Nerve Memories, 20 Years On
By Howard Druckman
Before I start, one reservation: To be honest, I don't expect that anybody unconnected to Nerve will read this, or invent an excuse to care. To write this remembrance seems a little self-indulgent, a lot self-congratulatory, a form of intellectual masturbation. It also seems entirely contradictory to the issue-by-issue vitality of Nerve to be waxing nostalgic about it almost 20 years later. (My God, has it been that long? Am I that fucking old? Yes, and yes.)
And yet, and yet...Looking over the handful of issues that I've managed to keep in storage for all that time--pack rat justification!--I'm struck mostly by the sheer freedom of the thing. Nerve didn't pay its writers any money; instead, it gave fledgling music freaks like me a chance and a place to publish pretty much whatever they wanted to, about whatever they cared for (or against), in whatever style they chose.
Where else could I write a cover story about Deja Voodoo, or find half a page in an oversize tabloid to "review" a Warren Zevon album? Where else could I get a full page every month to write about trashy, noisy, garage-rock crap in my "Cheese and Crackers" column? Where else could I get the rights from the Toronto Star to reprint a slag review of a concert, only to sarcastically ape it line-for-line of it in a "review-of-the-reviewer" concept? Where else could I get a two-page spread to write a tour diary of my weekend trip to Ottawa on R.E.M.'s bus, back in 1985?
Where else but in Nerve could Phil Dellio write a full-page take-out on '70s soul, or a full-page gush over Lester Bangs (ostensibly a "review" of his posthumous book), about 15 years before such pop-cultural phenomena would rise again? Where else could Tim Powis confess his lust for Lydia Lunch, calling her his "little pavement flower" while she sneered at him? Looking over those back issues, I remembered that Phil and Tim were my favourite local music writers back then, and their work holds up today--still makes me laugh, and think, and ask myself questions worth asking. Like how to write as well as they did?!
Where else but in Nerve could Scott Woods get a full page to justify the ways of Michael Jackson's Bad to mankind? Where else could Mark Manarra get to defend John Cougar, and bitch about his cheeseburger not being cooked to his liking? Where else could such obscure, mad local geniuses as Minimalist Jug Band guy Al Mader, or sidewalk author/bookseller Crad Kilodney earn a place on the cover of the mag--the fucking cover, the thing that's supposed to get people to pick it up and read it? Where else could Dellio and Rick McGinnis get drunk, listen to a bunch of first-wave hip-hop, spew their thoughts into a tape recorder, and publish the most hilariously messy excerpts as the "Six-Pack" column? Where else could gnarly Mike Henry possibly get published? (Just kidding, Mike.)
Nerve both allowed and taught me how to write what I wanted to, about what I wanted to, any way I wanted to. It taught me to listen with much more open ears and a much more opened mind. It provided me with dozens of free albums, access to scores of free shows, fed me many pints of free beer and many pounds of free food (at release parties, big events, press lunches, etc). It gave me the opportunity to talk to some of my musical heroes of the day, from Peter Buck to Little Richard. It also taught me the practical, nuts-and-bolts stuff of music journalism--how to prep for an interview, how to pick out the good stuff while transcribing the tape, how to write the story in time for deadline. Well, most of the time, anyway. At least some of the time. Or at least, to know that there actually was a deadline for each story that once existed as some sort of "reference point."
It also taught me what to do while waiting until 7 p.m. for an interview scheduled at 3 p.m; how to continue drinking more beer after you've already vomited from drinking too much; how to be offensive enough in a review that the artist's manager calls you out next time he sees you to complain about it. Mostly, how to enjoy wretched excess while you're young, and how to use the excuse of "a career" in music journalism to support such extremes.
Nerve further taught me the requisite insane dedication required by the editors in the three-day layout/paste-up extravaganza that had to occur each month in order to get the issue out onto the street. Needless to say, this was before even primitive computers--back in the stone-age days of hot wax, hand rollers, typesetting and blue-lined, graph-paper "flats." I'd often wonder about the editors' medications of choice for such an endeavour--I assumed speed was the only thing that would get them through, though it was probably just the usual piss and vinegar, supplemented, I'd wager, by a bit of the good smoke.
Ah yes, the editors. Nerve was helmed by the reliably iconoclastic, floccular-maned Dave Rave--who, I swear, maintained that mane with a product called "Stay-Sof-Fro", and whose Brit-inherited prose style wavered between willful obfuscation, stoned rambling, eccentric metaphors and dead-on-the-money insight. It was co-helmed by the utterly charming, often childlike, and always beautiful Nancy Lanthier, who every male writer (I can't speak for the female ones) became infatuated with at least once in the course of Nerve's existence. Nancy wrote straight from the heart, eventually came to balance that by writing from the head as well, and was Dave's faithful partner throughout the duration of Nerve. Quite the regal couple of the scene, they were, and they're still remembered as one of the great love stories of back-in-the-day.
To this day, I still get an very occasional phone call from Scotland, where Rave is hiding in a tuck shop off the moors, in the little town where his family's from, resolutely refusing to finish his novel. (C'mon Dave, just fucking do it already!) I've written here about all that Nerve taught me; but the most lasting and valuable legacy of Nerve is the residue of enduring friendship with the people that I met there. I don't care if that sounds like sentimental claptrap. Nerve was whatever it was because of the people involved. Tim Powis and I remain friends to this day, and make the effort to see each other regularly, which remains a pleasure. I play guitar once a week with Mark Manarra, at an open stage, where we back a singer who's a mutual friend of ours. I still see the lovely, talented and insightful Jennie Punter from time to time, and Phil Dellio and Scott Woods have, in the past year or so, been very good about initiating gatherings with myself and Tim.
We're all older, busier, most with mates, many with spouses, some with children; and still we manage to maintain the old bonds that were forged in our mutual love of music, and our mutual need to write about it. If the living legacy of Nerve is about anything at this late date, it's about that.
See Howard Druckman's Nerve ballots
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