The next montage, in my mind, explodes with the rackety audacity that starts up a Clash song. It’s the moment when some crumb-bum kid in a basement finally solves the opening chords of “Clash City Rockers” and plays them over and over, fast and fuzzy, astonished to generate in her basement the same charge of energy she has so far experienced only from the song itself. As those strummed chords propel us forward, heedless of wrong notes or screeches of feedback, I will hurry over times, turning the happenings of many months into a few paragraphs. There we are, looting the Mair family library for its overflow volumes, driving them downtown, and hawking them at the used bookstores on Hollis and Barrington Streets, with the proceeds purchasing a scrappy old Telecaster at Herb’s Music on Gottingen. There we are again, in a cross-dissolving split-screen, phoning to arrange weekend rehearsals, picking out chord progressions from vinyl records, learning bass lines, gamely loading our second-hand gear into car trunks on snowy streets, setting up at someone’s house party, bouncing off the drum kit, knocking a floor lamp into a living-room wall, sweaty with encores.
A case could be made that Karin’s mix tape, which was copied and re-copied and passed from hand to hand like a sacred relic, was the ur-artifact of the Halifax punk scene—that some rough magic transmigrated from inside those songs to inside ourselves. And, in fact, in certain drunken moods I have attributed the city’s entire alternative-rock renaissance to that single cassette tape. But the truth was that kids everywhere in Halifax-Dartmouth were swapping tapes, forming bands, and putting on shows. Rising in the city generally was a reaction against the soft schmaltz of Boston and Kansas and Chicago. Across the sea, London was calling—and we lived for their gods and voices. Punk galoots soon sprang down our sidewalks in safety pins and chopped green hair; poppets lolled in fishnet stockings, spiked bracelets, black eyeliner; skinhead yobs spouted Crass and Kafka.
Who would you have met—and how would they have looked—if you were walking these weeks on Grafton Street? There were two brothers, Torben and Digby Fludd, who were English punks, transplanted from Bethnal Green, and famed in Halifax as the real deal. The brothers Fludd were in perpetual sibling skirmish—they slam-danced with their hands in their pockets and formed a thrash-punk band called Scum. They were slight and feisty, obstinate about dark vinegar on their fish and chips, and spoke in working-bloke slang:
“The Silver Hornets, they’re bloody brill, yeah? ”
“There you go again, banging on about the Hornets. Basically playin’ wif your generals is what fat is, you fucking plonker.”
“No, mate, they’re pure dead brilliant so whyn’t you fugoff? ”
There was Beamish Mingo, a hulking guy I had known in Boy Scouts, balding at seventeen, who made himself over into a skinhead, cleanly attired in a singlet, suspenders, black jeans, and gleaming Doc Martens. He performed as Eins Zwei Drei! and would later move to Winnipeg to follow a career in art history. There were New Wavers—Jimmy Lavender Boots, Gina Sleath, Vera and Angela Silver, Helen Hopday—and a slew of hardcore punkers like Mosey and Posey and a kid with a mohawk who called himself Gash Ragged.
We played these first years at Woden’s Nog, one of the few places downtown that booked non-union music. It was a second-floor coffee shop, a bohemian embassy of sorts, managed by Astrid Whynot, an ex-girlfriend of the teacher Theo Jones. She was a noted balladeer who taught part-time at the Halifax Folklore Centre. In those early years, Woden’s Nog fit into an expanding calculus within the city. I remember the Rebecca Cohn showing Amarcord in their Sunday-night film series. Down the street, on the third floor of the Student Union Building, was the Dalhousie fantasy role-playing society, home to stanky war gamers happy to explain the difference between a trance state and astral projection. At Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema you might be disturbed by Eraserhead or Kagemusha. Deep downtown was the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where Yankee profs practised conceptual frottage and the student body hosted droning noise-rock bands from Toronto. And soon to open was Backstreet Amusements, a hole-in-the-wall arcade of video games, dope, alterna-misfits, and all-purpose punk mojo. The Khyber building, the Seahorse Tavern, Red Herring Cooperative Books, the college radio station CKDU—all of these contributed to a countercultural constellation musically presided over by the bands from those years: the Flipperbabies, the Clap, the Swankers, Scum, Headless Inchball Blue, 12XU, Straight New Blister, Murder and the Cats, and, of course, the Silver Hornets, who were fronted by singer-songwriter Jeremy Horvath. With Liz, his art-college girlfriend, Jeremy moved in beauty like the night, sharply solemn with his Fred Perry shirts, punk-pop riffs, a Rickenbacker Capri.
My coalescing group of best friends—we called ourselves the Common Room—was conscious of these older kids. We were learning the sets of the city, but no one really knew us or who we were. We were at once within and without the scene. In the space of a winter we came together, a set unto ourselves. Recruited into our ranks were Babba Zuber, because she had a van, and Tom Waller, because of his electro-technical meticulousness.
We thought we could do anything. We thrilled ourselves with our hope. The Common Room was a place without walls, where people could come and go as they liked. We had something more in common: we didn’t care if we were misunderstood. As adolescents, each of us was contending with a jumble of conflicting personal conceptions, but the Common Room liberated us from these conflicts—or at least freed us from having to worry about conflicts—because within it we were simply contagiously happy to learn what one another were thinking.
And as interests became apparent, our jumbles were given direction. We became sarcastic and assured, working up vocabularies and amusements all our own. The Common Room became a place in our collective heads. We were all learning how to get there. We understood certain kinds of experiences in the same way, and we were willing to consider other kinds of experiences in new ways—even ways that hadn’t yet finished developing. We filtered details out of the world—details that might later mix into forms of meaning beyond the assumptions of our classmates or parents or teachers. It was all a newness—I recall how fresh everything seemed, how the world seemed to assemble itself for our exploration—and this fragile sense of possibility and that we were all in it together. Drawing from the implicit identities of movies and songs and books we liked, we began constructing highly personal alternate mythologies. Essentially, we sought forms and structures by which we might understand the world and articulate ourselves, and one of these forms and structures, I was sensing, was this very group of friends itself.
Let me say why the Common Room meant so much to me. My early years had been shaky. By the time I was in kindergarten I was aware my family had fault lines that would result in my mother later splitting up with my father. I was able to deal with this because I could jump higher and run faster than a lot of kids. Then I could no longer jump and run and I was put into casts and crutches for three years. Mobile again at eight, I would lose my uncle—my closest ally in the house—at ten, and my parents would break up again. My family divided into two households: Dad-Carolyn-Bonnie-and-Me versus Mom-Faith-and-Katie. I would be grateful for the kinetics of tennis, but would come to realize, like Karin before me, that many of my competitors had little life outside tennis, and that some—even the high achievers—were considered gorky and socially useless. During this time, middle adolescence, I was coping by doing massive amounts of drugs and disconnecting from my family, from school, from all regularly scheduled programming. Why? My notions of myself, and of my own possibilities, had always been very different from those that my family, my friends, and most of Halifax had for me. This identity dissonance disappeared, of course, as it did for most teenagers, when doped or drunk or both, but I was conscious that continuing with such procedures invited predicaments.
I really do think that it was only through my friendships in the Common Room that I was successfully reintroduced into mixed society. These fabulists seemed like the only people who might possibly understand me. My friends were giving me a new identity—or they were giving me a new way, in fact multiple ways, to think of my identity, and my inside hunch was that these people would help me better become myself. Cyrus once mused in a stray remark on the irony that, no matter how we might carry the world around in our heads, the world would never carry us around in its head. But I knew my colleagues and comrades in the Common Room would in their thoughts carry me, like Saint Christopher carrying travellers across a river. My God—to have a circle of friends within which my fledgling thoughts might find expression, discover their balance, and take wing was a tremendous deliverance for me. So Cyrus and Karin, Gail and Brigid, Babba and Tom—these were highly cherishable items in my world. I gave my heart to them because they gave the possibilities of my life back to me.
Cyrus was the voice that said we could do it. All it required was our deciding to do it. It didn’t matter that it went well; what mattered was that it went at all. We turned to music to see what we could make of it, without really knowing what that would be. The second-floor ballroom in the old Mair house became our head office, our home base and rehearsal space. There we played till our softened fingers blistered from our Fender strings. Afternoons disappeared into evenings, into longer and longer rehearsals, for no one left till a song was written.
Like Karin, like me, like all of us, Cyrus Mair had diverse versions. He had different modes and humours, the pitch and rhythm and weirdness of which sometimes eluded me—manic and jokey one day, saddened and solitary the next, withdrawn into depression another—but the guy, as in everything, was committed. He had some kind of vision, you felt that, and he kept in motion a number of obsessions. Karin was addicted to his hijinks—and quizzically fascinated by Cyrus Mair. She called him Charlie Flippit and Cyprus Mail and made up nonsense rhymes about him: “Cyrus Mair is who knows where, and if you dare to breathe the air, don’t be scared to breathe it bare, once upon a Cyrus Mair.” To these she added little familiar pokes and prods at his person, and Cyrus, who up to this point in his public life generally behaved as if he were trapped in a stalled elevator with a stranger, who had always around him a nervous force field safeguarding his personal space, behaved as if this touchy-feely contact had always belonged to his day-to-day. He became one of those who swooned privately at each sight of Karin Friday—this pure exemplar of girl. Something about Karin opened up possibilities of engagement in him, in me, in all of us. It was a feeling of special destiny she gave us, or maybe we conferred such sovereignty to her so that she might give it back to us. Over the next few years, more than a few problematics would emerge regarding this girl Friday, but in these first months her flair and talents seemed always at the perfect centre of things. For Cyrus, Karin was the most thrilling girl of the open era, maybe a phenomenon beyond the range of his experience. He spoke of her as a genius of life and from this judgment I don’t think he would ever waver. While I thought her intuitive sense of people genuine, and was sometimes amazed by how swiftly and wordlessly she understood a moment, I did not think it genius. If at all she had a gift, it was a knack for making a man feel most alive in her company. Whether it was tennis or penny-a-point hearts, I was never sure what kind of game Karin Friday was playing. But for Cyrus Mair, she was all the game in the world and in these months I think I knew what he wanted to be: he wanted to be Karin Friday.
Scene. A Sunday afternoon in December, second floor of the Mair house. To relieve the feeling of darkened confinement, the ballroom windows have been stripped of their garbage-bag coverings, and the room glows with snow-reflected sunlight, ceiling cobwebs twinned with their own shadows. The original, shrouded furniture has been cleared to the corners. On the decrepit Persian carpet is a caravanserai of musical equipment: a Fender bass, a miscellaneous drum kit bandaged together with silver duct tape, three Peavey amps, three mike stands with damaged-but-working Sennheiser microphones, a Sony boom box, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a litter of cassette tapes, a children’s turntable with built-in speakers. The general effect is rather like a derelict historical house hosting the remains of a pawn shop’s going-out-of-business sale.
Cyrus sits with his Telecaster guitar. Near his shoes on the floor is a speckled oak leaf, a flattened kernel of movie-theatre popcorn, filaments of blond hair, a plastic tortoise-shell Gibson plectrum, an unopened pack of chandelier light bulbs, a busted EHX Big Muff pedal, a sprouting tulip bulb, an X-acto knife, a half-empty pint bottle of Mount Gay rum, pigeon crap trodden into the flattened oriental pile. He is silent, listening. Karin sits at an elderly grand piano, also listening as I drop the needle again on Love Bites by the Buzzcocks, the three of us trying to work out the guitar solo to “Nostalgia.” Karin manages the first dozen notes on the piano keys, then slumps in frustration at the song’s busy cadenza. We are stubborn about performing nothing but originals at our first real show, but cover songs for later shows and for encores, we’ve agreed, are permissible. If, that is, we can teach ourselves the chords and notes, and a few solos—“Baby Baby,” “Promises Promises,” “Nostalgia”—are proving resistant to our ambitions. “What solo do you want to do instead? ” asks Cyrus, after an hour of attempts, and I know Karin will say what she always says, and what she does say: “ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated.’ Is there another solo? ”
Although she has natural talent as a vocalist and sings high harmony on three of our songs, Karin is shaky on guitar and the Ramones solo just mentioned is the only solo she knows how to play. It is very probably, even if you have never picked up a guitar, the only solo you know how to play, because the solo for “I Wanna Be Sedated” is pretty much just one single open string jangled wildly as the rhythm section slams through the changes. That song closes out the first side of Karin’s mix tape, a copy of which I have in the deck of my family’s car outside, and I volunteer to retrieve it for the key reference. Out on Tower Road it has begun to snow, a light dusting that thickens into flurries. From the second-floor windows I begin to hear the ringing one-note solo of “I Wanna Be Sedated,” as played by Karin and Cyrus, and looking up at the darkened house through the snowflakes softly falling, within the single-lighted room, I can see them madly pogoing up and down, their figures jolting in and out of frame, the moment gorgeous and surreal, like an advent calendar window opened to reveal a shining scene, a signature postcard moment from the Life and Ephemera of the Common Room in December of our first year together.
The Common Room Presents Four Bands for Five Bucks. This is the announcement we poster all over the city—that we tape in elevators on the Dalhousie campus, tack on the bulletin boards of six high schools, staple into the plywood walls around construction sites everywhere. It is a first concert, a first not-in-a-basement-but-a-real-club gig, and we are sort of terrified, sort of whatever-let’s-do-it. The bands this night are Scum, the Swankers, the Submissives, and us, the Changelings: Cyrus, Karin, Gail, and me.
Held on a frozen night two days after Valentine’s, the show begins with only scattered people in the audience. I remember Torben and Digby in Scum, the sloppy art-punk openers, fighting over their single microphone, their foreheads bumping, the brothers gobbing on each other, petty gods of misrule, during their encore the room finally filling up with the all-ages crowd, kids pre-drunk, front-loaded and tipsy, smashed and confused by the Fludd brothers who, for their finale, hacksaw a feedbacking Stratocaster in two. More appreciated are the Swankers and their raw covers of “Substitute,” “Strange Town,” and “Something Else.” Next are the Submissives, a ghostly trio of damaged sisters from Kline Street, gothy and glossolalic, their three-part harmonies sweetly setting up the crash of our arrival.
We come on last, the monitors already broken and torn from the earlier bands, stage lights blinding, the place low-dangled with cables and cords, the room now chockablock with folks—Gina Sleath, Bunker Burr and his little brother Boyden, Ricken Philips, my sisters Faith and Katie and their best friend Autumn Dawn, and at the back Jeremy Horvath in a smart suit, slinking, intent. We don’t care, we’ve shorn our hair, all of us in black, I in zippers and chains, Karin in a catsuit with silver spiked hair, green eyes kohl-rimmed—a tomboy punkette. Gail on the drums is remote and intense, her silence belied by a constant jagged energy, keeping time with wicked impulse, as if this is what she has been seeking all along. Cyrus himself a demented choirboy, nothing short of spastic, force field disappeared, surprising everyone with what is released in him, slam-dancing on and off the stage as if the concussiveness of each shoulder smash will bust him out of some cocoon, his eyes wildly gleeful, vicious and vulnerable. I’m on vocals for the first of our songs and I swear furiously, uttering every foul word in my young mind, feeling soundly right in my temper and tantrums, in this profane invention, for there isn’t anyone there to kick me off the stage or out of the match. We are the match. Our songs zip by faster than we’d imagined. No sooner am I jumpy about the bass runs in “Sudafed” than I am charging into and out of them and we rush into what is next on the set list, “Head Tripper,” “Clanger,” “Dead End Ends,” “Ace Face,” “Head Case,” “Broken Steven,” “Fandroid,” and then we are gasping, damp, looking around for an encore, knowing we’ve arrived at our final song, “Changeling Girl.” The song in its first iteration is built around a descending progression from E to E flat to C-sharp minor and back to E flat, all played as barre chords sweat-sliding down the fretboard. Cyrus’s notion is to make two songs into one, fitting this first progression inside the chorus of “Dead End Ends,” which, once transposed in key, proceeds from E to E flat to C-sharp minor to B major. The song starts fast, establishes its hook, then the chorus slows and falls apart, depriving the audience of its bedlam energy, as if the song has faltered to a random ending. Then with stray notes still sustaining, Gail kicks the drum and I downstroke the bass, the two of us locking into a groove, and the vocals resume, Cyrus screaming into a microphone and playing the transposed chords of the previous song, the B string now open as a dominant drone, the sections combining so Karin can sing the chorus of “Dead End Ends,” floating her vocals over “Changeling Girl,” all the while our tempo rising, Karin ripping into the only guitar solo she knows, tremolo picking the open E string, the combined effect jangling and eerie and perfect to me; it is an idea of perfection at the same time as it is a perfection, a pandemonium, the crowd pogoing; I can feel the wooden floor sagging and springing, flimmer and thud, kids bouncing into the air, the windows shaking with feedback and distortion, what is happening in the room a kind of metamorphosis; it is a glorious moment, berserk and unbounded, one of the great events of my young life, and there is Karin in centre-stage communion with the crowd, her guitar still ringing, her voice leading the audience in singalong, and finally it’s done and I am wandering off the stage, wet with sweat, the windows streaming with condensation and Karin bumps through the ecstatic noise and crowd to stare at me, glaring at me almost, as if I might be responsible for the crowd, the music, everything. “McKee!” she screams into my temple. “Who did this? ” “We did? ” “We did, though,” says Karin, hugging me close, our chests pressed together, her arms tight around me and between her shoulder blades I can feel her heart beating, Karin kissing not my face but my neck a little below my ear. “We did this!” And as I look to Karin, her smile to see, lashes wet pointed, I feel we really have done it, we’ve conjured a concert out of nothing, produced a night, and I realize, all the notes and chords from this sequence fading, that Karin Friday is magic and everyone in that room is in love with her.
(From a series about the Mair and McKee families in late twentieth-century Halifax.)
This appeared in the April 2015 issue.