Thursday, October 25, 2018

Radio Daze: Fond Memories of an Aggravating Angel

Photo by John Marsonet.

“To deal with the history of cultures means to abandon oneself to potential chaos and yet to retain a deep belief in the basic ordination and meaning of things. It is a very serious task. One requiring a great lightness of spirit.” Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi

I definitely miss being on a weekly radio program. From about 1988 until the end of the 20th century, I was the visual art critic for CJRT-FM in Toronto, a wonderful community-based station with an eclectic mix of programming and hosts covering every aspect of popular culture, from classical music, folk and jazz, to BBC-imported Goon Shows and compelling ideas-based documentaries. The program on which I appeared every Wednesday to review an exhibition, interview an artist, curator or museum official, discuss an architectural design site and occasionally assess art books of mainstream interest, was appropriately called On the Arts, and that’s exactly what it was, with a day each week exclusively devoted to music, films, theatre, art, design, books and art politics.  It just now seems so perfectly 20th-century, in fact, that kind of diversity of interests, since independent public radio (and television for that matter) has become such a rare thing to behold or behear. (Critics At Large has been sharing excerpts of the program as podcasts.)

One of the other joys of my radio days was the fact that it was through this medium that I was able to cross paths with a delightful friend of over thirty years, the late, great Kevin Courrier, who passed away (or went to spirit, as he would have called it) in mid-October of this year. The path to Kevin, however, first led me to encounter the irascible, sardonic, sarcastic, infuriating and brilliant Tom Fulton, Kevin’s co-host at CJRT-FM and his mentor of many years: the man who Kevin said helped him “find his voice.” Kevin in turn helped me find my own voice, guiding me through the odd vagaries and quirks of the radio broadcast medium of expression.

Fulton was already infamous at CKFH 1430 Top 40 (in 1965) before ever starting his long tenure at the somewhat more genteel CJRT-FM, where his sultry and snarky baritone became a legendary element of the station'sr success, until the Mike Harris conservatives (the original Doug Ford model) defunded the public station after declaring it one of the so-called “elites.” (It, and Fulton, are both sorely missed on the famished airwaves of today.) 

In addition to co-hosting and producing the program, Kevin's lucid and fair-minded film reviews offered a veritable banquet of insights into the art of cinema. Few reviewers were ever so cogent or concise in the way they explored the ins and outs of what made for great filmmaking. Though we often disagreed about what made a great movie, there was no one more enjoyable to argue with than Kevin.

My own route to Kevin and Tom, however, was circuitous. In mid-1988, I was the Director of Communications for the Ontario Crafts Council, a non-profit arts/design organization representing a few thousand makers in the province, and handling their public relations, promotion, advertising and marketing. This was while being a writer and having also experienced a gruesome stint working in the commercial advertising agency world, in a company not unlike that depicted in Mad Men. I was in fact, a real-life Don Draper, but in the '80s incarnation, so things were even more crass and less innocent than those shifty circumstances shown so well in the series. It was that stint that led me to the position with the Council, and oddly enough, it was being at the Council that led me to both Tom Fulton and Kevin Courrier.

The co-hosts of On the Arts: Tom Fulton and Kevin Courrier.

Like most non-profit culture groups, the Council operated with the assistance of contributors from various professions who played a role on the various committees advising us on our mandate. On my public relations and media committee was the white-bearded and sage-like Fulton, providing a wide range of guidance on how to penetrate and influence the media, and thus connect with the public whose support we wanted to engage. And one evening after one of our usual instructive committee meetings, he took me aside and asked for some advice relating to the radio station where he hosted On the Arts. Their visual art critic had accepted a position at the Ontario Arts Council in Ottawa, a public-funding cousin of the Council where I worked, and Tom wanted to know if I had any suggestions as to who might replace this critic as an on-air commentator about art and design.

After a couple of days of deliberation, I contacted him and said I had just the person for the task . . . and audaciously declared: "Me." He brought me into the station, did an audition with a review script, and much to my surprise it turned out that I had some sort of natural aptitude for it and was pretty good. Not nearly as good as I would be, however, after a few months of tutelage and direction at the hands of Tom’s co-host, film critic and producer, a certain Kevin Courrier. Ten years later, Kevin had moved on to the CBC and to the first of several fine books he would pen, on Law and Order (co-authored with his friend, a fellow fan of the program, Susan Green), and I was there at CJRT with Tom, with whom I had developed a great, if somewhat cranky, working relationship.

But that relationship with the program’s host, for whom I delivered a rhapsodic report on an artist or exhibition every Wednesday morning, was completely the result of my interactions with his co-host Kevin. We shared much in common, despite the differences in our taste in films (which was more than compensated for by our almost identical tastes in experimental music, poetry and novels) and we subsequently had an ongoing conversation about varied cultural ideas and art movements which only came to an end recently as a consequence of his anticipated departure from this dimension.

Just the other day I started to write a personal message on Facebook to him making light of the current Fleetwood Mac madness with the fired Lindsay Buckingham. Until I stopped in my tracks and remarked sadly to my screen, "Oh wait, he’s never going to get this sarcastic comment." (It was a great one, too.) Then again, I pondered, maybe he would somehow magically receive it, so I stubbornly sent it anyway. Like most of his friends, (and he had thousands, unlike me, who have about four and half) I was terribly affronted by the fact that he could be taken away so abruptly (in slow motion) and thus deny me the perpetual pleasure of his prodigious memory and quirky insights. In fact, I called him an aggravating angel, and I meant it in the best possible way.

Somewhere along the way, I think it was still in the 20th century, and in one of my fondest memories of our adventures together, we sneaked into the CJRT-FM station studio after hours, and with the help of another talented writer and broadcast engineer, John Corcelli, created the pilot for a new radio program that captured the essence of what our friendship was all about In some future utopia, Musical Chairs was to be an hour-long weekly show co-hosted by the two of us and offering a dizzyingly diverse range of musics focused each time on a different theme.

The proposed show on the city alone, and urban life in general, for instance, opened with Aaron Copland’s "Quiet City" concerto, followed by Stevie Wonder’s "Living in the City," Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer in the City," Charles Ives’s scary symphony "Central Park in the Dark," and Ornette Coleman’s abstract jazz suite "Skies Over America," among many others. In between, Kevin and I would converse about our selections and make the listeners aware of unconscious connections between previously disparate and competing musical styles that shared subterranean human content.

KC’s 2002 masterwork on the genius of Zappa and his sterling study of Randy Newman’s wonky Americana in 2005.

Needless to say, neither CJRT nor CBC nor any of the NPR stations we submitted it to in America could quite figure out what the show was “about.” even though it seemed utterly obvious to us (since it mirrored one of our average conversations perfectly). So we ended up being the only listeners to that program, which in a way also ended up being even more appropriate perhaps, since any visit back and forth to our respective domiciles would inevitably result in yet another “episode” of the show (in real time) which by that point had ended up basically being the soundtrack to our daily lives as friends and fellow music lovers.

By the first decade of the 21st century, a time not nearly as culturally promising as the 20th, both of us had begun publishing books on musical subjects, the research for which would also involve lengthy telephone conversations. In these rambling and supremely eclectic chats we would “interview” each other, so to speak, as a means of unearthing more and more layers to what each of us happened to be focused on in our writing. I wrote about the madness known as Fleetwood Mac and the sorrows of Amy Winehouse, while Kevin explored the exotic Yankee satire of both Frank Zappa and Randy Newman.

Kevin was always interested in the outer edges of creativity, as both his Zappa and Captain Beefheart books clearly indicate, and he had a special ability to make even the most arcane or experimental material easily accessible to the average person. His Zappa book Dangerous Kitchen is still one of the leading chronicles of an exemplary American artist who for close to thirty years, between 1966 until his untimely death from prostate cancer in 1993, was one of the most influential, innovative, and controversial musicians in contemporary and popular music (despite little radio airplay). Kevin’s book on Zappa, and his deceptively diminutive study of one single album by Beefheart, will continue to be studied for years as gold mines linking the mainstream culture to its outsider visionaries in a truly unique manner.

Beginning with his band, The Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa built a formidable career in rock and roll by combining a wide range of styles, including serious contemporary music, jazz, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and social and political parody. Yet he was often portrayed as a drug addict (even though he denounced drug use) and a fetishist (despite a normal married life). In Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Kevin exploded those myths by illuminating the facts about this outrageously gifted composer. The book could easily be used in future university courses examining the counterculture currents at work in American '60s-'90s society. His work was perfect fodder for Courrier’s ear and mind.

Courrier examined how Frank Zappa's emergence in American popular culture during the eclectic and experimental sixties was no accident. He cogently argued that Zappa’s musical career – which poked fun at middle-class conformity, the hippie sub-culture, disco, the rock industry, and the Reagan era – had its roots in the artistic rebellion against Romanticism in the nineteenth century. The book also astutely drew links to the musical and cultural antecedents of Frank Zappa’s career, including Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and Zappa’s true hero, Edgard Varese, who was as much a scientific inventor of electronic sounds as he was a dynamic avant-garde composer.

A recent image of Kevin, captured by Deirdre Kelly, doing what he did best: wisely reflecting on the world around him.

This brilliantly conceived Courrier book examined Frank Zappa as a composer, performer, political artist, and American original. Only Kevin could have approached such a daunting subject and pulled it off with such charm, humility and plucky aplomb. He himself was a similar original, in fact. Anyone who wants to really understand experimental music should read these last two works by Kevin. They also reveal almost as much about himself as they do about their ostensible artistic subjects. They are bright windows into his perpetually optimistic and hopeful mind and his elastically flexible imagination.

Speaking of elastic formats and flexible platforms, the independent writers website Critics At Large itself is yet another example of some of that open mindedness in action, and if you’re reading this post then you already know what that means. Our own mandate says it best: we publish periodical thought-provoking, independent criticism on all aspects of popular culture by an international group of writers. Founded in January 2010 by Kevin Courrier, Shlomo Schwartzberg and David Churchill, the site makes it possible for established and emerging critics to practice their craft outside of the constraints of commercial media.

In an era when arts journalism is increasingly driven by careerism, promotion and conformity, it appeal to voyeurs of the arts rather than mere consumers. This is an optimal flâneur-like sauntering sortie approach to sharing ideas and information, which in its own way is quintessentially postmodern in nature and intention. It’s not monolithic, with only one confirmed and accepted version of truth or reality, but rather multi-layered and complex, just as the personalities and characters of its founders were and still are. Voyeurs rather than consumers: that’s still an ideal way to describe such a charming forum of free-wheeling, free-thinking exchange.

However, even though Kevin is one of my favorite writers, it is as a loyal friend and generous supporter that I’ll remember him most and best. Apart from being one of the greatest talkers in history (and friends of his who have ever attempted to bring a Kevin conversation to some conclusion will know what I mean), he was also one of the greatest listeners. He had time to listen closely, deeply and respectfully, perhaps because he also realized some salient truth that was expressed most succinctly by the great jazz musician Artie Shaw: “Time is all we’ve got.”

Well, dear Kevin’s time eventually ran out, and that stinks, of course, but during its ongoing stretching-out phase, through both joys and difficulties, he always spent his time in a most precious and almost spiritual manner. Even after I moved with my partner Mimi to Vancouver seven years ago, Kevin and I would chat as often as possible in our abstract, aimless, overlapping, parallel, intersecting, rambling and enriching way, by phone, or email, or through messages in Facebook. I might just send him a FB message right now, even though I know he won’t get it, supposedly. Through him, Mimi and I also met our long-time dear friend Avril Orloff, who was Kevin’s partner when we first met him in Toronto, and who now lives in Vancouver nearby us.

No matter how weird life became, Kevin Courrier always maintained a core belief in the basic meaning of things and of people. And the more serious the task facing him, the more he always approached it with a lightness of spirit that those he left behind can only try to approximate.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His most recent work is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in November 2018.

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