Friday, July 05, 2013

On Freddie Mercury and the Empowerment of Indians (from India)

This entry is in two parts: 1. The Preface; and 2. The Point. If you're tight for time and just want The Point, by all means scroll down to "The Point," no offence will be taken. But for those with a bit more time wanting a 360 view on the thought process that ultimately leads to The Point, then by all means indulge in The Preface. Happy reading! 

"There's always someone, somewhere, with a big nose, who knows. And who trips you up and laughs then you fall."
- Morrissey

"Don't ask me why I play this music -- it's my culture, so naturally I use it."
- Will Calhoun


We played a show once at The Drake in Toronto opening for a great up-and-coming band from France called Revolver. Everything about the night was a blast, especially when our amazing former drummer Andre Dey MacGyvered together a detached tailpipe of his car with a rope on the northeast corner of Queen and Bathurst which allowed us to get to soundcheck just in the nick of time.

Over pre-show dinner in Barrie the following night (oddly enough opening for Shortwave, where Paint's drummer Devin Jannetta came from after Andre sadly had to return to Saskatchewan), we stumbled upon a series of Tweets from someone who was in the audience at the Drake and spent the duration of our set on a rather venemous (and un-tagged) tirade of hate against us. The first irony (of many, in a non-Alanis way, I hope) is that The Drake Underground is a pretty poor reception zone, so he must have been upstairs the entire time not actually watching our set. But every element of our music, our set, and us personally seemed to bother this bloke, even when we came around after our set to greet members of the audience -- which is all fine and dandy, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and we're happy he hated us instead of being on-the-fence (love/hate is the only measure of success for a band as far as we're concerned).

Where I took issue was here: his self-proclaimed title in his Twitter bio was "rock 'n' roll Ph.D." -- now, granted he was wearing a sweater-vest to back up the claim but think about the audacity of that self-imposed distinction. Especially when we closed with a cover of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" which I introduced as "an Elvis Costello song." This offended Dr. Rock 'n' Roll so much that he Tweeted: "It's a Nick Lowe song for fuck's sakes!"

Actually, Dr. R'n'R.... whilst Nick Lowe did in fact write the song, he wrote it while playing in his band Brinsley Schwarz. So it's not an Elvis Costello song, nor a Nick Lowe song. It's a fucking Brinsley Schwarz song. You probably didn't consider that the singer of Paint has worked in record stores since he was a teenager and played in bands since he was 12.

Clearly the Dr.'s misled elitism has overlooked the finer elements of live music performance. If on the rare occasion that we include a cover in our set, what am I supposed to do on stage, Dr.? Go through the entire etymological history of a song to stroke my musical history wang and please some Pitchfork-reading jackass (as I jokingly did the next time we played the Drake and covered "Leavin' Here" -- saying, "This song was originally written by Motown trio Holland-Dozier-Holland and performed by Eddie Holland, then by The Birds -- but not the "Byrds" with a "Y," the "Birds" with an "I," the English R&B band that Ronnie Wood played in before he joined the Rolling Stones -- then by The Who, then Motorhead, then Pearl Jam... so, you can say this is a cover whoever suits your personal politics!"), or am I just gonna blurt out the shortest and most recognizable intro possible and break into the song -- because, you know, that's why people are there to see us...?

I would have been happy to have an in-depth and respectful conversation with Dr. Rock 'n' Roll after the show but surely his ears only hearing the inner workings of his sphincter.

The point (of The Preface) is, when it comes to music, even for a self-proclaimed "rock 'n' roll Ph.D.," there is always someone who knows more than you.


With that Henry Rollins-esque sidebar out of the way, here is the actual point of this journal. As someone who does have a lot of useless rock 'n' roll knowledge floating around in his ether, but always acknowledgesthe never-ending abyss of the unknown and to-be-known, I had the audacity this past week to actually say, "How did I not know that?!?"...because it was a fact that, frankly, should have been one of the most significant that I've ever learned about life and music, which surely would have accelerated the path of my existence much earlier in life had I known it as a boy. But better now than never.

Freddie Mercury's parents were both Gujurati (from Gujarat, a state in the northeastern region of India, just south of Punjab, where my parents and entire genealogy hails from). Mercury was born in Zanzibar (now Tanzania) and lived in India until he was 17 years old. There's nothing white about him aside from his post-colonial education. Hell, he's more Brown than I am, as I was born and grew up between Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.

The kicker in all this is that my development into a singer/frontman has been a long and painstaking process, often tied up with issues of internal and external racism, growing up formatively in Kelowna, BC, where even the dirt is white. Then to Surrey, BC, where Brown kids shoot each other like it's going out of style while the police turn a blind eye. And then to the Downtown Eastside Vancouver, one of the only places in the world that white people are allowed to legitimately sing the blues -- just imagine what it's like if you aren't white!

Growing up that way, you'll get a crash course in the darker side of race relations from a young age. Getting kicked out of sports leagues for beating the crap out of white kids who called me a "Paki" over and over again, eventually finding a home amongst the outcast kids who listened to punk rock, but all the while still only seeing white men on TV in music videos. The American rock band Living Colour was a massive influence on me: they rocked harder, played better, looked better, wrote better songs, and sold more records than anyone out there. And they were all black! Not quite like me, but enough to make me want to pick up a guitar and join a band. But being a sideman of colour in a band was always more comforting than stepping in front of it. Because I still believed out front was no place for a Paki.

Eventually I started singing, but in awful funk/folk bands that I believed were "culturally appropriate" for a non-white singer, avoiding the rock 'n' roll that I loved so much, even though my education, grassroots awareness, and involvement in anti-racism efforts became severely acute as I became an adult. But I continued to be a sideman in multiple bands to avoid the racism I so openly fought against but had internalized so deep.

At last, at some point, I just said "Fuck this!" -- dropping the guitar and putting myself out front. I have Andre Dey to thank for this, fittingly enough, a black man, who saw what I was capable of doing without the anchor of an instrument hanging off me. And I never looked back. Though I still remained plagued by the underlying doubt of, "Will they ever take am Indian front man -- IN A UK-INFLUENCED ROCK 'N' ROLL BAND -- seriously?"

Putting aside the 400-year rape by the British of Indian culture, language, history, and geography (of course UK music is going to influence a Brown man)... let's look at the fact that the greatest rock 'n' roll frontman of all-time was Indian. Through and through. There was nothing white about Freddie Mercury. Not even the rock 'n' roll.

Now, I am in no way saying my talents are anywhere near Freddie Mercury's -- no one's are! But I'll be damned if I ever, ever think an Indian has no business fronting a rock 'n' roll band again. And anyone out there who's also Indian should feel exactly the same way.

Sat Sri Akaal,
Robb Johannes