By Jacqueline Howell, DISARM editor
The early 1990s renaissance continues as even our personal wish list is coming true here in Toronto.
Rusty, whose 1995 debut album, Fluke, was one of Toronto’s best entries into the burgeoning early 1990s innovative Alternative boom, recently announced their new album, Now is When, their first in 20 years, is nearing completion.
Fluke, an album still cherished by Rusty fans worldwide, is full of blistering rock music that bleeds originality and feels spontaneous, urgent and empowering. Sharp, young, musicians that came of age in 1990 were steeped in rock, punk, glam, eighties post-punk, and indie. These self-taught marvels brimmed with energy and were capable of creating new music forms. Most have been overlooked and overshadowed by the reductive corporate-strangled labels nobody wanted, (such as “grunge”). The 90s was full of good music of the last real youth movement that has sharply failed to flourish in the (corporate-strangled) new age. Rusty was among the best of this music made anywhere in the world.
Rusty’s debut has a song called “Misogyny”. This word is more common today but was not a common conversational or musical topic then. The band’s ideas were grand, theoretical and important – but if you didn’t feel like intellectualizing, they also rocked really hard. This casually-brainy, effective rock music is a mark of the greatest Canadian bands. Rusty were also fused with a then-new snowboarding culture, worked with cutting edge video director Bruce La Bruce, and were a bright part of a cool new Canadiana. But like other iconic (underrated) artists, Rusty’s ideas are translatable, global, universal:
It snowed there once or twice.
Bullets fly across the sky.
The path is smooth and tight.
I caught one at the bus stop.
I said: “Hey man, I’ve been shot.”
I felt the warm blood rolling down,
Now it’s gone away.” – California
As the world cascaded open with social media’s borderlessness and lack of filters, brave people who risk their hearts for true engagement and connection face daily stories like the ones simply, bluntly, told in the song “California”. Every day. Are faced with what to do with this knowledge. How to live, how to cope. How to help? What to do? There’s a laugh but no catharsis from a meme. That’s what music is for.
And in 1995, a song like “California” (and “Wake Me”, and “Groovy Dead”) was more than what social media is today. It was a young person’s newspaper. It blew away 60 Minutes with decibels; it drowned out stale TV and radio debate with something clean and true. “California” was a beacon of a generation waking up to the world, to hard truths, to an unsanitized version of terrible events as they happen. Women were attacked, and killed, brutally, by men who they loved and trusted, or men they met through bad luck. Women still are. Regularly. Innocents catch bullets at bus stops, not just in L.A. anymore, amid a local gang war in a particular cross-street but anywhere, in the wrong-place-wrong-time reality of U.S. out of control gun violence. At school, attacked by fellow students, in a pandemic of violence now. Reportedly there are more guns than people in the U.S.A. today. Are we safe yet?
“California” is also a dichotomy: it is stunningly beautiful. Like all of Fluke, it emotes the rage of a generation who inherited this world and were not going to sit idly by listening to people reminisce about the 1960s. Corporatized nostalgia is a handy way to keep us from action and resistance to whatever we are told is “now”. Now is forever. Singer Ken MacNeil’s throat stripping delivery is relentless, sincere, empathetic; his vocals full of anger, fear and love. “California” speaks about disconnection, of indifference as true horror: “Hey man, I’ve been shot.” This line sounds like a gunshot victim is being ignored, in public, unseen, hit with a smooth tight path of darkness that is possible not just in public but in private. There are no safe spaces. We knew that, once. Were galvanized, organizing against the darkness. It is a Canadian perspective of negotiating our frail border and the world; of travel; of meeting interesting, beautiful people and seeing them leave and face awful fates beyond our reach. It is post-modernity that we are stuck in, lost in now.
Will you wake me up? Will you pull my cuff? – Wake Me
That’s what the era’s music captures, and one reason why it will not be cast aside, is still needed, and why our greatest bands are returning to us to fill a void in the very heart of culture and music in 2018. Despite label help or support. We were supposed to have jetpacks, not emojis. We’re backsliding, overwhelmed by the rapid changes of tech and communication and the disappearance in leadership in both things, so we make our own. New records. Raise funds. Mount tours. Rebuild community. The next era of Rusty is going to be a hell of a party.
In the 1990s, we all raged and rioted inside and in our music-loving way in the crowd, believing our intelligence and enthusiasm could change the world, who certainly must be led by the young people as it always is. The music changed everything then and had limitless potential to continue to. What happened in the back half of the 90s and post – “Y2K” was a deliberate and destructive assault from a dying, exploitative music industry against everything indie: from Kurt Cobain’s regularly misunderstood truly subversive and revolutionary (good) ideas: against homophobia, sexism and hatred; to the many bands who promoted and created a world of gender equality in music on world stages that made everyone money and made everyone who believed in this progress happy. The music labels, that had contempt for their artists, customers, and tech innovation itself, pivoted whiplash – fast to belly buttons and boy bands, machine music & artists they could control totally. It’s been a cold war ever since. And not just an indifferent war on underexposed bands; Canadian bands who’ve always struggled to traverse and be heard and seen in a vast country, (never mind beyond it) and the Indie world that, at the moment, has no choice but to stay underground. It’s been a long cold war on real music itself. Innovation, new ideas, big ideas, pauses to question violence, misogyny, purpose, survival and new sounds made by instruments have lately been labeled as unimportant, even dying. But real, challenging ideas rarely, if ever, come from puppets owned by dominant music brands, the “music” which dominates public space and most entertainment now. This corporate backlash happened precisely because 80s & early 90s emerging bands were so important, so innovative, and so grown up. So independent and unreliant on the actually dying industry that ate itself. Alternative music by its very nature is wild and cannot be broken.
We link Rusty to this argument because they are a perfect example of this entire story and the “trends” around what has gone down in the last two decades. Because we’ve loved them for 20 years and have never stopped listening to them. Because they’ve stepped back to the fore since 2011 with occasional gigs and tours losing not an ounce of fire, life and passion. Because they’ve worked quietly for two years putting together demos while juggling regular lives and families. Rusty deserved more and better, even at their height. They were and are important whether you’ve heard of them or not, whether you are nostalgic about them (and then) or not, whether you may even be a real music fan who understands there is nothing nostalgic about art because art is timeless. Hey, we all pine for our youthful energy, but what has happened to music and the chances of independent artists to break through and to grow and to stay and earn their way is way more painful than nostalgia. The truth is very different. And darker. All this great music must be heard out loud and in full and sat with and listened to from track (song) one to ten to really get or know. Slow down. Think about what is missed. What was denied. What is owed to our generation. And what can still be.
Rusty has an ongoing PledgeMusic campaign in support of their upcoming album: Now is When with some highly original and gift-worthy offerings. From the usual T-Shirt & CD/ Vinyl bundles to the chance to name a song on the new album, to rare collectibles or even going snowboarding or drinking with band members, there’s something for every fan who can say “I contributed to new music being made by a great band.” It’s also a great way to stay up with the project’s progress. Rusty just finished a mini-tour and we’ll follow and announce new tour information and album news as it happens.
Rusty during their 2011 reformation show in Toronto. Photos by Dave MacIntyre