Is it something in the air? In the last year or so we’ve had the first Pointed Sticks album in 30 years, Susanne Tabata’s Bloodied but Unbowed documentary, and now a stage show inspired by Vancouver’s punk history coming to a venue—the Rickshaw Theatre—less than a block from the location of the iconic but long-defunct Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret.
“I’m picking up on it,” says Michael Scholar Jr., his face framed by two-tone hair and ostentatious muttonchops. Scholar is speaking to the Straight over sugary drinks at the Outpost Café on Fraser Street, where we’ve met to discuss the reportedly very loud and visceral stage version of Hard Core Logo that his November Theatre company is bringing to this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“My obsession is Canadian punk, particularly Vancouver punk,” says the 34-year-old Regina native, brandishing a rare copy of D.O.A.’s 1983 single “General Strike” to prove the point. “My vinyl collection is filled with I, Braineater and U-J3RK5 and tons of obscure stuff that really excites me, but I think there’s a real resurgence in general in rediscovering the first wave of punk.”
His excitement and good taste aside, Scholar also happens to be a powerfully talented guy. When November Theatre mounted and toured the first North American production of The Black Rider in the late ’90s, it prompted a letter of recommendation from the play’s legendary cowriter. Or, as Scholar puts it, “Tom Waits approves, motherfuckers!” Presumably, that’s a pretty good reference to take into grant meetings.
Filmmaker Bruce McDonald was similarly stoked when he caught last year’s Edmonton premiere of Hard Core Logo: LIVE, directed by Brad Moss, which Scholar adapted from both the cult 1996 film and Michael Turner’s book. Scholar also takes on the role of the fictional band’s die-hard frontman, Joe Dick—a job conceivably even more daunting than transposing the text for the stage, given Hugh Dillon’s indelible turn in the movie.
“I think of it like playing Hamlet,” Scholar says. “You’ve got to be inspired by the people that have climbed that mountain before, and also forget about them. So even though Kenneth Branagh is aware of [Laurence] Olivier, he’s not gonna imitate him. I’m playing Joe Dick, but I’m not playing Hugh Dillon. Hopefully, the whole show won’t be the movie on-stage. It’ll be a third entity.”
Indeed, Scholar realized going into the project that he was tampering with some people’s religion. For one thing, he’s written a new ending, which was inspired, significantly enough, by the jokey version of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” that sits on the B-side of “General Strike”. Scholar doesn’t elaborate beyond that, although there is one other massive change in Hard Core Logo: LIVE that we’re obliged to discuss. Namely, the 11 new songs he commissioned from D.O.A.’s Joe Keithley.
“The songs all sounded like good punk,” Scholar says of the film’s soundtrack, “but they sounded like Toronto punk. In the end, I said, ”˜I want this show to be a love poem to the Vancouver punk scene.’ I can’t think of anyone else who would know better what Vancouver punk is supposed to sound like.”
For his part, Keithley tells the Straight that it was more a question of period than region. “I put a real chunky, grindy approach on a lot of the songs,” he says, calling from his home in Burnaby, and pointing out that author Turner had HCL forming in 1977. “Faster than the Ramones, but not wildly faster. I tried to put it in that era, rather than Vancouver versus Toronto or L.A.”
Keithley went on to do more than just drum up new melodies for numbers like “Who the Hell Do You Think You Are”, which, for the record, is a catchier song this time around (Keithley pitches it somewhere between “Janie Jones” by the Clash and D.O.A.’s “Take a Chance”). He also sat in on the auditions, then spent two years helping to get the actors in fighting shape for the half of the show that’s pure blitzkrieg punk.
“They had some guys who were really excellent musicians,” he recalls, “but there was no chance they were gonna pass muster for the acting. To try and get a split between the two was pretty tough. And a couple of times I had to pull a Simon Cowell”¦.One guy almost left in tears, but I was so enraged that he would come in and try and pass this off as musicianship. The guy was an excellent actor, but I was, like, ”˜Dude, you’re not even close here.’ ”
Judging from the limited-edition single of “Who the Hell Do You Think You Are” pressed by Scholar (it’ll be available at the show), Keithley set the bar pretty high. And Scholar is clearly bursting with pride. “We’ve gone from being a fake theatre band to a real punk band. We’ve got a fucking seven-inch,” he beams.
Lest any doubt remains as to either the affection or credibility Scholar and his team bring to Hard Core Logo: LIVE, it should be noted that legendary music photographer Bev Davies and celebrated Evaporators’ frontman Nardwuar the Human Serviette were among those also hired in various capacities by the production, with Davies in particular adding “textures and details” to the script. Scholar justifiably isn’t concerned about those who might scoff without seeing the show, whether they’re movie loyalists or that odd breed of aging punk purist who never likes anything new, although it’s Keithley who has the most pungent kiss-off.
“Well, they don’t have to go,” he laughs. “It’s pretty simple, really.”