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Arts and Culture

Mark Haney, the Daredevil

An avant-garde double bass suite about rocket-powered funny cars. Finally!

By Adrian Mack 30 Sep 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Adrian Mack contributes a regular music column to The Tyee and frequently sits behind Rich Hope.

Charlie Chaplin said, "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot." I'm not sure where double bass player Mark Haney's bizarre album Aim for the Roses fits inside that scenario, since it's so uniquely poised between touching and goofy. But it's quite the balancing act. Chaplin would be jealous.

First off, please understand that Haney is a heavy hitter who's worked with the VSO as well as bands like the Beige and Circus in Flames. Aim for the Roses is a debut solo effort that took two-and-a-half years to make. It's composed of painstakingly layered double bass parts employing a formal strategy based on Pi. Or so Haney tells The Tyee. The Tyee doesn't fully grasp that part, but that's okay -- there's more, and it's much sillier.

Using the voice acting talent of Andrew Wheeler and Scott Bellis, among others, Aim for the Roses also tells the tale of Canadian daredevil Ken Carter's ill-fated attempt to jump across a mile wide stretch of the St. Lawrence Seaway in a rocket car; a project that haunted Carter through five years of frustration, disasters, and -- finally -- a shocking betrayal. 'The Mad Canadian' eventually died in 1983, attempting to pilot a rocket car over a pond in Peterborough. He never made the big jump.

It's actually quite the story once you get past the fact that we're discussing a porky '70s yahoo bent on crossing a boxy Lincoln Continental with a missile. The National Film Board covered the whole affair in its great 1981 film Devil at Your Heels, which Haney saw some years ago, and which provided most of the dialogue for the album. "The story just stuck with me," he says. "Cause he'd been a stunt man for 20 years, and he was pushing 40, and he'd just kind of hit that point where he was like, 'Okay, am I gonna get out or am I just gonna really go for it and stay on track until this kills me?' And he made the decision to try and do the biggest stunt ever. It's like he decided all he could do in life is be a daredevil, and so he decided to fucking go for it."

Naturally, Haney is aware of the parallels. Carter's obsession is inexplicable, pointless and yet weirdly noble. We could say the same of Haney. Carter's obstacles, meanwhile, included perpetually inclement weather, exploding fuel tanks, dodgy ramp construction, striking crew members, a gaggle of nervous investors and a treacherous Hollywood film unit that persuaded his teammate Kenny Powers to attempt the jump behind Carter's back (with horrific results).

Haney's troubles were fewer but no less grievous, including a hand injury that very nearly ended his career and an exploding marriage. In the end, Haney felt an "affinity" with Carter. "Because they're both ridiculous things," he says. "Hauling around an upright bass at the Railway Club at two in the morning? It's a ridiculous thing. I'm not jumping cars over other cars, but, you know..."

Not to mention the thousands of hours that Haney and his co-producer David Gannett (who also takes a turn as the voice of Evel Knievel) spent laboring over the project. What we hear is the sonorous thrum of some 30 or so double bass tracks from the beginning to the end of Aim for the Roses, broken up periodically by voices, percussion (played on the double bass) and the odd incursion of acoustic guitar. But as Haney notes, "When you've got 30 or 40 layers of the same instrument, all of a sudden mixing becomes a really delicate thing. There was a stretch of about a year and a half where I was listening to this thing end-to-end about eight times a day, every day."

It's an extraordinary achievement, not only because it works, but because Haney has struck such a wholly original middle ground between the avant-garde and lowbrow '70s Canadiana. But most significantly, Aim for the Roses has a big heart. "Every now and then I think, 'Is this the stupidest thing I've ever done?'" Haney laughs. "I think a lot of people wonder if it's a joke, but it's not a joke. I don't think I treat Ken like a joke -- I think I treat him pretty respectfully."

Indeed, the title refers to a somewhat odd detail in Carter's plan -- he wanted his rocket car to come down on a bed of roses on the U.S. side of the river. It's an unexpected touch of poetry atop a mountain of bad taste, and it says something about Carter, a likeable and good-natured goofball who escaped poverty and a third grade education through what Haney calls "that burning desire to get the fuck out."

And it says something about Haney that he would build his remarkable tribute around it.

The CD listening release party for Aim for the Roses is at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre on Saturday, Oct. 2) at 9 p.m.  [Tyee]

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