Toronto
3 min

Our most irreverent Pope

Twisted hymnal praises kick-ass woman

ROUGH TRADE IN TOUGH SOULS. Jazz pianist Holly Arsenault and playwright Bryden MacDonald pay homage to the ground-breaking music of Carole Pope and Kevan Staples. Credit: Paula Wilson

It was 1980, or thereabouts. Bryden MacDonald was 17 and living in Cape Breton. Two life altering events were about to happen. One, he would come out to a friend, a girl, who, as luck would have it, turned out to be gay, too. “Can you believe it?” he laughs. “I’m in Cape Breton, coming out, and I find out my best buddy is a dyke!”

And two, he would hear the music of Canadian punk/art band Rough Trade. More specifically, it was the group’s second LP, Avoid Freud, which featured the singles “Fashion Victim” and the legendary “High School Confidential.” Radio stations routinely bleeped the latter, censoring the band’s wild-haired lesbian diva, Carole Pope, who sang of a “cool, blonde, scheming bitch” who made Pope “cream [her] jeans.”

“I had never seen or heard a woman behave like that,” MacDonald says of Pope. “She was so fucking scary, I loved her. I loved her message and I loved her anger. But she seemed so dangerous that I think I actually wore a disguise when I went out to buy the album.”

MacDonald’s been a fan ever since. And now, some 20 years later, the award-winning director and playwright is paying homage to Pope and her musical partner Kevan Staples with the show Shaking The Foundations, which opened this week at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.

Accompanied by musical director and jazz pianist Holly Arsenault, five “great chick singers” – Gwyneth Baillie, Jane Miller, Tanya Rich, Astrid Van Wieren and Paula Wolfson – are taking the Tallulah’s Cabaret audience on a non-stop, hour-long journey through the music of Rough Trade.

“I hate the word ‘revue,’ but that sort of describes it,” MacDonald says. “But I think of it more as traditional cabaret, with its roots in political unrest. And, of course, it’s rock music, but pared down to just a piano. It’s unplugged.”

“Unglued,” jokes Arsenault, who wasn’t really familiar with Rough Trade when MacDonald approached her about doing the show almost a decade ago for a theatre festival in Stephenville, Newfoundland. At the time, she hadn’t really known MacDonald either, though both had grown up in Cape Breton and hung out in the music and theatre community.

Now, the pair has the old-married-couple dynamic of artistic soul mates.

“God, I had known who Bryden was for years,” says Arsenault. “I was in love with him. I knew his theatre work. He’s quite the celebrity back home….”

“I’m a celebrity for my drinking more than anything else,” interjects MacDonald.

“…he was right dreamy,” says Arsenault. “I thought he was a babe.”

“See, this is my problem. Only girls think I’m a babe.”

“Anyway,” says Arsenault, bringing the conversation back on track, “I knew songs like ‘High School Confidential,’ but I wasn’t a fan, or anything,” she says, noting that her tastes run to jazz and Joni Mitchell. “But when I sat down to really listen, I was so blown away. Some of the lyrics sent shivers down my spine. Musically, Kevan Staples was doing some very hip shit. Some of the ballads are just heart-breaking.”

Staples, the Rough Trade guitarist and songwriter, gave the pair his blessings – and the band’s sheet music – when MacDonald first approached him in 1991, although it took a while to convince Staples that the show was legit. “I called up Kevan and told him what I wanted to do and he thought I was putting him on,” says MacDonald.

“He was on the phone with me, saying, ‘You want to what? Do a show with Rough Trade songs? In Newfoundland?’ He thought I was friend playing a practical joke.”

The first staging was well received, but, says Arsenault, “it was so chaotic trying to put it together for a festival. We didn’t have any time to finesse it.”

In 1998, MacDonald and Arsenault reunited to collaborate on Sincerely A Friend, a theatrical interpretation of the music of Leonard Cohen. It got MacDonald thinking about re-staging Shaking The Foundations.

“I didn’t want to become Revue Boy, or anything,” he says. “But I thought the time was right to re-visit the Rough Trade stuff. I mentioned it in passing to Sarah Stanley [then, the artistic director of Buddies In Bad Times Theatre] and, as it turns out, she’s friends with Carole Pope and really liked the idea. So she asked me to put it together for this season at Buddies.”

Rumour has it that Staples and Pope may make an appearance in the audience on opening night – which has MacDonald and Arsenault as nervous as they are excited. But brushes with his idols aside, MacDonald really hopes the show will introduce a younger audience to Rough Trade. “Carole has never gotten her due,” MacDonald says. “If she’s bitter, she has every right to be. She was so ahead of her time. Her lyrics with Rough Trade are so funny and twisted and tongue-in-cheek, but she just freaked some people out.

“Even a lot fags and dykes who, you think, would have seen her as such an amazing icon, thought she was too much. She was scary because she was honest and forced people to deal with their insecurities. She was like: ‘You know what? Some people are just going to hate you and they’re going to discriminate against you. You have to get over it.'”