Geoff Berner: Festival Man, massive book/album deal
Geoff Berner, Vancouver’s klezmer-punk songwriter-superstar is becoming a novelist this week. He was a guest on the Accordion Noir radio show last night and we talked about his book Festival Man, he also performed some unreleased songs you can’t hear anywhere else, and there was a digression into the history of cultural appropriation, blackface minstrels premiering the accordion in America in the 1840s, Slavic bluegrass music, and the commercial origins of much of what’s thought of as purely “traditional.” Whew! And that was just one digression. Another was about how to get Geoff into Klezkamp, which would be good.
Geoff’s releasing his novel, Festival Man this Saturday Oct 12 at Pulp Fiction Books in Vancouver (and then a bunch of other places around the world), so he’s going to be a published author as well as an exceptional song-writer. Festival Man is told in the words of Campbell Ouiniette, an epic small-time Canadian band manager telling his own account of events that led up to an unspoken disaster at an unnamed folk-festival in Calgary. He writes while holed-up, injured, in an abandoned barn stocked with liquor, drugs, and Alberta beef jerky, awaiting retribution from creditors, the law, and the bands he was supposed to be managing, “It should run no more than four or five pages,” but there are digressions.
Have you ever seen Geoff Berner perform? His records only cover about half the act. They have the songs, split between dark singer-songwriter numbers with gutter-accordion breathing new life into guitar stereotypes, and higher volume klezmer-punk with his three-piece band and electronic/hip-hop/world-music/mysterious guests. When he performs live though, he frames the songs with stories that meander across the globe but always come back around to the song, and the band comes in on beat. You should be on Geoff’s email list. He sends out tour dates for places you will never go, but you also get more of these digressions, it’s a theme. Riots in Norway, Nazis in France, pleasant border guards everywhere, and how Canada tried to murder him twice (freezing to death and overdose, but not the kind that makes the news).
Where was I? Oh yeah, Geoff has a new book out. It’s not too big, which is nice if you have a short attention span, or if the writer (within the story) might be facing arrest at any time. Somebody says on the cover you could read it on a road-trip. You could read it anywhere and feel good about yourself because you’re probably a pleasant person compared to the main-character. Every step he takes in his band manager/promoter dealings lets you know that whatever conclusion he’s trying to “shed his own light on” it’s not going to be better than the catalog of sleazy business revealed along the way. Wherever he ends up, it’s going to fail miserably for all involved. His side of things does almost nothing to exonerate him. But you do see him grow from a high-school kid setting up his first punk show (background digression, you know?) to this mysterious cataclysm that leads him to write his jerky and whisky-fed account. It ends up humanizing this outragious industry archetype.
And did I say, it’s funny? It’s a little bit like Hunter Thompson writing about the music industry and drugs and stuff rather than Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and drugs and stuff. Except Thompson wrote as a spectator, Berner gives us the voice of one of the actors themselves. It’s unnervingly obvious that Berner speaks with the authority of real “this actually happened to my band” stories about terrible people you hope never to deal with. Read this and laugh, and hope it never happens to you. When is the movie coming out?
From the narrator, band-manager Campbell Ouiniette, as interpreted by Geoff Berner:
Here’s how to make a festival:
You gather thousands of people together in a place that’s usually not considered fit for human habitation, like a farmer’s field, or a racetrack, and then those people proceed to lay waste to the land and themselves for about two-to-three days or more. By the end, the people are exhausted, ravaged by the forces of nature and the forces of booze and drugs, and the land is a churned-up wound full of garbage, piss, and shit. People die, people are conceived, marriages begin to collapse. And there’s music!
Then the narrator goes on the describe how it’s all worthwhile because of the music, and maybe that’s the theme of the book. Even with the often nightmarish reality of the music industry, there’s still this mystery that is the music itself. How does this ugly thing produce this beautiful thing? Well pretend that’s a segue, because Geoff has released a musical album that comes free with the book. (You download it with a secret-code, like the kids do now.) The record has a a bunch of Geoff’s songs done by other artists. It’s like a little festival where everybody plays Geoff’s music, maybe it was like this in his head while he wrote the book. Weird.
Did I mention that Geoff is a great songwriter? Like great as in famous Canadian singer-songwriter great. There’s a few of those. Geoff’s like that. On the record a grade 5-6 class does a group sing-along version of his song Iron Grey, a favourite of mine. It is very strange to hear an elementary school music class, with marimba accompaniment clanking along with a bunch of kids singing this love song from a fugitive on the run from the law, or something.
Here’s his old video without the children. Isn’t that a pretty song? To hear the elementary school kids’ version, and the rest of the Festival Man covers, you’ll have to get the record and the book. So do.