Betty Burke

AM signals from a parallel present

Got the power of the AM

leave a comment »

When I was sixteen, my friend Margaret Ann and I decided to take a wild road trip down Highway 2 to Belleville, Ontario. We had friends living there, but didn’t know their phone number or address. Somewhere around the Quinte Mall we stopped at a sandwich shop to exchange worried looks and twiddle our thumbs. The green haired fellow behind the counter started up a conversation with us, brainstorming ways we might find our friends. His name was Ian, and it turned out we knew some of the same musicians (Shotmaker of course, the best band in Eastern Ontario in those days). Ian welcomed us to stay in the sandwich shop as long as we liked.

Our mood had already lifted when the door opened, and in walked three of Ian’s friends- a girl in a powder blue polyester suit, and two guys, her henchmen, if you will. The girl’s name was Michelle Kasprzak. She had a fat cigar, and a tweed cap, and was clearly the ringleader of Belleville’s motley youth posse. We exchanged mailing addresses, and when I got back to Cornwall, I sent Michelle a package- or did she send the first? We were penpals for two years.

Michelle was obsessed with Glenn Gould at that time. She sent me a mixtape, and a photo of the magical scarf-and-glove man, in one of her decorated envelopes. I sent Michelle zines, and mixtapes too, it was 1997 afterall.

The limited number of highways in Canada means that most people travel either East or West, so it’s no shocker that I’ve had several unplanned run-ins with Michelle over the years. Now she is living in Europe, and I haven’t seen her since the morning after a show at which the Arcade Fire opened for The Hidden Cameras– which should give you a sense of how long it’s been!

Michelle’s career as an artist has taken off over the years, and another member of her Belleville posse, Daniel Cockburn has found success as a filmmaker, recently winning the prestigious Chalmers Award. Growing up in Belleville is probably a lot like growing up in Cornwall, and maybe just a little bit like being young in Espanola or Weyburn too. Teenage artists and art appreciators have the internet to connect with now, but in the past, we met by chance along the East-West highway.

Echoes of other places were always traveling to us though, through the night, on the other side of the dial. No gloom of night can stay the power of the AM radio, for which the signal is only stronger in more isolated places. As Jonathan Richman sings in Roadrunner, “Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on…got the power of the AM…rock & roll late at night…”

Michelle Kasprzak’s beloved Glenn Gould also praises the power of AM radio; in the 1974 essay “The Search for Petula Clark,” Gould describes a stretch of Highway 17 on the North Shore of Lake Superior where the AM radio reception is especially clear, bringing Petula to his ears from thousands of miles away. In the documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan speaks to the power of the AM signals that reached his ears at night, in his boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota, where the furthest headwaters of Superior trickle down towards Duluth. Drifting over hills and prairie, the songs of Hank Williams and Elvis were carried from stations in Memphis and New Orleans, to the children of remote towns and outposts who spent their solitary hours of darkness by the radio.

Distance and isolation amplify the power of music, radio resonating loudly in the hearts of the lonely, transforming anonymous lovesongs into transcendental breakers, slicing through the everyday to that other realm where parallel worlds ring together in a single chord.

Imagine yourself driving West on Highway 17, alone in the dark, with Lake Superior to the left, and ragged rocks to the right. You hear an oldies station, but do not recognize a single song. The announcer makes reference to the biggest artists of the 50s and 60s, and the names of the dead are spoken of in present tense: Otis Redding and Buddy Holly, two old men in America.

The news isn’t all good, however. Slight variations in the government, wrong turns in a war, floods where the well is dry, all of it adds up to a warning of what could be, what will be, and the temporary and delicate state of what already is. In that other world, there is no Highway 17, because the North Shore is just a sprinkling of mining pits. In that other world, Lake Superior is dry, because something had to be drained to keep the wheels turning. That other world is close enough to touch you through that break in time, the AM station so faint it can only be picked up on remote roads, when you’re all alone. And through the news from that other world, our own world is reflected- the systems and powers we behold and obey as permanent fixtures are only as strong as the belief that they’re endless. And the song of the distant station tests that belief, shaking its foundations with the vocalization of a lonely announcer, who faithfully waits for better days, and spins old 45s to comfort the world in the meantime.

Though we’re far apart, and we may live in isolation, we can pick up these signals and hum along to the songs that shake the foundation of the everyday, to let in the light of another, better future.



Thank you for braving thermageddon

leave a comment »

An extra special thanks to all of our friends who braved thermageddon to attend Thursday’s show.

It was the hottest July day ever for Toronto, the hottest day of the year so far, and close to 50 C with the humidex. But not our “hottest day ever” – which some forecasters had been predicting. We were 2 degrees shy of that landmark.

Ian Daffern remarked on the smell of asphalt rising in the air- not typical in Toronto. Rarely does a wall of heat so heavy sit on top of our city.

Considering the above, I was impressed with the number of friends who managed to make the trek to the Gladstone to catch our set. Thank you for braving the extreme heat to share a night out with us.

See you again soon,

P.S. The next BB blog post will be a mini essay with reference to Glen Gould, Northern Ontario, and Adorno, and our next show will be August 14th at the Summerworks Festival.

Written by bettyburkeband

July 23, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Free Betty Burke Show Thursday with Lisa Bozikovic- Blocks Thursday Confidential!

leave a comment »

Wondering what to do this Thursday, July 21st? Betty Burke and Lisa Bozikovic are playing a FREE “Blocks Recording Club Thursday Confidential” show at the Gladstone, and I think you should join us. Your support might be required if things get rowdy.

The last time we played the Thursday Confidential, all sorts of mayhem broke out.

It was a crisp fall night, and we were warming up the crowd for our Blocks comrades Tomboyfriend. The drummer (Roland 880 beats trapped in an iPod) was chugging along relentlessly, and we were in the middle of a feverish testimony, when a man in a suit brought a round of drinks to the stage. We’re not big drinkers, but we love free things, so it was appreciated. Tomboyfriend were also treated to a round.

As the gifts were sipped, the man came to the front of the stage and shouted in my ear, “I’m a drummer. I play with Bruce Springsteen. I’m the guy they call when Max Weinberg can’t make it.”



“Let me get up on that kit.”


I looked over my shoulder at the iPod, which was keeping pretty good time. Since John Power left for Newfoundland, and Dana Snell isn’t available (despite my persistence, roses, telegrams, etc.) the Roland 880 has been our little drummer, saving us a great deal of money. Drums are expensive to transport, and require a studio rental for rehearsals- important considerations in this age of austerity. Roland never makes mistakes, gets drunk, argues, or flirts with the wrong people. But I’m always waiting for lightning to strike and illuminate the gloomy night of everyday life. So I decided to put the unexpected offer from Max Weinberg’s replacement in the hands of democracy.

“Dear audience, should we let this man get on the kit? He’s never heard us play before, but our songs are pretty simple…”

The show of hands was nearly unanimous, so I let him up. As a precaution I kept Roland going, as a guide for Max Weinberg’s replacement. We rolled into our easiest song.

But the replacement couldn’t keep up. We tried to pass him a tambourine, not too much room for embarrassment there, but he insisted on sitting down at Tomboyfriend’s kit, and stepping on the kick pedal. Now and then. As randomly as the brakes of a TTC bus, he stepped and didn’t step, then double stepped. I tried to nod and hit my knee, pointing out the beat like an angry pedestrian pointing at a red light, well after the driver that sped through is gone.

“Ok, thanks, ok that was fun, ok, bye-ee…” I tried to give him the Ottawa Valley heave-ho on the microphone- but he wouldn’t go! Sheila found him rather creepy, I just thought he was rude for not leaving when politely applauded away.

Tomboyfriend’s actual drummer, Dan, owner of the kit, was at this point quite anxious- and reasonably so. I called “How about a real drummer?” and waved him up. He rushed forth and played the Weinberg replacement off, with a nudge, a push, and a sit, the way one might chase a cat from a chair by slowly bending and descending with a look-back of menace, then switching to a full and sudden sit. The replacement came crashing forth between Jo and I, yelling, and knocking over the drinks he’d bought us. His musky waft mixed with the sweet smell of booze, and his odor cloud lingered with sweaty face at the edge of the stage. “You’re terrible! You’ll never learn to play!” (His words.)

Dan picked up Roland’s beat and we all went in for the last number. I was feeling rather awkward about letting the replacement sit at Dan’s kit, a remarkable lapse in etiquette on my part. Meanwhile, the replacement retreated to the bar to write us a filthy note on the back of the receipt for the rounds he’d bought and spilled, and another suited stranger waltzed forth, chest forward, asking, “ladies, is everything alright?”

Actually, everything was great. I apologized to Dan profusely, who was good humored about the whole episode, and Jo, Sheila and I marveled at the Weinberg replacement’s booze-receipt poetry. The editorial committee chose to reject his submission to the journal of Betty Burke studies, but we remember his antics well, at the Gladstone Hotel. He was infamous, though his name was unknown to us.

Once the musk wafted off into the night, Tomboyfriend took the stage, dressed in fall foliage. Actual foliage.

The Thursday Confidential is full of surprises.

If there’s room in your calendar for a free night out with us, please swing by the Gladstone on July 21st. But in case you’re wondering, we’re not looking for a drummer.


Here is a taste of Lisa Bozikovic:

And here is the facebook invite:

Betty Burke EPs available at Soundscapes & Open Roof Fest tickets available online

with 2 comments

Just a quick note to let you know that the Betty Burke EP “Dirty Mouth of the St Lawrence River” (Blocks Recording Club) with zine is now available at Soundscapes, 572 College Street, Toronto.

And tickets for tomorrow’s Open Roof Festival show with the film “Trigger” are still available online! UPDATE: It was a great night- thanks to the organizers and everyone who shared it with us!

Thanks and xo

Ticket Giveaway for Open Roof Fest screening of Trigger, with Betty Burke!

leave a comment »

We are giving away two tickets for Thursday’s Open Roof Festival screening of Trigger, with yours truly as live musical openers. To win a ticket, visit our facebook page and answer one of the two quiz questions.

If you are first to answer, you will win a ticket!


Written by bettyburkeband

July 5, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Thursday: Open Roof Festival presents the movie “Trigger” with Betty Burke!

leave a comment »

As a fan of Bruce McDonald and the late Tracy Wright, I’m delighted to announce that we’ll be playing as the opening act at a screening of their recent film “Trigger” on Thursday, July 7th. The event is part of the Open Roof Festival, a weekly series that brings together a band and a feature film for a night of fun in the parking lot of the Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto. Open Roof festival’s programmers have taken care to select great bands, many of them local, and a number of Canadian movies that deserve to be screened more often!

Bruce McDonald is the creator of the rock and roll Canadian classics “Highway 61” -no description required- and “Roadkill” -the story of a gorgeous young record label employee chasing a band on the lam through Northern Ontario (I found the clip above on youtube, to give you a taste). Joey Ramone and Jello Biafra have been notable guest stars in his films, but Canadian actress Tracy Wright is the artist I am most excited to see featured by McDonald. Sadly, Wright passed away last year, but she and her collaborators made Trigger before her illness made it impossible to work. The film is about a girl band led by Tracy Wright and Molly Parker that reunites for an emotional gig. Having played a few ‘reunion’ shows, I can testify that this is rich material for drama!

Betty Burke will take the stage at 8 PM and the film will begin at 9 PM. Doors are at 7:30, so arrive early to mingle! Here is the facebook event, with more info:

We are honoured to be taking part in this week’s program, and we hope to see you there.


Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River: A Seaway Valley History Project

leave a comment »

The Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River is an EP featuring five songs about characters from the Seaway Valley, and an illustrated companion zine. The stories are all true, in their own way. Betty Burke is a proud member of the Blocks Recording Club, with whom we released the project in February 2011.

About the project

The vellum envelope cover features an image of two youths on the North bank of the St Lawrence River, and a line drawing of the section of river running from Cornwall’s West end to Morrisburg, Ontario, as it appeared from the end of the last ice age, to July 1st, 1958- “Inundation Day.” Under the vellum layer is a drawing of the same section of the river, as it appears today. Robert Alfons of the band Trust, critic/curator Kevin Hegge, and historian Dr. Laurie Bertram were my models for the drawings.

The comic book/zine inside is set in Cornwall, Gateway to the Great Lakes, industrial jewel of the Seaway Valley, little smoke on the St Lawrence Lowlands, urban bilingual hub of counties Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, at the Easternmost corner of Ontario, and the border of Quebec, Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, and The United States of America.

Cornwall and area is fortunate to have many local history buffs who collect photos and share stories online so that those of us from younger generations can understand the story of our home. Thanks to these local history keepers, I was able to do learn about some of the sites that act as supporting characters in the comic zine.

Most of the buildings and infrastructure works in the drawings have since been razed, burned or overtaken by weeds. They were built in an age of optimism, when a growing middle class could expect to live more comfortably and longer than their parents. The decay of public works marks the end of that era.

The objects depicted in the comic are:

p. 1: The remains of a small power dam that stood adjacent to a mill, which burned down in a Halloween fire in the early 50s. The remains of the Cornwall Cotton Mill, in the East end of town, burned down in a Thanksgiving fire in 2010, so it is hard to find reference to the earlier mill fire online- all search terms call up references to the recent conflagration, and the orange and black photos of that event. That’s how the memory of events gets buried and forgotten in the Google age. On my next visit to Cornwall I will be spending some time in the local history reading room of the Public Library, and I hope to turn up more information on the earlier fire.

p. 5: The Cornwall International bridge, soon to be dismantled and replaced by a low level bridge. Site of two major blockades over the years (during the Oka uprising, and more recently, over the issue of arming Canadian border guards), it was built with a curve so as not to pass over the Domtar paper mill lot. When the Domtar mill was open, the bridge offered an unparalleled view of colourful wastewater and chemical ponds- bright green and dark blue circles of liquid, veiled in trails of white smoke from the stacks. A sight to behold.

p. 9: A knot of trees by a small power dam that once powered a mill. The trees have overtaken what was once a busy industrial spot; now they create a peaceful archway over a footpath to the riverbank.

p.12: A Corvette up on blocks by the old canal, in the Riverdale neighbourhood.

p. 13: (Left to right) Mustard flowers (related in name but not chemically, mustard gas was manufactured and buried in Cornwall’s West end during WWII); Two Twentieth Century views of the Cornwall Cotton Mill, shown adjacent to a portion of the old canal, which ships used to pass the Long Sault Rapids to reach the Great Lakes prior to the construction of the St Lawrence Seaway; The King George Hotel in it’s heydey. Once the gem of the bustling Anglo downtown (“Le Village,” a few blocks away, is Cornwall’s historic Francophone downtown), the King George building was incinerated in the mid 90s.

p. 14: (Left to right) Powerlines stand between Laurie and The Howard Smith smokestack, of the now defunct Domtar paper mill. Most of the plant was torn down and sold for scrap, but the smokestack is still standing, for now; The Cornwall Cotton Mill in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century. The mill burned down in a fire on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. It was set for demolition the next week. This is how the mill looked in the last two years of its existence. Just around the corner where water once flowed, 120 years ago Thomas Edison installed some of the first electric lighting for a factory floor; A portion of the soon to be demolished Cornwall International Bridge shown between bare trees.

About the songs

The songs were all recorded with James Bunton, with input from the players. The musicians included Shaun Brodie (organ, piano), the inimitable Holly Andruchuk (guitar, voice), Jon Hynes (bass, guitar), John Power (drums) and myself, with arrangements by Holly and Shaun. This was before Jo and Sheila joined the band, but they were both present spiritually, since Sheila lent her Farfisa to the recording, and Jo Snyder was my coach in the studio. “El Dorado” was composed with Holly’s help, at her old apartment by the Mount Pleasant Cemetery; the ten pages of lyrics I originally had for Eldorado were edited down on the fly a few minutes before we played it onstage for the first time in June 2009 at the Imperial Pub in Toronto.

1. New Job
I like my job; this song isn’t about the place I work at. It’s about a character from Cornwall- or any former industrial town that now has few jobs for young people. The character moves to a big city and starts temping; tired of the snobs at the water cooler, who’ve never hung in a trailer or had to run from a fight, the character fantasizes about moving back home to be a smuggler, running cigarettes instead of doing data entry.

2. River of Need

This is a love song for the St Lawrence River, “A river dishonored” my Godmother said, before she passed away in 2010. “If I die far from your banks, will my death have your mud to thank?” The sediment in the Stormont Country shoreline contains high levels of mercury, and the fish can only be eaten in limited quantities. Some communities in the Great Lakes are opting to dredge mercury and PCBs from sediment; Cornwall has opted to let the river bury the toxins naturally.

3. El Dorado

The true story of my grandfather Eddy, a uranium miner who defied death when a falling pick penetrated his helmet and lodged in his brain. After recovering from partial paralysis, he eventually returned to work- above ground. He died at the age of 77, and was buried near his birthplace in Alexandria, Glengarry County, Ontario. I often wonder what he thought about while waiting to be rescued from the pit where he lay bleeding, temporarily blind and deaf. The foreman had assumed Eddy would die but as the hours dragged on, Eddy’s chest continued to rise and fall, so they called a plane to airlift him to a hospital in Saskatoon. While he was most likely unconscious, I often wonder what went through his mind in those hours, when his number came up and he simply refused to die.

4. Brink of Extinction

Do you see ratio only? The last thing music needs is yet another Blake reference, but that hasn’t stopped us. This is a song about hope in the face of despair.

5. You Can’t Wear Suede in The Rain

I went out shopping with Shaun Brodie, to help him pick out a pair of boots. He sided against one elegant pair because “you can’t wear suede in the rain.” You never know when it’s going to rain. Philosopher Alain Badiou writes that the meaning of truth is to be faithful to “the event.” The event rearranges the world. “The weather that is”- that’s the event, in this song.

Thanks for taking the time to read about Betty Burke’s “Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River.” While Betty Burke continues to play the songs listed above, I am also working on an extended song cycle in the Great Lakes history vein, which I hope to stage in a slightly more theatrical fashion. No word on the timeline though- it takes a long time to turn the coal of life into diamonds!

I hope you enjoy the EP and zine, and if you’re passing through Cornwall, take some time along the riverbank to admire the blue and black water that sustains the local life.