Andrew Hood’s new monograph on Jim Guthrie opens with a telling request from its star: “Is there any way that you can write me in as a supporting character in my own biography?” Besides pointing up the rocker’s ingrained Canadian modesty, this quote gets at something crucial about Guthrie – namely, that he’s loath to be at the forefront of anything, from his own acclaimed bands Islands and Royal City to the national indie music scene of which his biographer argues he was one of the chief architects.
The paradox of Who Needs What, then, is in its attempt to spotlight a musician who has made a habit of staying on the margins. Hood opts to begin with a spot of autobiography, sketching his adolescence in the early 2000s with a series of short, deft strokes – he was a cool kid clinging to signifiers of said coolness as a means of constructing a viable social identity. One of these signifiers was Guthrie’s virtuoso solo record A Thousand Songs, a great debut that also doubled as the first album released by the short-lived Guelph, Ontario, label Three Gut.
From there, Hood smartly doubles up his narrative, paralleling the histories of Guthrie and Three Gut so that they comprise a history of DIY music in Ontario – the primal scene of a movement that gradually shifted up the 401 to become Torontopia. Hood uses the musical concept of “schizophonia” – the inescapable split between recoded sounds and the people who make them – to illustrate how Guthrie could at once be a member of this lo-fi social scene and a kind of outlier. The book also wrings an interesting variation on standard rock-critic rhetoric by suggesting that Guthrie’s sideline gig scoring corporate commercials is just another stream in an unstaunchable musical output, which has continued to flow into movie and video-game soundtracks.
Hood is adept at making inside-baseball anecdotes seem accessible, and he doesn’t overdose on the sorts of adoringly hyperbolic adjectives that often overwhelm fan-generated appreciations of an artist’s career. His admiration for his subject is evident, and by the end of Who Needs What it’s likely that readers will share it, even if they still wouldn’t be able to pick its subject out of a lineup of Canadian rock stars. Which is exactly how Jim Guthrie would want it.