GENTLEMAN REG CD release with the PHONEMES and FINAL FANTASY at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (December 3). $8. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
The signs were there from an early age. There was the obsession with the leather-jacketed George Michael and Andrew Ridgely on the cover of Wham!'s Fantastic. He was kicked out of class for humming songs from musicals under his breath. He formed air bands on the playground with his elementary school pals. He dueted with his sister on Summer Lovin' during sibling productions of Grease (One and Two).
Reg Vermue was born to be a rock star.
It's something he's kept hidden from us. Sure, there were hints of ballsy attitude in the distortion-pedal fuzz of his first release, The Theoretical Girl. And he's occasionally let his hair down as part of the Hidden Cameras' queer riot.
But it's only now, with his great new Darby & Joan (Three Gut) album, that the artist known as Gentleman Reg has rediscovered the rocker inside him.
He's plugging in, turning up the amp and raising his voice loud enough to make you forget the penchant for fragile acoustic pop that got him pigeonholed as another tortured Nick Drake for so many years.
"I played the shy introvert role for so many years," Vermue explains over red wine in a cozy, dimly lit west-end bar. It's pouring outside, but beyond the glass you can just make out the trusty burgundy van that recently carried him across the country and back, which he's just expertly parallel-parked. "Maybe it was working at McDonald's for so long in high school. My childhood instincts were deadened. I got quiet."
He wasn't always like that.
"When I was young, I was a brat, I was funny, I was outgoing. The way I act when I'm drunk now is kinda the way I was then."
He pauses and grins.
"I'm trying to revert back to the way I was before high school."
That's what makes Darby & Joan so exciting. Vermue's moved beyond the airy hesitance of his second release, Make Me Pretty, to bold, assertive indie rock with dynamic hooks and remarkably good arrangements. His band helps; members of Kepler, Sea Snakes and Constantines Bry Webb and Will Kidman (in the studio), as well as live bandmates Greg Millson, Weakerthan John Sutton and Kristian Galberg, add a drive and urgency lacking in his earlier material.
But it's mostly the Gentleman himself who's got a newfound confidence. His voice is less breathy. His melodies are more varied and complex. And the stuff he's singing about - a long-distance love affair, hooking up with married men in shadowy clubs, surviving heartbreak - is unapologetically drawn from his own experience without being in-your-face.
His comfort with his queer identity, Vermue claims, extends to his onstage persona.
"Make Me Pretty was tentatively stepping out, like, 'Here I am, but I'm still quiet.' Whereas now I don't give a shit. You can hate me, but I'm gonna be here and exist. I write good songs, and I'm gonna sing them whether you want me to or not.
"I think it sometimes takes away from the impact when you're too direct or too blunt," he continues. "It wouldn't be me necessarily either if I did it that way. I don't really like that sense of alienation. But I want people to hear my lyrics and I want those sentiments to resonate in a show. Maybe it'll change. Maybe I'll have my sex album along with my sex book. Page for page, I'll emulate Madonna."
He grew up an army brat, ricocheting between homes in Germany, Trenton and Ottawa. Although he's quick to give his parents credit for refusing to impose brawny military machismo (he took figure skating and dance classes, and family car trips were all about barbershop singalongs), the constant motion would've been tough for any kid, let alone a self-described ADD brat with flamboyant tendencies.
The Vermue clan settled in Guelph when Reg was starting grade nine, and everything changed, he says.
"Being in grade eight, at the top of junior high, and then moving to a new city where I knew no one? That was brutal. I made my parents' lives hell at the time, but now I realize it was my musical - and sexual - awakening. So many awakenings, except Robin Williams wasn't there," he laughs.
The thriving college rock community in the Royal City introduced the kid who was obsessed with top-40 cheese like Madonna and Prince to a whole new kind of music. Vermue discovered tough broads like Liz Phair through broadcasts on CFRU, picked up a guitar and started his own band.
The early stuff was terrible, he says, embarrassing folk-pop ditties that "only the lesbian Indigo Girls fans" liked. But he hooked up with some indie rock boys (Tim Kingsbury and Jamie Thompson, now of the Arcade Fire and the Unicorns respectively), discovered distortion, and Gentleman Reg & the Stealth Cats were born.
He also started hanging out with a bunch of arty kids and became part of the Three Gut Records collective. His first album, The Theoretical Girl, helped launch the label.
But nobody outside of Guelph paid much attention to Vermue till he moved to Toronto and released Make Me Pretty in 2002. The buzz was less about the tunes - a set of wispy pop with delicate melodies - than the fact that, with song titles like Two Boys In Love and Make Me Pretty, Gentleman Reg had come out of the closet.
"There were a lot of people hurt by the way I came out through the media and the press, but it worked. It got the job done even though it wasn't intentional. The media really picked up on it."
He pauses. "Let's be honest. Ultimately, there aren't a lot of us out there making good music. I think secretly people know it's still risky, like they still might be kept from selling tons of records. As boring and bland as queerness can be on, say, Queer Eye, it's still fucking taboo."
Aside from the identity politics, themes of creative frustration and struggling to be more than just a hometown hero are woven throughout Darby & Joan. You have to wonder whether Vermue resents the fact that the surge of hype around labelmates like Royal City and the Constantines - or even Jim Guthrie - never really extended to him.
"I felt like the underdog of Three Gut for a long time," he admits. "Royal City got big really quickly. Jimmy had his quirkiness in place from the get-go, and he was really good at attracting the kids. I feel like the kids never really understood what I was doing. The Constantines are such a force of nature. They're such an amazing unit, and they have such amazing songs. What I do is just not that. I think it grows on you slowly. It creeps into you more."
But unlike a lot of local indie heroes, Vermue isn't interested in spending the rest of his life trekking across Canada and back just to get on some college radio chart.
"I'll feel like I've failed with my mission if this record doesn't come out in other countries. It's not even out in the States. I want to go to the UK and all over Europe. And I'd like to go to Japan. Jay Ferguson told me to go there - Ron Sexsmith does really well there.
"I don't understand this mentality where the States is the centre of all music and culture and controls things. No Anglo bands go to Quebec. Why? They have their own musical output. I really want to go there and play shows. I'm open and willing and ready to expand - we just have to figure out how to do that."
fable for two
Even queers have their Prince Charming fantasies, and the title of Gentleman Reg's album is a sweet indulgence of his own. Lukewarm about his posh moniker, Vermue was researching the etymology of the word "gentleman" when he stumbled on the expression "Darby and Joan." He'd never heard the phrase, which originated in an 18th-century ballad by printer's apprentice Henry Woodfall called The Joys Of Love Never Forgot, but something clicked.
"He'd written the ballad about his boss, John Darby, and his boss's wife, Joan, and 'Darby and Joan' started being used to signify this old married couple who have a modest existence but live out their life together in love."
Lit lights like Thackeray and Melville picked up on the song's sentimental silliness, and while Vermue was tickled by the expression's Jack & Diane dynamic duo vibe, he chose the title to satisfy his cheesy romantic side.
"Even though it's very heterosexual, I loved the idea of the romance and the coupledom, and getting to know another human on that level."