Life, Death, and Wolfstein

“I could live in this parking lot; I could be here, and I cannot”
“Parking Lot” from Wolfstein by Son

Wolfstein Cover

There’s something to be said about incumbents; the warm robe and worn slippers feeling of comfort and stability that comes with familiarity. But familiarity and conformity have a dark, Faustian side that is inherently accepted by those who choose ‘establishment’ over innovation and discomfort. The ultimate wet-dream of corporations and politicians is to wind up as virtual incumbents – where it is more unpalatable to individuals to choose alternatives (however better they may be) over an incumbent’s own ‘brand’ of familiarity. This can range from reaching for a can of Coke, to marking that ‘X’ in the ballot box, to music.

In the mid- to late 1990s, Canada was awash in incumbents. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his ruling Liberals could do no wrong (and there are no term limits for parties in Canada). Musically, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, and Bryan Adams could expect to hit #1 ad-infinitum, irrespective of the quality of their releases (there are no term limits for musicians either). Even ‘alternative’ artists such as Alanis sold tens of millions, which doesn’t bode well for the ‘alternative’ moniker. One could argue that the quality and diversity of the Canadian political and music scene was boiled down to its constituent elements – where the only knee-jerk reaction was to head to the nearest McDonalds – regardless of the impact on health and well-being. Thankfully, there is one question that continually jabs at all incumbents, “When and how is all of this going to end?” And end it will.

It was within this incumbent-based environment that a young Jason Beck emerged from the McGill School of Music and onto the Canadian music scene. The vast majority of artists can only dream of being ‘discovered’ and picked up by a major label. It may have been Jason Beck’s dream at one point in time as well, as his debut album ‘Thriller’ was discovered and picked up by Warner Music in the mid-90s. For a time, it appeared that his band Son was headed toward musical and financial success, landing gigs opening for the popular and clap-happy Barenaked Ladies and receiving positive press for ‘Thriller’. But somewhere along the way, the dream became a ‘very bad dream’, as Mr. Beck’s musical sensibilities and direction clashed with the label’s goal of conforming to popular taste. Happily, one of the by-products of this contradiction was the release of ‘Wolfstein’.

Wolfstein ‘feels’ like the by-product of an internal struggle between good and evil. The evil being conformity, money, corporate greed, and mind-numbing musicality. The good being charting your own destiny, musical creativity, and being true to oneself. The end result is a concept album that (in retrospect) documents the transformation of Jason Beck to Chilly Gonzales. Did he somehow know that the industry was on the cusp of self-destruction, or was it good fate that drew him away from labels as the houses of the major record labels were burned down? There are a few clues, as Chilly Gonzales seems almost reluctant to discuss Wolfstein. When an interviewer recently asked about “Making a Jew Cry”, he was dismissed with a curt response followed with, “but that’s not Chilly Gonzales!”

Shortly after Wolfstein’s release, Mr. Beck described the central theme of the album as a transformation from man to wolf after his tour van collided with a wolf on a lonely stretch of Manitoba highway. He indicated that people began to notice a change in his demeanour, growing his hair longer, and a bit ‘possessed’. Oddly enough, the album’s conceptual connections were only discovered after the album has been recorded, implying that there was a subconscious process at work linking the songs along a central theme. The album was recorded in an old house where the band had to warm themselves by the heat of recording equipment. The album was produced by a ‘struggle for warmth in the cold’, which oddly enough represents the mindset of most Canadians; cold weather forces one to be very productive or risk death (or at least the loss of fingers and toes). The warmth in the cold can also be a metaphor for trying to bring musicality to the recording industry, which had all but killed entertainment (as Gonzales has a penchant to say). The ‘transformation’ from man to wolf is a classic “Jekyll and Hyde” story, where the duality of living becomes practically unbearable, and one personality must consume the other. In this case, there was much to be consumed. A struggle with being a product of musical education and prodigious talent, combined with a true sense of independence, and the overall rejection of those qualities from Mr. Beck’s home country, audiences, and major labels. Something had to give, and he chose to reject everything – labels, country, audience, etc. in favour of a fresh start.

From Wolfstein’s lyrics, it appears that the struggle was over before a single track was recorded. The writing process may have been cathartic, but ultimately, the songs seem to document a foregone conclusion: ‘Jason Beck’ is no more. There is no place for a young idealistic student of music in the world or major labels. Imagine how difficult the decision must have been to leave family and friends behind, to move to another country where everyone is a stranger speaking in a foreign tongue. It takes a unique individual to be able grow and prosper in that environment, forge new friendships, and strengthen existing ones. In the end, things turned out for the better. Steve Jobs once said that if he didn’t like what he saw in the mirror every morning for too many days in a row, he knew that it was time for a change. Mr. Beck’s experience and Jobs’ advice are a warning to those enamoured with conformity and familiarity; it may be comfortable, but it also may be detrimental. The lesson is not to be afraid to make oneself uncomfortable from time to time. In the end, many valuable lessons will be learned, and what is truly close to one’s heart will become apparent. The changes also don’t have to be as radical as moving to a new country! For his part, Gonzales, rapped on a subsequent song that the decision to move was easy; it took all of ’5 minutes’.

Musically, Wolfstein is very different from Son’s ‘Thriller’ debut. Drums machines largely replaced drum kits, and guitars were generally muted and shared the stage. Synthesizers drove the majority of the tracks, with melodies cleverly disguised and generally represented through singing or as a synthesized loop. The occasional use of old-school scratching (care of DJ Serious) is refreshing and does not overwhelm any tracks. The absence of songs featuring instantly gratifying melodies requires additional effort on the part of the listener, but the end result are tracks that don’t tire easily and stay with the listener for much longer than the typical pop song. Gonzales’ good friend Feist held off re-releasing her debut ‘Monarch’ for many years, indicating that the music didn’t really represent her, and yet, the music on ‘Monarch’ is beautifully crafted and provides insight into Feist as an artist by allowing the listener to travel back in time. In many ways, Gonzales could ‘buy out’ his back catalogue from Warner and re-release Son’s debut albums, but has so far kept a respectful distance.

The progression from feeling rejected, to anger, to vengeance, to leaving the country can be revealed by examining each of the tracks on Wolfstein in further detail.

Track 1: Go Along With It

Go Along With It (excerpt)

Conformity and incumbents. Advertising, supervisors, parents, government, etc. are constantly trying to make people do things that they don’t necessarily feel are the right direction to take, and yet do so because of ‘group think’ or apathy.

Go along with it go go go
Go along with it, for your sake – go

This pretty much sums up the direction of big labels; why question their advice? They have an army of researchers who can tell you exactly what’s trending and what’s going to trend! Hearing this must be torture for any artist; who wants to be some label’s bitch?

Musically, the opening gong is practically identical to the opening gong on ‘Let’s Groove Again’, which may be homage paid to Wolfstein in Uber Alles. The sparse drum beat is accompanied by a mechanical high-hat and a wispy, dreamy ambient synth almost representing a trance-like state, with the occasional ‘gong’ hit to wake listeners from their major-label trance. There’s even a sparse piano progression of sorts, almost hinting at things to come.

Track 2: The Place to Be

The Place to Be (excerpt)

Again labels knowing what is hip and trendy, but for Mr. Beck, it may have been more like “I don’t want to join any club that will have me as a member.” To see and be seen is a very shallow notion.

Anything you say to me – God I hope you mean it

This lyric may stem from label doublespeak and not necessarily knowing who is being honest.

The downtempo beat and droning bassline paints a fairly depressing picture; almost as it Mr. Beck is being dragged to the place to be against his will. A high-octave synth noodles away in the background – almost like a snake-charmer’s melody. The listener again has the feeling that conforming to musical taste is part of the major label plan.

Track 3: Where to Go

Where to Go (excerpt)

This track may be a sarcastic take on label research and advice.

At least you know
At Least you know where to go

In a sense, feeling like a child, or someone whose opinion isn’t valued.

Muted guitars, and the appearance of some record loops, followed by a bristling guitar hit – a slap across the face, almost as if being strong-armed. Then the song abruptly changes into its “Everyone, everyone, everyone” alternative thrashing guitar beat. This alternates throughout the song, almost as if Mr. Beck is being alternatively tortured and praised for his musical conformity.

Track 4: Soldiers

Soldiers (excerpt)

Implies a war, but a very lopsided one at that

Their soldiers are supported by the strangest of contraptions.
Brand new vaudeville – an overused pallor for packaging tricks of the trade

This could represent the ‘army’ of staff and techniques that the labels have at their disposal to fight and crush independent artists and sprit of independence (it’s just a business). Strange contraptions almost always break – especially in this instance.

Musically, this song is sparse and beautiful, a duet with Peaches, which makes it seem much more ‘us’ versus ‘them’. An acoustic guitar plucks away at a basic melody, while dreamy piano hits and synth glissandos float around the listener. An accordion hits an unvarying note, implying resistance in the face of oppression.

Track 5: Pillow Talk

Pillow Talk (excerpt)

This instrumental track almost acts as a before-and-after delineator. Songs prior to this document a subservient, observer point of view of the music industry, while songs after this point signify strength and taking action.

A classic rotary organ hums away in an almost religious manner, while guitars and synths twang away in an almost spiritual awakening.

Track 6: Texan: Holiday – getting away from it all

Texan (excerpt)

I made a planet out called Texan a place to be south of myself

The lyrics imply a holiday, or change of pace from the norm. At this point, Mr. Beck has probably decided that something has to give, but may not be entirely sure what the best course of action is.

The rotary organ from Pillow talk is extended into this song, with an almost taunting demeanour. At a turning point in the song, two guitars and bass strum relentlessly, slowly relenting to a classic drum machine beat before fading out.

Track 7: Making a Jew Cry

Making a Jew Cry (excerpt)

How could you do that? You’re making a Jew cry now

What eventually turned out to be the only single to receive any attention from radio stations, “Making a Jew Cry” incorporates more mainstream musical and lyrical elements. The line “isn’t that what a mother is for?” possibly reveals resistance received from his mother for choosing to move away. When the aforementioned reporter asked Gonzales what this song was about, Gonzales’ reply was, “Motherly guilt.” At two points in the song, a voice in the distant background exclaims, “Everybody wants to get stoned – truly was it was real on the microphone”, which may be parroting a line from a record executive.

An unrelenting piano chord and riff underlie practically the entire song, which is provides insight into the future Chilly Gonzales. Layered on top of the piano is a fuzz guitar riff, which was common in grunge at the time. The last minute of the song is dominated by old-school scratching (again, DJ Serious) of the lyric “isn’t that what a mother is for?”

Track 8: Repetitive Behaviour

Repetitive Behaviour (excerpt)

Repetitive Behaviour
Anything you wanna do
As long as it’s repeatable
The feeling is unbeatable

It’s no secret that the formula for entertainment success is to put out more of same until the artist or audience tires. Applying a truly novel formula is not in the business plan for major labels. The repetition in the song mocks the recording industry.

A taunting laugh (also found later on “The Worst M.C.” from Uber Alles) and repetitive guitar and synth underlie the first half of this song, which abruptly changes pace with ascending synth tones and ‘radio tuning’ noises, almost as if to breakout of the repetition into something far more interesting. This portion of the song seems to nod in the direction of the pirate radio stations that used to broadcast from boats in order to skirt regulations and bring alternate radio and music to Europe.

Track 9: Secret

I Told You a Secret (excerpt)

Don’t believe the Western air will do me some good

The military feel to the song leads the listener to think that Mr. Beck is a prisoner and has just told his escape plan to a close confidant. The secret here is his decision to leave for Europe and reinvent himself, rather than being stuck as a prisoner.

Underlying portions of this song is a marching sound reminiscent of military rule, which stop as Mr. Beck tells his “secret”. Gentle strings and disharmonious synths float around, interrupted, by gentle saxophone playing and piano. The occasional piano chord makes an appearance, almost as if it’s is forbidden by the guards but is trying to break out regardless.

Track 9: Prison Scandal

Prison Scandal (excerpt)

Hey old-timer man
What’s it all about?
In your funny cell
Sometimes they let you out

Breaking free of the ‘establishment’ is akin to a prison break, which is a continuation of the secret told in the previous song. References to the ‘old-timers’ at the record labels imply a resistance to change that will ultimately prove to be fatal as waves crash outside.

A strumming folk guitar is a sure-fire sign of a Canadian song! The guitar is eventually joined by string synths, oboe-like sounds, and choir gasps. The lyrics imply that the song is still being sung from the inside to the other inmates, with the tendency to convert others or possibly incite a prison riot. Artists who heed the warning will be prepared to survive upcoming challenges, which artists who stick with the labels will be used and discarded.

Track 10: Recurring Dream

Recurring Dream (excerpt)

I want to wear a pillowcase
So that they’ll wonder about my face

As it turns out, Mr. Beck could only live under a restrictive contact for so long before demanding to be released. The pillowcase in this case may be his longing for a Gonzales persona, which probably wasn’t fully formed at the time, but may have been conceptualized.

Hammered piano chords underlie the song with the occasional alarm bell hit to imply an effort to sound the alarm and wake up from the ‘very bad dream”. By the end of the song, the alarm bell is relentless, implying a sense of urgency. There is a distinct absence of percussion, which the piano acting as the only percussive instrument. The transition directly into Don’t Cry may imply the aftermath of waking up.

Track 11: Don’t Cry

Don’t Cry (excerpt)

On the surface, Don’t Cry is about keeping feelings bottled up. Digging slightly deeper, the song may be a reminder to be true to oneself and not to blindly follow a path based on external motivating factors.

The highlight on this track is what sounds like a soft flute played on a Mellotron, combined with a distant strumming guitar and sparse drumming. The drums and cymbals sound like a real kit as opposed to a drum machine.

Track 12: Parking Lot

Parking Lot (excerpt)

It’s a little far – gonna get farther away

In essence, Mr. Beck is equating Canada with a large parking lot. Everyone has nice cars, but they aren’t going anywhere, and he doesn’t have any desire to spend his life conforming or stagnating. The goal is to escape to another place where conformity and familiarity are rejected in favour of creativity and progress.

Distant drums, a big twangy guitar and relentless, buzzing synth create an amazing soundscape. The guitar is completely reminiscent of the late-90s Canadian alternative sound that Jason Back was trying to escape from.

Who Lives, and Who Dies?

What happened just before and after the release of ‘Wolfstein’ is slightly fuzzy (not everything was stored on the web in the late 90s), but from archived interview and press snippets, it appears that Mr. Beck had to sue his label to release ‘Wolfstein’, which doesn’t lead to an amicable business relationship. His still-unreleased follow-up album, ‘Red Leather’ may have theoritically been as the artist ‘Wolfstein’, but it’s clear that the ‘sound’ of ‘Red Leather’ was solidly under Chilly Gonzales’ control. It is unclear if legal issues have prevented the album from being released, but a few songs have managed to ‘escape’ (e.g. [Let's] Groove Again, ‘Wave of Crime’ [as '1000 Faces'] and the title track ‘Red Leather’).

Overall, Wolfstein represents the ‘transformation’ of an individual, but it is less from man to wolf, and more from artist to entertainer, as was eventually documented in Gonzales’ Ivory Tower film. In Wolfstein, the internal struggle is a progression for one individual, whereas in Ivory Tower, the duality and struggle is represented as separate individuals. The success and acclaim that Gonzales has received since leaving the world of major labels and Canada is a testament to the insight, will, and talent that was (and still is) embodied in Jason Beck. So far in his career, there has been no resting on proverbial laurels, and once challenge has led to another. Today, Gonzales may take solace in having made the right decision at the right time, while gaining friends and experience that will last a lifetime. Oh, and plenty of entertainment along the way.

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