Betty Burke

AM signals from a parallel present

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Taking it All Back, Now (Austerity Measures): four free songs by Betty Burke

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Taking it All Back Now: photo by Jennifer Rowsom

“Taking it All Back, Now: Austerity Measures.” Four Free Songs by Betty Burke.

“No Drums No Masters!”

It’s not an ideological slogan- it’s a sign of the times. Musical austerity measures. Forgo the rehearsal space and cars that real drums require, and just lay it down with some cheap beats from a rented drum machine. As usual, the songs are all based on true stories. Low Budget- even lower than last time! But rich with imagination.

About the photograph: Jennifer Rowsom took this shot. I pitched it to her as a “feminist art project.” I’ve also re-enacted this shot with my theatrical collaborator Stephanie Markowitz. I love the musical genealogy of the original image by Daniel Kramer. In staging this version, I hoped to pay proper homage to the roots of each of the songs and to my artistic community, as well as to place the songs in historical context. Radioactive fallout is still a concern, but now the cover story on the magazine is about peak oil and climate change. On the mantle Bo Diddley, the originator, presides over all of the music that descended from his inspired playing. Beside Bo, there is a piece of art by Will Munro. Will passed away around the time I wrote “When the Wind Blows,” and the song reflects upon time spent with both him and with the writer Adam Gilders, as they were each dying of brain cancer (Adam died in 2007.) Will’s Vazaleen and Peroxide parties were the well from which my own musical community sprang. Among the records on the floor there is one anchor piece from the original album cover we’re aping (a special thanks to my father David for finding that, it’s rather rare!)

For more of Jennifer’s work:

Songs (c) 2010, 2011 by Maggie MacDonald (SOCAN)
Recorded and Produced in 2011 by James Bunton at his home studio
Mastered by Matt Smith

The Players:
Jo Snyder: Guitars
Maggie MacDonald: vocals
Sheila Sampath: keyboard, shaker
Paul Mathew: Bass
with backing vocals by Jo Snyder, Sheila Sampath

Thank yous: Cribbing from Fugazi we’re going to leave it at a simple “Thank you.” Imagine how many friends Fugazi had? We probably don’t have as many, but, imagine?

1. The Man in The Middle

This is an imaginary duet. At our gigs Gentleman Reg often sings this with me.

2. No Sympathy

When I’m feeling down, I throw on Between the Buttons. Picture it, track one- Let’s Spend the Night Together. And it’s skipping. Then the phone rings…

3. When The Wind Blows

Every era has it’s plague. I knew a guy with a lot of friends, then pestilence came. Some friends became activists and caregivers, others walked away.

The lesson of the plague is that the person with the pamphlet doesn’t always “answer the call.” Very often it’s that seemingly apolitical person who, when called by thoughtless, selfless “brotherly love,” does the right thing at the right time.

I know a guy, he’s got a lot of friends
Now let me tell you about his Problems
pestilence comes and grabs him by the collar
Who will come running when he Hollers?

Guilt is a cargo with no value
Competing regrets shout and argue
I pull my weight in Guilt and I press on
Slowed by my doubts and questions

Caught at the crossroads, watching
My mistakes shake, resonate
Making waves until the bridge breaks
If I cross, will I be saved?

When the wind blows
When the wind blows
Then you will know
Only then you will know

I stop in my tracks to read me a letter
From 79, signed “Pliny the Elder”
Sayin’ “Things will get dark before they get better
Don’t look back, at your creator

He told of a hole where a servant died
With Caligula’s stamp by the seaside
Best laid plans dissolve in Messianic time
When the lava runs down the rock No one can hide

The song of the wind I mistook for wise laughter
The sound of the leaves, an accident of matter
The angel of history only sees looking back
The debris of catastrophe is piling up fast

When the wind blows
When the wind blows
Then we will know
Only then we will know

4. The Giver and The Taker

You can outrun punishment, but you can’t outrun the judge.


Got the power of the AM

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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

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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!

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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

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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

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

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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.


Resist! Refuse! Rebel! -Saturday in Hamilton

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BB will be playing the Resist! Refuse! Rebel! event on Saturday, May 28 in Hamilton at This Ain’t Hollywood. The venue name alone has me excited, because “Ain’t ain’t a word because it ain’t in the dictionary!” Ever been scolded with that one?

We are excited to be playing with the punk band Rackula, and Sarah Mangle. The All Ages event starts at 8 PM and costs 5$. It has an old school feel to it, bringing me back to my days as a young promoter in Eastern Ontario. Calling all punks!!

Sarah Mangle is a friend of BB band members, plus, the members of Rackula all look like the spiritual sisters of Jo Snyder in her Sixty Stories days. You can take a punk out of Winnipeg, but you can’t take Winnipeg out of punk. Punk is full of Winnipeg.

This event is especially close to Betty Burke’s heart because it is in honour of Sexual Violence Awareness month. You can’t open a newspaper lately without seeing a story about a woman being blamed for being assaulted, a judge bringing back the ‘drunkenness defense’ or, as was the case with that New York Times piece, a girl’s mother being blamed for her child being gang raped. Erin and the organizers at the Hamilton Sexual Assault Centre are working to raise awareness at a time when gender non-conformists being attacked and women’s rights are being rolled back – with columnists telling us that if our ankles are showing, we’re asking for it. Welcome back to the 1980s. Remember that great song “Youth Against Fascism” (Ian MacKaye’s only appearance on a major label release, up to that time- maybe since?) – “I believe Anita Hill.” Sing it.

See you there.