When George Bernard Shaw, famous playwright and curmudgeon, won an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1938 for the film adaptation of Pygmalion, he refused to show up in person and accept the award. "It's an insult for them to offer me any honour, as if they had never heard of me before," Shaw muttered in between gulps of single malt. "And it's very likely they never have. They might as well send some honour to George for being King of England." I suppose we can credit Shaw's modesty that he kept the comparison secular.
Yesterday, when it was announced that Godspeed You! Black Emperor won the 2013 Polaris Prize for their record Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, the legendary Montreal indie rock collective responded with much more humility -- and if they felt bemused at receiving a seven-year old prize after handcrafting the Montreal live music scene for over twenty years, they hid it well -- but their statement was no less biting than Mr. Shaw's:
we are grateful, and yes we are humble and we are shy to complain when we’ve been acknowledged thusly- BUT HOLY SHIT AND HOLY COW- we’ve been plowing our field on the margins of weird culture for almost 20 years now, and "this scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show" is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds.
This is a band that advised, on the cover of their last album, 2002's Yanqui U.X.O., to steal the record from a corporate record store. Their music, although solely instrumental, takes on American and Israeli imperialism, consumerism, climate change and institutionalized poverty. They're unabashedly anti-capitalist and profit has never been part of their motivation.
On the contrary, the last time I saw GSY!BE, they played three consecutive sold-out shows in Montreal at the beautiful and recently restored Rialto theatre on Avenue du Parc, and charged a paltry five dollars cover. They could have charged four times that price -- but their goal was to make sure as many fans as possible could see them perform. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen.
But their activism and politics didn't stop with their music or their shows. Bassist Mauro Pezzente used his bands modest earnings to open Casa del Popolo in 2000 -- a small club on Boul. St Laurent that sold vegetarian meals (and St. Ambroise pints for $4) and hosted bands on weekends. In only a couple of years the petite boîte de nuit showed bands every night and had opened the larger venue Sala Rossa (which doubled as a Spanish tapas resto) across the street. Numerous other venues, small and smaller followed. Again, the priority was never money. It was to make sure that new bands had free places to play and that music fans had places with cheap beer, cheap food and no covers to see them play.
This anti-capitalist ethic was a model for every band in the city, who now had cheap and comfortable gigs to play. If you ever wondered what was in Montreal's water during the early 2000s -- The Unicorns, Wolf Parade, The Dears, Stars, Bell Orchestre, and countess others -- the answer is GSY!BE. A little outfit called The Arcade Fire, who cut their teeth at Popolo and the Sala, made headlines for playing free shows in Montreal. It's hard to discount the influence of Godspeed's not-for-profit mantra.
They've also had their leftwing politics proved right more than once. In 2003, when touring for Yanqui U.X.O. (which stands for "unexploded ordinance"), they were detained by Homeland Security in Oklahoma because they looked like "terrorists." That is, they had beards. Their response was not to huff and puff about inconvenience, but to point out that since most of the band is white, they were able to extract themselves from a bad situation. "I just feel very lucky that we weren't Pakistani or Korean," Godspeed frontman Efrim Menuck told Pitchfork at the time. "They detained 1,000 people in California, no one knows what happened to them. We're just lucky we're nice white kids from Canada. That's what I feel lucky about."
And now they've won a music prize inaugurated by the record exec who signed blandcore debutantes Big Wreck and sponsored by Toyota. So of course Godspeed responded to their Polaris win with "3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe:"
-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.
-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.
Of course they fucking did.
Oh. And they're going to give the prize money to people in Quebec prisons so they "have musical instruments if they need them."
If you've never heard of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, you should go out and buy their whole fucking archive right now. Or steal it from the Future Shop.
amen and amen.
apologies for being such bores,
we love you so much / our country is fucked,
godspeed you! black emperor
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