Those Guys.

January 25, 2012

“Those guys,” said h, “are the Kives boys, and they’re showing us the future!”

He poured himself a sliver of scotch and sat down in the beanbag chair. “Let me tell you about K-Tel.”

It turned out that Phil and Ray Kives, first cousins and owners of K-Tel, were based out of Winnipeg, h’s hometown. h had done some acting for them in some of the early Veg-O-Matic commercials. Check it out: that’s him, filmed from the turtleneck down, shoving carrots and potatoes into the blades in the julienne scenes. In ”68, he won a prize for this role—best digital performance—at the Winnies, a prairie version of the Gemini awards. In spite of an unfortunate, disfiguring accident—an experiment with the Veg-O-Matic and a hockey puck during a break in a commercial shoot—h’s hands are still recognized in public from time to time. His incognito look is a pair of snowmobile mittens.

The Veg-O-Matic sold like hot-cakes, and K-Tel, known in the business as an “As Seen On TV” company, thrived. By the mid-60’s, Phil had made a fortune selling a variety of iconic housewares—the Teflon Non-Stick Frypan, the Feather-Touch Knife, the Miracle Brush (and later, branching into jewelry and applied psychology, the Mood Ring). Ray came on board in ’67, when they expanded into the music market.

“The point is,” said h, “it doesn’t matter to them what they sell. Frypans, knives, jewelry, records—widget upon widget upon widget. People want the stuff they see in the magic box,” he said, waving his glass at The Littlest Hobo loping across the TV screen.

But it did—does—matter to us. Rock n’ roll used to be dangerous. In the 50’s, Ozzie and Harri-ites were afraid that Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis, among others, would contaminate their teenagers with evil sexual urges associated, for some reason, with black culture. When it comes to American racism, the civil war ended nothing, man. In the sixties, it was a fear of sex, drugs and insubordinate ideas that struck fear into the heart of the establishment until they—the powers that be—got smart.

“Therein lies the genius of the Kives boys,” said h. “They’re taking our music—in its cheesiest form–and peddling it to the middle class.” He clamped the Ray-Bans back over his eyes and rattled the ice in his glass. “Hail hail rock n’ roll—it’s the new soundtrack to capitalism, baby!”

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Then and Now.

January 19, 2012

Why is instrumental pop music passe?

Some would say that music itself—real music with teeth, soul, and a beating heart—has largely disappeared from the airwaves and has been replaced by corporate shlock, or as our guitarist Dan says, “Music for people who don’t like music.”

Corporate shlock? By that I mean music conceived, created, manufactured, and sold by committee, like deodorant, canned spaghetti, and underwear. There has always been shlock in the music business—How Much is that Doggie in the Window? comes to mind—-but it didn’t rule the glory days of rock ‘n roll.

h saw it all coming way back then in the early 70’s. We were hibernating at Jak’s gerbil ranch up on Baffin Island, licking our wounds after the Anne of Plutonia scandal had driven us out of Toronto. These were dark days for Rubbaboo. It was the dawn of political correctness, and we’d been accused of racism for celebrating the existence of Godzilla in Japanese pop culture. We were holed up in a Quonset hut on the edge of Frobisher’s Bay (now called Iqaluit), grinding through the endless arctic night eating blubber-ka-bobs, sipping single-malt, and watching snowy re-runs of The Littlest Hobo on CBC. One evening (or was it daytime?) during a commercial break, a revolving turntable appeared on-screen bathed in an eerie wash of cherry-red light and accompanied by a hyperactive voice-over:

“New—from K-Tel Records: 22 Explosive Hits! 22 Original Stars!”

The announcer then recited a list of tunes, each accompanied by a 3-second sample of the track while an out-of-sync list of song titles scrolled down the screen:

“Olivia Newton-John!” —-“If not for you…”

“The great Sammy Davis Jr.!” —“Oh, the Candyman can, ’cause he mixes it with love…”

“Fortune!” —“Here comes that rainy day feelin’ again…”

“Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn!’ and many more—22 original stars on one great stereo album—-only $3.99!”

“That voice—the announcer—sounds familiar.” said Bob.

“Is that the Miracle Brush guy?” said Jak. “Sellin’ records?”

“Pure evil genius!” said Dan.

h pushed a TV table aside and stood up from his bean bag chair, as if in a trance. He raised his Ray-Bans onto the brim of his toque. “Wait a minute!” he said. “I know those guys!”

Dare to be Square.

January 11, 2012

Instrumental bands seem to be unfashionable these days. Not that they’ve ever given any vocal band a serious run for its money when it comes to prolonged, multi-hit success on the charts, but in earlier times, it was possible for instrumental groups to scratch and claw their way into the top 40. All of these artists had hit records in the 60’s:

-Duane Eddy (Peter Gunn)

-The Ventures (Hawaii 5-O)

-The Surfaris (Wipe Out)

-Floyd Cramer (San Antonio Rose)

-The Mar-Keys (Last Night)

-The Bar-Kays (Soul Finger)

-The Champs (Tequila)

-Mason Williams (Classical Gas)

-Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (The Lonely Bull)

-Cannonball Adderly (Mercy Mercy Mercy)

-Ramsey Lewis (The In Crowd)

-Booker T. & the MG’s (Green Onions, Time is Tight, Hang ‘Em High—masterpieces of the genre, in this writer’s opinion).

There have been others since the 60’s, but they are few and far between. Those of us in contemporary bands sans voix—the dinosaurs of pop music—dare to be square, in the eyes and ears of today’s public.

What happened between then and now?

Uncle Donny.

December 8, 2011

“I’m digging those crazy tunes, man!” says Uncle Donny, dancing around the rec-room to the shifting time signatures of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. He sets the glass of viscous green liqueur down on a TV table and parks his cigarette in an ashtray, moving ritualistically, like an Olympian preparing to run the hundred-yard dash. Then he struggles out of his double-breasted blazer and hops onto the Twister mat with the girls. “Let the Games begin!” he says.

I twirl the spinner once and the girls immediately drop to the floor, feigning defeat. Uncle Donny is harmless, but they wouldn’t be caught dead getting tangled up with an old guy. They tumble off the mat and stand up.

“Go Uncle Donny!” says one, rolling her eyes. “Show us how it’s done!”

“Yeah, show us, Uncle Donny!”

“Spin that thing!” he says, and I obey, dialing up a series of commands for Donny to execute. Within minutes, he’s doing a sloppy version of The Bridge, a yoga pose in which hands and feet support an arced torso facing skyward. Uncle Donny’s long comb-over hangs down like a skirt, revealing his mutton-chop sideburns in their full glory. He turns red, huffing and puffing, and finally drops to the floor when commanded to cross his feet.

“You’re a champ, Uncle Donny,” I say, halfheartedly.

“I’m a little out of shape—but it’s a boss game!” he says. There’s an awkward silence as he struggles to his feet and teeters across the room to retrieve his Creme de Menthe and cigarette.

“Time to get up and party down with the parental units!” he says. “Peace, dudes.” He shuffles up the stairs and out of sight. We’re free again, but we’re embarrassed for him, and maybe a little cheesed off at him. Why does an old relic need our approval?

Dear Uncle Donny and CBC radio: Act your age—dare to be square.

Institutions.

December 1, 2011

What’s with CBC radio?

Canada’s public broadcaster is loved by some, hated by others, and ignored by many. I liked the venerable old institution when it was given the money and freedom to do what it wanted, with little regard for what was cool. In these leaner, meaner times, though, it seems like it’s bending over backwards to provide pop-culture programming—dumb contests, hyperactive promotional spots, and “new” music that too often sounds derivative and amateurish. Rather than following its own nose, the CBC now wants to be hip with the kids, just like your Uncle Donny did back in the 60’s.

Uncle Donny was that familiar but distant relative, the 40 year-old bachelor “baby” of the family who showed up at the house for special occasions. Picture this: It’s Thanksgiving, and you’ve just inhaled the traditional turkey dinner, the one your mom spent hours labouring over, in less than ten minutes. The teenagers—you, your siblings, cousins, assorted girl- and boyfriends—pile down to the rec-room, mainly to get away from the adults, who are lingering over dessert, chain-smoking, and getting loaded on Baby Duck and after-dinner liqueurs. This is before the days of child-centred households, and the ageist caste system suits everyone just fine. The adults can “unwind” upstairs while the kids head to the basement to “make their own fun”.

Downstairs, you put Sergeant Pepper on the hi-fi and spread the plastic Twister sheet out on the shag carpet. Someone cracks open a few beers from your dad’s 2-4 of Canadian hidden under the table saw in his workshop. Another lights up a Player’s smuggled from her mom’s purse. Let the real party begin! Except for the faint sounds of laughter and coughing from upstairs, you’re on your own, kids!

A couple of your cousins—girls in their mid-teens, a few years older than you—jump onto the Twister mat, contorting themselves into pretzels at the command of the spinner, which is under your control. You notice that the girls have “developed” considerably since last Thanksgiving. Your 13 year-old male antennae for all things sexual is entangled with Old Testament Guilt, the certain knowledge that there is a special place in hell reserved for pre-verts like you who even look at their female cousins in “that way”. You can’t stop looking, though, in the spirit of scientific observation.

The door at the top of the stairs opens. It’s Uncle Donny, with a smoke dangling from his mouth and a tumbler of Creme de Menthe in hand. He takes in the game. “Groovy!” he says, weaving his way down the steps. “Can I play?” We all avert our eyes until someone finally mumbles, “Sure, Uncle Donny.”

The Dives of Toronto.

September 23, 2011

The Broadview House, the Gerrard House, the Duke of York: These are some of the old hotels—the dives of Toronto—that Rubbaboo gravitated to every once in a while when we got tired of playing on the road. The pay was poor, but they were in-town gigsman. We’d get home by 1:30 in the morning, just in time pop open a few brewskis and watch the PTL Club with Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker, followed by Chuck the Security Guard on CFMT-TV’s all-night show.*

Our dive audiences—rubes, hookers, creepy night-crawling dudes perpetually down on their luck—were not shy about voicing their opinions when it came to music. They loved those scratchy old country and rock ‘n roll tunes, and that was fine with us. It was a relief to play old master songs like Your Cheatin’ Heart and That’ll Be the Day rather than Three Times A LadyBoogie Woogie Woogie, or Disco Duck.

h, as I’ve mentioned, joined us on the Downtown Dive Tour of ’74. He was flying low under the radar of the press and animal activist groups who had made him the scapegoat in Trudeau’s gerbil-suit scandal. The dives of Toronto were a good place for those seeking anonymity.

*Chuck (played by Chas Lawther), mild-mannered night security guard at the station, used the empty studio during his shift to host a variety show that included interviews with Toronto musicians, philosophical repartee with Ryerson, the unseen camera man, and re-runs of old programs like The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, and My Mother the Car.

Sign of the Times.

September 16, 2011

Horatio Jablonovitchinski, graphic artist, photographer, and designer of our band logo, has always been considered by us to be a member of Rubbaboo, much the way George Martin was known as the fifth Beatle. When he wasn’t ensconced in his garret down by the waterfront near Cherry Street in Toronto, h, as he was known, would travel with us on the road. We’d pull into a small town and he’d scurry about the place, tacking up wildly improvised posters—scenes of cross-hatched characters, objects and landscapes exploding out of the Twilight Zone of his mind, with the Rubbaboo logo fixed somewhere at the bottom—to advertise the band. It generally freaked out the locals, but these were the signs of our times, man.

I met h when he was working as a fashion photographer in Yorkville in the late 60’s. I was still in the supermodel game at that point, and the two of us worked together on dozens of photo-shoots. h was best-known, though, for his photo of Pierre Trudeau posing in front of 24 Sussex Drive in a three-piece gerbil-pelt suit and matching Homburg. The picture created a huge stir among animal-rights activists, and there were the inevitable demonstrations on Parliament Hill. Thousands of people showed up in protest with their caged pet gerbils in tow. It was peaceful enough until a radical faction known as The Free-Rangers released over a thousand gerbils into the crowd. The poor critters panicked, running like lemmings into the memorial fountain that surrounds the eternal flame in front of the parliament buildings. Sadly, more than a few of them—the real athletes—bounded through the flames first, and were instantly bar-b-qued before hitting the water with a resounding hiss. The ensuing uproar in the press was intense, dudes.

At that point, h figured it would be a good idea to lay low until things cooled down, so he joined us on the road for an anonymous, extended tour of the dives of Toronto.

The Hard Way.

September 7, 2011

I noticed a hitch-hiker—a vision more rare than the sight of caribou—on the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland last week. I whisked by him without stopping, and wasn’t proud of myself.

Kids used to thumb to-and-fro across the country, and for a few golden years in the 70’s, they could even stay in government-sponsored youth hostels for 50 cents a night. We’d often pick them up on our travels from gig to gig. Doris, our ’69 Econoline, could fit up to seven extra passengers if people were willing to sit on amplifiers and squeeze between bass bins, and willing they were.

Almost nobody hitch-hikes these days, and even if they did, how many of us would stop to give them a lift? It may have been a hard way to travel, but a country without that kind of trust and generosity between strangers is a harder place to be, man. Some would say it’s a sign of the times.

Room Service.

August 25, 2011

Jak and I retreated to our room after failing to rouse Bob and Dan from their Hawaii Five-O revelry. I picked up the phone and dialed the front desk. “Room 309, please.”

Bob answered after the 14th ring. “Steve McGarrett, 1st Division, Honolulu P.D.”

I handed the phone over to Jak, the Henry Higgins of our band, master ventriloquist and elocutionist. He cleared his throat and spoke into the mouthpiece, employing his best Chemical Valley accent: “This is room service, sir. We’ll be sending your order up in a few minutes.”

“Order?” said Bob.

“Yes, sir. Today is customer appreciation day at the Holiday Inn. You’ve ordered room service 17 times in the past six days, and we’d like to send you a complimentary order of eggs benedict.”

Jak could hear muffled conversation on the other end of the line.

“With Cheerios and sugar on top?” said Bob, finally.

“As you wish, sir.”

We crept down the hallway and knocked on their door once again. “Room service!”

Bob opened the door a crack. Sounds of television gunfire and squealing tires spilled out into the hallway.  Jak swaggered across the room and ripped the power cord out of the TV set. Everything went still. Dan and Bob stood looking at the blank screen in horror.

“Hey—that ain’t room service!’ said Dan.

“Book ’em, Danno!” said Bob.

Then it got weird. Bob and Dan clicked their heels three times and intoned, “The best surprise is no surprise at all. The best surprise is no surprise at all. The best surprise is no surprise at all.”

Jak raised his fist. “You coupla knuckleheads! Why I oughta…”

“We’re victims of coicumstance!” said Bob.

“Oh, a wise guy, eh?” said Jak. “I’ll knock yer head right through yer socks!”

Dan laughed. “Nyuck nyuck nyuck.”

Jak raked his hand through the air, slapping Dan and Bob in the face in one quick stroke—SSSMMMAAACK-AAACK!

“Look morons, yer musicians, and you gotta show to do.”

“Soitenly not!” said Bob. “We were watchin’ TeeeeeVeeeee! Rrrruff-Rrrruff-Rrrruff!”

Jak made a V with his index and middle fingers. “What’s this, lamebrain?”

“Peace, man!” said Dan.

“Piece a’ knuckle sandwich!” said Jak, driving his fingers into Dan’s eye sockets.

“Nyahhh-ah-ah! I can’t see!” said Dan.

“Why not?” said Bob.

“My eyes are shut—Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!””

Jak grimaced and turned to Bob. “Your turn, nitwit!”

“Woo-woo-woo-woo!” said Bob, galloping around the room. Jak stepped in front of him and thrust his fingers forward, but Bob held a hand up in front of his nose in a perpendicular salute. “Peace-block!” he said. “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!”

“I had enough a-youse imbeciles!” said Jak. He grabbed each by an earlobe and marched them out of the room and down to the hotel lounge. We got up on stage and played the gig with no further ado.

And that was that. The Holiday Inn-tervention worked. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t sensitive, or touching, or life-affirming. It wasn’t a Brady Bunch TV reunion, but we were a band once again. Dan and Bob had come back to us from zombie stoogedom, even though they had do it the hard way.

Hawaii Five-O

August 18, 2011

8:45 p.m. on a Sarnia Saturday night. Jak and Cam approach their bandmates’ room in the Holiday Inn.

Cam (sniffing the cloud of smoke leaking into the hallway from under the door): Old Port cigars.

Jak knocks on the door.

Dan (behind door, shouting over the Hawaii Five-O theme blasting from the TV set): Who is it?

Jak and Cam: Us.

Bob (also behind door): Us who?

Jak: Annette Funicello and Adolph Hitler. Who do you think? It’s showtime.

Dan: We know. We’re watching it. Take off.

Cam: It’s almost 9:00, boys. We’ve got a show to do.

Bob: That’s what we’re doing—the show. The show of all shows. Get lost.

Jak (losing patience, bangs his fist on the door): Open up, dudes!

Turbulent, Ventures-ish action music blasts from the TV.

Bob: Book ‘m, Danno!

Dan: Murder One!

Jak (throwing himself against the door, to no avail):  I said, come outta there!

Sound on TV gets louder.

Cam (to Jak): There’s only one way in there…

Cam and Jak: (in unison)—Room service!