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Liz Worth: Treat Me Like Dirt (2010) March 7, 2010

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content, Music.
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Liz Worth: Treat Me Like DirtThe subtitle tells you most of what you need to know about this book: An Oral History Of Punk In Toronto And Beyond 1977-1981.

If names like the Diodes, the Viletones, and Teenage Head mean anything to you you’re probably intrigued. If they don’t, but you’re interested in Canadian music or punk rock, you should be intrigued. This book is nearly 400 pages of memories (and occasional contemporary reports) from dozens of people who were there at the time, including many — maybe most — of the surviving members of the bands discussed. There are a lot of photos, too.

(Note: you probably won’t find this one in your local bookstore, as only a few hundred copies have been printed. Order from Bongo Beat, the publisher, here.)

In addition to the key Toronto bands, including the aforementioned Viletones and Diodes and The Ugly, the Curse, and the B-Girls, Hamilton’s Teenage Head, Simply Saucer, and Forgotten Rebels and London (Ontario)’s Demics all get a look in as well. The rise and fall of the Crash ‘n’ Burn club, the rivalry between some of the bands, the Last Pogo, the realization of a scene coming into existence at the same time as the London (England) and New York scenes, the frustration of not having supportive media, record companies, and venues (unlike those other cities)… it’s all there.

Those not necessarily interested in the scene might find the book an interesting read anyway; there’s definitely an arc to the story, from the initial burst of creativity to the gradually increasing ugliness of it all and a lot of unhappy endings. The largely fake and harmless early violence of the scene is supplanted by real and ugly violence — from career criminals continuing to do break-and-enter robberies as their bands get popular, to street gangs hanging out at clubs starting vicious fights. And then heroin enters the scene and ruins a number of careers and lives.

Often, when reading books like this about scenes like this one, I wish I could have been there at the time. Not so much this time around. Maybe it’s the nature of the oral history, the story being told by its participants possibly leading to settling of scores, but a lot of the people in the book seem to be assholes or thugs.

Still, it’s a necessary chronicle of a historically significant moment — not just for Canadian music, but, many of the participants argue, for the development of Canada’s largest city. One of the problems with this scene is how poorly documented the music is. A decade ago, companies started releasing CDs compiling what was available from the Viletones, the Ugly, the Curse, and the B-Girls, and the first two Diodes albums were reissued, among others. But that’s maybe a dozen CDs from a scene with a lot of bands over several years. At least you can get a sense of what some of it was like from the DVD of The Last Pogo, discussed here a few posts back.

Personally, the only band in the book that I ever saw live was Teenage Head when they played in Halifax in 1981 — I had their classic Frantic City album and was excited that they were playing at my university, and I remember having a very good time. But a show on a university campus had to be a very different experience from many of the shows chronicled in the book, in seedy and dangerous places.

I’d love to see a similar book on the Vancouver scene — yeah, we have D.O.A.’s Joe Keithley’s book I, Shithead and Guilty of Everything by John Armstrong, a.k.a. the Modernettes’ Buck Cherry, but Treat Me Like Dirt is a monster of a book. The stories here could spark a dozen movies. More books like this on other scenes would be very welcome.

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