by carl wilson

The Maggie Tapes

maggie.jpgRepublic.jpg
Left and middle: Maggie MacDonald in 1999 when she ran for provincial parliament in Cornwall, Ont. Right: Maggie now with the Republic of Safety (Kate McGee, Evan Davies, Maggie MacDonald, Jonny "Dovercourt" Bunce and Kat Gligorijevic-Collins).

For those interested, here's a lengthy run of other excerpts from my interview with Republic of Safety's Maggie MacDonald, also of the Hidden Cameras, the Dating Service, and ex-Barcelona Pavilion. I left out the sections used in yesterday's article, but Maggie's a great talker, and anyone with an interest in where music, sex and politics meet will enjoy what she has to say, which reflects how extensively (tho informally) she's thought those issues through, both philosophically and tactically. (I should add that the rest of the band has similarly complex and delightful notions of what rock'n'roll is all about - I just happened to be talking to Maggie.) Enjoy.

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We began by talking about her growing up in Cornwall, where she organized punk-rock shows, put out a punk zine called Saucy [she and Jonny Dovercourt, now of Republic of Safety, met as pen pals when he wrote a letter to Saucy], and did creative writing.

ďItís very easy to become interested in politics in a place like that because politics affect life there so visibly. When NAFTA happened, and free trade and all of that, the effect on our city was immediately so obvious. Factories left, my classmates often were leaving because their parents had to move jobs, and the downtown, we used to have this beautiful promenade, a pedestrian area, a garden and a farmerís market, and they ripped it up and turned it into a street because business was so bad in that area.Ē

Your sense of politics seems very connected to that experience. [...]

ďAlso environmental issues. Courtaulds was one of the main factories in Cornwall, and I think they moved to Alabama, and they left behind this big brownfield. The first apartment I remember living in, Courtaulds had been in the yard and when it was torn down they discovered all these PCBs and pollution and stuff there. But when I was a child, kids would go play back there, because it was a big field, with butterflies and bunnies. And it was a toxic waste dump, you know? Thinking back on that you think, wow, all these people in my town were put at risk for the sake of a little bit of money that just went south of the border anyway. A lot of people there have cancer, and you canít - I go to so many cancer funerals. I know at least two or three people a year who die of cancer from my town, and Iím only 26. I find that unusual. Two guys at my high school had brain cancer. Itís not right. So you get a sense of how the decisions made far and above affect the people around you.Ē

Being a border town makes things more immediately obvious. What was it like culturally?

ďIt's an hour from Montreal and an hour from Ottawa, so it's not really isolated. But thereís not tons going on so you have to make your own fun and make your own culture there, and it really cultivates that DIY thing. One of the girls working on Wavelength now is also from Cornwall, the guys from Brutal Knights - thereís lots of people who do more grassroots stuff because you get the sense that you have to do it. Weíd put on shows and community centres, lots of fanzines from there. When something happened you and your friends would make it for yourselves. ... It came in waves. The first punk show I ever went to I was 14 - Shitfit and Union of Uranus - in the basement of those guysí house, their mother coming down the stairs and giving this little wiggle to show she was with it. ... But as they were getting older and leaving, the next generation of grade 9, 10, 11 students had to pick it up. But I was just there at a good time. We had a collective called the No More Lies collective. [laughs] Of course! I was kind of straight-edge at the time. Dedicating myself only to the punk rock and the studies, not anything on the side....Ē

Maggie moved away in 1997 but was back the summer of 1999 when she ran for office with the NDP.

ďLooking back Iím kind of surprised I did it. I had been politically active in activist groups but not in any kind of political party kind of way. I heard the NDP had no candidate yet, and I was out one night with Paul Kendal, who was kind of the main NDP student activist around, and asked about it... They called the next day. It sounds like something out of a movie - I was just putting on a Talking Heads record, the first notes of Donít Worry About the Government started, and the phone rang and they said they wanted to interview me to run for office.

ďI was shocked and surprised because I thought political parties are these anonymous institutions that facilitate this show. Some of them are better than others. But I didnít realize how supportive and generous the NDP would be with me as a young woman wanting to run for office."

What was it like?

ďIt was great, but almost hallucinatory, this sense that everybodyís talking about me - but it was really happening. So it was a strange thing to go to at the age of 20 to be public in that way, for not anything silly or fun but serious issues people want to discuss with you. It was a good experience to be on the hot seat, too.Ē

Maggie doubled the NDP vote in the area, despite (because of a redistricting) running against two MPPs including a cabinet minister.

Did you come away with a positive view of the process?

ďI think itís important that we have that. I used to be against electoral politics. Before I could vote I thought electoral politics werenít relevant to young people, didnít represent what we say, how could one person rep a hundred thousand people. ... and it isnít a perfect system. I donít think itís the best idea anyone ever had. But I think itís important to protect whatís good about it, especially in Canada, having three parties, a variety in what parties we can vote for. ... I really think, not to just cheer on moderation all the time, but I think social democracy is actually pretty good and weíre losing it. I donít think people are nervous enough about that.Ē

ďSo often when weíre talking about radicalism all the time weíre thinking of high, lofty goals that are so far off. You can hold that in your heart and you can walk towards them in your own life, but I think itís also important to look at attainable things and get them.Ē

The connection between politics and everyday life in cornwall informs that.

ďYeah and itís not a kind of suburban radicalism. Iím not against that, Iím not against people preaching for the bigger things, because i think itís important for people to have big hopes and big dreams. but where Iím from the most urgent thing is having more welfare and a higher minimum wage. And thatís urgent. I want that with the same urgency that some people want to have a utopian govít. A perfect system would be nice but I want the minimum wage higher right now and i want more cancer treatment right now and I want less pollution right now. And these are things that we can have if we fight for them. So i want to excite people of those kinds of things.Ē

ď... How much more carbon dioxide will be in the atmosphere and how many more people will have cancer from environmental pollutants and how many more concrete things that are really tangible - how many more people will you know that are sick with diseases they shouldnít really have in this day and age? I think that kind of brings about a kind of moderation, because focusing on all those things really takes up a lot of work.Ē

And what's the benefit of using rock to do that work?

ďIt's only really recently I had the courage to hold a microphone and sing a song. When I joined the Barcelona Pavilion a couple of years ago i would sing into a megaphone, initially. In the Hidden Cameras i would stand really far from the microphone so as to not Ďruin the song.í I really felt a deep sense of shame about what my voice sounded like. But before I did those things I felt totally comfortable debating a cabinet minister in a political debate. I feel fine about defending my ideas that way. But I love rockíníroll. Itís more fun than having a political debate with somebody for a month. Rockíníroll is really the stuff of life. Itís a force that gives. Politics is a force that can give, but it also takes a lot. rockíníroll gives. i think itís something people really need. [laughs].... Youíre saying get excited, have a good time and use that energy and do something positive with it. I try to take the dialogue, the way of talking to people and confronting ideas directly that I developed in politics in going door to door and having those debates or on the radio and try to do it with having music happening at the same time. Itís taken a little while to develop that and make it work but I think with the Republic I have a feeling that thatís happening.

ďPart of that is taking the bigger ideas and making them as concise as possible. Training to talk on television and radio for politics really helped me do that. I was a student of politics at a university and of course thereís lots of big ideas and youíre taking a long time writing your essays. But when youíre a candidate for office somebody says, ĎWhat do you think of the pollution in the St. Lawrence River, you have 10 seconds.í And thatís more what rockíníroll is like. What do you want people to know about free trade? You have two minutes and three chords. Go! Itís very similar. So I took what I learned from the political stage and applied it to what I really love, which is rock and roll, and tried to make those concepts concise, and fun. And rhyming.Ē

What did you gain from playing in other people's bands, where you didn't write the songs?

ďWhen youíre performing someone elseís music itís not as risky - it gives you a chance to really push it and go for it without feeling youíre putting your own ideas at risk. Which helped me develop the confidence to express my own ideas.Ē

You also were the one who created a lot of the interactive, participatory energy in those bands, which you also have in RoS.

ďThe participatory aspect is so important to me and I think it came from thinking, ĎI donít have any musical talent, but these people want me in their band. I want to be in this band, but what can I do thatís special?í And I thought - I might be shy in my personal life, but Iím not shy on a stage, Iím not shy in public. And some of the people I was making music with were. Joel [Gibb, of the Hidden Cameras] used to be. Heís more able to talk now, but... And I thought, 'What I can give in this project is my lack of inhibition, this uninhibited sort of presence. I can interact with people and pull them out that way.' I developed that there. People really do respond to that because it makes them feel invited into the music.Ē

[This is where the tape messed up and a lot of our discussion about the concept of the Republic of Safety as an imagined place/parody of nationalism, about safety and terror, got lost.]

And then along with the political side, there's the stream of material the band does about sex and desire.

ďI think if weíre going to turn our eyes to the material world, and be less focused on our ideas and more focused on matter and whatís happening and making better things happen, we have to like the material world. we have to enjoy the physical world. and sex is part of that. Sex and pleasure. We donít want a better world where everyone is bored but has a better paycheque. We want a better world where people are happy and satisfied. Itís about everyone getting fed, which is a physical thing. Itís not about the money in the bank, itís about the end results of that money, having your physical needs met. So food, yes, but love and sex are also physical needs. And my utopia is a physical utopia. Where physical needs are elevated and respected and met.

ďItís a way to try and balance it out. I always talk about Dr. Zhivago when I think about love. I think of Yuri Zhivago as a Doctor of Love, because he knows a lot about it, and we can learn from the book of his life - which is fiction, but we can still think about him. thereís a character in that story , Stralnikov, who starts out as the young Pasha. And when Pasha is young, heís in love with Lara, the female lead as played by Julie Christie. Everytime when theyíre children that Lara talks to Pasha he blushes and freaks out because heís desperately, desperately in love with her. And then he grows up and marries her, but he always feels insecure, that heís not good enough for her, that he canít satisfy her. She feels insecure too. And one night he sits in his yard watching a train going to the front and he thinks, Iím just going to run away and join the army and do my family a favour by running away, because he feels like crap, like heís not doing a good job. And he tries to get away from his emotions. He tries to get away from that intsense, profound desire and love he feels for Lara, and cut himself off in the name of the Revolution. So he becomes this terrifying general who just shells villages to instill a fear of the Whites in people. He isnít just fighting the war but fighting peopleís sense of security so theyíll get behind the Red Army. And if you donít feel love and youíre not in touch with your emotions thatís who you become, you become Stralnikov, bombing people just to make them afraid. So I think that promoting love and sex is a way of getting away from fascism to something nicer.Ē

Itís also the currency of the rock show.

ďYeah, people come to rock shows for the same reason they went out to Quebec City to go to demonstrations. Those people were at the riot not just because they want to throw a rock, but because they knew there would be cute young people. Activism has so much in it of, 'Oh, I saw that hot guy pass out a flier.' Iím not trying to do something sneaky or play games with people by talking about these things. Iím really trying to present them as part and parcel.

ďYou canít just say 'hey, everybody, get vegan' - not that I say that. (I'm not vegan anyway.) You have to pull out those desires, you have to invite people to be there with their desires. People are repressing their feelings and are afraid of their desires, so afraid that they donít know what they are, but when theyíre invited to feel sexual, theyíre invited to feel desire and express desire... Our song Baby Iím It, this is sung from the perspective of a dirty old man, whoís saying to a young girl, ĎHey, you might like your boyfriend, but Iím the one, Iím it.' And it's not because I think dirty old men should do that, but because everyone ought to have that kind of confidence. You might say heís insecure, he watches too many porno movies. Whatever. If you say to someone, ĎIím the one, Iím it,í it takes a lot of guts to do that. And I think everyone deserves to have that kind of confidence to approach what they want politically and sexually. Life is too short to be afraid of feeling.

ďPeople who arenít creepy should come together and feel - they ought to be confident. You have these indie rock people, and thatís kind of a culture of 'Oh, my feelings!!! ahhh! I want to say it feels good to touch yourself and to want someone else and touch someone else. I like to fuck - thatís one of our lyrics. 'I like to work and I like to fuck,' and thatís fine. So we bring those desires up to the surface and when youíre feeling that way you can say, well, what else do you desire, you also desire for everyone, something better.

ďKarl Polyani in The Great Transformation argues that captialism naturalizes itself when itís in a culture. People think, oh, people have always been this way, people have always been greedy, our drive to accumulate. That if man was in the wild heíd try to take all the trees for himself. But how could we know that? When I think about that... you canít be naturally greedy to the point where you have everything if youíre also naturally horny. Horniness is greater than greed. Horniness is the first drive towards socialism, because if youíre desiring other people, and you want to give love and make love with other people, you want to be social. You canít horde everything to yourself because everyone else will starve to death and hate you. You have to share in order to have your sexual needs met too.Ē

But the dark side of sexuality is power, having power over others. And when you combine sex and politics that way those questions come up.

ďBut people donít just want to fuck. Of course I use that word in my song. But people want to get together. People want to get cute. People want to write letters. People want to hold hands. And you canít do those romantic things just by having power over someone. That really comes from you both being nervous, and both wanting it. Itís a more delicate subtle relational thing.Ē

Using a sexually provocative thing to open that up in a crowd is more ambiguous.

ďIt doesnít say everything. Itís dangerous. Itís an experiment, you know, itís trying something that isnít being tried a lot, itís risky.Ē

I think one of the nice effects the band has, and part of why people like to get you involved in things, is that youíre pretty good at confusing people - in an exciting, productive way.

ďPeople have to make decisions for themselves at that point, if you open them up and you leave them there. Thatís kind of part of my communicative style on stage. Iím not saying it in a simple way. ĎI like to work, I like to fuck, My mind is my body and my body is a truck.í Thereís a contradiction right there - my mind is a body, not two separate things with one operating the other as a vehicle. But at the same time I live as though my body is a truck. So Iím talking about the contradiction. I like to work I like to fuck means, 'I like to work, but I like to play.' I like to fuck but Iím not promiscuous, in fact Iím usually celibate and a lot of people know that .... Anyways.Ē

ďI want to invite people to think together and experience together but I donít want to tell people what the answer is. But I also donít want to say, 'Oh, there is no answer, itís so confusing.' I hate music that makes people think, 'Oh Iím so confused, Iím just going to lie in my bed and be confused. And then when Iím 20 Iíll get a job.' I want to make music that says, yes, itís complicated, but letís do something, think about it - touch yourself. Touch me. Touch yourself. Touch the voting ballot. Touch your taxes!Ē

ďPart of what alienates people about political communication is that they want something more penetrating, they want something more direct. More about - for instance, in the last NDP campaign there was this pamphlet, ĎThis election is about ideas,í and that doesnít sound controversial. But I would rather have said, it's not about ideas. Every election is about things. People donít want to know how you feel, they want to know what youíre going to do. Sure, you have a crush on me, but are you going to touch me if I invite you over, or are you just going to sit there, afraid? Sure, you want a better world, but what are you going to do when I vote for you? Those questions are parallel.Ē

ďIíve come to the point where I think people never say what they want because theyíre afraid. This comes back to me only ever thinking about politics and sex. Politics and love. Politics and boys. I care more about love more than about sex. I know itís not very rockíníroll but Iím old fashioned. And I think those same fears are there. You donít want to say exactly what youíll do if youíre elected because you think people wonít vote for you. And you donít want to say exactly what youíll do to someoneís body if theyíll take you home because youíre afraid they might not take you home. I think itís going to hurt less if we get it over with sooner. Letís say exactly what we want to do now, and get to the yes or no after we put that forward. And then the people who say yes are really there with you. Theyíre not half-and-half. Heís not going to flip-flop and waffle on the issue.Ē

What about Dating Service?

"Dating Service is pure collaboration while in Republic of Safety we each have much more defined roles. Dating Service is also going for something more performative, and it's about social relations. Itís political in ways, but itís more about relationship with audience, the relationships between people, the physical space theyíre in. It came together in the last year or so but hasnít played that many shows. And I knew that my band with Jonny was going to be punk rock, whereas this is 'Garage Casio' - I wanted to try something with more pop elements.

And what's in the future?

ďI really want to put a lot of energy into my writing lately, not just my band writing, my story writing. I want to do something with my play, The Rat King, and this story Iím writing for young adults - for girls, really - I think it could be socially useful. I want to focus on that. ....

ďItís such a surprise. Iíve always been a person who dabbles in a lot of things. Science, politics, writing - things I care about - Iím always trying to express and approximate some kind of idea and the consistent thing is thereís a social concern Iím trying to communicate with people. Of all the things I tried to develop a skill for doing, itís the last in line, the thing I least expected and had the least faith in myself for doing but itís also the thing thatís become a self-sustaining project the fastest. I never thought a couple of years ago I would be making money by being a touring keyboard player in a pop band I actually really like. Thatís a real shock. I never really dared to dream about that before. Iíve realized now that more things are possible than I would have thought would be the case.

ďI donít say no to the possibility of politics. I think right now Iím taking a hiatus to enjoy this time of music and art. And learn from that and maybe do some more academic work, Iím not sure. But I think later in life I might return to politics, to that stage. Itís definitely something I think about often. And Iím not going to say yes for sure, no for sure right now.Ē

Do you think about whether this part of your life would be helpful or potentially damaging.

ďYes, I do... But I really do stand by everything. I think Iím trying to express something that I urgently feel and Iím just trying to be honest and stand by what I think to be the case. And if that hinders my success as a politician if I ever try to be a politician, then I feel really sorry for politics.Ē

Do your political friends and colleagues express concerns?

ďNot really... But my father does. Heíll look at articles on the Internet and say, ĎYou know, people remember these things.í So I do try to be cautious. I try to really let go on stage and go crazy and give a crazy performance, but I try not to say something that isnít appropriate or that I donít believe. I have tried to keep a habit of keeping my political and my rock life separate, but itís becoming harder. There was an article in the Toronto Star when I was working on the fall provincial elections, that said, ĎThe vocalist from the Barcelona Pavilion kicking and screaming on the floor...í And I was working at central office and everyone started teasing me, sticking their heads in where my desk was and saying, ĎKicking and screaming, are you?í And there was no serious concern, ĎYou shouldnít do that.í But what starts with teasing can later on become reservations."

Read More | Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, March 20 at 1:56 AM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson