Now playing, in an alley near you
The musical family the Goodtimes keep fun, creativity, and weirdness alive
December 17, 2020, 3:14 pm ASTLast Updated: December 17, 2020, 3:45 pm
Gates clatter shut over Queen Street storefronts. Workers stream onto the sidewalk, eyes pouched beneath glasses, above masks, faces chafed from the cold. There are whispers about the impending lockdown. How long? 28 days. Isn’t that what they said in March? There are no distances to be maintained here, on a sliver of sidewalk. Shoulder past a stranger, graze arms, turn your face aside, imagine droplets whizzing past your ear.
A show is about to start. It is not visible from the street. Instead, there is only a grocery store looming over a deserted parking lot, its bright fluorescent lights diminished by the sun flaming down beneath the horizon. The clear blue sky blackens before your eyes. You still do not see it, but you hear it. The sound of children.
It is a scream at first. Then, a shout. Then hoarse, frostbitten laughter. In an alley behind the parking lot you spot them, doing cartwheels. Their parents stand around, nervous and cold. They are mostly fashionable Queen Street types: peacoats fastened tight, innumerable scarves. Muted conversation. A sparse crowd of twenty. A crowd that flattens to the walls when cars pass through.
The alley is lined with garage doors, most of them illegibly graffitied. One door, in the middle, is open. Music pipes through loudspeakers, carnival music that eggs the children on in their relentless play. Outside, a small keyboard sits opposite a chair strung up with fairy lights. A smoke machine exhales intermittently, sending glittering white fumes wisping into the night. A black curtain, in gold lettering, reads: The Goodtimes.
It is past five. Almost time. The children scream until the low, sombre groan of bagpipes cuts through the noise. It is the sound of an invitation. The crowd falls into reverential silence. The show has begun.
Ian Goodtimes emerges from behind the curtain. He is dressed like a cross between Mick Jagger and Santa Claus. Tight jeans and a festive red coat adorn his portly frame. In his arms, the bagpipes have none of the stodgy formality of military funerals. The mess of pipes rests comfortably over his shoulder. The note he is playing transforms into the opening sequence of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Ian is followed by his wife, Lindsay—a punk Mrs. Claus draped in a lush purple cape—and their two grade school daughters Pepper and Roxy-Jean. They pick up the tune together, the little girls poised. The Goodtimes, as they are known, share an easy harmony. In the last stanza, Ian gestures to the crowd and elicits accompaniment. A dozen muffled voices invoke good tidings for you, wherever you are.
This is the sixteenth annual Goodtimes Christmas show, but the first one performed in a global pandemic. Last year, the Goodtimes played for a hundred and fifty people at the Revival on College Street. This year, they are performing a dozen shows in humbler places such as this alley. And the new lockdown will put even this small gathering outside of the law. No more than ten people are allowed to congregate. For a family of four, this means a crowd of six. A cluster.
Ian remains unfazed by these challenges. A life of performance, after all, requires constant pivoting. Over 38 years he has played in dozens of bands, performed in festivals for 40,000 people and in small, dilapidated rooms for one.
“The only constant,” he says, “has been the bagpipes.”
Indeed, they were his first instrument. He learned from “a miserable, drunken bastard of a teacher named Bill Minty. A Scottish, stern man.” Ian was eight. His parents drove him to Minty’s apartment on Wednesdays, where he was scolded into perfecting scales and songs. He has little love for his old teacher, yet Minty informed his approach to music. “He would be very strict,” Ian says, “One of the reasons I got fired from teaching my kids how to play the piano was because I’d be like, ‘It’s Mary Had a Little Lamb. Play it again.’ Which is how I learned.”
He practiced relentlessly, and performed as the youngest member of the Downsview Junior Pipe Band at the age of ten. Ian describes that time with fondness—schlepping it out to the countryside with a dozen older kids, playing Scottish festivals such as the Highland Games. It might have been the start of a standard bagpiper’s career of weddings and funerals were it not for his discovery, at the age of twelve, of rock n’ roll.
In quick succession Ian picked up the guitar, the upright bass, and a variety of saxophones. A string of bands followed, with names such as Perestroika and Phoenix. “We won a bunch of Battle of the Bands for like three hundred bucks of studio time at Johnny’s shitless tax-scam porta-studio out in the sticks.” He was guided through these years by Mr. Munshaw, a high school music teacher who got Ian his first gig, a jazz performance that he “had no business doing.” Munshaw was a gregarious, exuberant presence whose approach to music moved Ian, upon graduation, to study jazz bass and composition at Humber College.
In college Ian continued to win Battle of the Bands competitions well into his second year. Still, the bagpipes remained his main source of income. He fell one course short of graduating from Humber because the class was scheduled for the evenings, when Ian would be downtown, busking near the Skydome for tips between baseball games. “I’d go to gate four where all the rich folks sit, and they’d drop a hundred and fifty bucks on the way in, more on the way out.”
As the games went on inside, Ian joined other buskers at the stadium for long jam sessions. This was how he befriended Meher Steinberg, a fellow Humber student who played with a jazz trio on the John Street Bridge. Steinberg, a similarly chaotic figure with a knack for bringing musicians together, would become a long-time collaborator and close friend of the Goodtimes’. He remembers young Ian as a workhorse, someone who “made more money with his bagpipes than the rest of us put together.”
This would never be more true than on October 24, 1992, when Otis Nixon attempted a bunt in game six of the World Series. The ball was grabbed by the Blue Jays’ Mike Timlin, who whipped it to Joe Carter at first – clinching the most consequential victory in Toronto baseball history. The Blue Jays won the World Series.
Outside gate four, Ian played on as thousands of screaming fans flooded the streets. In the entertainment district, high-rises and condominiums cleared out into a roving mob, an impromptu block party, a crush of bodies brimming with a collective glow of victory only possible in defeated cities.
Through impressive feats of jostling, Ian landed at the head of this crowd. He played them all the way to Yonge Street before police officers chased after him. To help him escape a group of revellers lifted him onto a lamp post. “I was wearing my kilt, though, so I think they regretted that pretty quick.”
After college, Ian tended toward the eclectic—he featured in a string of bands, each one more carnivalesque than the last. These included the Space Invaders, an ’80s tribute band “in fucking 1995”; Radio Free Luxembourg, a band which only performed songs three minutes and fourteen seconds long; and Ape C— and the Simian Lords of Numenor, which only covered songs about apes and monkeys.
“Most of my life,” he says, “has been getting people to pay me to fuck around.”
In between gigs, Ian sharpened his craft. Not the bagpipes – entertainment. Steinberg recalls him practicing microphone tricks for hours, to perform them seamlessly on stage. Training in fire-breathing, gymnastics, and lighting design followed. Ian collected forms of entertainment the way a good workman collects tools, with a fastidiousness masked by what the 16th Century courtier Baldassare Castiglione defined as sprezzatura – a performative effortlessness, a graceful cool.
All of these efforts culminated in what most would consider a dream gig: eight months performing at Disneyland. Not the one in Anaheim, the one in Tokyo. First, though, Ian would have to depart from Los Angeles, a city he calls “Princessville, USA.” With their last hundred dollars, Ian and Steinberg packed into Steinberg’s green Firebird to first perform a three-week gig at a casino in Phoenix. They took the scenic route: through the Midwest, across the Mississippi, then headed southwest. In Midland, Texas, Steinberg was arrested for speeding. They handed over what was left of their money to get out of town to make it down to Phoenix the following night.
When they reached the Valley of the Sun, the promise of a cushy casino gig disappeared into a grim landscape of slot machines, filthy carpeting, and an audience of “people in their nineties, most of them on respirators.” Drinks would not be included. They considered leaving, but there was nowhere else to go. The deciding factor was a note pinned to their door that read “WARNING: Don’t drink the water. It contains fecal chloroform bacteria. You may get jaundice, cramps, nausea, or vomiting.” Without collecting their pay, they gathered their things and hightailed it to Princessville. There, they slept on beaches till they found a youth hostel which they paid for by busking with Ian’s bagpipes and a toy keyboard from Walmart.
In Tokyo Disneyland, Ian immediately set himself apart as a “weirdo from Canada.” Six times a day he would have to approach strangers with his bagpipes and shout Konnichiwa! Boku wa bag-piper no Ian desu. Genki desu ka? “Hello, I’m Ian the friendly bagpiper. How are you?” Bored by the monotony of this role, he sought out ways to push buttons. He had an ounce of weed mailed in from Canada. He pulled quotations from Marc Eliot’s scandalous biography of Walt Disney, especially the more racist and anti-Semitic allegations, and plastered them backstage at a show. On his last day, he stole into the PA system and blasted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
After a brief stint in Thailand, where he “blew all the money” he made at Disneyland, Ian returned to Toronto and moved into an apartment with Steinberg. Soon after that, he met Lindsay Milakovic, a choreographer who trained in modern dance at the Toronto Dance Theatre. Their first meeting, at a party in a mutual friend’s house, involved a stolen kiss in the bathroom. Later, Milakovic saw Ian at another party at Ted’s Wrecking Yard. When she said hello, he brushed her off. Appalled, she asked around about him, only to figure out that she had actually approached Ian’s twin brother, Dylan.
As performers with penchants for far-off places, they courted each other through the mail. Steinberg would often come home to find Ian scrutinizing a postcard from South East Asia, poring over letters from Milakovic. By all accounts, Ian found in her a fellow “weirdo” – another outsider artist willing to take big risks to entertain.
In 2007, after almost a decade of dating, they got married. Their wedding became the performance of their careers. Quiet vows on the front lawn of their home on Shaw Street soon gave way to a 300-person parade. Hundreds of kazoos were distributed among the crowd, which featured fire-spinners and rickshaws. Steinberg hired a plane to write their names in the sky. Together, this crowd swarmed down to the Revival on College Street for the reception. Instead of wedding presents, guests paid a $75 cover charge for a show and an open bar. By the time the night came to a close, the crowd had racked up a $16, 000 tab. “It’s still the biggest show we’ve ever done.”
Just like that, they became the Goodtimes. In 2010, they proceeded to perform a “wildly unsuccessful dick joke act” on a fringe tour across the country. It included a life-sized vagina costume for a little number called Don’t Touch My Vagina, You Pervert. “We’ve really learned a lot from a variety of failures,” Ian says. “Is there any other way to do it?”
Their first daughter was born in 2012, and they named her Roxy-Jean. In 2014, she got a sister named Pepper. “I was freaked out in the beginning, because now we really had to step up and provide,” Ian says. “I always had overwhelming anxiety about everything anyway.” There had never been more pressure to pack it in for a day job. Instead, the Goodtimes continued gigging and wrote shows intended for a broader audience. One show for children, called Space Chums, ran for many years. It featured Ian, Lindsay, and their collaborator Kate Keenan as cosmonauts travelling through space, rapping about the wonders of science.
For the Goodtimes, “entertainment” is not a bad word. This, they believe, puts them at odds with the broader Canadian arts community. The maligning of entertainment as somehow boorish and unbecoming is nothing new, of course. It goes back at least as far as Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates draws a line in the sand between the intellectual pleasures of oral dialogue and the lesser “amusements” of written philosophy. Today, a similar moral panic about the corrosive nature of entertainment can be found in books about the death of attention due to the Internet, on parenting forums which bicker endlessly over which television shows do the most damage to the developing brain, and in self-help books which advocate self-actualization through puritanical self-discipline.
The Goodtimes’ commitment to entertainment is anything but frivolous. “Ian often describes his philosophy of life as ‘gigs and hard work’,” Steinberg says. “For the most part, it’s true. The reason he gets up in the morning is for a gig—either to play one, or to expect to hear that there’s about to be one.”
In March 2020, Ontario—like much of the world—went into lockdown. A six-week tour across the country with his wife and daughters was cancelled at the last minute. “He lives to entertain people,” Steinberg says. “He wants to make them laugh, smile, dance. And (suddenly) he can’t. All of that is against the law.”
For Ian, the first three months of lockdown were a blur of boozing and creative production. A long stay at a friend’s cabin north of the city saw him “drinking a keg a week” and writing a lot. He stopped drinking in June, and the next few months bounced between “crippling depression and seething rage. And like, you know, hiding under the covers with never less than three pillows over your head so you can’t hear your children talking. Weeping uncontrollably, occasionally.”
The pandemic “hit him hard.” Steinberg says. “Harder than the rest of us.”
A steady stream of socially-distanced bagpipe gigs at funerals and weddings, as well as the government’s CERB grant, kept the Goodtimes’ afloat through the first wave. The Goodtimes Annual Christmas Show presented the first opportunity in six months to write and perform something all their own, to return to the stage—or at least to makeshift stages in alleyways, front lawns, and public parks all over the city.
This challenge did not deter them. If anything, it was invigorating.
“Ian is always saying we write this show for months and perform it once in a theatre,” Lindsay says. “He’s happy we finally get to do it a bunch of times.”
A Christmas show written by a devout atheist in the middle of a pandemic is bound to contain a few surprises, and the biggest one is how it directly addresses the absurdity of performing in the middle of a pandemic. The necessity of it.
Here in the alley, the light has almost drained out of the sky when the Goodtimes break into Silent Night. Two verses in, Lindsay keels over and begins to cry into her hands. The song stops abruptly. The children in the audience stand stock-still.
“What’s wrong?” Ian says.
“I’m not sure I believe in Jesus,” Lindsay replies. “And I think there might be a pandemic.”
“Of course there’s a pandemic!”
“I knew there was something wrong when the kids were home since March, and we were in an alley way instead of a theatre. Where’s the lights? Where’s our jobs? Where’s entertainment?,” she cries. “Everything is ruined.”
“They even ruined my career!,” Ian says.
Beside him, Roxy-Jean says, “You had a career?”
“Was it successful?” pipes Pepper.
Sparse laughter ripples through the audience. This joke is for the adults.
Lindsay pulls out a whiteboard and asks for help to brainstorm names for the coronavirus. A child in the audience offers up “Stinky Dog.”
Stinky Dog is represented by an oversized headpiece that looks like a nightmare straight out of Cronenberg. The Goodtimes take turns throwing it on, even six-year-old Pepper, who appears to be half its size. When it comes onstage, the audience is instructed to boo. The more it shows up, the louder the boos become – until, near the end, one child is screaming lungfuls of disapproval.
The last time Stinky Dog appears onstage, the Goodtimes use “grade school science, articles from the Internet, and a few Bill Nye the Science Guy podcasts” to create a vaccine. An enormous foam syringe is injected into the headpiece. The virus is defeated, forever.
What is left to do besides sing We Are The Champions? In the crowd, children dance and throw streamers into the air. The adults sing along beneath their masks, smiles signified by crinkled eyes and a tautness in the fabric over their mouths. The fog obscures the long stretch out to the street. The show is almost over. A car flashes its headlights, waiting to come through and break the spell.
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