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Gerry Hannah is best known as the author of the (Vancouver, BC) Subhumans classics “Slave To My Dick” and “Fuck You,” widely considered to be two of the greatest anthems to come out of the first generation punk scene here. He also has a degree of notoriety associated with his time in the radical activist group Direct Action (sometimes called the Squamish Five or the Vancouver Five), for which he ended up going to prison. I have always respected Gerry not only for his songs, but for his association with that group, though not because I believe in the methods that they used – see my interview with near-casualty Terry Chikowski here for some thoughts on that, though note that Gerry Hannah was not involved in that particular action. No, I respect Gerry because, as a young man growing up, discovering politics more or less through punk rock, I believed, admittedly naively, that punk was intended as a seriously revolutionary social movement, not just a style of music or fashion or entertaining way of standing out in the crowd. Back in those days, I took various slogans that I encountered on the backs of DOA albums (or agit-prop incitements to action in Crass lyrics) rather seriously; and when DOA recorded “Burn It Down” in 1983 in support of Hannah, as part of a Free the Five “Emergency Issue” benefit single, I bought it in more ways than one. I read the “Letter from Gerry” contained therein, and felt both scared and excited to be involved in a form of music that was actually (to all appearances) intent on revolution, or at least stirring things up a bit. I was fifteen back then. Times were different (maybe).
Thirty years or so later, I’m older, milder, tired-er, and maybe a smidgen wiser, and I realize that when (or if?) the revolution finally comes I will probably be among those promptly purged, which I don’t look much forward to (and hardly advocate). I still respect Gerry, however, for walking the talk of punk back in the day. He didn’t know that you were never actually supposed to do that – that punk in fact WAS (mostly) just a style of music, a fashion, an entertaining way of standing out in the crowd. Particularly in North America, there was actually no real threat to it at all (except maybe to the punks themselves, when rednecks or cops beat the shit out of them). It was (mostly) all bark and no bite – something which Repo Man director Alex Cox and I talk about this elsewhere on the Big Takeover site (Hannah’s name comes up). I still listen to punk, and still respect idealistic present-day punk bands like The Rebel Spell (see here and here for my interviews with them) for remaining committed to social justice, environmentalism, and so forth; but I don’t really believe their music, or anyone’s, can change the world all that much, no matter how good it is. It’s enough that it’s smart, engaging, and potent. Besides, as Gerry’s former bandmate in the Subhumans, Mike Graham , once said to me, when being interviewed about the Subhumans under-rated comeback New Dark Age Parade , “It’s always kinda hard to say what kind of effect anything cultural can have – a book or a movie or anything. Can it have a practical effect? I dunno. But I think it’s important to kinda keep, uh, making cultural stuff that’s aware of the situation. The only alternative to that is having a culture that’s completely devoid of meaning.” (And Lord knows we have enough of that in the world).
While Gerry Hannah was still in prison, I briefly owned his Songs From Underground cassette, an album of acoustic folk songs that he recorded in jail and released in 1985. I loved at least one of the songs on it beyond all measure: “Like a Fire,” which stood out even to my youthful ears as a classic of depressive folk music, and which stands up today as being every bit as grim and beautiful as the most heart-rending offerings of Townes van Zandt (with the added value of having political weight to it). Problem was, I wasn’t all that much of a fan of depressive folk music at that time. I was interested in hardcore, and the at times pretty, gentle, sincere music elsewhere on Songs From Underground (there’s a song called “Summertime,” for instance) didn’t do much for me. It wasn’t bad – I didn’t gag the way I would have if I’d heard, at that opinionated and excessive age, his rather New Agey solo synthesizer stuff, Whereabouts Unknown , that he also put out on cassette, a couple of years later. But I didn’t really dig it, and after a few months of listening to it, I sold my copy of Songs From Underground (incidentally, to the same Vancouver record dealer, Ty Scammell , who acquired some notoreity for his unearthing the New Creation ‘s Troubled and passing it on to outsider music scout James Brouwer ). Who knows where that copy of that cassette is now. Someone is trying to sell one on Discogs as I write this for $199.99. It’s not actually an unreasonable price, for the artifact-oriented.
In point of fact, I kinda wish Gerry had reissued Songs From Underground – maybe on vinyl. It has the charm of being the original, historic recording, and though Hannah makes clear in the liner notes to Coming Home that the earlier recordings’ limitations irk him, I’ve never actually minded the production of it. Some of it sounds pretty great, considering the limited resources he had at his disposal (the version of “Living With The Lies” off the Terminal City Ricochet soundtrack is taken straight from the cassette). But those who know Gerry know he’s a bit of a perfectionist, and he probably has less fondness for some of those songs nowadays (they age unequally well, and a couple of songs, like “Cold Kechika Wind,” do seem a little overwrought and youthful now, even though I miss their absence on Coming Home).
But that’s neither here nor there. Instead of a reissue, Gerry Hannah has re-recorded seven of the best of the songs on the old cassette, with a variety of musicians providing (mostly) folky accompaniment on banjo, cello, fiddle and so forth. He’s augmented these re-recordings with seven previously unheard songs, many of a piece with his prison material. The CD, Coming Home, can be previewed on his bandcamp and ordered through CD Baby . For the record, the songs that survive from Songs From Underground are “Rejuvenation,” “Living With the Lies,” “Lost in the Night,” “Sure Looks That Way,” “Holy American Empire,” “Like a Fire,” and “The Madness.”
(Gerry Hannah photographed with the Subhumans, by Allan MacInnis)
Here are some reactions to the new CD, track by track:
“You Can Take It From Me” begins with 70’s-style guitar soloing (from Mark Campbell , one of three lead guitarists credited on the album) over driving acoustic folk, with plenty of mandolin from Scott Fletcher . It’s actually more of a rock song than a folk song; it has a nice angry bite to it, gets the blood up. The song, the liner notes explain, describes being lectured by a full-of-himself parole officer, who tells Hannah to give up his political commitments and lead a normal middle class life; the best lyric seizes on a nice concrete image from the guy’s office, that “the naugahyde’s real but the flowers are fake,” which immediately hooks into the brain and stakes out a corner. The image says far more about the world that we’re living in than any single concrete image in a song usually does, and resonates against everyone’s experience of how phony our current world can be. This is probably my favourite of the new songs (or at least previously unreleased ones, since a lot of these were written around the same time as the Songs From Underground material). It’s a great song to kick things off with.
“Rejuvenation,” which is one of the more inspiring songs on the album, gets more of a country treatment, mostly courtesy of Jenny Bice , who plays violin, though Brad Gordon’s lead is pretty twangy, too, when the solo comes around. I’m not sure about this one, frankly. It’s still a good song, showing the singer’s self-talk as he reaffirms his beliefs, but it wasn’t one of my favourites on Songs From Underground . It’s got some very full instrumentation, lots going on, but this is the one song on the album where the production or the mixing or something isn’t quite up to snuff. The most amusing moment comes when Hannah revisits his assertion that there’s right and wrong and “no in-between,” counselling in some between-verse patter against absolutism, in a line that was missing from the original recording. So this is not quite the same guy who recorded these songs in the 1980’s. To be honest, I prefer Gerry Hannah when he’s grim and pessimistic, probably because pessimism gives me an excuse for inaction. “Rejuvenation” is probably better suited to people actually trying to make a difference in the world.
The next two songs are both songs of experience. “Same Old Song Again” is an inquiry into relationships, driven by Hannah’s at times excessive introspectiveness; as with the Subhumans’ “Nowhere To Run Anymore,” it either will or won’t connect with listeners, if they have had similar experiences (discovering that you’re playing out an old pattern in a new relationship). By me, the best part is an instrumental bridge around the two minute mark, a cool bit of riffage that pops up again near the end. The cello, from Vancouver’s Peggy Lee , is nicely ethereal; she’s an intense and interesting player on the jazz scene here, and it’s quite cool that she pops up on this album.
The instrumentation is even richer and more accomplished on “In The Final Days,” which begins with a nice line of acoustic guitar and some dark, bluegrassy backwoods banjo that reminds one of Clarence Ashley or something, from someone named Jason Homey . The song deals with activists in prison, and whether their sacrifice is worth it (Hannah concludes it was). It’s very much of a piece with Songs From Underground , though it’s not from those sessions. Again, it’s a hard one for me to connect with lyrically, since I’ve never been in a place remotely like the one Hannah is writing from. “In these times of withered dreams/ It seems we’ve lost the sun/ All the work that took so long/ it seems it’s all undone/ So many gains lay by the roadside/ so many freedoms lost/ But life cannot be won from death/ Except without some cost…” Some nice background vocals on this one, and effective reverb on the guitar (Mark Campbell again).
“Half-Life” moves back towards something rock oriented, with a strong rhythm guitar track keeping it propulsive; the whole thing sounds cool enough that I don’t mind that I don’t really agree where Hannah’s coming from lyrically – or at best don’t really understand it. He talks somewhat obliquely about pornography as “mutilated nature/ married to machines,” describes it in terms of “symptoms” and “disease,” and somehow even works in a Wizard of Oz reference (?!). I don’t really mind pornography that much, though, personally. Maybe I’m just warped by decades of jerking off to magazines and computers, but I’m still more of a fan of Robin Bougie and Cinema Sewer , and his attempts to remove the shame and stigma from porn consumption and bring it out into public discourse. If the way out is the way forward, then that seems the path to be on. Gerry may well feel like the way back is best, however. Direct Action had a decidedly old-school feminist side to them. This led to a splinter group, the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade – including Hannah’s then-partner Julie Belmas – firebombing a video store distributing porn in BC, Red Hot Video. (Should she ever write her memoirs it will likely be the most interesting chapter). Anyhow: that’s a nicely discordant, VU-ish guitar solo, with backmasked music swirling from headphone to headphone, and there’s some cool percussion. It’s an enjoyable listen but I just don’t grok it.
…and here’s a very country version of “Living With The Lies!” Hannah has given it a markedly different, punchier arrangement, which is a smart idea, since this is the most easily accessed song from his old cassette, thanks to the Terminal City Ricochet soundtrack (which comes free on CD if you buy the DVD from Alternative Tentacles , note). It’s a good version, good song, one of his more passionate moments. He makes the point in the liner notes that the song was not written about Julie Belmas, which, apparently, was something she came to believe. I am not going to write much about that here, because a) I don’t want to have to do the work required to get the details right, because b) what was said by whom and why is no doubt contentious; because c) I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes, and because d) I kind of agree with William S. Burroughs ‘ sage advice to never get involved in a boy and girl fight. The song’s not about Belmas anyhow. Great song, great version of it – though I kind of wish Terminal City Ricochet had immortalized “Like a Fire” instead.
The next tune, “Lost in the Night,” has some nice details in the production, again with Peggy Lee doing some really interesting, haunting stuff on cello and some powerful guitar leads (from the Subhumans’ Mike Graham himself!). It’s a song very directly about fear, and fighting it, taking you inside the thought processes that led to Hannah’s radicalization: “You’ve got to smash/ you’ve got to break/ the tools that forge/ this nightmare state.” An interesting re-working of a song I never really paid much time to on the cassette; it’s harder to overlook here, a definite improvement on the original, which definitely benefits a full band. The “broken child tied to a stake” – now could THAT be a reference to Julie?
The next song, “Sure Looks That Way,” is my second favourite song on Songs From Underground , and foregrounds the pessimistic side of Hannah’s spectrum. It’s a little less grim on Coming Home than it was initially, but Codeine ‘s cover version sort of cornered the market on grim reinterpretations of this particular song, and the more upbeat, more-or-less country arrangement makes a nice counterpoint to the chorus (“We’re dead, I know it/ Sure looks that way to me/ We’re dead I know it/ Just look around and see.”) Hannah kind of apologizes for his pessimism in the liner notes; it is pretty interesting that anyone with so grim a sensibility could have ever roused himself to political action, or anything beyond sitting on the couch moaning about how shitty everything is.
Following “Sure Looks That Way,” we have another song about relationships, “Awake Again.” Pretty mandolin from Scott Fletcher, simple and sincere images about being transformed by love. It’s a nice, touching, heartfelt song. I hope it was written about the woman that Hannah is now with. That would be a nice thing for both of them.
And then there’s the boy-and-girl fight rearing up in earnest: “The Woman Reborn,” which deals with Hannah’s crushing disappointment at seeing his then-partner and co-urban guerrila Julie Belmas at her sentencing appeal, turning on her co-defendants (an act he characterizes as a “betrayal” in his liner notes). This is a painful song to listen to, with emotions that are, again, rather hard to identify with, since they describe a moment in a relationship that is hard to imagine oneself in (which is just as well, to be honest; it’s bad enough to have relationships end in recrimination and regret, without adding trials and prison sentences to the mix, to say nothing of the meddlings of the nascent Canadian security service CSIS and such, helpfully helping to turn people against each other). It no doubt will be the most controversial song on the album; it’s accusatory and angry, but also very, very sad. To be honest, I feel a bit uncomfortable with this song. I hope that something positive comes out of making it public. There was a time when I slathered for inside information as to the workings of Direct Action, and people still on that page will want to hear this tune, but I lost enthusiasm for that kind of voyeurism when I realized just how much certain people could stand to be hurt by re-opening some of these wounds…
Then we have the best take on one of the Songs From Underground, “Holy American Empire.” It’s completely reworked into a rock song, faster than the original, and there’s Mike Graham again. He’s a seriously under-appreciated punk guitarist, and he soars on this. This is a good song on Songs From Underground , but everything about it is improved here – the arrangement, the level of anger and intensity, the conviction of the delivery; it’s another high point on Coming Home.
“Like a Fire,” the next song, is just a great one, as I say above. It’s a bit of a stronger version of it than on Songs From Underground , in terms of the muscularity of the delivery, with added instrumentation, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on the previous recording, which has a nice minimal starkness to it somewhat more appropriate to the subject matter. “Have you seen the young/ playing in the street/ learning to be cruel/ learning how to cheat/ Have you seen the old/ distance in their eyes/ walking down the road/ using up their lives/ Life is like a fire/ It can burn you til you’re gone/ Dreams go up in smoke/ Still you struggle on.” Some of Gerry’s finest lyrics. Interestingly, the “can” in there modifies and somewhat lessens the original chorus, which just reads, “life is like a fire/ burns you til you’re gone.” On the other hand, Hannah omits the “cheer-‘em-up” lyric tagged on at the end, affirming that the listener is not alone. That’s a good move. Let’s take our hopelessness straight, thanks; that final lyric always rang a bit false, anyhow.
Then there’s the best overtly country song on the album, “Winding Ribbon of Dreams,” about driving on winding country roads. No overt political message at all, just a good song about an experience that anyone can identify with. You could imagine a fan of Stan Rogers getting into this; Jenny Bice’s violin almost gives it a Maritime feeling. It’s interesting that Hannah follows this song, with its images of freedom and release, with one of the grimmest of his prison songs, “The Madness,“about being locked up in prison, wanting to “just get one phone call” to the outside world and not being allowed. It’s a hell of a note to end the album on, actually; you don’t expect him to let grimness prevail.
There’s probably no one person out there who is the perfect listener for the range of emotions and ideas contained on Coming Home. It’s an intimate, honest album, drawing on a unique and complex life. Still, it’s rewarding and interesting, and anyone who cares about the Subhumans (Canada), who is interested in politically motiviated or introspective folk music; or anyone who has spent time in prison – especially for activist-related activities – or who knows and likes Gerry Hannah’s writings and songs should give it a listen. Not many albums like this one will ever exist.
Now if maybe someone could put out a limited vinyl edition of Songs From Underground …
(Note: see Gerry Hannah’s bandcamp here , or read his recently re-vamped blog here . You can also attempt to friend him on Facebook , which he only just joined a few weeks ago – though he ask that you send him a message letting him know who you are and why you want to friend him. He’s a bit ambivalent about social media, as you might imagine).
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