Barenaked Ladies: Public Stunts, Private Stories
by Paul Myers
Published by Madrigal Press
262 pages, 2001
Ladies Laid Bare
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
While rock biographies are about as difficult to find as eggs in a hen house and rock biographers are so common they are perhaps now cloned in vats at MIT, few authors have the creds of Paul Myers for doing a biography of The Barenaked Ladies. Back before his incarnation as a rock journalist, Myers was a musician. He played the Toronto music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s with his band, The Gravelberrys. In Barenaked Ladies: Public Stunts, Private Stories, Myers writes that back in 1990, The Gravelberrys "were booked into a cozy little club called Ultrasound Showbar on Queen Street West. The club was booked by Yvonne Matsell, who'd called me to ask if she could book a band she liked in the opening slot for The Gravelberrys' upcoming Monday night show. She told me that the band was called Barenaked Ladies. I wanted to snicker. With a name like that, I thought, they'd probably be some kind of frat boy, kegger party band."
As almost everyone now knows, Myers couldn't have been further from the truth. As Myers says of that opening act, the Barenaked Ladies "did something that I hadn't seen in the clubs of late; they actively engaged the audience. They worked the room. They were funny. They were good musicians. They were great entertainers."
It is from this almost-on-the-inside place that Myers writes his affectionate biography of the Barenaked Ladies. Though there's lots of inside stuff, this is not a blow all, tell all kind of book. With a few exceptions obviously made for meter, Myers begins at the beginning and ends at the present, or as close to present as traditional publication schedules will allow. And so we begin with Steven Page in 1988, "a witty, if brooding, seventeen year old high school student with creative aspirations" who, with a friend, started a group called Scary Movie Breakfast Club. Though that group would break up before it really got going, it did provide the means by which Page would hook up with Ed Robertson, BNL's other lead singer.
The name, Barenaked Ladies, came to them as a joke with neither Page or Robertson thinking it would be something they'd be carrying around for so long. In Barenaked Ladies, Ed is quoted as saying "I'd just turned eighteen and I remember thinking, well that's a cool name because it'll keep us alternative and we'll never hit the mainstream .... It made us laugh and reminded us of when we were eight years old and would look at the women's underwear section of the Sears catalog."
At times the name has been contentious, with various groups calling it sexist or misogynist, especially in the early days when no one had heard them. But they were stuck with it. As Page says, "there was no backing out. Because if we changed our name, how would the seven people that were there find us again?"
The Barenaked Ladies started out as a duo: just Page and Robertson. But home from touring one Christmas, they were booked to play a local watering hole at a time they knew a lot of their friends would be home from university for the holidays. They "wanted to make this particular evening a little different." They came up with the idea of asking a pair of musical brothers they'd met at music camp to join them and, when the four played together, Page and Robertson knew that something special had happened. "Suddenly," writes Myers, "the songs all had a full rich sound, the grooves were anchored, and everybody was blown away."
The brothers Creegan -- with Jim on double bass and Andy, initially, on percussion -- completed the Barenaked Ladies lineup until 1991 when Andy got a yen to see something of the world outside of the music industry. Enter Tyler Stewart who filled Andy's place on drums. When Andy came back in 1992, "there was this Tyler guy suddenly at the rhythmic helm" and, when he decided to rejoin BNL, Andy would ultimately end up on keyboards and though this second Creegan brother has since left the band again, there are still five spots in BNL: though keyboards have been Kevin Hearn's domain for the last few years.
Myers is a solid rock writer. In Barenaked Ladies he gives us not only the hard facts that we need to know, but also lots of inside stories, asides and anecdotes that are just lots of fun to hear. And, because he is himself a musician, Myers never misses a beat in gently instructing his readers as he goes along. In one section, for instance, Myers is telling us about the birth of the Grammy-nominated single "One Week." "Steven said, [to Ed] just go home and Freestyle, and keep the good stuff."
But, just in case, Myers doesn't leave us hanging there:
Freestyling, as if I need to explain, is a cornerstone of modern music ... Try this at home, take a melody .... If you have a tape recorder lying about record yourself singing that melody with your own new words, words that you make up on the spot. Try not to think about whether the words make any sense, in fact, try not to think at all. Just pretend that you're a really great songwriter, and that anything that comes out of your mouth, save for excessive amounts of saliva, is great art. Blurt it out .... Do this for a while until you get tired or the tape runs out. Then rewind the tape. Ten to one, you'll have at least three or four lines ... that are actually kind of cool. Try it. Go on.
For all of its cheerful hipness, Barenaked Ladies is not without its flaws. The subtitle hints at the largest of these: Public Stunts, Private Stories. Stunt was the title of BNL's 1998 album: the album that really saw the band leap onto international radar and, not surprisingly, in 1999 several books were written about the group. Myers' book was one of them. And though this edition has been gussied up with some new material, a new ISBN and a new cover designed by John Rummen -- who received a Juno award nomination for Best Album Cover for his work on Stunt -- it still reads at times like a book that was intended to be released in 1999. For instance, the book begins in 1998 on Alcatraz and then in Burbank with the Stunt tour in full swing. The second to last chapter, "Stunt Tour," reads like the book's conclusion. But another chapter has slithered in after that one: "Marooned at Sunset," an obvious nod to the Ladies' most recent album, 2000's Maroon. None of this effects the very good reportage throughout the book. However, a rearrangement of chapters and even more enhancement of recent material would have added greatly to the final work.
Another flaw is the photos: I wanted more of them. No, really. As it is, the 14-page section in the book that contains mostly childhood snapshots of the band just doesn't cut it. I mean, those are great, but more: More recent performance photos. More promo shots from throughout the band's career. Some shots of BNL in the studio. Just more.
That said, Barenaked Ladies is an in-depth, interesting and humorous meeting with the group of musicians who -- though they'd hate for me to say it -- helped define geek chic. | July 2001
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe magazine.