It is a particularly eerie case of life imitating art. In Paul Quarrington’s novel Whale Music, rock musician Desmond Howell writes a song called “Claire” that unexpectedly becomes a hit single. Recently, the Rheostatics, a Canadian rock band with no previous hit singles to its credit, recorded a sound track for the film adaptation, including their own version of “Claire.” The song, a dreamy slice of melodic pop, is now getting airplay on commercial radio stations across Canada, exposing the critically acclaimed group to its largest audience to date. “Normally, we just follow our instincts on our albums,” admits guitarist Dave Bidini. “Here, we got a chance to pretend to be someone else and wound up with the pop song nobody thought we could write.”
For the Rheostatics, a band known for quirky lyrics, unusual tempos and an inventive jumble of musical styles, success has been elusive. And it is fitting that it should come through the band’s association with Quarrington, who inspired the group to call its second album Whale Music. Bidini, 31, added that the novelist’s hockey and baseball books have also been influential. “For a long time, it was hard to be hip about sports in music,” he says. “But those books suddenly made it a lot easier.” The band has since recorded songs about former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark and Toronto Blue Jay Roberto Alomar.
Formed in 1980, the Rheostatics have long had a penchant for things Canadian that is only partly ironic. On the group’s first cross-country tour in 1987, its members— including guitarist Martin Tielli, 27, bassist Tim Vesely, 30, and drummer Dave Clark, 28—wore matching red tartan blazers. They later recorded a version of Gordon Lightfoot’s classic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and struck up a kinship with Stompin’ Tom Connors, who embraced them as dyed-in-the-woollen-toque patriots.
A portion of Canadian poet Al Purdy’s Wilderness Gothic, meanwhile, is featured on the band’s latest album, Introducing Happiness. And Bidini says the Rheostatics hope to have the 75-year-old poet open the Toronto concert of their upcoming Canadian tour. Notes Bidini, a published fiction writer himself: “It’s a tip of the hat to the grand old fella of Canadian letters.” Already favorites of Canadian pop’s alternative scene, the Rheostatics are fast becoming the darlings of the CanLit crowd as well.
Originally published in Maclean’s magazine 3 October 1994