Page Two: Aww, Canada ...

At last, a magical confluence of ice hockey, Neil Young, and SXSW 06

Page Two
Late afternoon: Michael and I were swimming in the cold lake water somewhere in Northern Ontario. The colors were vivid: the darkening, ever-shifting lake waters, the lazy pale blue sky. We swam, talked, and laughed – mostly laughed; it was a strange time in my life, being a particularly easy period that probably troubled me more than the normal, chaotic tension did.

Annie, Barb (Michael's wife), and our kids were back in the house, on the small island that Barb's parents owned. Lest one think I'm talking of an afternoon swim in the sultan of Morocco's bay, this was one of seemingly hundreds of little islands, each with a house or two on them, scattered across the lakes.

Driving there, you leave urban Toronto relatively quickly and enter endlessly stretching fields and long tunnels of foliage that is dense and green, though surprisingly rich and bright in its color.

There are two traits that most Canadians I know share, and both are almost incomprehensibly deep obsessions: one is ice hockey, and the other is Neil Young.

These obsessions are richer and more multitextured than are similar obsessions in the U.S. Whereas our loyalties are divided among baseball, football, basketball, stock-car races, nonmilitant nationalistic rallies, and so on, Canadians have ice hockey.

In Canada, there is another category covering this terrain: all other sporting events, automobile racing, and/or public gatherings. Canadians have all of these; they just don't indulge in misplaced loyalty and nonspecifically targeted, mass passionate enthusiasms. Energy and true love are not wasted on the lesser sports, which is not to say they are not enjoyed.

In Canada, to hear them tell it, more of them were skating before they walked than there were parents who had to walk 10 miles in the snow to school in the northern United States.

The unique passion for Young I never quite got. This is not about my lack of any love or appreciation for his work, but about the Canadians' much more emotionally intricate, devoted enthusiasm. Theirs is not a too-brightly burning passion for a band newly heard, nor is it any kind of cult worship. Nor is it quite the same as the feeling for even the greatest artists (including Young) of most of us in the states. The importance of even Bob Dylan in my life, which has intensified over the years, is of a different tenor and tone.

Driving to the cold blue lakes, randomly sprouting items through the long, dark, fresh tunnels of green, with an opening letting in the hopeful blue sky, I heard Neil Young everywhere – and when I think back to every time and place I'd been in Canada, I'd heard his music. I'm not talking a Disney cartoon-colored epiphany. I got how as hockey was the One, Young was the One! He is so of and out of Canada, a country where both the historical past and the modern, urban-centered, technological present are set against the vast forests and wastes. Ice and tree have not been vanquished, but loom above them, ready to sweep down. In this context, past, present, future, and nature – permanent and changing – play out mosaically, in some very strange textures and combinations.

It is not a past that haunts or is loathed, but one that is alive with contradictions. As a songwriter, Young constantly shifts time periods, though sometimes he so marries one, there is only flow, without any shifting.

The land is great because of its majesty and people; there is a sense of decency, pace, and manners that rings through the air in the middle of nowhere. Young's songs are personal and universal, detailed and transcendent, deftly combining emotion with knowledge, with it all intuitively driven.

In the water, on that bright afternoon with Michael, my head was filled with rock & roll – and every song was one of Neil Young's.

(To be continued.)

end story

South by Southwest 2006 starts tomorrow. Usually I would have been devoting column after column to this impending event (with conflict-of-interest disclaimer after conflict-of-interest disclaimer). Instead, I've barely mentioned it.

This year is SXSW's 20th anniversary. Everything feels different, and has felt so for a while. I don't think those two thing are related to any great extent, but who knows?

Undoubtedly, this year offers the most acts and the strongest lineup the SXSW Music Festival has ever offered. The same is true of SXSW Film, which has found regard for it exploding over the past two years. SXSW Interactive has become a prime meeting place for bloggers, new-media folks, and socially conscious techies; in the wake of the incomparable Bruce Sterling, it steams forward.

Each of the three SXSW conferences has more registrants than they ever had before, by a significant amount. Unfortunately, because of this, and in order to make sure wristbands work for their wearers, SXSW is selling fewer of them than they have in recent times. SXSW 06 will be a new adventure – but then, all of them have been so far.

Anyone who wants to take a cheap – or even expensive – shot, besmirch my motives, label me a hypocrite and/or a liar, go ahead. Now is your time! But from my heart, I say this is my favorite time of the year. Just getting to watch so many people having a good time at this event – which is usually also helping so many people's creative careers – is a pleasure. But I really love working with the people I get to work with and/or in the way I get to work with them once it starts. These people – year-round staff, seasonal folks, and all the volunteers – are not only among the best at what they do, but also absolutely passionate and committed to the spirit of SXSW. Smear me – but even the bigger jerks out there should take a break from whining and consider the levels of skill and devotion not just needed, but across the board supplied, to make this happen.

Finally, though, we know as we know nothing else that SXSW is because of Austin and that SXSW is of Austin. Yes, it's grown, and things have changed. Folks have been complaining about not getting in to certain clubs at certain times since year one. Expect long lines at the usual suspects' shows.

There is something in the atmosphere, energy, a sense of possibility, collaborative interaction, fresh and renewing; when all is done and said, breathing in that air for 10 days is what I most look forward to each year. end story

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South by Southwest 2006, SXSW 2006, Neil Young, Canada, ice hockey, Michael Hollett, Toronto NOW!, Bruce Sterling, Anne S. Lewis, Bob Dylan, Toronto, Ontario

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