From Genetically Modified Apples To Plain Old Oranges: Hemingway’s Early Life & The Science of Experience.

Bullfight

“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s life came to a brutal and explosive end one early July morning in 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho, with a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the back of his throat. With his tragic death came the end of legend. Hemingway had lived. He had traveled, fought in a war, pontificated on bullfights. He had loved, he had drank, he had lost. He had done many things, and filled entire books with his life experiences and imagination.

It’s interesting to read about Hemingway’s early years, before he wrote all those great classics that made him famous. Before he became a celebrated author, he was just another hack reporter at the Kansas city Star, then in Toronto for the Toronto Star, before becoming a foreign correspondent in Paris for a time, which helped define him for years to come. Hemingway had famously remarked; “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

What happens before people get famous is seldom talked about, because it might not be as exciting for some. But it means everything. What happens before is the science of experience; that culmination of ingredients that metabolizes into something real, something concrete, and in some rare instances, something magical. This is the birth of one’s character.

Ernest_Hemingway_1923_passport_photo

In 1922, while Hemingway was in his second year in Paris, Quaker Oats gave us a one minute solution to make breakfast. It was called Quaker Quick Oats. Modern culture means an accelerated culture. It means faster than fast. That’s why, twenty years later, it became Instant Oatmeal. Now we have the instant celebrity. Buy a lottery ticket, become an instant winner. Go on a reality television show or better yet – make a sex tape, get famous. The idea of working hard for years seems as far fetched as a brown apple getting sold. One wonders what he would think of the world we live in today. What would Hemingway think of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or American Idol?

The concept of becoming an accomplished artist after having lived a cultivated life has been lost. We’ve become a culture obsessed with youth and perfection. Many of the famous pop stars that dominate the charts are technically good to be sure; they can sing, they can dance – but there’s no soul behind those shiny bright eyes. Soul isn’t something that can be bought and sold. It is something you earn. And the only way to earn it, is through experience.

Another thing that’s increasingly on our cultural radars is safety and security. Helicopter parenting is the new norm. Bike helmets. Shin pads. We’re even pushing pills for our toddlers now. Prozac. Ritalin. A slightly alarming study just released in Australia concluded that one in every five parents admit to drugging their children on road trips. Protective gear for the body, and psychiatric drugs to pacify and dull the mind. But in a bubble wrapped culture where kids don’t fall down or hurt themselves, what war stories do they have to tell?

I’m not advocating for a total abandonment of safety equipment and pharmaceuticals. Concussions should be avoided and severe mental illnesses (such as Hemingway’s own) need treatment. But surely we’ve gone too far trying to create a false sense of security for children. How do we grow as individuals without experiencing sadness, pain, loss – even boredom? Boredom stimulates creativity. Tragedies define us. As painful and heartbreaking as they are, the sum of our tragedies make us who we are today, and stronger for them. As Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “Our scars make us know that our past was for real”.

apples

There’s a new apple out there now, thanks to the latest in human technological advances. It’s called the Arctic apple. What makes it so special? It doesn’t brown with age. It doesn’t get ugly. When you slice it open; it won’t look any different with time. Devoid of imperfections, nothing will ever make that apple stand out in a crowd. It will look beautiful, to be sure. But it will never be remarkable.

The Arctic apple is a reflection of where we are in terms of values as a species. Not only do we expect objects to look perfect, we expect people to appear flawless as well. This is the age of Botox. People will gladly trade in their abilities to demonstrate facial expressions for tighter skin around the eyes and forehead. Washboard stomachs and perfect teeth are no longer the exception. They have become the rule. Is the age of Hemingway dead, now that we’re drowning in a sea of selfies? I hope not.

If you cut me open, you’ll find all kinds of bruises, scars and imperfections. Would I change any of them? Not on your life. They made me who I am today, for better or for worse. Otherwise, I’d be just another shiny apple, identical to everyone else.

All photographs courtesy of Wikipedia. Middle image of Ernest Hemingway is from his 1923 passport.

Posted in books, Culture, Ideas, Toronto | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Ed Piskor’s Family Tree: Beat Street Movie Gets Greenlit.

beat-street1

Anyone that’s tried to fulfill a personal dream knows how difficult a journey it can be. There is no road map to lead your way to the buried treasure. There is no compass to point you in the right direction, and no barometer to guide you past stormy weather. All you have is the idea itself, and perhaps, more importantly; the belief that your idea can succeed. Without that belief, you burn out, you give up. Belief, confidence, insanity, whatever you want to call it, that’s the fuel that keeps you going, when all those suckers slam phones in your ear, and doors in your face. Belief in your idea – that’s what gets you out of bed, and what propels you to lace up your favourite pair of breakdancing kicks, ready to battle your way through another day.

beat-street2

In his latest instalment of Hip Hop Family Tree, Ed Piskor illustrates Steve Hagar’s struggle to get his 1984 Beat Street film made. The film would eventually go into production, shooting entirely on location in NYC and featuring Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force and the Treacherous Three.

To read the rest of the instalment, head over to Boing Boing.

Interested in ordering a book? Two of Ed Piskor’s comic books are also available for purchase: Volume One and Volume Two.

Posted in Comics, Culture, Hip Hop, Movies | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

10 of the Very Best Club Tracks from Toronto’s Twilight Zone.

Back To The Zone3

The Twilight Zone first opened it’s doors in 1980 in the nearly empty, factory filled, garment district of Toronto’s downtown, which years later became zoned as the city’s Entertainment District. During it’s incredible nine year run, the Zone became a mecca for a dedicated, eclectic clientele that included a solid mix of straight and gay; a multi-cultural movement where only the music mattered.

Saturday nights at the Zone featured co-owners Albert and Tony Assoon on the decks, along with some of the world’s biggest disc jockeys spinning funk and house records on a now legendary sound system to a religious, cult-like following, laying the underground foundations for many to follow. Guest writer and Toronto area DJ Mitch Winthrop graciously fires up his DeLorean to take us back into time and smack dab in the middle of the Zone’s crowded dance floor, one more time.

1. Strafe – Set It Off
The first time I ever heard that record was on the Zone’s legendary sound system. Those hi-hats and the kick from the b-side mix before the vocals were played was like hearing God’s heartbeat.

2. First Choice – Let No Man Put Asunder
As was often the case, the club would be pitch black. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face… all the lights were out. And I couldn’t see who was in the booth. For a few seconds there’d be dead air, so the assumption was there was a technical problem, but then the acapella would ring out “I’m surprised to see your suitcase at the door!” – the crowd would go insane. And whether it was Tony or Albert Assoon playing, they’d play this part of the record over and over, teasing everyone who by now is in hysterics until finally playing the actual full version with all the lights finally coming on. At the time this was pure magic. (for the Frankie Knuckle remix go here.)


3. Marshall Jefferson – Move Your Body
What can you say? The record was produced like a DJ was playing it. Just put it on and stand back. Let the crowd go mad, at a time when people were just starting to realize house was something to take seriously. This was our House Music Anthem.

4. Hanson & Davis – Tonight
Nothing quite shook the building like this record did. I often found myself in the back parking lot or on the roof when this came on and the way the plate glass windows of the warehouses across the street from the club would vibrate to this song was as much a part of the Zone experience as being in the middle of the dance floor was.

5. Master C&J – Dub Love
The wail of the synths in this record, on many nights, was outdone by the wail of the crowd. This is very much a Zone record to me. It epitomizes the dark, often scary vibe the club had on nights just before the peak, before the music would turn over to become more of a celebration in the later hours of the morning.

6. Sequal – It’s Not Too Late
Some of the best years and best experiences at the Zone happened before the house music explosion, when the club’s music featured a lot more freestyle, electro and funk.

7. Phyllis Nelson – I Like You
Speaking of… another big record from the pre-house music days at the club. The truth is, everything sounded good on that sound system.

8. Nu Shooz – I Can’t Wait
A lot of commercial hits were played at the Zone months if not years ahead of radio and Muchmusic. And I’m including this to illustrate that the music at the Zone was not 125 beats per minute all night long. When this record came out no one knew anything about the band. We just knew the bass alone was perfect for the Zone, and when it was played the room blew up.

9. Beastie Boys – Cookie Puss
It’s often noted that Keith Haring painted the Paradise Garage. The Twilight Zone’s décor was courtesy of the Beastie Boys, who went to town covering the walls with graffiti after they were in town to perform there. I’m not sure if that had anything to do with “Cookie Puss” being featured in the middle of some sets, but the song is nuts and a lot of nutty records were played either for their sound quality or their strangeness. File this one under “Planet Claire” by the B-52s too.

10. No Smoke – Koro Koro
For me nothing had me screaming over the system like a great tribal record. The vocal grunts and chants rang out around the room as if Tony and Albert were controlling which of the horns hanging over the dance floor would play them, all while the percussion shook the floor loose from the support beams. Sometimes you felt like any night could be the night the place came crashing down from the vibrations of the sound and the footwork, but no one cared because what a way to go!

Mitch Winthrop is an internationally recognized producer, dj and radio host for several notable shows, including The Rhythm Method, which is largely credited as Canada’s first dedicated House music show. Look out for his new podcast coming soon called The Boogie Politix Show. Mitch will also be featured in the upcoming film, Back To The Zone; a documentary about Toronto’s Twilight Zone nightclub, and the birth of House music culture in Canada.

The Twilight Zone’s former owners, the Assoons, have recently opened up a new club called Remix, located in the city’s West end.

For more on Toronto’s club history, check out Denise Benson’s Then & Now series, soon to be available in book form.

Top photo from Back To The Zone, dir. by Colm Hogan, Footage courtesy of Marla Rotenberg.

Posted in Culture, dance, electronica, Music | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Startling Truth Behind Toronto’s Tunnel of Terror.

tunnel_terror2

To him who is in fear everything rustles.
– Sophocles

The intersection of Jane and Finch is well known to most Torontonians. It’s not a place the majority of it’s citizens have actually lived in, visited, or in fact, even driven by. Most Torontonians know it from news reports. It’s the place that people get shot or stabbed. Where drug gangs control the streets, and everyone else around cowers in fear.

Yet, if you go there, on the surface at least, it looks like any other neighbourhood. Albeit, with it’s large looming apartment block high rises, and low lying strip malls below featuring Money Mart and McDonalds franchises along with the increasingly ubiquitous Dollarama – it’s not exactly Rosedale; the tony neighbourhood just North of the city’s downtown, and about a million miles away in the minds of Jane and Finchers. There are similarities though. Adults go to work. Children go to school. Babies are pushed in carriages. It’s not exactly the pictured war zone that the newspapers seem to paint.

jane_finch2

But complexity doesn’t sell papers. Fear does. Fear quickens the pulse, and boils the blood. These are the emotions that make for compelling viewing on cable news networks.

And so, the flavour of the day is terrorism. But it wasn’t always so. Before terrorism we had global warming, AIDS, killer bees, satanic cults, heavy metal, nuclear war, gangsta rap. McCarthyism. The Salem witch trials. The list goes on and on throughout our cultural history. Now it’s terrorism. To be more specific, Muslim extremism. Al Quaida, ISIS, beheadings, jihadi brides, radicalization, suicide bombs, terror plots. These are the stories shoved down our collective throats on a daily basis.

It’s only a matter of time. That’s what paid security experts say. That’s what politicians that want to get elected will tell you. That’s what defence contractors and law enforcement officials, looking to have their budgets increased, will echo. They, like the terrorists themselves, and in fact, even the media organizations that report on them, like it or not, are all in the business of fear. Fear, it would seem, is good for business. It gets politicians elected. Fear sells handguns to housewives. Fear sells security alarms to suburban families. Fear sells personal parachutes to executives that work in office towers. Fear builds prisons. It gets fighter jets built. It rolls out tanks. It drops laser guided bombs, and then launches counter defence missile systems to blow up those very same bombs.

When the authorities discovered a tunnel situated nearby a Pan American games venue, there was a brief moment of tantalizing wonder. In the age of Google, it’s rare to uncover a bonafide mystery. Who dug this tunnel? Where did it lead? Why was it built? By whom? Then, almost immediately after that moment, everyone automatically assumed the worst. When we are conditioned to obsess over fears of terrorism, it’s easy to see why we all freaked out. Our collective imagination kicked into overdrive. This was a 24 inspired plot that surely involved terrorists with elaborate head scarves wrapped around dead, crazy eyes and wild, unshaven beards. A suicide vest, maybe a kidnapping or two, there would definitely be several AK 47s and large, gleaming, impressive ammunition belts involved. Someone was bound to be shouting Allahu Akbar at any given moment.

jane_finch3

It turns out the tunnel was the work of a young man from the mean streets of Jane and Finch. As a child, he had played in the nearby Black Creek ravine for fun. For Elton McDonald, nature offered solitude and peace, a welcome alternative to the perils of inner city, urban living. He worked hard on the tunnel for two years, determined to finish his personal slice of well constructed paradise. But once the authorities had made it’s discovery, the media circus rolled out instantly. It’s easy to imagine how reluctant he was to come forward. Remember Richard Jewell? Sometimes simply telling the truth isn’t enough ammunition to win the war against the 24 hour news machine.

Lucky for Elton, his story had a happy ending. When he came forward with the truth, he decided to harness his temporary newfound fame and initiate a plan of action. Elton’s Tunnel Vision Plan wasn’t related to a terrorist agenda, much to the disappointment of some, I’d wager. His proposed project focused instead on launching a construction company to employ at risk youths from his community to plant trees and mow lawns. He asked for $10,000.00. To date, Elton has raised almost $12,000.00 from well wishers across the country.

elton_mcdonald2

Maybe we were all a little too quick to rush to assumptions. Maybe the world isn’t out to get us. Maybe there is hope after all. I’m not saying that there aren’t bad people out there that want to do bad things. It’s just that there are also alot of good people out there doing good things. We should probably spend more time hearing about those guys.

It’s nice to know that some stories have happy endings after all.

Top photo courtesy of Metro Police, photos of Jane & Finch area by Colm Hogan, Elton McDonald photo courtesy of Facebook.

Posted in Crime, Culture, Ideas, Toronto | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Van Orton Design: Old School Pop Culture Revisited.

van_orton1

If there is a bitter truth to the old Klingon axiom that revenge is a dish better served cold, for a no less volatile species, though perhaps slightly more attractively packaged; mainstream pop culture, nostalgia is a dish best served old.

And the older you get, the more delicious it tastes. A side dish like nostalgia is nourishment for the soul, which is essential in a world where, as Benjamin Franklin once noted, the only two certainties are death and taxes.

In Douglas Coupland’s 2007 novel, The Gum Thief, Becky, a twenty something goth girl trapped working at a McJob within the narrow, horrid confines of a Staples store, laments, “the modern world is devoted to vanishing species, vanishing weather and vanishing capacity for wonder”. Maybe that’s why we need works offered to us from folks like the Van Orton crew.

By tapping into that childhood wonder, these colourful, re-imagined images serve as a reminder of our first foray into fantasy.

van_orton2

The storybooks we were read as children, cartoons and video games we consumed over sugar laced cereals on saturday mornings and comics we devoured inside tree houses and under blankets with flashlights were our first sources of joy. These were our first moments of escape from the tedium of classrooms, homework and the banality of structured living.

They provided our first glimpse into a life of wonder and infinite possibilities. So when someone is somehow able to repackage those original impossible dreams into something that is instantly recognizable, it tricks our brains for a moment that it’s something new and exciting.

It transports us back to those magical moments, when we were young, if only for an instant. And God knows, we could all use a little more wonder. Right before we do our taxes, one more time.

van_orton5

van_orton4

van_orton3

van_orton7

Van Orton Design are a twin duo based out of Turin, Italy. Check out their official site here.

Posted in design, entertainment, movie posters, Movies, video games | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Spooky: New Genius Remix of Dusty Springfield’s Classic Tune is Scary Good.

Dusty_Springfield_(1966)

Some songs are like lonely vagabonds that hop on random trains, crossing vast swatches of country, in and out of towns, villages and cities, picking up where others have left off. Spooky, is one such track. Originally an instrumental courtesy of saxophonist Mike Sharpe “Shapiro” and written by Harry Middlebrooks, Jr. back in 1967. A year after, and the song gets it’s lyrics thanks to guitarist James Cobb and producer Buddy Buie.

Fast forward to three years later, and Dusty Springfield’s version drops with that platinum blond tinged quintessential soul. The song opens with a breezy start, allowing for trademark Springfield velvet vocals, coated with a death ray of coolness:

In the cool of the evening
When everything is gettin’ kind of groovy

With an opening like this one, it’s easy to contemplate this is the same chick that brought us Son of a Preacher Man, a song that transcends time, effortlessly searing it’s way decades later back into pop culture consciousness thanks to being featured in 1994’s Tarantino hit Pulp Fiction. It’s just the first 2 stanzas of Spooky that get repeated in the Genius version, but the original held some secrets that might reveal a bit more:

Just like a ghost
You’ve been a-hauntin’ my dreams
But now I know you’re not what you seem

Love is kind of crazy
With a spooky little boy like you
Spooky

The earlier version of this song centered on a girl, while Springfield’s lyrics offered a gender flip on the subject. It may be telling that Springfield’s sexuality was often questioned by a largely homophobic culture. Springfield had openly had several relationships with women, at one time claiming that men frightened her. The song may in fact hint at a kind of darkness in Springfield’s own troubled life in retrospect, but it’s absent in this Genius re-work, where the focus centers instead on stripped down coolness. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a lovely tribute to a great track; there’s only a small sprinkling of beats that manage to accentuate the existing coolness, which is all very well and good. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Here’s Genius’ fresh new take on Dusty Springfield’s Spooky, followed by the original track. It’s worth watching not only to hear the audio tweak differences. There’s something slightly askew with the visual performance; Dusty lip synchs the words while acting out some of the lyrics with awkward hand gestures. She wears a long, colourful dress, while positioned sitting on top of a giant spotlight, inside a comically oversized wire frame box. It’s as though the audience can see through her. And yet with a faraway, vacant expression, she gives nothing away.

Posted in Culture, entertainment, Hip Hop, Music, soul | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Thrift Paint Remix: Dave Pollot Likes His Art with Robots & Spaceships.

dave_pollot8

We’ve all done it before. Scouring the aisles at your local Sally Ann or Value Village, searching for that special, unique, one of a kind, je ne sais quois. Macklemore’s 2012 ode to the thrift shop experience made shopping for vintage cool again, even though it was always arguably way cooler to get dope threads for a fraction of the cost of what the local department store charges. If you’re not into clothing, there’s also board games, but you gotta check for missing pieces. Then there’s the gadgets, like old super 8 cameras and 3d viewmasters. Sure there’s some obsolete stuff like VCR’s and tape decks, but there’s usually a decent stereo receiver that you stare at and wonder if you should get. 30 bucks. Hmmmm. Wonder if it works.

Then there’s the “Art” section. Amidst the piles of cat posters with inspirational sayings, there’s usually a pile of amateur grade landscapes and my personal favourite: dogs. Or more cats. Some of them are just so bad. But some of them, are so bad that they’re good. Kind of.
Dave Pollot buys these paintings.
Then, he makes them better.

dave_pollot7

Dave is a software writer with a Computer Science degree, but he also happens to be a talented painter. He began his repurposed thrift art career one fateful day in 2010, and hasn’t looked back since. An avid pop culture and science fiction fan, Pollot injects a variety of references from his creative arsenal: spaceships, robots, video game characters. There are also references to iconic films like Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, X-Men, Simpsons, Futurama, and tons more all playfully inserted into the unsuspecting landscapes of yesterday. The great news here is, like what you’d find at that dusty old thrift store, Pollot’s remixes are super affordable. Check out his store and buy one today.

dave_pollot1dave_pollot2

dave_pollot3

dave_pollot4

dave_pollot5

dave_pollot6

Posted in art, Culture, entertainment, illustration, Movies, painting, pop culture, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments