Sam Sutherland's Perfect Youth: Canadian Punk Has History
Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk is Toronto-based author Sam Sutherland’s triumph. He might not think of it this way, but we Canadian punks do, because he went out and exposed the full meal deal. He did the A&E-VH1-Behind-the-Music of every band from the Viletones to D.O.A. to the Subhumans to Teenage Head to the Dishrags (and a bunch of other bands from places like Winnipeg and Wawa that you never knew existed).
The thing about Canada is that you Yanks overlook us. That’s right, you do, and we know it. We may be nice, but we are not dumb. Did you know that Bad Brains learned to play by covering songs by Toronto band the Viletones? Canada tends to slink into the background, but Sutherland has pulled all the old punk gems out and exposed it in his book (which is basically the Canadian version England’s Dreaming).
I heard this book started as a research paper and then it just grew into an entire history of Canadian punk. Writing a book is kind of a huge deal—were there any points of regret, or were you determined to write the complete history of Canadian punk?
Sam Sutherland: Yeah, it is kind of the Biggest Deal. I never really doubted my resolve to get it finished. At some point, I got it in my head that I had to be the one to do it, and so it just festered for years. And now, it is out festering in Chapters and Barnes & Noble.
Someone did have to do it. One of the biggest problems with Canadian music is that people outside of Canada do not know anything about it, and we had (and have) shit going on.
Exactly. It was this gaping hole in the Massive Punk Tome pile. It's only as we get further away from that time, and those others bands are canonized endlessly, that Canadian bands start to slink into the background of history.
Why do you think that is?
Canada is really fucking bad at celebrating itself. For a million reasons that probably boil down to "America is right next door being big and awesome all the time and we're just going to go home and hang on our couch, it's cool." With a lot of these bands, there are two big reasons—the recordings aren't there. Most of the biggest bands in the States and England got signed to major labels and made great-sounding albums that are easy to return to and get psyched on. Canadian labels weren't taking chances, because they're wimps and also because they couldn't afford to take the same risks with a dramatically smaller audience to market to.
The second is that we didn't have a Don Letts or a Steven Blush or a Legs McNeil who was obsessively documenting every band and then making books, movies, whatever. There were some folks whose accounts are just now seeing the light of day—like Don Pyle's amazing photo book. But we didn't have the same loud-mouthed journo assholes. There's some great material out there, but it's much harder to track down than old issues of Punk, you know?
Yeah, it exists, but it’s not as easily accessible as Search & Destroy is even today.
You can find issues of Shades on Archive.org, and those are amazing.
So, you had to uncover it! You had to expose it!
It was the Lord's work, yes.
I imagine one of the best parts of writing this book was interviewing all the old punks. Who gave you the most interesting interview? Who had the crazy shit?
Steve Leckie [of The Viletones] is fascinating. Getting to spend time with him, have him read me these cryptic, poetic letters he had written me, hearing him spin these tales that you know are a mixture of fact and operatic fiction, it's an experience. I think Leckie is the real deal—which isn't to say I believe everything he says, because I don't even think he does. But Leckie is performing at every moment. He's calculated and he's brilliant. The Viletones as a band was just Mach I of the lifelong performance art piece that is Nazi Dog. Being able to sit across from a table and have a coffee and bask in that is a particular kind of interview that you don't have when you talk to, you know, Yellowcard.
I did my first book signing the weekend before the book came out at Word on the Street in Toronto, and Leckie showed up, made some allusion to Rumbaed and pissing all over the ECW Press table, gave me a kiss, and sauntered off. My editor was standing there, having never met him, and was just like, "That was amazing." I was like, "Yeah, did you think I was making this shit up?"
What was the best kept Canadian secret you discovered while researching this book?
That Leonard Cohen was in a punk band in '76 called "Le Nards."
That’s pretty hilarious.
Right? Factually, it would probably be the scenes in the prairies that I didn't know anything about before starting work on the book. Bands like the Extroverts or the pre-Northern Pikes batch of punk bands that existed in Saskatchewan. It just drives home the idea that kids who are sick of dominant culture, who know that ELP or T-Rex or whatever are bullshit, will find a way to express themselves and do something amazing no matter how culturally inhospitable or difficult the city where they live is.
Isolation only makes you create more uniquely.
That's the thesis of the whole book, basically. It's why Nomeansno are Nomeansno, why SNFU are so goddamn weird, and probably why you are having a nice little "punk moment" in Vancouver right now, even though it's a dumb-beautiful city.
Did certain musicians kind of find it surprising that you wanted to interview them?
Totally. There's such wild vacillations. Naturally, the book is written from my perspective—I'm in it, trying to find a way to talk to Chi Pig or whatever—so I know that, on some level, the audience is going to skew to people like me who are curious but weren't there, that don't have preconceived opinions or notions, and just want to get dropped into this fucking amazing era and story. And there are people from that time who are genuinely surprised that anyone cares. Murray Ball from the Dishes, who I argue are basically the most important unheralded band in Toronto's punk history, just thinks they got all the press they deserved at the time and now, whatever.
Were there other old punks who thought they deserved more attention and fame for their art?
Fucking absolutely. Especially in Toronto, because they were so close to New York, so close to these bands that were signing to Sire Records and whose t-shirts you can buy in the mall.
Not everyone. Not even the majority of folks. But there is a lot of ugly resentment just simmering. For example, there are people who hate Fucked Up because they think they're just ripping them off and it should have been them. Be careful. White Lung is next.
Great. I look forward to Jade Blade telling me I suck shit. Do you think you will do another book?
I definitely want to do another book. I have a few ideas kicking around, so I'll have to see what sticks. There needs to be an actual proper Canadian response to American Hardcore, delve into Young Lions and Youth Youth Youth and Colour Me Psycho and Neighborhood Watch and on and on and on. But I also really want to write a book about the first South African hardcore band, because imagine? That, or baseball.
Stick with music. We need your voice. Don't leave us for sports.
Sports don’t need me. That’s for sure.