Response to Lisa Ann Gallagher piece on The Nils and Alex Soria on Medium.com

My reply to Concert Stories from my Punk Days: the one about the band who broke my heart


LisaAnnGallagher — First, I want to say that I appreciate that you’re a genuine fan of The Nils, and the article is best when you speak from your experience of seeing them back in the day, and your appreciation of the music. The problem is that much of the story is based on “multiple articles and blogs written about the band…”.

I knew Alex from the winter of ’82 until he died. We were best of friends. I went to high school with him, a short spell at a local college, went to all his shows, worked in the mail room of a bank with him for years (“Rock’n’Roll Banker” is a song for those years), and was even roommates with him and Chico for a short while. We grew up together and hoped to grow old together, but sadly, that wasn’t to be.

There’s so much that people don’t know, but worse than that, there’s so much that people think they know but don’t. And so much of the story is told by one person, and the same old myths are perpetuated with each article based on “multiple articles and blogs”.

Much remains unsaid (publicly) by those of us who wish to protect the guilty, innocent, and Alex’s memory. What is often forgotten or overlooked is that the night Alex died was a nightmare for the the person that survived it — Deb. Deb didn’t chase Alex “out of their apartment”. He fled because he fucked up in a way he couldn’t live with at that point in time. The truth is, he was literally out of his mind the night he took his life, having just shot up some kind of drug cocktail that wasn’t heroin. When you and others suggest that Deb “chased him out of their apartment”, you are actually hurting the person who did more for Alex than just about everyone. Every time that last night of Alex’s life comes up Deb’s name is dragged out as if she is responsible. The only thing Deb is responsible for is for loving Alex through thick and thin. I can tell you that Alex had many ups and downs in his life, but many of us had never seen him better than in the years he was with Deb. Tragically, difficult circumstances led Alex to a relapse in his last year, and relapses are the most dangerous time for drug users who have been clean for a spell. Yet, to paraphrase Alex, she is always stuck in his mud.

If you want a clue as to what went wrong that year, you have it already:

Then Alex decided to let Carlos join the band, and it all fell apart again.

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“and often dated much older (and troubled) women”

Alex had three serious girlfriends in his life, Karin H (in college), Karen M, and Deb. Karin was his age, Karen M was quite a bit older (maybe 5 years?), and Deb quite a bit younger. So not sure where this “much older” bit comes from, but it just isn’t true. What is true is that Alex attracted people who wanted to take care of him, friends and girlfriends alike. It’s hard to say why that is, and it may well be “mommy issues”, I don’t know.

Nor would I say he dated “troubled” women, because I know that Karin H and Deb were not and are not troubled. Alex was troubled, and the relationship between he and Karen was troubled, no question. How could it not be when they’d been using heroin together since the beginning of their relationship? He started seeing her when he was 20, and over that time he had a more or less continuous relationship with heroin and Karen until he hit bottom in ’96, and the process of cleaning up got underway

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The Nils were formed in 1978, in Montreal, by brothers Alex and Carlos Soria.”

The “brothers” were never the core of The Nils. I understand that this is one of those persistent myths, but the truth is that the first Nils show was in 1980 and the three piece band was Alex Soria on guitar and vocals, Guy Caron on bass, and Terry Toner on drums. That was the original core. Alex and Guy were 16, and Terry was and undersized 14 year old.

Just about all the songs were written by Alex alone, and Carlos only started playing with Alex after BYO recorded “Scratches and Needles” for the BYO compilation. I believe Carlos’s first show with The Nils was in the fall of ’84, playing bass. Alex and Chico were inseparable until Chico took a spell away from the band in ’84. When Chico came back, he played bass and Carlos played 2nd guitar.

It’s not an understatement to say that Alex was always the core of any band he played with. While many of his songs are credited to “A Soria/C Soria”, this is a lie that unfortunately Alex took part in. Anyone who knew Alex will tell you that. Alex was the songwriter, and he was a fantastic talent, but there was no partnership with Carlos. Rather, Alex saw his band members all playing a role in the crafting of these songs, but everyone knows they were his songs. And he hardly wrote a bad one!
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Now, there’s still stuff I like in your piece, now that I’ve got all that out of the way. This really stands out for me:

The Nils, in contrast, wore plaid shirts and t-shirts, ripped and dirty jeans, Converse hightops and baseball caps. They looked like us. They looked like a crystal ball of the near future: Seattle, 1991.

A perfect image of them, and so true about “Seattle, 1991”! And I really like how you went to see The Godfathers, who I agree were terrible, but came out loving The Nils. No doubt they were the real deal, and I think most of us knew The Godfathers were never going to be anything.

And well said when you say that Alex “cut an intriguing figure. His lyrics were redolent with confusion and angst and bittersweet longings.”. Indeed they were! And English wasn’t even his mother tongue, since Spanish was what they spoke at home. I’ve wondered if this combination of speaking Spanish at home, and English in school and with friends, contributed to his lyrical talent in English. Of course, he had a natural talent to begin with, but he often enjoyed combining certain words in English in way that might not have occurred to native English speakers. We were big fans of LA’s The Plugz, and Tito Larriva also had a similar way with his lyrics.

Almost done here, but will finish by saying that the Chino years are actually my favourite years watching and listening to Alex. Long-time fans like Jack Rabid will tell you that the recordings we have of The Nils don’t come close to capturing how great they could be. It was always a case of great songs transcending mediocre to poor production. But Chino’s Mala Leche is probably the best recording Alex ever put his name to, and for that we have Woody Whelan, Eric Kearns, and Mike Willis to thank for that.

There’s a very badly put together posthumously released LP called “It Must Be Something…” which I recommend to those fans of Alex’s work who want to hear what he was doing after the glory days of The Nils. It’s a really mixed-up release, and gives us no idea of the source recordings and who was playing what and even has mis-titled songs and numerous spelling mistakes. But the songs? So great. Some really good recordings of songs we know, and even a couple most people don’t.

Finally, thanks for giving me a chance to correct the record, and add my own thoughts on the tragedy and pain that surrounds Alex. He was my friend, and I truly loved him like a brother.

Continue reading “Response to Lisa Ann Gallagher piece on The Nils and Alex Soria on Medium.com”

Memories

I’ve just tagged all my entries concerning Alex and the Nils as memorable entries so that they can all be found easily for anyone who is interested. The archive I had of all the posts on the Montrealshows board has been unavailable for some time now but will be up again soon. Same with some of the photos. The server I archived them to has been down and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be up again.

First Anniversary – Alex Soria Dec 8, 1965 – Dec 13, 2004

Just after I posted I got some great news from Caroline Evans of the McGill Daily – Jack Rabid has posted Scratches and Needles (an article she originally wrote for a magazine that will remain nameless) on the The Big Takeover website.

Really nice to see this up and on the Internet. Thanks to Jack for putting it up there with his comments, and to Caroline for having the inspiration to do it.

Later…..

First Anniversary – Alex Soria Dec 8, 1965 – Dec 13, 2004

I just don’t know what to write about this……it’s been a year since Alex took his own life and I’m at a loss for words. We all miss him and all of us wish we could have done something to prevent what happened, but that’s a fool’s game. There’s nothing any of us could have done short of being there to stop it when it was about to happen.

I guess a few of us will be at Barfly this evening.

Really, I just don’t know what to write. For once, I’m at a loss.

Idle

Got a surprise call from DT this morning, considering it’s a weekday and she normally works. She has the day off and was in the neighbourhood so she came by with some chocolatines. We chatted while listening to the New Pornographers, then went out to grab a delicious cafe au lait at Olympico and sat on the steps at the church and found ourselves talking a lot about Alex. We don’t always do this, but for some reason this morning I found myself missing him a lot and wishing he were around more than usual. You get over the shock, you get on with your life or try to, but the fact is Alex is gone forever. Yet I’ll miss him my whole life, and I’ll allow myself that. In the past, Alex and I might go months without being in touch but one of us would eventually call the other. Speaking for myself, if I’d been out of touch with for more than a couple of months I could feel myself needing to touch base with him. I still get that feeling now, only I can never touch base with him, I can only imagine what he might say.

At the Divan Orange on Friday, filled with old faces from the Bad Old Days of the Montreal music scene and photos of now famous Montreal bands , I couldn’t help but think Alex would have got a kick out of the currently “hot” Montreal scene. I think even he would agree that it’s never been better, though he’d probably be one of the sceptics and not as enthusiastic about it as I am. He would have definitely enjoyed the bill on Friday night. Perhaps he would have been on the bill with either the Nils or Chino had things not turned out so badly. That night I found myself reminiscing with Rick Trembles, Chris Burns, Francis D, and even Mark Lepage about what it used to be like in 80s. All of us seemed to agree that there can be no talk of the good old days. Some of us could talk about feeling nervous prior to going to a show, never sure if violence would break out or something crazy happening. It’s not like that now. There are more bands, more fans, and more venues than there ever was. Violence is an exception. Today, those of us who still attend shows on a somewhat regular basis see ourselves more as artifacts of a lost era. You just can’t compare the way things were then and the way they are now. It’s like another world. That a festival celebrating independent music can successfully put on 300 hundred shows over 5 or 6 nights in Montreal would have been laughable to most of us 10 years ago. To those responsible for making the Montreal scene as dynamic and diverse as it is today, I say hats off, congratulations, and THANK YOU. You’ve accomplished what many of us would not have thought possible.

The Post-Memorial Week

It’s been quite a week. I’ve had plenty of work at a time when I need it most, psychologically and financially. The Memorial was a fantastic tribute, an event that had to happen and at times actually seemed to happen all by itself. It took on a life of it’s own. It was a show Dan Webster said was “probably the best show I’ve ever been associated with.” In all my years of attending shows going back to ’82, I’ve never seen anything like it. Now I know I’m obviously not objective, but the fact is there really has never been a show like it in Montreal. The only thing that comes close to the kind of format we had was the Jerry,Jerry farewell show held at Cafe Campus a few years ago. But even that can’t compare. Somebody described it as being like the best high school reunion from the best high school ever. In a way it was. There were so many faces I had not seen since the days when “the Scene” was small enough that you always saw the same faces and wound up talking to everyone at some point. The was also a kind of euphoria in the air, as if everyone there knew something truly special was taking place. So it was part wake, part high school reunion, part great rock show. There were just so many musical highlights throughout the evening it’s impossible to pick out a single moment that was great. There were far too many.

I think the reason for this is because every performer contributed exactly what they needed to at the right time. Chris Page starting out with a gut-wrenching version of “When the Love Puts On a Sad Face”, then being joined by his good friend Jim Bryson for a slow, haunting version of “Daylight”. Los Patos opening their set with “Grounded”, a song I hadn’t heard played in over 10 years, and then proving what a great song writer Alex was by doing a version of “When You’re Not Around” that showed it can be a mid-tempo pop song with 60’s style hooks as well as a fast-paced, furious rock song. This was the genius in Alex’s songs – they could sound good done any which way, so long as they’re tight. Then Ian Blurton digging and finding Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied”, followed by a passionate rendition of Husker Du’s “Pink Turns to Blue”. Finally, he has some of us in the house in tears with his very own Half A Song. When Chino opens their set with The Mekons “Where Were You?”, the rock show begins. That song was a Chino era cover that used to always bring down the house at the Barfly and just about anywhere else they played it. But it only got better from there. We were treated to 7 songs altogether. Five covers plus “Uno Mas” and “Mustard Sally”. Alex would have been proud of them and smilin’. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” was on when I was getting a beer and I couldn’t get to the front fast enough after that. The 4 guitars at work in “White Girl” were something to behold. A fantastic set from start to finish.

I can’t even being to get into the Nils set…I’ve tried in various drafts I’ve written but I can’t. All I can say is they did Alex justice and really were the cherry on top. Kudos to John Kastner and Chris Spedding for their superb contributions. All the other players – a job well done, lads. Alex would have been proud.

And that was the night. It took a week for it to work it’s way out of my system. The aftermath started right after the show and continued into Saturday where we managed to survive this this bill. By mid-week, I had a CD of the show waiting for me in my mailbox and called Rick K. to come on over and listen to it. I just couldn’t do it alone. We were not disappointed. The recording I have is a great document of that night and I’m hoping I’ll be able to post some mp3s of it soon. I’ve played this to several of the performers already and all have enjoyed listening to it, mistakes and all. It was an emotional night, and the performances show it. A few days later I get a CD of one person’s pictures, and again I’m reliving the evening. But in a good way. I think many of us feel we’ve given Alex a proper farewell, and that’s all we can do. The recording, some of the pictures I’ve seen and probably many more I haven’t seen or will never see, show what Alex meant to many.

By the way, If anyone has any pictures, please let me know and we’ll make arrangements to have them sent by email or posted to a photo blogging site like yafro. I have a few decent ones I’ll be posting soon.

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What isn’t over is sorting out his legacy….Alex was a perfectionist, so a fair amount of stuff had been recorded and never released and I’ve heard a lot of it. Besides great live footage, there’s stuff recorded in Montreal and Chicago in 1994, songs most people have never heard. There’s the stuff that was recorded on acoustic in St. Henri last year – gems like “Mud” and “They Found Out” and more than a half-dozen others. I’ve had the pleasure and it’s good to know songs Alex never released, and very different version of songs he did, will see the light of day. The last 10 years of Alex’s career, both with the Nils and Chino, were some of his best song writing years. He was really coming into his own. While he always had it (you don’t write a song like “River of Sadness” at 19 and not have it), he had matured like a lot of us did in our thirties. This came through in his song writing and performances.

So there’s more to come as far as the music goes, I’m happy to report. I’m hoping to get permission to post one or two mp3s in the near future.

So that’s about it, I guess. I have some pictures I’ll post, but they need to be resized and fixed a little before I can. There’s some good ones, but as I’ve said if you have any pictures let me know. WE NEED PICTURES!!!!. Thanks.

Correction

Just thought I’d correct a mistake in a previous entry:


” Mike was his engineer and translator. He was the only soundman Alex ever worked with who was also a friend….”.

(Note: Not true, actually. Steve Kravac of Los Patos was a good friend and is a great soundman. Unfortunately, they never managed to release something besides a demo. I meant this in the context of what Alex has managed to release over the years. It’s unfortunate that Los Patos never managed to get something out, and I think this was due to Alex’s (and probably Steve’s) perfectionist tendencies. Apologies to Steve Kravac for this oversight. The Los Patos songs I have from a 13 year old demo tape are really special and showed another side to Alex, a side I don’t think we appreciated enough at the time – it seemed like such a departure. As I’ve said, they were his “pop” band, and I believe they were the only incarnation of this side of him since the pre-hardcore Nils (’82).)

The Memorial Concert

Many came far and wide for the Memorial and I doubt they were disappointed. By 9:00 it was clear this was going to be a sold out show. The Main Hall’s capacity is only about 250 tops, and at the time we thought this would be enough. Now we realize it probably could have been at Cabaret. Either way, the Main Hall is a great venue with superb sound and because it was packed the atmosphere was initmate.

At 9:00 PM, Ted from Jerk Appeal tells me their drummer hasn’t shown up yet and they may have to use Alex MacSween. I’d already been advised through the week that Jerk Appeal’s drummer was becoming a problem for them, but the guy is a good punk rock drummer and they were sure that given the nature of the occasion, he’d be in shape for it. He wasn’t. He showed up at 9:05 when they were due to come on at 9:00, and he was in very poor shape. He walked on stage with his bag of cymbals, through them on stage, and just sat there for a while. Then he tried to setup his snare drum and just wound up crying into it. This guy, who I hear is quite a talented drummer, is the kind of guy Alex wrote about when he wrote “Scratches and Needles”. Fucked up on chemicals, author of his own destruction, and in need of serious help. It took about 10 minutes for us to yank Jerk Appeal from the bill, but getting the drummer off the stage was going to be a little trickier. He didn’t seem to want to get off but finally was convinced. From that point on, the show went off without a hitch.

In the middle of all this, I’ve got people to meet and stuff to do. There were so many good friends in the room that night at times it was a little overwhelming. There were also people I had never met but had been corresponding with, like Jim Byson. This guy is such a sweetheart and a huge fan of Alex’s and it was great to meet him. There was Susan Smith, an old friend who came all the way from Bermuda with her husband for this event. Hardly had a chance to talk with her but it was great to see her again. There was Dwight Faithful, the guy that introduced me to Alex back in high school. And Donald Doucet (guy with the Nils cap), whose parents basement was a practice space for the Nils in 1983. Mark at the Rock and Roll Report has a story about that.

Woody has a fairly comprehensive run-down of how the show went here:

http://www.20hz.ca/boards/viewtopic.php?t=40869&sid=57d88be32e23f92afb951e3b50eb9831

It was a special night and we did Alex’s memory justice. Every performer played from the heart, determined not to let him down. Los Patos practised on the day of the show because they couldn’t find a rehearsal space and pulled off something remarkable, playing “Grounded”, “Belly Full of Heartache”, and “When You’re Not Around” so well it ached. That was the first time in 15 years Stephane, Steve, and Clive played those songs. It was the first time Alex MacSween had ever played with them. And it was the first time Stephane had played bass in 13 years. In one day, they managed to do the “pop” Alex justice. Los Patos were Alex’s pop band.

But really, the whole evening was one big highlight – Los Patos were just this very pleasant surprise. Even the problem with Jerk Appeal was a minor event and somehow fitting.

More to write about….but I really must get some sleep.

Half An Entry

I really don’t have time to write anything like a full entry….there’s just so much to write about last night’s show. It was truly a thing of beauty. Someone posted a topic to the montrealshows web board on the show and I posted about one of the songs Ian played called “Half A Song”, written for Alex the day of the concert. You can read the thread here, but I’ll just post what I wrote here.

The last song Ian Blurton played is called “Half A Song”, written for Alex that day about meeting myself and Rick K. at the Barfly the previous evening. Read Alex’s Day to get some background:

We had a great night on Thursday with Ian, sitting at a corner of Barfly near the pool table, talking about music and Alex and the years of friendship we shared with him. He introduced the song by talking about walking into the Barfly with nothing but his guitar case and a white plastic bag with his belongings, being given a key to a place where he could stay, and then meeting us and staying there until closing. He wrote it as if he were talking to Alex, and it had us in tears. My friend hadn’t cried like that since the day we got the news of Alex’s death.

It really meant a lot to us, that song.

And the night! What a night! Los Patos, a post-Nils Alex band circa 1991 who hadn’t played together in 14 years pulled off something really special. They practised three songs of Alex’s the day of the show and had them down tight. Hats off to Steve Krevac on guitar/vocals, Clive McNutt on lead guitar, Stephane Hamel on bass, and the one and only Alex MacSween on drums.

There’s so much I could write about, but I’ve got guests here and will be on my way to the ‘Fly to meet up with other friends for a kind of post-party. If you were at the show last night and have a notion to get out, stop by the Barfly this afternoon. We’ll be playing stuff that Alex liked listening to and saying goodbye to some visitors in from out of town.”

It was a great night and there will be more written in the next couple of days. Something else, man.

Alex’s Day

Woke up to a phone call from Rick this morning, telling me he’s on his way up and will bring coffee. We had quite the night last night….He called me from the Barfly around 10:00, says he’s coming over to smoke…when he arrives, he says

“Ian Blurton’s sitting in the Bar on his own.”
“What? Really?”
“Yeah.”
“Well, we gotta get over there NOW.”
“Yeah?”
“Oh yeah.”

And that was how our evening started, getting the hell out of my place and getting to Barfly to introduce ourselves to Ian Blurton, an artist who Alex has known and respected since the late 80’s when he was in Change of Heart. We had never met Ian before last night, but with Alex gone and knowing the mutual respect they had for each other’s work it was a no-brainer to go up and sit down with him. So we sat at a front table and chatted with Ian about Alex and music until a member Tempus Fujit kindly asked us to move away from the front because of a band member’s asthma problem. By this time there was a crowd at the bar and no seats to be had, so we got seats at the corner of the room near the pool table. We dubbed it the “Alex Soria Memorial Corner”, just for the occasion. Alex’s two oldest friends sitting with one of his favourite contemporaries. Alex would have loved that. For the last hour before closing, we played the latest version of what we call the “covers” CD, 20 songs Alex covered in any band he ever played in. It dawns on me that 3 generation of Nils drummers and Chino all know “Don’t Cry No Tears” exactly the way Alex used to play it, which is slightly different than the original. It was his signature cover.

This is it…..it’s finally come. And it’s going to be a night to remember. If you’re a Nils fan at all, you won’t want to miss a single set this evening. From 9 PM sharp to about 12:30 AM, you’ll be treated to renditions of Alex’s songs and his favourite covers over the years. The whole show will be one big highlight. If anyone wants to see “Scratches and Needles” being played, get there for Jerk Appeal sharp at 9:00. They’re the only old-school punk band on the bill and they will rock the house with their version of it.

Gotta go….Eloi’s here, I’ve got email and phone calls to make…..

Nils Rehearsals Yesterday

Just a fantastic day yesterday. Within an hour of running out of the house to meet Chico, we were at 1990 William Street, walking into the rehearsal space as Carlos, Alex MacSween, Marc Donato, and John Kastner were getting set to jam. They were short a guitar amp, so Marc and I drove out to his place and picked up another Marshall. When we got back, they were just starting (can’t name the song), and I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. John K is doing Alex’s vocal style justice. I didn’t want to interrupt while they were playing, so I just lurked outside the space and listened intently. When it was over, I opened the door and just had to day “That was haunting.”, which was met by a few laughs and Carlos saying “What the hell were you doing outside, bro?”.

The Nils lineups are a credit to Alex. Ask anyone who worked with him and they’ll tell you how demanding Alex was, but how rewarding it was after all the hard work. If you weren’t a pro when you started with the Nils or Chino, you would be by the time he was through with you. So yesterday, three former Nils drummers (MacSween, Jean Lortie, and Eloi Bertholet), two former Nils bassists (Chico, Carlos), Alex’s favourite guitar man and close personal friend Marc Donato, and special guest John Kastner hammered out 12 songs and it sounds awesome. We were all surprised how well it went, and at times the emotion in the room was palpable. By the time the last song rehearsed was finished and done to near perfection, I was standing up with my arms stretched high and fists clenched, along with Chico’s wife Kara, just blown away by the performance. Four different Nils lineups will rock the Main Hall on Friday night. This is going to be a night to remember!

You know, the drugs were always part of the tragedy of the Nils and Alex’s life. No getting around that. For those of us close to him, the biggest problem is that it was only part of the story. You never get a sense of Alex’s professionalism, because how can a guy on drugs be professional, right? Well, Alex was a total professional as anyone who’s ever worked with him will attest to. He knew how he wanted his songs to be played, knew how he wanted them to sound. If you didn’t listen to him, you’d feel his wrath. The Nils lineups tomorrow night will prove that Alex always wanted to work with the best and commanded the utmost respect from those who worked with him.

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Some anecdotes…..

The choice of rehearsal space turned out to have resonance with the past as Eloi was the first musician to move into that space, back in the summer of 1986. Chico, Alex and I had moved in together in Point. St. Charles while Eloi found this industrial space on William St. a few minutes walk away, with plans to make into a rehearsal space. Shortly after, Eloi wold be out of the band but the rehearsal space would evolve over the next few years until Eloi, due to family obligations, would have to leave it with someone else. I don’t know the name of the guy, but he turned all the unused loading docks into a kind of “Rock Motel” and did a pretty good job with it. Eloi’s two children were concieved at 1990 William Street. Eloi immediately understood the significance, remembering that summer. It was a critical summer in the Nils “family”. My father died that April, Alex and Carlos’s Dad had sold the house and was moving to L.A., and Carlos, Alex, and Chico had to find a place. It was a summer of huge changes in our lives. It was the end of our teenage years, my father died suddenly, and their Dad moved to the other side of the continent. Jean Lortie would make his debut with the Nils opening up for Soul Asylum at Club Soda, Alex met Karen and would be one of those absent roomates for a few months before moving out. Rick, Jim Hynes, Eric Kearns and I would hang out at that place on Grand Trunk in the Point, drinking plenty of beers from Sammy’s dep and listening to music and often hanging out with Sue Smith and Margaret. Heady days….