When I last interviewed Vancouver punks the Rebel Spell, I was surprised to discover that, long before the band had formed, their singer and principal lyricist Todd Serious knew the Subhumans’ Gerry Hannah. Stepha and Todd were living in Williams Lake, and Gerry in the Chilcotin. “He was friends with Stepha’s mom, actually,” Todd explains. “Around the same time I recruited Stepha, he was actually thinking about doing something, and asking her to play drums for him. He was kind of a legend...” Todd - then about 20 - didn’t get to know him well at the time. “I talked to him in passing, but it was a little bit intimidating, actually, because you know he’s got this kind of hard-core political past. I knew who he was, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was a peer or something.”
The Rebel Spell will share the stage with the Subhumans on July 26th, at Seylynn Hall (605 Mountain Hwy, North Vancouver), as part of an all-ages benefit for the people of Darfur, a region of the Sudan which Oxfam Canada describes as having “one of the world’s largest concentrations of human suffering.” A lengthy violent conflict, mostly along tribal, religious, and factional lines, has seen millions of people relocated to refugee camps; 4.5 million people are currently estimated as depending on humanitarian aid, and the dead are numbered in the hundreds of thousands - with the expectation that things will only continue to get worse unless there is a major international intervention. “You think of Rwanda and stuff like that,” Todd sighs, “and how that was a big deal after it blew up so badly, and here we have the same thing happening again, and nobody’s doing anything. Again.” (Please see web link for more information on the Darfur conflict and what you can do about it; Todd hopes people will come out to the show to raise both awareness and money for a good cause).
Punk politics have long been important to Todd, who was particularly influenced by “Red” Victoria bands like Hudson Mack, AK-47, and Lootbag. Gerry Hannah, of course, took punk politics to what some would argue was the next logical step - Direct Action, which was the name of a radical group to which he belonged in the early 1980s, whose largest action involved detonating a bomb at Lytton Industries, where parts for US cruise missiles were being manufactured. The group - also dubbed the Squamish Five or the Vancouver Five - were dramatically arrested on the Squamish highway in 1983; all have long since completed their prison sentences.
At least one of the Five, Julie Belmas, herself a member of the early Vancouver punk scene, has expressed considerable remorse for her actions - especially the near-fatal injuries caused to Lytton security guard Terry Chikowski. Belmas has renounced the use of violent direct action for political ends in principle. (I haven’t been able to contact Gerry about this article at press time, and don’t want to represent his views here, but he has said in a past interview that he now feels the Five were “reckless” in some of their actions).
Does Todd worry that idealistic and pissed-off young punks could get sucked into things they might regret later? “At the time, especially when you’re angry, it’s cathartic, right? You get to blow something up, and you get to feel better about that. But unless you can sustain that action to the point where it actually financially cripples a company or something like that - then it really only is catharsis; other than that, it doesn’t really have an influence. And it can be used publicly against you, to rally the public against you and make you look bad - to give ammo to the enemy.” Even in the case of sustained activism, it’s so stressful to keep it up that, Todd says, he “can understand someone getting to the point where you’re like, ‘maybe that was wrong, and maybe this Direct Action stuff isn’t the way to go; maybe I should be going through the system.’ I can see how someone could turn that way and start thinking that way,” Todd admits. “But I don’t agree with them. It takes a lot to work through the system, and it really hurts your ideals, I think, to try to buy into the system and try to change things by the rules that they’re giving you.”
One example of a group that Todd respects in their use of sustained and concerted Direct Action is SHAC 7 (SHAC stands for “Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty;” the SHAC 7 are animal rights activists currently in jail and branded “terrorists” by the US government). “In principle and in practice, I support them,” Todd says. The Rebel Spell recently played an under-publicized benefit for them with the Flatliners.
Does Todd have any comment on anti-Olympics activism? “Go hard. It’s a great way to bring attention to it through the media, because the media is paying attention to stuff like that, and the Anti-Poverty Committee and other groups have been able to sustain actions enough that they’re continually in the paper. I think it has had an affect, already, in forcing politicians to at least pretend to care.” As for the APC, Todd tries to “support them through what we do” - wearing, for example, APC and anti-Olympics t-shirts on stage at last year’s Under the Volcano festival - but doesn’t himself get too involved in their public actions. “It’s kind of a big deal to get one arrest, and then you can’t go to the States. It kind of cripples you, if you’re in a band and you want to tour. I try to avoid getting arrested, and that’s one thing the APC does really well, is get arrested.”
Of course, the Subhumans are affected by just this problem: Gerry’s jail sentence means that the Subhumans cannot play the United States, or likely any other country. Thus far, all reunion shows have been in Canada, and most have been in Vancouver. Punks here should count themselves lucky indeed to have two opportunities to see the band play this summer. Those unwilling or unable to commute to the all-ages show in North Vancouver (or who prefer to take their punk with alcohol) have, of course, another opportunity to see the Subhumans at the Cobalt in late August, as part of Chris Walter’s booklaunch for Personality Crisis: Warm Beer and Wild Times, his upcoming biography of his favourite band from the Winnipeg punk scene of yore. Jon Card, the Subhumans’ current drummer, has called Personality Crisis “the first real good band I was in,” before he was in SNFU, DOA, or any of the dozens of other bands he’s played with. I’ve yet to actually read any of the dirt Chris has dug up on him for his book, but I’m sure it will be very entertaining...
Posted: Jul 17, 2008