Moe Berg's Solo Pursuit

by Simona Chiose, Globe and Mail, February 28, 1998

If you live in downtown Toronto, chances are good that at some point you have run into Moe Berg. Blond hair, once past his shoulders, now shorn to a merely longish bob, nondescript but somehow memorable glasses, a pervasive black leather jacket - the lead singer for the Toronto band Pursuit of Happiness can on a typical day be spotted strolling around the Annex or hanging out in coffee places along College Street. Without even knowing it, you might have served as the anonymous inspiration for one of his wryly observant songs.

"Those two people over there?" Berg said recently, motioning his head toward two women seated at a table next to ours in a Toronto pub, "I could make up a story about them."

Over the course of five Pursuit albums, Berg has made up a lot of stories. Smarty-pants, self- depreciating lyrics, such as the famous "I can't even look at young girls anymore/ People will think I'm some kind of pervert" from the band's 1988 I'm An Adult Now single, coupled with catchy pop melody hooks, have ensured that on any given day hundreds, perhaps thousands, of city residents are walking around with a Berg composition in their heads.

So, it is not surprising that to meet Berg is to feel like you've known him a long time. When he says, for example, that he cannot possibly eat all five sausages, coleslaw and bread that make up his breakfast/lunch, you feel no compunction about digging into his food.

Then you remember that, had things turned out a little differently, a casual lunch interview would have been out of the question, and Berg would be ensconced in a luxurious hotel room with a precise half hour for each reporter. That scenario seemed very close when the band first broke. A couple of years after Berg moved to Toronto from Edmonton in 1985 and started the group, they were signed to a major record label, Chrysalis. The band's first two albums were produced by famed U.S. veteran Todd Rundgren. After three major-label albums (the last with Polygram), however, the band failed to live up to commercial expectations and moved to indie music label Iron Music. Two albums followed, but a decade after their inception the band once again found itself playing medium-sized clubs to a devoted fan base.

Now, with the group on hiatus, after 1996's The Wonderful World of..., Berg, 38, has just released a solo record. TPOH fans accustomed to jangly, fast anthems like Cigarette Dangles and Two Girls In One will be surprised. A wacky, wonderfully weird cross between cowpunk and swing, sometimes laced with polka beats and the spacy sound of an ancient synthesizer, Summer's Over is a stripped- down production, only veering into Pursuit-type riffs on one or two tracks.

"At this point in time, I think of myself as the rock'n'roll Unabomber," Berg said. "Everything is so technological right now, creating music is beginning to be more like a math problem. It's about counting bars and moving things around. It's like a cross between calculus and an Etch-a-Sketch."

One thing that has not changed is Berg's preoccupation with the whys and wherefores of romance and relationships. Where his previous lyrics chronicled the vicissitudes of love and lust in somewhat sensitive come-hither vignettes, the new album often drops the bravado in favour of a sometimes- sad honesty. "I never knew what I'd said or what I had done/ One day I'm staring at the top of your head/ Then you're so cold you froze my poor heart to death," Berg sings on She's so Shallow.

"Have you read The Rules?" he asked, referring to last year's bestseller advising women that, among other things, if they want to snag a marriage proposal, they should make themselves completely unavailable to the object of their affection. "The Rules confirms everything I believe, which is that all successful male-female relationships are based on manipulation and deceit." (Berg will later prove he truly believes in the Rules by donning a T-shirt with the slogan Rules Girl on it for a rousing Toronto club appearance.)

These are tough words. Then again, listening to him talk about his romantic history, one gets the suspicion that, though he once wrote lyrics as tender as those on 1993's Pressing Lips ("What could mean more than a kiss right now/ If you need a grand gesture, just close your eyes and show me how"), these days, if a girl were to fog up his glasses, it would perhaps not matter so much.

Not that he's entirely lost his sense of optimism, the sense that occasionally the world conspires to come up with a set of circumstances that resemble something like happiness, and that regardless of the eventual dŽnouements, those are the moments to be remembered. "Some one asked me about that lyric on Angelique - 'Pretty days like that make the rest of my life seem sadder' - 'Don't you almost wish you didn't have those days?'" he said, referring to words from Angelique Is a Free Spirit off the new album. "But you have to have those days, because one of the most important things about staying alive is hope. I think that's as important as food. The reason you get up in the morning is because you hope that that day something nice will happen to you."

The personal and idiosyncratic songwriting that comes out of such romantic complications (many of the songs on the album are, in fact, drawn directly from his diary) is much more copasetic to a small, independent label like Toronto's Iron Music, which released Berg's album. He doesn't much miss being with a major, either. "I have this intimate relationship with my muse and they [Iron Music] just tolerate it. I don't really write hit songs, and with the major labels you have to sell so many records."

Ultimately, Berg is still a classic rock boy. Ask him how long he would like to do live shows and he says, "Forever. I'm going to do this as long as I can." Many people around the country had better watch out. Berg and his notebook could one day turn them into a song.

Copyright © 1998 Globe Information Services

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