Radiohead have made a career out of scoring the tension between ourselves and complex systems, be it technology in OK Computer, politics in Hail to the Thief, or the darkness in our minds in Kid A. No tension in their music, however, felt as personal or cut as deep as their return to Toronto last night.
For Radiohead, Toronto is a gravesite. This is the city where the acclaimed alternative band lost a family member, drum tech Scott Johnson, who died doing his job at Downsview Park in 2012. What would have been a raucous summer show turned tragic, with fallen stage lighting crushing the 33-year-old to death.
"He was a lovely man,” drummer Philip Selway said in a statement, “always positive, supportive and funny; a highly skilled and valued member of our great road crew. We will miss him very much."
It took a year for the Ontario Ministry of Labour to investigate, finally charging Live Nation (full, disclosure, a company I’ve previously worked for), Optex Staging & Services Inc, and engineer Domenic Cugliari in 2013, and two more years for the case to finally reach trial in 2015.
Come 2016, trial still underway, the Supreme Court controversially set time limits regarding the right to a “speedy trial,” allowing cases to be thrown out after a period of delays. Lawyers for Live Nation and Cugliari successfully cried “speedy trial” afterwards, and the Ontario Court of Justice stayed all charges regarding Johnson’s death in 2017.
Radiohead’s first return to Canada in 2016 at Montreal’s Osheaga Music Festival was a night of hope, Thom Yorke goofily dancing and smirking as the band ripped through energetic cuts from “Burn the Witch” to “Bodysnatchers” at the get-go. Hell, they even closed with “Creep.” It was my first Radiohead show, an experience of cathartic bliss, and a sigh of relief that they appeared to hold no ill-will against Canadians.
But last night was different. Last night in Toronto, their first time playing the city since the stayed charges and the stage collapse six years ago, carried the weight of a life—and justice—lost. When our court threw out charges against Live Nation, Optex, and Cugliari, they threw out accountability for the death of an innocent man whose last moments were spent doing what he loves, all in the name of what, efficiency?
Radiohead’s setlist was understated with rare moments of release. The climax of songs like “2+2=5” came and went, leaving me on edge, wanting more. The arc of the night grew poetic when Yorke halted their encore to finally speak out about the city and system that failed them.
“Six years ago, we wanted to do a show in Toronto. The stage collapsed, killing one of our colleagues and friends. The people who should be held accountable, are still not being held accountable. In your city,” he said.
Without prompting, the arena of more than 19,000 people all booed in furor, empathetic and angry. Yorke continued. “The silence... is fucking... deafening.” Then, a moment of silence for Johnson. The familiar piano and acoustic guitar intro of “Karma Police” eventually rang out, taking on an entirely new meaning as Yorke wailed: “Karma police, arrest this man.”
Here was the key to the entire show. Radiohead’s return to Toronto was full of sounds, moods, a setlist without satisfactory endings. If Radiohead and Johnson’s family never saw closure from their loved one’s death, all thanks to a flawed legal precedent, neither would we. Tears welled in many eyes, including mine. Yorke continued their refrain.
“This is what you'll get / This is what you'll get / This is what you'll get / When you mess with us.”
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