Call me a sentimental old punk, but one of my happiest concert-going experiences in recent memory was seeing Jello Biafra, at the Guantanamo School of Medicine show at the Rickshaw Theatre in 2010, beaming on stage as he declared, “I didn’t think that I would ever get to see the Subhumans again.” It was both highly validating of a great Vancouver band, and... well, it just made me happy that Jello had gotten to see his old friends (signed to his label, Alternative Tentacles records) in such fine form.
It was perhaps the biggest audience the Subhumans had had since reuniting in 2005 (though of course most people were there for Biafra). As it happens, that gig was also the last time that the band ever performed live. Gerry Hannah left shortly thereafter, and remaining members Brian Goble (vocals), Mike Graham (guitar), and Jon Card (drums) never got it together to find a replacement for him, as the band had done the last time Hannah quit, in the early 1980s.
So why did Gerry Hannah—author of two of the band’s most popular songs, “Slave to My Dick” and “Fuck You”—decide to leave, exactly?
Reached on the phone from his home in Chilliwack, he hesitates before he launches in.
"I guess the main reason was, I was starting to find it embarrassing. I was embarrassed to have to ask clubs like Lee's Palace in Toronto and other people for guarantees of $1200 and $1500 dollars when I knew that we would be lucky if we could draw a hundred people. And in fact, the last show that we played at Lee's Palace, we drew 99 paying customers. We had been given a $1200 guarantee. I got tired of that! Because you gotta hype the band."
Hannah says there was a fair bit of pressure on him to get the biggest guarantee possible. "We didn't have a manager. I served to some extent as the manager and to a large extent as the booking agent. So that meant I had to sell the band across the country, tell everybody why the Subhumans were relevant, why they mattered, why they deserved a $1200 or $1500 guarantee. And I really could see... In every city in this country, there's a handful of people who think the Subhumans are really great, were really great. They still might not come out to a show, because they got other shit on the go. They might have to take their kids out to hockey or maybe they're tired at night because both the husband and wife worked, or the husband and husband worked, or the wife and wife worked, or whatever, right, and they don't want to go to a show. But attendance had just dropped through the floor. And you're trying to sell the band for all they're worth so you can make enough money to pay expenses for a tour or such, but you realize, it's like trying to sell a car that doesn't run, and you're trying to make it sound like the greatest car that's ever run, and after a while it feels kind of fraudulent."
Cue interviewer, sighing sadly: "But the Subhumans were such a great band."
"Well, you think so, y'see, but the majority of Canadians do not," Hannah replies. "The vast majority of Canadians don't even know who the Subhumans are, and of the ones that do, only a handful of them think the Subhumans were good. And if I'm going to play tiny audiences, I'd rather play my acoustic guitar, you know what I mean? I don't want to sell THE SUBHUMANS. That was the biggest reason."
I mention the Rickshaw show, and Hannah notes that in fact Jello was "kind of unhappy with us" after the gig. "Because we didn't do enough political ranting between songs,” he explains. “He felt that we should be ranting and raving about the oil sands and so forth, and I see his point, but that's just not the way things worked in the Subhumans. Brian wasn't really into giving long political spiels between songs. He would do kind of a slapstick thing or make some joke. He did a lot of other things really well, but Brian was never that good at doing a real long kind of political analysis onstage between songs. But that's kind of his job in a way as the front man, because we're a politically charged band, and there's no doubt about that, the Subhumans were one of the most politically charged punk bands in North America. And Jello kind of felt that that was our job, to talk about issues. But Brian wasn't that good at it, and for me, not being the frontman, it didn't really seem appropriate for me to be doing it. And I know some people in the band just wanted to get going with the songs."
Still, Hannah has no problem with speaking passionately about his beliefs, and good chunks of our conversation end up devoted to climate change (he likens the sale of cars, personal watercrafts, and ATVs to the sale of tobacco), the state (or lack thereof) of the Palestinians, and the political apathy of the masses. At least some of these topics surface on Coming Home, his solo album, though not always in ways that you might expect. One song, "Winding Ribbon of Dreams," talks about how much Hannah loves being on the highways of British Columbia.
The album came out in early December 2014, just a few days before Subhumans’ vocalist Brian Goble died at age 57 of a sudden heart attack. Hannah figures his old friend never had a chance to hear the CD. The two were barely in touch over the last couple of years. ("I think we exchanged one email in the last year prior to his death.") An obscure, family-and-friends only project named Gift Horse aside, Coming Home is his first and only CD, reworking and expanding on material from his also seriously rare cassette-only 1985 Songs from Underground release.
To date—eight months into its availability—exactly three people have actually bought copies of Coming Home over the internet, Hannah reports. "What I have to do is keep lowering my expectations, like, every month. I have to go, well, alright, that was all pipe dreaming, okay. Now here's what it really is, here's what's really going to happen. And then a month from that, I have to go, okay, that was all pipe dreaming, here's what's really going to happen. Here's how many records I'm really going to sell, here's how many shows I'm really going to be able to play, and here's how much money it's going to cost me to do those shows. And next month, it's like, okay, that was all a wild fantasy, here's how it actually is..."
The music business is "absolutely and utterly fucked right now," Hannah continues. "The last people to get paid in the process of recording or performing music, other than the big huge fucking celebrities, who half the time do not deserve the attention they're getting, in my opinion... other than those people, the musicians, the singer-songwriters, are the last people to get paid. The club owner gets paid, the promoter gets paid, the soundman gets paid, the person running the lights gets paid, the bartender gets paid, the security gets paid, the people serving drinks get paid, the people that make the posters get paid, the people who make the records get paid, the people that package the records get paid, the people that do the artwork get paid... but the people who make the music, who write it and perform it, most of the time, are paying out of pocket. Now you tell me if that's a good situation?"
Hannah himself, he adds, is "already going way out of pocket to play this show [at the WISE Hall, on Friday (July 10)]. Like, I'm having to pay people gas money and stuff, and we'll be lucky to make anything at the show."
The original cassette was recorded when the musician-turned-urban-guerrilla was in Matsqui Prison on charges relating to his time in the group Direct Action, aka the Squamish Five.
“It was recorded on a four-track cassette tape recorder that was purchased by the Matsqui Musicians Association with the help of the Sports and Recreation department,” Hannah says. “And we raised money by having socials in the prison, where we’d have friends or relatives come out to an afternoon of music, or an evening of music. They’d pay ten dollars to come inside the prison and see the concert”—which included shows by notables like Roy Forbes and Connie Kaldor, at which Hannah himself performed.
“With all that money, among other things, we bought this four track recorder, and I recorded it on that, with a single Dynamic microphone. I also had access to a Poly- 800synthesizer, and I had my acoustic guitar inside the prison at that time. And the Musicians’ Asssociation/ Sports and Recreation department already had a bass guitar. So I did bass, acoustic guitar and vocals myself. I played some synthesizer on some of the songs, and I got a couple of people who were in prison with me helped out on background vocals and harmonica.”
The downbeat, politically edged folk of Songs From Underground has attracted some notable admirers. Jello Biafra included a song from it, “Living with the Lies,” on the soundtrack to the Vancouver-filmed cult movie Terminal City Ricochet. Local filmmaker Oliver Hockenhull included songs from the cassette, including the haunting “Like a Fire”, on the soundtrack to his documentary about the Five, Determinations.
Then there’s the American slowcore band Codeine, who covered “Sure Looks that Way” on their 1994 album The White Birch. It’s a bleaker-than-bleak interpretation, whose chorus (“we’re dead, I know it”) is, in fact, given a marginally more upbeat presentation on Coming Home, insofar as it is possible to be upbeat about being utterly doomed as a species.
But Hannah is okay with their version of it, he explains.
“They covered my song with the best intent,” he offers. “They credited it to me, they didn’t pretend it was their song or something. It was pretty obvious that they really liked my song, so they wanted to do a version of it. It’s hard to argue with that, especially if people are making sure that you’re getting the royalties!” Which, Hannah states, Codeine did, unprompted. “However, other people have covered my songs and not credited me and in fact pretended that it was their own song.” He’s not so pleased about that.
Does Hannah feel more attachment to his solo output—which occasionally veers towards country and folk—than his work with the Subhumans?
“I wouldn’t say that, no,” he says. “It’s obviously a different style of music, and it has a different emotional impact on me, but there are songs that I wrote for the Subhumans that I feel passionately about, as well. It’s different, but one isn’t more powerful for me than the other. It’s just that I’m really not that interested in playing punk rock anymore. I sometimes feel like punk rock, not necessarily the way the songs are supposed to go, but the way they end up going, live, for a lot of bands, in a lot of shows, they’re so fast that’s it’s really hard to dig the melody, because it just flies by, and you don’t have a chance to even grab onto it. The other thing is, the formula for writing lyrics in punk rock—and I’m a slave to the punk rock formula—is really in your face. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever. This is what we’re telling you, and it’s black and white, you know what I mean? And that’s not really where I’m at in terms of lyric-writing anymore. I want to move beyond that. I’m not saying I do move beyond that, but ideally I would like to. And I think the songs on Coming Home, there’s a little bit more room for the listener to move around in the lyrics without being hit over the head with a sledgehammer and told how to think.”
Gerry Hannah will play seven songs from Coming Home, and a couple of other songs he’s written that “may have been Subhumans songs that I wrote,” at the WISE Hall show, where he opens for Roots Roundup, with an as yet unnamed band featuring Lorne Campbell on drums, Bill Fulton on bass, and Carey Britton on guitar, who also goes by the name "Cozy Pines". He may even break out “The Woman Reborn,” a bound-to-be-controversial song about seeing his former girlfriend, Julie Belmas, turn on their compatriots in Direct Action at her sentencing appeal.
Belmas was not, contrary to her apparent beliefs, the subject of "Living with the Lies," Hannah notes.
"That song was written about these three doofuses who shared a table with me who were constantly putting me down and laughing at my political position, of how we believed in trying to bring about a revolution in Canada, and my desire to keep alive my relationship with the person I was in love with,” Hannah says, referring Belmas, who, at the time, was incarcerated across the country in Kingston Penitentiary.
"They laughed at that stuff, they were sarcastic, they were assholes. They were so negative and cynical that I ended up moving to a different table and taking my meals with some other people, who ended up being really nice, and great people. The first three guys were who that song was written about. ‘Living With the Lies.’ You guys are so jaded, so cynical, that you can’t even see, you can’t even get close to being able to look at the truth anymore, you’re just hiding in this miserable, angry little world that you live in, and of course as soon as you get out, you’re going to go and fuck up again, and you’ll be right back in here, where you hate being. But Julie thought it was about her, and her sister actually wrote me a letter talking about how she was upset about that song, and I heard other people talk about how Julie felt it was really wrong for me to write that song about her. And she came onto my blogspot, anonymously, but it was obviously her, and trashed that song, and it was never written about her! The song that I did write about her was called 'The Woman Reborn’. That song was written years later."
The song seems at least a bit of an angry gesture, to me: accusing Belmas of reading from cue cards, turning on her compatriots at her sentencing appeal. Hannah, however, disagrees. "I don’t think it’s angry at all,” he says. “It’s sad. And I don’t think it’s unfair or harsh to her. I say clearly in the song that I pity her and feel bad about what happens to her. I’m watching this person basically come unraveled, before my very eyes. They’re in so much fear and pain that they’re basically inventing stories to try and get out of the horrible hellhole that they find themselves in. And I pity them! But at the same time, I can’t accept the stories that they’re inventing, that aren’t true. And that’s what that song’s saying. It’s not saying, 'You’re a fuckin’ bitch,' you know? I don’t say that, that’s not what that song says at all. That song says, 'This is how I feel about what happened with my ex-girlfriend.'”
Has she responded to the song in any way? Hannah gives a little laugh.
“Nobody’s responded to the record. Why would she bother responding to the song? Maybe Julie’s gotten wise in her old age and she realizes when there’s a point in typing on your computer keyboard and when there’s no point to it, y’know what I mean? To my knowledge, she hasn’t responded. She probably doesn’t even know it exists.”