By Luigi Meliambro
John Westhaver is an Ottawa Music Icon, he has tirelessly promoted concerts since the 80’s, has hosted Friday CarTunes on CKCU 93.1 FM for over 25 years, has run Birdman Records for just as long, and has played and recorded with numerous bands in the city. We had a bite at Erling Variety just around the corner from his record shop, where we discussed the Ottawa scene of the past and present, his early days in New Brunswick and why the Beatles aren’t so bad.
CL: Where should we go eat?
JW: Let’s go around the corner to Erlings.
Server: Anything to drink?
JW: Ashton Amber Ale.
CL: I’ll have a Negroni
CL: Rent must be crazy in the Glebe these days.
JW: It’s a lot for what I got which isn’t much.
CL: Do you need to be there anymore? I mean can you be on a second floor?
JW: I don’t need to be there. I’m trying to rationalize myself not even having that place as a physical location.
CL: Are you talking just online sales?
JW: Yeah, online. Record shows, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa.
CL: Can you make it just on that?
JW: Oh yeah, because Joe Average who walks in the store is f*cking lost, period.
It’s been like that for years, but it’s getting worse. Younger people are not smart anymore.
I’m not an ages person but I started out selling records when I was 18 to kids that were 13, 14 and they were keen. There are no keen kids in the year 2017.
CL: You started listening at a very young age.
JW: My mother was musical, I had an older cousin seven years older than me. He had long hair and played percussion in an acid rock band in St. John, New Brunswick and I worshipped the guy. My walls have been purple for 24 years in Birdman; his walls in his bedroom were purple—that’s where that came from. I got schooled early and really f*cking well. I was bitten and addicted. Hawkwind, Can, BOC, Bowie. I use to take records to show and tell in elementary school and people thought I was a f*cking weirdo.
CL: But it wasn’t the Beatles.
JW: No, but I liked the Beatles then. My grandmother gave me money and I bought Sgt. Pepper’s when I was 10.
CL: You liked the harder stuff.
JW: Sgt. Pepper is a hard record man, its a f*cking guitar record. I loved it, I still do. I haven’t owned it in 30 years, but I like it. I just don’t listen to it anymore.
CL: What are we eating? Do you like tartare? Let’s share the tartare.
CL: I’ll have the ravioli.
JW: I’ll do the fries and the mushrooms.
Server: Thank you.
JW: In Fredericton prior to ‘85 I was playing in bands, booking shows, playing shows, doing radio, selling records. Spot the difference right now—no difference. I’ve been doing the same thing all my life, but I hit a wall mentally which translated to me feeling like shit physically. Six months later I moved to Ottawa. I went to Algonquin and took the Radio Broadcasting Journalism program—lot of work but straight A’s.
CL: So you started at CKCU right away.
JW: I took over my cousins Show (Roch Parisien) “No Future Now” and we both created “Melt Down” and the I graduated from Algonquin in ‘87. I applied for Music Director and got it and worked with Nadine [Gelineau] until she left. I worked at Spinables off Rideau and I opened Birdman in ‘91.
CL: What was the scene in Ottawa when you arrived in ‘85?
JW: The scene was really good, it was less than what it was going to become very shortly after.
CL: Big underground scene?
JW: I wouldn’t say big, but there was one. It started bumping around ‘86, ‘87 to the point where if you wanted to go out five nights a week to see really killer, world caliber entertainment . . . if you were knowledgeable it was easy to do—now not so much.
CL: What were the places?
JW: Um . . . Zinc was great, most of the night you would start at Barrymore’s or Porter Hall. I remember Skinny Puppy at Porter Hall.
CL: How did you find out about new bands back then?
JW: Wou would have to have somebody write about it for you to find out about it. Typewriter, not computer. I read the right magazine, took vacations to Toronto, got blindly drunk at Larry’s Hideaway to bands that I’ve never heard of, smoked weed in the back of Record Peddler, the best record store the country has ever seen.
CL: What were you playing on your show back in ‘89?
JW: Same kind of shit, different bands—Dream Syndicate, Townes Van Zandt, the first Steve Earle records, Velvet Underground . . .
CL: The current band you are in (the band whose name is a symbol) is getting a lot of attention in Europe.
JW: Which I find humorous, we can’t even get a f*cking job scraping a windshield in Ottawa because no one is paying attention to anything different here.
CL: Different culture, you know that.
JW: It’s not a complaint, I expect it. Ottawa settles for less than going for more. Not exposed shall we say. I did that for this city in the 90’s with all the shit I brought to the table right up to 2005 as a promoter. I ran into Paul Symes (owner of the Black Sheep) and said he would have backed me up on anything I did. Paul knows his shit. He was one of the best things that ever happened to this city and nobody currently gives a f*cking hoot about what he used to do, nobody remembers the fact he was on the cutting edge with Black Flag and everybody else once upon a time many decades ago.
CL: Good Food, I really liked the tartare.
JW: Oh yeah.
CL: Records—what’s the future?
JW: It’s not sustainable. Reissues are too expensive. Rock n roll use to be for youth, now the record companies pander to old farts who are the only ones who can afford it.
CL: But sales go up every year.
JW: I don’t sell mainstream records. I sell records to a hardy group of regular buyers who have been buying from me for over 20 years. But the majority of people that open my door, to which I pay a high overhead to have that privilege afforded to them to open my door, are mostly idiots that are looking for . . . here’s the common question: “Where is your cheap shit?” They’re looking for 50-cent or $1 dollar bins of records. They don’t look at the art, listen to what’s being played, they don’t observe.
CL: So, in 2017 would you say there’s innovative music out there, someone is trying something new?
JW: Absolutely. It’s always out, there it never ends, there’s never not a bad year. If you think that, you weren’t paying attention. You can’t say 2016 was an amazing year because you like Justin Beiber’s new f*cking record, you’re swimming in the shallow end, not the deep end. There’s never not a deep end in any genre going, but you have to have a thirst for it.
CL: In every genre?
JW: Yes. There has to be, I’m sure of it. That’s why community radio is so important—first and foremost it’s one of the pillars of any scene, if you’re lucky to have one.
CL: Any chance of taking the band on the road?
JW: Yes, there’s a Kickstarter that’s going to happen. Best case scenario we do six, seven shows, we take a vacation, we meet new friends, and we have a good time because we love what we do and we love playing together. And that’s all. •