COLUMN

The wicked tunes of High River

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM August 31 1992
COLUMN

The wicked tunes of High River

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM August 31 1992

The wicked tunes of High River

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

There was a time, long ago, when a small boy in a one-room schoolhouse in Saskatchewan spent his time at recess and noon-hour in a familiar pastime. It was, in a field outside, pouring water down one gopher hole and then, with a piece of binder twine fashioned into a loop, snaring a soaked and irritated gopher as it emerged from its escape hole. I guess you had to be there.

It seemed a harmless hobby, long forgotten, but the real plight of the lowly gopher becomes apparent, this particular weekend, on the fairgrounds of High River. This is the Alberta home town of Joe Clark, some 60 km south of Calgary, the achingly lovely profile of the Rockies in view.

It is also the unlikely venue of a three-day rock concert, 65 bands in all, playing until 5 a.m. with ear-splitting intensity. It is really bad music, really loud music, amplified through amplifiers the size of an airplane hangar, and wherever one walks on grass that is not occupied by mesmerized teen-agers, there are gopher holes. One suddenly feels an instant empathy with the onetime foe, imagining the poor creatures huddled underground, their eardrums destroyed, listening to heavy metal for the worst weekend of their lives—longing, one would think, for the bucket of water and the binder twine.

This is called the Western Canadian Independent Music Society hosting—in the pretentious prose of the day—“an open-air, environmentally conscious festival.” It may also be a metaphor for a nation, considering its progenitors.

Marc Lucas is a 21-year-old engineering student from McGill in Montreal, clean of jaw, earnest in intensity. Paul Hughes is a bowlegged westerner, a laconic 28, survivor of four years in the Canadian armed pacifiers, a hockey coach and dreamer. The young Lucas, working in Calgary in the summer of 1991, meets the bow-legged one somehow and they stage a lowprofile event, 15 bands—“environmentally sound” as we say.

The dream of summer 1992 is devised.

Young Lucas, his McGill term finished, heads to Calgary—hello there, Don Getty—to spend three months attempting not to lose his shirt. Hughes, the dreamer, recalls his days at his University of Calgary fraternity where his mates as a term-end ritual would retire to the foothills of the Rockies with a case of beer apiece and—one assumes—contemplate the eternity of life.

It is determined, a brilliant idea at the time, to hold the environmentally conscious festival on the grounds of the Stoney Nation in the splendor of the Rocky Mountain foothills. The Stoney chiefs have an economic development officer, Ken Tully, who is to deal with the McGill number cruncher and the dreamer.

There are, not to put too fine a point on it, misunderstandings. Both sides now accuse the other of what can only be described as confusion. There was the problem of beer being sold on the Stoney Nation property. How can you

have a rock concert without beer? No one, on either side, seems to have considered at length this dilemma.

When the Stoney chiefs, and councillors, and elders, realized the word-of-mouth advertising—kids are the worst, as we know—was spreading throughout Western Canada for a weekend that just happened (ha!) to coincide with the anniversary of Woodstock, they grew extremely agitated and decided to invoke the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, who said: “In two words, im-possible.”

The young Montrealer and the jaded bowlegged one, the latter a veteran of Canadian NATO bases, had eight days to recoup after the Stoney chiefs, fearing legions of drug-crazed teenyboppers armed with syringes and Harvey Wallbangers, said no thanks.

They had a serious flirtation with a wealthy rancher outside High River who liked the idea (unlike most adults), but the bureaucratic nonsense of development permits and rezoning laws, that which keeps gazillions of otherwise untalented people employed, deep-sixed that alternative.

Enter one Debbie Nelson, head of the Chamber of Commerce in the town where Joe Clark’s father once ran the newspaper. She is short, she is energetic and she obviously has faith. With the dream foundering, with the ads papering every rock outlet from Victoria to Winnipeg, she offers the cattle and rodeo fairgrounds of High River, home of the gophers.

It is a deal, the town to receive one buck a head from every $25 entrance fee induced from earnumbed patrons. Every pickup truck on the horizon appears, all carrying weekend tents and Woody Allen dream-alikes. The record is held, it turns out, by a couple from Halifax who set out hitchhiking two weeks previous.

The bands—really bad, really loud—include the apparently somewhat-known Dead Milkmen from Philadelphia and such household names as Elvis Love Child (“Vancouver’s only true grungeoid gurus keep the true sound of the Northwest alive, by numbing the minds of the impressionable youngsters with their friedbanana-peanut butter grunge.”) My favorite Tshirt is on the female whose front advertises: HIPS TITS LIPS POWER—which, when you think about it, explains everything.

In the end, after three nights of really bad music, really loud, the High River Times, in a front-page story quoting the fuzz and all else, concludes that the town did not burn down and all is well. Neither the Quebec engineer nor the Alberta dreamer are in debtors’ prison. The only unhappy people are the gophers.