Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Meeting Dan Matheson: Going on national TV

I was interviewed by Dan Matheson of CTV News Channel on June 18, one of the days of the flooding here in Claresholm. Me and Dan Matheson go way back. I started watching him when he did sports on "Canada AM" back in the 1980s.

He actually did a lot of sports for CTV, who were really trying to get in the game as a major sports broadcaster. He hosted the 1984-1985 and 1985-1986 National Hockey League broadcasts. They were mostly Friday night games, with some on Sunday afternoons, and the Stanley Cup playoffs. Matheson was the host, while Dan Kelly did the play-by-play and for awhile Brad Park did the colour commentary. However, he left mid-season to become coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

Matheson was also host of the 1987 Canada Cup, which to my mind was the best hockey tournament ever.

So, really, it was kind of surreal to be interviewed by someone who I have watched on TV since I was a kid. Here's the clip:

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Jim Keegstra: A class project forges a friendship

Jim Keegstra was fired from his job as a social studies
teacher in Eckville, Alberta for telling his students the Holocaust didn't happen.
It was the first time in my life I really thought about freedom of speech, what limits should be put on it, and what promoting hatred was. In the process I met my best friend.

This past week the death of Jim Keegstra brought a stream of memories cascading back from life in Grade 10, particularly Social 10 in second semester, spring of 1985.

Shattered trust
The story made national headlines. Jim Keegstra, a social studies teacher in Eckville, Alberta, had been fired for teaching his students the Holocaust never happened. Ultimately he was charged with wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group and convicted.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Ernst Zundel, was also in court for denying the Holocaust happened, after publishing a pamphlet questioning whether six million people died.

These cases were inextricably linked because Keegstra and Zundel were represented by the same man, lawyer Doug Christie.

I was in Grade 9 when all this stuff began to come out. Even back then I thought Keegstra had abused his power as a social teacher. We talked a lot about politics and current events in our house, but I knew not all families were like ours.

Pretty soon I would get a chance to learn more about all this, and put my views to the test.

Class project
I first met Chris Vining at the beginning of Grade 10, when our lockers were next to each other and we began to chat. When second semester came, we were actually in a few classes together.

One was Social Studies 10, with Miss Val Cooper. It covered a broad range of material, mostly about Canada. Throughout the year, we had to do two class projects. They were pretty involved, including a researched written report and, for the second one, an oral presentation.

Miss Cooper assigned partners alphabetically for the first one and, low and behold, Vining was assigned to me (I just laughed out loud because I realized I met my best friend because our names followed each other in the alphabet). Anyway, that first project was about Canadian foreign policy and the country’s role in the Strategic Defence Initiative, or Star Wars defence policy as it was called, being put forth by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan. We did a written report on that, primarily during class time, but also at lunch hours.

A few months later, we had another project and could choose any partner we liked. By then, Vining and I had been bench partners in Biology 10 for a few months (also assigned alphabetically), and began talking frequently on the phone.

So we chose each other, and were actually assigned the topic of Keegstra and Zundel by Miss Cooper. The next few weeks, as melodramatic as it sounds, changed the course of my life forever.

The report
Miss Cooper had some material, which we ran through pretty quickly, then we hit the school library. Mr. Dick Kanashiro, the school librarian, helped us find some more in newspapers, magazines, and what was called “the vertical file”. I also had a personal interest in the Holocaust, and the various concentration camps in particular.

We had tons of class time to do this, but we realized it would not be enough, and we would have to get together outside of school. The problem was it was not real easy for me to get to town. It was the story of my life.

Ultimately, we arranged for my dad to drop me off at Chris’ house after church on Sunday. It was the first time I had ever been to his house, and we worked quite a bit. We also procrastinated, talking about sports, and school.

Later that week, on a Wednesday night, I arranged to stay after school and we worked late. The report was done, but we still had the oral presentation to do. I was the better writer, and wrote a good chunk of the report, while Chris was already a much better public speaker than me, so he agreed to do the talking. I would be there to answer questions.

I remember my mom saying they would pick me up at like 9 p.m., and we were scrambling to get everything done. We were still writing when I saw my parents pull up to the house.

What I remember was a show I had stared watching, “Double Dare” starring Billy Dee Williams and Ken Wahl, was just starting when we left Vining’s house in Coaldale, and it aired Wednesday nights.

Oral presentation
The crux of our presentation was that Keegstra and Zundel were promoting hatred. There was undeniable evidence the Holocaust had happened, and what they were doing was an “abuse of our cultural mosaic”. Me and Vining were both pretty proud of that phrase. We were supposed to offer solutions as well, and one I recall was a random sampling of unaddressed junk mail to screen for hate literature.

After we were done, I remember one of our classmates named John, asking a simple question, “What if it’s true?”

I was trying to be funny, as insecure teenagers can be, and responded, “What the hell do you mean?”

The whole class laughed, while Miss Cooper covered her ears at the use of the word “hell”. That brought more laughter.

In retrospect, John hit at the heart of all these types of cases: truth is a defence for slander, libel, and defamation. At the time, I smiled and told him in this case there were millions of witnesses to the events of the Holocaust, and they all couldn’t be lying. Moreover, the stories from camps like Dachau and Buchenwald were too similar for survivors to make them out. It would have to have been a mass conspiracy for thousands and thousands of survivors to get their story straight if they had made it up.

It was an energetic and lively discussion, which is why it still sticks out in my mind.

And we got a killer mark in the end.

A year later, Chris and I were standing in the hall and a Grade 10er who Chris knew came up to him. He had been assigned the same topic and not only had the same materials we did, but a copy of our presentation. He said the teacher said it was one of the best, so he wanted some pointers. By then, both of us had moved on so far beyond that point, we had very little recollection of the whole project.

Parting thoughts
The benefit of time, age, and experience show Jim Keegstra was out of bounds in teaching his students the Holocaust never happened. Yet, doing that report was the first time I began to realize that freedom of speech was not a black and white issue, which I guess was the whole point Miss Cooper was trying to teach us.

What is a reasonable limit on that freedom? Given what I do for a living, I still contemplate that issue every day.

Along the way, I also met the best friend I would have in high school. We went on to be roommates in university, I would stand by him at his first wedding, and we shared countless experiences and memories.

What more could you ask for?

“Chicago 18”, “Chicago 19”, et “Cetera”: Life after Peter

The album cover for
"Chicago 18", released in 1986
The album cover for
"Chicago 19", released in 1988
Sometimes it’s hard for a band to rebound after their front man leaves. Often he, or she, was not only the ace but the leader and creative core of the band.

I thought for sure when I heard in the summer of 1985 that Peter Cetera was leaving Chicago, the band would never recover. Cetera certainly went on to achieve unprecedented solo success on the charts.

Much to my surprise, Chicago was not dead and buried, but ended the 1980s with two hit albums and some pretty solid chart success of their own.

Chicago 18
It was another case of hearing not quite what I expected. This great song came on the radio one afternoon, and I did not recognize the singer. Once the deejay came back, he said it was the latest song by Chicago. I could not believe my ears, but in fact it was true.

The song was called, “Will You Still Love Me,” and it came near the end of 1986. It would reach number three on the Billboard Hot 100, Chicago’s first top ten single post-Peter Cetera. They would have one more single do reasonably well off that album: “If She Would Have Been Faithful…” which peaked at number 17.
They had a new lead singer to replace Cetera, named Jason Scheff, and with him Chicago sounded more to me like Toto than old Chicago.

“Chicago 18” also marked the last time David Foster would produce an album for the band, following the success of “Chicago 16” and “Chicago 17”.

The album did reach gold status, but marked a change in Chicago from being a band that sold a lot of albums, to being more of a singles band.

Chicago 19
By the time “Chicago 19” was released in 1988, I was not listening to music as keenly as I had been before. I had nowhere near the level of understanding I had before then.

The first single, “I Don’t Want to Live Without Your Love”, came out that summer, and I recall hearing it when I moved up to Edmonton for my second year of university in late August. We stopped by Airdrie to take a break and I was listening to the countdown on one of the radio stations. The deejay said it was the first time in history there were two songs in the top 20 that started, “I Don’t Want to…” One was “I Don’t Want to Live Without Your Love” by Chicago, the other was, “I Don’t Wan’t to go on With You Like That” by Elton John. Chicago’s single would peak at number three, setting the stage for something bigger.

Late in 1988, Chicago released “Look Away”. It moved up the charts, peaking at number one for two weeks in December. It also ended up the number one song in the Billboard Hot 100 year-end rankings for 1989.

Ending the 1980s
Chicago ended the decade with a compilation called, “Greatest Hits: 1982-1989”. It had some original material, including a slightly remixed version of, “What Kind of Man Would I Be”. The single peaked in late 1989 at number five on the Billboard Hot 100, after first appearing on “Chicago 19” a year earlier.

Parting thoughts
Overall, it was probably a saw off whether Peter Cetera or Chicago without him was more successful. Cetera had two number-one singles right off the bat, but Chicago ended up with the number one song of an entire year, and three other top five hits.

But success, if it really matters, goes beyond that. The truth is, Chicago was a different band with a different sound after Peter Cetera left. It was somewhat similar, due to the influence of producer David Foster, but that even ended after “Chicago 18”. They still put out great songs that obviously resonated with listeners.

And in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Peter Cetera: Life after Chicago

Peter Cetera's 1986 solo effort "Solitude/Solitaire". My good friend
Mat bought this album when he joined Columbia House and I had the
privilege of listening to it. It was worth the time. "Glory of Love" and
"Next Time I Fall" were the best singles, but the title track was not bad.
Often when singers leave bands to go solo, they never experience anywhere near the same success. That wasn’t the case for Peter Cetera. After he left Chicago, he went on to considerable success as a solo artist, almost eclipsing the band itself.

The departure
By the mid-80s, Peter Cetera had become the face of the band Chicago, although they had several band members sing various songs. The arrival of David Foster as the band’s producer in 1981, and the subsequent release of “Chicago 16”, coincided with the dawn of music videos. Since Cetera sang all the singles Chicago released, he was the centre of each music video. (For the uninitiated, he is he blonde singer in “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”; “Stay the Night”; “Hard Habit to Break”; “You’re the Inspiration”; and “Along Comes a Woman”)

In the summer of 1985, CBC’s “Good Rockin’ Tonite” had Foster and Cetera appear as their guests. It was the first time I had ever known that was the name of the singer.

Host Terry David Mulligan asked a variety of questions. The one I recall best, was when he asked Cetera if he heard any emerging summer hits. Cetera said it was pretty early, but if he had to hazard a guess, it was “Some Like it Hot”, a song by The Power Station.

The interview had been taped. When it faded out to Mulligan alone on set, he said shortly after that interview was taped, Peter Cetera announced he was leaving Chicago.

What would become of Peter Cetera? It did not take long to find out.

Summer of ‘86
The voice sounded familiar, but it was hard to tell for sure in the setting I was in. My buddy and neighbour Mat was working on a nearby egg farm. They were cleaning out a barn, and needed a bunch of people to do the work. So Mat rounded up a bunch of us – me, my best fried Chris Vining, a guy named Mike, and some others. Mat flipped on a ghetto blaster he had to help pass the time.

Suddenly, it came on. It sounded like Chicago, but I wasn’t sure. I’d been concentrating pretty intently, so I only clued in part way through. Of course, as always seemed to be the case back then, when the song finished the deejay didn’t bother saying who sang it. I waited for the song to come back on, and I think it did, but I couldn’t make out much.

That night, I flipped on the same station we had been listening to at the egg farm. It was AM 1060, but curiously it marketed itself as AM 106, maybe to make it sound more like an FM station. They had two shows Mat listened to that he told me about: “The Top Six at Six” and “The Top Ten at Ten”. They were the most requested songs of the day. I got home after six, so at 10 p.m. I tuned in. Adding to the mystery was that after around 10 p.m., the signal began to weaken, and there was a lot more static. Conceivably, I might not hear the song if there was some ill-timed interference or static.

And that almost happened – but it didn’t.

“The Glory of Love”
Instead, I discovered the song was called “The Glory of Love”, and sure enough it was by Peter Cetera. What really peaked my interest was the song was off the soundtrack for the soon-to-be-released sequel to “The Karate Kid”.

“The Glory of Love” bolted up the charts all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for two weeks in August of 1986, before being displaced by Madonna and “Papa Don’t Preach”. The song would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for best original song, losing to “Take My Breath Away” from “Top Gun” and performed by Berlin. Cetera would also be nominated for best pop vocal performance by a male artist, losing out to Steve Winwood and “Higher Love”.

“Next Time I Fall”
“The Glory of Love” was released as part of Cetera’s solo album, “Solitude/Solitaire”. A few months later, Cetera was back on top of the charts with another number one single. This time it was a duet with Christian singer Amy Grant called “Next Time I Fall”. I always recall the video, set in a dance studio, shifting back and forth between the dancer, Grant, and Cetera. “Next time I Fall” displaced “You Give Love A Bad Name,” Bon Jovi’s first number one single, in early December of 1986, then after a week on top was displaced by “The Way It Is”, Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s first number one single.

Cetera and Grant would be nominated for a Grammy for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals, losing to "Dionne and Friends" for “That’s What Friends Are For”.

Perhaps the best accolade Cetera received was not an award, but the satisfaction that his first post-Chicago solo album sold more copies than Chicago’s next album – “Chicago 18”.

Parting Thoughts
To be honest, Peter Cetera always was Chicago for me. Some of their other songs grew on me over time, and I really like them, but I enjoyed his lead vocals the most. The audience seems to agree. Although Chicago may have sold as many or more records than any other group in the 1970s, their only number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 was “If You Leave Me Now” – sung by Peter Cetera. Once David Foster came aboard, and began to emphasize all those great ballads, it was a lock – Peter Cetera was Chicago.

So when he went solo in 1986, it was pretty much a certainty it would be good  – and it was. I may have grown a little tired of “Glory of Love”, but that was due to vinyl fatigue – it always seemed to be on the radio, but “Next Time I Fall” has remained one of my all-time favourite songs. It is a testament to the power of Peter Cetera’s voice as a balladeer.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Chicago: “Foster”-ing the hits

It is amazing how the influence of one person can profoundly affect the sound of a band. It can be a singer, a songwriter, a musician. In the case of Chicago, a band that had a lot of success fusing jazz and brass instruments with pop music in the 1970s, it was a producer – and a Canadian one at that.

The success of Chicago exploded when David Foster came on board, and that was the Chicago that I grew up with. He seemed to know exactly how to best utilize the talents of the band, especially lead singer Peter Cetera.

Never did I think my association with Chicago would be as long as it was, given the way I first heard about them. The band is one of the most prolific in pop music history, set apart by the fact they sequentially number their albums. Few have actual names beyond “Chicago 16”, “Chicago 17”, and so on.

Back in 1985, after I got a ghetto blaster for Christmas, I started listening to the radio after bedtime. It was on the floor beside my waterbed, turned as low as possible but still loud enough for me to hear.

The usual station of choice was LA-107 FM out of Lethbridge. It was an album-oriented station that had a variety of interesting features. One was an hour-long feature weeknights at 11 p.m. called “Profile”. That was when I first heard about the band Chicago.

The band had such a long and prolific history, it actually spanned two nights, a Thursday and a Friday. There were a lot of names thrown about, and dates, and places. I only remember a few things. One was the band was initially called the “Chicago Transit Authority”. However, it ran into static from the actual Chicago Transit Authority, shortening the name to “Chicago”.

The other thing I remember was they had a lead singer named Terry Kath (I first thought I heard “Calf”) who died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. I also recall hearing the names Robert Lamm, Jimmy Guercio, James Pankow, and Peter Cetera, but that was about it. Nothing else really stuck out for me.

Chicago 17
About that time, I really was getting interested in music. I had started watching “Solid Gold” on Saturday nights. I usually had a bath, then settled in to watch TV for the rest of the night. Often they would play a kind of feature video. One night it was a song by Chicago, where the lead singer kept chasing after a girl risking life and limb, almost dying several times. He even got run over by a car. I was stunned that Chicago had a new album out because, according to “Profile”, they seemed like an old band. The song was called, “Stay the Night”, and it was the first of several singles.

After I got the ghetto blaster, I began to tape songs off the radio. One of the first was a fantastic slow song called, “Hard Habit to Break”. Soon after, they released “You’re the Inspiration”, which was another slow song that really struck a chord with me. Eventually, there was a fourth single, “Along Comes a Woman”, I remember best for its black and white video patterned on the movie “Casablanca”.

The album these songs came off of was “Chicago 17”. However, I had not yet started spending a lot of money on new music. Instead, I plumbed around the discount bin at Eaton’s. After a few weeks of humming and hawing I finally bought a kind of Chicago’s greatest hits compilation called “If You Leave Me Now”. When I listened to it the first time, I recognized most of the songs: ”Saturday in the Park”, “25 or 6 to 4”, “If You Leave Me Now”, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is”, “Baby, What a Big Surprise”, and so on.

What really stuck out was that, with the exception of “If You Leave Me Now”, none of the songs sounded like any of the tunes I heard on the radio coming off “Chicago 17”. There was a simple explanation. David Foster had arrived, reducing the reliance on horns and increasing the number of ballads, which had the same sound as “If You Leave Me Now”.

A few months later I joined Columbia House and “Chicago 17” was one of most first choices. It did not disappoint, including some other really good songs including my favourite, another Cetera-sung ballad called, “I Remember the Feeling”. The other thing that struck me about the album was there were some songs with that trademark Chicago sound, featuring the brass instruments.

Discovering “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”
As with so many other things, the songs of “Chicago 17” were my entrĂ© into the music of Chicago. It was a few months after, just after the start of Grade 11, the I was listening to a radio request show on 1090 CHEC, an AM station broadcasting out of Lethbridge.  It was called “Rock and Roll Your Own”, and someone called in requesting a song called, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” by Chicago. My first reaction was that they had misspoke and meant to say “Hard Habit to Break”.

Boy was I wrong. The song that played was one of the best ballads I ever heard. It was awesome. After that, I seemed to hear it every night on “Rock and Roll Your Own”, and liked it more and more. That summer, I read a book on Billboard’s number one singles, and it had hit number one.

It was off the album “Chicago 16”, the first album David Foster produced with Chicago. His arrival made them even more successful then they had been before.

Eventually, I bought a used copy of “Chicago 16”, and discovered another hit it produced: “Love Me Tomorrow”.

That just cemented my love for Chicago, and especially the sounds of Peter Cetera.

The end of an era
One Friday night, I was watching “Good Rockin’ Tonite” on CBC, and the special guests were Peter Cetera and David Foster. After the interview, which had been taped, had ended, host Terry David Mulligan said Peter Cetera had announced he was leaving Chicago.

It was the end of an era.

And a new beginning – for Cetera and for Chicago.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Star Trek memories II: The Wrath of Khan

The time was 1982 and the whole world depended on it. If it failed, one of the most storied and cherished cultural institutions would have gone done, and maybe even died. It was “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”, and before it came out, there was a lot of anxiety among those in the film industry. Fans still held out hope, but if it did not deliver, "Star Trek" would likely not recover. A lot was depending on it, and it came through with flying colours. It even achieved a legendary status of its own.

Disappointing debut
The phenomenon of "Star Trek" is well documented. The show debuted in 1966, and immediately gained cult status and a loyal fan following. However, ratings did not follow, and twice letter-writing campaigns by fans saved it.

The original series lasted three seasons, but interest exploded after it went off the air. An animated series followed, and tons of rumours about another series or a movie.

Finally, in 1980, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” came out. It had a very 1970s look, similar to the original series, and even had a recycled plot to match. It was long on special effects and shorter on story. Some of the special effects seemed to go on and on, and threatened to consume the show. It made a ton of money, but left a lot of people disappointed and wanting.

The movie poster for "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"
The sequel
Information, mostly rumours, began to surface about a potential sequel. There would in fact be a sequel. Soon after, we discovered it would feature an old villain from the original series. Then we learned it would be Khan, with the role reprised by Ricardo Montalban, and called “The Vengeance of Khan”.

My friend Dave used to read a science fiction magazine called “Star Log” and he brought it to school where I first saw it. One issue had a cover story on the sequel, now re-titled, “The Wrath of Khan”. The cover photo had two young, attractive actors: newcomers Kirstie Alley and Merrit Butrick. As for the movie, it had a new director in Nicholas Meyer and everything had been completely re-designed.

The uniforms looked more military and less like the original series. The bridge was different, and the transporter beam effect had been updated.

I could hardly wait to see it.

One of the activities we used to have at St. Joseph’s School in Coaldale was movie parties. We'd vote on which movie we wanted to see, then we would actually get on a bus and ride to the theatre. It was an awesome idea.

The first one in Grade 8 was a “Sophie’s Choice” in reverse for me – I wanted to see both movies badly. It was a contest between "Rocky III" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". Dave so badly wanted to see it, but I was a bit Machiavellian as a 12 year old. I knew my sister would take me to see "Star Trek II, but there was no way I could sell her on "Rocky III". So I had to cast my vote for the Italian Stallion. So we ended up going to "Rocky III" with school, but I’ll tell you more about that another time.

My sister ended up taking me to see the "Wrath of Khan", and neither of us was disappointed. Not only had they saved the franchise, but made what many believe is still the best "Star Trek" movie of them all. They even say so on “The Big Bang Theory”.

It is an allegory of Moby Dick, with an epic battle of wits waged between Admiral James T. Kirk and Khan. Throw in the Genesis device, which creates life where none existed before and you have a battle with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. Kirk was at his best, goading Khan here, retreating there, and ultimately putting his ship in a position to win in the end. There are also underlying plots with Kirk beginning to feel old, and discovering he has a son.

One of the biggest rumours that had swirled surrounded Kirk’s best friend Captain Spock. Was he going to die or wasn’t he? In the end, he gave his life, but we viewers were left hopeful because his body lands on the Genesis planet. Would its powers bring Spock back to life? That was what left audiences wondering.

The ultimate irony is that not only is Spock still alive, but he is the only original character to appear on the re-booted "Star Trek" movie franchise created by J.J. Abrams.

It wasn’t long before rumours started to surface about a sequel. “Star Log” even reported Paramount had commissioned several scripts including, “The Wrath of Mudd” and “The Wrath of Charlie X”, dredging up two other original series villains, and a script mysteriously titled, “The Wrath of McCoy”. I was never sure if that was a joke or not. Not just McCoy, but all of them.

Parting thoughts
A couple weeks ago I happened to catch part of “The Wrath of Khan” again, and it really does stand up to the test of time. It has everything, which makes it the best in the series. Moreover, it came out at a time when the patience of fans was limited and the future of "Star Trek" may have been hanging in the balance.

At the end, when Spock has restored warp power just when the Enterprise was about to be destroyed, Kirk tells him, “You saved the ship.”

Well, they saved the franchise.