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Almost Like an Epic Novel

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What’s more, the authors were able to get their interview subjects to really open up and be honest in the assessment of their careers in music, and there are sections of the book that are really page-turning and delightful as the subjects usually have a no-holds barred approach and really divulge about what it was like to either be band members, producers or label honchos. Honestly, there are sections of this book where so much dirt is slung, I had to wonder if the authors were opening themselves up to potential libel suits. Ultimately, if you live in Canada and are thinking of starting a band, this book is a damn necessity as it will open your eyes to the harsh realities of recording in and touring the country.


Have Not Been the Same has an underlying structure to it that, again, makes it seem almost like an epic novel. It starts out by positing that Canadian music was, by and large, pretty washed up in 1985 – which, although this might be true, seems to be a bit of a cliché as any book examining a music scene such as Seattle, Los Angeles or Minneapolis will make the same claim about their respective cities, at least in my experience. However, the book then goes into a lengthy examination of the infrastructure that made it possible for the smaller bands toiling in the hinterlands to be heard: the rise of campus radio, the introduction of MuchMusic (Canada’s answer to MTV, which was mandated to show at least 30 per cent Canadian content), and successful alternative programming mainstream radio shows such as the CBC’s Brave New Waves.


This is a crucial examination of the alternative rock scene in Canada during a particularly fertile period of activity and very few stones are left unturned in its execution.

The book then chronicles the rise of the underground in centers such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax, and the musical acts that populated these areas. The book’s end devotes singular chapters to what are arguably Canada’s most successful bands to come into being in the era discussed: Sloan, Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. However, despite these successes, Have Not Been the Same is a venerable graveyard of bands that are no more, whose output is likely out of print, and have been largely forgotten about. The spotlight that this book shines on these lesser-known rebels is more than welcome, as it illustrates just how varied and crucial these acts were to forging a Canadian musical identity.


And yet, for the sheer volume of bands and musicians that are covered within these 700 or so pages, the book can take a bit of a knock for being a little too focused on the output of major cities – Toronto, in particular. I realize that Toronto is the center of the musical universe in Canada, and that’s where all of the action really is. However, I wish that the authors had gone a little more regional in chronicling some of the scenes in Canada.


Notably absent from this book is any mention of Ottawa. You might argue that this is simply an inconsequential gripe of someone connected to a particular hometown, but there was a lot going on in my city of current residence during the period in this book that is completely ignored. While I don’t particularly like her music, there is no mention of the success of Ottawa’s Alanis Morissette. Yes, she was a teen idol in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and hardly qualifies as an “underground” act, but the book chronicles the mainstream rise of people like k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan and Mary Margaret O’Hara and you cannot deny the impact that Morissette had on raising the profile of Canadian music during this tumultuous period, particularly considering that she sold some 33 million copies of 1995’s Jagged Little Pill worldwide – a fact that jives against the authors’ assertion that by 1995 or so the Canadian alternative rock scene was almost dead in the water. If Morissette was too mainstream for the authors’ taste, they could have shifted their attention to an Ottawa indie ‘90s band called Furnaceface, who not only delivered a classic indie album in 1991’s terrific and very funny Just Buy It, but started their own music festival – not unlike the Tragically Hip’s Another Roadside Attraction, which gets ample coverage in this book.


What’s more, band member Marty Jones went on to a career as a noted music producer and the group won awards, so the fact that this book doesn’t even mention this band is just baffling. Plus, there were bands in the area making waves other than Furnaceface: notably Blinker the Star, the Wooden Stars, Starling (you might be noticing an astronomical trend here), the Mystic Zealots and so on and so forth. Note to Barclay, Jack and Schneider: if you’re going to write about Canadian music, at least try to be inclusive to all regions of the country, not just the main metropolitan centers (and Halifax, which was a hip and trendy place to be in the early ‘90s). Writing in your intro that you choose to ignore stuff that just wasn’t of interest to you is very poor journalism, indeed.


You have to put that aside, and focus on stuff that was culturally groundbreaking for a book like this, and Alanis Morissette and Furnaceface easily fit that bill. By ignoring Ottawa (and other areas of the country for that matter with populations of less than a million, save Halifax and Kingston, Ontario, via the Hip), these Toronto-based writers perpetuate the notion that the capital city is a staid, boring scene not worth writing about, when the inverse is actually true. We have and had a diverse and exciting scene, and the authors should have ventured a little further than outside of their backyards in writing about Canadian music to discover that.


Despite this blemish, Have Not Been the Same is one behemoth of a book that deserves to find an audience. It’s a crucial examination of the alternative rock scene in Canada during a particularly fertile period of activity and very few stones are left unturned in its execution. It’s the Canadian version of Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which chronicled the rise of the American underground during the ‘80s, and, as a blurb on the back cover suggests, it’s easily a counterpart to Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road, which is an oral history on the rise of Canadian rock. Have Not Been the Same is a fairly complete look at the Canadian music scene some 15 to 25 years ago, and is a timeless addition to any serious scholar of Canadian music’s book collection. Despite the fact that it can be a wearying read at times, Have Not Been the Same is unputdownable, and you’ll be breathlessly carried away by the stories that these Canadian performers have to tell about their troubling and harried lives just trying to be heard above the din.


Aside from my wish that more had been written about smaller musical communities, one thing is for certain: after reading this, I will never complain about this book’s seemingly niche audience again. Have Not Been the Same is an important book that is ripe for discovery for any serious music reader, and I hope that – since this is the final edition and all – it doesn’t go out of print, unlike many of the bands’ output featured within. Canada needs to tell its cultural stories, and on that front, Have Not Been the Same delivers in spades.

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, and more. He also reviews books for bookwookie.ca.


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