Once upon a time, back in the prairie gothic, Brandon MB was a punk rock hotspot, a hardcore oasis along the Trans-Canada. You can find Brandon at the 100th meridian, located precisely in the middle of nowhere. But there was a day local bands flourished, there was a scene, and it was a necessary stop for any band making the cross-Canada trek. Looking around now, no one would ever believe that Ripcordz and Trunk bothered to mention Brandon in their liner notes, and that NOFX deigned to play this little berg.
The Elk’s Hall, located on the city’s scenic North Hill, serves as a bingo palace most days of the week. So it goes with punk shows. The scene died a long time ago; local talent dried up, promoters moved on to bigger and better things, got bored, died--whatever. Fact of the matter is this: no one stops in Brandon anymore. No one told Dogwater.
When listing Canada’s great punk bands, only DOA is mentioned in the same breath as Dogwater. 15 years ago, Dogwater went out at the top of the scene--led by the bombastic Joey Retarded, Dogwater’s catchy tunes and sing-along choruses endeared the band to a whole generation of punkers unwilling to jump on the California bandwagon.
They were known for their sell-out all-ages concerts, their rowdy antics, and the fact that Joey Retarded bled during almost every show. He treated the audience like an enemy, refusing to sing anything the same way twice, spitting in their faces when they got too close. He taunted security guards that he himself hired, forced 10-minute waits between each song, and more than once pissed onstage (and was arrested for it). Joey had the punk-rock ethic down to a science.
And then, in 1992, the band broke up suddenly. Dogwater didn’t just fall off the radar--they passed out of existence.
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Now it’s Good Friday, and the Elk’s Hall is packed. Like any good punk show, the front is crammed while the rest of the place is nearly empty. The heat is slick and oppressive, and the crowd can’t help but dry-hump itself any time someone moves. It’s the first night of Dogwater’s long-awaited reunion tour, and Joey Retarded is late. Really late. The crowd is angry and restless.
The rest of the band is onstage, listlessly fingering their instruments and trying to look comfortable. There’s no backstage in the Elk’s Hall, and they’ve been kicked out of one of the side room by the building manager. In arrested development, these thirty-somethings are wearing studded leather bracelets and ripped jeans--one is even wearing those old plaid punker pants I didn’t think anyone wore anymore (at least no one who isn’t British)--and their hair... Dick Coq (guitarist), Ratcatcher (drums) and Poopstains Murphy (bass) look like they put on the same clothes they were wearing the day the band broke up 15 years ago.
The only people who could’ve seen Dogwater in their glory days have retired to the back of the hall, talking among themselves, possibly frightened of those up front--not scared for their safety (these kids idolize them), but scared of being revealed as old, cranky, and unhip. Punks don’t age well.
An hour and a half late, Joey Retarded enters the Elk’s Hall, entirely unnoticed, except by me. Joey looks his age: he has a lawyer’s haircut, a clean-shaven face, and an amiable expression. He’s wearing a button-up shirt and a tie; this isn’t the life he’s lampooning, but the one he stepped out of to make this tour happen. I notice his shoes: they aren’t top of the line, but they’re nice--they’d be down-right respectable in an office setting. Joey looks like he could do your taxes, or teach your kid geography.
It’s only when he gets on stage and the rest of the band nods to him that everyone realizes that he’s Joey Retarded, Motherfucking Joey Retarded, Canada’s answer to Johnny Rotten? He seems genuinely pleased to be here. Everyone’s confused. Is this Joey-Fucking-Retarded?
The first thing he does is introduce the band. Then he tells us all that he doesn’t go by his stage moniker anymore--from now on, he’s only answering to his Christian name: Stanislaw Chekowski. The kids around me giggle. They thought he was born Joey Retarded.
As quick as that, things start.
Gone are Joey’s old stalling tactics. One songs comes after the other, and he sings them all as best he can. The lyrics, though, have changed. At first it’s not obvious--the crowd is too into the moment, too into being there when Dogwater makes their big comeback. They sing along, not realizing that the message has changed. The dissonance finally hits them when chanting along to the shout-it-out-loud chorus of “I Hate My Life.” Joey ain’t singing what they’re singing. Ingeniously, he’s changed the words to “I Love My Wife.” A note of discord sounds around me. “What the fuck is he doing?” one of them asks.
This is hardly the only alteration that the new Joey has made. His lyrics have changed from the standard laundry-listing of society’s ills into glorious paeans to domestic life, the wonders of conformity, and the joys of voting Conservative. Gone is the mock-British lilt that he (and so many others) applied to their songs of teenaged-angst; instead, Stanislaw Chekowski sings lovingly and earnestly, from the heart. Still, the crowd can get into it: those same simple, addictive riffs guide their movements, making them to revel in the music even if they define themselves by rebellion against its message.
The set lasts about forty minutes, which is about what you should expect at one of these shows, and is capped off by a completely new song, Dogwater's first in 15 years. The lyrics of this new number focus on paying taxes--when the crescendo is reached, Joey reveals that he’s due a refund of $27, for which he gives the government ample thanks--and the tune displays all the simplistic and addictive elements of old Dogwater hits, while an added maturity somehow fills out the music, allowing it to reach new heights of polished professionalism. It’s a fucking work of art.
The audience, though, doesn’t know how to react--this isn’t one of the old, familiar songs. When should they holler, when should they throw the horns? A few of the brave ones try to mosh, but can’t muster enough interest from the others; when there’s only five guys in the pit, it soon degenerates into assholes elbowing each other. They finally give up, and then there’s nothing, just dumbfounded, hangdog expressions, and empty gazes fixated on Joey Retarded, as the aged frontman croons away. When the song ends Joey thanks them, and his words are sentimental and heart-felt. The band packs up, and no one thinks to demand an encore--shit, no one even applauds. What the fuck just happened?
The crowd disperses as the band leaves the stage--it’s back to the van for them, and a trip tonight to Regina. Two days from now they'll be in Saskatoon. A few people mill about, uncertain. And one of them, not far from me, begins to cry. He has long, girlish hair, a face full of acne, and a brand new silk-screened Dogwater shirt that he forgot to get them to sign.
“Joey’s changed, man,” he weeps, as his friends stand appalled by the display of genuine emotion.