KEITH WHITTAKER CD LAUNCH PARTY at Amadeus (184 Augusta), Monday (August 20), 3 pm. 416-591-1245. TRIBUTE TO THE DEMICS with the SCREWED featuring STEVE KOCH and guests, at Graffiti's (170 Baldwin), Monday (August 20), 7 pm. 416-506-6699, www.myspace.com/keithwhittakermusic, www.bullseyecanada.com. Rating: NNNNN
In the days before blogger bias started giving music poll results a predictable indie rock skew, you could count on seeing the Demics' (I Wanna Go To) New York City somewhere near the top of any list of all-time great Canuck rock tunes.
There's good reason why the 1979 punk classic ranks among the most requested songs ever on CFNY 102.1 The Edge and still sounds remarkably vital to this day, and it's largely due to singer Keith Whittaker's compelling delivery.
There's something undeniably truthful in the way Whittaker snarls the lyrics equal parts outsider aspiration and loser cynicism that connects with any bored or beaten-down soul aching to get out of his or her dead-end situation.
Perhaps in a more perfect world, that one memorable song would've propelled Whittaker to international fame and fortune, but instead he was broke and largely forgotten when he died of skin cancer in 1996 at the age of 43.
If Whittaker is remembered at all today, it's as the tragically wasted talent eulogized in the Cowboy Junkies' Misguided Angel, Blue Rodeo's Rage and Paul Hyde's The Maddest Of The Mad. However, Whittaker's songwriting partner, Steven Davey (formerly of the Dishes and currently NOW's food critic), knows there was much more to the man. He wrote the liner notes for the intriguing 12-track Drink To Me (Bullseye) disc of unheard acoustic demos from the early 90s.
"He was such a larger-than-life figure," recalls Davey, "an extremely intelligent guy who was this fabulous raconteur. He was always coming up with great lines, but he'd never write any of them down. Eventually, I started taking notes while he talked. He'd say something amazing and I'd think, "Hmm, there's a song title' and quickly jot it down. That was the beginning of a number of songs we'd work on together."
These were obviously informal sessions, recorded acoustically in Davey's living room, which, from the rumble of a streetcar faintly audible in the background, seems to have been on a TTC line. According to Davey, a major-label recording contract was never in mind. The plan was merely to put down a few solid compositions in demo form that could then be pitched to established artists.
"This was never about starting a band together or storming the charts. I just thought that since he wrote one hit, he could do it again with a little motivation. It was all about establishing a songwriting regimen. My idea was that he would come to my place every Sunday at 11 am, we'd work on song ideas for an hour, record them onto cassettes and then he could go off to the bar at noon."
Davey delayed releasing the recordings because he was concerned that people might think it was a vanity project or that he was somehow trying to ride on Whittaker's reputation.
"But I realized that I could get hit by a truck tomorrow and all these great songs would be lost forever. The title song, Drink To Me, is written from the perspective of someone who's dead who comes back to say, "Don't worry about me,' but that was written three years before he even knew he was sick! We were actually just trying to write a Christmas song!"
And while nothing on Drink To Me is as immediately striking as New York City, it's nevertheless a captivating showcase for Whittaker's dark sense of humour and barstool wisdom, which could've led to some writing gigs for kick-ass country acts.
Songs like I'd Kiss You Honey But You're Standing On My Bottom Lip wouldn't sound out of place in a Supersuckers or Ex-Husbands set, while Hungover You could work for Reverend Horton Heat or the Waco Brothers.
"I told Keith that with his voice and attitude, he'd have no problem at all doing country himself. All he needed was the right tunes. When I started talking with Jamie Vernon at Bullseye about releasing this collection, we were joking about dubbing on a string section like those posthumous Buddy Holly releases, but the great thing about these songs is that they stand up fine on their own."