Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Pining Spirit: Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist

This piece is an edited and revised version of a script I wrote for the radio documentary "Dream Time: The Story of Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist" for CBC Radio's Inside the Music

Back in 1970, the passions of the Sixties counter-culture seemed spent. The Beatles, who had inspired the communal spirit of that age, had bitterly broken up. For one thing, John Lennon had just declared that the dream was over. George Harrison then wistfully told us that all things must pass. But not so in Canada. That same year, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn gently urged us to go to the country. Joni Mitchell lamented getting back to the garden in her song about the Woodstock Festival. And in Stratford, Ontario, a town known for its Shakespearean Festival, a group of musicians, actors and a café owner converged to create a folk/rock ensemble calling itself Perth County Conspiracy. Every night, in a local haunt called The Black Swan, run by proprietor Harry Finley, musicians Richard Keelan and Cedric Smith began to work their magic at midnight. With a collection of politically irreverent and mystical songs, they created a challenging theatrical experience for those curious Stratford Festival patrons looking for something a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.

Out of the inspired lunacy of those midnight shows a record album would eventually be recorded. But unlike most pop albums, Perth County Conspiracy…Does Not Exist (1970) wasn’t just a collection of songs. It was a conceptual statement about a way of life. While concept albums – from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper to The Who’s Tommy – were certainly in vogue then, the Perth County Conspiracy album was distinct even from those time bound recordings. Their record didn’t simply draw from its present times, it was also cured in the past; in the spirit of Shakespeare, in the poetry of young children, and the anarchic satire of the Firesign Theatre, as well as, the eloquent prose of Dylan Thomas. In a few short years, during the early Seventies, Perth County Conspiracy created in their music an appealing image of a communal society. Perth County Conspiracy…Does Not Exist brought forth the notion that through the arts – theatre, prose and music – there was a means to dream of a generous, more inclusive culture. But it wasn’t expressed through the hokum of flower power; no, there were portentous warnings in this music, too, a sense that, as part of a cosmic convergence, the darkness of night always shook hands with the light of day.

The story of their forming created its own serendipity. Harry Finley had just relocated his Black Swan café from Hamilton to Stratford in 1961 because of the burgeoning theatre scene. The circumstances for finding a place turned out to be just as fortuitous as the eventual forming of Perth County itself. But it was hardly a smooth transition moving to Stratford. Although the theatre Festival was in its ninth year and drawing new crowds to the town, it wasn’t yet what you would call an artist-friendly place. Before becoming an idyll for thespians, Stratford was a working class railway town. (Sometimes even local toughs beat up the actors.) Soon Cedric Smith, born in Bournemouth England, came to Kitchener, Ontario when he was nine. One night, a mutual friend from London introduced Harry to Cedric who was doing an evening of songs by The Kingston Trio and The Clancy Brothers. As Cedric developed his acting career in Stratford, he also continued his musical one in the off-season. Throughout the Sixties, he toured the United States meeting various left-wing progressives who set him up with gigs playing coffee houses in Chicago and Detroit. By the summer of 1968, after performing in Chicago during the riots at the Democratic convention, Cedric came back to Stratford. He was then introduced by Harry to another talented performer, Richard Keelan.

Keelan was born in Michigan in 1941 where his father owned a tavern. This bar had a jukebox so that whenever the records were changed, the family got to keep them. So Richard’s early musical education included swing jazz and Louis Prima. But like most kids in the Fifties, when he discovered Elvis on television, he fell in love with rock and roll. By the end of the fifties, though, Keelan fell in with the folk music scene. He was soon influenced by The Kingston Trio and especially the legendary Leadbelly with his 12-string guitar. By the time he finished Grade 12, he had formed his first band – The Swinging Shepherds – named after Moe Koffman’s hit. Rather than go to college, however, Richard Keelan broke up the band and headed to the Southern states to play coffee houses. When he came back to Detroit, it was to form The Spikedrivers, a psychedelic folk band. They made a record but their label didn’t know how to market them. So he went on to form another group equally baffling to label executives called The Misty Wizards. Then, by 1967, fate forced his hand when the summer riots broke out in the black communities.

Richard Keelan and Cedric Smith

The riots ultimately drove Keelan and his wife out of Detroit and into Canada. Finley, who’d seen The Spikedrivers perform in the States, quickly invited him to Stratford to play The Black Swan. It was there where Smith and Keelan began to trade song ideas and the seeds of the conspiracy were first planted. Cedric and Richard, though, were a contrast in style. Where Cedric had a darker theatrical singing voice, Richard complement his with a light and melodic tenor. But they were both snug performing eclectic styles of music and dramatic presentations. Their loose knit try-it-on spirit also meant that they didn’t audition musicians to be members of the band. Some, like bass player Michael Butler, and songwriter Terry Jones, could show up and join up. But there’s no way that Perth County Conspiracy could have thrived without both The Black Swan and the counter-culture that sustained it. In the early Seventies, communal societies had popped up everywhere with people wanting to get back to the land to escape the pressures and anxieties of the city. Furthermore, they set out to create an alternate culture.

The personality and the dramatic style of Perth County Conspiracy was furthered mostly by the nature of their nightly programs at The Black Swan. In 1970, six months after Perth County Conspiracy began honing their stage show, they started considering making a studio album. Their hope was to make a record that could duplicate the mixture of drama and music that they were doing on stage. Their good friend Gary McKeehan was a freelance producer at CBC who offered them an opportunity to record something for the public broadcaster’s radio transcription projects. They did the album but it was simply a collection of original songs and covers. It wasn’t until McKeehan introduced them to Columbia Records producer John Williams that the group began to conjur Perth County Conspiracy…Does Not Exist. Williams signed the group to the label offering them a standard contract with 8% royalties to be paid out. Now they had the freedom to develop in the studio the heady dramatic program they offered at The Black Swan.

Out of all the wide-ranging music on this record, there is also a dream, a pining spirit. It’s a spirit where you are invited to envision – out of all of this musical diversity – a notion that, within all this diversity, a common ground could be shared. Perth County Conspiracy…Does Not Exist provided a myth to live in. And like most myths, it’s seldom the whole truth. For instance, the album’s cover which portrayed everyone living on the same farm and sharing the land couldn’t have been further from the facts. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking leaps of risk and imagination. But all dreams have endings and the one the group chose to conclude the record was a somber song called “Crucifixation Cartoon,” a track that woke you up from the dream of the record; a record where musicians, actors and poets had entertained you with art and artifice. But “Crucifixation Cartoon” was the real deal. It talked to you about the price of freedom.

When Perth County Conspiracy…Does Not Exist was released, Columbia Records booked Massey Hall for the launch. It was a full house. It was also the first time Richard Keelan got to play this fabled venue. But the relations between Perth County and Columbia Records did not continue to be a beautiful experience. Although their album sold well enough to do a second pressing, it did not help pay off the advances made to the group, so they saw no money. In fact, Columbia claimed they owed them cash. The group continued playing steady gigs of a show they called The Midnight Hour (performed at midnight of course) at Toronto Workshop Productions, the left-wing theatre company where Cedric had been playing Che Guevara. They’d also met the Canadian Marxist poet Milton Acorn and began scoring music to some of his poems. Despite financial loss, Columbia decided to follow up Perth County Conspiracy…Does Not Exist with a double-live album recorded at the Bathurst Street United Church. But the concert album, poorly recorded and mixed, had little of the magic heard on their previous studio one.

After the release of their live album, Perth County Conspiracy parted ways with Columbia Records. But the group continued expanding adding singer/songwriter Bob Burchill, bass players Larry Brown and David Woodhead, plus pianist and violinist Paul Gellman. This larger ensemble then started its own independent recording label called Rumour Records and, like a conspiracy, turned up in a variety of congregations. Despite the vagueness of these ensembles, they did travel to East Germany in 1975 to do an album at the invitation of the East German government. But soon after, the band went their separate ways. When they got back to Canada things splintered. Richard Keelan formed the Spiral Band in 1978 and later moved to Hamilton. Cedric Smith continued his acting career and becoming a recognizable fixture on TV shows like Road to Avonlea.

Since the release of this album, it has more than lived up to its title. Not only did the record go out of print in the late Seventies, it has never even been issued on CD. Indeed the conspiracy still does not exist. But like a true conspiracy, it has gone underground and its spirit can be heard in some contemporary groups like Fleet Foxes or Midlake. But the record has curried favour in Europe especially among fans of psychedelic folk –proving that the utopian promise that Perth County Conspiracy’s music held out has stood the test of time even if the group itself couldn't.

Kevin Courrier is currently doing a lecture series at the Toronto JCC Miles Nadal on The Beatles on Monday evenings at 7pm. Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. I would definitely put some of these songs into a time capsule pod or self storage pod of some sort to tell the future generation about how some of these songs impacted the current generation