I keep thinking that one day, maybe, I’ll collect enough of the traits I admire in other people to be my own person. Some days, I think I’m finally done, that I’ve collected enough to be done with it all. But, that’s when life shows up. Life shows up and cuts my hobbled-together body open, forcing me to heal in different ways. The traits I’ve stolen mutate as they heal—some become cancerous to the soul, some become benign, some keep me going. I finally get back to that place I want to be; I feel good again—scars or no. I feel good enough to start collecting again, so I do. Years pass and my collection is back to its former glory and over my mutated husk of a body, I’ve managed to cobble together a new form—a new way of being. Life’s surely to come along any minute now. Life does that, it appears from nowhere even when you don’t want it to and forces your hand.
My hand was first forced in the autumn of 1988. From deep between my father’s backbone and ribs, I called together the cells that would form my tight, sleek and fast spermy body. Like him, I too got ready for this night. Poised myself for quick exit from the testis, waxed my helmet and worked out my tail. I felt the room get tight, and then we were gone in a rush of motion. It was dark and I knew the (proverbial) ball was back in the hands of life.
I rocketed into this world in a flurry of placenta, tears and dread nine months later in the late spring of ’89. The state of the world could only accurately be described by one man and his piano. Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray. South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio—etcetera, etcetera. As a young, young boy, I remember dragging my diaper through a wheat field beside my older sister, to a trailer where I watched Donald Duck tapes as my mother canoodled with the man who would become my step-father.
When that fateful time came, he was followed by a side kick.
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There was a Vegas wedding and yellow bungalow on Patterson Drive. It was here I realized that the thing between my legs was going to be both a wealth of trouble and fun in the years ahead of me. There was a girl my age next door; a girl who would run through the sprinkler in a two-piece. Jamika was my introduction to the two-piece bathing suit. Being the natural, red-blooded male that I am, there was only one course of action to take. I ripped off my shirt, revealing my plushy, seven-year-old body and began to carry plastic lawn chairs over my head from one side of the deck to the other. I was a strong, strong boy. She knew it. We gave each other the eyes and suddenly I felt the need to pee. I wish this story continued on and went someplace where I could say that I became an experienced man at that young age, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t, because all through my life I’ve been what some would call a nervous man, what I’d call an overthinking man, and what most in my family would just call, “Joel.”
In the yellow bungalow on Patterson Drive, I preformed the first act in the play that is known to us only as manhood. I became, for the first time ever, aware of the intricacies of my own penis. There was a man in the house now, and according to my mother, I finally had someone to teach me how to wash it properly. I also learned what a circumcision was—and that I got one, but didn’t really have one. It’s akin to a bad perm, but that’s beside the point. Having a man in the house was scary to my young little mind, but it was also a very good thing. I had a sounding board for all kind of questions that riddled my little mind but didn’t think my mother would know. Things like, “Hey Rod, why am I supposed to pee standing up?”, “Hey Rod, why do boys shave and girls don’t?” and the classic, “Hey Rod, what’s this on my winky?” But it wasn’t just the knowledge he brought, it was the peripherals that came along with him: his tastes.
Because of him, I became familiar with things like Super Dave Osborne, Monty Python and computers. This activated the creative centers in my brain and, with my toys, I would act out new stories. Maybe things derived from whatever I was watching at the time, or maybe I’d figure out a logical way for the Digimon world to meet the Dragonball Z universe. Whatever I was playing, there had to be a story to it, something to give weight to what I was doing. Sometimes, to skip the expository stuff, I’d dip into an imaginary story like an episode of the Venture Bros., showing up ten minutes into the third act of an obviously intense situation.
Once I really got into watching movies, my eyes became like cameras. I’d get into weird positions so I could view “the shot” from where I wanted. Peeking from just behind a wall, or from my perch atop the couch for a “crane” shot. Sometimes I’d set the figures up on the coffee table and rest my nose on the surface so I could look up and see them from below. I was becoming an artist, and I didn’t even realize it.
Back in those days, video cameras were typically massive, shoulder-riding affairs—straight to VHS tape. Rod, Step-Dad Man, being the techy-guy that he was, always had a video camera—he was a photographer in his younger days and I guess video technology was a natural progression for him. He had a few different video cameras that I remember, and always brought them out at family gatherings. Christmas and birthday parties, anniversaries and weddings, the camera was always being used by either him, my mother or just being passed around the party. Eventually, when they shrunk down into the world of Micro-VHS and other such tiny tapes, the cameras were finally small enough for me to carry around.
My first camera-person gig came from Cassandra, my older sister. She’s the root of it all, music, movies—you name it. She was into making movies with her friends long before I was, and with the neighbor girl, she had come up with a story to have me shoot. I remember it as the tale of two girls who ended up as singers. There was a lot of lipstick involved. I also remember getting yelled at because I couldn’t keep the camera steady and not breathe into the mic while running down the street. Big sisters, right?
Once I commandeered the camera for myself, I started making movies with my toys. Now, this can’t be more than a year or two after the release of Toy Story, so it all made perfect sense to me. You see, I’d take wide shots of all the toys, close ups while I did voices, then I’d move all the toys and do another wide shot. Do this enough, and you have a movie. That’s how Pixar does it, right? Of course, I had to stop the camera in between each take, and it resulted in a super choppy movie with pieces missing and no real focus—but it was perfect. I never realized what I had though, other than passing fun. When my furor for action figures died, so did my desire to film things. Well, some things.
There was a weekend where I felt the need again while a cousin was over, so I cast her and Amorette, my younger sister, in a blatant plagiarism of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back called Bill and Silent Phil. I’d sell my soul right here in front of you to have that piece of steaming gold poo from the depths of memories and moves. Bill and Silent Phil would be my last film…video…movie…thing, until I started making YouTube videos when I moved out of my parents’ place.
Throughout this time, my emotions were trying to sort themselves out the best they could. Like any kid, I was an unpredictable ball of laughter, rage, tears and devilishness. When little women finally entered the fight in a real way, I believe I took a turn for the worst, as most men do. My first real crush was a girl named Natalie. We went to school together from kindergarten until a young grade in elementary school, when she just disappeared—moved to a new school district without a word. We were close, but I got along well with most of the girls at school because of my sisters. All through my education, I’d be plagued with a chubby body and an apple cheeked baby face, effectively keeping me out of the “desirable” zone and firmly rooted in the “confidant” zone. That’s always been fine for me though, I just like hanging out with pretty faces and sharp minds.
To my entire first grade class, it was fairly obvious that Joel was crushing on Natalie. Nathan, my best friend at the time, would tease me relentlessly about it, and one day he made the fateful error of mentioning it in front of her.
I imploded. It was the first time I legitimately ran away from what was bothering me. Like Forrest Gump, I took off running around the field in a fit of rage, terror and sadness. It was a thousand-meter track and I remember doing it at least three times, picking up a pack of kids trying to calm me down on the second time around. I was the fat kid in school—well, one of them at least—and yet my rage legs carried me faster than any of the others.
The next girl was Lindsay. But, Lindsay was Tyler’s girl—everyone knew that. Also, I’m pretty sure she was just using Devin and I to make him jealous.; the third grade was a soap opera for me. I was involved in a love triangle that culminated on Valentines’ day, when I was handed a valentine by Britney, Lindsay’s right-hand minion, that said simply:
You’re so sweat but I choose Devin.
It was then I knew that Lindsay and I should never be. Sweat? C’mon, girl. The third grade was the seed sowing year for me, because in the sixth grade, I would go on to “date” Lindsay after one of her and Tyler’s particularly nasty break-ups. He punished me in dodge ball, and she broke up with me in a letter, delivered once again by her now rapidly developing henchwoman, Britney. The letter said (to paraphrase from memory):
Britney and I are gay. Ha ha ha ha ha.
No, but seriously.
You are the sweetest guy in the entire world, but Tyler and I are getting back together.
I was crushed. My first real taste of heartbreak, jealousy and betrayal. Welcome to the first day of real life, kid.
Back in the third grade, I made friends with a girl named Brenda. She was weird, but I liked her. She talked about Sony PlayStations and Final Fantasy, which were completely foreign to me because I was a Nintendo kid. She was the first women to figure out how to make me blush, and she weaponized it. She’d make incredibly forward innuendos over innocuous things, like talking about her vagina when I’d ask to borrow her peach pencil crayon.
“Oooooooooh! You want my peach!?” she’d croon, and as soon as the breath started to leave her mouth, the blood flushed to my face. I liked her.
Brenda moved away too, but when the Catholic elementary schools of the city converged on the singular high-school, we met again. It was awkward at first, but with my slick guitar playing and ambitions of long hair, it wasn’t long before I wooed her and she borrowed my crayon—a first for the both of us.
When the fourth grade rolled around, we were given the opportunity to go to the local junior high and try out the instruments of the older kids. If we liked what we tried, we could sign up to play the instrument of our choosing in the band class that was about to start. Now, at this time, I had no inkling towards music, but band class meant you got to take a bus away from the elementary school and go to all the way to Mission Heights, to a school that was a stark red contrast to our green Irish Catholic haven. And, you left right after lunch—so naturally, that meant all the cool kids spent their lunches twice a week sitting on their instruments, baking under the sun on sidewalk of Poplar Drive, eating peanut butter sandwiches and Lunchables like preschool jazz musicians waiting for a gig to come along so they can buy their junk.
I played the trombone. Well, I faked the trombone, and I faked it well. I could produce the sounds fine enough, and I could do all the comedy sound effects I needed with the slide and good breath, but I never cared a bit for the instrument. I hated how it made my lips red and raw and I could never breathe because of the asthma I refused to believe I had. I made my mom proud in a few Christmas concerts and got some ice cream out of the deal—so I figured I could hang up my jazz hat for good. I dropped out of band by grade six and the rented trombone sat in the laundry room of our house on seventy-fourth ave for a good year before it finally disappeared. Mom, no doubt, got tired of tripping over it and banished it back to hell.
In the magical year of 1997, my aunt Debora gave us desks. We had just lost Biggie and the whole continent seem to struggle to find ways to party and bullshit once again. Debora was a teacher in Red Deer and to handle the tragedy, her school was undergoing renovations. New paint, new drywall, new desks, computers and the whole lot, so when these archaic antique desks with pull-out seat drawers and ink wells came up for grabs, she took three of them for her cousin’s children.
We had a room in the house that we called the craft room. It had linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and a wall of sliding-door shelving opposite a wall of cheap wood paneling. The patio door to the deck was also in here, hidden behind rather industrial looking white blinds. This was the most versatile room in the house. While we lived there, it was a bedroom for three separate people, myself included. It was a rehearsal space for several singers and myself, my first recording studio, a tattoo studio and a staging area for barbeques.
My parents set the desks up in there, all facing the wall of shelving so we could play school. Why they thought this was something we’d want to do on the weekends, or after coming home from school, I’ll never know—but the desks were set up and play school is what we did. Cassandra, the ever-intrepid leader of the pack took to the role of teacher quite nicely, regardless of lack of knowledge. She also had the impeccable ability to melt down whenever I’d sit in the back of the room and goof off.
Despite the failure of the school house rock, the desks became staples of playtime in our house. Both Amorette and Cassandra had ended up painting and doodling all over theirs, but mine remained plain. I maybe spruced it up with a few stickers here and there, but I needed my work space clean. Many a time, that desk and I would fly into the Death Star to the aid of Luke Skywalker. That was my deal, I didn’t want to be the hero—I was just fine with playing a supporting role in my own game. When we weren’t hurdling through space, the desk had a much more terrestrial use. It became my DJ booth. Not a DJ in the sense that I’d headline in Ibiza or anything like that, but I was very much into talk radio at the time.
My hometown had two local stations when I was a kid. SunFM and whatever they called the cow shit and gun smoke station. Every morning, my mother would drive us to school to the dulcet tones of Kevin Scott and Margo Watt, the faceless voices of the morning drive show. The banter and rapport between them spoke to me instantly and they became celebrities in my mind. I crushed on the woman who materialized when I heard Margo’s voice, and without knowing it, Kevin Scott became one of my first real introductions into comedy.
The TLC explosion of the late nineties and the R&B wave that came along with it was never for me, so radio at the time was purely about the talk. I’d create fake news, fake topics and fake traffic based on the two roads in Grande Prairie that I could remember, and play my mixtapes while I shuffled paper around. I was an OG bedroom DJ, just of the talk show variety.
During the height of my fandom, and my trombone playing career, the bus came back from band one afternoon as the afternoon kindergarten class was just about to dismiss. A few parents of them dotted the halls, and as we passed through, one of my buddies smacks me on the arm and says, “that’s Kevin Scott!” Thankfully, it wasn’t just me that was star struck by the voice on the radio, and all four of us bounced around and got his autograph on our music books. He was a good guy, shook our hands and introduced himself, and then he wrote each of our names down. The next morning, when he knew that we’d all be in the car with our moms, he gave us all a shout out by name, one by one. It was the highlight of my little life up till that point.
In my mid-teens, the bond with my step-father had finally began to deepen. We found common ground in Curling, which was a welcome change of pace. As a young kid, I was always scared of him—he’d take me into the yard and put me to work under the hot sun. I’d always wait until he had his back turned on the other side of the lawn, or when he went to grab tools or garbage bags or whatever we needed for the job, and I’d run back into the house and forget the whole ordeal ever happened. He never made me come back out, but he’d always call me on my escapes at the dinner table and, in my mind, I started to make him the bad guy. I’ve gone on to do this to all adult male authority figures in my life, I’m adversarial off the mark and it usually takes me a little bit to come down off the nonsense train and realize that it’s just my daddy issues at play. No one’s out to get me.
Through junior high, I kept growing and kept finding new sources of humor; The Simpsons being chief among them. One set of my cousins weren’t allowed to watch The Simpsons, for reasons I couldn’t fathom. Yeah, it was a little crass, but as Rod put it, “it’s nothing he can’t handle”, and I’ll forever thank him for that. I learned about everything from that dysfunctional yellow family. Everything from death to sex to drugs to Edgar Allen Poe, you name it—it comes from the Simpsons. Hell, I knew the plot to Planet of the Apes for fifteen years before I saw it, thanks to that show.
When I was a little kid, before the video camera days, I wrote parodies of Star Wars and other movies my parents had recommended me to watch. I turned them into sketches and cast my sisters and myself, preforming for a captive audience of parents. In junior high, I had a monthly comic book series that I wrote, drew and published single copies of by myself. It was another parody, unintentionally, of Dragon Ball Z called Stick Fighter, starring stick men with different hair styles and powers. Sometimes muscles. I had always been drawn to art and comedy in a natural way, it’s just one of those things my personality gravitates towards. That’s why we have this website today. I want to write down the thoughts in my head and put them out in the world, but over just two more clicks, I’d sure like to give you a laugh.
Shortly after I became a competent musician, the concept of actually being an artist began to dawn on me. Mainly because—well, you know… artists get chicks. I’ve always been a sensitive guy, but I feel like I leaned on that a little much when I was younger, especially when playing guitar for the ladies. Always playing the softest songs with an over-earnest touch.
As it happens, I became the insufferable young artist in college. I was hell-bent on recording albums and being a folk singer. I put together a set list and wrote a bunch of songs. I called the restaurant owners I knew and tried to set up gigs at places that didn’t regularly have live music. Nothing really panned out, I got close twice but, cancelled them both myself. It was a scary notion to me, playing music for hours in front of strangers who were just there to eat their dinner. I couldn’t do that. I had twenty minutes of covers and ten minutes of painfully honest originals, which equated to three whiny songs in the same key. Oh—and I tried to play harmonica during one of them. I got a review from a friend about that song, and he said, “if I was a chick, I’d be swimmin’ in my panties, bro.” But, I guess it didn’t give me the confidence boost I needed.
Throughout the course of learning to play the guitar, I became increasingly engrossed with music by the day. I joined the jazz band in high school because my guitar teacher once said it’d be a cool place to learn fancy chords, then doodled out some jazz lines for me and I was sold on it. The band didn’t quite end up being like the stuff he was playing, it was big band music that involved me reading sheet music so I could follow along with the horn section, and I couldn’t quite hack it. At the time, though, my partner in crime was the bass player, so I just followed along with him, playing my fancy new jazz chords with a staccato thing and maybe occasionally jangling out for a beat or two. It was a mixture of horror, dread, adrenaline and excitement when I was asked to solo—when I had started learning to improvise in my lessons my teacher said that I’d be a good jazz player because I recover well from “wrong” notes—so I took this as license to muck around whenever I was playing the real jazz. Eventually I fumbled around enough to figure something out, and I developed a fun little relationship with the pianist. We’d noodle it out together. I miss playing like that, but not enough to seek it out in the world of adulthood, apparently. I stopped playing for a long time and I’m just now finding it again, after finding it again last year. So, we’ll see how that all goes.
Somewhere just before the guitar journey and the genesis of the folk singer version of myself, was the introduction to poetry within music—also known as lyrics—by my ninth grade English teacher, Maz. We replaced the poetry unit in our class that year for a “history of rock music,” and that’s how we were exposed to poetry. The Beatles, Zeppelin, you name it. He let us pick songs and bring them forward, and encouraged us to write our own. He read some of his own, and at one point we (of course) put our desks into a giant circle, lit candles and shared. Many of us cried. Alright, fine. I only know for sure that I cried because of how hard I cried.
I start staying up late, high on adrenaline fed to me by the music of Linkin Park and Metallica (but not even good Metallica, like 2003’s Metallica), writing poetry that was complete crap. I remember straight-out plagiarizing “Schism” by Tool—a high point in my early art career. I’m sure at some point in my time I managed to write several Slayer songs, maybe a Cannibal Corpse number or two. I was a strangely violent teenager.
There were a few traditional poems I wrote though. I was buying the best poets I could think of or find. And yes, that’s right; I know you’re thinking of the exact same people as I am: Tupac and Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen got to me at one point when I was in college and I began pumping out really pretentious shit. I tried so hard to be someone I just wasn’t. I still cringe at the thought of those poems and I can’t even remember them. One was about steam, I know that for sure. The steam that rises from manhole covers in the winter. Every time I see that steam, I think about that shitty poem and shudder just a little bit.
After that, I went through all the guitar stuff and emerged through the other side a proud folk artist with a couple dead dads to sing about, a habit that I didn’t acknowledge or even see, and a “demo” called How Fickle My Heart. Six songs: three of them okay, one of them good and two of them just kind of there. Finally, I was a real artist, I thought. I played a gig with those songs.
I asked my friend Jan if I could open for her when her tour came through town, and that led to the time I died a thousand deaths on stage. I played alright, but I was clearly terrified. I was way too stoned throughout that day, and when eight o’clock came, I was inside my head, trying to claw my way out to play a gig. I didn’t show up though, I couldn’t. That was my first and last time out as a solo act.
I kept playing, but my focus shifted. Through college I learned how to navigate the keys, so I started buying synths and I fell into that world. I called myself JayFM and just made fun music for myself. I got hired back at G&H and started playing guitar again, so I put the drum machines to use in a project I called Gus and put out an EP called Look at me Hector (I was really into Breaking Bad at the time). I mailed out a CD of my electronic music to my friend in another city once, and then for some reason—promptly deleted all of it. I guess that was my next step down the hole of artistry—turning and burning.
I started playing with sampling and got weird for a while. Mixes of voicemails through pitch shifters and looped over Beastie Boys beats; I was smoking a ton of weed around this time. Music dominated all other things for a long, long time in one form or another. When I got bored of computer sounds, I became a bass player (in my living room) and found another side of jazz and funk. I was trying out a bass at work once on my day off, and got asked, last minute, to play a gig with a touring band whose bassist broke his leg, but I chickened out of that one too. In hindsight, I must say that I’ve sabotaged myself at this whole “being a musician” thing. I obviously never took it seriously.
When I moved to Edmonton and got together with Steph, I was still playing a ton. Honing my bass skills, trying to be James Jamerson, Victor Wooten and Geddy Lee all in the same afternoon. But when this small, floppy eared, fur-coated vacuum moved into the house, I was put on puppy watch.
The little beast would bark like she was hunting when I’d play, so I had to put the guitars away for the sake of my ears. I don’t resent my dog, she’s a cutie and she ended up being the reason I switched my focus. I had to pick something quieter to fill my time with, so I started to write again. I was learning to speak German at the time, so I started a BlogSpot page called Buchnabelflussen, which translates to belly-button lint, I hoped. It was a lot like the Fat Dog Blog, but a lot worse. It was the early days of my serious writing. I started keeping notebooks and writing fiction that I’d abandon once I got bored with my tone. I’ve always had a problem with tone, but didn’t figure it out until I read The Old Man and the Sea in Cuba about four years ago. I was writing like a drunk from the fifties—or trying to and failing. I was a douche bag on the page. I wasn’t even close to myself yet, I had to work towards it—towards my truth.
I started writing more stories. Huge expansive stories that would need a four-volume set to start to begin to justice to. I wrote copious notes, I filled an entire notebook because I knew I didn’t have the technique or the skill required to pull a story of that scale together. I told myself I’ll come back to it when I can write like a pro. I planned a graphic novel, a science fiction/fantasy series, but then I figured out how to write screenplays and it was all over. I started writing anything I could as movies and ended up with a lot of trash, but I entered a competition and got some solid advice on what I need to change about my style from people actually working in the industry.
I started reading screenplays, buying books on how to write them and throwing out the hundred bad ones I had already written. I filled my head and created a road block that is only now starting to crumble in the screenplay arena. The detour I took around the block took me to a friend who lent me one of Stephen King’s short story collections. The Skeleton Crew, the book that contains The Mist. This was my first taste of the King and I really loved it, it was a lot lighter than the classics I was reading at the time (Frankenstein, The Old Man & the Sea, Gatsby—no wonder I wrote like a douche), it was fun, and that was the most important thing. It made me think about the Michael Crichton novels I devoured while I was an electronic musician, for some reason I never even considered any books I had read before as “writing.” Probably because I’m an idiot. So, I realized that this whole endeavour could be, as (the stereotypical) British People (in my head) say, “a right ole romp”, and I started writing stories.
Short stories, ones that could be written in an afternoon and read in twenty to thirty minutes. Once I felt confident in a few, I started sending them out to the magazines that I found on google. There’s a few that seemed to be the proper fit for me—they didn’t think so, but I did. I started collecting my “proof of writer” slips (pure fucking rejection—diplomatic, but pure), and kept writing stories.
I’m trying to see myself as an artist, just as much as I am a writer. I do too much to not give myself that credit. I’m on a quest for truth and originality, but it’s tough. It’s much, much easier being lazy, and it works (unfortunately) most of the time. It’s rewarding to do the work, though. I call it artistic cartography, in the sense that you’re drawing the map of your own world, on your terms, when you work for originality. Since losing my job, I’ve tried to hit the ground running, but there’s brambles and brick walls down here, there’s a shadowy figure that looks just like me and won’t let me through. I stare a blank page that laughs at the words I put on it. I talk about all this and say, “boo-hoo, I can’t write,” yet, the dates on the blog posts go back for twelve consecutive days now. These aren’t wimpy posts. These are beefy pieces. Who writes them? I do, motherfucker. I do. I get feedback, I have a small circle of confirmed readers, but beyond that, I don’t know who’s doing the reading—all I know is that I’m doing the writing. I sit down and do the work, and then I sit back, do more work and put it out there so it’s off my desk and I can keep working. I do it because I’m a fuckin’ artist, man. I don’t need an audience, I just need to work. They’ll find me.
Writer, performer, producer and musician from Alberta.