(Sept. 3rd, '95 Molson Ice Polar Beach Party--And the line-up was...Metallica\Veruca Salt\Hole\Moist)
I have never been this far north. Or maybe I have in one of those bizarre, map-defying flights that take you from Vancouver to Toronto via Baffin Island. But I have never been conscious of being this far north. The pilot announces that we will be descending through the cloud cover to land in Inuvik to clear customs before we continue on to Tuktoyaktuk. I am wondering where the sleek micro-jet transportinjg Metallica is. So far this trip has been relatively une ventful but the holding pen at the Seattle airport--where security (I had always wondered where bigger bands wait in airports)--was mildly interesting. The best thing that happened there was Courtney Love's entrance: "Would any of you people who are sta ring at the floor because you are going to gossip about me later, like something from Starbuck's (a coffee chain)" Ah, Courtney. From my vantage point she looks like just another band member, trying to sleep to pass away a long flight.
As we clear the clouds, everyone in the plane gathers at the windows to take a look at the landscape. Even here, south of Inuvik, there is nothing. There are still trees this far north; small, scraggly things that remind me of Charlie Brown's Christmas. And we won't pass the tree line until we get closer to Tuktoyaktuk. But the landscape is pretty barren. The view from the plane, during the short flight from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, is amazing because it is impossible to tell how far above the ground we are without buildings or trees to give perspective. The impression is the same as if we are flying really slow, sixty feet above a red a nd yellow carpet.
The Tuk runway is a dirt road. The plane lands, kicking up gravel and grinds to a stop just short of the fence that distinguishes the end of the flatness that is runway from the beginning of the flatness that is tundra. Many of the town's kids are waiting there to welcome us as well as a Molson's rep who dryly welcomes us to the top of the world. The biggest landmark in the town (population 900) is the Distant Early Warning station just across the bay from the town and someone remarks that we are now closer to Siberia than we are to Edmonton. We check into the Pingo Park Lodge which is a corrugated tin trailer on the outskirts of town. Our crew somehow gets billeted at the town's equivalent of a four-star hotel. But by this time we are happy enough to find dinner laid out for us and we take the opportunity to introduce ourselves to Veruca Salt. We are also politely reminded that is customary to remove your shoes before entering a building and soon the front foyer is transformed into a storage area for every type of boot imaginable. We are introduced to our hosts, who take great pains in assuring us that we are welcome to anything we see, then explore our rooms and help ourselves to the buffet.
Metallica is soundchecking at the tent, which is on the other side of town...apparently a five-minute walk away, so we retrieve our boots and make our way over there. My first impression of Tuktoyaktuk is that it very closely resembles the exact way I had pictured it: a desolate collection of buildings that can barely be considered a town, 300 miles above the Arctic Circle. Now we have a chance to explore a little.
We can almost feel the vibrations in the road before we can distinguish anything in the noise coming from the tent that is nestled between rows of typical suburban pre-fabs (on stilts; apparently you can't dig foundations through perma-frost). It seem s like most of the townspeople have shown up to experience the Metallica soundcheck firsthand. Metallica look like they just got back from a hunting trip and seem rather amused by the prospect of playing guitar with gloves on. Then one of their crew com es over to say hello and tells us that they did just get back from hunting. Hunting season had just opened that weekend and someone had agreed to take them along.
I'm not sure how I overlooked this on my first trip into the Pingo Park Lodge, but now I notice that it is full of beer...every corner, behind every doorway, in every hallway, in the pool room, the shuffleboard room and the satellite TV room. I guess as long as it is kept in the lodge, beer is legal here. As for Tuk's dry policy, someone tells us that every third house belongs to someone who makes a living selling alcohol. Eventually (and purely as a sociological experiment) we send our tour manager out to try to locate some non-beer. It turns out to be easy enough t o procure a bottle of vodka, although the asking price is $160 for 40 ounces--$60 more than the usual bootleg price and a 400% markup from retail value.
A few hours later we find ourselves congregating in the town arena--a large building that seems quite well suited for hosting a concert, although I guess that cold hands are part of the mystique of the event. Some of the Hole people are milling around aimlessly, picking their way through the remains of the buffet and we join them, figuring you can never do enough milling. Most of us gravitate towards Melissa, Hole's bass player, figuring that there is common ground in being Canadian. We talk briefly about band politics and her father (who is a Montreal councilor) before we get into swapping stories, speculation rumours and such about Tuk; the people here, and of course the wisdom of trying to land and take off a 737 from a gravel runway. The main i ssue seemed to be that despite the fact that landing a 737 on a dirt road isn't something they teach at pilot school, taking off again is actually the real trick.
Three a.m. and the sun has barely set. Even this late in the summer, there are only a few hours of darkness; some kind of pay-back for suffering through dark winters and even at three there is enough ambient light to make the trip back to the lodge easy to navigate.
The next assembly is in the school gymnasium for an autograph session. Metallica has been there for an hour already, but now there is a short break while the contest winners are assembled into some orderly fashion outside. Courtney and her entourage gather in one corner for an impromptu sing-along (sometimes I wish we could find such wholesome ways to pass the time). We introduce ourselves to Metallica, who are quite interested in what is happening in Vancouver these days. Eventually we take our seats at a long row of tables as they bring in the rest of the town residents who weere interested in autographs. Seems like they all have Susan Aglukark posters that they want us to sign; one of the many rather inexplicable things that add to this town's charm. We politely oblige and get a chance to talk to some of the locals about what life is like in Tuktoyaktuk. They are all quite pleased to instruct us on what we can do to fully appreciate the place; and hunting and fishing come up more than once. Then the contest winners file in. A couple from Miami seem to take pride in having come the farthest distance of anyone, although they seem a little non-plussed by the routing their flight took--from Miami to Chicago to Calgary to Inuvik to Tuk. They seem to understand that the Miami-to-Tuk direct flight was discontinued long ago. Next in line is a guy from Calgary who won his tickets in a radio station scavenger hunt that required submitting--amont other things--a hand-drawn picture of the contestant and Courtney on a snowmobile. This guy had gone one better by mounting a life-size cut-out of Ms. Love on the back of his Polaris and driving it into the club that was hosting the hunt. I wish I was further down the table so I could hear him tell her that story. The contest winners have all been staying in Inuvik, where I guess there is more lodging available, and all day yesterday they had been entertained with various programs that involved everything from horseshoes to a ceremonial toe-dipping in the Arctic Ocean, and everyone seems to be having a great time. I think everyone feels like they are experiencing a chance to relive their childhood days at summer camp.
The show actually begins with a welcoming speech from some of the town's leaders, who seem sincerely pleased that Tuk has been chosen as the site of this event. This small welcome--coupled with the troupe of native drummers that open the show with the kind of intensity that manages to belittle the massive sound system technology needed to support the afternoon's other entertainment--underlines how unpretentious these people are. By the time we go on stage the tent is full. Most of the town's residents have come to see what all the fuss is about. Everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, is milling about trying to figure out what the big deal is about watching desperate groups of young musicians playing at immensely high volumes. Anyway, we play...nothing breaks, and it is amazing to us how a thousand bodies helps heat the tent.
Somewhere between the time when we finish playing the show and get hustled off to the media area, we meet two women who had driven all the way up from Rhode Island to gate-crash the event. I guess they figured that anyone who would dare to make such a trek would have to be let in; and apparently Molson's had decided to do just that if anyone did show up. Unfortunately for those two, they came on so strong and with such attitude that no one really felt like helping them out. Unfortunately again, the first person they ran into was Courtney Love, who also didn't take their presumption well and managed to flatten one who got too close to her with a camera. By the time I heard this story, it had been passed around for a while, but it was the first time I head anyone say anything nice about Courtney.
All speculation aside, there is now nothing for us to do but hang around and wait for the scheduled two a.m. flight back to Seattle. Between interviews, I catch some of Hole and Veruca Salt's sets, then braced myself for Metallica. I had never cared much for Metallica until the moment they started playing and showed everyone there that you can be one of the biggest bands in the world and still have the integrity to make everyone present at a small, seemingly ridiculous show in the middle of nowhere, feel like they are witnessing something special. Again, Metallica gets full points for class.
Of course, the flight home is delayed. It had started snowing. Not just a little light snow, but the thick heavy kind you get when the temperature is barely above zero. No one needs to be reminded that the Tuktoyaktuk de-icing facilities are a shovel and whisk broom. As I take my seat, which happens to be a window seat right next to the wing, it seems like there is an awful lot of snow on the plane. The headline on the front of USA Today flashes through my extremely exhausted mind: VERUCA SALT, HOLE AND SOME CANADIAN BAND MISSING IN AIRPLANE MISHAP. The thought repeats itself in an endless loop until I hear the sound of jet engines firing up, mixed with the sound of an incredible amount of gravel being kicked up against the fuselage. Insert dramatics here.
I see the cover of USA Today when we land in Seattle early that morning. Something about some trial happening in California. It could be worse. We shake off our grogginess enough to say goodbye to Hole and Veruca Salt before catching the flight to Vancouver. Metallica's plane is probably already in San Francisco by now, and 500 hung-over contest winners are on their way home to all points of North America to figure out how they spent their Labour Day.