You might think you know about Chris Arnett. He’s the sinewy Salt Spring Island resident who is first cousin to Jade Blade of the Dishrags. His band the Furies was so primordial it headlined the first local punk gig that Joey Shithead ever heard of, at the Japanese Hall in July 1977.
Further, the Furies’ “What Do You Want Me to Be” marked the first time punk was recorded here—though it went unreleased until the 1991 Zulu Records scene retrospective Last Call: Vancouver Independent Music 1977-1988. Arnett’s second band, the Shades, also had one song, “New Clientele”, on the iconic 1979 Vancouver Complication comp. He performed it with spastic glee at a party for that album’s 2005 release on CD, leaping and contorting like an axe-wielding Iggy Pop.
Then came 2007—the 30th anniversary of Vancouver punk—and the Furies reunited. Within a few short years, with John Werner on bass and Taylor Little on drums, the Furies played more gigs than they ever had back in 1977, released their first CD, and put out the 2010 protest single “Olympic Madness”.
Yep, you think you know Chris Arnett. Then you meet him at a Kitsilano coffee shop and get talking with him about the books he’s written, beginning with a co-authored 1989 treatise on the logging history of Sooke and Port Renfrew titled 4000 Years: A History of the Rainforest of Vancouver Island’s Southwest Coast. Or you talk about his candidacy for a PhD in anthropology at UBC, the “linchpin” of which is an “in-depth analysis of the paintings and the subsurface cultural material” of postcontact Interior Salish in the Stein Valley.
Or maybe you chat for awhile about his Maori blood. Arnett is an active member of Ngāi Tahu, the fourth largest Maori tribe, his branch of which lives “way down at the south end of New Zealand”. (“There’s penguins down there,” he observes. “It’s not like what people think of Polynesia.”) On one of his visits there, in 2002, he got to hang with his Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist uncle Peter Arnett, who interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1997, four years before 9/11.
Arnett feels his heritage is a “fortunate thing”, given the historical associations of archaeology and anthropology with colonialism. “It’s not like I have some innate blood that gives you special abilities to understand things. It’s just we have a heritage, we have a history, and it’s different. A lot of people use anthropological theory to explain rock art; I foreground indigenous theory. I take indigenous people seriously, what they say about the paintings. I find it really useful, when it comes to interpretation, because I don’t have to guess why they’re using paint in a particular place; they’ve told me.”
The longer you talk with Chris Arnett, the more your perceptions of him get blown. And Anvil Island, his first solo album, furthers that experience. There are rockers, to be sure: the catchy, up-tempo “Share the Love” could easily fit on a Furies album, and the raucous garage stomp “Downtown Eastside”, with lyrics about needles in parks and missing women, is driven by a staccato piano pulse reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”.
But there are also attempts to balance his “hardness with his softness”, as he puts it. “Shadow of a Doubt” evokes a reflective Frank Black, while “Painless Love” has elements of country and rockabilly, especially in the rhythm section of Al Boyle and Felix Fung. One song, the poppy “Best Feeling”, is written as an unabashed tribute to one of Arnett’s musical forebears, Lou Reed, and would fit right in on Transformer.
The album incorporates Arnett’s passion for local history, too—both in its title and the cover. “I like the name, and I also like the place,” he says. “There’s a Squamish history of uncanny things there,” including a cyclopean sasquatch and mysterious floating globes. “I wouldn’t call it a spiritual place, but—how would you say it in English? It’s, like, haunted. You can go there and get power from these things.”
However, Arnett’s main interest in Anvil Island comes from the fact that “in the 1880s/1890s, there was this brick factory there. Most of the buildings in downtown Vancouver are made from the bricks from Anvil Island. When they were tearing down those places, like at Abbott and Hastings, I remember walking by and, shit, there’s all these Anvil Island bricks. So I climb up over the rail and grab one. I’m a collector,” he says with a chuckle.
Arnett has led a sometimes “hardscrabble” life on Salt Spring, where he’s been raising his family for 25 years, getting by on freelance writing, art, and physical labour. “I’ve laboured into my 50s,” he says. “I’m handy with a chainsaw. It’s like an instrument. When I’m sitting there with all the gear on, I just hum along, sort of a drone: NYAAAAAH,” he says with a grin. “I love chainsaws.”
He’s been hit by a few falling trees, and was once shot with a shotgun by a fellow islander, he tells the Straight, adding after a second: “Not deliberately.” And then there was the time he escaped being shitkicked by jocks at an early Furies gig by clearing the house with a 45-minute cover of the V.U.’s “Sister Ray”. But soon enough, if all goes well, he’ll be Christopher Arnett, PhD—the hardest rockin’ academic in British Columbia.
Arnett seems relieved to be in the final stages of the process. “I’ve done all the course work, passed my comprehensive exams, sat an oral one—which is a bloody nightmare. Going back to school at my age, it’s all smart 20-somethings and professors that are younger than you,” he says with a sigh. “But”—he smiles and shrugs—“I have life experience.”