The Rheostatics
Green Sprouts

It was fall 1991, we were in the midst of the explosion of grunge and the return of U2 from a commercial and creative roadblock when, one night, fighting insomnia, I was watching MuchMusic in the basement living room of the house on Ralph St. in the Glebe, a tony Ottawa neighbourhood.  I shared the place with Eugene and his brother, Jean-Paul.  I had moved into this place that summer, starting my first year of university at Carleton.  I had made the arrangement initially with Gabrielle, or Gabby, who was Eugene’s girlfriend.  But they broke up in September, so it was me and the brothers.  They were, in many ways, ideal roommates.  We hung out sometimes, but we weren’t friends.  The landlord’s son, Angelo, lived upstairs.  As for Gab, she moved out, but as fate would have it, we found we needed a roommate the following spring, and we moved into a nicer flat in Lower Town, not far from Byward Market.

All of this history feels so, so long ago.  I left Ottawa in 1993, depressed by pretty much everything about it, and returned to Vancouver, moving to the University of British Columbia to finish my undergrad.  I moved back to Ottawa five years later as my girlfriend at the time, Christine, began law school at Université d’Ottawa.  I fled that scene in 2000, moving back home to Montréal.

So anyway, in that basement living room, with some shitty beer in hand, this video came on.  I’d never seen or heard anything like this before. I think I had heard of the Rheostatics before, but I can’t remember anymore.  The video starts with a guy cranking up a chainsaw on the ice of some Canadian lake.  And then the camera jump cuts to an extreme close up of Rheos’ front man, Martin Tielli.  There was something about his face, compelling and kind of scary, as he sang this rather disturbing song.

The song, the drums, the tight snare, the slashing guitars.  And, my god, looking back now, the lads are young.  But I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of this song.

Joey pulled himself to his knees,
Pulled his body back up the bank
and looked back down there.
Said the water was not that deep,
But I almost drowned there
You can drown in a bathtub
So they… say.

Someone in class called me a loser
So I decided to skip the day
(hey hey) skip the day.
Tried to look casual sneakin round the back
As I shotput across the track
Into the gate beside the portables
But a red tie and school gray slacks
Doesn’t blend in with the grass
As the teacher was changing class.

He chased me half way through the park
Till I ran into the woods
Then I’m (very good) in THE WOODS!
So I was an Indian
The player by the creek
And dried my eyes there.
There’s a record body count this year
There’s a record body count THIS YEAR!

Joey stepped up on a block of ice,
Put a rope around his neck.
Fell asleep before he died.

I eventually found the album it was on, Melville, in a record store on Bank St. that I can’t remember the name of, it was at the corner of Bank and Slater streets, where there’s a Horton’s now.  Seems kind of fitting, in a way. The Rheos are a Canadian institution and the record store I bought this album in is now another Canadian institution.  Serenfuckingdipity.  I guess.

This entire album was something new for me.  Never heard anything like it.  It begins with that track, ‘Record Body Count,’ which was probably their biggest hit, and then it takes off from there.  I didn’t know what to make of it, but I wasn’t surprised these cats were so sideways, given the first track.  But ‘Record Body Count’ gives way to ‘Aliens (Christmas 1988),’ which is about, you guessed it, an alien visit at Christmas 1988.

Tielli is one of the most enigmatic frontmen I can think of.  I’ve seen the Rheostatics about 200,000 times in the years since, and it took a long time to realize that he suffers, or suffered, from stage fright.  He was aloof on stage, smiled now and then, but was so, so intense.  And he plays a double-neck guitar.  HIs voice is singular.  He and Dave Bidini, the other guitarist, run the show on stage live, but the Rheos are still a band.  Their origins date back to 1978 in suburban Toronto, when when Bidini and bassist Tim Vessely formed the band with David Crosby (not that one) on synths and Rod Westlake on drums.  Westlake didn’t last long and Dave Clark (not that one) joined up and he’s been the most consistent drummer across the band’s history.  And Tielli joined in 1985, having been a bandmate of Clark’s previously.  And there we go.  All four members of the band contributed songs.

Side 1 of the album ends with one of the greatest Canadian song ever written, ‘Horses.’ The song is a recollection of the shuttering of a plant from the recollection of a worker.  As Bidini sings, the guitars slash and burn, occasionally even screeching, and the song shifts directions musically any number of times, and Tielli lays down a sick solo or two.

Word came down and it crashed through my door
From the twenty-first floor.
I was thinking about leaving early for lunch
When he told me to shut off my press.
His face turned green and his white shirt was wet
Like he’d just seen an accident.
We threw our masks into a pile.
The trucks pulled away for good.
Holy Mackinaw Joe.
A bus pulled in, and I waved at it,
Before I knew what it was.
We ran in its tracks, chasing its tires,
But the gates had been riveted shut.
I looked for the foreman: His number was empty.
Up to Red Deer to stay.
We gathered some signs and we sparked up a fire.
Gordie got burned on the high-voltage wire.
Holy Mackinaw Joe.
The first thing she’ll ask me is: “How did it go today?”
And I’ll tell her.
I thought there was strength in a union.
I thought there was strength in a mob.
I thought the company was bluffing,
When they threatened to chop us off.
Ah, these guns will wilt, the winter will seize,
And all the bonfires will go out.
The company knows when they can afford to be bold.
I wish I could, I wish I could, I wish I could.
Holy Mackinaw Joe.

As a child of deindustrialization, this song always hit hard, I could see the characters, in their blue jackets, their work pants, their work boots, their ball caps, getting fucked over and thrown out of work, all Bay Street could get richer.  Meanwhile, homes were lost, divorces, broken families, alcoholism, violence, drug addiction.  I sometimes think we lost an entire generation due to deindustrialization, a mixture of our parents and we, their children.

Side Two starts with ‘Christopher,’ which is another pastoral track, but so clearly a Rheos song, as Bidini’s guitar slashes and burns, Tielli is the showman, and Vessely’s bass drives the track forward over Clark’s drums.  And then we get ‘Chanson Les Ruelles,’ centred around a very French-sounding bass guitar and Tielli singing in French with a purposefully very bad Ontario accent.  The playfulness of the song is at odds with the rest of the album, and I’ve always seen it as a break, a nod to fun.

‘It,’ I remember the first time I heard this song, I was on the #7 bus from downtown Ottawa to Carleton, the bus smelled like Canadian autumn in a city, wet wool and the stuffiness of the heating on the articulated bus.  The faded red seats of the bus, the black and red livery of OC Transpo, all deeply embedded in my consciousness.  The ads for Pizza Pizza, on the bus, in the bus, on the bus stops.  They were endless.  We were on Bank St. still downtown, not yet under the Queensway and into the Glebe (and from then over the Rideau Canal into South Ottawa and then turning right towards Carleton).  The song starts off so pretty, but ends with another fiery solo from Tielli, and I had to rewind the cassette on my Walkman and start it over again just to hear that guitar.

This was one of my favourite things about the Rheos, because in so many ways, Tielli’s double-necked guitar, his pyrotechnics, they’re so at odds with the alternative rock stylings of the band, which, to be fair, are also deeply versed in jazz and damn near everything else.

And then ‘When Winter Comes.’  My cassette version of the album ended here, with this song another one of the greatest Canadian songs ever written.  For those of you keeping track at home, this is one album with three of the greatest songs in Canadian history: ‘Record Body Count,’ ‘Horses,’ and ‘When Winter Comes.’

This is another unconventional track, it starts of with the two guitars of Tielli and Bidini duelling, back and forth, back and forth for the first 90 seconds before the song breaks out.  And we get a Canadian song, the lyrics could only be from there.

I read about your band in the entertainment news.
Struck me how you sounded so cynical.
For every Ocean Ranger and penny-poor reserve,
You’re wasted in a tavern with other wasted birds.
What about The Band? What about the Guess Who?
The day they made the charts in Billboard magazine…
All the Irish armies couldn’t teach you
Of independence, peace, and brotherhood.
I hope I’m never bitter, and I hope I never change.
I hope I have a reason to be concerned.
For all the wounded divers and all the sunken crews
Wouldn’t know the secrets of the deep had they waited on board.
Ah, someone wants a contract and someone wants a crumb,
Some will dress in greasepaint on Video Hits…
All the Irish armies couldn’t keep you
From standing there, speaking sabre-toothed.
Do you get the urge when winter comes?
All the laughing scarecrows and all the cocaine dogs
Couldn’t bark me down my fence into the middle of your yard.
Someone wants a contract and someone wants a crumb,
Some will sing in greasepaint on Video Hits.
All the Irish armies couldn’t keep you
From hiking like an injured, aimless mule.
Do you get the urge when winter comes?
In the blue Canadian winter, I’ll follow your trail
Till your love becomes a snowbank hardened by gael.
When ice appears on matchsticks and the salt trucks fail,
And coalmen hibernate through their alarms.
In the blue Canadian winter an iceman roams,
Building railroads made of iron, sweat, and skin.
When you become thawed-out your love will swamp the tracks,
And my heart will be restored with virgin blood.
Warm, your warm, Victoria.
I have never figured out who it is that the Rheos are calling out, the cynical singer whose band was in the entertainment news, but it doesn’t really matter.  They talk about our national pride at the Band and Guess Who, two legendary Canadian band that made it South of the border, hitting the Billboard charts.  Singing in grease paint on Video Hits, the 30-minute rock video show on the CBC every weekday at 5.30 when I was a kid in the 80s.  And winter.  Well, if you don’t know, that’s something we do well in Canada.  It’s kind of like our natural environment.  And when matchsticks ice, salt trucks fail, and the coal men sleep in, it’s damn cold.  But you know where winter isn’t cold in Canada?  That’s right, in warm, your warm Victoria.  In British Columbia, the capital of the province, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, lying actually south of the 49th parallel, the border between Canada and the US from Lake of the Woods on the Ontario/Manitoba/Minnesota border to the end of the mainland between BC and Washington state.
In 1994, I saw the Rheos at the Town Pump in Vancouver, and I was right up front, though I don’t remember who I was with.  This song made me happy, and I sang along.  In between his vocal bits, Bidini nodded down to me and was happy I did know the words.  Bidini has gone on to write books, about hockey, and now publishes an independent newspaper in Toronto, the West End Phoenix.  I met him briefly after that gig, and I thought he was a really nice guy.  I’ve talked to him a few times on Twitter, and my opinion hasn’t changed.  I was too afraid of Tielli to approach him after that gig.
The CD version of the album has the Rheos taking on one of the most legendary of Canadian songs, Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,’ but they make the song their own.  This is moody, guitar heavy, and Tielli’s voice brings out the fear and panic of the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  It is ironic that one fo the most legendary of Canadian songs is actually about an American ship wreck on Lake Superior.  Whereas Lightfoot’s version is warm and a remembrance of the men who lost their lives, the Rheostatics make it moody, dark, the guitars are like flashes of lightning across the sky of Lake Superior, the drums are the thunder.  For me, having heard Lightfoot’s version about 100,000 times in my life, and it remains one of my favourite of his songs, the Rheostatics took this song, grabbed it by the throat, and strangled it, creating a terrorscape of a ship going down in a vicious storm on an inland sea.  It still gives me chills, all these decades later, to hear this version.
As for Melville, which could be named after the author (there is a big whale on the cover), or the town of Melville, Saskatchewan, is now regarded as one of the best albums in Canadian music history and today, the Rheostatics are regarded as one of the most influential bands in Canadian history.  Not that I can think of any artists who sound like them today, but their influence is in pieces in today’s artists, the way vocals are delivered, the way guitars slash and burn, and the atmospherics.  Chart magazine was a Canadian music mag that lived from 1991 to 2009, and in 1996, 2000, and 2005, it created a poll of the 50 greatest Canadian albums.  In 1996, Melville was 16th.  In 2000, it was fifth, behind the Rheostatics’ 1992 album, Whale Music, as it turns out.  In 2005, it fell 44th.  I’m not sure what Chart was smoking in 2005, but there’s no bloody way this album is only the 44th best in Canadian history.
The Rheos, for their part, split in 2007, but reformed eight years later.  I, though, have not seen them in their second coming, given I have lived in the United States the whole time of their second act.  Listening to this album both brings warmth to my Canadian soul in America, and it makes me homesick, but I suppose not for Canada as it is in 2021, but for Canada as it was in 1991, when I was a kid, essentially.  Not that I would ever want to go back to that.  I will wear my age with grace, and still rage at the night.