I was spurred to read this book because of its inclusion on this year’s “Canada Reads” shortlist. Of the 5 books on the list, I’ve read 2 so far – Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce is next. So, which memoir will come out on top? One that’s nostalgic for the pleasures and perils of being on the road, or one that’s about underground revolutionaries in Latin America? Read on to find out.
About the book: In the mid-90s, Bidini’s band, The Rheostatics, was the opening act for The Tragically Hip on their “Trouble at the Henhouse” tour. On a Cold Road is Bidini’s memoir of the tour, compiled from the journal entries he wrote during it. However, the book also aims to serve as a collective history of touring across Canada, and includes anecdotes and recollections from Canadian musicians from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
What I liked: In this book, Bidini captured the allure of travelling and performing on the road, and made it comprehensible to us non-musicians. He made me feel the urge to pack up, get in a van, and drive across the country to visit all of the little hole-in-the-wall places that I could – despite the fact that I still don’t have a driver’s license.
His emotions became my own. I felt the frustration he did when The Rheostatics kept on encountering the rising popularity of The Tragically Hip in unexpected places and comparing it to their own lower level of success. I felt the sadness and alienation he did when he thought he became friends with Joey Ramone, only to meet Ramone at an autograph signing and find out that the other musician looked worn out and didn’t remember him at all. His realization made a cold wave of sadness wash over my stomach: “He had no idea who I was. I left the store. Outside, the rain felt like spiders.” Is there anything else one can say after that?
What I disliked: The book’s structure was disjointed, and the anecdotes provided by other Canadian musicians about the growth of the Canadian music scene in the 50s, 60s, and 70s didn’t mesh with the framework provided by Bidini’s own writing. The stories that the other rockers provided were grouped together by theme, but I often found it hard to detect a throughline between what everyone else was talking about compared to Bidini’s narrative frame.
More egregious, though, was the huge gender imbalance between the number of male musicians that were quoted compared to female musicians. Given the context (Canadian rock in the mid-20th Century) I understand that there probably weren’t a lot of women in the industry. But the number of times that women musicians were quoted or mentioned absolutely pales in comparison to the number of men. I bet that Greg Godovitz had more space in the book devoted to him than all of the women in it combined.
On top of that, most of the men who did mention women in music in any sort of context talked about the wonderfulness of having groupies. I didn’t need to know about how some musician in the 60s got a tongue bath from a willing groupie, or how some lovely angel of a young woman rehabilitated some hapless rocker by taking him in and doing his laundry. Women as sex objects? Rock on! Women as maternal caregivers bringing hope and cleanliness? Great! Women as equals and musicians in their own right? Meh.
The verdict: Bidini is obviously skilled with words, and some stories he captures, like the experience of performing at Maple Leaf Gardens, are imbued with magic. It also helps that I’m a huge Tragically Hip fan, and that I have a copy of “Live Between Us,” their live album made from the same tour that Bidini was part of. However, On a Cold Road still didn’t “sparK” to me very much. While I was reading this book, I had some money in my iTunes account, and it never occurred to me to buy a Rheostatics album with it – instead, I spent the money on some Neko Case music. I think that’s pretty representative of my stance towards the book – interesting enough, but not so interesting as to encourage further investigation.
Up next: Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre