April 1, 2014
Nirvana, Nardwuar, cub, and the Canucks: my 25 years of art, inspiration, and employment on Hamilton Street
What is the longest you’ve ever worked in one location?
In January, I received a CBC management email letting me know that I’ve been working at CBC for fifteen… years… straight. Contemplating that amount of time while riding my bike home along Hamilton Street, just outside the CBC, I realized that I had actually been working at various locations on that very street – and only that street – in Vancouver for even longer… for the past quarter-century, to be exact.
Recently, I was asked to give a presentation at Pecha Kucha Vancouver (20 slides in 6 minutes with commentary), and since my long connection with Hamilton Street was still kicking around in my head, that’s what my presentation became, which you can watch here, and I’ll share some of it with you now in print and photos.
First, the backstory: if you know me even a little bit, you’ll know that I have a great appreciation for the history of the City of Vancouver, so it delighted the dork in me to realize that this street that I have been employed on for so long is actually the first-ever Vancouver city street. It was in 1885, in the midst of a towering and dark rain forest, when the first stake was driven into the soft earth to map out the City of Vancouver by a surveyor named Hamilton… at exactly what is now the corner of Hamilton and West Hastings. When you visit I’ll show you the plaque.
The first place I ever worked on Hamilton Street was at Teamworks Productions, an office in a ramshackle, yet to be restored heritage house. I was fresh out of high school in 1989 and desperate to dive head first into the music business.
Frank Weipert gave me that chance, at a one-stop-shop of artist management (Bob’s Your Uncle, Hard Rock Miners, Roots Roundup), booking agency, and concert promotions. I eagerly dabbled in all of them, especially concert promotion. Frank dealt mainly with roots and art rock, but I begged him to allow me to put on concerts by some of the bands of the burgeoning grunge and punk scene of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s south of the border.
Frank agreed, and that led to me to stage on a string of concerts for Mudhoney (a show Nardwuar and I put on… 1,000 kids showed up, each paying $6), Tad, Bad Religion, Poison Idea, NOFX, Fugazi, the Young Fresh Fellows, the Fastbacks, and, most famously, Nirvana at the Commodore Ballroom just as Nevermind was catching fire.
But the concert promotions business was a harsh mistress for an amateur teenager, and even though many of the gigs were wildly successful, I found out the hard way that, as a promoter, you’re only as great as your last gig, and that not all Seattle grunge bands were created equally. I was coerced by some slick-nick American agent to put on a gig for Love Battery, the ugly duckling of the grunge scene. I guaranteed the band a king’s ransom. The ONLY people to show up for that gig were me and Nardwuar… and I was the promoter and Nardwuar was on the guest list! The show cost Teamworks a fortune, cost me my job, and that was pretty much it for me in the concert business.
I figured my time would be better spent building up the career of my own band The Smugglers, who rehearsed and wrote many of our best songs at a dangerous dump of a practice space right on Hamilton Street.
By the early 1990’s I began working for Mint Records, located in the iconic Dominion Building at the foot of Hamilton Street. The dusty old dame of a structure was by then a bohemia of arts and culture. Various record labels, publishing companies, magazines, TV productions, and music festival head offices were housed in the circa-1910 building. My primary job was promotions and A&R, but again I dabbled in everything. It was in those offices that we shipped thousands upon thousands of CDs by cub, gob, Pluto, the Smugglers, Neko Case, the New Pornographers, and many other artists. It was a short window in the music industry when almost anything felt possible. There were some glorious times.
But (and there’s almost always a but) by the end of the 1990s, the bottom fell out of many major labels, having signed way too many bands for far too much money while trying to find the next Green Day and Nirvana. The economic collapse trickled down throughout the music business to the indies, and once again I found myself looking for a new job. (Mint Records is still going to this day, though!)
I managed to find one just a few blocks up Hamilton, at, lo and behold, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, thanks to hosts Leora Kornfeld and David Wisdom, who had interviewed me countless times for the Smugglers. I landed a gig as an entry-level researcher for a new alternative music show called RadioSonic. By 2000, we started CBC Radio 3. By 2001, both Leora and David had moved on and I was hosting RadioSonic.
In 2005, the employees of the CBC got locked out in a nasty and prolonged labour dispute. Suddenly, I was pounding the pavement up and down Hamilton Street instead of crossing it to go to work. That lockout led to a lot of time off. The Smugglers had wound down, so I ended up spending a lot of the sudden free time in the wilds of Desolation Sound, BC, at my family cabin. I wasn’t broadcasting, I wasn’t rocking out with the Smugglers, and felt the urge for an artistic outlet, so I began writing what would become my first book, Adventures in Solitude.
My first-ever public reading of the book? Why, on Hamilton Street of course, at the annual Word On The Street Festival. Hamilton Street would also play a fateful role in my second book, The Lonely End of the Rink, as it was the fiery and violent epicentre of the Stanley Cup Riot of 2011 when the Vancouver Canucks failed to win game seven against the Boston Bruins.
These days, I still walk and cycle up and down Hamilton Street to and from work at the CBC every weekday where I am a host at CBC Radio 3 and CBC Music. Now, if I’m lucky, my wife Jill and baby son Joshua will be waiting outside on Hamilton Street to greet me. And so those are my 25 years (and counting) of art, inspiration, and employment on Hamilton Street… and yes, Nardwuar still loves to remind me of that Love Battery gig. Ugh.
Fri Apr 11, North Shore Writers Festival, North Vancouver City Library, North Vancouver BC 7pm (stories from both books… free!)
Fri Apr 18 – Sun Apr 20, Hockey Summit of the Arts, Toronto ON (Grant plays goal for Sloan’s team)
Sat May 3, BC Book Prizes, Renaissance Harbourside Hotel, Vancouver BC
Sat Jun 14, CBC Music Festival, Deer Lake Park, Burnaby BC
Sat Aug 2, Hornby Island Arts Festival, Hornby Island BC
Thu Aug 14 – Sun Aug 17, Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, Sechelt BC