Mardi Gras, Kelowna-style. Bernard Street, the city’s main drag, shuts to traffic for an afternoon. A beer garden goes up. Bands play. I guess if you drink enough warm beer in the hot Okanagan sun, just about any music can start to sound like Cajun fiddle, so fair enough. I moved to Kelowna in August of 2008. I know the city well, but no longer anyone in it. I’m a stranger in a familiar place. I head downtown to Mardi Gras to shake off some of my loneliness in a crowd: live music in public is good for the soul, I’ve learned that, but sometimes I have to force myself to take in a concert the way kids had to choke down cod liver oil or Buckley’s. I knew loud music and a beer—any genre and any brand—would work: but Mardi Gras in Kelowna? I forced myself to go.
I wasn’t in this town for pleasure. I had not returned seeking nostalgia or out of some misguided sense of filial duty. I was here for work. Finally, I was to become a professor. I didn’t really have much of a choice. You go far enough down that post-secondary path then you find there’s no way back: you’re qualified only to perpetuate the post-secondary sector. The debt they saddle with you pretty much obliges it as well. Kelowna had not been cool to me in the 1980 or in the 1990s. Dorothy Pelly (nee Dadson) had her apartment on Lawrence the whole time I lived in Calgary. I came out a lot on the weekends, and I usually brought a friend. Kelowna always seems pretty exotic when you’ve been hunkered down in Calgary for months and years at a time. Mountains, a lake, intact small-town main street vibe. It was all cool except you had to be careful. Me and all my friends were indie kids, some dyed black hair, eyeliner sometimes, pompadours the whole way ‘round. Leaving Alberta for B.C. the stereotype is that the weirder you are the safer you are going to feel: Alberta’s the province with the so-called “redneck” reputation. Yeah, but Kelowna is a cultural anomaly, A Bermuda triangle in the middle of the mountains. Calgary was forty years more progressive than Kelowna. You had to be careful because the ‘f’ homophobic slur was almost always awaiting you, and if you didn’t keep your eyes open it could get worse than name-calling pretty quickly. I was denied seating once at the Members-Only Kelowna Golf & Country Club. Both of my grandfathers are buried in the cemetery above the course: uncle Frank's there, too, not far from his arch-rivals, The Bennetts and all the other illustrious city pioneers. I was with Dorothy. Granny was wearing lipstick, perfume and pearls, and she’d just had her hair fixed. The occasion was my 20th birthday. Dorothy and Buck Pelly had been members of the Country Club since the 1950s. Their membership was in perpetuity. She’d made reservations. It was a big deal. I was wearing blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, a white t-shirt and a blazer. I had black combat boots on: I’d polished them. This was as dressed up as I could do on vacation. My suits and ties were back in Calgary. The maitre’d refused to seat us. He said I wasn’t wearing a tie. Granny said, ‘Then lend him one.” They said they were fresh out. The whole wait staff was standing in front of us. None of them were even pretending not to snicker. “Dress code,” the maitre’d said, “Sorry.” My granny never lost her composure. Not then or not ever. She said, “Shame on you. If my husband was here, you’d wouldn’t dare.” She drove me in her Datsun to dinner at the Capri instead.
We Are The City was not the kind of band I was expecting to find at Mardi Gras in Kelowna. We Are The City, three kids still in high school, sounded like the best band I’d heard since the early aughts in Montreal. The City of Kelowna, I felt duly reassured, had changed with the times. It wasn’t that Kelowna was culturally conservative, it was just the era: the 80s and 90s were a less enlightened time everywhere.
I hired We Are The City to play a show at the college later that year. Midway through the set, someone from the A/V department turned down the volume on their sound. This prompted all of my colleagues to leave for the pub. There were seven or eight of us left at the end of a completely free, sterling set delivered by one of the two best bands Kelowna has ever produced. Later that week, I got called the ‘f” word again as I rode my bike home from downtown at night. “Nice bike, f*****!” It was called from a truck travelling way too fast. I moved downtown at Christmas, thought making things more urban might help. “Nice jacket, f*****!” I got next time. It was a double-breasted plaid jacket from H&M. The colourway was bold. It was another truck, another two guys.
The second (or first, it’s a matter of preference) best band Kelowna ever produced is The Grapes of Wrath. They were the R.E.M. of the North. In the mid-1980s, there was no other band in the country throwing down so much jingle-jangle. Signed to Nettwerk, The Grapes of Wrath were fey in a way that few other rock bands in Canada were at the time. Perhaps that’s why the band ended up with Tom Cochrane as producer on their 1987 record Treehouse: if you want to make a pop song sound like a rock song, the guy who wrote "Life is a Highway" is the right guy for you. Recorded at Mushroom Studios in Vancouver, Treehouse is a lost Canadian guitar rock classic. It produced several singles, and got a lot of Canadian radio play before Nirvana, and then Oasis, swept all memory of the Grapes of Wrath away. Tom Cochrane knew how to make sad songs with cool harmonies pop. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Backward Town", the second single off the record, released in March of 1988. It’s about growing up in Kelowna, and not knowing how you’re going to make it.
My old school is getting drunk on the town
don't think they'll ever get out
go home just to realize
why I had to get out
The pain when you still lived there
and I couldn't wait
for you to get away
Kelowna is where all the Canadian Snowsells come from. It’s where a major street is named after us, and the place I thought I belonged. How wrong I was. I lived there long enough to know why the only Snowsells left in Kelowna are the ones in the cemetery. We buried my other granny’s ashes there in 2012. Granny Snowsell died in Auckland, New Zealand where she’d moved in the 1970s. This was her first ever trip back to Kelowna, where she’d been born and raised. We were burying her beside her late husband Jim, the traumatized WWII POW, who’d died young in the 1950s. Snowsell family plot. Two of the three spots purchased long, long ago were now filled. Uncle Ken turned to me and said, “You know, you can have that spot if you want it. Paid up in full and you’re the only one who still lives here.”
All I want to say is, thank God it never came to that, but holy shit it came close. Let me also state, and this one for the record: I never want to be buried in the cemetery overlooking the country club that didn’t think I was heterosexual enough to eat there on my birthday with my granny. We Want to Be Buried in The City.