Smile Politely

You will wish you’d seen Sarah Harmer

Sarah Harmer wrote one of the great songs.

For that reason alone, you should consider seeing her in person. She’s playing in front of Neko Case on Friday at the Canopy. I’ll get to said “great song” aspect in a moment. First, I’ll address your major concern.


The $25 (at the door) ticket price may seem high for this town, but if you think of it in the right way, it’s two shows.

On the one hand, you’ve got an accomplished, tough, no-holds-barred Canadian singer-songwriter who will gently but firmly grasp your balls (or if you’re a woman, your woman balls) and tell you how it’s going to be. Afterwards, you will offer her more money.

I dealt with Neko Case only once in my life. She asked me for a drink, paid for it and tipped. Simple, straightforward. I have not stopped loving her.

Moreover, I gush over her handling of irritating press amateurs. When you’ve earned the reverence Neko Case elicits — by pluck, perseverance and talent — and when you’ve taken time out of a hectic touring schedule, you deserve better than being ridiculed for reacting with stunned disbelief to the blasé, under-researched and frankly sophomoric questions from an unread Mid-western fish & chip paper.

And… this is far from a minor point in our lookist society… Neko Case is smoldering hot.

Okay, that’s your first $15.


On the other hand, you’ve got an accomplished, fragile, holds-barred Canadian singer-songwriter who might — in a rare cavalier moment—- make an ironic reference to your balls.

Few boy-meets-girl songs capture the emotional experience of intimately knowing another human. They don’t intend to. They want to fit simple words with simple melodies and beats. Monosyllabic words like boy, girl, love, do, I, want, hold, etc. get the songwriter out of the office by 5 o’clock, without much fuss.

“Love songs” are very rarely about love, or its withdrawal. They’re not about anything.

With Sarah, you know exactly what she’s talking about. And that’ll cost you another ten.

In “Around This Corner” Sarah Harmer accurately describes the apprehension, the heightened awareness, the trauma of encountering the human locus of one’s misery. (It’s adrenal PTSD alerting the body’s flight mechanism.)

This is what “love” is really about. Despite myriad attempts to portray it as wishy-washy happy nonsense; it’s about strong things, dark things. i.e. it’s about oneself. Among today’s youth, everything is “me.” cf. social networking drivel.

But among the Me Generation (irony notwithstanding) we were not allowed to consider ourselves in the equation. We were taught to think of ourselves, be hypercritical of ourselves, and then ridicule ourselves for thinking of ourselves. (Neko and Sarah are both Me. So am I, conveniently.)

This makes for a good boy-meets-girl song because every song written about someone is really about the writer. “Around This Corner” is emphatically about Sarah Harmer. What will she do, how will she feel, how will she react and will she be able to survive the moment when Asshole Lying Son of a Bitch runs in to her, out of the blue?

Who among us has not walked or driven far out of his/her way to avoid the possibility of running into That Person. Trouble is, you begin to see That Person everywhere. As I said to one suffering dumped friend — I’ll bet you never realized how many White Honda Civics there are in the world.

He was almost incredulous at my coherent encapsulation of his trial: Why was the fucking world so fucking filled with fucking white Civics?!!? But see, I had been there — only my Honda was Champagne colored.

When dealing with any kind of major life malfunction, it’s really really helpful to know that some other idiot dipshit has trudged through similar manure. So why, after millions of half-hearted attempts, have so few songwriters got it right?


The world has had enough of silly love songs, and inane criticism of same. But there’s always room for an evocative statement of the human condition.

Steve Poltz wrote such a song. Its dagger was re-directed toward his own chest (where it probably felt hard to breathe already) when ex-girlfriend Jewel sang it, in heavy rotation and to huge (and ironic) critical acclaim, in 1996.

No song that I’ve heard has ever captured the circular insanity of “you will someday appreciate me … won’t you?” so well. It must have just killed him that she performed it so emotively. How the fuck would she know?

I told Steve Poltz as much once, while he pissed in a smelly urinal, having just performed the song to a fraction of the audience Jewel probably pulled in that night to hear that same song, in a city.

He spat. I don’t blame him.

When you’re happy, you don’t write love songs. You sleep, poo and make sandwiches. You tinker with tools. You mail bills on time. You succeed and move forward with things.

It’s dull.

Pain … now that’s where it’s at.

For the grown-ups, Suzanne Vega and Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach have majestic Divorce Albums — a niche impossible to conceive until youthful pop-stars grew old. (The music business still doesn’t think people over 25 have anything to say.)

When you’re 40 to 50 something, and contemplating starting all over again, you may need these records.


The two times I saw Sarah Harmer, she played with a band of jobbers. These are professional musicians who never learn to play your songs just right because … well, they are professional musicians. They don’t need to learn your songs. They know your songs just by looking at the sheet music!

That’s the reason you should always prefer music from people who don’t know shit about dick, but really really know how to play their own songs. There aren’t that many notes, fewer chords, and a handful of tempos and time signatures. If you get people that don’t know where the emphasis lies in each note and each beat, it all starts sounding like the blues.

If you go to the show and Sarah Harmer fails to grab you, give her albums a chance anyway. She’s Canadian.

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