Warning: Seriously upset pint-in-hand writing ahead…
This is not structured. This is not a post essay. This is not a deep, well researched post contemplating my navel. This is straight from the poet-soul artist gut. And this is part of a larger reason why leaving downtown Kitchener wasn’t sad move for me. The things that meant something downtown are all disappearing.
Something seemed fishy. I mean, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when I read the piece about Kevin Doyle from the Boathouse in Victoria Park locking out his staff and patrons, something just didn’t add up.
Let’s talk first about Kevin and the Boathouse
This is a man that didn’t just give his artists a fee, but often most, or all of the door as well. From charging 5 a pint, and 7 for a glass of imported wine, Kevin also gave appropriate remuneration for artists. Maybe that is just me, as an artist, thinking that those who work to entertain you and succeed enough to grace a stage regularly should be compensated appropriately.
Kevin gave everyone a chance. The open mic nights often presented amazing emerging artists and gave them the ability to test new material, but also allowed the wannabe to feel like a star for five minutes. Diversity was the name of the game, and no one vetted the list. You got the raw offering of the community, as they were… and let the audience decide merit with their applause.
The Boathouse was the legendary home of several artists. The features in this venue ranged from Mel Brown to Julian Fauth to Lucas Stagg, Miss Angel and the Homewreckers, Paul MacLeod, Big Rude Jake, Lynn Jackson, Busted Flat Records, – just to mention a few, and the countless headliners over the years. The Boathouse was the Waterloo Region home of music. Legends were born here on the rough honky tonk piano and crackling amps. Legends returned and loaned support with every shift and change in appetite. The performers where as dedicated as the audience. The change in times and trends were reflected, but the tradition of excellence was upheld.
And did I mention remuneration? Let’s go back to that for a minute: Waterloo Region is a horrible place to practice as an artist. You perform/play/paint for exposure here. But who are we exposing ourselves to in this city that is near devoid of real arts culture? Is there some brilliant critic, or talent scout lurking in the audience? Not bloody likely. Exposure here is like being naked in the north: you can die of exposure. Several have. The successful leave.
And yet, this city doesn’t see the plethora of artists who leave every year because there is no possibility of a career here. But somehow those artists remember that something was here, and come back for the festivals. There is no benefit in our postal codes.There is no benefit to a Waterloo Region address.
You want to talk about talent retention? Detroit at least hits the world’s stage with the Heidelberg project, Theatre Bizarre and the brilliant music scene that keeps bubbling up and challenging the world’s sensibility. Hamilton has an arts crawl that attracts the tens of thousands. Windsor maintains a vibrant scene. We have great festivals, but nothing supported that would have the possibility of reflecting in art what we claim in innovation… which is oddly generated by creativity. Man.. what a mindfuck.
It isn’t that we don’t have great art here, it’s just you don’t know about it. It’s not celebrated, supported, written about – it’s treated like a fart in the night. Even if it’s a loud bang, we are kept darkly asleep through all the noise.
And just when you would get the chance to hear about it, it leaves. I watch with every passing year as the newest and most amazing thing gets neglected, or at worst, scorned for their innovation.
Kevin gave the possibility of great art a chance to thrive
In the performance and music genre, Kevin had everything from burlesque to spoken word, and big band to bluegrass. Kevin allowed culture to thrive without imposition of elite standards, but supporting what his audience and the community sensibility would support. He would take risks on the unlikely. He allowed the gamble.
Kevin has great judgement in music, but he allowed his community to set standards as well. There was no elite standard. There was just good music. And community.
So then I really wasn’t surprised when I read the piece in The Record by Terry Pender talking about absolute neglect and culturally cleansing gentrification. But still… ugh… punch in the gut. What utter contempt.
Now how about the Boathouse culture
I walked home from Laurier to my Queen and Courtland home for 4 years down Park St.
Victoria park is a daunting space. With a legacy of hate crimes and skin head swarmings extending to everyone in the buildings around the park receiving phone calls from government institutions surveying about perceived safety in a neighbourhood of high diversity, and a past of extremely violent crimes – – The Boathouse was a sure place where anyone could stop in. It was halfway through the emptiness of a night time darkness. You could enter for a moment of safety, a free phone call, or even a teddy bear of an operator who would pull out all of his most scary tones and bigness of self to appear more intimidating.
The Boathouse, and mostly Kevin’s Boathouse, was safe. From unwelcome advances on women patrons being dealt with by the owner himself, to a late night place with an affable take-no-shit staff who would form a perceived barricade between danger and person, and yet never making you feel the victim. (I am not the only only one who felt this way…)
Disclaimer> Let’s make something perfectly clear. I have never been a damsel in distress or a shrinking violet – but Kevin would sense trouble and make it clear that distressing people is not ok in his place. Even in my most justice-seeking books, this was great. How often does an owner/operator truly try to make a venue woman-safe? How many pubs can a young woman walk into and sit by herself at the bar just to listen to music and almost never be subjected to harassment in some form or another?
How can you talk about the loss of all these most important things in an aspect of city culture? How can you talk about how you feel deceived and yet not surprised by a community that would rather give money to people who talk about art then make art?
Culture doesn’t grow out of back door corporate meetings
Instead, it is much like how babies are born. Art is messy. Art explodes into the world screaming and crying. It grows through rebellion and anger. And it finishes in a beautiful blossom that enriches and feeds all of our better sensibilities.
If you want art clean, you get Bieber. You get N-Sync, NKOTB, One Direction and every other band that amounts to nothing but background sound on CHYM FM that is trend today and out like dirty underwear in a year. You get the most boring, and cleansed (gentrified) product you can think of with production enough to makes sure not a single middle class head is turned or disturbed.
Fuck. That isn’t art, that is status quo. That is the lack of innovation, the lack of critical matter, the lack of anything that begs questions and forces you to pause. That is bland. That is boring. That is life devoid of meaning. That is reification and no challenge ever. That is the absence of thought. It’s owning an Ikea shelf and thinking yourself special for it.
Birth is never clean. If you want clean, get your Starbucks and never leave your television happy endings, and be surprised when your relationships and job supernovas around your blindness. Life is about the mess. And art is about the connection to that mess, and being able to see ways through it. Art is the lens we use to see our meagre existence and project it as something more important than just planetary noise. It is the relief, the dialog, the word writ and unwrit. It is the ease from turmoil and the expression thereof all at once. It is the agreement and contradiction. It is the discussion. It is the conclusion. And in the end when we are all dead and gone, it is ARTefact – the only remaining feature of anything about who we are is left in our art and in our waste. Welcome to why art is important to life for sentient tool-building beings. Without it, the only immortal echo we produce is waste.
So… If you want art, it is the Boathouses with Doyles. It is melting clocks without watches to tell you different. It’s about dust bowl faces playing blues. It’s about being there, being present at the transitions in our crazy world and saying SOMETHING.
Art is the moment when you need that chance after your partner leaves you and your wealthy tech company lays you off with half its workforce in a year. It’s the chance. The hope. The birth.
Keep your hand-sanitised world to yourself… just please… give me back my art.
(I know I am railing against an unstoppable force. I am not naive. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get to mourn the good things when they are killed.)
(Now I need to swallow my own fear as an artist in this blasted region and hit <send>)