Friday, November 23, 2018

Remembering Kevin Courrier: A Friendship Cemented Through Music

Kevin Courrier passed away on October 12. He would have turned 64 years old today.

I was already very interested in movies when I became friends with Kevin Courrier, the late co-founder of Critics At Large, in the late eighties/early nineties, not long after I graduated from Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto and began reviewing films professionally on a freelance basis. We bonded over our affinity for American filmmakers Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, who were disdained by many of our colleagues, and shared a love of other directors, such as Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy) and Louis Malle (Lacombe, Lucien, Vanya on 42nd Street). But I think I learnt more about music from Kevin than from anyone else. As much as Kevin knew cinema, and he certainly did, I’d say he knew music even better.

I wish I’d known Kevin earlier since he turned me on to the length and breadth of the brilliant musician Frank Zappa, too late, however, to see him live as had passed away by then. But we did get to see Dweezil Zappa pay tribute to his dad, three times in concert, and also shared a memorable evening listening to Ike Willis, one of Zappa’s sidemen, play Zappa’s music. They remain some of my best concert experiences ever. Growing up in Montreal, I was only introduced to Frank’s humorous tunes ("Dinah-Moe Humm," "Valley Girl") on that city’s supposedly stellar rock station CHOM-FM. Yet, of course, there was much more to Frank Zappa than just those funny ditties – CHOM could at least have had "Trouble Every Day," Zappa’s prescient '60s protest song, on its playlist, as a friend from Montreal pointed out – but until I met Kevin, I had no idea about Zappa’s wide range of musical interests and talents. (This was pre-internet, after all.) That began a decades-long facet of our friendship as Kevin forced me to overcome prejudices (I had until then refused to listen to Frank Sinatra solely because of his thuggish, boorish reputation) or re-evaluate my negative feelings about certain performers (for some reason, I didn’t get Elvis Presley at all). He also helped expand my musical tastes beyond the rock/pop universe that were all I had access to on vinyl. (In my defense I didn’t have any Montreal friends as curious about other types of music as Kevin turned out to be.) I can’t recall all the myriad acts he educated me on or made me appreciate more than I had but they did include Miles Davis – he willed me the massive 52 CD (and one DVD) Miles Davis: The Complete Columbia Album Collection – Roxy Music, The Byrds, Townes Van Zandt, The Monkees, Randy Newman (the subject of his book Randy Newman’s American Dreams) and the psychedelic American rock band Spirit, which he played for me in his palliative care hospital room not long before he passed away. In our final conversation, he was very pleased to hear that I had been inspired by him to purchase the Spirit compilation Time Circle, 1968–1972, information I was thrilled to be able to impart to him.

That only scratches the surface of my musical education at Kevin's instigation, a prompt which also led me to explore world music on my own, and delve further into the jazz catalogue, now that I knew there were other types of music out there. He also advised me as to which re-mastered CDs were worth purchasing and which ones I didn’t need as the originals were sonically good enough in his estimation. (Kevin was certainly looking forward to the re-mastered Beatles White Album, which he didn’t live to hear, alas.) I didn’t necessarily share all his enthusiasms – I like gospel well enough but not as much as he did and I can’t say doo-wop, which he adored, is my cup of tea. Nor did I feel compelled to purchase all the minutiae contained on some of the collections out there. I bought the 3-CD White Album compilation; Kevin would undoubtedly have gone for the whole 6-disc package. But, like his musical idol Frank Zappa --and Kevin wrote a fine book about him (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa) -- Kevin’s musical palette was incredibly broad and generous, also encompassing classical artists like Webern and Stravinsky, rockers like Tom Petty and Elvis Costello, jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane, soul and R&B talents like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, and so many others across the musical spectrum. No wonder he loved film critic Pauline Kael so much; she, too, shared an appreciation for the joys of both high and low culture.

In a world where people either buy CDs or vinyl but rarely both, Kevin held on to his vinyl and bought some new ones, but he also listened religiously to CDs, which intrigued the nurses no end  since they seemingly did not know anyone who played those little silver discs. In the case of The Beatles, his very favourite band – and mine, too – (and the subject of a provocative book of Kevin’s entitled Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of the Beatles' Utopian Dream), he purchased both the mono and stereo Beatles CD collections, the Beatles American CD album collection, which he grew up with and which differed significantly from the British ones, and then, if that wasn’t enough, he also schlepped home the very heavy vinyl mono Beatles collection, too. He was definitely a completest when it came to his faves.

Kevin once told me an anecdote about writer Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) defending the use of ‘cheap’ music in his film scripts and teleplays by positing that those songs were not cheap to the people affected by them. I think that’s why Kevin was never a snob about music, even when I admitted to some junky tastes (e.g., Foreigner). In fact, I’d argue that he had a deeper understanding of why music resonated with people, even music he didn’t like himself, than he would display with specific films that he could not abide. (I get that: the 60s/70s rock music I listened to as a teenager, The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Elton John etc. still touches me deepest and many of those groups and artists were on the playlist Kevin fashioned for himself in his last few months.)

Kevin’s love of music was so great – and he always had music playing at home when he wasn’t watching TV or a DVD and certainly when he was hospitalized - that you couldn’t help but get swept up in his enthusiasm and energy, especially when he was introducing someone he loved to someone who didn’t know the artist. He had an extraordinary memory for what he owned – just as he had for what he had seen – and an appreciation for when a musical compiler dug deep enough to hit tunes Kevin didn’t know. The annual Oxford American Southern Music CDs were especially impressive in that regard, as were some Ace Records compilations like Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs Present English Weather and quite a few MOJO magazine CDs, too. I was privileged to help proof his music writing, including a soon-to-be released essay on the Casino movie soundtrack, the last thing he ever wrote. But I'm not sure I'm comfortable with his acknowledgment to me in his book on Captain Beefheart’s controversial album Trout Mask Replica, wherein he revealed that, even as I aided in his writing about it, I could not stand to listen to even a minute or two of the album. Kevin, I’ll try to wade through the album again soon, I promise.

Kevin even had an uncanny knack for knowing when a particular CD might be lurking in a store bin; we spent an hour at one of Toronto’s biggest used CD shops until we unearthed the MOJO disc, The Score, that Kevin somehow sensed was to be found there. He once stumbled across, years later in Toronto, a vinyl album he had gotten rid of in Oshawa, where he grew up; there was his name written in the corner. If you knew Kevin, you realize that this type of occurrence was par for the course.

Of course, as longtime friends, Kevin and I shared many rich discursive moments, intense discussions about Trump (Kevin knew more about American politics and history than many Americans, I’d wager) and Israel, a country which fascinated him, perhaps because of his strong attraction to Jewish culture and values. (Caustic comedian Lenny Bruce was one of his earliest Jewish discoveries and he liked any number of Jewish artists: Randy California of Spirit, Sparks, Steely Dan, Simon & Garfunkel, Lou Reed (whose biography Kevin had just started reading), Bob Dylan, and Randy Newman, of course, who also reflected that particular world view.) We spent time discussing why we preferred French filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis and our abiding love of TV’s Frasier and The Americans, whose brilliant last season he so wanted to write about but became too ill to do so. (In a bit of jarring symmetry, the first season of the show, back in 2010, was to set to be reviewed by Critic At Large’s David Churchill before he became too sick, eventually passing on as well. I ended up reviewing it.) Kevin even influenced the way I taught film, inspiring me to increase the length of the film clips I showed to more effectively showcase their virtues. As a trained journalist, I had felt until then that it was important to get as many different film clips into a class as possible; Kevin’s more philosophical approach to teaching showed me a different way.

But, ultimately, many of my memories of Kevin, besides the innumerable personal ways he helped me over the years and I hope I reciprocated with him, too, in that regard, comes back to music, whether we listened to a specific tune together – I introduced him to a CHOM staple, Babe Ruth’s "The Mexican" – or he reported back on an album I put him onto (The Sneaker Pimps’ debut Becoming X) or our simply discussing the ins and outs of the oeuvre of Creedence Clearwater Revival or Tom Petty. I’ve always been consumed by music but meeting Kevin brought my adulation of it to a new level. He’s gone now, but only physically and not in spirit.  When any number of songs come on the radio, or pop up in a movie or I play one of my CDs (I now own more Zappa discs then even he did), I’ll remember him more acutely. We may have shared the professions of film critics and later teachers, but music may have been the bond that cemented our deep friendship most. Rest in peace, my friend. I won’t forget you.

Kevin would have turned 64 years old today. He is being memorialized tonight in the co-op where he lived for nearly a decade (and where I live still) and on Sunday November 25 at 4 pm at the Women’s Art Association of Canada in Toronto.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute where he is currently teaching two courses, Altering Realities: As Society Evolves, So Do the Movies and American Cinema of the 70s: The Last Golden Age.

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