Quality Time With Balaam & the Angel
By Phil Dellio
My first submission to Nerve was a page-long review of the Ramones' "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" in either July or August of '85. Nerve had been around for maybe a year at that point, but I'd only really taken notice of it the last couple of issues. In particular, it was a long R.E.M. piece by Howard that made me think it might be a good place for me to try sending something. I'd done a little music writing through university: a review of Damaged for a journalism friend at Ryerson; reviews of Hüsker Dü, the Butthole Surfers, and the Gun Club for The Varsity my last year at the University of Toronto; and a letter published in The Newspaper, UT's other student newspaper, in which I was very distraught that the Psychedelic Furs and Joe "King" Carrasco had been left off a preemptive best-of-the-80s list compiled by their writers. (One of them, Sam Guha, who I came to know through the campus radio station a few years later, would die very young of a heart attack; I imagine all the guilt he carried around over the Joe Carrasco slight played a role.) Life in general had gone steadily downhill in the intervening year-plus since graduation, and however awkwardly, I think I was able to get some of that feeling into the "Bonzo" review. I sent a copy to Nerve, and also one to the Voice. I didn't hear back from New York--it's my understanding that they reluctantly passed following a series of high-level editorial meetings--but within a couple of weeks, I got a call from Dave at Nerve telling me that it was too late for anything to be included in the issue they were just finishing, but I should drop around and try to set something up for the issue after that.
I went in to a nearly empty Ryerson either that weekend or the next and met Dave. I don't remember if Nancy was there or not, I don't remember what we talked about, and I don't remember if I came away with a specific assignment then and there or whether I had to follow up later. I do remember being tremendously excited as I headed downtown that day. My first two reviews ran in the September issue: X's Ain't Love Grand and an album by the Proletariat "featuring Lydia Lunch," a rather optimistic sales come-on that I pounced on for laughs. I was a regular contributor for the rest of Nerve's two-year-plus run, album reviews only for the first few issues and eventually live reviews, interviews, and other stuff too. Yes, live reviews--if you know me at all well, that's pretty funny.
More than just getting me started as a music writer, Nerve had a huge effect on me socially. Basically, it was the first time in my life I made a number of new friends beyond the handful I'd been close to since middle school. I started working at a downtown record store around the same time, widening my social circle some more--it seemed like I knew a lot of people all of a sudden. Fifteen years later, the circle has contracted back to those same middle-school friends and the handful of Nerve people who remain, which is what you'd expect. But as meaningless as almost all of that activity ultimately was, I'm glad I experienced it--everyone should get to play Edie Sedgwick at least once in his life.
Those first two reviews, especially the X, got kind of mangled in the editing process, and if there's one thing I'll be arrogant enough to take some credit for at Nerve--I'm sure other contributors have a similar story--it was in getting Dave and Nancy to pay more attention to typos, and to be less quick to change copy without talking to the writer first. As I remember it, Dave was partly amused by how agitated I was over the X review--I probably did blow everything out of proportion. But as time went on, you could much more reliably expect that what you'd read in each issue was pretty much what you'd written. Too much so in my case.
My writing more or less passed through three phases at Nerve. I was earnest and fussy at the beginning, occasionally (as with the Proletariat review) getting some humour across, but still half-dedicated to that stilted kind of writing you fall into at university. As clunky as those early reviews were, though, they strike me as better than what came next: the self-important know-it-all, alternately glib (when imitating Bangs) and pretentious (when imitating Marcus), sometimes both at once. (No reflection on Bangs or Marcus, just an acknowledgment of how destructive their influence can be when misappropriated.) Unfortunately, phase two accounted for much of my stay at Nerve, making a lot of the writing I was so enamored of at the time hard for me to look at today. Somewhere along the way, I settled down and wrote some stuff that still reads well to me: a largely autobiographical look at obsessive record buyers, pieces on the Angry Samoans and the Gun Club, interviews with Roger Ashby (a DJ with CHUM) and Paul White (a former Capitol A&R guy I ended up working with at the aforementioned record store; he played a surprisingly large role in breaking the Beatles in Canada). I'm also inordinately proud of a Mel Torme space-filler I wrote towards the end, inspired by the discovery that an old album of his shared the title Right Now! with a recent Pussy Galore release. Pigfucker esoterica very much of its moment.
The timing of my involvement with Nerve was perfect in terms of the chance it gave me to interview some people who figured prominently in my imagination at the time, and to do so while the idea of interviewing somebody was still new and exciting: Bob Mould and Grant Hart, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, Paul Westerberg, Curt Kirkwood, Marcus and Chuck Eddy, Schoolly-D, the Beastie Boys (possibly their first Canadian interview, a few months before Licensed to Ill, and gross enough that I wrote it up under a pseudonym), Richard Berry, and, for Graffiti (another Toronto publication that many Nerve people also wrote for), Johnny Thunders and the Pet Shop Boys. And again, whatever I might feel about the whole interview process today, everyone should get to play Barbara Walters at least once in his life--it's very satisfying that I got to talk to those people, especially in view of the fact that some have passed on. In keeping with the no-free-lunch rule, the trade-off for such access was quality time spent with the Thrashing Doves, Balaam & the Angel, the Raunch Hands, Matt Bianco, and various other mid-80s luminaries. As you might expect, there wasn't a lot left to ask the Thrashing Doves that the whole world didn't already know.
I'll second a couple of Tim's observations: monthly Nerve parties ("meetings") at Dave and Nancy's were great, and Dave was a little bizarre. His two standard greetings: "Let's wail, babe," after something Huey Lewis once said to me, and "Phil D, totally out of control," after something Dale Martindale (don't ask) once said to him. He sometimes spoke in code, all of which carried a specific meaning and all of which I've forgotten except for "Did you tell her your life story?" Sometime in the mid-90s, long after Nerve's exit, Dave ran into Scott on Yonge St. "Scott Woods--hey." Scott had been living in Vancouver for four or five years, and they probably hadn't spoken in seven or eight. That won't make any sense unless you know Dave. The magnitude of his deadpan at such moments is very hard to convey.
Nancy, Dave's girlfriend and Nerve's co-publisher, was synonymous with two things above all else. First, there was her spacey interviewing style, the "If you were a major food group, which one would you be?" school of interrogation that's weird enough when practiced on regular famous people, doubly so when Zodiac Mindwarp is at the receiving end. (He was a self-identified meat or meat alternative, if memory serves.) Also, half or more of us had major crushes on Nancy at one time or another. That's an old story to the participants not worth dwelling on, but it was definitely a large part of Nerve's dynamic.
I have a weird kind of relationship today with the music of that time, the music of the mid-80s, both what Nerve covered and what it didn't. When I began, I was perfectly in sync with Nerve: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, R.E.M., the obviously misguided certainty that whatever was hugely popular was almost always worthless (albeit a certainty that was sometimes the source of a compelling kind of us-against-them special pleading). Under Dave's influence, I added the Jesus & Mary Chain to my list of heroes. And then, sometime in 1986, my interest in Top 40 was reawakened by the record-store job. (I started to hang around with Scott at this point, and he also influenced me in that direction.) Dave was always good about letting writers pursue whatever they were interested in at any given moment, so soon I was reviewing Lisa Lisa, Alexander O'Neal, Madonna, and Bananarama for Nerve. Today I hardly ever listen to or think about any of that stuff--not the Amerindie end of it, and not the pop hits that followed. I connect more with my favourite '90s music, the songs that went into Radio On, and more still with my favourite '70s music. It's not that I think what I listened to during Nerve days is bad or overrated or anything like that. It's all just kind of walled-up for me for the time being, the Blow Monkeys included. I'm sure it'll sound great again at some point.
Overall, I have nothing but good feelings about Nerve 15 years later--not necessarily about the writing I did, but rather the heady sensation of being right in the middle of a fledgling publication that felt like the most important thing in the world at the time. That has a lot to do with the fact that Nerve was basically the first publication I wrote for--I doubt that it retains the same significance for Tim or Howard, both of whom had already been writing for a while when Nerve came along. When I read Robert Draper's history of Rolling Stone a few years back, I found myself really caught up in the early chapters, which were charged with the same kind of excitement I experienced at Nerve (and, in very different circumstances, that I experienced again when Radio On started to feel like something special). There have been numerous occasions since during my time as a music writer that I've been extremely happy about one thing or another, but I can honestly say that it never got any better than scooting around Toronto in the back of a van, delivering that month's Nerve to record stores and clubs around the city.
See Phil Dellio's Nerve ballots
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