Photos: Mehan Jayasuriya
Outside of the music, Montréal is a city that begs to be explored, and on Saturday afternoon I found myself atop of Mount Royal alongside a handful of delegates as part of a city tour organized by the festival. The two hour trip took us to the hip Mile End neighborhood and past several places and restaurants where Leonard Cohen apparently hung out, including a park in the Portuguese part of town where he wrote a lot of his lyrics. Narrated by M for Montréal’s booking agent, Mikey Bernard—who proved to be sarcastic and sardonic, yet highly knowledgeable, guide—the tour took in two stops. The second was to frequent some of the city’s hippest coffee shops, but the first involved a brief walk to the top of Mount Royal, which, despite a slight incline, is more of a hill. (The city’s ordinance that no building be taller than it makes Mount Royal seem slightly bigger than it actually is.) After wandering the grounds—designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (he helped carve out Central Park)—we found ourselves with a panoramic view of the city stretching out below us. Looking at it from above, Montréal doesn’t seem that different from many American cities, but its attitude is. Unlike America and the capitalistic, winner takes all, “someone must rise to the top” philosophy, Montréal, possibly because of it European feel and mindset, seems just as interested in content as conclusion.
“How do I get my song licensed?”
It’s perhaps slightly ironic then, given the prior point, that this is the first question asked at M for Montréal. But with CD sales still slowing, it is a pertinent query, and one that is answered at the first of the festival’s two panels. I’ve never written a song, nor managed a band that has done so, so this panel perhaps isn’t catering to me. Still, I stick around, load up on free cookies and coffee, and sit back. The advice given by the panelists, which includes music supervisors for movies, advertisements, and video games, ranges from the rote and rudimentary (write good songs, clearly label your CDs) to the well rounded (register your songs at Gracenote, sending songs via large files is bad). At first this panel left a foul taste in my mouth, especially the notion that bands today might negate their artistic integrity and write songs specifically for advertising purposes. But really, is this sort of sale any different from Robert Johnson offering up his soul to the devil for his own musical, and in essence, monetary, gain? Heck, even the Rolling Stones sold their soul for some snap, crackle, and pop back in the ‘60s.
The second panel concerned bands looking to tour France and how that country’s governmental cuts will affect foreign groups seeking to play shows there. For me, a more serious problem immediately arises—it’s all in French. I skip out and explore the city instead.
“I regret nothing…”
It’s scrawled in chalk on a wall outside the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Pavillon de Musique, a newish building attached to an old one like an artificial limb; not completely out of place but noticeable enough for it to be deemed slightly jarring. It’s a rock and roll thing: regrets, and the lack of them. “Je ne regrette rien,” sang the little sparrow, Edith Piaf, the graffiti echoing her sentiments. “I don’t regret a thing,” sings former Montréal resident King Khan on the closing track of his recent album. Sure, Frank Sinatra might have had a few, but at least he still did it his way. Me? Not even the poutine (a traditional Montréal dish consisting of fries and meat gravy topped off with cheese curds) that I forced into my vegetarian belly, could bring me to my knees. Neither could the cold, or the excessive amounts of local beer, or the late nights. Montréal’s that kind of town. It’s the kind of place where getting down on your knees has several connotations. Pilgrims visiting the city’s Basilique Notre-Dame and its giant dome climb the 99 cold, concrete steps to its entrance on their bony patellas. Patrons visiting the city’s seedier side, well, perhaps we shouldn’t go there.
Two blocks away from the Pavillon de Musique, a little further down rue Saint-Denis, at the corner of Rene-Levesque, stands a line of 40 young girls, shaking in their winter clothing and amateurish make-up. In front of them is The Medley, a cavernous looking venue that, according to the lettering on the awning, is playing host to emo-popsters The Academy Is…. It’s 4pm, bitterly cold, and the doors don’t open for another few hours. Regrets? I don’t think so. Religious devotion? Definitely.
This, in a convoluted way, brings me back to Dan Graham’s video installation. Rock and roll, in that respect, is religion—a daily ritual; undiluted devotion. It doesn’t work the other way round—I’ve heard contemporary Christian music and it may contain guitars, but it’s not rock and roll. And the reason is that Christians believe in regret and repentance and redemption. Rock and roll, or any music that claims to move us in ways that other artistic forms can’t, in some fashion, is always morally devoid—even if it’s just in the eyes of our elders. (Let’s not forget that jazz was once viewed with suspicion but is now seen as a sophisticated musical genre with Montréal’s famous Jazz Fest bringing over two million visitors to the city on an annual basis.) This doesn’t mean that artists should be morally devoid, but it means they should go out on a limb and not only push the envelope, but shove and stuff it, light it on fire and put it out with their own piss. Montréal seems to foster this message through its music: A slightly contradictory combination of “no regret” coupled with a fierce sense of religious-like musical devotion. Even if the genre they are dabbling in isn’t fashionable or hip, each band I see plays with a genuine sense of belief in what they are doing.