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More talk, all rock

History of Winnipeg music scene in the 1990s recounted in new book

Sheldon Birnie, author of Missing Like Teeth, grew up in British Columbia but forged a connection with Winnipeg through the city's '90s music scene.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sheldon Birnie, author of Missing Like Teeth, grew up in British Columbia but forged a connection with Winnipeg through the city's '90s music scene.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2015 (1120 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the 1990s, Winnipeg's stages blazed with the sparks from electric strings. Sloppy nights at the Royal Albert, now shuttered, bled into sloppy nights at the Spectrum Cabaret, now the Pyramid. The bands that burned bright or burned out in those years became cult figures: Propagandhi. Kittens. Red Fisher.

Sheldon Birnie missed most of this. Now 32, he was a touch too young to crash out the 1990s; more importantly, he was living 1,900 kilometres away. As a lanky teen growing up in Dawson Creek, B.C., Birnie knew Manitoba mostly from summers visiting his grandparents.

The music, though, that was different.

It's through the music that Birnie found the other heart of Winnipeg, through songs rooted here and lyrics threaded with local references. He was enchanted.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2015 (1120 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the 1990s, Winnipeg's stages blazed with the sparks from electric strings. Sloppy nights at the Royal Albert, now shuttered, bled into sloppy nights at the Spectrum Cabaret, now the Pyramid. The bands that burned bright or burned out in those years became cult figures: Propagandhi. Kittens. Red Fisher.

Sheldon Birnie missed most of this. Now 32, he was a touch too young to crash out the 1990s; more importantly, he was living 1,900 kilometres away. As a lanky teen growing up in Dawson Creek, B.C., Birnie knew Manitoba mostly from summers visiting his grandparents.

The music, though, that was different.

It's through the music that Birnie found the other heart of Winnipeg, through songs rooted here and lyrics threaded with local references. He was enchanted.

"There's no band singing about Dawson Creek," Birnie says, sipping a pint at the legion on River Avenue earlier this week. "To have a city I was familiar with enough to have vivid memories from, and for bands to be singing about places I recognized in a way that was beautiful, or powerful, really connected with me. It helped build the Winnipeg in my head, which was part reality... and these poetic, romantic kind of stories."

But who tells these stories when most of the people that lived them have in many cases stepped back and grown up? Who tells these stories when the venues that hosted the sweatfests of the old scene have shut down or shifted, and the kids flowing into local music now wouldn't know a Bonaduce from a Breath Grenade?

Well, this time the person to tell 'em is Sheldon Birnie. On Oct, 24, the transplanted Winnipegger and journalist will release Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock, 1990-2001. It's a wild 221-page romp through the bands, breakups and shakeups that built a scene.

Sixty interviews went into the making of the book, and Birnie puts them front and centre. The stories that spill out of the eclectic assortment of punk-rock vets veers between business and ballistic. The time a guy at what is now the Burton Cummings Theatre threatened Guy Smiley frontman Derek Kun with charges for inciting a riot, that's in there. So is the full tale of John K. Samson's departure from Propagandhi, and the ensuing genesis of the Weakerthans.

There's dirt in there, yeah, but there are also lessons found in the book's granular look at the trials that awaited a slew of then-youngsters finding their way in the fickle music business. It ain't always pretty, but dang, it's about time someone put all of this down.

"I think enough time has passed for people that they're able to look back on it, and it's not so immediate anymore," Birnie muses. "They can look back and laugh on some silly things, and look back with some perspective. I think a lot of people were ready to do that, too."

Because nobody thinks they're making history, even a small local one, while they're making it — especially not when they're lugging guitars between the gig and the van, and busy living — the full shape of what those daily battles built takes time to recognize, to come together, to be fully known.

Now, at least, anyone wondering what happened has somewhere to look.

"I had this romantic image of it that, in a way, I wanted to debunk, but maybe validate in some way," Birnie says. "Winnipeg's often overlooked... you don't often see the origin stories of a lot of these bands that I wanted to see when I was a kid."

Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock, 1990-2001 hits bookstores Saturday, Oct. 24, and will be available online at the Eternal Press website. To mark the release, the Windsor Hotel is hosting a launch party that night featuring Johnny Sizzle and the Breath Grenades, and a chat with Birnie.

You can also catch Birnie and pick up the book earlier in the day at the Canzine book fair at the Millennium Library between noon and 6 p.m.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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History

Updated on Thursday, October 22, 2015 at 11:19 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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