My Calgarian Non-Musical Christmas Vacation
When you begin the descent into the Calgary airport, you can see the brown prairies divided into neat, square parcels of land that eventually give way to empty roads, sprawling neighbourhoods, and a downtown core that rises in the centre of the city, barely disrupting your view of the mountains in the distance. As you drive away from the airport, those mountains become clearer, standing at the western edge of the horizon as a contradiction to the flatness surrounding you. The sky is huge – people think you’re crazy for saying this if they haven’t seen it, but it really is huge. There’s nothing getting in the way of its span across the top half of your vision, and its upper boundaries seem impossibly high, since there’s rarely more than a couple of fluffy clouds marking its ceiling. It is a place of possibility in many ways.
Every time I go to Calgary, my hometown, I am greeted with these images upon arrival. And every time I leave, I gratefully escape. It is by far the most frustrating place on earth to me: a place whose physical beauty suggests that anything can happen while you are there, a place where you might experience your greatest elation or despair against such an immense environmental backdrop, yet it is a place that can also crush your spirit in a matter of minutes.
To be fair, my reasons for going back there now largely centre around family, and many old friends have either left or moved on, so I don’t have the same experiences there that I did when I was young and living there. That said, if I don’t bother to rent a car, I find myself relegated to the suburbs and its cultural offerings. Friends don’t want to meet far beyond the local Applebee’s or Starbucks; downtown is cited as “boring,” “too hard to park in,” or “too far,” and my interest in local country concerts and bars is met with great disdain.
Those attitudes have had bad repercussions for the local music industry. Seen as a conservative, materialistic, corporate town whose identity largely rides on the oil industry and its standout yearly cultural offering, the Stampede, record executives have avoided the city at all costs, figuring no good music could emerge from that environment. And if any music does get made there, it’s probably bad country played exclusively for line dancers and tourists visiting during Stampede.
But even that attitude is okay, aside from the fact that there are, or have been, great rock, punk, and folk music scenes over the years that were mostly ignored by the mainstream music industry. It is a country town, and there is some good country music being made. All kinds. There’s great bluegrass, decent honky tonk, sharp alt-country, and even some of that mainstream stuff that becomes most popular during tourist season. That’s why, when I went to work on my latest research project on line dancing and two-stepping, I was shocked to find out that that dancing has largely disappeared from the typical club-going experience. I used to be able to head out with friends on any given night to bars like Outlaws, Cowboys, or Ranchman’s, and guys would ask us to dance, and they all knew how to (reasonably) two-step. Aside from Ranchman’s, that is no longer the case.
What happened? Honestly, I think these people bought SUVs and would just prefer to go to Applebee’s.
That’s not a cynical exaggeration, either. Calgary really is an oppressive, materialistic place. Even though they all look casual, so many people care about appearance, possessions, the size of one’s house, and the number of cars they own. How can a good, local music scene thrive when one’s income is entirely spent on material possessions? Put a portion of that income towards a couple of pints and a meagre cover charge, and suddenly you’ve got a rockin’ scene. Ride your bike there too, because you’ll save parking money and the environment.
There are good acts in Calgary, but they’re not going to last forever. Many musicians have already left for various reasons that include frustration, high rent, lack of venues to play, and an overall incompatibility they feel with the city. It’s crazy because the money is good: you can actually make a full-time living playing music there, when so many other cities only offer venues that pay in beer for a single set at the end of a multi-band lineup.
I suppose my transition to full-blooded Torontonian was inevitable. Over the years, the summers haven’t felt quite as hot as they did that first August I arrived. I’m far more likely to yell at the guy who sits in my lap on the subway now than when I lived in Calgary, where I probably would have meekly shifted over to give him space.
But the great thing about Toronto is that you don’t feel like you won’t be accepted if you choose to live a little differently than your neighbour. There isn’t a uniform identity dropped over the city that everyone feels some compulsion to conform to. Country music lovers and car drivers live next to dubstep aficionados and bike riders, and you can live in a giant house and not own it, and spend all of your disposable income on hundreds of concerts every week instead of a third big screen TV.
The polarity of two cities may be meaningless outside of Canada, or for those who haven’t lived in either (or both) cities, although I think there are parallel examples all over the world. Toronto is no angel: we’ve got the biggest wiener mayoring it out for the next three years, and there are obviously many car-drivin’, anti-property-tax-payin’ peeps who voted him in and love him despite our disappearing libraries, parks, and garbage pickup. But at least we live relatively harmoniously and the music here kicks ass.
Obviously, there’s all kinds of reasons why the two cities developed as they have that I don’t address here – immigration patterns, economic activity, geographical space, and sheer density – I’m aware of that despite my disgruntled Christmas-vacation rambling.
And I don’t forget what home really is. This morning on the subway I was listening to Ian Tyson’s Eighteen Inches of Rain and when “M.C. Horses” came on I had to bury my head in my book so nobody would see me crying over a country song. It so clearly evokes my own experience of the west that the world comes to a halt when I hear it. You can hear the bigness of the sky in the arrangement, and the friendly communal atmosphere of local country bars in his tone. So I drag home and all of my conflicting feelings about it with me everywhere I go, listening to it nostalgically to forget the discordance I feel in my trips back. It seems that even though I couldn’t stay there, I could never really leave.