(The following was written in Victoria B.C. in mid 1996 and originally posted shortly thereafter.)
AN AFTERNOON IN 1996, VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA
The English language can sometimes be its own reward. In the Prairies of a Great Free Country in the 1950’s the teachers at Luxton School instilled in me a challenge and desire to learn. Every time I read something written with cadence and charm, I knew it, and somehow grasped how difficult a trick that was. One of the more famous talk show hosts one night called writing “the most enviable” of the arts. I think Dick Cavett said it…I’m not positive what all that means, but as I roam through my own recollections, from time to time they seem fascinating. Without arrogance, I do feel as though I’ve been lucky enough to have lived the equivalent of several lifetimes by many people’s standards. I also realize that coming into the world and learning its ways through the eyes of the Prairies of Manitoba makes any story I have a little more unique…Winnipeg is a tough place to live…it’s quite remote and the winters will make an adult of any human. I first heard Elvis Presley in Winnipeg…first heard Fats Domino there…learned to read and write and walk and talk in Winnipeg…my eyes were the eyes of the Canadian Prairies.
Having been born the last day of 1947, the first part of my childhood took place without television. I’m right on the cusp of that last generation who can remember the world without television. The personal computer is as revolutionary an event in my same lifetime…truly remarkable…as I write this on an a lap top , I have not reached fifty years of age, yet I can recall vividly living the first part of my childhood without television…I hear that somewhere on the planet there is a woman still living who remembers times before the automobile…I guess it’s damned near impossible to have the best story…
I thank the Force constantly for all the music that was always around me. My mother played piano and read music…my Auntie Pat and Auntie Molly (my mother’s older sisters) both played piano…the three of them sometimes sang in three part harmony like the Andrews Sisters while one of them played the piano…Pat’s husband, my Uncle George, played piano and sang…even my Grandmother once in a while would saunter over to the piano and plunk out a little tune…this happened several times when I was a small child. The radio seemed to be on constantly. Long before I ever attended Kindergarten I was charmed by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, The Mills Brothers, Guy Mitchell, Dinah Shore, Tommy Dorsey and a million others.
I feel blessed that the music does to me what it does…it charms me…it mystifies me…it makes me cry and it makes me smile inside. It can enlighten, it can heal. It gave a different buzz to life for a little boy from the North End of Winnipeg in the early nineteen fifties. The initial and repeated hearings of certain songs became signposts throughout growing up. At a certain age it became everything, the music. It became and remains an obsession.
I was so obsessed with the Doors’ Strange Days album when it came out, I used to pack up a portable record player, vinyl albums, load them into my car, hunt down and buy some grass , and take my self- proclaimed “travelling psychedelphia” to a friend’s apartment, and “run the show”…got a lot of people hooked on the Doors…where else was anybody doing “mind music” and theatre for eleven minutes on a cut…? “When The Music’s Over” transformed single room dingy apartments into rocket ships. It would be twenty-four below zero Fahrenheit outside…I would drive through a considerable amount of snow and ice, carryng grass for which you still went to jail, and finally set up those first primitive “listening sessions” or “musical odysseys” or just “oddyseys” as we ended up calling them later. I sit sometimes and hope to all that’s Holy that some of those listening sessions I instigated became signposts for the other listeners. Now, speaking of signposts…
In the mid nineties, I purchased a double CD called “The Minit Records Story”. On this fascinating collection which also includes Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That”, Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother In Law”, and Aaron Neville’s “Over You”, you’ll find Jessie Hill’s “Ooh-Pooh-Pah-Doo” parts One and Two. When Winnipeg still had three major rock stations, I actually remember hearing this heavy rhythym and blues classic on CJOB, which has not played rock and roll for decades. Years later, a girl named Barbara had me over to her parents’ house while they were out. She had a big cardboard box full of forty-fives her dad had gotten from CJOB…she let me take a few with me, one of which happened to be “Ooh-Pooh-Pah-Doo”. When I play that cut by Jessie Hill now, I’m back there in front of our old radio as a 12 year old, I’m back there in the basement with Barbara and her huge box of forty-fives, and I’m on stage with Jayson Hoover at the YALE in Vancouver singing that song in 1987. The music unlocks certain endorphins which really play with time. I’ve read that it’s one of the most powerful stimulants in research.
There are certain times when certain cuts can take me to a seperate reality…Wild Weekend by the Rebels works almost anytime…Peter Gunn by Duane Eddy (particularly the incredible lead tenor sax played by Steve Douglas)…Beatnik Fly by Johnny and the Hurricanes…Hound Dog by Elvis Presley…
I was an eight-year old when Hound Dog by Elvis first came blasting out of the radio in Winnipeg in 1956. I had never heard anything like it. Later that week when I found out that the flip side of that same record was Don’t Be Cruel, I lost my young mind. Elvis was bigger than anything ever before him. He was talked about by EVERYONE…ALL AGES. Many parents thought he was the devil personified. I guess it was true when someone said that Elvis created the first generation gap. Come to think of it, my Mother and Grandmother both liked basically the same music, but neither of them liked Hound Dog much…
I got some money from my Mother once for some extra yardwork or something and got her to bring home for me a 78 RPM of Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel. This was one of the first records I ever owned…several years earlier, I had gotten a 78 of Peter and the Wolf from one of the Cummings Aunts. Also, my mother had given me two Warner Brothers 78’s…Bugs Bunny and Aladdin’s Lamp and Bugs Bunny Meets Hiawatha. She had also gotten me two Lone Ranger 78’s…The Lone Ranger and the Stranger From the East and another whose title currently escapes me. Bless her heart, my Mother had also given me a 78 of Ricky Lane and Vel Vel doing the Doris Day hit “Everybody Loves a Lover”, a huge record in its day. Around the time I first started school I already had a record collection. These recordings were 78’s.
Before my mother would go to work in the morning, she would often play some of HER 78’s. She had records by Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, The Mills Brothers, Eddie Fisher, Frankie Carle and his Honky Tonk Piano, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ruby Murray, Connie Francis, Guy Mitchell, Mario Lanza, Frankie Laine, Gale Storm, Gisselle McKenzie and many others. I love records largely because my mother loved records. She gave me a childhood filled to the brim with good music. It’s the greatest thing she could have given me.
Currently as I type I’m listening to an import double CD of the Shadows. The two albums combined on the disc are The Shadows,their debut lp from the fifties, and Out Of The Shadows, their early sixties masterpiece towards which Edd Smith repeatedly turned my head during the golden years with the Deverons. There would be no possible way to articulate fully the depths and heights to which music has taken me. I still have all my Shadows 45’s in their own special storage booklet. My most prized ones are all on Canadian Capitol…The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt, Shazam, Theme For Young Lovers, Shindig…I also have several on Atlantic…FBI, Wonderful Land, Atlantis (this is a British import 45 on EMI). There’s a beautiful slow melody on Out Of The Shadows named Spring Is Nearly Here. Of all the tunes in the world, we used to do this one as a piano instrumental in the Deverons. Hank Marvin touched my soul. Long before I ever knew a thing about Randy Bachman, Edd Smith was turning me on to instrumentals like Silver City by the Ventures and 1861 by the Shadows.
During the summer of 1992, while visiting Berlin with the Ringo Starr All Starr Band, I purchased an eight disc box of everything the Shadows allegedly ever did for EMI. Even Kip from Ear Candy back in LA had never seen a thing such as this…and Kip’s gotten hold of some pretty rare stuff.
During 1962, my first year at St. John’s High School, I came across an address in London England for a company called Keith Prowse Ltd. They had a huge catalogue of records available for mail order outside England. I sent them a money order for a copy of The Shadows’ Greatest Hits on EMI. I waited as patiently as I could for almost six weeks and then one day it finally arrived. I took it to school to “show off” to Edd Smith and some of my other friends whom I knew would be duly impressed. It was one of the major events during my year in Grade 10. Right at the moment, Dance On is blaring out of my stereo…I’ve also just heard The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt, Wonderful Land, Atlantis, and FBI this morning…these are cuts I NEVER get tired of hearing.
Badda bing, badda boom…now I’ve got the Rooftop Singers disc on and lo and behold, they’re singing their white asses off…don’t really mean to come off here like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, but we white folks HAVE had some soulful singers throughout the years…trouble is, when the Brothers start comparing OUR guys to the likes of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, someone who could walk across your swimming pool would be likely to pale in comparison (no pun intended). Bobby Darin was no slouch. He had that invisible energy to make a big band swing behind him, not just play the charts in front of them. Chet Baker’s vocals are about as soulful as I’ve ever heard, but up against Sam Cooke, they seem a bit shallow. Realistically, any human can find some piece of music of one kind or another that either brings them joy or takes them somewhere else. God bless the Japanese for inventing the Compact Disc…I cannot count the treasures that have either surfaced or re-surfaced in my life that I would have otherwise missed were it not for CD’s coming along in the late 1970’s. My Johnny and the Hurricanes collection was all on vinyl, save a couple of cheap cassettes with the overly expected seven or eight cuts on them…since “Come On Let’s Rock” (Black Tulip/Made in Holland/1988 release) and “ Johnny and the Hurricanes-The Collection” (Castle Communications/Made in W. Germany/1988 release) found their way into my CD collection, I play Beatnik Fly, Rocking Goose, Crossfire, Buckeye, Down Yonder and Ja-Da regularly, giving in to fabulous, incomparable synaps rushes…I’m back sending money orders to Big Top Records in New York to get single 45’s of “Minnesota Fats” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?…I’m back on the phone with Martin Kramer in 1962, excitedly telling him that I now only need three more singles to complete my J & the H collection of EVERYTHING THEY’VE EVER DONE !!!! Signposts…
A quick two-hour trip downtown ensues and I return with a brand
new (1996) CD by Terry Evans called Puttin’ It Down…Terry sang on a record of mine called Timeless Love along with Bobby King and E.L. King…Terry’s disc is ginchy…it’s got Ry Cooder on it. Nice bit of singing on the cut called Down In Mississippi. Right over to TPOH…met Moe Berg at the Skydome Hard Rock Cafe a couple of weeks ago…he had the coolest hand-knitted antique-like Chicago Blackhawks sweater on that you could ever imagine…Cigarette Dangles still captures me at almost fifty. Earlier this afternoon I heard several from the Clovers…the original Love Potion #9, My Mother’s Eyes, Vaya Con Dios, Pennies From Heaven…I still think it’s much cooler to blast music through the day and consciously avoid daytime television…daytime television is subversive. How could it possibly be healthy for a huge chunk of the population to sit around all day wallowing in the misery of others…? Now Seinfeld…there’s a tv show…one time Kramer was wearing a white short sleeved shirt with orange lobsters all over it…another time he was going into seizures everytime he was directly exposed to the sound of Lisa Hart’s voice. Kramer is the best tv neighbour character ever…including Ed Norton…and you’re dealing with a MAJOR Honeymooners fan here.
There’s a cut by Sugar Cubes called Delicious People which still gets my feet going. There’s an album by Jesse Colin Young on Capitol vinyl called The Soul of a City Boy which contains a cut called You Got To Fix It. Manifique. When was the last time you sat down and listened to and focussed on the vocal in Duke Of Earl by Gene Chandler ? My Bonnie by Ray Charles and the Raelets can raise goosebumps. In The Arena by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band was far ahead of its time. Love Street by the Doors showed how deep and artful pop music drenched with acid could be. David Crosby’s Page 43 can make many cry. Flamingo Express by the Royaltones forced me across some invisible line. Smokestack Lightning by Manfred Mann still commands my complete attention. Wonderful Land by the Shadows conjures up for me visions of Angels, alternately dispersed with flashes of delivering the Winnipeg Tribune to 95 Inkster around 1962. Played Pipeline by the Chantays many times in the Deverons before we ever had a real electric bass.
It’s not just really old songs that do these things to me. Were it only certain cuts from my youth, this “teleportation” could be explained away as folly- filled longing to be young again. No, this transformation within me can happen with new music too. The first time I heard All I Really Want by Alanis Morissette I was nailed to the wall…that line about a “kindred” really turned my head. Alanis was both maturely elegant and cool the night she won her four grammies. Human Nature by looney Michael did that to me early in the 80’s. Hello by the Beloved, Green by Edie Brickell, Cold Turkey by Cheap Trick (from the Working Class Hero tribute album to John Lennon), Nuttin’ ‘Nis Funky by Digital Ungerground, I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday by Sheryl Crowe, Endless Sleep by Concrete Blonde, Hero by David Crosby, Wooden Ships by CSN, Estimated Prophet by the Grateful Dead, and Jel from Jerky Boys have all been responsible for my personal travels in space.
Having said all that, I must readily admit that I get the biggest kick out of hearing stuff from decades ago all cleaned up and re mastered for CD. At the height of my personal listening rennaisance I drank a lot of alcohol and invariably couldn’t wait to get the next cut on for the assembled listeners. We rarely listened to two cuts back to back on any given album, giving way to the scratching and trashing of ninety percent of my vinyl record collection. I’ve held on to all my records, but most of them are no longer playable, so they’re still with me just for spiritual and artwork reasons. I must say though, since CD’s really began to explode as the format of choice, I’ve replaced most of my favourite vinyl treasures with small shiny discs filled with zeros and ones.
The argument rages on from the vinyl freaks…“CD’s don’t sound as good as vinyl…” To my ear it was like never even having heard the recordings before I heard them on CD. I was a late convert…didn’t get a CD player until 1991…my manager Lorne Saifer gave me a couple of armloads of CD’s (a ready-made, mini collection) one night at his house after dinner. He gave me some Time Life collections with material by the Supremes, Four Seasons, Everly Brothers, and the Temptations…he gave me a couple of things by Chuck Berrry and Elvis…then he gave me the huge 4 disc box of Rod Stewart…enough said…I immediately bought a blaster that played CD’s. I had first seen one work at Martin Kramer’s house. For some reason, this was a bit of a revelation to me, as I suppose I still subliminally associated CD’s with rack type gear. Martin had me over one night, and he was no longer playing tapes or vinyl…he grabbed a little blaster and fired on Sam Cooke’s anthology, A Man and His Music…sitting there watching the small, one-sided disc spin around so fast, I did light years of “catching up” before the first cut was finished.
Mid nineties now and I own more compact discs than many medium sized radio stations. I’ve spent innumerable hours doing “research” for my fantasized weekly radio show. Already I can boast of over fifty 1-hour shows, each with a different theme, hook phrase, vibe and material. The greatest thing about my radio show will be that I never have to go to outside sources for any of the music…I’ll merely consult some of my enormous data bases here inside the Apple , then dig out the discs and blast off. I almost got the thing syndicated and off the ground in 1991, but all the stations we approached were worried about the format bouncing around too much…parameters were too wide…can’t be raving about Prince one week and playing Fats Domino and Gene Vincent the next, or so some people would have you believe. Personally I hold the opinion that the show would seek out its own audience…the world is full of music junkies who love to learn new facts and trivia about cuts they both know and don’t know.
Two or three days ago I purchased yet another (my third or fourth) copy of Ram by Paul McCartney on CD. It had been a couple of years since I’d heard anything at all from it, and I must admit I was pleasantly impressed all over again. Most of those songs would have been Beatles songs. I still love 3 Legs, Too Many People, Uncle Albert, Monkberry Moon Delight, Ram On, and both bonus cuts, Another Day and Oh Woman Oh Why. Here was a guy who had just left the Beatles, showing the world how much he’d been involved in the brilliance and power of his band. I was always partial to John Lennon because of his sarcasm and craziness, but on Ram, the listener cannot escape the craft of this bigger than life artistry. Good for you, Paul, and special congratulations on the lasting power of the writing. It must have been indescribable for your spirit to be so in touch with the world around it.
Speaking of staying power, whaddya thinka Chet Baker…? I knew very little about him before the European leg of the Ringo Starr tour. When we got to Germany and England, I began setting aside a few hours for disc hunting whenever I could. One night at sundown in Frankfurt, I accidentally walked into a huge music store. A clerk eventually guided me to the Georgie Fame section of CD’s, and I anxiously leafed through the several discs stacked behind one another. I found something called “A Portrait of Chet”. It was a tribute album that Georgie had done in memory of Chet Baker, someone he admired greatly. Several days later in Switzerland I sat outside on my balcony listening to Dancing on the Ceiling, Everything Happens to Me, You’re Driving Me Crazy, It Could Happen to You and others, and began wondering about this Chet Baker guy. Later in LA, my pal Ian and I went to the Whiskey on Sunset to catch a live show/simulcast of David Crosby up close. We stopped at Tower Records before the show, I found the Chet Baker section (which is formidable, even for a jazz guy) and grabbed two discs out of the fifty or so that were available. One of those discs ended up being “It Could Happen To You”, which has Chet singing on all cuts. Many of his albums were solely instrumental, and while they swung and were drenched in cool, they never showed you this guy as a singer. Apparently he didn’t know whether he was a trumpet player who sang, or a singer who played trumpet. He sang like he played. He did 15 months hard time in an Italian prison for heroin. He would have been a video star if they’d made videos when he was in his twenties. There’s a documentary film-noir piece on his life called “Let’s Get Lost”. It shows how the heroin and life in general ravaged this guy physically, but never seemed to take nearly the toll on his spirit that it did on his body. Enigma… Arcane…
Long story short, if a singer were only going to hear one album by Chet Baker, it should be It Could Happen to You. The first time I heard this guy do Everything Happens to Me, my chin bounced off the floor. I played it over again about seven times in a row. Then I just hit the repeat button and listened to it about five more times. I started listening to what Kenny Drew was doing on piano…honest to God, I had one of those magical moments, you know, like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk.
Seems every few years I stumble upon something else that’s been around forever, but of which I remained completely ignorant until a great big “DUH” occurred for me. After dozens more trips to Tower Records I now have about forty compact discs by Chet Baker. Still need that one done live in Milan, though…you know…the one with the colours of the Italian flag on the cover. Strange move, Chet, glorifying the colours of a country that incarcerated you for fifteen months. If nothing else it shows an admirable lack of bitterness.