Geoff Berner chronicles an ephemeral subculture

On the page and on record, the tunesmith and novelist aims to document the life and hard times of the western Canadian musician

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      The late composer, guitarist, rock iconoclast, and hyperintelligent jerk Frank Zappa liked to talk about his work in terms of conceptual continuity, meaning in part that characters, themes, musical structures, and obsessions might emerge on one album, submerge for a while, and then reappear at a later date. Think of it this way, he told biographer Peter Occhiogrosso: “A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel.”

      Geoff Berner’s music isn’t anything like Zappa’s, but on the evidence of his new book, The Fiddler Is a Good Woman, and album, Canadiana Grotesquica, the two share a similar mindset. The second installment of an eventual trilogy, The Fiddler is written from a very different perspective from its predecessor, Festival Man: that 2013 opus was told almost exclusively by roots impresario Campbell Ouiniette, while the new book is a panorama, narrated by a shifting array of mostly female characters. But the subject matter—the life and hard times of the western Canadian musician—remains the same. Characters, including Ouiniette and the author himself, play recurring roles. And those people often resemble real musicians, including Berner’s collaborators; violinist Diona Davies is one of his frequent touring companions, for instance, and the string wizard of the new book’s title just happens to be nicknamed D.D.

      But Berner is quick to point out that he’s writing fiction, not biography; his protagonists are based on real people, but they’re compound figures, not limited to a single source. More important is that his books chronicle a subculture that’s generally examined only fleetingly, in impermanent media such as radio shows and weekly magazines.

      “These people matter, you know,” he tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his Cedar Cottage home. “These things that I love are bound to disappear, like everything disappears—but some bit of them is not going to disappear, if I can do anything about it.”

      There’s a link perhaps to the work of beat authors Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who created fictional worlds out of real-life people and their low-rent heroism, and whose writings have offered a template to successive generations of nonconformists.

      “If you have some kind of hope in humanity,” Berner says, “it goes beyond just capturing the zeitgeist and into leaving some kind of record for kids who stumble upon this 20 years from now—kids who are listening to mass media and the hits and stuff like that, and thinking ‘Am I the only one who thinks this is all garbage?’ Maybe running across this book will let them go ‘No! There’s always been people who’ve found a way to make a different kind of culture that matters more.’ ”

      That’s a romantic hope expressed in plainspoken language, a notion further reinforced by the determinedly rootsy Canadiana Grotesquica, which moves away from the klezmer-inflected eloquence of recent efforts such as Victory Party and We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians in favour of the alt-country sound that was in vogue when Berner began his musical career.

      In fact, some of those songs have been waiting quite a while to find a forever home. “There was no way I could put them on any of those klezmer-punk records,” Berner explains. “They’re really built from my experience of touring Western Canada.…And when I came up as a singer-songwriter, a lot of the people I toured with were basically singer-songwriters with some twang in them. They were country—and in a lot of ways they were more country than popular country music, but they had this punk background and attitude.”

      Berner’s affinity for that scene—and that sound—is probably best expressed in “Don’t Play Cards for Money With Corby Lund”, a self-explanatory if somewhat surreal account of Alberta’s leading indie songster and cardsharp. And if you need proof that both The Fiddler Is a Good Woman and Canadiana Grotesquica are cut from the same cloth, consider “Rule of the Road”; both book and song enumerate all the things—the “delicate circuitry” of everything from friendships to Fender amps—that can get broken during a cross-country tour.

      One difference, though, is that the song doesn’t mention hearts.

      “Note that I didn’t say that,” Berner says with a laugh. “That’s good songwriting.”

      And yes, yes it is.

      Geoff Berner plays a launch party for Canadiana Grotesquica and The Fiddler Is a Good Woman at the Russian Hall on Saturday (September 9), as part of the Accordion Noir Festival. For a full Accordion Noir schedule, visit the Accordion Noir Festival website.