Monday, May 9, 2016

Plasterscene Replicas

Plasterscene Replicas, Toronto, 1988

SOMEBODY I KNOW HAS DONE THE MADDEST THING. An old colleague from Nerve days, along with photographer Derek von Essen, has published a book on the Toronto music scene that flourished - perhaps that's too hopeful a word; let's say it endured - in the small clubs on and around Queen Street West in the late '80s and early '90s.

It's a scene I remember well since I was either covering and shooting it or simply standing in those clubs enjoying those bands, who comprised what I considered a musical scene as coherent as the ones I was reading about, in cities like Athens, Chicago, Louisville, Detroit and Seattle. At its peak it comprised at least a dozen bands like the Rheostatics, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, 13 Engines, Pig Farm, the Dundrells, Fifth Column, A Neon Rome, Third Man In, Phleg Camp, Groovy Religion, Scott B Sympathy, Heimlich Maneuver, King Cobb Steelie and more than a few I can never hope to remember.

They didn't have much in common besides the magpie's nest of disparate influences that fueled '80s indie rock, and most of them survive, at best, on some well-worn LPs and CDs in the back of some used record store bin, or some cassettes and singles sitting in a box in someone's storage unit. I thought they deserved better.

At least a couple of those bands - the Rheostatics and Shadowy Men - managed to make careers for themselves that outlasted this finite time period and resonated beyond downtown Toronto. Three of them, however, were particular favorites of mine, and I have no way of knowing how many times I saw them live, on the tiny stages of the Cabana Room, the Rivoli, the Cameron House or Lee's Palace. I'll talk about The Lawn and Change of Heart soon enough, but I want to start with the poets of the scene - the Plasterscene Replicas.

Plasterscene Replicas live, Toronto, 1987

They were already the favorite band at Nerve when I began writing there late in 1985, after releasing a four-track EP the previous year whose songs were undeniable despite the primitive recording quality. Like most of the bands that had sprung out of the city's post-punk scene of the early '80s, they had an unconventional lineup with a drummer and percussionist in addition to the band's core: Singer/songwriter/guitarists Charlie Salmon and Steve Stewart and bassist Brenden Cavin.

They'd break up before the year was over; Charlie would form another band, One of One, with a woodwind player, and then the Replicas reformed, with a string of drummers moving through the group while the core trio remained intact. I'd see them whenever I could, but I only brought my camera along once or twice; there was something so intimate about the group, especially at the Cabana Room, which felt like someone's living room when my favorite bands played there, that it seemed absurd to think about documenting the night.

I only have a few rolls of photos of the band playing, shot when my lack of skills and the scant stage lighting meant either using flash or risking blurred frames; they're primitive shots that only come across with a glimpse of the personality of the musicians onstage.

At some point however, I shot most of a roll of portraits of the band on slide film. Shooting transparencies always felt risky, like testing the ice on a lake in late winter by leaping off a dock. The results this time weren't good - I ended up with nearly every shot but one hugely underexposed, and I'd forgotten about the shoot until last year, when I discovered them in a binder and was able to (partially) rescue them with Photoshop.

I don't know where I shot these, and I don't know why, but they capture the band when Wayne Stokes was their drummer, and just around when they recorded their only LP. This is the first time anyone has seen these shots.

Plasterscene Replicas, Toronto, 1988

The Replicas' career was short. They released Glow the year I took these portraits and broke up the year after that. For a while, though, with the album out and two videos getting decent airplay on music television (Charlie's "We Can Walk" and Steve's "All I See") it seemed worth hoping that a really good Toronto band might stand a chance at the sorts of "careers" enjoyed by groups we loved from the States, Britain and Australia.

Which basically meant long, gruelling tours, grudging support from whatever label had signed them, and occasional leaps through whatever hoops that marketing and PR people thought necessary to "break the act." It took a while to notice that this treadmill usually did break the acts - literally - but at least they'd end their careers with more than one album.

Charlie kept writing songs, and the band reunited for a one-off gig in 2007, but Charlie's health issues kept any further talk of getting together again out of the question. And then, as fall turned to winter a couple of years ago, Charlie was gone.

Charlie Salmon, Toronto, 1987

I'd end up knowing Steve much better than Charlie - for a while we were neighbours, living a few doors apart in Parkdale. But I can still recall the handful of times I talked with Charlie. It was never small talk; he had an awkward intensity, and I suppose he was the sort of person that gets called an "old soul." I remember, reeling from the first big break-up of my life, how I'd opened up about it all to him, hoping that he'd have some wise words that would help. He looked down and to the side, then gave me a regretful, lingering look and said that the pain was going to last as long as it did, and that if nothing else it was something we'd all have in common.

Charlie Salmon died in Toronto on November 20, 2013.