Written by John Rogers
There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet”, said the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
The truth of this I found during my visit to Montreal towards the end of summer, in late September 2016. My purpose was mainly to go to the annual Osheaga Music and Arts Festival and get into the music but it proved to be much more of an experience.
The adventure started with a conversation with two happy youths, Brody and Julian, in their mid-twenties on a stuffy train stuffed with indie-rock music fans heading for the Festival in the Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte-Hélène.
Islands for me have always held a fascination since I spent two years in Tasmania as a Disc Jockey when I was in my early twenties. It seemed it was a long way from Australia, as indeed it was, nearly two hours flying time from Sydney to Hobart. It was my first real time leaving home and it was time to grow up after nearly two years in country New South Wales, two hours by road from where I had lived with my parents and siblings and easily reached if I got homesick (as I did for the first year after leaving).
However, there’s isn’t any real mystery with Île Sainte-Hélène. It is actually two islands, the other being Round Island, both in the neck of the Saint Lawrence River. Five minutes by train from mystery-dispelling downtown Montreal, there is no real sense of being isolated and away from civilisation.
The separateness, I think, is actually in the mind and comes from getting away from urban life to play for a while. In this case I was going for immersion in music and the celebration of music and performance.
Back to that stuffy train at Sherbrooke metro. My chat with Brody and Julienne on the platform was triggered when I spotted three-day passes for “Osheaga” in lanyards around both their necks. With my own two-day pass around my neck (I had not managed to get a pass for the third day) I was deliciously, but not frighteningly, nervous about being on my own. I thought if these two guys are going there, I’ll talk to them and tag along at least to the entrance gates of the festival site. Brody and Julienne were more than excited, they were pumped up and keen to talk about what the festival meant to them, which bands were at the top of their must-see list. Always useful to know other people’s preferences because they may know something you don’t or something which affirms your own choices.
Brody, an electrician from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and on a two-year visa to work in Canada had only recently got in to indie-rock music and was open to exploring new bands of the genre, as was I.
Julienne is a theology student and musician studying at a Montreal College and also counsels young people in a non-denominational church.
Sensing my knowledge would be of bands of years before he was born, Brody asks me why I am going to a festival of music very much of the past two decades, the implication perhaps being that he thought my "bag" would be 50's through to the 70's.
I tell him my story is one of discovery which started in the past five years with hearing alternative Nevada rockers The Killers on the BBC Radio Two Breakfast Show and their exciting, pounding drums-to-the front, lyrically intriguing song "Human" inspired by a line said to have been written by Rolling Stone magazine contributor Hunter S. Thompson. He had in a critique of the American way of life, commented that America was “raising a generation of dancers”, people who follow a pattern and choreography instead of thinking for themselves. The Killers’ songwriter, Brandon Flowers, put a twist on that, using the singular, “dancer”, asking “are we human?” Not long before I heard "Human", a light had turned on for me with another song. On the verge of retirement and freed from thinking about the discipline and strictures of speech-writing, I had heard the inspirational and glass-half-full lyrics of "One Day like This” by Manchester alternative rock band Elbow. It had come at a time when I was nearing a crossroads, about to leave a lifetime of writing for the next stage of my life in which I needed to have other creative activities to fulfil me.
Of course I didn’t go into as full an explanation as that. Brody’s eyes would glaze over quickly I would expect. It was sufficient to pique his interest that I mentioned The Killers and London indie rockers Noah and The Whale both of whom he was familiar with. As part of this developing conversation of temporary bonding musically, Brody asked “You must have seen some great bands?”
“Yeah, a few,” I said with a smile.
As a 25-year-old radio journalist with Australian rock radio station 3XY I had seen The Rolling Stones at the Kooyong tennis stadium in Melbourne on a sweltering hot day.
“2.30pm SATURDAY 17TH FEBRUARY 1973” - stated the ticket. Ten years before as a teenager I had seen The Beatles in Sydney, seen being the operative word because of the wave of screaming which started from the moment they came on stage to the end of their set as they walked off.
I vividly remember the Stones. It was the only time I was to see them on stage. Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman (guitars) Charlie Watts (drums) with Nicky Hopkins (keyboards) and Bobby Keys (saxophonist) were sheltered from the sun by a canopy while several thousand fans sat in the open on the tiered stadium seating waiting for the front man, the main actor to come forward. The group had kept us waiting after the opening act, Melbourne’s progressive rockers Madder Lake had finished their great set including their current hit, 12lb Toothbrush (I have no idea what it was about, maybe it was nothing) stretching it from nearly five minutes to more than nine minutes long.
We were mesmerised and aurally assaulted by Mick Jagger and the boys. They were still in their 30s then and in their rock ‘n role prime, we expected they would go on for years but the thought of them in their 70s still rolling was as remote as commercial rocket flights to the moon.
I still have the stub of my ticket -Section 18 Seat X13 - to that concert and smile at the note on it that declares clearly in capital letters there was no chance of the weather making any difference to the concert schedule: “RAIN or SHINE – “WE PLAY”. It was certainly shining that day, the relentless sun taking the temperature to the high 30's in the shade. The stands of the stadium were populated by people and their red Esky ice chests crammed with cold drinks and ice, lugged there for the long afternoon by rock fans, me included, wearing flared jeans, tie-dyed shirts and floppy felt hats.
Only the day before I had sat alone, wearing shirt and tie, in those same stands as a reporter for radio station More Music 3XY, writing a 30 second “scene-setter” for afternoon news bulletins. It was a “colour piece” in keeping with the “with-it” youth image of the radio station. The appearance of The Stones on the stage, Mick in white bell-bottom jeans as I remember, was met with a roar of cheering approval which swelled as the band kicked off their set with "Brown Sugar". We all sang and rocked along as Mick strutted the stage. The poses he struck would continue, little did we know then, as part his trademark performance for the next four decades.
The band finished with "Street Fighting Man". Someone else who was there said Mick threw rose petals from a bucket and yelled “we gotta go, we gotta go”.
At the mention of the “fab four” as they were dubbed by the media, Brody’s eyes had widened, “wow, you saw The Beatles.”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t hear them above the screaming of the audience.” I said. His eyes told me that this did not diminish his admiration for the fact I had been there at a history-making time.
I, and my sister who had come with me to the concert at Sydney (New South Wales) Stadium, on a trip organised by a radio station, did not realise the importance of the occasion, and like many there only realised that in later years. The memory has become increasingly rosier. In my mind’s eye, I can now see us sitting in the Sydney Stadium, or at least we were sitting while the other acts on the bill entertained us, until The Beatles came onto the stage. From then on we were on our feet.
Fresh-faced youthful, wearing their specially-made suits, they plugged the guitars they were carrying into the amplifiers. The opening chords of "I Saw Her Standing There" kicked off the set list I believe, although I doubt anyone heard it over the deafening screams of the audience enveloped in Beatlemania. My sister and I were both swept up in the hysteria, for that was what it was, as the Liverpudlians swept through ten songs, winding up with the Little Richard classic, "Long Tall Sally".
I’m not sure if the crowd quietened even a little for the two ballads, "Till There Was You" and "This Boy", perhaps they were too carried away for that. Then it was over, the four boys had left the stage with a simple “thank you very much” from Paul McCartney.
Half an hour later my sister and I were back on the bus going home. I wrote a report on the concert for the school newspaper, nervous that I would be told off by the headmaster for taking a day off from school without permission. However there was nothing said, the headmaster either turning a blind eye to my report or not reading it at all. I prefer to think it was the former.
Brody was talking to me again on the Osheaga festival-bound train. As if he had tuned in via some portal to some thoughts of mine from a week earlier after seeing an interview with John Lennon touching on drummers in bands, Brody wants to know what I thought of Ringo Starr’s drumming.
“I saw an interview with John Lennon”, he says. “They asked him who he thought were the best drummers in the world and would Ringo be one of them”? Lennon laughed and said “he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles”. He was referring to McCartney’s drumming which started and developed like his playing of the piano during the musical growth of the individual Beatles.
I thought Lennon had been needlessly unkind and he could have been less candid, but then Lennon did not pull punches and never had, behaviour which stemmed it seemed from a troubled childhood and teenage years.
“Okay, Ringo wasn’t a great drummer,” I said, “but his four-on-the-floor style, left-handed with the sticks was very much part of the texture of the Beatles’ sound." If you listen to pre-Ringo Beatles, with Pete Best’s drumming, the sound was pretty colourless beat-wise”. It was the main reason why George Martin, the Beatles record producer told their manager Brian Epstein that Best’s drumming was not regular enough for him to do further work on developing the group. Martin says in his biography All You Need Is Ears that he decided a session drummer Andy White could come in and he would do a better job than Best, which Epstein accepted, knowing the group had already been talking about dumping their drummer. I know the timing of this has been disputed. But in the end, on the first single by the band, Love Me Do, it was Ringo who played drums. An alternate version with Andy White drumming was not used. I recalled Martin’s comments that Ringo was “a good solid rock drummer with a super steady beat… above all he does have an individual sound… a definite asset to the Beatles’ early recordings.”
“Yeah, I like Ringo’s drumming,” Brody responded, “Charlie Watts in the Stones isn’t an exciting drummer either. He’s a reliable, dependable beat in the mix, central to the sound.” We were on the same page. He had obviously listened to a lot of music and not just from the present day. I was impressed and so was he, it appeared.
Our train was nearing Parc Jean-Drapeau. The conversation was petering out as we began anticipating the excitement of the rest of the day. There was no time to chat further to Brody or to Julienne about his counselling or ambitions. But the time had been well spent I thought as I disembarked from the train with hundreds of other fans of music intent on a good time to head for the Osheaga festival site.
To be continued