, for the longest time, I had forgotten (or maybe had chosen to forget) the scary, selfish, and out of control person my Mother had once been. Because she had sufferred so much in her own right, almost dying and then surviving, only to lose great pieces of her memory and identity, I usually tended to see her as a tragic person. But really, that was only part of her, as Kim's own memories forced me to admit.

Now what the hell do I do? It's Mother's Day, and all I can feel is a renewed sense of bewilderment. Do I love my mother? Do I hate her? Should I feel pity for her or for us kids? What a great fucking mess her life became. Why should I try and sort it all out whenever her birthday or Mother's Day comes up?

It's really strange too, how the idealized, almost romantic memories that Mum and Dad's relatives have of each of them, and how they make me feel a bit bitter. I should be old enough and mature enough to not have this reaction, and to understand that each of us makes our own reality and rewrites our own history, but I guess it's the angry, helpless 12 year old inside me, still bristling at the hypocrisy of well-meaning aunts telling me to pray for my mother's soul. You only prayed for a sinner's soul I decided back then. I had never thought of my mother as a sinner, so why pray to God, when a chocolate bar and a hug would have been so much more pratical for her?

I guess at the sum of it all, I don't think of my mother as a sinner or evil or mean or anything horribly bad like that. I certainly witnessed someone who was selfish, scary, sometimes depressive, possibly spoiled, and apparently incapable of being a nuturer to others, at least when she was in the depths of her alcoholism.

It pains me that I can only remember a few of her happy, sober moments, moments where her voice and laughter would fill me with happiness, moments where I could see the child inside her showing through. If she could have stayed sober and healthy she might have been able to be like that all the time.

I suppose that today I can at least be thankful for the compassion and constructiveness of the Mother-figures I have been fortunate enough to know in my life. My Aunty Molly, Margaret Smith (my friend Doug's Mum), all my wife's Aunts, my older female friends or the mothers of my friends, have all at one time or another shown me a warm, sympathetic heart. While I feel that I have outgrown a need for a father (as I put a lot of that to rest with Dad, and to a lesser degree with Tom Hudson), I have never really gotten over not having a real Mother in my life.

Happy Mother's Day Mum, wherever you are...

Here is a brief biography of my Mother from my True Life memoir...