By: Matt Williams
“It always surprised me that he didn’t become huge, that the whole world didn’t recognize it,” English musician Gary Numan says about Nash The Slash in the trailer for an upcoming documentary about the Canadian outsider art icon.
“Who?” you might be thinking. And you wouldn’t be alone. Nash The Slash’s relative obscurity—his peers include the previously mentioned Numan, Iggy Pop, and Daniel Lanois—is just one of the topics that the team behind And You Thought You Were Normal has been working diligently to dig deeply into.
Nash, whose real name was Jeff Plewman, passed away at the age of 66 almost five years ago, and left behind a giant body of work that posits him as the godfather of industrial and electronic music in Canada.
As an artist, he was easily recognizable, typically adorned in body-covering bandages and a white tuxedo and top hat, shredding a violin or strumming a skull-shaped mandolin to pull otherworldly sounds out of it as drum machines, which he was a very early adopter of, pounded away in the background. In fact, Nash was such an early adopter of drum machines that it was a problem—the musician’s union at the time told him that drum machines were illegal, as they were taking away jobs from real human drummers. So Nash had to get his union card changed to read that he was a performance artist instead of a musician. At which point, the show—or more accurately, the circus—could go on.
“People always talk about his music, but as a performer, this was like when you go and see those really obscure circus acts like the Jim Rose Circus and stuff,” Trevor Norris, an old friend of Nash’s and the inheritor of his estate, says over the phone. “He kinda started that whole scenario. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. He realized early, like, ‘I can’t dance, and there’s not much I can do onstage, so I really gotta put some other elements together.’ Back in the day, when you look at photos of bands in the ’60s just playing with a shitty backdrop, it wasn’t about the stage performance. He made this arena experience in a small club possible through his visuals and screens and pyrotechnics and all this fire.”
Nash’s gift for creating compelling visuals extended to his signature mandolin, which is also currently on display at the National Music Centre and easily one of the gnarliest stringed instruments you’ve ever seen. The electric mandolin is shaped and carved to look like a skull, which is spooky enough as it is. But if you look closer, you can see the skull is a little strangely shaped, and the teeth are jagged, like one of those creepy fish that live at the very bottom of the ocean in total darkness. It also has a very bone-like colour, and the handiwork (designed by Stephen Pollard and manufactured by Vladimir Bosnar) is so deftly done that it looks like the bona fide artifact—as if Nash himself decapitated some supernatural, godless humanoid and fashioned its skull into his own instrument of horror.
“It was his go-to mandolin and it’s become like the Eddie Van Halen guitar or Lemmy from Motörhead’s bass,” Norris says. “You just know it’s their go-to instrument. It’s got as much myth and notoriety as Nash himself, in a lot of ways, because it’s super rare.”
According to Norris, Nash loved Edgar Allen Poe, had skulls all over his house, put skeletons on stage, and was a big fan of the early Goth movement, so it makes sense that his weapon of choice was something so macabre.
“When I saw it close up, I was taken aback by how cool it is,” he adds. “And when you see it at the National Music Centre, in the innovation section there, I think it fits really well in that side of things.”
Does it ever.
The music Nash made in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s sounds ahead of its time by decades. It’s dense and dangerous-sounding, with shades of punk, prog-rock, industrial, and electronica imbued with a very heavy sense of the cinematic. Nash’s shows were often infused with multiple screens incorporating psychedelic imagery, and his white bandages became an extension of that, as the artist himself became an auxiliary screen.
Colin Brunton, who is the executive producer of And You Thought You Were Normal, was a close friend of Nash’s as well, and used to work at The Original 99 Cent Roxy Theatre in Toronto, which Nash also frequented.
“It had a rep as the theatre in Toronto where you could smoke dope and you wouldn’t get in trouble,” Brunton says. He reckons that if you Google Nash The Slash, you’d be hard pressed to find more than a few images of the real Jeff Plewman, whose identity was largely a secret, masked by Nash’s “fantastic mystique” until the advent of the Internet.
“He really had fun doing showbiz—presentations, representing himself,” Brunton says. “But he was also just this amazing musician. So when he did his premiere at the Roxy in ’75, he performed a live soundtrack to the Salvador Dali/Luis Buñuel movie Un Chien Andalou. It was mind-blowing, because here he was all by himself, with a couple reel-to-reel tape recorders. He had this pretty new thing called a drum machine, which hardly anyone had heard of, and he was by himself. It was crazy because he would play a couple riffs on his violin or mandolin, he’d create a tape loop, he’d run everything through effects boxes, and then he’d get certain rhythms to repeat. You literally couldn’t figure out how he did it. Eventually, technology caught up with him, but he was far ahead of his time. He should’ve been huge, but this is Canada, and we tend to eat our young here.”
Norris has his suspicions that the delay system Nash had put together and his general innovation regarding electronic approaches may have drastically influenced, by proxy, the guitar sound of U2’s The Edge. Nash worked with Daniel Lanois on one of his biggest tunes, “Dance After Curfew.” Lanois eventually went on to produce The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, which Norris believes may owe a bit of a sonic debt to Nash’s sound.
“When Dan worked with U2, it’s interesting that Edge’s sound really became delay-oriented,” Norris says. “You hear a lot of “Phasors on Stun” on “The Streets Have No Name.” You can draw some really interesting connections between Nash and popular music through innovative guitar techniques and what he did on the mandolin, nevermind the electronic side of things. He was a killer violin and mandolin player—classically, Juilliard-trained.”
And You Thought You Were Normal hopes to shed a light on Nash’s influence and his legacy, but also who he was under the bandages. Norris says his knowledge of music and music history was unparalleled, something he was privy to via the ‘vinyl nights’ they’d have at Plewman’s apartment where they would smoke pot and listen to obscure records from every corner of the Earth. He didn’t like it if people called him Nash when he wasn’t wearing his bandages. By most accounts, the real Jeff Plewman was a fascinating, if flawed, guy.
“He was great,” Brunton says. “Very opinionated, very funny, very smart, very interesting. He could have a terrible, terrible temper, which I was never on the receiving end of, thank goodness. We ended up working together for a couple years after the Roxy Theatre. Gary Topp ran a place called the New Yorker on Yonge Street. And it was the same kinda thing, where we had two different movies a night and stuff like that. For about a year, Nash was the manager, I was the assistant. Our routine was basically, once the audience was in and seated, we would take turns going to the basement, smoking some pot, and then running across the street to the pinball parlour. But like I said before, he was so opinionated and had such strong, strong views and feelings, that you would just see his face start to get redder and redder and literally see the veins popping out of his neck when he got excited about something. But we’re also discovering that he had a lot of different faces to different people. It’s funny—I’d known the guy for over 40 years, I’m discovering things I never knew about him.”
Norris says that he hopes the doc will, “leave some, as he would say, ‘bread crumbs in the forest’ for new artists coming up, to learn the history of electronic and industrial music in Canada and Nash’s role in the bigger world picture—how he was such a pioneer and innovator at the time with some very rudimentary gear.”
And You Thought You Were Normal might be the best avenue for people curious about Nash The Slash’s legacy to find out more. But the team needs a little more help to get it finished. You can donate to their Indiegogo campaign to help them get what they need, and grab yourself some pretty exciting stuff in advance, including one of Nash’s actual violins.
To learn more about Nash The Slash and his gnarly signature skull mandolin, which is currently on exhibit at NMC, click HERE.