It’s not what I would have chosen. As a shy, bookish seventeen year old with airs of academia, in my first year of university I signed up for “History 101: History and Ideas”, an agreeably-snobby sounding introductory course. All sections of 101 were the basic Western Civ canon, with each allowed some variety in approach or perspective, though they all counted for the same credits, and could lead into a History major.
Into the first class bounced a bearded, vaguely rat-tailed (1988, after all) recently-PhD’d Marxist who immediately declared that this class was in fact to be the history of football, from the Greeks and Romans up to the invention of rugby (the pinnacle of WestCiv, it turned out), and anyone who didn’t like it should maybe consider, however cowardly, transferring out before the end of the week. To stifle our immediate objections, he said the last time he’d taught the course, he’d been more honest in the course title, and got a classful of jocks, many of whom fell asleep in the lectures, and at whom he’d ended up throwing his chalk brushes, at least until they started throwing them back, with more youthful vigor and aim. But he wanted “real” students, so changed the name, venus flytrappy like, to something innocuous enough to lure us in.
Football (“soccer”, to many of us), was really just a small part of the course’s content: what it really was, was a history of popular culture, of leisure, of what people did when their needs for survival had been met, and they had this ever-increasing allotment of “spare time”. From the Romans we learned about bread and circuses, and the correct pronunciation of “hegemony” (second syllable is stressed, don’t be a buffoon and stress the third); from the Victorians we learned about the moral attributes of self-improvement. And, let’s not forget, class warfare and control!
And somewhere in there, we learned about the Spithead and Nore Mutinies. And somewhere in *there*, we learned about The Men They Couldn’t Hang. History is taught by the winner, it’s said, but sometimes the loser (“second place winner”, I find myself saying to the kids now) gets a say too, and many times this class looked at folk and counter cultures, at the oral traditions and alternate ways of remembering. So one day the prof wheeled in a stereo (quite a production number back in those analog days, and the fine engineering of a Canadian university AV Dept equipment cart), slapped in a tape, and put on The Colours.
It was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was folk, but punk; punk, but country; country, but rock; traditional, but angry, engaged, and vibrant in ways that far too much folk culture avoids for a rarified museum-esque quest for authenticity. And here was a professor, passionate about his subject, showing us how history equally passionately remembers. And also, to my barely-eighteen-year-old spring semester self, coming across as a very cool dude indeed. Best of all, when I finally worked up the courage (shy, remember) to talk to him after the class, he offered, epitome of coolness, to make me a tape of the album, Waiting for Bonaparte. (Marxist, after all, and years before copyleft or creative commons; so, yes, one small instance of piracy, which I defend only by gladly paying exorbitant import prices for a number of TMTCH CDs over the years, plus on one occasion sending a very long buy list with a work colleague vacationing in England, which yielded several very hard to get in Winnipeg albums [thanks, Andy!].)
And what an album: songs to rile and soothe, from band members with vaguely illicit-sounding first names only: Swill, Cush, Paul, Jon, Ricky… three guitarists and two lead vocalists, the slashing, punky Cush kicking your teeth in, tempered by the mellower, soulful Swill to break your heart and rebuild it. An incredibly generous band, often giving lead turns over to guest fiddles and accordionists, giving every voice a chance to shine. Man, did I wear that tape out, and only years later, when I finally got a version on CD did I discover the prof had reversed the album sides, probably deliberately, and did that ever fuck my shit up when I heard the “proper” album sequencing. Bastard. But this was one of those teachers you remember a quarter of a century later, and the next quarter as well, who showed you something that changed your interests, changed your understanding, changed your life.
That makes this twenty-five years of TMTCHing for me, one hard-to-acquire album (at least until the digital era, about which another long story involving Winnipeg, university, and rock and roll remains to bore you) after another. Probably my favourite will always be Silvertown, the album after Bonaparte, if only because it felt like *mine* somehow: an album probably no one else in Winnipeg was waiting for, or listening to, from a band that, while I hadn’t quite discovered on my own, was the next closest thing. This was a cult band for a cult of one, as the prof had moved to Red Deer, Alberta that summer (“I’m moving to Red Neck, Dear!” he’d rather loudly told anyone who asked). Twenty-five years is (barely) more than half my life, but somehow no other band makes me feel as young as this one, as open-eyed to the possibilities of the history we choose to make. They’re celebrating their thirtieth anniversary next year, and I don’t know if they have another thirty years in them, but dear Bonaparte, I hope so.