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MY FIRST CAR: For this musician, an old Ford fit the bill

Published July 22, 2014

The New Pornographers founder waited for a long time before buying a new car

Summer tunes, summer rides and summer jobs — not to mention the friendships forged — all seem to go hand-in-hand when you’re young.

And for A. C. (Carl) Newman, the Juno-award winning singer, songwriter, guitarist and founder of the New Pornographers (they hit Toronto for Riot Fest Sept. 6-7 in support of their new album, Brill Bruisers) his first car — a light blue 1974 Ford Maverick — got him to an unforgettable summer job.

“Funny, I was thinking about this recently because it actually came up randomly a couple of weeks ago,” Newman says of the coincidence.

Working on a “hard-labour” railroad steel gang for the summer as a 19- or 20-year-old, he met the only other college student working there, Suroosh Alvi (who would go on to co-found Vice magazine).

Newman says it was an email recently sent between Alvi and the head of their record label that jogged his memory about the long-forgotten ride.

“That summer, that was the car that I used to drive around. And one night — I don’t know, maybe because I was young and stupid and would not put oil in my car — we’d been driving it without oil and put oil in it and the oil pan cracked and that was it. We broke down somewhere in the middle of B.C., somewhere late at night.”

The well-used Newman family car that had been handed down to the youngest of the five kids could (with some tweaks) have made a hip teen ride. But Newman isn’t so sure.

“I know it might sound like a cool car but it never occurred to me that it was a cool car.

“I thought it was a beater — maybe because it was light blue. I thought, ‘Man, this is not a cool-looking car. Why is it light blue?’ ”

The musician, who is also a successful solo artist, comes across as someone more interested in authenticity and craft than the Bieberish trappings of pop stardom — lambs in lambos.

“It totally took a long time,” he says plainly.

“I really didn’t get any success till I was 32. So I kind of wished — and looking back, I think because everything worked and sometimes you look back at your life and you say, well, it had to be that way, I had to go through all that to get (to) where I am and I’m happy where I am — but I think it made me a lot smarter and I think success for me came from a very genuine place.”

But there were many years when the native of White Rock, B.C., was just getting by.

Touring with his first band, Superconductor, in a van the group purchased for around $1,000, Newman says he was amazed the ride made it as far as it did.

“We almost died at the end of a tour. We were driving through Oregon on the way home and we didn’t notice that there was smoke coming out of the car and we pulled over as soon as possible and we were like, ‘Everybody out!’ It was kind of freaky; the axle nearly broke.”

Doing the math on buying versus renting, Newman says the Pornographers, because of the hefty insurance tag, ended up renting more often than not.

“Unless you’re touring constantly, it’s not worth it to have your own vehicle. We rented vans or we rented an RV. Occasionally, if it’s a short trip, we’ll rent a couple of splitters (tour buses).”

When it came to his own set of wheels, he says by the early 2000s he came to the conclusion he had to buy a car — choosing a vintage Volvo.

“I knew it was a total beater and I bought it for just a few hundred dollars. And then, when I thought that it was reaching the end of its days, I didn’t even worry about it. I think I just called someone and said: ‘Could you just tow this away? You don’t have to give me any money for parts; just get rid of it.’ ”

Another used car followed before he landed in New York City, where a dedicated parking spot can sell for the price of a home anywhere else. (A 12-by-23-foot space, 15-feet high in a luxury condo was listed for more than a million dollars a few years ago.)

“You don’t need a car in New York; it’s stupid to have a car in New York,” he says, noting it wasn’t until 2010 — and a move upstate with a young family — that necessitated a new and reliable automobile.

“Because we bought a house in Woodstock, N.Y., that was the first time I bought a proper car,” Newman says, sounding somewhat bemused.

“In 2010, that was the first time I bought a new car (a Honda CR-V) — the first time in my life.”

Like many bands, the New Pornographers’ music has been licenced for use in video games and ads. Their song “Moves” was used to pitch the Hyundai Accent a couple of years ago.

And for the musician who can still recall his railroad summer job years ago — unless there are philosophical differences with a corporation — he’s happy for the opportunity. It all helps him afford to record and tour.

wheels@thestar.ca.

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