Time Flies With the Barstool Prophets
Photos by Andre Gagne
“Ok, time to get in the Wayback Machine because we’re going back,” said Barstool Prophet’s frontman Graham Greer. He stood centre stage drenched with sweat and facing a capacity crowd that packed Barrymore’s from the bottom to the top.
To Greer, at least for a moment, it must have seemed like he really had gone back in time; there again with his band circa 1995 when they had a big single, an even bigger album and were packing in this kind of crowd all over the country. But when he fired up that Wayback Machine on Friday night this writer was brought a few years farther back.
While he broke into the familiar licks of a tune he must have played a thousand times, I stood there watching the crowd change. Beards became stubble. Women's bangs became higher. Clothing became puffier. Dorothy, we weren't in Barrymore's anymore. My acne returned as did my hairs inability to properly remain fixed in one locked down position. I was no longer dressed in Earth tones but in something purple with jeans that resembled a patchwork quilt you'd find in some Sally Anne basement. My cap sat ever askew on my head.
This wasn't 2017. It wasn't 1995 either. It was '93. Cornwall still smelled like paper mill and mom was still alive.
I was 14 again.
“The Barstool Prophets suck,” he said with a goading sneer and hate filled eyes glaring at me and the girl on my arm. His name is irrelevant. Her name could have been Candi or Sunny but it actually was Crystal and on this night in the Fall of '93 we were both heading into our first concert being performed by the just maligned hometown heroes. The venue wasn't the bigger time joints they were heading to. This was the Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational School gym a few minutes before show time.
All eyes, however, were on me, the blue-eyed angle on my arm and her ex-boyfriend blocking our path inside. The sharks smelled blood in the water. Though the toughed up teen, cigarette dangling, may have had a legitimate gripe –it was after all his former girlfriend I had latched to me–, and though he hadn’t besmirched the good name of the girl I had loved for the entire three days it took for her to dump me, taking a shot at this band was a cutting, nasty barb. He knew which bow to fire his first shot over. In my world, this was blasphemy. Those were fighting words.
I take one step forward as he clenches his fists.
“Standing on the ledge / the whole world standing still / all eyes on me waiting to see the power of my will / the crowd knows what they want from me / a cheap and easy thrill / they step outside, their mouths drawn wide / like vultures before a kill,” Greer now sings, a bump from a mosher snapping me out of my reverie.
Looking at his cutoff jean jacket and metal patches makes wonder if I was still back in ’93. Nope, some dude's never let the rocker leave 'em and this guy may have been at a 2017 Barstool Prophet's show but there's a side of him permanently trapped at a 90's Anthrax concert.
Rock on, mosher man!
“What you gonna’ do about it?”
…that heated voice from the past returns to me as loud as a Bobby Tamas bass drum.
It’s been 24 years since I had to answer that question. To quote the band that was simultaneously playing on two stages, one in present day and one in a gym to my 14-year-old self, funny how time flies.
I don’t remember when I first heard The Barstool Prophets but I’m sure it was late at night in my basement room listening to one of the only radio stations in Cornwall that wasn’t playing country music. CKON’s graveyard shift programing mainly consisted of requests made by people who were three sheets to the wind, angst filled teens battling angst filled insomnia and those who really needed to hear “Sweet Home Alabama” two minutes shy of 1am every night for three years. That summer music was a retreat from a lot of my teenage growing pains and I discovered so many bands I still listen to today by burning the midnight oil with disc jockeys whose names are long forgotten.
“That was “Birdman” by Cornwall’s own Barstool Prophets,” said the DJ to whoever was still up and listening, one of those being a kid who had just turned up the volume of the song, pumping it loudly through his headphones while the rest of his family slept.
Did he say these guys were from Cornwall?
We have rock stars in Cornwall?
“They’ll be playing CCVS in a couple of months and you can get your tickets at…” but I was already there, transfixed by the idea that real rockers walked the streets in my home town. I mean, the closest I got to musicianship before was when my friend Kevin got to play guitar in the school band. But these guys had an album! They had a concert coming. I could have already passed one on the street or in the mall, played Double Dragon next to them in the Eastcourt Arcade or seen one mini-putting at Archie’s!
The mind reeled. I had to see that show! I had to request that song again. I had to find that album.
Wait, just who the hell was this band?
Once a trio, Greer, Tamas and bassist Glenn Forrester formed The Wallflowers in 1989. Cornwall became a home base for the group with Greer hailing from nearing Williamstown. They started playing local spots like the long defunct Moviola Café, various bars and parties collecting a strong following early on for their raw rock sound. It was big and loud and destined to surge out of town. When the three Wallflowers moved to Ottawa for university, the group picked up guitar player Al Morier.
Now a foursome, the Wallflowers were ready to step into the Ottawa scene. There was just one little problem. What’s in a name? Well, plenty if you share it with the son of legend. Upon discovering another group existed with the same name, the Ontario Wallflowers opted for a new moniker as opposed to a lawsuit with Bob Dylan’s son.
The fans didn’t mind adapting. The name was different but the music still rocked.
“When we moved from Cornwall to Ottawa after high school, it seemed as though our entire following tagged along with us. So many of them were attending school in Ottawa as well. Here's this no name band booked to play at a bar and instantly filling it with little effort!” Greer tells me a few weeks before the Barrymore’s show that would show that not much had changed.
The Prophets still were packing them in.
As their calendar filled with more and more gigs, the band honed a stage presence and shaped a collection of songs that would find them getting a steady Wednesday night slot inside Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern. Soon they were touring across the country opening for Odds.
“It all just seemed so linear, stemming naturally from those Ottawa shows early on,” Greer says. “We did it for fun! We were never aiming to make a career out of it by any means. Personally, I loved the writing –building and crafting something where there was nothing before. But collectively we were amazed every time some opportunity presented itself to us and pulled us farther up the ladder."
“He’s not worth it. Just ignore him, Andre,” Crystal said beside me, her blue eyes wide, her body tense. Behind us we could hear the band soundchecking “Little Death”, an appropriate title considering the brawl that threatened to break out in front of the high school.
“Little Death! Little Death! Little Death!” chants a fan next to me in a Crank t-shirt. Greer wipes a bucket of beads off his face before breaking into his next song.
It's not "Little Death" but the request, a song from the band’s indie release Deflowered, would make it into the encore later that night.
"Sixteen days without a word / If she was alright I think I would have heard," the singer begins after a haunting intro. We could hear it from the sidewalk. I didn't know the singer. I didn't know the song. There wasn't much time to think about it, either. The enemy took a step closer.
I high fived the mosher. I high fived the guy who requested “Little Death”. The tune would become a favorite of mine.
Two years after that CCVS show where I first heard it, the song would see a reworking on Crank, the Prophet's first major release after getting signed to Mercury/Polygram Records. The indie disc where it debuted was recorded with money they’d borrowed from friends and family. Being signed meant bigger production values and a chance to amp up their sound. Soon, the band was seeing more radio airplay. Well, at least from where I was listening from.
I didn't know what was going on outside of Cornwall, but in town it seemed like you couldn't flick the dial without hearing a cut from the album. From bars to cars zipping down Pitt Street, Crank was cranked! The album started a quick assent for the hometown boys that were poised to start making it big country-wide. Then came the publicity netted when MuchMusic wouldn’t play the video for the first single “Mankind Man" because of it's dark nature. Watching it now, you gotta' laugh considering hwo tame the video is considering today’s standards.
Nevertheless, it was all part of the wave and at it's peak the Prophets were being mentioned in the same breath as Alanis Morrisette when it came to top Canadian musical exports. The Hip, Blue Rodeo, Tea Party, Crash Test Dummies and Barenaked Ladies were all seeing more successful releases at the time but only a handful of Canucks were breaking through the mainstream gaps left in the "Even Flow" of teen spirit grunge fallout. Touring Crank, the Prophet's seemed on the verge of leaping over that borderline. The album's second single, “Paranoia”, was featured in the Antonio Banderas film Never Talk to Strangers and the band started receiving more press –including a write up in MacLeans. Bigger shows followed that would see them making five figures a performance. But along with the notoriety came creative clashes with suits who saw dollar signs instead of music notes.
“Once we were signed, playing to bigger crowds was great and the fans were incredible, but dealing with the professional jerks in the music business was soul crushing,” Greer says speaking on the downside to the band’s success.
“I remember almost getting into a fist fight with some idiot artistic director at Mercury. He didn't have an artistic bone in his body and we were arguing over album artwork. I actually lunged across a boardroom table at him. It was that maddening. Those types of situations –and there were many– stopped music from being fun for me anymore, and we'd essentially all had enough.”
Their follow up release, Last of the Big Game Hunters, only sold a fraction of what Crank had. During the recording process the band fired their managers and returned from the sessions in Memphis to discover the company was trying to steamroll decisions past them which saw the group losing a grip on elements of their creative control. Mercury was then purchased by Universal who was then purchased by Seagrams and, suddenly, the band’s champions in the office started to vanish one by one. Morier left the band. The seams were unraveling as quickly as they had been sewn together.
“It was completely disheartening. All the while we were playing to bigger and bigger crowds and no one was buying the second record thanks to the emergence of Napster!" recalls Greer. "We had great radio support across the country but the record company wasn't seeing the crowds we were seeing. All they saw was a lack of return on their investment.”
Five years after the success of Crank, the band broke up.
“The music business killed us.”
"I'm going to kill you," the grudge carrying teen spat as the band wrapped up their soundcheck unaware of the fame on the horizon. Outside, I had a pretty clear idea of what was in my not too distant future. This guy was sporting the business end of a school ring and it's destination was somewhere north of my neck.
My insides burned. Yeah, I was pissed but not so much because I was being goaded into a battle by a guy who's best insult was lobbed at the band I had just started to worship. I was seeing red because the night was slowly slipping away because somebody's chip on their shoulder had grown into a wall between me and my first rock concert. Truth was, I didn't want to fight him and by this point most of those who had gathered no longer wanted to see a fight. The show was going to start soon and tonight we all just wanted the music. Here we are now! Entertain us! There were no parents outside of those nervous fathers waiting it out in the parking lot. There were no teacher's or principals or police and with that freedom came an electricity that hummed like feedback from our internal amplifiers.
Slowly, they starting heading inside. An announcement came that the band was nearly ready to hit the stage. I wasn’t planning on missing that. Besides, Crystal was right. He wasn’t worth it. We had a show to see and this guy would have laid waste to me faster than he could down a bag of Double-stuffed Oreos. Anticlimactic, yes, but an anti-climax that didn't see me wandering into emergency at the Civic. Wordlessly we pushed by him and through those who remained hoping for some kind of bloodshed.
“Losers,” came his last effort but if fell on deaf ears.
Crystal and I were already hearing the music. A couple of days later she broke up with me, the foe having won her back with a carefully made mix tape and a love letter of promises I could never match. Still, tough the girl and I weren't meant to last, the memory of that show, those drums, those guitars, was even if…
…the band's breakup weighed heavy on Greer. He'd only ever made music with them and he admits that it took him awhile to go out back in Cornwall. He was recognized everywhere he went and all anybody wanted to talk about was the Barstool Prophets.
“I was sick of it and felt like a failure. It took years for me to snap out of it,” he says.
Eventually he’d rediscover his voice, start penning some new songs and moved on to some some solo projects. As the years passed he would still find himself being billed as “Graham Greer of the Barstool Prophets” pretty much everywhere he played. This never bothered him, though, as being referenced with his former band was a badge of honor, one he proudly wore to tether his present to his past. It wasn’t the same music, sure, but at least he was still singing and the music biz hadn't totally done him in.
While a fitting end to the story, the final chapters for Greer and the band were not to be written in those closing days of the millennium. Though some bands would now become former shadows on the strip they once cruised triumphantly down, Greer would learn that fans were not going to forget…
"… the Barstool Prophets are amazing," shouted Crystal. All I could do was nod. Nothing else needed to be said.
As we watched the show I held Crystal’s hand but the CD I had just purchased was maybe more tightly held in the other. We stood at the back of the gym not knowing if we could squeeze through the crowd that had formed at the front.
Fists pumped in the air and we laughed trying to emulate rockers who knew how to act at a live show much better than we did. I sang along to the only song I knew then, “The Birdman”, and when the music was over the band made their way over the merch table. Crystal urged me to get the CD signed and shyly I walked over. It was the closest I had ever stood to celebrity.
“Hi Graham,” I said, holding out the album. He looked up and smiled wide, still dripping pools from the show he'd just completely. The Barrymore's crowd was buzzing over the killer set filled with oldies, older oldies and older older oldies. It wasn't their first time playing after the breakup and with some recent shows under their belt the band was just as powerful live as they were in their mid-90s hayday. It was one I'd only witness via YouTube clips and stories from people back home. Until this night, I had only ever seen the Barstool Prophets live at that show 24 years ago.
The album I bought back then was never far. I played the hell out of that disc! It was one of the only CDs I took with me when I moved to Japan and then again out West because it made me feel closer to home.
Two years ago I read that the band was getting back together, that they'd put aside some differences and, now removed from the worst aspects of the recording industry, they reunited for a show at Ottawa’s Shenkmen Arts Centre. Though two decades had passed the concert sold out and 500 people lined up afterwards to get autographs and reminisce. Greer and the band couldn’t believe it and stayed an extra two hours to meet as many people as they could.
I’d miss that night but would run into Greer a year later at one of his solo gigs to share my own story about how important his music was to me, how that first concert in 1993 lead to a lifelong love of live music and though thousands of shows have come afterwards you just never forget your first…especially if it nearly led to reconstructive facial surgery.
Putting Deflowered on always makes me feel nostalgic but being there 24 years on, hearing tracks like “Robin’s Song” and “Short and Curlies” live again, was something special. I never stopped being a fan and though we were now friends on Facebook, walking up to Greer after this show was like that 14 year old shyly asking to get his CD signed all over again.
Greer smiled and asked if I enjoyed the concert. I told him it was my first one and introduced him to Crystal. He made a joke about how they had a song with her name in it. She smiled sweetly. He inked his name in red and passed the cover over to the rest of the band. It all took about a minute and forty-five seconds but to a kid who’d just seen his first rock concert and was now getting signatures from his newfound deities it was a religious experience no Sunday mass could duplicate.
He handed the CD back to me and introduced me to his son. At 20, he was following in his rocker dad's footsteps with a band of his own. They'd be opening for the Prophets come June. I looked up at Greer and assured him I'd be there. I wasn’t going to let another two decades go by this time. I glanced at the the new signature he'd scrawled beside his old one.
It read: “24 years!”
Yeah, time flies but music is that Wayback Machine. A song can bring you so close to the past you can almost touch it. As long as there’s still a way to listen to the Barstool Prophets singing about bird men, ledges and scuttle-monsters, there’s always a part of me that’s 14-years-old standing in a high school gym back in his home town ready to begin the journey of a lifetime.
- The Expedition
- Last of the Big Game Hunters
- Upside Down
- Friend of Mine
- Get Along
- New Orleans is Sinking (Tragically Hip cover)
- Mankind Man
- The Ledge
- Running Out
- Robin’s Song
- Five Wheel/Highway 9
- Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel cover)
- Sunshine So Fine
- Little Death
- Time Flies
- Short & Curlies