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One Year Later: R.I.P. Alex Soria (Nils) [Part I]

12 December 2005

In my last blog, I spoke about the recent death of an old rock guitar hero, LINK WRAY, who I saw play numerous times but never met. Soon thereafter, I received the following article from a Canadian writer, CAROLINE EVANS, about the death last December of someone who I also admired and actually did know, someone who was considerably less known than Mr. Wray, outside of his home Montreal. But ALEX SORIA, leader of THE NILS, was one of the great singer/songwriters of the 1980s. His near-crippling shyness (off-stage) and quiet but stubborn drug problems (a bit of a pothead when I first met him in his early 20s, he eventually turned to smack, becoming the latest in the long line of greats who threw away their career on that rotten stuff—yet he was so much quieter, and meaker, and sadder perhaps, than any other ‘snowbird’ musician I’ve ever watched go down the drain) kept us from hearing more than a few dozen of his songs (and his last 15 years produced exactly one released EP, from his second band CHINO, and he barely got that out), But anyone who wants to hear some real early ‘80s melodic, heartfelt, post-punk greatness, should try The Nils’ compilation Green Fields in Daylight on Canadian label Mag Wheel and start from the end and work your way backwards.

A year later, I still miss Alex, having eulogized him briefly in issue 56 of The Big Takeover. There was something wounded/little boy about him that made you think you had to help him, and that furthermore his talent would always be lost if someone didn’t constantly encourage him. And in the end, his tragic suicide 12 months ago, hit by a train in a weak moment, both confirmed that sense and focused attention on those qualities. But his music will outlast him, and there’s nothing shy about that, even if those vulnerabilities shined through.

Anyway, here’s Caroline Evans:

Scratches and Needles
by Caroline Evans

One Saturday night in 1982, 16-year-old Alex Soria and his friend JOHN CAMPBELL attended a party in a dingy basement in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. They were both into punk, and Alex had already established his own band, The Nils, four years before at the age of 12. Hoping to meet others who shared their taste for THE CLASH and BUZZCOCKS, the average-looking boys in denim found themselves out of place in a room full of drugged-up, mohawk-sporting ‘real’ punks. It wasn’t long before several kids began cutting themselves with bottle caps and broken beer bottles to see who could carve the largest gash. Alex and John, forsaking the mutilation ritual, went home instead.

The following Monday at school, Alex showed his friend the song he had written overnight.

“You display your scratches/You display your needles aloud/ Just to get attention from the present crowd.”

That’s the way it was for Alex,” recalls WOODY WHELAN of Mag Wheel Records, Soria’s label in the nineties. Whelan had been a fan long before he produced the ultimate Nils compilation, Green Fields in Daylight, in 1996. “The Nils performed in t-shirts and jeans. The idea was that punk was something that came from inside you, it wasn’t something that came from having spiked hair or a leather jacket.”

“They really made punk grow up in Canada,” explains John Campbell, 23 years after the party that gave Alex Soria inspiration. His voice is soft, but gruff, as though roughened from years of hard living. It’s been a year since Soria killed himself by stepping in front of a train in a drug-induced haze. “Just as THE REPLACEMENTS are credited with giving punk a more mature sound in the States, The Nils really were responsible for making that happen here.”

And although Soria never felt that “Scratches and Needles” was ever one of his strongest songs [much disagreed —ed.], it was the one that gave The Nils immediate attention. That year, Los Angeles label BYO asked them to re-record the song for a compilation Something to Believe In after listening to The Nils’ Now 5-song demo cassette tape. By the mid-’80s, they were getting noticed for their boisterous live act and for Soria’s powerful songwriting. Their names began appearing alongside those of The Replacements and HUSKER DU.

Their first EP, released in 1985, was produced by STEFAN DOROSCUK of MEN WITHOUT HATS, and soon New York – based Rock Hotel/Profile Records offered them a contract. Though the deal only produced a single eponymous album [and CHRIS SPEDDING’s poor production weakened that considerably —ed.], that record made it to number 7 on Rolling Stone’s College Chart, and was the first Canadian record to even make it onto the chart at all.

This was the high point in a career studded with problems of heroin addiction, the record label going bankrupt, and the breakup of the band caused by the eventual departure of CARLOS SORIA, Alex’s brother and Nils bassist, for California.

“Profile had a big hit with RUN-DMC, so all the support was going to that act, while smaller bands weren’t getting any attention,” says Campbell. “The Nils had the most commercial potential of any of the acts, and the label should’ve stepped up its support. But it was losing money and went under.”

The band faced other problems as well. Campbell acknowledges that “drugs really changed the way things turned out. Getting the stuff was becoming more of a preoccupation for Alex. And there’s no question that he’d be alive today if it wasn’t for that. You know, a lot of his heroes were people, rock stars with massive drug problems”—a cold realization when one recalls the second verse of “Scratches and Needles”:

When the scratches cause pain
And the needles don’t even reach into your veins
You begin to question the actions you have taken
You then ask yourself ‘Why can’t I be
Like the person that has always influenced me?

[Part II to follow in my next blog]