Berner chron­i­cles an ephemeral sub­cul­ture

On the page and on record, the tune­smith and nov­el­ist aims to doc­u­ment the life and hard times of the western Cana­dian mu­si­cian

The Georgia Straight - - Music -

The late com­poser, gui­tarist, 2

rock icon­o­clast, and hy­per­in­tel­li­gent jerk Frank Zappa liked to talk about his work in terms of con­cep­tual con­ti­nu­ity, mean­ing in part that char­ac­ters, themes, mu­si­cal struc­tures, and ob­ses­sions might emerge on one al­bum, sub­merge for a while, and then reap­pear at a later date. Think of it this way, he told bi­og­ra­pher Peter Oc­chiogrosso: “A nov­el­ist in­vents a char­ac­ter. If the char­ac­ter is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up any­time in a fu­ture novel.”

Ge­off Berner’s mu­sic isn’t any­thing like Zappa’s, but on the ev­i­dence of his new book, The Fid­dler Is a Good Woman, and al­bum, Cana­di­ana Grotesquica, the two share a sim­i­lar mind­set. The sec­ond in­stall­ment of an even­tual tril­ogy, The Fid­dler is writ­ten from a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive from its pre­de­ces­sor, Fes­ti­val Man: that 2013 opus was told al­most ex­clu­sively by roots im­pre­sario Camp­bell Ouini­ette, while the new book is a panorama, narrated by a shift­ing ar­ray of mostly fe­male char­ac­ters. But the sub­ject mat­ter—the life and hard times of the western Cana­dian mu­si­cian—re­mains the same. Char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing Ouini­ette and the au­thor him­self, play re­cur­ring roles. And those peo­ple of­ten re­sem­ble real mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing Berner’s col­lab­o­ra­tors; vi­o­lin­ist Diona Davies is one of his fre­quent tour­ing com­pan­ions, for in­stance, and the string wizard of the new book’s ti­tle just hap­pens to be nick­named D.D.

But Berner is quick to point out that he’s writ­ing fic­tion, not bi­og­ra­phy; his pro­tag­o­nists are based on real peo­ple, but they’re com­pound fig­ures, not lim­ited to a sin­gle source. More im­por­tant is that his books chron­i­cle a sub­cul­ture that’s gen­er­ally ex­am­ined only fleet­ingly, in im­per­ma­nent me­dia such as ra­dio shows and weekly magazines.

“These peo­ple mat­ter, you know,” he tells the Straight in a tele­phone in­ter­view from his Cedar Cot­tage home. “These things that I love are bound to dis­ap­pear, like ev­ery­thing dis­ap­pears—but some bit of them is not go­ing to dis­ap­pear, if I can do any­thing about it.”

There’s a link per­haps to the work of beat au­thors Jack Ker­ouac and Allen Gins­berg, who cre­ated fic­tional worlds out of real-life peo­ple and their low-rent hero­ism, and whose writ­ings have of­fered a tem­plate to suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of non­con­formists.

“If you have some kind of hope in hu­man­ity,” Berner says, “it goes be­yond just cap­tur­ing the zeit­geist and into leav­ing some kind of record for kids who stum­ble upon this 20 years from now—kids who are lis­ten­ing to mass me­dia and the hits and stuff like that, and think­ing ‘Am I the only one who thinks this is all garbage?’ Maybe run­ning across this book will let them go ‘No! There’s al­ways been peo­ple who’ve found a way to make a dif­fer­ent kind of cul­ture that mat­ters more.’ ”

That’s a ro­man­tic hope ex­pressed in plain­spo­ken lan­guage, a no­tion fur­ther re­in­forced by the de­ter­minedly rootsy Cana­di­ana Grotesquica, which moves away from the klezmer­in­flected elo­quence of re­cent ef­forts such as Victory Party and We Are Go­ing to Bre­men to Be Mu­si­cians in favour of the alt-coun­try sound that was in vogue when Berner be­gan his mu­si­cal ca­reer.

In fact, some of those songs have been wait­ing quite a while to find a for­ever home. “There was no way I could put them on any of those klezmer-punk records,” Berner ex­plains. “They’re re­ally built from my ex­pe­ri­ence of tour­ing Western Canada.…and when I came up as a singer-song­writer, a lot of the peo­ple I toured with were ba­si­cally singer-song­writ­ers with some twang in them. They were coun­try—and in a lot of ways they were more coun­try than pop­u­lar coun­try mu­sic, but they had this punk back­ground and at­ti­tude.”

Berner’s affin­ity for that scene— and that sound—is prob­a­bly best ex­pressed in “Don’t Play Cards for Money With Corby Lund”, a self­ex­plana­tory if some­what sur­real ac­count of Al­berta’s lead­ing in­die song­ster and card­sharp. And if you need proof that both The Fid­dler Is a Good Woman and Cana­di­ana Grotesquica are cut from the same cloth, con­sider “Rule of the Road”; both book and song enu­mer­ate all the things—the “del­i­cate cir­cuitry” of ev­ery­thing from friend­ships to Fender amps—that can get bro­ken dur­ing a cross-coun­try tour.

One dif­fer­ence, though, is that the song doesn’t men­tion hearts.

“Note that I didn’t say that,” Berner says with a laugh. “That’s good song­writ­ing.”

And yes, yes it is.

> ALEXAN­DER VARTY

Ge­off Berner plays a launch party for Cana­di­ana Grotesquica and The Fid­dler Is a Good Woman at the Rus­sian Hall on Satur­day (September 9), as part of the Ac­cor­dion Noir Fes­ti­val. For a full Ac­cor­dion Noir sched­ule, visit ac­cor­dion­noir­fest.com/.

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