Canada 1985: The Genius of Gowan (But You Can Call Him Larry)

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Early in 1985, as my preteen brain continued to absorb a daily dose of the first wave of music videos, an innovator from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough opened my eyes, heart and mind to extraordinary insights, ingenuity, and entertainment that still inspires me, over three decades later.

He reeled me in with colourful and creative music video imagery, often delving into theatre of the absurd to make his points. But he also won me over with his soaring vocals, spectacular piano work, envelope-pushing melodies, and lyrics that ranged from nonsensical to deadly serious and, occasionally, genuinely heartfelt. And until he was recruited to front one of the world’s most beloved rock bands in the late ‘90s, he did it largely from Canada – all while rocking the definitive ‘80s mullet.

He had two (and occasionally three) given names, but like Cher, Madonna, Beyonce, Adele, Drake and Eminem, he’s best known by one: Gowan.

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To a generation of Canadians, Lawrence Gowan is best-known for the tightrope walk he struck for the singles from his second solo album, 1985’s Strange Animal. The videos he developed to promote these songs were impossible to ignore, with imagery and characters that seemed ripped from the pages of comic books. For his dismantling of the superficial nature of the fashion and glamour industries, “Cosmetics,” Gowan played an astronaut trying to explain makeup and haute couture to the residents of a faraway planet (below, left); the clip for “You’re a Strange Animal” (below, right) opens with an odd little animation about the definition of the word “step” and proceeds to the story of goofy scientists capturing and studying a raised-by-wolves version of Gowan.

It all began with “A Criminal Mind,” Gowan’s off-the-wall dissertation on the mindset of a random lawbreaker. He’s given countless interviews (including this one) about how a penitentiary-cell exhibit at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto – and a chat with the retired prison guard who oversaw that exhibit – inspired him to adopt the persona of a man about to be locked away and/or executed for an unnamed offence. But the accompanying video, perhaps guided by a desire to avoid inflicting harsh or bleak imagery on young fans, owes more to a mid-‘60s Adam-West-as-Batman sensibility than, say, The Shawshank Redemption; a self-important narrator sets up the action as wacky-looking animated villains in garish costumes leap from frame to frame of a comic-book page, policemen and judges are played as fun-house-mirror variations on the actual legal system, and Gowan’s time in the “School of Reform for Budding Arch-Criminals” includes a sequence following the second chorus that involves our hero/villain being prodded by rubbed-gloved robot arms and covered with either rubber cement or pancake batter.

The most bizarre thing about the video for “A Criminal Mind” is that it takes such a carnival-ride approach to a song that not only showcases Gowan’s amazing vocal range and instrumental-arranging skills but dares us to venture into mental and emotional territory not often considered in pop/rock music or in general. The central character is utterly lacking in remorse and, given the opportunity, would gladly repeat his unnamed crimes; he refuses to even entertain the notion of rehabilitation (“Don’t try to reform me, ‘cause I’m made of cold stone”), proclaims that his position on the wrong side of morality is “all I’ve ever had,” and even declares himself to have a leg up on those who attempt to live a morally pure life by suggesting that, unlike those who struggle with their conscience on any given issue, “I have no guilt to haunt me, I feel no wrong intent.” The last line of each chorus repeatedly challenges the listener: “Ask one who’s lonely: Am I really so bad?”

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love “Cosmetics” (also a favourite of ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, whose home hosted the Strange Animal recording sessions) and particularly “You’re A Strange Animal” for their rollicking, up-tempo delivery of Gowan’s musings on our plastic, image-driven society and on humankind in general, respectively. But by throwing out conventional wisdom on rehabilitation, redemption and even salvation, and forcing us to see the point of view of an unrepentant evildoer, “A Criminal Mind” made an immediate and lasting impact on everything from my basic music appreciation to my global viewpoint, and continues to do so to this day.

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Now, that’s not to say that everybody liked Gowan. I remember reading a run-down of Canadian male rockers that was part of The Video Hits Book, a spin-off of the CBC series of the same name. The music reviewer who penned the piece tried to figure out who, other than Corey Hart, had a chance to supplant Bryan Adams as the country’s top provider of guitar licks and testosterone in the mid-’80s; at one point, he sneered, “Upper Canadians think Gowan’s got a prayer, but they’re dreaming in Technicolour.” (The fact that I can’t even remember the writer’s name might give you a sense of who had the genuine staying power.)

That being said, when I picked up Gowan’s follow-up album Great Dirty World as a teenager in 1987, it didn’t really impact me the way I expected. Perhaps I needed more exposure to ’70s progressive-rock in my younger years to truly appreciate Gowan’s influences, represented to a degree by the presence of Yes frontman Jon Anderson as backup vocalist for the lead-off single, the lush and impressive “Moonlight Desires.” (Anderson also showed up in the video, which Gowan described as being shot “at great expense” on location in Mexico.) But after the album’s second cut (and single), the up-tempo “Awake The Giant,” the whole disc just seemed to drop off for me in both energy and inspiration. Maybe I needed my music tastes to mature a little bit, or maybe Gowan himself needed to step back and try again with some of these songs; Great Dirty World’s fourth track, “Dedication,” is striking and thoughtful, but the depth of Gowan’s voice and lyrics seems more pronounced on the re-recorded version – in a lower key – from his 1997 Best of Gowan greatest-hits package. (It’s even better live.)

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As my high school years gave way to college life and I fell away from my regular diet of Canadian music-video shows and commercial radio in the early ’90s, I lost track of Gowan’s output. That’s a shame, because I missed his late-1990 multi-platinum album Lost Brotherhood and its lead-off single, the soulful “All The Lovers In The World,” which has emerged as one of my all-time favourite Gowan songs. That one earned some life on Canadian radio playlists, but Lost Brotherhood’s edgy title track (a harrowing description of life on the mean streets that features some of Gowan’s best piano work) and the engaging “Out Of A Deeper Hunger” wouldn’t enter my mind and psyche for another seven years, and more’s the pity.

As it turned out, Gowan wasn’t waiting for the rest of the world (or fly-by-night fans like me) to catch up to him; he was already evolving into quite a different beast from the “Strange Animal” of his younger years. I was surprised to hear some classmates of mine at the King’s College School of Journalism raving about the show they had seen at a Halifax venue in late 1992, a man-and-his-piano reworking of his radio hits from the ’80s and a selection of fresh material from his new album. It goes without saying that this man was indeed the newly-repackaged Lawrence Gowan, bringing a brand new album, …but you can call me Larry, to the East Coast.

Gone were the excessive synth solos, popgun percussion and wacky music videos of his early years; the new Gowan was responding to the early-’90s glut of grunge, hip-hop and gangsta rap with guitar-driven, acoustic-friendly singer-songwriter material like the tender “When There’s Time For Love” and the upbeat “Dancing On My Own Ground.” The latter song remains a favourite to this day and was a big help to me as I recovered from major eye surgery midway through my university years; in late 1998, as the music director for a Christian retreat in Mabou, Cape Breton, I even used the original recording of “Dancing On My Own Ground” as one of the “meditation songs” for the retreat’s last talks, to drive home the point that those who embrace God can “finally come around” and dance on their own ground, no matter what kind of life they’ve led. (I’ll come clean and admit that this was a replacement for the song we had originally scheduled for that part of the retreat, Sarah McLachlan’s “Building A Mystery”; I hope neither Mr. Gowan nor Ms. McLachlan will be offended by this.)

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Bolstered by the success of …but you can call me Larry and its quartet of chart singles (including the thoughtful, hopeful “Soul’s Road” and “Your Stone Walls”), Gowan stuck to light-rock territory through the rest of the ’90s, and continued to release songs that alternately attempted to figure out humanity or embraced and celebrated it. It’s hard to miss the cynicism – and, occasionally, outright anger – in cuts like “Guns and God” (two things that Gowan insists that we’re “never going to know this world without”). But hey, don’t worry, here’s a big ol’ dose of purely Canadian swagger – and some more incredible piano work – from the same time period, “I’ll Be There In A Minute.”  

Those last two songs come courtesy of the 1995 album The Good Catches Up, whose title track remains my all-time favourite Gowan song. It’s gotten me through some of the most difficult times of my entire life, including several periods of anxiety that have plagued me during the past year and were eventually responsible for the difficult decision to leave my full-time job of the past decade for the life of a freelancer. It’s sometimes surprising for me to consider that the man who burst onto the Canadian music scene in 1985 with a musical examination – some would even suggest, celebration – of evil and criminality would also be responsible, barely a decade later, for a song that insists that hard times don’t last forever and that love and kindness will prevail if we don’t give up on those basic concepts. “For every time I’ve lent a hand, the angels played some Dixieland,” Gowan declares. “For every hug and every kiss, another hurt crossed off the list.” 

That might seem like a simple life lesson (even Gowan admits it with the third-verse opener, “You don’t need a PhD to understand these things, you see”). But how often have we seen – in 2017 and in all the preceding years – that the lessons which ought to be the simplest are often the hardest to learn? Thankfully, the God I believe in and the human race that He spread throughout the world are intrinsically good enough to embrace the best in life as opposed to indulging our “Criminal Minds.” That’s the message I get from “The Good Catches Up,” and that’s the reason I’ll always be grateful that Lawrence Gowan dared to share that message with an increasingly-cynical world. (If the video confused you, as it occasionally confuses me, cleanse your palate with this performance from Rita MacNeil’s mid-’90s CBC variety series Rita and Friends.)

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Surprisingly, as the ’90s progressed, Gowan’s original material hit the radio airwaves alongside some rare ventures into homage and tribute. He caught me off-guard in 1994 with a heartfelt, dobro-heavy cover of the mega-hit “Heart of Gold” that wound up on the acoustic first disc of the two-album package Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute To Neil Young. Three years later, for his Best of Gowan retrospective album, he delivered a rendition of The Guess Who’s “These Eyes” that presented a smoothness and ease not necessarily found in Burton Cummings’ high-pitched vocal delivery from the original recording. You’ll find it in this 1997 clip from CTV’s The Dini Petty Show (anybody remember Dini Petty?), which also includes the lone new original track from Best of Gowan: “Healing Waters,” a tribute to the late Princess Diana, who had perished only months earlier. I got to hear “Healing Waters” a lot during my last year of employment at a commercial radio station in Cape Breton; it struck me as somewhat melodramatic and over-the-top at the time, but I have come to appreciate Gowan’s sincere vocal delivery, instrumentation and abilities as an arranger with this particular track over the 20 years since it was originally released.

And then came the ultimate, most surprising move away from Gowan’s impressive catalogue of original material: his 1999 acceptance of the invitation to replace Dennis DeYoung’s iconic lead-vocalist role within the globe-trotting prog-rock sensation STYX, a position he has loyally and faithfully held for the past 18 years, with no signs of slowing down. He’s recorded four albums with the rest of the STYX lineup – 2003’s Cyclorama, 2005’s The Big Bang Theory, the 2011 two-disc set Regeneration (which saw Gowan re-recording several DeYoung vocals on such STYX classics as “Come Sail Away”), and this past year’s The Mission. To their credit, STYX – which recruited Gowan two years after he began opening for the band on a regular basis – performs a handful of his hits on their concert tours; for example, here’s their full-band version of “A Criminal Mind.”

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I’m not sure I’ll ever see STYX and/or Gowan in concert – although I may yet have that chance, given his surprisingly-extensive touring schedule (and that of STYX) as he nears his sixty-second birthday this coming Wednesday. But I’ll always be grateful to have grown up in the right era to fully experience and enjoy his music, and to have it make a lasting impact on my mind, heart and psyche. There’s no telling where a Gowan song will come in handy; as I ran the sound system for a high school hockey tournament in my native Richmond County between 2002 and 2006, I even wound up using snippets of “A Criminal Mind” and “You’re A Strange Animal” among the tunes I played immediately after the referees called penalties. (Then again, Gowan and ice seem to go together naturally, as shown by this charming 2012 segment of The Rick Mercer Report.)

And given his determination to re-brand himself in the ’90s, I have to give Lawrence and/or Larry credit for being willing to revisit his earliest chart-toppers. In 2010, he released the remastered CD and DVD set Return of the Strange Animal, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album that arguably still defines him to this day. Interviewed by The Huffington Post Canada a couple of years later, Gowan took a surprisingly-refreshing approach to Strange Animal’s staying power:

I think 1985 Gowan would be thrilled with the fact he’d be alive and talking about anything in 2015. I’m grateful for that to begin with, but to take that question seriously, you can never really hope for longevity when it comes to music, you just don’t know what’s going to stick around and what’s going to kind of go by the wayside.

Which, when you think about it, might be another less-musical-but-still-notable means of recognizing that “The Good Catches Up.”

Happy birthday, Lawrence. And happy birthday, Larry. Do us all a favour, and never stop dreaming in Technicolour.

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2 thoughts on “Canada 1985: The Genius of Gowan (But You Can Call Him Larry)

  1. Hey Adam! Gowan??!! I’m surprised! But also enlightened!! A very nice piece of writing (again!). I always thought there was a musical and vocal similarity to Peter Gabriel, but that might be facile on my part. End of the day, I’ll go take a look at the links you provided. I may not become a huge Larry fan, but thanks for reminding me, and thanks for the great posting!

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    1. Thank you Dan – never underestimate any artist’s capacity to touch hearts, reach amazing heights or simply to entertain. Gowan’s body of work does all three for me (and many others). Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Like

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