Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Morning and Evening


Dabhad, Maharashtra, India, 1981

There are two times of day I love in the village. I wake early to the sounds of buckets rattling down the wells and cattle stirring just outside the room. Men already stand between the houses chatting, wrapped in blankets if there is a chill, their wives inside cook breakfast. And in the evening, as the heat of the day is beginning to break, the setting sun sends golden light through the soft haze from cooking fires and the dust from returning cattle. It has been like this a long time.

One morning Jaiswal, a young villager, asks me to take a look at his sick sister. We walk together to their home, one of the dwellings with a walled mud yard, cows on one side and various family rooms on another two sides built against the walls. His sister is in a small windowless back room, lying on a wooden charpoy in the dark. She is moaning, her breathing rasps. I feel the pulse in her thin wrist, it is racing insanely. I ask Jaiswal what medicine she is taking and he shows me a brown bottle of herbal cough syrup provided by the local Ayurvedic practitioner. Get a motor rickshaw, I tell Jaiswal, and take her immediately to a doctor or hospital in town. I am not forceful enough.

I catch the bus to the town on business and when I return late that afternoon, I am told immediately that she has died. I go to the home. Several women in the yard are holding a sari up to make a box-shaped screen while others inside wash the body. Water is trickling out of one side of the screen and slowly soaking into the packed mud and dung floor of the compound. Jaiswal had not heeded my warning.

That evening I walk with the procession through the village, the body held high on a litter and decorated with brightly coloured powder and flowers. A pile of wood and dung patties lies waiting in a corner of a field and after a brief ceremony the pyre is torched. Sudden flame, smoke. We do not wait longer, there is nothing to wait for. One person is left to watch the fire. I walk with the villagers back to their home, they are quiet and calm, perhaps they do not believe in tragedy. 

On my way to another village the next day, I pass the spot, now just an area of black ash.

Friday, 10 July 2015

I Was In a Rock n Roll Band

Cale, Freddy Fuckup and Jimi Fuckup at the 751, November 2009

It was called the British Invasion. 1964 was the year when suddenly everyone my age was listening to music by dozens of new bands, all from England. There were the Animals, the Yardbirds, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, Pink Floyd, the Who, the Small Faces, the Kinks, the Pretty Things, the Spencer Davis Group. There was the most popular, the most talked about, the Beatles.

And there were the Rolling Stones. Although we owed them no special allegiance, my memory is that I listened to the Stones everyday for years, playing their first four albums over and over again, in love with the intense groove and swagger of their music. Little realizing that what I was listening to was white English kids paying homage to their favourite Rhythm & Blues musicians, trying to channel, with uncanny success, black dudes from Chicago, Memphis and Detroit like Howling Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willy Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Marvyn Gaye.

My first experience of live Rock'n'Roll was a local group whose performance I attended at the Knights of Columbus Hall in our little town of Whitby. I remember them doing a Bobby Womack tune, It's All Over Now, getting that riff of dropping chords just right like the Stones cover did. What magic was this? What glorious chaos?

You can imagine my feelings when on the 29th of June, 1966, I went to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto to see the Rolling Stones. This was my first big concert and the Stones did not disappoint. I remember little except that the music was great, Jagger wore a cream jacket with a tree applique rising up the back, and I was especially thrilled the moment I recognized Ian Stewart, their friend and former member, playing piano in a corner. Made me feel I was in the know.

Fifteen days later I was at something called the Battle of the Bands at the Whitby Arena. The audience stood in the center, the bands were up on platforms built on the bleachers. Five Toronto bands performed, Jon and Lee and the Checkmates, Bobby Kris and the Imperials, Little Caesar and the Consuls, the Five Rogues and the Ugly Ducklings. It seems the English were somewhat better at naming bands than we were. The first four were soul music, quite popular in Ontario at that time. My favourites of the night, The Ugly Ducklings, were sort of a Stones/Kinks/Who/Pretty Things copy band. Big on long hair, rhythm guitar and bluesy rock. The singer animated, the other musicians performing with a sullen stoicism that seemed total cool. Again I was fascinated with both how a band made music and the magical aura, like talismans, of the instruments: the guitars, the bass, the mikes and the drums, the amplifiers. Their arcane names: Gibson, Guild, Fender, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Zildjian, Marshall. The curves, dials, shine and muted colours of the guitars, especially the bass with its four fat strings, long neck and huge tuning pegs.

The final act was the Five Rogues, a “soul crusade” by white boys soon to change their name to the Mandala. They wore double-breasted cream suits with prominent stripes, black shirts and white ties. The keyboardist played a Hammond organ with a mysterious box beside it in which two opposing speakers whirled around, changing speed constantly (I later learned this was a Leslie speaker). The guitarist was Domenic Troiano who went on to minor international fame. He played a Fender Telecaster, and could use a sustain effect that drew out the notes and sounded like demented bagpipes. In the climatic last number, in the midst of disorientating strobe lights and Troiano's screaming Tellie, the lead singer “collapsed”, overcome with soul I guess, and had to be led offstage like James Brown. Rehearsed or not, bachanalia had come to Whitby.

In following years I saw a lot of live music, including the Stones three more times, the Beatles, The Band, the Grateful Dead, David Bowie and the Jefferson Airplane. And truly exceptional performances by Jeff Beck and Van Morrison: artists who swept us up in the power of their expression: uniting an audience who knew this was no ordinary night.

In 2006 my son Nathan decided to do Rock and performed for the first time, calling himself Freddy Fuckup. The venue was the Smiling Buddha bar on Queen Street, the day Halloween, the songs his own and the only back-up his friend Cale on drums. What was fun was watching his attitude change during this performance, from initial hesitancy, to dawning awareness that he loved this thing and was good at it, to exhilaration at the end.

Cale also played drums in another group called the Monitors which included Cale's father, Keith, playing a vintage Gibson Melody Maker. The band wasn't around for long, but made some phenomenal music. Keith and Cale's father/son act inspired me to consider joining Freddy as the third member, on the bass the band needed.

My son was happy with my backing him up, if I could play. So I went to Long and McQuade and bought a big, hotrod red, Fender Jazz Bass, with the fat strings and the huge tuning pegs, just like the guy in the Ugly Ducklings. I started practicing, and I also learned by playing along with videos I had of Freddy performing all his songs.

The first rehearsal I attended was at Cale's. His dad Keith is a Juno award-winning recording engineer. With musicians in the family, the basement is a funky, permanent rehearsal/recording space crammed full of drums, amps, mikes, guitars, foot pedals, keyboards, control units and cords, cords, cords.

This is where Cale, Nathan and I set up. We started a number and for the first time I'm playing my Fender with a drummer and a guitarist. There was a moment halfway through where I felt a rush of elation, undefined, but it was probably close to “Holy Fuck! I'm playing in a Rock band!!” Although I went on to back up Freddy at four shows, that one moment that one day was worth it all.

I've sold the big red bass. I've stopped practicing. But I lived that moment. I've been in a Rock band.