|The Lawn, Toronto, Aug. 1991|
I DON'T KNOW IF IT SAYS MORE ABOUT ME OR ABOUT TORONTO that my favorite local band of the late '80s and early '90s never made a video, rarely ever toured, released their best record in minuscule quantities and made the one you could actually buy when they were breaking up. Being a fan of The Lawn really did feel like being part of an exclusive club because, near as I could tell, they did their level best to make sure that club would always be as small as possible.
Their story begins with the city's post-punk scene in the early '80s and Woods Are Full of Cuckoos, who should have been a lot better known, though almost nobody in that scene was, thanks to the almost total indifference of the local music business and Toronto's impressive obscurity. The Cuckoos made a few cassettes and went through a few members, but by the end they comprised the Gregory brothers - David, Patrick and Richard - along with drummer Mike Duggan and vocalist/slide guitarist Gord Cumming.
When I arrived at Nerve magazine I was told curtly that it was my tough luck that I'd just missed the Cuckoos, but then news broke that they'd effectively reformed, minus David, as The Lawn and that I should really go out and see them sharpish. Since they seemed to play the Cabana room several times a month I did, and I'd end up seeing them more times than I can remember over the next seven years.
The first twenty or thirty rolls of film I ever shot include several Lawn gigs, but it would be a while before I'd figure out how to shoot live music, so the results are unprintable. But at some point in early 1987 I got my hands on a flash and the band said yes when I asked to get onstage and shoot them while they were opening for someone - I can't possibly remember who - at RPM, the big dance club/concert hall by the harbour being booked by the pivotal Elliott Lefko.
|The Lawn live, RPM Club, 1987|
I still wasn't sure what I was doing, but at least I was close enough - and I had enough light! Going through my photos of The Lawn for this post revealed the painful uphill battle I had overcoming the technical and artistic challenges of my first five or six years with a camera. I might not have known much about shooting bands at this point, but at least I knew that when in doubt, do something arty.
One of the most maddening things about being a fan of the band was knowing how much time they were spending in the studio, and we all anxiously waited for a record. I managed to invite myself to one of those recording sessions - probably at Wellesley Sound - and after struggling to get a handful of worthwhile shots in the dim light, I promptly forgot I had these photos for nearly thirty years.
|The Lawn in the studio, 1987|
These might have been the sessions that produced Peace In The Valley, their first record - self-released with less than 500 copies, only a third of which had a handmade silkscreen cover, and never reissued. Before I even knew it was out they were all gone. I'd kill for a copy today.
The Lawn became part of my circle of friends, and I particularly remember a Christmas Eve where the Gregorys invited a bunch of strays - people stranded or without families to go home to - over to their dad's house for a very lovely British evening. Another night found us there after R.E.M. had played Massey Hall, where three fourths of the band (Michael Stipe was a no-show) showed up for what became a very low key after-party. (Peter Buck held court at the dining room table and talked about records; Mike Mills looked - fruitlessly - for girls.)
My love for the Lawn is easy enough to explain: They had a fantastic repertoire of songs, and the most unique combination of guitar parts, with Patrick's striking chord voicings and arpeggios filling in most of the space beneath Gord's slide, which had a character more like a horn, and functioned like an extra vocalist. They also had the best rhythm section in the city, which I finally managed to capture in action after much painful striving at a gig (probably at the Cabana Room) in 1988.
|The Lawn, live, 1988|
By the end of Nerve magazine and the end of the '80s I'd rarely bring my camera along to shoot shows that weren't assignments, so there's a big gap in my photos of the Lawn. I didn't stop seeing the band, though, and assumed that first record was a test shot of sorts, shortly to be followed up by the album that would capture the wit and musical agility of their best live shows.
|The Lawn, Toronto, Aug. 1991|
Finally, in the summer of 1991, I was asked to shoot the band for a spotlight in NOW magazine, but was surprised to see them show up for the photos as a trio, Mike Duggan being unable to make it that day. They had a deal of some sort and a record to make, which pleased me no end, and we wandered in and around Little Trinity Church and Enoch Turner Schoolhouse on the fringe of the old east end warehouse district taking some of my favorite shots of the band.
I don't think I ever connected emotionally with any other local group the way I did with The Lawn. It might have had something to do with Gord's lyrical persona - a hapless everyman, baffled by life, nature and fate but never cynical or despondent. Or it might have been the way certain lines from their songs rang in my memory for days after I saw them: "If I was an animal I wouldn't go down there;" "I was the one that never got away."
I was especially taken by the way Gord rhymed "Jesus Christ the Lord" with his own name in "Reconsider Baby." As a Roman Catholic - lapsed then, practicing now - I have a keen ear for blasphemy, and I considered this impressive.
|The Lawn live, 1991|
Excited by the news of a new record, I took my Nikon along to a gig at the Rivoli, hoping to capture some decent shots of the band live that they might be able to use. I'd had a lot of experience shooting concerts by this point, a better camera and lenses, and an idea of what to watch for having seen The Lawn so many times.
I liked what I saw on the contact sheets, and it seemed like I had a good shot of every member of the band, so I took them along to their next Rivoli gig and handed them to Patrick, then stood back while he looked them over, feeling very pleased with myself. The dressing room was crowded and one of the band's fans - a young fellow I'd never seen before - walked over and stood beside him, studying the contacts as he did. Patrick looked up and asked, "What do you think?"
"I don't know," he said. "Don't they look a bit too ... professional?"
At which point I finally learned that, no matter what, you just can't fucking win.
|The Lawn, Parkdale, April 1992|
The last time I photographed The Lawn was a year later, when Debussy Fields was about to come out, and they needed promo shots. Mike Duggan had left the band and Lonnie James had taken his place. I set up my studio with a blue seamless backdrop and a big, soft light overhead and simply let the band cut up and be themselves in front of the camera, hoping to capture the sort of informal camaraderie I loved from old glossies of the Modern Lovers or other Bomp! Records acts like the Shoes or 20/20.
I hadn't looked at these shots in at least twenty years until I started making the scans for this post. They have a nice energy and I like to think I delivered what the band wanted, but they're a sort of epitaph. Debussy Fields wasn't the record I was hoping for; it sounded overworked and lacked the energy that would keep me buzzing for days after their shows. Lonnie was a great drummer - he's probably one of the most beloved people from that scene - but I missed Mike Duggan's pinpoint ferocity; I didn't think The Lawn were the same without him, and it wasn't long before it didn't matter, as they quietly broke up, another casualty of the neglect - very rarely benign - of the Canadian music industry.
|Mike Duggan, Toronto, Jan. 2010|
But that isn't quite the end of the story. The band went their separate ways and somewhere along the line Mike Duggan became a brewmaster and set up his own brewery. I interviewed him at his new brewpub for blogTO, just after I'd learned that the band were rehearsing in the basement for a reunion gig.
We talked about the band as much as his new business, and I went to see them play a couple of months later. The first few songs had some rusty hinges but they loosened up and a room full of old fans beamed as we heard "Beluger" and "Shady Street" and "Reconsider Baby" again. I went home that night struck with an ache from how much I missed hearing those songs.
Five years later the band are in the basement of Mike's new restaurant rehearsing for another reunion gig, this Sunday, in honour of No Flash Please!, a document of the bands and the scene that produced The Lawn, the Plasterscene Replicas and Change of Heart, written by my old Nerve colleague Phil Saunders and featuring Derek von Essen's photographs. I wouldn't miss it for the world.