The Only Good Song on the Radio

The only time I listen to pop music on the radio these days is when I’m driving. I don’t expect much, just something pleasant enough to keep me going with the traffic over the Burrard Street Bridge—something with a good beat, lyrics that are not too idiotic, and a catchy melody. Usually that’s what I get, but a few weeks ago I realized that radio music had gone dead for me. The only thing that kept me from switching over to a CD was one song. They didn’t play it often enough, and I kept waiting for it—the only good song on the radio.

I clearly remember the exact moment when I first got hooked on radio. A song came on with a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard, a song so insanely good that I had to turn up the volume and lean close to the brown Bakelite box in my grandmother’s kitchen. I knew that it was for kids my age in a way that no song had ever been before—Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” That’s so many years ago, and I’m still listening, listening for the Zeitgeist.

When the music on the radio goes dead, there’s something wrong in the world. I remember one of the worst years. Watergate, post-Nixon, Gerald Ford in the White House, the fall of Saigon, and I simply could not listen any longer to the music on the radio. Captain & Tennille, Glen Campbell, Freddy Fender, The Eagles, John Denver, The Bee Gees, The Doobie Brothers— Do I need to go on? Janis Ian, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John— I was always listening to something, so I slapped Dylan onto my turntable, and early Bowie and vintage Flat and Scruggs, but then, as a Christmas present, a dear friend gave me an album by someone I’d never heard of. I loved the picture on the cover—a young woman in a white shirt, a black jacket slung over her shoulder. Nobody had ever looked quite like that before, so Sally-Ann-cool and stunningly androgynous. Yeah, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, the great Patti Smith. She brought music back to life.

When I’m driving home, I know that I’m never going to hear a game-changer like “Horses” on commercial radio. All I want is a small ray of hope, and that’s exactly what I was getting from the only good song. Okay, so what was it? The phrase that stuck in my head was “the dark of the moon.” I Googled it, and all that gave me was the soundtrack to Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, and that sure wasn’t it. A day or so later I heard the song again and listened carefully. Ah, I’d heard it wrong. It was “the dark side of the moon.” Back to Google, and that gave me Pink Floyd. I felt like an idiot. What was I doing chasing a song that any media-savvy teenager could identify in ten seconds and I couldn’t?

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Private Thoughts — after Yen Shu

In happier times the setting sun

lacquered the waves in the harbor

now below the Lions the rain

has swelled the creeks into torrents

so many days of loneliness

and now desolation and no stove fire

I’d send a letter in a fish if I could

but everywhere rivers and mountains are endless



This poem is a collaboration between me, Yen Shu (991-1055), and, because I don’t read Chinese, the translator, Red Pine (Poems of the Masters, Copper Canyon Press). Some of Red Pine’s words are included here with no change whatsoever. The image of the letter in a fish is Yen Shu’s. The personal elements that locate the poem on Vancouver’s North Shore are mine.


Katniss Everdeen

Dear Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,

Since I emigrated to Canada in 1970, I have been listening to CBC Radio. I listen to it in much of my down-time—while I’m cooking, doing the dishes, putting away my socks, or driving my car. I regard CBC Radio as an old reliable friend, and I am writing to you in the spirit of friendship. In recent years Q was one of my favourite shows. The host is gone, but the show continues, and that’s what I want to talk about.
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Farewell, Rohan O’Grady



Canadian novelist, Rohan O’Grady, dies at 91 is a headline you will not read in any Canadian newspaper. June Skinner, who wrote under that pen name, has never received the recognition her work deserves. She never thought of herself as either a pioneering Canadian novelist or as a unique woman of letters, but she was both. She began publishing when Canadian novels were thin on the ground, and the publishers who picked her up were not in Toronto but in London and New York. From 1961 to 1981 she wrote in complete isolation, living a quiet life as a wife and mother in West Vancouver.

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Motet, Cover Image (detail), HarperCollins, 1997

Motet, Cover Image (detail), HarperCollins, 1997

This podcast is based on a scene in my novel, Motet.

Warning–this is a dark scene from the darkest of my novels. Some listeners might find it disturbing.

The scene opens in a loft on Queen Street in Toronto in 1977. My voice is probably too mature to be playing a character who hasn’t turned forty yet, but none the less, I am playing Steven Beuhl. Many readers have told me that they want to hear the voice of the author, so if it’s the author you want, you’ve got him! The amazing young Vancouver actress, Ranae Miller, is playing the punk rocker, Annie Epoxy.

If I were writing Motet now, Annie Epoxy would have a far bigger role in it. Reading the book again for the first time after twenty years, I found her a fascinating, complex, and utterly admirable character who deserves far more stage time than I originally gave her. When I was choosing a scene to dramatize, I knew I had to put her in it.
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Doris Lessing - The Golden NotebookLiterature is analysis after the event. Doris Lessing from The Golden Notebook.

To say that Doris Lessing had a huge impact on me as both a person and a writer is a monumental understatement.

I first read Lessing in 1970. For two years I had poured all of my energy into the American antiwar movement. At the time I read The Golden Notebook the New Left was exploding into fiery fragments. It was a time of bombs going off on campuses, of the Weatherman faction of SDS at the height of its insanity, of paranoia, of bone-grinding fear, of bleak nihilism. For two years I had not read fiction. I remembered the writers I used to love, felt a nostalgia for a lost time when an innocent sweetness had been possible, but in 1970, it was not possible to admire John Updike for his elegant prose. Then, suddenly, there was Lessing in all of her fury and intensity: WAKE UP, this is serious, this is BLOODY serious, this MEANS SOMETHING.
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The Knife’s music video for “A Tooth For An Eye” has some interesting similarities to Grimes’ “Oblivion.” I don’t mean to imply any direct influence. The same social conditions often produce similar lines of thought, and it doesn’t really matter whether Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the Swedish siblings who make up The Knife, have seen Grimes’ work or not.

As the video opens, we are in a locker room. The men walking in know each other and exchange greetings as they strip down to their workout gear. This is an athletic group of guys with well-toned bodies; they range in age from their twenties up to one venerable gent who’s fairly long in the tooth. They enter the gym through a door clearly labeled “Herrar”—Men—and find, to our surprise if not to theirs, that a young girl is in charge of their class. Her striped sweatsuit makes it impossible to pinpoint her age, but she could be as young as twelve. She immediately begins directing them in a series of supple movements that would be more appropriate for girls her age than for this collection of mature males. They do their best to follow her.

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Grimes – photo by John Londono


When my younger daughter moved out on her own, she left a copy of her music library on our kitchen computer. For years I hadn’t listened seriously to anything recorded later than the 80s, but I wanted to know what mattered to her and to other kids her age—especially to girls—so I started listening to her music. I found some great artists who were brand new to me—Cat Power, Postal Service, Iron and Wine, Metric, Sufjan Stevens, Tegan and Sara, Portishead. I also found hours of electronica, much of it unlabeled. I dimly sensed a change blowing in the cultural wind, so I wandered onto the net in search of something I knew I wouldn’t be able to identify until I’d found it. I wanted to experience a connection with what was going on right now as intensely as I’d felt when I first heard Bob Dylan in 1963.

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John K. Samson — Sing me a story I haven’t heard yet.

Date: Oct. 30, 2011 lkjlkjljl Photo by Jason Halstead

photo by Jason Halstead

Because I was going to interview John K. Samson, the Artist in Residence at UBC’s Creative Writing Program, I spent several weeks playing his CDs in my car stereo and then finished off my immersion in his music by listening in bed with my eyes shut. Before that I wasn’t very familiar with his work. I knew him, of course, as the lead singer for the Weakerthans, and a tune or two of his had floated by me on CBC Radio 3. Several friends had praised his work, telling me that there was no one anywhere quite like him. The more I listened, the more I realized that I was encountering a powerfully accomplished artist who was, indeed, like no one else. If you give John’s songs your full attention, they wind themselves deep into your psyche in a way that tells you they plan to stick around for a while.

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