For today’s instalment of Verbatim, Marisa Iacobucci interviews Liz Worth about her new book, Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. The original podcast is available to listen to here. (To ensure you never miss an episode, how about subscribing to the RSS feed or through iTunes?)
The book chronicles the punk scene throughout the turbulent years from 1977 to 1981, in the words of the bands and tastemakers who made it happen. Through interviews with Teenage Head, The Viletones, The Diodes, The Curse, Forgotten Rebels, B-Girls, The Ugly, and more, the book is kind of like a VH1 Behind the Music special from hell, and a Who’s Who of a musical scene that’s often been overshadowed by its counterparts in bigger American cities. Marisa Iacobucci talked with Liz Worth recently about the process of writing the book, the mystery of Mike Nightmare and Ruby Tease, and her next project.
Marisa Iacobucci: Toronto’s punk scene—why was it slient until this book?
Liz Worth: I always thought it was really interesting that the Toronto punk scene was so underdocumented in comparison to other punk scenes. We know so much about punk in New York, so much about punk in London and there’s also been a lot about punk in L.A., but nothing about Toronto even though the Toronto scene was huge, and there’s definitely a connection between Toronto and New York. And there were also people from Toronto who were going over to visit in London and that kind of thing as well. So people knew what was going on over there, and there are some bands in the book who I talked about, like the Viletones at one time had talked about planning on moving to London, so I don’t know. I mean, obviously all of these things were happening at the same time and I just don’t know why it was so underdocumented.
When punk was happening here, there was a lot of coverage in the mainstream media although it was often negative. People thought this was really shocking, they thought it was really stupid, they thought the music was awful, they hated the fashion, so a lot of the media coverage that the bands were getting and that the scene was getting was mocking, and the writers were kind of ridiculing what was going on. It was very strange and it was very critical. But at the same time, these mainstream papers are giving really big, prominent coverage to this too, which would never happen now. If there was a reporter that didn’t like something they just wouldn’t bother writing about it, when it came to the music scene or something. But again, at least they were writing something. So, we had that kind of documentation, but it was negative and didn’t really capture the actual history of anything. Although often they talked about some of the key players in the scene, Steven Leckie from the Viletones, for example, was always a favourite person to be interviewed by media. And there were some fanzines and there were some magazines like Shades Magazine that was happening at the time, and there were some others as well.
And so they were starting to document this, but that was it, there wasn’t a lot. And once the scene was over all of that coverage kind of stopped and things moved on and people started focusing elsewhere. And I can’t really say why there wasn’t a book or a documentary or something that came out on all this before Treat Me Like Dirt. I’ve had a lot of people say that they’d always hoped there would be one, but I don’t know. I think part of it might have to do with, you know, people didn’t realize how important it was because it is important to a lot of people who weren’t involved in he scene, and there are a lot of people outside Toronto and outside of southern Ontario who are really interested in the topic, but for some reason it just never got captured that way, and I don’t know, it’s hard to say.
Marisa Iacobucci: Were you in touch with any of the people who wrote for Shades?
Marisa Iacobucci: How did the musicians and artists you speak to, how did they take to your project? Were they very open and welcoming?
Liz Worth: Yeah, for the most part people were very interested in doing the interviews, they really liked the idea. There were some people, often they were people who were major players from the scene, who had been contacted in the past by people saying they were going to do books and for some reason those projects never got completed and they weren’t followed through. So some of them said, you know, “I’ve talked to other people before and nothing ever came of that”. But I didn’t seem to be going away, I kept coming back and asking people for more and more interviews, so I think over time that helped because people could see that I was really serious about this. But I think part of it is, you know, it’s really easy for people to talk to a woman in her twenties about it, and I kind of wonder if people took the interviews less seriously because of that. And sometimes I wonder, because people were fairly open with information and it was definitely what I was hoping for (I wanted to get really candid interviews) but I wonder if maybe some people thought, you know, that I was really young, I don’t know if gender ever had anything to do with it either, but I don’t know if maybe they didn’t take me as seriously as they would have if I was older, or a different person and that maybe the answers would have been different. I always think that might affect things because it’s really easy too, to write off a younger person and to think, you know, okay I’ll just do this and I’ll humour them and nothing’s going to happen. So I wonder about that, but for the most part people were definitely cooperative, which was great. Yeah, because you know that with the book We Got the Neutron Bomb, for example, which is about the L.A. Scene. That’s an oral hisory as well, and in the introduction to that book the authors are talking about how a lot of people didn’t cooperate with interviews. So that’s unfortunate, because then you’re always left with gaps when people don’t.
Marisa Iacobucci: But that didn’t happen at all …
Liz Worth: There were some people who weren’t interested in doing interviews, but there weren’t too many.
Marisa Iacobucci: Who was your first interview?
Liz Worth: My first interview was Paul Robinson from The Diodes, he was their lead singer and I found him on the internet, which is how we often find people now, and from there it just snowballed. I talked to Paul and told him about the project I was doing and then he gave me a list of people I should try to track down and I did. And then from those people they gave me other names of people I should track down, so it just kind of went on from there.
Marisa Iacobucci: Great, and at what point did you decide that this was going to be an oral history?
Liz Worth: It was probably within the first ten interviews when I first started this. I liked the idea of an oral history but it wasn’t in my original intention. I was thinking that I would write it as a narrative, but within the first ten interviews I could start to hear all the stories falling together really well, and since there wasn’t any other book on Toronto punk I really wanted to preserve those stories exactly as they were.
Marisa Iacobucci: I’m glad you did. Did you meet any resistence along the way?
Liz Worth: Yeah, there was resistence from a few people. Some people who I wanted to interview had to be won over. They didn’t trust people that easily due to certain experiences they’ve had within their career in the music industry, which is understandable. And I think when people read Treat Me Like Dirt they’ll be able to see why because there are a lot of stories about failures in this book and a lot of things went wrong for people in this book. So there was that, but I was lucky because eventually people did come around. But, yeah, there were a few people who I would have liked to talk to who weren’t interested. But I’m kind of hoping, though, that now that the book is out there and that people are talking about it, that maybe those people will come around anyway and I can still interview them and maybe work their stories into a future project that’s related somehow.
The other resistence within the book came from a lot of editors and publishers who thought the book was too focused on Toronto—even though probably about a third of it is about Hamilton. They thought it was too Toronto-centric and that that would alienate Canadian readers across the country, which I think it compeltely wrong and ridiculous.
Marisa Iacobucci: Absolutely. What would you say to those editors now?
Liz Worth: That the book is doing so well so far. I mean, it sold out of its first print run almost right after its release, which is amazing and not something the happens very often. So I feel vindicated because of that, and it’s gotten a lot of really great buzz and there’s really great word-of-mouth around it and it’s had a lot of positive feedback. So, I mean, I never agreed with those editors, I never wanted to compromise the story, I never wanted to broaden it to appeal to a wider audience because I don’t think it’s necessary, I think it can appeal to a wider audience anyway. You can read the book because you like these bands or you can read the book because you want to read a really great story. It works on both levels.
And when I was putting it together, I wasn’t writing this book for people in the scene and I wasn’t writing it for people in Toronto, although I did want to give Toronto its own punk history, I wanted people to know about that. But I was definitely thinking that this is something that people will read outside of the city and outside of Canada, so I was always keeping that in mind. It has to be just as accessible for someone in London, England, as it is for someone in Vancouver, or someone in New York, or someone right here.
Marisa Iacobucci: And have you had any kind of reaction from people outside of Toronto, outside of Canada, outside this country?
Liz Worth: Yeah, it’s interesting, my publisher Ralph Alfonso was recently on tour with one of his artists on his label, and when he was in Europe and talking about Toronto punk with them they would mention bands like Teenage Head and the Forgotten Rebels and they were excited and, you know, people know who the Viletones are, and people know who the Diodes are. And if you go into the States, there are a lot of people in America who are involved in music scenes in their own cities, there are people who aren’t involved in music scenes, who are just fans, who really like these bands too. And I knew that before I even started working on this, but it’s great now because those people are starting to get in touch because they are hearing about the book. And that’s great because this book was written for people like that, for people who wanted to know what happened to these bands the same way I wanted to know when I started working on this.
Marisa Iacobucci: Great. What story or stories stand out most for you?
Liz Worth: It’s really hard to narrow down the stories that stand out because there are so many. The stories around Simply Saucer and the Saucer House in Hamilton are really appealing to me because their singer, Edgar Breau, really talks about living the life of an artist. And when you read Treat Me Like Dirt you’ll read about him sleeping in the rehearsal spaces and that kind of thing, and I really admire that someone could be so dedicated to what they’re doing that they’re just going to live in the rehearsal space all the time.
There’s another story about Mike Nightmare who’s the singer of a band called The Ugly and his girlfriend Ruby Tease, and their stories. Although Mike is no longer alive and no one really knows what happened to Ruby (but she seems like she’s no longer alive either), those two stories kind of weave through the whole book, and that’s a really strong story for me. When I was working on it I was trying to find out what happened to Ruby because nobody knew and people would ask me if I had heard where she was, and so I was trying to find out and, kind of, all of the stories around what may or may not have happened to her got woven into the book because I was looking. That search kind of became part of the story of Treat Me Like Dirt too. So those are strong ones, and anything around the band The Viletones is also really strong. That band has a lot of really strong personalities and interesting characters, and their singer Steven Leckie is incredibly charismatic and very well-spoken but also very memorable.
Marisa Iacobucci: Is there anyone you wish you could have spoken to that you didn’t speak to?
Liz Worth: Yeah, I really wanted to talk to Nick Stipanitz from Teenage Head. I did invite him to do an interview, he wasn’t interested (which is okay) but I feel like it would have been good to have him in there just to get his perspective. And, yeah, Mike Nightmare would have been great to talk to as well. Ruby Tease would have been great to talk to. I’m sure there are others but those are the main ones I can think of right now.
Marisa Iacobucci: Maybe for book two? What has happened to you since this book has been published, what has happened for the musicians and artists since this book has been published, and what has happened for the scene in toronto since this book has been published?
Liz Worth: I don’t know if I can speak to the scene in Toronto in general, I mean, in terms of any scene that’s happening now, I don’t know because I don’t really hang out in any scene, you know, I never have. I’ve never been able to commit myself to just one place or one group of people, so I don’t know if the book has affected anything that’s happening now. I doubt that it would have affected anyone in a younger, newer band.
In terms of what’s happened to me with the book, I guess it’s weird because I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes kind of person, and writers don’t often get a lot of recognition. And, you know, people might recognize your name if they’ve read an article or something that you’ve written that they really like, but it’s a lot different now when people suddenly start to read articles about you, and your picture is attached to them, and so sometimes you might get recognized somewhere. You know, I’ve gotten recognized in a grocery store, in a lobby, in really casual moments, so that’s different and, I mean, it’s great. It’s different for me though because I’m not used to that and I’m often happy not being the centre of attention. I definitely appreciate it, though, and I definitely appreciate that people are really excited about this book.
Marisa Iacobucci: They are, and it’s on its second print run right?
Liz Worth: That’s right.
Marisa Iacobucci: Fantastic.
Liz Worth: With the people in the scene, who were interviewed in the book, I don’t know, one of them, it was someone from Hamilton, Bob Bryden, who was really helpful with the interviews he gave me. He was joking at the launch party in Hamilton that this book was going to make them all famous agian, and while that would be amazing, I don’t know if it will go that far. But I think it will definitely renew a lot of interest in these bands. And I think that people will read this book and they won’t necessarily know the music, but as they read it they’ll go and look for it. And so they might end up discovering a whole bunch of new bands that they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.
Marisa Iacobucci: How easy was it to get this book published? I know you started working on it in 2006, it was released this year, and now it’s in its second print run. It’s very successful. You make it look easy—was it easy?
Liz Worth: It was and it wasn’t. In a lot of ways this book was the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever done altogether. When I started it I never doubted that it would be published. It’s weird, I don’t know if that sounds overconfident, but I just assumed that it would happen because why not? It was something that no one had done yet and I thought it was so important and so valid and these people’s stories are so interesting. So I was really surprised when I had a lot of editors and agents come back and say, “Oh, it’s too Toronto.” You know, some of them had originally expressed interest, but then they wanted the focus to be broader than it was. But even then I still never doubted that someone was going to say “yes.” It was really weird, it was like I just never questioned that this was going to happen.
And then, I was interviewing Ralph Alfonso because he was very instrumental in the Toronto scene and I did a series of interviews with him (I think I did four or five interviews with him altogether) and he was running a label called Bongo Beat, and during one of our interviews he said that if I see this project through he would be interested in putting it out. And so we kept in touch, and once the manuscript was done I sent it over to him and he was into it, so that’s how it come together. So it’s great because someone actually ended up approaching me about it, and it worked out really well because it was someone from the scene who has a connection to it. He was there, he really knows how important it is, and he understands it and appreciates it, so I feel like it ended up in the right person’s hands in the end. If it had ended up with someone else, I don’t know, it could have had a completely different outcome. So, I think it worked out well and in the end it was easy to get it published because, you know I didn’t have to shop it to Ralph. So, I don’t know, I guess it was easy.
Marisa Iacobucci: It’s definitely an inspiration. What are you working on next?
Liz Worth: Well, there’s going to be—I think I’m allowed to talk about this—there’s going to be another book on punk, but I think it’ll be on punk in Ontario, and that will be coming out through Bongo Beat. And then for my own personal project, I’m working on a rock and roll horror novel.