A prairie city spread out like spilled coffee. With nothing to contain it, it stained every possible surface while remaining flat as possible. The multiplying suburbs were stratified, with the bungalow 70s clearly demarcated from the split-level 80s: single family housing, yards big enough to put another couple houses on, main streets distinguishable by the volume of traffic not businesses or amenities. Living in the suburbs of the prairie city meant walking to something was exercise or novelty, never routine or necessity. The yards and alleyways were perfectly clean slates for children to play and imagine. Those spaces began to look like painted cell walls when the children became restless teenagers.
The malaise of blandness certainly wasn’t particular to that city; that’s all part its lack of charm. What the city did have in the way of character was dominated by its climate and geography. The weather in the prairie city was unquestionably weird. The city didn’t do seasons, it did weather. People who’d moved to town couldn’t cope with the wild mood swings, day-to-day. Migraine sufferers were born upon settling, their heads-from-away hadn’t experienced barometric pressure shifts so sudden and severe.
Raymond Chandler said of the Santa Ana’s “that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch” can turn a population slightly mad. “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” The prairie city’s particular and lovable little quirk was the Chinook winds, with their attendant loopy effects. People went to sleep in the deep, bright cold of thirty-below and woke up to ten-above. It also meant respite for a couple days, maybe a week. It meant being outside without your coat, something you weren’t guaranteed to do even in the summertime. Conversely, some summers saw snow, giving truth to every crappy American stereotype about Canada.
I would argue that nowhere else does “don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes” better than Calgary.
* * *
I came into a Calgary house that was built on the edge of town in the mid-70s. The house backed onto a large nature preserve that somehow manages to remain to this day, a huge expanse of deer and coyotes, Saskatoon-berry bushes, tiny native deciduous trees and long grasses. The house is in an area that is now touted by real estate agents as “close to downtown” in an ever-expanding city.
I was a lottery baby, given away by one, picked up by the next on the list. I plopped into their lives by chance instead of biology. Suddenly I belonged to a couple of deeply nice people, who declined large demonstrations of love but quietly made the safest, most comfortable home they could with the means they had.
Throughout my life, people have said I look like my father, which is a biological impossibility. At some point I realised that nurture had probably affected nature, because I have taken so much so much from him. On his last trip to visit me in my new city I noticed that as I tapped my hand on the steering wheel to “Vapour Trail” he was doing the same on the dash.
The way I react to music comes from my Dad. I grew up listening to his records, played loudly on his pride and joy Harman Kardon hi-fi. My earliest memories are of listening to the Beatles on the old cabinet stereo, and shopping for that updated stereo system. I remember the smell of the audio store, the evening darkness outside, low lights inside, the hush of audiophiles, the time it took to select the components.
My Dad taught me about production without knowing the mechanics, just paying attention to sound. Putting too-big headphones on my tiny child-head, telling me to notice how some of the music moved from ear to ear, creating a swirling effect. I listened to Moody Blues records that way and they made me dizzy. We had sing-alongs to Yellow Submarine. I perfected my imaginary Olympic rhythmic gymnastics routine Queen’s “Killer Queen.” I sang my best version of opera voice to ABBA. I was surrounded by music, always.
When I started buying my own records he was right there, wanting to know what I was listening to, keeping up with the times but maintaining his own opinions. The New Wave stuff was alright; the 80s CanCon pop bands were common-room approved. He wasn’t into House of Pain or Dance Mix ’92. He was simultaneously annoyed by Morrissey’s voice and menaced by Moz’s macho camp rocker drag. He loved the shoegaze stuff I got into. He was Oasis; I was Blur. We spontaneously burst into a Peanuts dance on hearing “Friday I’m in Love.” When I got my first radio show on Calgary’s university station, a bi-weekly GPA killer timeslot of 2 to 6 am, I dedicated the last hour to him; he got up at 5.
Records in our house were not particularly fetishy objects. I was allowed to touch the records and cue up the songs I wanted. Once, I made the mistake of playing an old “mono” Beatles record on Dad’s “stereo” system, which he insisted would ruin the record forevermore. I’m not sure how true that is, but what I learned was resale wasn’t so much a big deal as keeping your things in good working order. (My desecration of the flip-photo cover of On Her Majesty’s Satanic Service is a memory I have, so it must have caused some kind of scene, but certainly not a violent one.) The point was, you were going to listen to that record again, and you wanted it to sound right.
The stereo was played loud, the drums were made of air, and the singing was off-key with the wrong lyrics. Music was meant to be joy, it was meant to be shared, and it didn’t need to be underground or intellectual to be good: it just needed to make you feel something. I began to channel all my emotions into someone else’s music, my predictable teenaged wailing behind closed doors always covered by a wall of sound.
On a trip home a couple years ago, a remix of “Personal Jesus” shuffled onto the MP3 player I had plugged in to the car. My Dad recognized it, before any of the lyrics were sung. I’m not sure if he’s ever liked Depeche Mode all that much, but he’d been exposed to so much of it through my listening that he could name that tune in a few notes, even on remix. This is the life-long trade: he first showed me the why of music, and I spend the rest of my life repaying him in new sounds.
* * *
Some white guy my Dad’s age probably coined the cliché, but lives really do have a soundtrack. Songs act like mnemonics. Memories have a score.
In 1993 Depeche Mode released Songs of Faith and Devotion with a pelvic sway-and-thrust grinder of a first single. In the video for “I Feel You” lead singer Dave Gahan’s long hair, grunge-approved goatee, and multiplying tattoos diverged from the formerly Euro-fey image the band had projected. Songwriter Martin Gore marched resolutely across a dry landscape with a big fat hollow-body Gretsch. I heard the record screech intro and guitar line of “I Feel You” in the medium-sized prairie city, in the home where my Dad and I had bonded over rock ‘n’ roll. I had been peripherally aware of Depeche Mode before: heard “Personal Jesus” on the radio, knew that the odd-cool Drama girls in my school liked them. There was something weird about Depeche Mode fandom, that iconic single red rose on a black background suddenly appearing on t-shirts some years before, and I wasn’t self-confident enough to try and be weird. I stayed away from investigating the band early, and the local Top 40 station seemed to feel the same way. However, with this more classically rock sound, with guitars at the centre instead of synthesizers, with a cocksure swagger instead of club beats, I said yes.
I said yes to a lot of swagger in my graduating year. I preferred boys who’d already left high school, ones who had their own apartments, or were in university. One of those boys I had dated had a roommate, Mike, and Mike had an ugly, beige 80s Mustang. In the prairie city, in the words of Leonard Cohen — later covered by Martin Gore on the tribute album Tower of Song — “springtime starts and then it stops.” My (by then) ex-boyfriend and his roommate and I packed into that Mustang on a warmish, March-ish day in 1993, taking advantage of the start of spring before it stopped. Our destination was a small town outside the city, our view dried out prairie grass and wild crocus struggling on the hillsides. I sat in the front with Mike. “You like Depeche Mode?” he asked, pushing in a cassette. And Violator played from the beginning.
The first time I’d ever heard Violator: clean air and sunlight streaming through the open car windows, feeling free from the choke-hold of suburbia, and a particular sonic atmosphere that was like nothing else I knew. (It occurs to me just now to be grateful at how definitive such relatively small events can be.) Yet it brought with it pieces I understood. The production called back to those early days wearing my Dad’s headphones, such careful consideration of sound, everything hyper-controlled. Everything, that is, except Gahan’s vaguely feral vocals. “And we won’t need a map, believe me,” he sang. The delivery of that line, the frankly fucking dirty, winking way he sang it; the simplicity of the message; the power finding through touch, feeling the way without a guide, flying blind. It sounded like growing up.
In that car on that day I was hurtling into adulthood and twenty-plus-year relationship with an album.
“Let me show you the world in my eyes.”
* * *
In every Canadian spring there is a day, at least for me, when there is a palpable shift in feeling. There is a day when the air doesn’t hurt anymore. There may be colder days that follow before full summer, there may even be more snow, but there is a day when all the windows are open and I think: “I made it through another one.” When I was young and the air was too beautiful to sleep I’d get in my car and drive, aimlessly, with Violator as my only company. It was an accidental and instinctual recreation of that first listen. Later, after I’d moved to a new city and sold my car, I’d let the springtime into my apartment, lie down on the floor and give those nine songs perfect attention. One year I had a car again and I drove east across the new city, sunset blazing at my back. One year I ran through an unfamiliar neighbourhood to its length. The day is usually sometime in March, and it didn’t occur to me until this 25th year how fitting it is that Violator’s birthday is March 19th. Though I have listened to this album countless times (through other seasons and other drives; during my first acid trip; crying through the sonic purity of the special edition re-release; the multiple companionable co-appreciation listens; the kitchen dance parties), it is this semi-pagan ritual in celebration of a new year which is my personal touchstone.
There is an important piece to my Violator ritual: as “Clean” — the last track — begins to wind down, the vocals and drums stripped away, I turn up the volume proportional to the fade out, letting the swell of strings have their due.
And then all is still.
Get up. Flip the tape. Begin again.
Heather Cromarty is a writer and critic living in Toronto.