Wednesday, November 24, 2010

There Are No Sideshows



I believe it was the great Hollywood writer/director Billy Wilder who once said of audiences, "Individually, they're idiots. Collectively, they're a genius.". Truer words may have never been spoke -- and they apply to sports fans as much as those who spend their time watching movies and television.

Toronto sports emporium "The Skydome" sports a sculpture that has always bothered me. It depicts a bunch of fans heckling, cat-calling and blowing raspberries, implying that those who inhabit and paid for the place are basically boorish, brain-dead boneheads.

Likewise, sometime just before Sunday night's Grey Cup kickoff, some sportscaster will inevitably utter words to the effect that all the unimportant stuff is over and now it's time to play football.

But sideshows didn't get that moniker because they were less important than what happened under the Big Top.

They were simply set up next to or be"side" it. More often than not the money that came in from those gawking at the freaks and the menagerie subsidized the other acts or even made them possible in the first place.

From childhood we've all been aware that the lion tamer might be awesome, but there's also cotton candy and a guy who's the missing link.

Never underestimate what the audience really wants.

There was a time when the Grey Cup was just a football game -- and nobody cared.

Then, in 1948, a bunch of Calgary Stampeder fans showed up in staid, old "Toronto the Good" for the big game, bringing chuckwagons and square dancing. They partied in the streets til all hours, served pancake breakfasts to complete strangers and rode their horses through hotel lobbies and up the elevators.

grey cup 48

From that day on, the game became the dessert after a week long party with every dish the Canadian fun buffet can offer.

Fans and fan festivities have turned a mere sporting event into a cultural phenomenon.

A few days ago, I perused the full page event schedule of Edmonton's "Hot to Huddle" Grey Cup Week. It included everything from black tie awards and gala dinners and CFL Hall of Fame exhibits to "Bif Naked" and "Trooper" performing at the outdoor tailgate party.

Since it's Edmonton, there's also an "indoor" tailgate party -- as well as a pre-tailgate party, an after party and let's not forget the cheerleader extravaganza.

Each CFL team also hosts its own shindig that's open to all comers. Most are free, although a few charge $10 - $20 at the door to cover their damage deposits.

And to a great extent, the entertainment presented reflects the team culture. For example, the Edmonton Eskimos, this season's worst club indicates "live entertainment planned" -- plans many fans probably hoped might reach fruition during the season.

Traditional chokers, the Calgary Stampeders, are offering "cover bands" reflecting how their real stars never show up.

Still trying to raise enough money for a new stadium, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are handing out promotional Manitoba lapel pins. Now there's a real conversation starter for the office Christmas party.

Also hoping to hold onto their fan base until their new home is completed, the BC Lions are promising a "free gift" to anyone who shows up. Anyone. Rumor has it that coach Wally Buono is finally giving away his offensive line. 

The Eastern Champion Montreal Alouettes already know how to keep their fans happy, so they're promising "a party with a Montreal flavor hosted by Alouette cheerleaders". Expect pole dancing and meeting somebody named Chantelle.

The Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger Cats are both featuring a band called "Two for the Show" implying that their perennial talent searches are still turning up the same guys, but at least the ones they trade back and forth all season don't have to find new apartments.

Oh yeah, and Toronto is the only team that apparently needed a corporate sponsor to cover their tab. While every other city found a team related title for their celebration, the Argo party is called the "Wiser's Double Blue Bash".

But the party that truly caught my eye was the one the Saskatchewan Roughriders are hosting entitled "Riderville", because it features Kenny Shields. I read that name and wondered out loud, "My God, how is he even still alive!"

During my teenage Rock 'n Roll days, Kenny was the singer for a band out of Saskatoon called "The Witness", which became "Kenny Shields and Witness" and after several combinations and permutations plus a move to Winnipeg evolved into a rockin' little outfit known as "Streetheart" -- maybe one of Canada's greatest and certainly one of its most under-appreciated bands.


They had hits with "Action", "Look at Me" and "What Kind of Love is This" as well as releasing a version of "Under My Thumb" which was so good the Rolling Stones altered their own arrangement for live performances to replicate the one birthed on the Canadian prairies.

"Streetheart" songs also contain some of the best lyrics ever written by a Canadian band. Take "Snow White", a song about teenage lust:

"School uniform looks so charming,
But underneath, you're quite alarming.

Snow White, the teacher's pet,
Straight "A"'s ain't all she gets."

or the terrific and insightful "Hollywood":

"Hollywood why you lookin' at me?

I don't wanna be part of your mystery."

When I knew Kenny, he was a skinny 16 year old kid with one of the most amazing rock 'n roll voices I'd ever heard. The lead singers in other local bands were either good or bad. But Kenny opened his mouth and you heard what you heard on the radio.

Back then, we used to kid him because he gushed his S's. He didn't slur them. He just turned every "S" into a "Shhh" as in, "I'm from Shhhashhhkatoon, Shhhashhcatchewan".

We never knew if it was unconscious or a practiced affectation but it worked. Because when Kenny did his between song patter, you could see all the girls just melt. And while the music was important, that segment of our audience was really the whole point of most of us being there.

I also didn't know anybody who worked or partied harder. Kenny led the kind of life that Keith Richards wishes he could write about.

And yet, despite multiple bypass surgery and being well into his 60's and who knows what all else, Kenny's still with us. And that voice is as strong and as pure as it ever was.

What follows is something from a recent "Streetheart" reunion show. If you're in Edmonton tomorrow through Saturday you can hear the same thing live.

And that's part of what makes Grey Cup week so special. Randy Bachman and Fred Turner may be headlining the halftime show. Tom Cochrane, Wide Mouth Mason and Andrew Cole have sewn up the big beer tent gigs. But there's still plenty of room for Kenny Shields and one of rock's greatest voices.

Give an audience what they want. Make them part of the fun. And they'll even turn up for a football game nobody thought mattered. For without the audience, there ain't no show, mainstage or sidewise.

That's something guys like Kenny Shields never forget.

1 comment:

John McFetridge said...

Wow, no wonder the Grey Cup celebration has been used as the setting fo so many Canadian movies and TV... oh wait.