During the winter of 2001, I wound up interviewing an author and his publisher – all of us based in Ottawa, Canada – at a local pub, profiling them about the new Ottawa-centric publishing house that the latter was in the midst of setting up. After the interview was over, we wound up ordering some drinks and, myself being a bit of a struggling short story fiction writer on the side at the time, eventually wound our way into a discussion bemoaning the state of the Canadian publishing industry.
I recall lamenting the fact that nobody was really taking chances on outsider fiction and that a whole whack of books were being published in Canada that nobody wanted to read. I brought up the title of a non-fiction book on the Canadian music scene called Have Not Been the Same, which had just been recently published at the time, and dryly noted that the book, which I hadn’t yet read, seemed to be something of a firebrick or a doorstop: roughly 700 pages plus about Canadian bands that existed in the decade between 1985 and 1995. I pondered, “Who would want to read that?” To this, the publisher took a swig of his drink and replied something to the effect of, “Exactly. The only people who would be interested in that are a very select core of academics and music nerds. It won’t sell.”
Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985 – 1995 (10th Anniversary Edition)
(ECW Press; US: Jun 2011)
Well, I guess we were both wrong, because Have Not Been the Same is now in its second (and, as its authors note in the introduction, final) edition after being out of print for a few years, proving that there must have been enough of an audience during the first go-round to warrant this brand-spanking new 10th anniversary edition with additional content to bring it up to date. Meanwhile, that Ottawa publisher only wound up publishing one book before deciding that Canada’s capital city wasn’t a lucrative enough market and, I believe, quickly left town. Final score: Ottawa publisher, one; Have Not Been the Same, two.
After reading this new edition, I have to admit that I’m slightly embarrassed to have judged a book merely by its weight ten years ago. Have Not Been the Same, which is the cumulative effort of no less than three Canadian music journalists – Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider – and so named after an 1985 song by Vancouver proto-grunge band Slow, is an addictive and exhaustive (and I would even say, exhausting) read. The book is a nearly complete look at the Canadian indie rock scene in its formulative, post-punk years, and reading it is a little like going on a cross-country tour of your favourite band of yesteryear. Seriously, you’ll need to book time off work or school just to get through the densely packed tome, and reading it is a little like having a day job in and of itself.
However, it’ss an insightful and penetrating look at the roots of the Canadian underground rock scene, and if you appreciate Canadian independent bands of today such as Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene or the New Pornographers, Have Not Been the Same is an essential read, because it provides context behind the success of these bands and shows that their ability to crack the American market didn’t come out of a vacuum. If you grew up in Canada and came of age during the 1985 to 1995 time period covered by the book, it’s a bit of a time capsule that will have you reliving your cultural salad days of yore. If you didn’t grow up in Canada, this book still comes recommended as it will open your eyes to the sort of hardships bands had to endure to “make it” at a time when generic keyboard-led arena rock bands like Platinum Blonde, Honeymoon Suite, Glass Tiger and Loverboy were pretty much all the rage.
That said, Have Not Been the Same is also a bit of a depressing read and one that might wear on you a bit if you attempt to read the book cover to cover – which is recommended, though fans of certain bands or musicians can certainly hopscotch to particular chapters of interest without losing anything in the process. The thing is, the underground rock story of Canada, as this book shows, is essentially the same sad narrative repeated ad nauseum. The essential template of just about any band or act featured in this book goes something like this: band forms and comes of age in the mid-‘80s, developing a slavish following on the underground touring circuit; band makes an influential independent record which attracts major label buzz; band gets signed to a major label (or major label affiliate or major indie label like Sub Pop) but the subsequent album or albums fail to capitalize on the band’s previous success (usually due to the label not promoting the record for various reasons); band gets dropped; band breaks up after hitting this brick wall since indie labels and distribution companies were going bankrupt by the mid-to-late ‘90s; breakup is usually coupled with the impact of poor inter-band dynamics, or the effects of too much drugs and alcohol. The end.
After reading about 500 pages of the same story told over and over, just with interchangeable band names or musicians, the effect isn’t quite as potent and gets a little wearying. While Have Not Been the Same is certainly exhaustive, covering perhaps 95 percent of the underground acts that were significant in Canada during this period, I would argue that perhaps a little pruning could have been done, getting rid of some of the lesser known bands such as Jr. Gone Wild or, puzzlingly, groups such as Men Without Hats – whom had their biggest international hit (see “The Safety Dance”) before 1985 even rolled around, and were hardly independent or underground as they got scooped up by a major label after putting out a single indie EP, making their inclusion in this book a bit of an oddity.
However, Have Not Been the Same is a compelling read – it even has a bit of a narrative arc to it, like a good novel – and it reads as though one singular person, not three, contributed to it, which is a kudos to the editing staff who worked on this to make it seamless. I’m in awe at the fact that there’s actual foreshadowing in the book, with names dropped earlier on that crop up and appear again and again in the later chapters. The book’s chapters also usually deftly examine multiple bands and expertly juggle the narratives of groups that are thematically connected to one another. While its appeal might be limited to the aforementioned academics and music nerds, anyone with a curious interest in Canadian music will appreciate this well-researched book, which is largely culled from players in the scene at the time, and it’s a credit that the authors were able to gain access to so many people in compiling the book.