Music was simply part of the natural surroundings during my childhood in the late fifties and early sixties, as much of a presence as the towering trees around the house or the rumbling murmur of the Alouette River outside the kitchen door. My personal soundtrack of those years ranged from songs like the Ballad of Davy Crockett playing on the radio, to my parent’s extensive and eclectic record collection, and even live music when on Sundays the earnestly amateur voices of the church choir were raised together to lift the collective spirit. Perhaps the absence of a television in our house during my early years contributed to my appreciation of music, and even to the spoken word, through lp’s such as the Count of Monte Cristo or the Lone Ranger. We’d even listen to the rolling lilt of Dylan Thomas reciting his boozy poetry while puzzling over his odd appearance on the album cover.
It was a time of folk singers and many of those albums worked just as well for toddlers as for the parents, after all what kid wouldn’t want to sing along with Ed McCurdy and “The Big Rocky Candy Mountain” or Pete Seeger doing “Wimoweh” or even the more mainstream Mitch Miller with some kind of a Hootenany. Quite early on, at least as I recall, I was able to recognize that a song like “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” had a certain kind of message, and that it wasn’t just about melodies and rhymes for some songs. Of course, for the folk artists of the day, it really was as much about the message as it was about the music, at least until Joni Mitchell came along some years later. I used to cherish an album by Josh White Junior, Live at Carnegie Hall, but sadly lent it to someone…and it went away.
Other standout musical memories from that time include some of the old English Music Hall standards, maybe Stanley Holloway with chestnuts like “Where Did You Get That Hat?”. For some linguistic balance we also listened to francophone artists such as Maurice Chevalier although his records were generally English with just a veneer of a french accent. More authentic was Edith Piaf singing La Vie En Rose, or Gilbert Becaud and Jacques Brel records that seemed really quite exotic – you could almost see curls of thick gray smoke rising from the Gitanes cigarettes on those album covers.
On the radio, in those years, came the repetitive chorus of ads. I’ll always remember “Don’t Buy a Car, Buy a Merceds Benz”, “Honest Nat’s Department Store at 48th and Fraser” even though I never went there, “Dollar 49 Day, Woodwards”, and “I Like the Girl at Checkout Number 3”.
Of course the classical side wasn’t neglected and was made somewhat more approachable through pieces like St Saen’s Carnival of the Animals or Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf.
At some point, when I was about 6 years old, I made the mistake of showing some interest in the violin and thus was sentenced to some years of rather painful instruction by Mrs. Nelson, supplemented by the dubious distinction of being a member of the Vancouver Junior Philharmonic String Orchestra. Anyone who has suffered through music lessons can commiserate although I have to say it made me a much better audience member for the effort.
The small Catholic school I attended didn’t have a gym back then and consequently when it was raining and cold outside we were allowed to stay indoors during the lunch hour and play records. The record player was one of those industrial strength units, kind of like a little suitcase, with a built-in speaker. Every week or so, I’d make my way over to the local music and art supply store, check the weekly CKLG Top 30 Hitlist and spend most of my allowance on a 45 RPM single.
I was probably in Grade Three or Four when I forked out my dollar for Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DVCgKsqn30
It was, and still is, a great song and so it got a lot of time in the lunchtime rotation. But after we had pretty much worn through the grooves I decided to change things up and flipped it over. The B Side was “Let’s Spend the Night Together”.
I slipped it onto the turntable and lowered the needle. We enjoyed the new tune for a minute or so until Sister Mary Francis rushed over, eyes blazing, the wrath of God on her side. “Who put this awful record on?” she demanded. “I did, sister” I replied, wondering what was so wrong but nervously aware that something proverbial had just hit the fan. Before I knew it I had been sent home for the day, along with the offending record. As I trudged home in the drizzle I couldn’t help but wonder to myself what all the fuss was about somebody just wanting a sleep-over.
Boarding School – Mashed Up
My first year at boarding school had not gone well. I struggled with subjects like Latin and German and French and as for math… well let’s just say that things weren’t adding up. The rules were oppressive, I had been subject to some minor bullying, and basically it had been like living in a prison camp for rich kids. So when I arrived back at “Stalag” Shawnigan for the beginning of grade ten it was with a certain amount of trepidation.
One thing I was looking forward to was moving into one of the smaller four person rooms instead of having to put up with the chaos of the junior dorm, which had housed something like 10 of us rather unsatisfactorily. I was a little surprised to find myself sharing a dorm with Ross E., since we had come to blows a few times the year before. The fat lips and black eyes had led to a grudging co-respect however, and we had closed out Grade nine in a kind of Entente Cordiale, an alliance against boys from the other houses. And since Ross’s family had a summer cottage a few miles up the lake, there was the added advantage of having a nearby safe haven for nefarious activities.
So it was with more than a little interest that Ross and I made the acquaintance of our roommates. First we were met with a new student, (all new boys were called “grommits” for some reason, and went through the usual hazing rituals) a year younger than us who had been assigned to our dorm since the junior dorm was even more crowded than usual. Paul A. was nice enough in a quietly subdued kind of way and perhaps of most interest to Ross and I, he had a sister who was a stunningly beautiful girl, not that we’d be seeing much of her after the families had left. Still, nothing like a little teen spirit to dream on.
The fourth roommate was late to arrive and before he did, the Housemaster, Mr. Grey, paid us a special visit to say a few words about him. It turned out that “young Michael” was from California and not just that, but was a real Hollywood brat, a bona fide member of pop culture royalty, and the school’s administration wanted to ensure that things went smoothly. I don’t remember the exact words of Mr. Grey but I’m sure the underlying message to Ross and I was something along the lines of “don’t beat the crap out of him” and of course “stay out of trouble” meaning avoiding activities that could lead to getting caned (just about anything fun).
At any rate, Mike eventually showed up, carrying his guitar case along with the more standard kind of luggage. At first he seemed pretty quiet but as he unpacked we noticed that he sprinkled his conversation with all sorts of strange words and phrases, which was basically a mishmash of Southern Californian surfer lingo, mixed with what would later be known as Valleygirl slang. And while it was true enough that he was from L.A., Mike told us that he had spent the last few months in Houston, where his dad had been filming a movie set in the Astrodome involving birds and angels and was apparently a very skewed comedy called Brewster McCloud. But of more importance was the fact that his dad was the director of the hottest movie of the year, MASH. Just to put it in context, MASH was irreverent and groundbreaking and used the thin cover of the Korean War to critique the ongoing and divisive Vietnamese conflict. Not only that, but the ad-libbed nature of the dialogue, with multiple conversations taking place at the same time, swearing and on-screen pot-smoking signaled this as a counter-culture call to arms. It also paved the way for Altman senior to develop a series of brilliant works over the next few decades, since studios like nothing better than someone who has developed a blockbuster hit.
For us though, Mike seemed pretty normal and he did his best to fit in and learn the ins and outs of boarding school life. Of course, he was pretty good on the guitar and as I recall spent the first week or two learning Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”. Finally the weekend came and we had some spare time. Mike suggested that we should head over to Ross’s cottage, which seemed like a good idea. Something like a few hundred yards beyond the school gates, Mike pulled us aside, and said, “Hey, do you guys smoke?” Nervously, since even suspicion of smoking was a caning offence, I dug around and pulled out my carefully guarded pack of Number Sevens , and offered him one. “Well that’s something”, he said, “I figured you guys were cool”. After our smoke break, we carried on and trudged along towards Ross’s cottage. Eventually, through the trees and long leafy lanes we came to the summer cottage. Of course, as is the custom of the wealthy, the word cottage was quite an understatement as this was basically a very comfortable three bedroom suburban style house, plunked on the shore of the lake with extensive wraparound decks and a dock and boathouse. Although I had been there previously, I still shook my head and sighed at the luxury of the place. Mike wasn’t all that impressed however, but did seem anxious to get inside which I figured was due to his being tired out from carrying his guitar all this way. Well, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room and Mike popped open the guitar case, but not to get the guitar out. Instead he rummaged around and from a little hiding hole somewhere quickly produced a plastic baggie. “Far out dudes”, he drawled, “wanna get high?” Well, of course we did, since virtually every kid in those days was a wannabe hippy. The only problem we had was to be nonchalant about it, displaying the right kind of “cool”. Drugs were still a precious commodity in those days, extremely hard to get at our young age, but we had to act as if this was all quite normal, much like the way young men have always verbalized their sexual bravado regardless of any real experience! Mike, on the other hand, had lived the kind of life that was documented in Life Magazine, surfing and smoking at Malibu and hanging out with rich, the famous, not to mention the notorious.
So Mike rolled up a joint, giving us a short clinic on separating out the stems and seeds along the way. Now this wasn’t really the first time I’d smoked up but it was the first time I’d smoked anything decent so of course we got really stoned and ate whatever food we could find while laughing uproariously at practically everything.
Some weeks later, on a similar excursion, Mike got around to telling us about how he had written Suicide is Painless, the theme song for MASH. “Really? You wrote that?” one of us said with perhaps a note of skepticism creeping in. “Well, the words not the music”, he allowed, “but still…” Fumbling around in his ubiquitous guitar case, he pulled out a tattered piece of paper, with words smudged and scrawled and crossed out. “Look at this – I was 14 when I wrote it. “ And there, as proof, was the first draft of Suicide is Painless. He further explained that during the production his dad was looking for original music for the film and was having a difficult time matching the right kind of music to the action. Mike had read the book of course and like many a 14 year old was not afraid of scribbling a few lines of poetry. At any rate, he had hammered out the lyrics and then had gone to talk to Johnny Mandel to see if he’d be interested in putting it to music. Johnny came up with the melody and made a rough arrangement, which he’d played for Bob, to an enthusiastic reception. Only after the director agreed to include the song in the movie did Johnny disclose his own son had written it!
Now, during this period, it was customary for parents and family to come and visit on the weekends, either to attend a rowing regatta or to watch a rugby match or to take us out for a meal somewhere. For Ross and his brother Paul, this often amounted to his grandparents arriving in their chauffeur driven Cadillac limo, and going somewhere for lunch, which Ross rather perversely didn’t seem to enjoy all that much. For me, it might be a family visit to the Glass Castle, and a meal at the Village Green in the town of Duncan, something less than the height of sophistication, but appreciated nonetheless.
One weekend, Mike got permission to leave for the weekend and off he went on a fishing trip. When he returned on Sunday evening, we asked him how it had gone and if he’d caught any fish. “It was okay”, he allowed, “but I didn’t catch any fish”. Slowly, and with a lot of prodding we discovered that it really wasn’t a fishing trip at all. Instead he’d been out partying on a massive yacht, not just with his dad, but also with Julie Christie and Warren Beatty who were shooting McCabe and Mrs. Miller in Vancouver with Bob at the time. Not only that, but Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson were also aboard to get some relief from filming Carnal Knowledge over at the Taylor’s old place in Vancouver, Shannon Estate. Well, according to Mike it was a memorable trip, even without any fishing. We thought so, too.
Christmas came and went and in the New Year Mike sought out the Housemaster with a request to be absent for a few days in February. “What’s the purpose of the trip?” asked Mr. Grey. “Well sir,” said Mike, “I need to go to the Academy Awards, my song’s been nominated.” Mr. Grey looked a little startled and then said, “hmm. I suppose that’s sufficient grounds, but be sure you keep up with any homework assignments, won’t you!”
The song didn’t win but the movie managed a statue or two. Dozens of boys had crowded into Mr. Grey’s study to watch the telecast, hoping for a glimpse of Mike. The camera did pause briefly on the Altman clan so we were able to verify his presence at any rate.
By Easter, the checks started rolling in. The song didn’t get much airplay in North America but Europe was another story entirely. Over there it was climbing the charts and over the course of just a couple of months Mike was raking in more dough than most of our parents would make in a year. Finally the temptation grew to be too much for Mike and he decided to drop out. He came back to visit us just before the end of the school year, driving some big old commercial truck that had been converted into a hippy version of a motor home. In addition, his co-pilot was a dreamy looking beauty, which made us all turn an even darker shade of green. After a brief visit, off he went, painlessly to be sure, into the proverbial sunset.
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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LabW7JOvjuY
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.
Years ago, when I was in my mid twenties, I drove cab in Vancouver. It was an interesting job and really, it was an experience that transformed me from being a naïve and innocent youth to a sometimes cynical and generally responsible adult. You might think you know a city but until you see the nooks and crannies, the highs and lows of a big urban sprawl, well, you have just scratched the surface. Cabbies also get to hone their communication skills, needing to judge from fare to fare whether to be talkative or not, to pay attention to body language and emotional mood and be responsive to the needs of the passengers, the traffic, and in those pre-computer days, to listen to the constant buzz of the radio dispatch system.
One rainy evening I was sitting in the queue, at one of the major hotels in the downtown core, listening to the blues hour on the FM jazz radio station I preferred in those days. The doorman raised his arm and motioned me forward for my next passenger. He got into the car and gave me an address that was neither too close nor too far; “At least it keeps the wheels rolling,” I thought to myself as we pulled into the stream of traffic. My fare seemed to appreciate the music at least and after a moment or two asked if I liked the blues or did I just happen to be listening to this station by chance. “Well this is the jazz station but they play a blues set every night, and of course I love the blues. Doesn’t everyone?” I answered. He chuckled and replied that no, not everyone likes the blues, no, not at all. “Have you ever been to Portland Al’s?” he then asked me. “Nope, can’t say that I have – who or what is that?” I responded. “Well, it’s a store at 3rd and Main that’s more than just a corner store. Portland Al runs it and he knows more about the blues than just about anybody in this town. He also sells tape compilations of his favorites and has a few stories to tell. Check him out, you won’t be disappointed.” That turned out to be one of the better tips I ever received as a cabbie.
A few days later I made my way to 3rd and Main to check the place out. As promised, it looked pretty much like one of the hundreds of corner stores found throughout the city in those days, before they were pushed aside by the all-too-common 7Elevens and Starbucks that have invaded the urban landscape faster than scotch broom on a hillside. The sign was one of those ubiquitous Coca Cola signs that proclaimed “Portland Al’s, Gifts and Groceries” to traffic rushing into and out of the city, but unless you lived around the corner or had some pressing need there wasn’t anything from the outward appearance that might draw you in. Indeed, upon entering it looked pretty much like all those other stores, some shelves with basic food items, a refrigerated dairy case, candy, and soda pop. Beside the counter with the cash register however, was an alcove that led through to a whole other space.
The inner sanctum included racks of new and used albums, stereo components of varying quality, framed pictures, posters and generally a potpourri of music paraphernalia. There was also a random collection of native carvings, not necessarily of the best quality. Presiding over all was Portland Al himself. Conjure up, if you will, a picture of a stereotypical beatnik from the 50’s with a goatee and a beret, and how he might look like after a few decades of hard living and you have an approximate vision of Portland Al. “Can I help you, son?” he asked me. I told him I had heard that he had some pretty good blues compilation tapes and he admitted that yes, he had a few of those. Leading me over to a cabinet at the back he said that maybe I’d like to start with one or two of his special blues compilations, and I agreed. He also pointed out some of the pictures on the walls, which included him with a who’s who of blues royalty such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Joe Turner. “Got a few stories to tell about those guys!” he said chuckling to himself.
I bought the tapes, with no thought of all about copyright legislation or anything like that and left the store. Well, after listening to those tapes several times I ended up a week later back at 3rd and Main to pick up some more tunes. Over the next few months I became a regular of sorts and was given a more than cursory education in the blues. Al would like nothing better than to pull out an album full of photos and clippings and would take great pride in reliving gigs and parties from years ago. He wasn’t a blues musician himself, but was a huge fan and had done some promoting in the past. He had received his moniker because in his teens he frequently travelled to Portland to catch certain acts; I’m not sure but I think he had family there. Anyway he loved to hold forth on his favorite topics and I soon became familiar with the other Kings, Freddie and Albert, the differences between Delta and Chicago blues, along with the history of the civil rights movement on the West Coast. I received a brief history of Chess Records, Stax, Verve, Motown, and all the rest and which labels recorded which artists. While not exactly a busy establishment, the door at Portland Al’s opened and shut frequently enough and the clientele provided a certain amount of entertainment value themselves. Since Vancouver didn’t have a decent R & B radio station, my previous knowledge of the blues was pretty much limited to what the rock scene had appropriated. And while Al himself loved Clapton and the rest of the blues rockers, he opened my ears to bluesmen like Cornell Dupree, Junior Wells, Little Milton, Albert Collins, Fenton Robinson, Otis Rush, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.
Well, the years passed and I moved on and stopped dropping by to 3rd and Main. The area changed, the city grew and finally, a few years ago I heard that Al had sold his remaining record collection and the rest of the stock and closed the store. The years had not been kind to him – his only son was killed in a fire of a suspicious nature and Al himself had some serious health issues to grapple with. I wish I could say that I reached out to let him know how much he had given me but I let it slide, consoling myself that I was living miles away in a different city. Now, I will never be able to acknowledge that debt directly to him but I’ll always honour his memory and his own personal love of the blues that he so willingly shared with many others and me.
Hello Mr. King
It had been a slow night but I wanted to hit my target of $100 in fares for the shift. I was at a cabstand outside of one of the big downtown hotels, hoping for a late trip to the airport, or something like that to put me over the top. Vicky, the crusty old dispatcher, got on the radio and asked who was first up on that particular stand. “Car 92” I replied. “Go over to the Commodore Nightclub, 92”. “Who am I looking for Vicky?” I asked. “Oh, I think you’ll recognize him, it’s for Mr. King”. A few seconds later, I slid to a stop in front of the club, tires smoking. I hopped out, and from out of the shadows walked a familiar silhouette, carrying a guitar case. I quickly popped the trunk open and went over to greet the great B.B. King. “Hello Mr. King”, let me get that for you”, gesturing to the guitar case. He looked at me askance and said “Better be careful with that son!” “Don’t worry Mr. King, Lucille is safe with me” I replied, and carefully placed one of the most famous guitars in the world into the trunk. It was just a short ride to the hotel he was staying at and over far too quickly. He was tired and I could tell he wasn’t in the mood for chitchat so I didn’t pester him. I tried to think of some way to tell him about Cannonball and their song Crazy ‘Bout a Blues Guitar and how I should ask him for a transfusion but I just couldn’t come up with the right words. Instead I pulled up to the hotel, got the door for Mr. King and delivered Lucille back to him. I simply said something like “It was an honour to drive you Mr. King” and went to wait for my next fare.
The Knight and Day
One night after a long shift, the other cabbies and I headed over to the Knight and Day restaurant, on Broadway between Cambie and Oak. I was looking forward to my mushroom caps stuffed with escargot when in walk the Nylons and they sit down a couple of booths over. Shortly after a bunch of bikers come along. Well, they don’t like the inter-racial mix, and especially get on the case of one of the Nylons who was black and was dating a white girl. Things started heating up and then all of us cabbies, en masse, got up and formed a protective cordon around the Nylons and called over the manager. The bikers got tossed and we all got a round of applause. I think that was the night they recorded the Lion Sleeps Tonight at Malkin Bowl. And if it wasn’t, it should have been!
There is a Town in North Ontario
One of my friends from boarding school came from a family that had made a fortune in the grain business and although they had long since moved to Vancouver, they continued to maintain a summer cottage on one of the many islands that dot the Lake of the Woods, a few hours drive from their former home of Winnipeg. Of course it wasn’t really a cottage at all, as the main house boasted a living room that was 90 feet by 60, with a 35 foot tall cathedral ceiling all anchored by a massive stone fireplace that had a hearth so big you could have parked a small car in it. Some cottage, indeed. Travelling from the west, Lake of the Woods is the first significant example of “Cottage Country” as its known throughout the east. It is a way of life for many folks in Toronto and Montreal and the other eastern cities, and provides urban dwellers with a chance to feel a little bit closer to nature. The Canadian shield which stretches across Ontario and Quebec is dotted with lakes and of course the Great Lakes themselves are home to many a cottage, some grand beyond belief and others that are little more than basic shelter. Gord’s place was set on one half of an island and comprised something like 10 acres, but it seemed bigger because of the rocky coves and twisted shoreline. Unique to the vicinity, there was also a large sandy halfmoon beach on the south side of the property. The usual approach though was via the boathouse and dock on the north side. From there a trail led up the camp on the right, while to the left sprawled a lawn tennis court. There was also the remains of what had once been a pretty decent nine hole golf course – still playable if you don’t mind the rough. The house had been built in the 1920’s in a grand style of rustic splendor and while in need of some spit and polish, it retained an aura of gracious exclusivity.
Gord’s family had been rather sporadic in their collective use of the place but he was an enthusiastic booster of its special character and so he decided to spend the summer there one year in the late 70’s, when we would have been in our early twenties. Since I didn’t have anything better going on, I tagged along for the ride. It was an experience I learnt a lot from, and I have to say that living on an island in luxurious surroundings is pretty seductive. Of course, in contrast to earlier years when the establishment had been staffed by cooks, maids and groundskeepers, there was no longer any staff and even the grand boat house which had once sheltered a large ChrisCraft yacht and several other powerboats, canoes and sailboats and even sleeping accommodations for some of the staff had since been stripped back to a utilitarian dock with a flat roof, whose lone inhabitant besides a few nests of raucous birds known as grackles, was a battered and pedestrian Hourston Glascraft runabout. To our eyes, however, the island camp was a paradise of rare beauty, and we had a wonderful time alternating between maintenance projects and sheer indolence. Living on an island, visits to the nearby town of Kenora necessitated travel by boat and who could resist the charms of a town where the local Safeway included temporary moorage for a dozen or so boats on one side of the parking lot? Kenora was also infamous for its not-so-charming side; home to seedy bars and public displays of drunken and lewd behaviour. Naturally, it was going to be easy for us to fit in.
One evening, tired and bored of holing up on the island, we fired up the runabout and set off through Devil’s Gap for town. We tied up at the municipal dock and set off for one of the local dives, where there was the promise of some live music and cheap beer. The place rapidly filled up and we quickly got into the rhythm of drinking and dancing and meeting the locals, both the “townies” and the more seasonal island residents. The entertainment that evening was someone named Doc Tibbles, who played a little bit of country, a little bit of folk and a little bit of blues, finger picking on a battered acoustic guitar. Obviously a crowd favorite, his playlist a known quantity, the suds were flowing copiously that night. Eventually the house lights came up and the bar shut down and we stumbled off into the night. As we made our way back to the boat it became increasingly obvious that more than a few of our recent acquaintances were heading in a similar direction. As it turned out, two houseboats were tied up at the dock and were waiting to be transformed into an aquatic party central. The majority of the crowd from the bar clambered aboard, the houseboats were lashed together and a small flotilla of smaller boats, ours included, were tied on behind. There are some parties that are destined to live on in memory, and this was one, regardless of the mental capacity of your faithful correspondent who continued to imbibe freely over the course of the next several hours. This was one of the best.
Tibbles had come along for the party, and after a few drinks and tokes he started playing again. This caused a general migration in his direction, which in turn resulted in a serious list to the houseboats. After some frantic moments, the optimal location was found for Doc, and of course the audience, and we stopped taking on water and the starboard pontoon settled back into the water where it was supposed to be. All of us were having a grand old time, including Captain Jack, owner and pilot of the lead houseboat. I had been chatting to him as he stood at the wheel, navigating the murky darkness and avoiding the thousands of islands in the lake. Eventually the beer caught up to him, and he asked me to take the wheel while he headed off to the stern to answer nature’s call. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right back” he said as he wandered off. At first it was kind of fun and I felt kind of special holding onto the wheel, but then I realized just how dark it was and that I had no idea of where we were on the lake, or how close we might be to reefs and rocks and other hazards. The minutes stretched on and Cap’n Jack remained nowhere in sight. After coming a little closer to sobriety as the adrenalin kicked in, I eventually managed to talk somebody local into taking the helm, and went off in search of Jack who had, in fact, passed out on deck! I managed to get Jack up, albeit not exactly steady, and dragged him over to the small cabin on the upper deck where he tumbled into the bunk.
After that interlude, I was able to enjoy the rest of the cruise listening to Doc as he played song after song, bantered with the crowd, most of whom he seemed to know quite well, and generally kept everyone interested in staying awake. As dawn lifted the veil of darkness from the lake, those of us with motorboats hauled on the lines, scrambled aboard, and cast off. That was my introduction to Doc Tibbles, one of the more memorable musicians I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know on life’s journey.
Doc was born Terry Erickson, in what is now Thunder Bay, but was once two separate communities known as Fort William and Port Arthur. He grew up musically inclined, quickly getting a handle on the guitar and then learning the banjo and the bass. In 1964, Doc hooked up with Neil Young and became a member of the Squires, playing both bass and guitar. (Doc and Neil’s adventures during this period are outlined in John Einarson’s book, “Neil Young: The Canadian Years”.) In early ’65 they met Stephen Stills who was in a band called The Company at a club in Port Arthur but, later that year, the Squires broke up and Doc and Neil parted company in Toronto. Never achieving anywhere near the commercial success of his former bandmate, Doc nonetheless carved out a career playing folk festivals and the bars and clubs of northern Ontario and the Winnipeg region.
Amongst others, Doc has made stage appearances with: Neil Young, Sneezy Waters, John Allen Cameron, Big Joe Dustin, Stefan Grossman, Amos Garret, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Dan Casavant, Lighthouse, Guy van Duser, Big Dave McLean, John Hammond, Ken Hamm, Jim Post, Eric Nagler, Darcy Deaville, MacLean And MacLean, Eric Thompson, Gene Vincent, Cathy Fink, Duck Donald, Bill Garret, Norman Blake, David Essig, Dakota Dave Hill, Curly Boy Stubbs, Tom Jackson, Hound Dog, Kansas City Kramer, Wayne Faulconer, Pat Brett, and Leo Kottke.
Here is Wayne Faulconer back in 1979 doing a cover of a Doc Tibbles tune:
Kenora hosted an annual Lake of the Woods Folk Festival and one year, not long after we had met Doc, Gord came up with a brilliant idea for getting free passes to the event. He got Doc to put him in touch with the festival’s organizers and it was soon arranged that about a dozen of the top acts would be put up at Gord’s camp. We set to work dusting off the mothballed bedrooms and checking that the plumbing worked in the various bathrooms. We discovered that there were in fact 26 beds in the place, since the main cottage was large and designed for parties and also because the camp included a three bedroom winterized house (where we had set ourselves up) and a small log cabin overlooking a hidden cove where Gord’s parents usually stayed while in residence. After working feverishly for a few days, the lawns were mowed, trails swept, floors vacuumed, and everything was polished that needed it. The camp had regained something of its former glory and was ready for action. Soon boats started arriving at the dock, full of musicians. For that incredible weekend the place was magical; beautiful ladies playing dulcimers and violins amongst the silver birches, haunting ballads sung on the sandy beach as gentle waves lapped at the shore, jam sessions in the main house that morphed and regrouped depending on the players but that went on more or less without interruption for the whole time. And while it was indeed a magical weekend it quickly became apparent that those free passes weren’t free at all, as Gord and I and a bunch of our local friends were all pressed into service as the unofficial “staff” of the instant resort, cleaning up, lifting and toting, preparing meals, and acting as bartenders. As it turned out I saw precious little of the actual folk festival itself but was more than happy to be a fly on the wall backstage and to be part of the unofficial festival that took place back at the cottage. It sure gave me an appreciation of the logistics that go into even relatively minor events and the number of people required to get those lone singers up on stage with a single spot shining down on them. The shadows are pretty crowded!
Anyway, Gord and Doc and myself became pretty good friends over those summers, and for some years thereafter hanging out at Gord’s cottage sharing bottles of whiskey, contraband herbs and of course listening to Doc play and sing. Doc loved to make music and would play for hours at a time, with or without an audience. One summer we returned to discover that Doc had upgraded the battered old guitar with a gorgeous handcrafted Larrivee, with silver frets, mother of pearl inlay and a great tone. He had also recorded a self-titled album and the Mingulay Boat Song, one of the cuts that featured his friend Pat Brett, was getting a lot of airplay in Kenora and other regional centres. Pat was an Irishman, who seemed to be a little guarded about his past, which perhaps was only to be expected given the Troubles that had been rocking the old sod. I always had the impression that a gang of Orangemen or the IRA or the Sinn Fein were going to jump out of the bushes one day and give him whatever he might have had coming. Anyway he knew countless Irish ballads and was a pretty prolific songwriter himself so between the two of them, everyone within earshot had a steady stream of great music filling the aural landscape. Pat fit right in with the rest of the crowd and added a nice counterpoint to Doc, on stage as well as in life. Being friends with Doc also gave us access to all his local friends and connections, which also made life there a lot more interesting and comfortable. This included being directed to a mechanic who had reportedly worked for Carroll Shelby. Gord’s Celica had been “tweaked” and was pretty high performance already but it had been running poorly. I’m not sure if the guy had actually been part of the Shelby team, but the long drive down the back roads was well worth it, as the car never ran better than after that tune-up.
At some point, we were interrogating Doc about how many musical instruments he could play. “Guitar, bass, banjo, piano are the basics I guess”, opined Tibbles. “Then there’s been the occasional attempt to play the fiddle, or the dulcimer, and I’ve even been known to play drums on occasion. Some trumpet, a little trombone, and I can coax a sound out of a saxophone. How’s that?” “Wow, that’s awesome”, I replied. “What’s your favorite thing to play?” “I’m glad you asked me that Dave,” he said with a straight face. “What’s my favorite thing to play? Around!” Everyone in earshot erupted in laughter. It took me a second or two to get it.
Thinking about all those instruments got Doc thinking and after the chuckles subsided, he said, “There is another instrument called a dobro that I used to play. Not for years though. I lent it to Neil and I haven’t seen him for years.” Naturally that led to a number of Neil Young stories like driving around in the hearse that Neil owned back then. He had bought it figuring it would be good for hauling equipment such as all the amps, guitars, drum kits, mikes, cables and stands that you need in a band. It also was a good highway cruiser and they would tear along in the dark across northern Ontario, like some kind of demented harbinger of doom based on the looks they got from other cars on the road.
Gord was taking all this in with a lot of interest since he had always liked Neil Young and he just loved to hang out with the rich and famous. (Is that wrong? Course not.) A while later Gord came into a trust fund or some other windfall and got in touch with Doc. Without further ado, Gord and Doc were soon en route to Hawaii to recover Doc’s dobro. They ended up spending the better part of two weeks hanging out with Neil on his Hawaiian ranch. Indeed Doc recovered his dobro from Neil, which had been used on many of those landmark records of the previous decade and a half. And Gord was pretty pleased too, getting to hang out with a rock icon.
One of the annual events during those years was the Smoke‘n Fish Derby. It took place on Scotty’s Island, which was actually a municipal park that the Town of Kenora had acquired quite a few miles out of town. The basic premise of the derby was that all the long hairs and hippies and general hosers in the vicinity would have a wild weekend at the park and the person that caught the largest pickerel that weekend would win a pound of pot.
This concept did not sit well with the three jurisdictions of law enforcement in the area: the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the municipal police force. They didn’t attempt to stop the party or even set foot on the island during the proceedings but they did try to stop any boats heading there to check for anything illegal or suspicious. As a result it had become quite a sport figuring out ways to avoid the cordon of police boats. Some folks would go to the island days or weeks ahead of time and plant their stashes in hidden locations, while others made do with tactics like waterskiing in with waterproof bags, and some even parachuted in. People arrived with tents, every houseboat on the lake was pressed into service, and the beer stores were cleaned out for miles around. A stage was set up and a generator was barged to the island and local bands would play for free. From what I recall, the fishing aspect was a minor sidelight to this Woodstock on the lake but boy, did they ever know how to party!
Somebody has posted some home movies from the 3rd annual derby onto YouTube, which was a few years before I showed up on the scene, but its great to see the documentary evidence:
Doc took to travelling out west from time to time. On one occasion a number of us spent a few days on the remote Nahatlatch River to get a break from the city. Doc and I were out canoeing and we had the misfortune of capsizing. Nothing serious and we easily righted the canoe and resumed paddling but Doc had been wearing leather pants. He ended up having to wear the sodden things all day, allowing them to dry naturally so that they’d still fit, since he said this had happened once before and they had shrunk so considerably he had to get rid of them. But throughout it all he laughed and smiled. At one point in the 80’s Doc headed south to Mexico’s Pacific coast, where he remained for a couple of years, living in a beachfront hut. Coming from north Ontario, Doc was a good fisherman, so he would fish in the mornings, sell his catch, and then play guitar in the evenings at one of the local bars. Eventually he got a little too tangled up in amorous intrigues and returned to Canada, with a few songs and a lot of memories. He cut a second album, Unattached Tunes, which includes a few of those. Doc caught a dose of the travel bug and spent time in Europe and Japan among other places over the next several years. Gord moved away to Toronto and then to Winnipeg and I got married and settled down in Victoria and we all just fell out of touch. A couple of years ago I went on one of those legendary cross-country road trips with my daughters and we happened to be having lunch at a roadside diner in northern Ontario when I realized that the booth next to us was occupied by musicians. I leaned over and asked them if they happened to know Doc Tibbles. “Of course, he’s a legend around here!” came the quick reply. In fact he had a new CD out called House Calls. He was still playing and living mostly in Thunder Bay and making music. I hope he will continue to do so for years to come.
He has also become quite a good nature photographer and birder:
And Pat Brett is still around: