NoMeansNo: Going Nowhere’s second take

Good news, Bibliophonic fans! It’s not a new book (yet), but this December we’re releasing an updated edition of our perennial bestseller NoMeansNo: Going Nowhere, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band’s seminal album Wrong. There’s a whole extra chapter by Mark Black that, in our humble opinion, really brings the book full circle by expanding on some of the themes in the OG edition.

We’re excerpting the original intro here, because we figure it’s *just* enough to leave you wanting more. You’re welcome!


“I think that a lot of people fall prey to a year-zero orthodoxy when they get involved in some sort of a countercultural sensibility where they reject anything that’s perceived to be the province of those who may be their oppressors, jocks at school being an obvious case.” – Ford Pier

It’s entirely fitting that it was my brother who introduced me to NoMeansNo, a band he now barely remembers seeing. He introduced me to a lot of punk rock growing up. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but it definitely altered my life trajectory. Prior to that I had a passion for the debating society, I watched Good Morning America voraciously and wanted to emulate Alex P. Keaton. That’s without mentioning my embarrassing musical tastes. Let’s just say it included a traumatic, dissociative experience where I lipsynched “Lollipop” in a front of my Grade 5 class. I may have redeemed myself by starting an a cappella punk/rap hybrid band called the Dead Fish that same year, or I may have dug a deeper hole for myself.

I remember the feeling I had getting picked up from a little league game in a car that was blasting the Ramones. I felt like such a loser on my team; the only way I could ever get on base was through fielder’s choice, also known as defensive indifference. Getting into that car when I was 11, and hearing what I thought was cool teenage music, made me feel like I at least had a leg up on something. Even though I was acutely aware that I sucked and was reminded of it at every practice and every game, I got to experience being cool on that drive home.

D.R.I., the Dead Milkmen, the Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and D.O.A.—I learned about these bands from my brother. It usually meant sneaking into his room looking for tape cassettes with curse words in the lyrics, or watching VHS copies of MuchMusic’s City Limits, but it often was involuntary aural indoctrination in the car. So much music was introduced to me in this way. Later, when the cars of my friends supplanted my family’s Pontiac Sunbird, I learned about NOFX, Bad Religion and Operation Ivy.

When I discovered there were bands in our city making punk music, I was dying to go. I don’t know if I viewed it as some anthropological outing or what, but I knew I needed to see what was going on. My brother warned me about going to the club called the Beat. The Beat was then, as it is now, a muffler shop. And for a brief time in the early 90s, it was Cape Breton’s first all-ages music club. I listened to my brother. It wasn’t until years later, when my brother had grown out of going to shows that I finally went to my first punk rock gig.

After high school my brother realized that Cape Breton didn’t hold much in the way of prospects for him. He had the good fortune to move to Nelson, B.C.—tiny, somewhat remote and barely noticeable if it weren’t for its draft dodgers and lax attitude towards marijuana. To this day its name conjures up images of smoke, drum circles, bare feet and terrible beards. I never visited, but it’s possible that it’s even more out-of-the-way than where we grew up on Cape Breton Island. But Nelson, at least, had a steady stream of touring bands. The city was on the way to somewhere, somewhere bands wanted to play, which was more than you could say about Glace Bay or Ben Eoin, which were at the edge of the earth.

In my high school years I hungered for anything that was remotely punk. I saw things in black and white: punk and not punk. I wanted to be a part of punk rock for the same reasons as anybody else. I wanted to stand out, I wanted to feel like I belonged, and I wanted to express all of my ridiculous angst-ridden thoughts and beliefs to the world.

My brother moving away from home was a way for me to experience the world beyond Cape Breton. It wasn’t that I hadn’t left before, or that bigger cities were inaccessible, but I lived with my parents in the country, and my freedom wasn’t, shall we say, bountiful. There was the internet but it wasn’t the most practical way to get music. Local music stores were almost entirely chains like Music World, Radioland and Sam’s, and the punk selection was hit-or-miss. I bought bad record after bad record on the basis of the punk-looking artwork or a band’s name having a “dis,” “mis” or “tones.”

About six months into my brother’s stay in Nelson, he told me he was going to see NoMeansNo at Club Utopia. I distinctly remember seeing this as a chance to live vicariously through my brother and made him promise to get me a souvenir from the show.

I was jealous. My brother had seen D.O.A. and now he was seeing NoMeansNo. He was ahead in the quest to see legendary Canadian punk bands. Who had I seen? Gob?

In 1998 NoMeansNo was a band whose very name inspired respect. Maybe it was because they were a Canadian band with a degree of notoriety, and they didn’t owe their continued existence and success to CanCon, or maybe it was because they toured incessantly and made sure to go everywhere, or maybe it was because they were old and wore glasses, but weren’t boring.

For whatever reason, I knew I wanted to go to that show and I knew there was absolutely no way. I settled for the next best thing—I wanted a full review from my brother as soon as humanly possible. I wanted to know everything about NoMeansNo. What did they look like? How was their stage banter? Were they funny? Were they political? Did my brother talk to them? Were they nice? Did he bond with them? Were they his new best friends? When were they coming over? Was my brother inspired to start a band like that with me? The question, “Did you like it?” was low on my list. It was probably the longest telephone conversation my brother and I had while he was living in Nelson. He had to pretty much completely re-enact the show before I was satisfied.

This sort of grilling wasn’t confined to my brother. I also grilled my best friend who saw NoMeansNo play in Halifax later that year. I insisted he give me a blow-by-blow of the gig. I wasn’t even there, but at this point I bet I have a much better recollection of that show than he does.

None of my brother’s answers could’ve lived up to the fantasy I had of the Brothers Black and Wright teaming up and touring the world, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on my brother’s part. Their banter didn’t seem canned or easy to describe and I don’t think there was a particular script to parrot back. I do remember that I received scrambled recollections of rambling and humorous patter that contained a lot of metaphors and bordered on existential self-discovery. It all served to confuse and intrigue me. When you’re on a steady diet of paint-by-numbers punk rock, something that seems challenging by a band comfortable enough in their own skin to not pander to the audience grabs you. I admired it.

To my brother’s credit, he bought me both a You Kill Me T-shirt and a copy of NoMeansNo’s latest album, which at the time was Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie.

When I first heard the album, I thought “Going Nowhere” was the only punk song on it; it was the only song under four and a half minutes. The album wasn’t straightforward and direct, nor was it brief. In my pea-sized brain that was enamoured with 30-second songs, none of these things were good. At the time, I was particularly interested in making mixed tapes that held as many songs as possible. I was a fan of quantity over quality. To put this all in context, “Warthog” was my favourite Ramones song. That song encapsulated everything that I thought punk was; hating phonies, indecipherable lyrics, and songs under two minutes. Boom. The End.

Dance was a challenging album and still is, but challenging doesn’t strike me as a bad thing anymore. “Going Nowhere” was a song I could understand, the other songs always intimidated me. I felt like I needed a masters degree to even begin to comprehend what they were about. That scared me. What if I was too dumb for punk rock? Maybe Dance wasn’t the best album to start with, that’s not to say it’s a bad album (it’s not, it’s not!) but it took me about fifteen years to even begin to appreciate it as more than just a memento of an experience my brother had shared with me.

I had attempted some philosophy courses in my first go around at university and at a base level they made sense to me. I understood ethics, Plato, animal liberation, Peter Singer, David Hume, Camus, something about teleportation and copies of yourself and that was about it. I took a course called the Philosophy of Language and I realized that I was not cut out for it. I couldn’t understand Heidegger after four years of university so how could I possibly contemplate Dance or the Worldhood of the World (As Such)?

I didn’t know what Dasein meant and I still don’t. My sandal-wearing existential professor told us over and over that Heidegger’s work was about stuff and that’s about all I took away from that.

I eventually grew into Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie. It was like all the pants I own that I convince myself that I can someday fit into again, or Phleg Camp albums. Someday I’ll appreciate owning these things, but at this current point in my life they mock my inability to figure some shit out, whether it’s losing weight or liking cerebral punk rock.

It wasn’t that I was some teenage meathead (in retrospect maybe I was more than a little ignorant). I’m just saying that it might not have been the best introduction to the band. I had so much enthusiasm for this band and here I was with a record I didn’t understand and a T-shirt I wasn’t sure I could wear in public.

Excerpt © Mark Black / please share away but don’t repost without permission. Thanks!

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