Up Against the Wall Motherf***er!

Some 40 years ago, a friend had a cassette tape of some guy belting out a song called “UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHERF*CKER.” Tonight, Martine was telling me about one of her new exercises, which is basically a form of “planking,” but done with your back against a wall. In one of those things where time collapses — like in those illustrations of how faster-than-light speed could be possible by folding space/time — the song came back to me.

It took about 15 seconds to find it on YouTube. I encourage you all to play this really loud, over and over again.

Oh, BTW, you should read up on the anarchist group the “Up Against The Wall Motherf*ckers” — usually abbreviated as simply “The Motherf*ckers.” No particular reason why. Just a thing to do. You know… inspiration.

https://en.wikipedia.org/…/Up_Against_the_Wall_Motherfuckers

[Originally published on Facebook, November 11, 2016.]

On Pat Metheny, Kool-Aid, and Bullshit

Every June, as the Montreal International Jazz Festival approaches, I find myself thinking about Pat Metheny. I’m not a fan. It has nothing to do with Metheny’s immeasurable talent and skills; I just don’t care very much about his medium: jazz guitar.

Back in 1989 I had not even heard of Pat Metheny until it was announced that he’d be headlining that year’s big open-air free megashow. Oh, the city lit up and was abuzz with Pat Metheny! Posters everywhere, articles in all the cultural tabloids and so on. Not a beer was raised in any bar before someone said “are you going to see Pat Metheny?” Not for weeks did friends and acquaintances meet on the street without beginning their salutations with “are you going to see Pat Metheny?”

It was infectious. Overnight, half the city became rabid Pat Metheny fans despite the fact that many people had never heard his music. The sad truth was that – hardcore jazz geeks notwithstanding – most people knew nothing about Pat Metheny other than:

  • He played guitar.
  • He had crazy rock-star hair.
  • He looked badass.

Looks badass from here.
(Photo by Badosa.)

Thus began the drinking of Kool-Aid and the parade of bullshit. By “bullshit” I mean more than the conventional lies and stupidity that we endure daily; I mean a fog of groupthink and blind optimism resulting in a city-wide mass hallucination.

The more people talked about the upcoming show, the more the fog spread and the more people believed they were about to experience the most mind-blowing musical experience of all time. This was long before YouTube and Wikipedia, so we had nothing go by by except those badass pictures and the hype. Oh, the hype!

Then it was show-time. The venue was Ave. McGill-College, with the stage set up near rue Ste-Catherine. 100,000 people clogged the avenue, all the way up to Sherbrooke street and beyond.

It was still daylight when the show began. Having arrived a bit late, my friends and I found some space at the back and settled in for a listen. And it was a listen, since there was nothing to see. The stage was far away and there were no video screens. If I stood up and squinted, I could see a crazy-haired guy way, way over there on the stage with his back to the audience, pondering his six-string as he plucked out mild ditties that sounded like the theme music for daytime talk shows.

On and on it went. A fuzzy-haired guy plinking dork music two football fields away. This wasn’t growling and moaning blues guitar as many people probably thought it would be; it was jazz guitar. It sounded to me like something you’d listen to in your den in 1964 while wearing slippers and smoking a pipe.

Meanwhile, the audience – at least in the back where we were – barely paid attention. People were sitting on the ground, smoking, and chatting. Some were reading. At one point I noticed that the band had taken a break and the filler music didn’t sound any different. I left before it was over.

For the next few days people cautiously remarked on how the show was “awesome” and “amazing,” the way you’d describe some foreign folk dance that you don’t understand. After about a week no one I knew ever mentioned it again.

Coda: this malformed memoir should not be seen as a criticism of Pat Metheny and his music. As I said in the beginning, it’s just not to my taste. Rather, this is a commentary on the nature of megashows, the malleability of groups, and the nature of bullshit as the cement that holds many aspects of our society together. There are a few videos from the show on YouTube (this one is typical, this one gives you a sense of the venue, and this one might even wake you up), and in them you can see that the crowd — at least the ones up front — were clearly enjoying the show. But those are probably the hardcore jazz geeks. It’s my opinion that the 80,000 people behind them had no idea what was going on and were probably wondering when the Muzak was going to stop so the show could begin.

Vivian Maier in Quebec, Part 2

Last week I wrote about Vivian Maier and how I had determined the exact location of a photograph she made in Quebec City at some point in the 1950s. I indicated that I know of another Vivian Maier photograph also taken in Quebec City, but that I could not determine the exact location. Well, dear readers, with a bit of additional digging, I have located that one too!

A bit of background: Terreau & Racine was a well known and very successful metal foundry, established in 1850 in Quebec City. They made, among other things, the stoves that were widely used to heat houses and cabins through the cold Quebec winters. The foundry was destroyed by a huge fire in 1919 but they rebuilt and continued to be successful until another fire destroyed the building in the 1950s. The site remains vacant of buildings to this day; it’s the parking lot at the corner of Quai Saint-André and rue Saint-Thomas.

The Vivian Maier photograph in question is below. You can clearly see the Terreau & Racine warehouse (entrepôt) in the background.

Photo by Vivian Maier, Copyright The Maloof Collection Ltd.

Martine, who first spotted this photo on the official Vivian Maier web site, did some research and found that Terreau & Racine’s warehouse was in a separate building, on the next street over from the one that burned. That street is the tiny Côte de la Canoterie, which is less than 300 metres in length. If you take a Google Streetview drive down Côte de la Canoterie you’ll see that none of the buildings on the north side look anything like the Terreau & Racine warehouse, although they are all quite old, meaning they would have been there looking more or less the same, when the Vivian Maier photo was taken.

So that leaves the south side, where we find only a handful of buildings and a few parking lots. The obvious candidate was this place:

31 Côte de la Canoterie

The proportions look right, but there are a lot of details in the present day building that are not there in the Vivian Maier shot. That’s easy enough to explain: renovations. The sidewalk is also very different, but that too could be due to municipal renovations.

This is where I had given up, as I figured there’s not much else I could do. The most likely scenario, I thought, was that the Terreau & Racine warehouse was probably torn down and the site is now one of the parking lots.

Then I started digging into the maps at the National Archives, thanks to a link provided in a comment in the original Vivian Maier blog post. Bingo!

Below you’ll see an “insurance map” from 1957 that firmly places the Terreau & Racine warehouse at 57 Côte de la Canoterie. Under that you’ll see the same location from Google Satellite view. You can see that the Terreau & Racine warehouse seems to be in the exact location as the building I’ve circled, which is the building at 31 Côte de la Canoterie (in the Streetview image, above).

1957 insurance map

Present day, via Google Satellite View

A confounding factor: in Streetview, we clearly see that the building is marked as being at 31 Côte de la Canoterie (you can’t see it in my screenshot, but if you go there in Streetview you’ll see it). Well, sometimes municipalities do re-numbering of street addresses, which seems likely in this case, as the numbering in the 1957 map seems sort of random, and in Streetview we can see that it is linear (which is how most street numbering is these days).

But the location looks exactly right. To prove it, I superimposed the satellite image on top of the 1957 map and got a perfect match:

1957 insurance map and present day satellite view mashup. (Click here to see it bigger.)

I think the visual matching trumps the number mis-match. So there you have it. We can pinpoint to within a few feet where Vivian Maier stood when she took that photograph of the Terreau & Racine warehouse: in front of what is now 31 Côte de la Canoterie.

The next challenge is to figure out when she took those photos.

Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.