Stick around long enough and sometimes you get to be cool again. That could very well be the slogan of the PNE in 2019.
For a time—the late ’80s and the early ’90s—it looked like the days of the Pacific National Exhibition were numbered. Students of ancient history might recall that, before it became known for its 17-day annual fair, Sea to Sky swinger, and haunted house that’s pants-shittingly scary to anyone under the age of seven, Hastings Park was exactly what its name suggests: a park.
Google “Hastings Park + City of Vancouver Archives” and you’ll get a vintage aerial look at a site that, exactly 100 years ago, looked nothing like it does today. Think trees, trees, and more trees, the urban wilderness interrupted only by the occasional house. The wooden roller coaster is already there, as is the Hastings Racecourse, but other than that you might as well be looking at a plot of land in 100 Mile House.
In the decades that followed, the trees started to disappear, replaced first by dirt roads and wooden buildings straight out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and later by Art Deco–inspired structures like the PNE Garden Auditorium and the Forum. By the ’60s Hastings Park was pretty much all blacktop and cement structures that were never going to win any accolades in Architectural Digest.
That was fine right through the ’70s, a decade when urban grit—as depicted everywhere from Taxi Driver to the iconic photos of Carrie Boretz—was seen as an inescapable fact of life. By the time the ’80s rolled around, the world had started to become a different place, that spilling into the ’90s, when the idea of saving Clayoquot Sound began to seem more important than pillaging old-growth forests to build more Vancouver Specials.
It was around that time community activists began seriously pushing to have Hastings Park returned to greenspace, to the point where the future of Playland looked grim. As urban eco-warriors began lobbying government to create the city’s greenest jewel this side of Victoria Park, land was purchased in Surrey for the PNE in the ’90s. Suddenly it looked like the Villagers of East Vancouver would have to hit Highway 1 for their yearly fix of stupidly delicious Those Little Donuts.
For whatever reason, the idea that Hastings Park needed to be returned to an oasis of urban wilderness eventually petered out at the end of the ’90s. The demolition of old eyesores—the Showmart and Poultry buildings—probably helped, as did the creation of the surprisingly serene midpark lake known as the Sanctuary.
But just as importantly, the idea of the PNE somehow became as cool again as it was from the ’30s to the ’50s.
It’s pretty much a given that one generation’s trash eventually becomes a future one’s treasure. Think of the postgrunge ’50s-lounge revival. Or every film ever made by John Waters. Or the fact that A Flock of Seagulls and Wham! are, against all odds, cornerstones of any retro ’80s dance night.
Starting in the ’60s, the PNE seemed caught in some sort of time warp, a place where you went to inhale six bags of Those Little Donuts, embrace your inner white trash at the demolition derby, and puke up Martian-green cotton candy on the Scrambler.
Kitsch-cool? Totally. But eventually it became clear you needed something other than the SuperDogs show to keep the party fresh.
On that front, the Summer Night Concerts series has proven a crazy success. Recent years at the PNE have given us everyone from Joan Jett and Blondie to Salt-N-Pepa and the B-52s. This year’s edition will see a decades-spanning lineup that includes punk founding father Billy Idol, rock survivors Styx and Cheap Trick, Canuck legends Burton Cummings and Blue Rodeo, metal miscreant Vince Neil, alt-nation alumni the Gin Blossoms and Collective Soul, local roots-blues vet Colin James, and R&B icons Smokey Robinson and TLC.
For those who indeed subscribe to the theory that you’re sometimes rewarded for being a pop-culture punch line, say hello to Vanilla Ice, who’ll have Biz Markie, Rob Base, and Montell Jordan riding shotgun for an I Love the ’90s showcase. And MC Hammer’s Hammer House Party with Bobby Brown—parachute pants completely optional.
Once upon a time, the idea of playing the summer-fair circuit was, for most musicians, right up there with Spinal Tap finding itself second-billed to the Puppet Show in Stockton, California.
Sometimes, though, a visionary comes along to embrace the idea that uncool can be cool. Not that long ago, summer fairs meant Black Oak Arkansas featuring the third cousin of one original member, or the Ramones starring no one but C.J. Ramone.
When not playing Coachella or Lollapalooza, the Flaming Lips have taken to the stages of the Orange County Fair and Washington’s Puyallup Fair. After roaring onto the scene with smashes like “Fancy” and “Black Widow”, Iggy Azalea decided any cheque is a good one as long as it cashes, leading to appearances at the L.A. County Fair and Alaska State Fair.
Here’s the deal with the Summer Night Concerts series: it’s done a smart job of realizing that the PNE has evolved. Yes, you can still head directly to the Those Little Donuts stand, but you can also load up on Kit Kat Fries, Smoking Charcoal Soft-Serve Ice Cream, and Cricket Caramel Apples.
There’s no longer a demolition derby for the traditionalists, but you can kill a couple of hours at Game Changers: The Evolution of Video Games in the Garden Auditorium.
Summer Night Concerts hasn’t abandoned those who like their entertainment served irony-free. (The Mike Love–led Beach Boys will take take care of that.) But it’s also not forgetting the pop-culture posthipsters who understand that what makes “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This” so cool is that they were once the height of uncoolness.
And that what makes Billy Idol so enduringly cool is that he doesn’t give a fuck if you think he’s cool or not. And that the members of Blue Rodeo have become Canadian roots royalty by never trying to be cool—they leave that shit to jackasses like Ryan Adams.
Enjoy the PNE Summer Night Concerts this year, then, on whatever level best suits you. And feel free to openly cry while singing along to “No Scrubs” when TLC hits the stage. As every Weezer fan knows, that song could not be more cool no matter who’s performing it—and not just because there was a time when Rivers Cuomo totally wasn’t.