by Colby Cosh
Twenty-five years ago, 60 schoolchildren from Langley, B.C., got
together in a gymnasium to play and record some contemporary pop songs
under the tutelage of a hippie music teacher named Hans Fenger. Although
kids aged eight to 12 were more normally taught worn-out campfire
standards by music instructors back then, the exercise was not terribly
unusual. Mr. Fenger had some vinyl records of the session pressed at a
local plant, which is a little more unusual. But what is most unusual is
that the resulting record has, in 2001, been released on CD by an
independent label and praised by Rolling Stone, Entertainment
Weekly, and songwriters whose work appears on it, including David
Bowie and Richard Carpenter.
The record was discovered by New Jersey radio personality and author
Irwin Chusid, who specializes in "outsider music"--meaning, generally,
naive or untutored music from unexpected places and people. He heard the
LP now dubbed Innocence & Despair: The Langley Schools Music
Project and was captivated. The singing, as David Bowie rightly says,
is "earnest, if lugubrious." But combined with ingenious, Phil
Spector-inspired production by Mr. Fenger, it creates an indescribable,
thrilling effect. Songs like the Eagles' "Desperado" are given reworkings
that arguably have more life than the originals. (On-line clips are
audible at bastamusic.com/lang.html.)
After a quarter-century as a teacher, Hans Fenger has become an
internationally celebrated genius. No one is more surprised than he is.
When he answered Mr. Chusid's first phone call, his first thought was, "Uh
oh--am I being sued?"
"I was fresh out of university [in 1976] and I had no experience of
teaching music, only of playing it," he says. "So, naturally, I formed the
kids into a band." He was fortunate, he says, to be teaching at a time of
monumental pop-songwriting talent; Bowie, McCartney and Brian Wilson were
still in the air and still relevant. The familiarity of the music allowed
the children to play and sing it spontaneously.
"These kids, even the very young ones, liked to sing about heavy
things," he says. "They don't like this 'Bow wow wow, my doggie's up in a
tree' stuff any more than adults do. They embraced dark, introspective
music, even if they couldn't spell 'introspective.'" His instinct
apparently worked: of the 80 students on the record, at least six are
professional musicians today and many more sing in amateur choirs.
But why has this odd, poignant music re-emerged now? "Timing is
everything," says Mr. Fenger. "People have reached a saturation point with
slickly produced commercial music. Everything's so pre-packaged. You can
only see so many movies full of explosions and car chases before you get a
craving to see something shot on Super-8 in Iran, something with real
people in it."
More than anything, Mr. Fenger feels lucky. "After all, this could have
happened after I was dead," he jokes. "When Irwin asked me to locate two
clean copies of the LP, since I didn't have the original tapes anymore, I
panicked. Guess who had them? My mother!" He laughs. "I was relieved, but
a minute later, I went 'Hey, how come you never played these, Mom?'" Oh
well. Phil Spector probably had the same problem.
Denis Lapierre of the Alberta education watchdog Schoolworks has kindly
tipped Up Front to a edu-scam disclosed by provincial Auditor General
Peter Valentine in his recent 2000-01 annual report. Alberta's Department
of Learning pays out $80 million a year to schools for Career and
Technology Studies (CTS). These are supposed to be vocational classes, and
they are supposed to be graded and administered just like regular classes.
But Mr. Valentine says a lot of the money is being snapped up by
unscrupulous administrators for bogus programs.
One school received $409,000 in funding for 1,250 students in CTS
classes; curiously, all these students emerged from the course with the
same mark, a fact the department had not noticed. Another school received
$130,000 for courses that turned out to be "based on student self-assessed
participation in school activities such as pumpkin carving and door
decoration." Other schools wrongfully claimed CTS funding for instruction
provided "with" existing courses, in the same amount of time (a no-no);
another claimed it had mysteriously provided vocational instruction in
12-minute blocks four days a week to 91% of the school population.
No doubt some portion of Albertans' $80 million is well spent, but the
learning ministry apparently has no way of checking. Mr. Lapierre is
trying to find out which specific schools bilked the taxpayer. In the
meantime, when you hear teachers and administrators bleat about
underfunding (or the evil of home-schooling), think of
One from the "missing context" department. Here is an excerpt from a
November 10 Canadian Press story on the 80th anniversary of a great
"The Communist Party of Canada--which last had a member elected to the
House of Commons 56 years ago--has never formed the Canadian government.
But members argue it has influenced the country's social landscape...'I
think our strength has been, generally speaking, our ideas,' said Liz
Rowley, who is visiting Winnipeg from Toronto for the gathering. 'We're a
small party with big ideas.'"
One scans the story in vain for the name of the aforementioned
Communist MP. It was, of course, Fred Rose, who "influenced the social
landscape" by passing nuclear secrets to the Russians. Unmasked by
defector Igor Gouzenko in 1945, he was convicted of espionage, ejected
from Parliament and jailed. But Stalinism certainly qualifies as a "big
idea," we suppose.
From this magazine November 12, 1990:
The British Columbia Report checks in with young Vancouver Mayor
Gordon Campbell, seeking a third term in the November 17 civic election
(successfully, as it will turn out). Opponents mock the mayor for his
"fence-sitting" campaign slogan of "Hard Work and Decency," but observers
admit to being impressed by the lack of scandal surrounding Mr. Campbell
as B.C.'s Social Credit provincial government crumbles from within. "One
day, some are suggesting, Mayor Campbell could become Premier Campbell,"
predicts BCR reporter Ellen Saenger. The Socreds would love to have
him, but "the Kid" will have to start at the bottom as a regular MLA, they
say. One idea no expert suggests to BCR: that Mayor Campbell might
take over the inert provincial Liberals. Hey, some things are too
far-fetched to put in print!
This year, voters on the Gemini Awards for Canadian TV excellence made
a brave choice, giving the Best Comedy Direction statuette to an animated
show so politically incorrect that no American network will buy it.
John Callahan's Quads, which airs here on Teletoon and also in
Australia and Europe, is a scathing, funny account of a quadriplegic's
life based on the bitter, brilliant cartoons of the American "quad"
humorist John Callahan.
Technically groundbreaking but lo-fi, the show is made entirely on
computer with Macromedia's Flash program, the same one your 15-year-old
neighbour might use on his Web page. Computers have opened doors to
animators, but it is Mr. Callahan's sensibility that makes this show
guilty fun. The scatological modern-day Thurber is, to say the least, not
afraid to satirize the disabled: the infirm heroes of Quads call
themselves "The Magnificent Severed," and one is so messed up that there
is nothing left of him but a head on a skateboard. Familiar territory for
a cartoonist whose punchlines routinely incite death threats. (Chinese
couple: "Let's wok the dog." Bosomy secretary to colleague: "Remember,
it's only sexual harassment if they're not dateable.")
Canadian animator Chris Labonte took home the Gemini statuette and says
working with Mr. Callahan is a pleasure. "I always enjoy talking to him,
as I usually get a scoop on whatever cartoon he is working on that day,"
he says. "He sees everything we do. He could veto or change anything he
wants, but rarely does...I appreciate him trusting my judgment on so many
levels." Mr. Labonte says that the new tools for inexpensive animation are
fine, but the secret to good television has not changed. "I think it
really depends on the people involved, especially the
Nobel economics laureate James Buchanan dropped by Montreal on October
25 with a harsh message for Canadians. Fifty years ago, Prof. Buchanan's
pioneering work on equalization payments in federal states suggested that
large interprovincial transfers were the way to ensure that such a country
worked efficiently. His work inspired the creation of the equalization
programs now enshrined in our Constitution. But he told an audience at a
conference sponsored by three think-tanks that he would now "qualify" what
he said back then.
The problem, says Prof. Buchanan, is that interprovincial transfers
ideally need to go directly to individuals. If they are swapped between
governments, it creates "major inefficiency" as politicians and civil
servants devour the pie. "Once you have an equalization instrument in
place, as you have in Canada, there arise tremendous bureaucratic
values...in maintaining the system that you have," he told policy analyst
Peter Holle in a post-speech interview. "If politicians get money to spend
and don't have to be responsible for taxation, then of course that will
bias their attitude toward more spending as opposed to cutting back." The
result is a huge incentive for bloated "have-not" governments to avoid
even basic reforms.
There is possible social value, the professor still thinks, in a system
which discourages frantic interprovincial migration. Stable communities
are a good thing. But the past century has taught us to distrust
governments even when their motives are pure. For more of Prof. Buchanan's
ideas, check out the Frontier Centre's Web site at http://www.fcpp.org/.
president of the Canadian Medical Association urged the federal government
to bring Canadian doctors home from the United States with a big tax break
November 2. Dr. Henry Haddad called the need to prepare for terrorist
attacks an urgent matter of national security. Health Minister Allan Rock
appeared nonplussed by the idea, but did not point out that Dr. Haddad was
asking Canadian taxpayers to pay to take physicians away from a country
that is under real, present terrorist attack. Hopefully the money will
instead be spent instead on Canadian Forces helicopters that can actually
stay in the air.
Blood Services (CBS) is holding a "consensus conference" to review the
long-standing ban on blood donation by gay and bisexual men. Experts and
stakeholders were to convene in Ottawa to re-examine the "scientific,
ethical, moral and societal" principles behind blood-donation policies,
CBS president Graham Sher told the Ottawa Citizen. "A recipient of
a blood product has an absolute right to getting a product that is
maximally, optimally safe," he said. He then went on to say that this
right had to be "balanced" with the "wish or desire" of high-risk
individuals to donate blood. Perhaps Dr. Sher needs a refresher on the
dictionary meaning of "absolute," or on the contents of the Krever
A lawyer for
the Canadian Arab Federation lambasted the federal government's omnibus
anti-terrorism bill in a November 6 hearing of the Commons Justice
Committee. Calling it an "overly simplified reflex reaction," Amina
Sherazi complained that the terms of the bill would have meant serious
legal penalties for "Louis Riel, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi." It
seems Riel finds himself in classier company every year, but is Ms.
Sherazi aware that he was convicted of actual treason and hanged by the
neck until dead? No risk of anyone meeting that fate in today's
Minister Jean Chretien unleashed a surprising attack on
Progresso-Democratico-Conservo-Coalition Leader Joe Clark November 6,
making fun of the way Mr. Clark's jowls and hands shake during question
period in the House of Commons. Mr. Clark acknowledged that he has a
worsening case of Diefenbaker syndrome, but expressed surprise that our
spastic PM, "of all people," would mock another's physical infirmity. You
could almost say Mr. Chretien had put his foot in his mouth, but we have
never seen him get both sides of it open wide enough to accommodate a
the second-largest airline in the country, applied for legal protection
from its creditors last month. Arrangements made by the Ontario Superior
Court of Justice collapsed almost immediately when airports in other
jurisdictions, owed landing fees, seized planes from the company's fleet.
Formal bankruptcy followed on November 11. Travellers will no doubt greet
the news with mixed emotions: Canada 3000 kept Air Canada honest with good
international fares, but was the only airline in the world with staff even
more supercilious and inconsiderate than Air Canada's. R.I.P.
Dog-bites-man dept.: on November 7, Inspector Kash Heed of the
Vancouver police told the Nolin Committee, the Senate body reviewing
Canada's drug laws, that his force pursues a policy of "de facto
legalization," ignoring end-users of marijuana and focusing on sellers and
growers. The next day, senators toured a storefront that openly dispenses
medical marijuana. Senator Pat Carney asked how staff would tell "if
someone had overdosed"; this would in fact be pretty easy to spot, since
you would have to be injecting THC (the active ingredient) directly into
your bloodstream to OD on it. You might want to bone up on the science a
bit there, Pat, if you seriously intend to help determine national drug