Northampton COVID-19 data

I am no longer updating this page. I now maintain a page with weekly totals for all cities and towns in Hampshire County, with per capita rates classified according to CDC guidelines.

From (other municipalities also available at that link). Weekly new cases based on the MassDPH public health reports: “These chart values are derived from Northampton’s changes in “Total Case Count” from the prior week. It’s not an exact science, due to reporting delays and occasional corrections.” (This week’s 20 comes from 1000 – 980). The seven day periods end on the dates shown on the horizontal axis. Given Northampton’s estimated population of 29199, the average daily rate per 100K is just under half the weekly total (100000 / 29199 / 7 = 0.49).

Northampton cumulative case numbers from This graph provides information on whether cases are in long-term health care facilities or in the broader community. “Residential clusters” refers to cases in long-term health care facilities, as can be inferred from Health Director O’Leary’s comments to the Dec. 3rd City Council meeting reported in the Hampshire Gazette on Dec. 7th. The graph on this page updates automatically with the city update.

The MassDPH weekly health report also provides counts on the numbers of tests performed, positive results, and a resulting positivity percentage. The Northampton data appear to be heavily skewed by results from asymptomatic testing at Smith College and other local higher ed institutions. I have written a paper on this issue with Mike Stein and Susan Voss.

Other resources

Cooley Dickinson provides updated counts of the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations here.

The New York Times provides up-to-date interactive new case graphs for counties here.


Beware of the Massachusetts COVID colors

When a red light turns to green, you can proceed ahead in your car. When your town or city turns from red to green in the Massachusetts DPH COVID-19 categories, that definitely should not be interpreted as a green light to proceed with your plans, at either an individual or local administrative level – especially now.

The current color coding scheme (from the November 12th public health report) is shown here.

These criteria came into effect Nov. 5th, and are much laxer than those used before. In the old criteria, a red designation was given to towns and cities that had a daily average of new cases per 100K over the last 2 weeks that exceeded 8. Therefore, it’s likely that some places went from red to green not because their numbers lowered, but because the criteria changed. Northampton is an example of a city that is in the green currently with a new case rate of 8.1, but that would have been in the red under the old criteria. (Update 11/20: Northampton is now in the yellow under the new criteria, with a rate of 11.0; up-to-date Northampton data can be found here).

It appears that the new criteria were adopted to be used for the Department of Education’s guidance on school reopening. They would likely be quite different if they were intended to be used in some other way, for example when deciding whether to use curbside pickup or to go into the supermarket.

Risk analyses for individual and local policy decisions involve using local new case data and positivity rates to estimate risk, and that seems to be what’s being done with this color coding scheme for school reopening decisions. As the linked articles mention, there is little consensus on what the appropriate metrics are.

Most places outside of Massachusetts seem to use county or larger regions, rather than city and town data, to make policy decisions about reopening – California uses counties, New York uses regions.

As of November 20th, Colorado will adopt a new county-based scheme that combines a new case rate, positivity rate, hospitalization numbers, testing capacity and other factors. It has 7 levels, and provides guidance for high risk populations, as well as for a range of institutions and businesses. This seems far better than what we have in Massachusetts.

To give an example of a different color-coding scheme operating at our county level, I’ve graphed Hampshire County’s new case data using Colorado’s method of relativizing to population: a two week total per 100K. Beneath the graph is the color coding scheme they use for presenting their own county data over time. Hampshire County was green in early September, blue in October, and is now orange. (Update 12/12/20: Hampshire County is now in Colorado’s red designation).


Western Massachusetts counties now have their highest numbers of new Covid-19 cases since the spring (And why are you learning about that here?)

The article below was written with data current as of November 13th 2020. The New York Times provides the latest county new case rates, and an interactive county-level new case graph is now also available on their website. See this page for up-to-date information on Northampton (note esp. that unlike the spring most cases are in the community rather than in long-term health care – I missed that when I wrote the article).

A Nov. 21 Hampshire Gazette article covers this work and provides guidance and further information from Joanne Levin of Cooley Dickinson Hospital see also Karen Foster’s Ward 2 Newsletter for more from Levin. I have also written this related article with a warning about changes to the MassDPH color coding scheme, and an illustration of what Hampshire looks like using Colorado’s, and co-authored a paper on the influence of higher ed testing on local numbers.


On November 10th Governor Baker gave a Covid-19 update, and announced a statewide 300% increase in new cases since Labor Day. This announcement came in a discussion of the state’s new public health measures, which include a face covering requirement in all public areas regardless of distance between people, a stay at home advisory from 10 pm to 5 am, and tighter restrictions on size of gatherings. Here in western Mass, we have had our own surge in this same timeframe, and now have higher numbers of new cases in all four counties than at any time since the spring. In all but Hampden County, the levels remain relatively low compared to the rest of the state, and to the rest of the country (relatively low compared to another place does not imply “safe”, of course). Hampden now has one of the highest per capita new case rates in the state, a rate that is even higher than the United States as a whole.

After presenting current and historical county level data from western Mass, with some comparisons with statewide and nationwide numbers, I turn to more local data from towns and cities, and higher education institutions. In that context I discuss the deficiencies in local COVID-19 data reporting, which seem characteristic of the state as a whole, and probably the entire country. This is one of many governmental failures in managing this crisis, and one that should, and probably can be fixed quickly as we enter a particularly dangerous phase, and hopefully get better leadership at the federal level.

I have been making graphs like the one below for Hampshire County since the summer, when I was trying to monitor the local COVID-19 situation in preparation for whatever decisions we would have to make for the school year for our child. I couldn’t find longitudinal new case rates for the county elsewhere, so I made them myself with raw data downloaded from the Massachusetts Department of Health website; see the section at the end for the details, and for other data details that aren’t in the body of this article. The graph shows the seven day total of new cases for the week ending at the date shown on the horizontal axis. For the most recent week ending Nov. 12th, there were 181 cases, the highest since the week ending April 29th, in which there were 187. In the week ending September 14th, only 7 cases were reported, the lowest number since March 24th, in the first week of reported cases.

The daily new case counts starting Aug. 19th were downloaded from the MassDPH website Nov. 13, 2020 (“Covid-19 Raw Data – November 12, 2020”). See the end of the article for the source of the rest. No data are available from Aug. 12th through Aug. 18th.

It might be a mistake to conclude from these figures that the prevalence of COVID-19 in Hampshire County is now as high as it was in April, since testing has ramped up considerably since then. “Cases” refers to cases that are diagnosed by a positive molecular test (although the data before August 12th also contain probable cases, which make up about 10% of the total). When all else is equal, more testing will yield more cases given a fixed prevalence in a population, so given the same number of cases with more testing, the underlying prevalence is likely lower. There do not appear to be any publicly available county level data on the number of tests performed in the spring, but statewide there was a daily average of 12,769 tests performed in the week ending April 29th, and 77,630 for the week ending Nov. 12th. There is another difference between these time periods though: tests in the earlier period were generally performed only on symptomatic individuals, and there was much more asymptomatic testing in the later period. So it is possible that there is a similar prevalence in the two periods. (See this article for a more detailed discussion of comparison with the spring, with a local focus on Lewisburg Pennsylvania).

It seems unlikely that the change in the last two months is due to an increase in testing. In the two weeks ending September 16th, 32742 tests were performed in Hampshire county, with 38 positive, for a positivity rate of 0.12%. In the two weeks ending November 11th, 41751 tests were performed, with 262 positive, for a positivity rate of 0.63%. Though there was an increase in testing, it doesn’t match the steepness of the increase in cases, and the positivity rate has increased more than 5 times. (Update: it’s up to 0.92% for the two weeks ending Nov. 18; note that this includes UMass numbers, which are based on a relatively high proportion of asymptomatic testing – the statewide positivity numbers for higher ed are much lower than those from the rest of the population, as can be seen in the demographics section of the state dashboard).

One indication that the situation statewide is less dire than in the spring is that although COVID-19 hospitalizations have about doubled since September, they remain far lower than in the spring. There was a daily average of 3,868 in the week ending April 29th, which was down to 328 in the week ending September 14th, and is now up to 592 in the week ending November 12th. The current situation in Massachusetts is also better than the country as a whole, which this week hit an all-time record of hospitalizations. There seems to be no publicly available county level hospitalization data, but the numbers of deaths in Western Mass seem to have a similar pattern, though the increase since September is smaller. Hampshire had 20 in the two weeks ending April 29th, none in the two weeks ending September 14th, and 3 in the two weeks ending November 12th (I’m using a two week window since the numbers are small). Hampden had 205, 21, and 28 in the same time periods, Franklin 10, 2, and 2, and Berkshire 11,1, and 0. The Massachusetts daily averages of deaths in the weeks ending at those dates were 172, 12, and 23 respectively.

The current lower number of hospitalizations and deaths than in the spring might seem to point to a lower prevalence of the disease even when the new case count is similar across times, but there are other (non-exclusive) explanations: the cases are now more often younger people who are less likely to develop symptoms, to be hospitalized, and to die, and treatment is improving.

To compare across counties, and to compare our local figures with those of other places, we need to relativize the numbers to population. The convention followed by the New York Times and by the MassDPH is to present a daily average over 7 or 14 days per 100,000 people. This means dividing the weekly count by 7, multiplying it by 100,000 and dividing by the population. With Hampshire County’s weekly count of 181 and population of 160,830 this yields 16.1, which matches the currently displayed rate on the New York Times website. Brendan O’Connor of the College of College of Information and Computer Sciences at UMass Amherst provides a daily updated graph of longitudinal new case rates for the four Western Mass counties, as well as the state as whole, and the country. Today’s graph is shown below. Here the rates are presented per million, so Hampshire is at 161.

Comparison of Covid-19 new case rates across times and places by Brendan O’Connor, downloaded from Nov. 12, 2020.

As you can see by comparing the endpoint of each of the solid lines leftwards – backwards through time – the current new case numbers in all 4 counties are the highest they have been in months. You can also see that there are some big differences amongst the counties. Hampden’s current new case rate is the only one that is higher than the state as a whole – it even exceeds that of the United States, which itself is at a record high. Further comparisons can be made with the current rates beneath the graph. For example, Canada’s new case rate is 111 per million, 28% of that of the United States but still alarmingly high, while Europe (i.e. the EU and the UK) has an even higher rate than the US.

Why are new cases going up? Governor Baker’s explanation is that we are “dropping our guard” because we are experiencing “Covid fatigue”. One might also look for explanations in changes in the extent of contact between people due to being indoors more as the weather gets colder, or in changes brought about by various aspects of reopening, including the beginning of the school year and the wider opening of various kinds of businesses. Maybe there is even a new more transmissible strain of coronavirus now in circulation. Here I will focus on what we can find out by looking at more fine-grained local data: data from the towns and cities, and institutions, that make up the counties. Massachusetts appears to have relatively good local data reporting compared with the rest of the country. However, it is nowhere near as good as it could, and should be, to help guide and protect its citizens. I am focusing on Hampshire County, whose data I am most familiar with since that is where I live and work, and where my child is enrolled in the public school system. I suspect that its local data reporting is the best of the four counties, and that there is probably an even more urgent need for improvement elsewhere in western Mass.

The first problem is that it’s not at all obvious how you find the more fine-grained local data. It’s not even that obvious how you find the most up-to-date county data. Perhaps surprisingly, the best place for the county data is usually not the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s website, which is where you can get the most detailed current statewide data, but which updates local data only weekly (the latest daily county data can be downloaded in raw spreadsheet form, the source for the graphs above and the New York Times website). We have no county board of health, and the town and city boards of health display very little data, if any, on their websites. Rather, you need to go to the New York Times’ website, which has an excellent presentation of state and county data, based on numbers it gets from the Mass DPH. It does not, however, present the county data over time, and I have never seen graphs like those above for Western Mass outside of those produced by me and my UMass colleagues from raw data downloaded from the MassDPH or the New York Times. This is the likely answer to my question in the title of this article: no one told you about the historically high local new current rates because the right kind of data visualization in which to see them isn’t being widely disseminated. And the county testing rates, which are as discussed above are important for interpreting the new case data, are only released once a week on the MassDPH website, and do not seem to be available at all for the spring.

I’ll stop complaining for a minute, and cut to the chase about what we know about the local rise in cases, which is due to an instance of exceptionally good local data reporting. The UMass Amherst COVID-19 Dashboard presents daily counts of new cases and a rolling 7 day daily average, from Aug. 6th to the present. For the week up to the most recent date with tests returned, Nov. 10, there were 90 cases. Thus, about half of the new positive cases in the last week in Hampshire County are UMass Amherst staff and students. The number of tests across time are also presented on the same page, and we can see that the recent increase in new cases is not due to increased testing. We can also see that the spike in cases in early October in Hampshire County is largely, if not fully, due to a spike in UMass Amherst cases. (Update 11/19: there were 76 UMass cases in the week ending 11/16, so if this lines up with the week ending 11/18 in the MassDPH data which had 249 for Hampshire County, UMass is now accounting for 31% of the cases. Also a caveat: some of the UMass cases are residents in other counties, and wouldn’t be part of the Hampshire numbers).

Town and city data are released once a week in the MassDPH in a public health report, the latest of which latest of which came out on Nov. 12th. This one reports data over a two week period ending Nov. 11th (the fine print tells us “current at 8 am that day”). The first page of the data, which includes Amherst, is shown here. Note that the color coding changed on Nov. 5th (see the current report for the criteria). Many of the current yellow designations, including Amherst’s, would have been red under the old system – the red designation used to indicate a rate greater than 8 per 100K.

City/town data from the Nov. 12th Mass DPH public health report.

I extracted the case counts for the towns and cities in Hampshire County, and found that the total seems to match the 14 days ending Nov. 10th in the MassDPH daily county data I used for the above graph (“For populations <50,000, <5 cases are reported as such or suppressed for confidentiality purposes”, so an exact sum is not possible). The 81 cases in Amherst seem to match the two weeks of data ending Nov. 8th on the UMass Amherst website, which makes sense if there is a reporting lag. In the table above, there appears to be an asterisk missing beside Amherst, which is supposed to be there when a large proportion of cases are from a long term care facility or higher education institution. But more than an asterisk is needed to convey to Amherst residents the extent to which spread has affected their community (e.g. the positivity rates are skewed by all the asymptomatic testing at the university). And a weekly report is often out of date with this quickly spreading disease. (Update 11/24 – Emily Riddle points out that I missed another bit of fine print on the public health report, which states the two week period as ending 11/7. She also confirms that a two-day lag seems to best line up the UMass and MassDPH dates).

Pulling back from the details, it’s clearly not easy to go from an observation of a spike in county data on the New York Times website to any finer grained analysis of what’s happening locally, and again, it’s not obvious that we should be going to a national newspaper’s website for up-to-date county data. As individuals navigating this epidemic, it’s like driving our cars at night with the headlights broken and not being able to pull over.

Risk analyses for individual and local policy decisions involve using local new case data and positivity rates to estimate risk. As my attempt to find out what’s happening in Hampshire County should show, it’s not easy to get good data (the just-linked individual decision article provides further discussion and examples from elsewhere in the country). And there is much more data that would be helpful for individuals trying to avoid catching and spreading this disease, as well as for those deciding local policy. The discovery that about half of the recent new cases in Hampshire County are fairly localized comes as a relief to those of us who are not in contact with UMass Amherst students and staff, because it means that the infections are not as widespread through the broader community (UMass also carefully documents the quarantine status of the individuals). Similarly, knowing that an outbreak occurred in a long-term care facility would make one feel relatively secure about going to the supermarket, whereas knowing that it occurred in the supermarket would have the reverse effect (if it remained open). But that sort of information is not shared systematically by our public health departments. I want to emphasize that the blame here should not be placed on the people doing the incredibly difficult public health jobs. The problem is almost certainly lack of resources, caused by the decades of cuts to our public health system.

Because of its resources, UMass Amherst can provide excellent data reporting, including detailed information about the status of individual cases. This could serve as one model for local governments and their health boards, if they are given the necessary resources by the state and federal governments to implement improved reporting.

Those interested in improving public reporting of data could also look to countries where public health systems are in better shape, like Canada. Kingston Ontario has done exceptionally well against COVID-19, thanks to the work of their public health board, and their Covid-19 dashboard is excellent (their total case count is right now just above Hampshire County’s weekly count, with about the same population). The fact that our boards are town- and city-based, and that Kingston’s serves a population of about that of Hampshire County, presumably also contributes to the differences in the quality of the reporting. Perhaps as well as further investment, a fundamental reorganization of our public health system is needed for it to function more successfully. See this paper for a discussion of the response of the public health system to the current situation, and some historical perspective; it discusses the fragmented nature of the response, which seems acute in Massachusetts with our town-city boards.

In his Nov. 10th briefing, Governor Baker pointed to the incoming Biden-Harris administration as providing hope for a more effective federal response to our current health crisis. As in many other things, we should not be satisfied with a return to the pre-Trump situation in what our government provides for us in public health. We should also not be led to believe that it’s purely a matter of individual responsibility to stop the spread of disease, just like it’s not purely a matter of individual responsibility to slow climate change.


Further details on the sources of data.

Daily counts of new cases and deaths for Hampshire County came from three sets of raw data, since historical data for all dates cannot be found in the latest one, and the earliest data was also removed at some point. They were downloaded from The data from March 24th to April 17th came from the May 16th report, those from August 11th came from the August 11th report, and those from August 19th to November 12th from the November 12th report. The compiled new case data and graphs can be downloaded in a Numbers spreadsheet; other formats available on request.

Daily averages of testing, hospitalizations and deaths for Massachusetts were found using the interactive graphs on the New York Times website on November 13th.


Acknowledgments: Thank you to Carla Caruso, Will Meyer and Joe Pater (père) for reading and commenting on a draft of this piece, and to Brendan O’Connor for making the place comparison graph. Comments are welcome below; they may not appear immediately since they may need to be moderated. I also posted this in Facebook and am discussing it there; it’s clear from that discussion that at least some people did hear about the spike for the first time from me, which is really bizarre and problematic.


In favor of K-12 on-line for fall 2020

The below is a public comment for the Aug. 6th Northampton school committee meeting. I think on-line is by far the best option for safety and teacher workload, and that the difficulties for parents can be mitigated.

Dear school committee members,

I am writing in favor of the on-line model, with school-based support for students who cannot participate remotely. I think there are two very important arguments for this model:

1. Safety. While Northampton currently has a relatively low number of Covid-19 cases, the future course of this disease is highly unpredictable, and the community levels could well increase in the fall to a level at which in-person instruction is no longer possible. If we adopt on-line instruction from the start, the resulting chaos and disruption for the lives of teachers and families of switching halfway through the semester could be avoided. Furthermore, even with the current levels of infection, there is a good chance that returning to in-person instruction, even with our best safety efforts, will itself lead to increases. It’s important to bear in mind that we are far from having the spread under control, even here, and especially in other regions of the state and country with which we have much contact.

2. Workload for teachers. It is simply too much to ask our teachers to prepare instruction in two modes, both in-person and remotely. Effective remote instruction requires considerable preparation and ongoing effort. Since the school committee has already committed to remote instruction (and it would seem it would need to given the circumstances), the only way to ensure teachers will have the time to prepare effective curricula will be to allow them to devote all of their time to the on-line effort.

The downside of the on-line model is of course that not all caregivers are able to support remote learning. The school committee has already committed to offering 5 day in-person accommodation under special circumstances, and it seems that this could be expanded to include a wider range of students. This would not mean that they would be receiving in-person instruction, since this would recreate the teacher workload problem. Instead, they would use an internet connected device like their peers at home to participate on-line. I know this is a complex, difficult decision, and I appreciate all of the efforts you are making to get to the best one.


Western Mass Covid-19 data

This page is no longer being updated. See now this article for more details and newer numbers, and Brendan O’Connor’s automatically updated longitudinal comparisons of all 4 Western Mass counties with other areas at

These charts show 7-day totals ending the week noted on the horizontal axis. Raw data downloaded from Because of changes in the way data were reported, numbers before Aug. 19th have been adjusted/estimated (see note at the end).

For projections and r-values, see this project at Columbia University:

County, 7 day total new cases to Nov. 8, R:

Hampshire, 139, 1.23

Hampden, 997, 1.54

Note on pre-August 19 data

On August 12th, the MassDPH changed the way they were reporting county data. They previously included probable and confirmed cases; starting Aug. 12th they included only confirmed. This resulted in a drop in the total number of cases (see below for examples). They also temporarily stopped reporting daily data, resuming again on Aug. 19th. To make these graphs, I therefore had to estimate the daily data from Aug. 12th through the 18th, and I also scaled the pre-Aug. 12th data so that it is an estimate of the confirmed cases alone. The details on how I did this are below:


8/11 5 daily, 1184 probable and confirmed

8/12 1070 confirmed

8/19 9 daily, 1107 total confirmed

Therefore, 8/18 1098 total confirmed

Estimated daily count 8/13 – 8/18: 28/6

Estimated 8/12 daily: also 28/6

Estimated daily confirmed prior to 8/12: Count * ((1070 – 28/6) / 1184) 


8/11 18 daily, 7637 probable and confirmed

8/12  7367 confirmed

8/19 12 daily, 7482 total confirmed

Therefore, 8/18 7470 total confirmed

Estimated daily count 8/13 – 8/18: 103/6

Estimated 8/12 daily: also 103/6

Estimated daily confirmed prior to 8/12: Count * ((7367- 103/6) / 7637) 


Commentaries on “Generative linguistics and neural networks at 60”

Update – There is now a version of this page with comments enabled here:

Final versions of these papers, along with the target article, will appear in the March 2019 volume of Language in the Perspectives section.

Iris Berent and Gary Marcus. No integration without structured representations: reply to Pater.

Ewan Dunbar. Generative grammar, neural networks, and the implementational mapping problem.

Tal Linzen. What can linguistics and deep learning contribute to each other?

Lisa Pearl. Fusion is great, and interpretable fusion could be exciting for theory generation.

Chris Potts. A case for deep learning in semantics

Jonathan Rawski and Jeff Heinz. No Free Lunch in Linguistics or Machine Learning.


Slinks chronology

By Steve Holy with slight additions and edits by Joe Pater. Corrects some inaccuracies from, which were unfortunately promulgated in a recent book on the Hip.

Summer 1979: Anthem (pre-high school!)
Steve Holy, Tim Holy, John Fay
Grand Theatre talent show, 1/2 hour Cable TV show

Spring 1980: Andrew Frontini (bass) jams with Steve Holy and Fay

Summer 1980: Slinks formed (named in the fall)
Grant Ethier (drums), Andrew Frontini (bass), Steve Holy (guitar)

Fall 1980: 3-piece Slinks play the KCVI talent show

Gord Downie (vocals) joins the Slinks

Summer 1981: First 4-piece Slinks show at the Fairbairn cottage

Fall/Winter 1981: Slinks live at the Kingston Yacht Club and New Year’s Eve at the Holiday Inn

Spring 1982: Joe Pater (guitar, keyboards, harp) joins the Slinks, who also occasionally jam sans Downie with Rob Hetherington (guitar) and Dave McQuaide (bass, vocals)

Ethier, Hetherington, McQuaide and Pater took the stage at the KCVI dance during the hired band’s break.

Summer 1982: Jim Jones band plays the Lake Ontario Park afternoon country talent show. McQuaide on vocals, Hetherington and Holy on guitars, Pater on keyboards, Frontini on bass, Ethier on drums

Downie hitchikes through Nova Scotia with Paul Langlois, returns reporting Langlois has written some original songs.

The Jim Jones Band also played an undated show at the Holiday Inn, and Ethier/McQuaide/Pater played an undated talent show at the Lakeview Manor.

Fall 1982: 5-piece Slinks play the Kingston Yacht Club, and the KCVI dance (partial song list and photos here).

February 11, 1983: Last Slinks show at the Polish Hall

Spring 1983: Frontini (guitar) and Pater (bass) play in Hugh Dillon’s class project video with Ian Goodfellow (drums). Iggy Pop’s I’m Bored was one of the songs.

Summer 1983: The Filters form, play Wildestock farm party
(Downie, Frontini, Rob Baker and Finton McConnell guitar, Mauro Sepe drums)

Summer 1984: Formation of 396, house party gigs
(Ethier, Frontini, Holy, Dave Rodenburg on sax)

Fall 1984: Downie, Fay, Baker and Gord Sinclair start playing together

Ethier and Holy tour Eastern Ontario with The Rattlers (also Hugh Dillon and Tim Given). Disband early 1985.

Summer 1985: Ethier, Holy and Pater play the Toucan as The Hallucinations

2003: Ethier plays drums on recordings made by Pater, released in 2022 as the “2003” EP by Les Dérailleurs. (Photo of teenaged Ethier and Pater at the link).


Protected: Stumbling towards myself

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Jets and Sweats show

A note if you stumbled on this by accident: these are just links for getting ready for a show in September 2017 with Paul Gurnsey and Matt Dickson, my bandmates from Hungry Tim in the 1990s, and “The Jets and the Sweats” for our high school reunion show in September. Some of the recordings are just practice tapes and quick demos…

Songs to do for sure:

Not my President

Spin me Round

Where did I go?

Plus 2 or 3 of:


Think of Something

Figure it Out / Party

Fall again

Save Ourselves

Hungry Tim songs:

Find Yourself


After all

Cloud of Unknowing

Free Your Will


Out of the Rain


We were a scene

World without time




Learning to rock with Gord in the Slinks

Growing up in Kingston, Ontario in the early 80s, and in particular going to high school at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute at that time, I was surrounded by a lot of musical talent. Like the four guys who I was lucky enough to play in my first band with: Gord Downie, Grant Ethier, Andrew Frontini, and Steve Holy, the Slinks. I snuck into the band by virtue of playing a bit of blues harp. They had been playing for a while already, with a focus on Teenage Head covers (“Lucy Potato” inspired my nickname “Joey Potato”), and decided to take a blues direction so brought me in on the harmonica. I could also play a little bit of guitar and keyboards, but I essentially had to learn those on the job, to sometimes passable results (especially on guitar), and sometimes not (especially on keyboards).

The Slinks, KCVI gymnasium, from the 82-83 Yearbook (L-R Steve Holy, Gord Downie, Grant Ethier, Joe Pater). Photo by Lisa Samuda, thanks to Peter Hendra for the scan.

We never did go very deep into the blues, for some reason. I know my own music listening had already transitioned from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to Funkadelic and Iggy and the Stooges. My big harp numbers were the Stones Midnight Rambler and the Doors Roadhouse Blues, though I think we did also do Messing with the Kid by Junior Wells. We did a couple songs from the Bowie/Iggy catalog that had a heavy Stones influence and so worked well with especially how Steve played guitar, and probably also with how Gord sang, though I wish in retrospect that I’d pushed for the Stooges, which I’m sure they would have both done a great job with. We probably thought those songs wouldn’t have worked with our other material, or maybe that people would think they were too weird (some other friends – pictured here – and I used to bring Raw Power to parties with the thought that we’d disrupt the proceedings in a suitably punk way).

The Bowie song was Watch that Man, which was undoubtedly a source of a lot of learning for both Gord and me. I remember clearly sitting in the backyard with my Tele, working on memorizing all of those chord changes, and I also remember the satisfaction of getting through it on stage. I learned how to sing it myself last year, and discovered that it’s incredibly hard – the vocals come in with key changes, and it’s way out of my range – I had to bring it down a fifth. I wrote to Gord about it, and he told me that the Hip had played it in an encore on a tour when they were learning a new song each night – impressive in light of my struggles with that song, but I guess that’s the sort of thing you can do when you get as good as they are. The Stonesy Iggy song the Slinks played was Consolation Prizes, which was one of my favorite Slinks songs – I can still hear Steve playing the James Williamson Mick Taylor ripoff slide part.

More Slinks at the KC dance: Andrew Frontini and Gord Downie. (Thanks Andrew for the the photo, again originally published in the yearbook; photo credit Lisa Samuda).

I only remember a few other songs that we played. There was some definitely some Clash – London Calling and Brand New Cadillac. One that sticks out in my mind is Rick James’ Super Freak – it must have been hilarious hearing Gord sing that, with me playing a cheezy synth part. Another one that I remember well is the version of Sweet Jane from Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal, which we played as our big first number for our biggest gig, a high school dance in the KCVI gym. It has a ridiculously complicated intro part, the mastering of which was our biggest musical accomplishment. When the chords for the actual song kicked in, Gord made his entrance. Even if it wasn’t the Stooges, it was still pushing the boundaries for a high school dance. The other shows I remember are our first one, at the Yacht club (the Slinks also played there without me), and our last one, at the Polish Hall. I have only the vaguest memory of an outdoor show on a farm, but I think it might have been pretty great. We never realized our grandest ambition, which was to play one of the bars in town. 15-to-17-year-olds tend to have a hard time convincing bar owners to give them gigs.

I saw Gord some years later at the Polish Hall, for Paul Langlois’ stag. I remarked that it was funny that that was the site of the last Slinks show, and he said, “Yeah, right before I was kicked out of the band.” I actually can’t remember why we decided to break up at that point – I think it was because we were generally tired of the teenaged band drama, and we hadn’t really found a common musical mission. One big mystery to me is why we never tried to write anything – if we had, maybe we would have found something we wanted to keep pushing at. I think it simply never crossed our minds that we could write music together. Gord probably perceived the breakup as him being kicked out because the rest of the band did in fact play a show shortly thereafter, but with another singer, as well as another guitar player. We called ourselves the Jim Jones Band, and played the Lake Ontario Park country talent show, with a rockabilly version of Iggy’s Dog Food, and a pornographic version of Rod Stewart’s Hot Legs, during which we were unplugged. That was our only show, but it was a highlight of my musical “career”. As great as that one show was, I’m pretty sure we didn’t break up the Slinks to do it, but who knows, maybe we were stupid enough to kick Gord out of our band.

In the big picture though, the teenage drama was completely eclipsed by the the fact that we were living out our teenage dreams of playing in a band (at a high school dance!), and getting that rush for the first time that you can only get playing music with other people, especially in front of an audience. I’ve had plenty of flashbacks over the years to my parents’ basement where we rehearsed and where I learned the art of rock and roll, and I know I’m not the only one.

The Slinks all went on to bigger things musically. Steve moved on to jazz guitar, and then to bass, and he’s now a mainstay of the Vancouver jazz scene. Andrew became an architect, but has always had musical projects on the go in Toronto (Quadruped and others). And Grant was in the Thirteen Engines and the HellBillies, and ran the Funhouse, a recording studio that was at the center of a thriving Kingston music scene in the early 90s that I got to be a part of in a band that I played in over a few summers in Kingston, Hungry Tim.

I got to realize our bar gig dream not too long after the Slinks split up – I did a couple shows there with some of the Slinks and some other friends at the Terrapin (now the Toucan), which was the site of many of Hip’s early shows. And some time after that, I even got to play the Horseshoe in Toronto with Hungry Tim, thanks to Gord. I’ve kept at it sporadically over the years (here’s my best recent song), and in many ways, I’m still the same person I became in that basement. I’ve got my own basement studio in a red brick house with a noise-tolerant family in another small college town with a proud rock history and thriving music scene. Most recently, I did a couple shows that would have made teenage me extremely proud – we got a Bowie tribute together in January, as well as a Stooges set a couple months later. And I even got to be the singer, which entailed a whole lot of learning (cramming, even).

What Gord managed to accomplish with the Hip artistically, commercially, and culturally is way beyond anything that we could have possibly dreamt of as teenagers. I’m heading back to Kingston this weekend to watch the Hip play the last show of what might be their last tour. Even though it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that Gord’s very sick, it’s beautiful to see him continuing to do what he loves to and has become so, so good at. He has developed his voice into a really fantastic instrument. I particularly like the high register that I think I first heard on Bobcaygeon, and which he says served him well for the Hip’s take on Watch that Man. Like me, Gord was learning on the job in the Slinks – though he did have a natural stage presence. He’s come as far as he has by working really hard. And he’s also become a great songwriter (hearing Bobcaygeon for the first time was also the moment I said to myself that Gord had become a great writer). This also takes tons of work, which he didn’t start doing, as far as I know, until he joined the Hip. I know that when I fantasize about what I’d do if I knew my days were particularly limited, I imagine quitting my job and putting myself full time into making music. I don’t know if I’d really have the courage or tenacity to do that, since I didn’t have it when I was younger, which is why it’s so inspiring that Gord always has had it, and still does now.

Update Sept 10. 2016

I arrived in Kingston to have my brother point out the first of the pictures above in the local paper, just one of the many surreal features of all of this. The big event of the show for me was Gord’s putting the PM on the spot for native issues, and I’m so thrilled to see him continuing to work on those, combining his concern with his art. Looking around his Facebook page after going there for the Secret Path stuff, I came across this:

“I got into my first band when I was 16. They already had something going. I just wanted in. Nothing was going to stop me. Up until that time, I don’t remember ever having had that …singularity of purpose. I was going to be in that band. I wanted to sing. Even if I couldn’t.”

I also see he was in the tribute business too, with a Lou Reed cover after his death.

I got some very nice feedback on this piece from friends in Facebook, including Matt James’ filling in some details on the farm show:

“…the farm party was Wildestock. I got a ride home with Gord and Paula, and we drove the wrong way, only realizing it in Napanee. I thought, “oh shit,” but Gord laughed, relishing the comically epic wrong turn.”

Update Oct. 18, 2017

Update May 12, 2018 Photo credits added.

Update May 20, 2018 Steve Holy has a better memory than me! Turns out the Jim Jones Band show happened before, rather than after, the Slinks shows I played with Gord, and that the farm show was the Filters, not the Slinks. A full Slinks chronology is here.

Added Aug. 23, 2020. One more Slinks 1982-83 yearbook photo taken by Lisa Samuda (L-R Joe Pater, Gord Downie and Andrew Frontini). I’m pretty sure we were doing our cover of the J. Geils cover of “First I look at the purse”, and I’m shouting “Money!”
Yet another Slinks photo, this time directly from Lisa Samuda. I think this one didn’t make it into the yearbook. Loved that guitar, which was unfortunately stolen when I was living in Montreal. I now play a black Godin that is their take on a Tele custom, which I also love.