Summer in Quebec

Back in the spring of 1972 I was casting about for an interesting summer job.  After a while, a possibility presented itself that included some of the prerequisites: a steady paycheck, far from home, an exotic location.  The downside was that I would be back East in distant Quebec and my French language skills were sadly lacking. 


You see, my mother’s first cousin Patsy had married a French-Canadian entrepreneur who, after making a small fortune selling venetian blinds, had since acquired a hotel at Lac Beauport, not too far from Quebec City.  Apparently they had room on their staff for another pair of hands and I had a hankering for a summer away from Haney.


So, shortly after school ended for the year, I found my way on board a plane jetting its way across the country.  When you are 16, there is nothing like being all alone on a plane, bound for a summer job some 3,000 miles away from your parents and siblings.  It was going to be great, I thought to myself, and the miles sped by, fuelled by dreams of seductive nights on the lake.


The Chateau Du Lac was a ski resort in winter, although to my western eyes the supposed mountain was barely more than a bunny hill.  My cousins, however were proud of the chairlift that soared several hundred yards up the slope.  The hotel had a restaurant, a pool, a disco and several floors of guestrooms.  Up in the attic were several dozen small rooms for the staff, each holding a bed and a chest of drawers with a couple of shared washrooms at each end of the hall.


The lake was across the road and the Chateau had its own beach with supervised swimming and would rent out leaky canoes and paddle boats and arrange for water skiing opportunities for the guests.  There was also a tennis court and some other buildings.


Anyway, my cousin Bobby was fresh out of the Harvard Business School and was managing the place for his father.  Bobby had some kind of hot car, which I think was a race-tuned gold Duster, a liking for James Brown and American R & B tunes.  A few years later he was to discover his sensitive side and become a leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement but at that point he was strictly a hotelier, with aspirations of becoming the next Conrad Hilton and consequently he had little time for me, his young Anglo cousin.


I was put to work as a janitor and assigned a number of labour intensive tasks.  Soon enough my days settled into a routine of getting up early and grabbing breakfast in the kitchen then doing the garbage collection rounds.  The rest of the staff treated me with rather chilly politeness but were cautious because of my family connection to the Boss, not to mention the language barrier.  I quickly became aware that high school French, as taught in BC, bore little relationship to  “joual”, the slang that was the common currency of the rest of the staff.  So I remained pretty much isolated and the early dreams of romantic liaisons were fading quickly.


I slogged on, hauling garbage, cleaning the pool, digging ditches, and ripping up linoleum floors.  Things were looking grim.


One day, as I laboured stoically on, with hope for romance and gallic adventures rapidly receding, feeling melancholy and coated in grime no doubt, my duties took me past the tennis court.  On this particular day some strange looking characters, none wearing the spiffy white costumes ordinarily seen there, occupied it.  In fact, one fellow seemed to have been Robert Crumb’s model for Fat Freddie of the “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” of underground comics’ fame.  There was another longhaired guy flailing away with abandon and two young ladies wearing tight T-shirts and short shorts.  Needless to say, I lingered at the fence watching their antics with a certain amount of envy and a large amount of teenage lust.  After a moment, I realised that they were shouting in English, even if it was mostly the “pardon my french” variety.


Before long I took advantage of their poor aim to gather up half a dozen tennis balls that had flown over the fence and used the opportunity to introduce myself.  “Cool”, Freddie responded to my offering and after a few pleasantries I discovered that they were from Vancouver and living at the hotel for the summer in a rather dilapidated building known as the Annex.  “Hey”, the tall dark-haired guy with a Fu Manchu moustache said, “why don’t you come over when you get off work, we just had some dynamite Lebanese laid on us at the club last night.”


Things were definitely looking up.


An hour or so later I arrived at the seedy, ramshackle building known as the Annex.  Tucked away under some overhanging trees, and rather the worse for wear, it contained a large living room, a kitchen and a rabbit warren of bedrooms and bathrooms.  The living room was a lot like other rooms I would come to know over the next decade or so; decorated with posters and flags, furnished with old sofas leaking stuffing, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and roaches.  The coffee table held a forest of beer bottles and a rickety stand nearby provided space for a record player.  A couple of plastic milk crates overflowed with record albums.


The room was crowded, not just with the erstwhile tennis players, but with a whole tribe of longhaired, wild looking characters.  “Meet the band”, I was told, “this is Cannonball”.  “Far out”, I said and introduced myself.  Somebody passed me a hashpipe and before long the air was blue with fumes.  The stereo cranked out tunes and I soon found out that Cannonball was a rock’n’roll band who had just scored a summer-long gig at a club in Quebec City.


After a while, it was settled that I would come into the city with the band, check out their performance, and help out the roadie (Freddie from above) with some of his tasks.  So I rushed back to the main hotel, grabbed a bite to eat, told my cousin that I’d be going into town with the band from the Annex and then rejoined the group.


We piled into the caravan of rusted beaters and set off for town.  Le Cercle Electrique, as the club was called, was located just off Rue St. Jean in the centre of downtown.  It was actually a converted movie theatre, and as a result was a fabulous night-club.  The dance floor was a large wooden oval plateau in the centre of the house with tiers of tables falling around it down toward the stage.  The projectionist’s booth made for a great sound and lighting command post, including the then de rigeur swirling lightshow and miscellaneous movies playing on the billowing burlap hangings that framed the stage.  The stage was immense, and it is likely that the place had served as some kind of a burlesque house in distant years gone by.  At any rate, the band had the luxury of space, and was able to actually perform, instead of being crammed into a corner on a six-inch platform.


So I was introduced to the bouncers and other staff as part of the entourage and helped to set up for the night.  This involved carrying in a lot of stuff from the cars, making sure the guitars were on the right stands, that mikes were working and in position, that the band had the right clothes and that they had water or other drinks in the expected locations.


Well, time passed quickly and before I knew it the club began to fill up, the canned music got cranked up and the girls grabbed me and set me down at “the band’s table” down in front between the dance floor and the stage.


The lights dimmed and the canned music was canned.  As the lights came up, the band launched into a spirited cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and I sat enthralled as my new buddies from the Annex emerged as masters of rock’n’roll.


On lead guitar was Jimmy Harmata, looking like a Sicilian pirate (he of the fu manchu) and simply wailing on his Fender Stratocaster.  A veteran of the Vancouver rock scene, Jimmy could make the guitar sing and when he caught the right groove could carry a blues riff with the same effortless joy as a downhill skier making the first run of the day through fresh powder.


On vocals and violin, Henry Small had an energy field about him that carried him up and into the ozone.  He would leap up to the top of the amplifiers, belt out a chorus, appear next at centre stage wielding his fiddle with a mixture of classical technique melded with the soulful truth of Papa John Creech.  Henry’s energy was formidable and simply watching him was exhausting.  Yet while he worked hard, it clearly was a lot more play than work for him and a matter of somehow connecting to a primal source of musical talent that just flowed.


King of the keyboards and pitching in on additional vocals was Al Foreman.  Al was a craftsman and I was to find out that he was responsible for a lot of the band’s original material, if not as a writer, well then as the yardstick that the others measured themselves by.  His ballad, “Travelling” was a great piece of writing.


On rhythm guitar was Paul Dean, haloed in a blond Afro and adding depth to the sound that crashed out into the club.  Paul was steady as a rock, and kept the tempo where it was supposed to be, but he was also able to provide a counterpoint to Jimmy’s spirited solos.  He wasn’t averse to taking a turn in the spotlight from time to time and knew a lick or two himself.


Laying down the bass line was Bob Kidd.  He was as smooth as the family’s honey business.  Centre rear of the stage was the domain of Billy MacBeth on drums.  This was the era of the drum solo and any rock drummer worth his salt had to be able to hold the attention of a room full of dancers and Billy was able to conjure up the spirit of the best.  Billy sometimes had a “deer in the headlights” look, as if he had been surprised in the act, but as night followed night it was clear that his steady beat was anything but a surprise.


Cannonball rocked.  They favoured straight ahead rock covers, drawing on bands like the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers (they did an awesome version of “It’s Not My Cross To Bear”), the odd ballad or slow number and they also loaded their sets with quite a few original tunes.


One of the most memorable of these was “Crazy ‘Bout A Blues Guitar” featuring Jimmy wailing away on his axe, and Henry belting out the words “…and if you should happen to see BB King, tell him that I need a transfusion…”  The crowds rolled in night after night all summer long.  What a scene.


Some nights, one of the motorcycle gangs would drop by, and in the break between sets or at the end of the night they’d head backstage to the green room and smoke everybody up, leaving behind several days supply of whatever the current product was.  For me, this was icing on the cake, not that I was totally drugged out or anything, but after all I was a child of the times!


Somebody taught the boys a few bars of a Quebecois rock song and they’d use that to close a set, getting an incredible reaction from the crowd.  I was happy to fetch and carry, to be a part of the inner sanctum, and to have a ringside seat at the best show in town.


After the last set, we’d tear down for the night and pack the cars and head back to the Chateau, often stopping at an all-night diner for a bite to eat.  I was getting by on four or five hours of sleep a night but it was all so exciting that I barely noticed.


The afternoons were spent in stoned-out conversation about all the topics of the day, as we listened to records like Paul Butterfield on the turntable, the Velvet Underground, or perhaps even Michael Murphy singing about Geronimo’s Cadillac.  Some of the guys had steady girlfriends, and for the rest it was a steady parade of one-night stands.  I saw more action that summer than any time before or since, some of it even involving me.


To be honest, the drugs were big part of it all, of course.  Now, up until then I was pretty much limited to twisting up a doobie or partaking of the odd gram of hash, stretched out over several days.  These guys of course were getting free drugs so everybody was high all the time.  Not only that, but one day somebody showed up with some mescaline and before I knew it, a technicolor viewfinder descended over my eyes, as I discovered what the psychedelic era was all about.  Of course that would be the night that Billy’s high hat broke and so just as we were peaking, the roadie and I had to take the cymbal next door to where we had seen a mechanic working.  Now, you have to remember we were completely out to lunch and not very coherent, not to mention that he was french and didn’t speak english, but by some miracle we managed to convince the mechanic to get out his welding equipment and repair the damage.  To us it seemed to take hours, but we got back before the end of the next break and Billy was able to flail away once more.


What a summer it was.  The band treated me like a mascot, and we joked around, talked and dreamed the days away.  One thing for sure, I didn’t feel like sixteen years old that summer.


The summer ended as summers do.  I went home to Vancouver, to another year at the dreaded boarding school, where the best I could look forward to was a Friday night at the Medieval Inn, where it was easy to use fake ID to get a jug of sudsy beer.


Cannonball added Jim Kale, formerly of the Guess Who, in place of Bob Kidd and changed their name to Scrubbaloe Caine.  About a year later they were playing at Starvin’ Marvin’s on Broadway in Vancouver and I saw them there.  I piled a carload of friends into the club, had a great time and was able to show off to the home crowd by virtue of the reflected glory.  But although I went backstage at the break, the old times were gone and the memories of that great summer in Quebec were simply memories, as faded as the pictures on a night-club wall in the bright light of day.  We had all moved on.


After a couple of albums, Scrubbaloe Caine broke up and the band members went their separate ways.  Paul Dean went on to great success in Streetheart and then Loverboy.  Henry Small fronted his own band for a time, then joined Prism.  Al Foreman had steady work in Vancouver for a couple of decades, sometimes solo and often as a duo with Jim Byrnes.


I never did hear what happened to the others, but for me it doesn’t really matter.  The memories I have will never get scratched, and every now and then an echo of one those tunes comes back to me and I remember the summer in Quebec, hanging out at the Annex with Cannonball.


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Filed under Musical Vignettes, Prose

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