JAIMIE VERNON: THE PAGINATED HISTORY OF CANADIAN POP MUSIC
Last week I completed a 26 year task. I finished writing Volume 1 of the history of Canadian pop music. It’s 430,000 words and 400 pages long. There’s over 1200 artists listed and a hundred or so photos. The germ of writing it began in August 1986. I massaged the final typos, corrections, dotted the “I’s” and crossed the “t’s” the final week of February 2012.
While having lunch with music journalist/author Martin Melhuish (‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Oh! What a Feeling – A Vital History of Canadian Music’) I was interviewed as part of his voluntary offer to write the book’s Forward which will appear in Volume 2 in the spring. During the process Martin – who has a million great Canadian rock and roll stories of his own – told me that the story behind writing this book could be a book unto itself as I’ve accumulated a lot of stories in my own life pursuits while working my way from idea to printed page.
The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia is not something I originally intended to write. In 1986, a year after forming Bullseye Records for the betterment of Canadian Rock (or so I’ve been told), I began receiving demo tapes from bands who were looking for the Big Prize. I didn’t have the money to sign all these acts, or any of them as it turned out, but I felt I should do something to try and help them. But what? Being a fledgling musicologist I had also acquired enough records, posters, newspaper clippings, back stage passes, lapel buttons, and magazines to break all existing fire codes. The exponential growth of these collected music related by-products was threatening to occupy the last square foot of sleeping space my 1st wife and I shared. Something had to be done. While sorting through the quagmire it immediately became clear that there was a theme developing; I was quick to draw the conclusion that the majority of Canadian music came from independent sources – that is: not produced by any of the big seven record labels – CBS, A & M, RCA, MCA, Polygram, Capitol, and Warner Brothers. I was excited by the notion that a country of 27 million people (at the time) was still supporting their musical talents via a cottage industry…the independent music scene. I decided to take it upon myself to let the world know that 90% of all Canadian music was being ignored and wholly undiscovered. The fact that most of that music was better than the 10% the major labels had been pumping out was a call to arms for effective action to be taken; a jaded market being told that they’ll soon like Song “A” from Band “B” if they’d just tune into Radio Station “C” needed some re-education. In my arrogance and naiveté I plunged headlong into writing “Absolutely Indie: A Discography of Canadian Independent Music”. With a trusty copy of the industry ‘Bible’ at my disposal – Norris Publications’ “Canadian Music Directory” – I wrote letters to the smaller Canadian music labels asking for help and guidance. The first response I got was from the members of Ottawa’s This ‘Blue’ Piano via a cassette and EP and then Medd & Shaw, followed by John Moorhouse – all very exciting in and of itself because it showed that the acts wanted to be included. Pretty soon I was swamped, and a little intimidated, by the sheer volume of responses and additional research material thrust into my lap and I hadn’t even started writing the actual book yet. Though, in all honesty, the additions to my record collection were much appreciated. It was immediately apparent that the scope of the book was too general so I decided to narrow the focus to “official” releases that were available commercially on vinyl (remember that?).
A trip was made to the National Archives in Ottawa during the summer of 1986 where, after a cursory search through their 50,000 album database, I realized I would be out of my mind to attempt this. And yet…I followed through with hand typing all the research information I had gathered over the next year (remember typewriters?). The playing field was changing too rapidly; information I compiled on the activities of any Canadian act became obsolete overnight. I had hundreds of pages documented and there was still so much missing. The whole project became too overwhelming and I lost interest soon thereafter. Time warp to late 1989 where I’m editor of a fan club newsletter for my Toronto area rock band Moving Targetz. In it I began injecting some opinions about the state of the Canadian music industry. People, in turn, responded to that with letters (remember snail mail?) asking about some of their favourite Canadian acts who had either landed in that big bargain bin in the sky or just plain expired in a horrible, flaming career crash. Thus was born Great White Noise magazine. I re-launched my part-time vanity record label with a flashy office, a telephone, an IBM 386 PC clone (remember those?) and set about resurrecting Great White Noise as a flip-cover, two-sided magazine using my original book research as a springboard for the second section entitled Absolutely Indie. Sharon Vernon (nee Leeson) became my assistant editor and she, along with chartologist William C. Smith, and photographer Joanne Michner spent 1991 thru 1994 chronicling the entire CanCon music scene and then some. Eventually, our support system atrophied due to lack of a sustainable advertising revenue base, as did my personal life, and the little magazine that ‘could’ was shelved indefinitely. Meanwhile, I had acquired 3 filing cabinets full of vital information that still needed a good home. Thus was born the new and improved book idea.
The fact that a musician of non-celebrity status should be chronicling the history of Canadian popular music raised a red and white flag on how staunchly apathetic, and often pathetic, we’ve become in maintaining our own Canadian music legacy. Enter John Sakamoto, editor of the internet’s Jam! Showbiz section of the, then, Toronto Sun newspaper website at http://www.canoe.ca, to single-handedly resuscitate this project by asking the impossible: could the Great White Noise staff be convinced to reconvene and put together an electronic Canadian music encyclopedia in a mere 60 days? We decided not to belabor the point. It was just time to get on with it. The original, online, Canadian Music Encyclopedia was written hastily between May and August 1998…mere months after the birth of my son. What initially should have taken 60 days became a monkey on our backs in the wake of caring for a newborn child and battling one of Toronto’s worst heat waves in decades. The new-look Jam! Showbiz website was pumped up a notch in September that year with the debut of our 750 music biographies and discographies from CanCon’s illustrious history. That edition of the website was called the Great Canadian Music Encyberpedia. In no time flat we were slapped with a cease-and-desist order from an Internet company declaring ownership of the name ‘Encyberpedia’. We immediately rechristened the resource The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia in 1999. Response to the posted information was immediate and well received via email links directly from the artists’ pages.
Then several things happened simultaneously AND concurrently. I had left my long-standing day job with the City of Scarborough after the hostile takeover by Toronto (or as they liked to call it ‘Amalgamation’). Sakamoto hooked me up with the newly launching Sam the Record Man.com website (remember them?) where I immediately became their content editor. I also entertained the idea of making Bullseye Records a full-time concern with my newly banked severance package from the city and a fellow Canadian music fan whom was willing to invest in such a venture. I figured the capper to the process would be a book deal for the Encyclopedia where I might get a juicy advance from a publisher to stay home, write about Canadian music and then release a lot of it on CD. A call to Sanderson-Taylor Entertainment in Toronto put me in touch with the amiable Paul Sanderson. He said they didn’t handle literary concerns but that Stohn-Henderson might. Stephen Stohn and Graham Henderson were heavy music industry players and they were sure to know somebody that could move this book idea forward. I gave them a call in September 1999 and my case was given to a new partner there Susan Abramovitz. Susan wasn’t sure she could help with the book either but after explaining what I wanted to do with the company she sorted out my incorporation documents and introduced me to a number of other clients looking for a fresh-faced music exec that might help their music career needs. Needless to say, I ended working with both Randy Bachman and Tom Hooper from Grapes of Wrath and, eventually, Ronnie Hawkins.
Bullseye Records was finally launched full-time as I eased my way out of my job with Sam the Record Man.com. Using much of the correspondence I’d gotten from people writing to me via the Encyclopedia online I was able to talk to former major label artists and near stars about their master tapes and archived albums. Within the first two years I had wrangled manufacturing and licensing deals with Goddo, Klaatu, Brutus, Figures at Dawn, Guess Who, Brave Belt, Ronnie Hawkins, Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion, Killer Dwarfs, Moxy, Santers, Terry Draper, Dee Long, Shakers, Segarini, The Florida Razors, The Kings, Silverlode, Dave Rave, Harem Scarem and so many others whose new careers we helped launch as well – more than 80 titles by the time I folded the label in 2010. The label and the Encyclopedia were a synchronous part of a whole. One fed the other and over time the behind-the-curtain peek into the industry informed the content of what would become the final book(s).
In the March 18th, 2000 issue of ‘TV Guide Magazine’ Brian Hartigan, in his “Click” column, commented:
“…this is one of those rare Web sites that would work good (sic) as a reference book.”
It took 11 more years to fill it with enough verified and interesting content to make it so. It hasn’t been all wine & roses. The early 2000s were lucrative via my business partner for Bullseye but the economic crash of 2008 left the book idea a non-starter. Rent and food became a priority…as well as avoiding creditors/bankruptcy. In 2011 I also lost a part time job doing radio tracking…only weeks before school got out for my kids. Looking for a new job with College students on the prowl would be impossible. And who would watch my teenagers if both my wife and I were out at work? The decision was made that I should stay home, mind the family and finish writing the book so it could be released to the world’s eternal relief. As it turns out the timing couldn’t have been better – after 26 years the technology changed my accessibility to research materials for the better.
I was already in telephone contact with many of the subjects over the years and had unrestricted access to plenty of artists just through my record label alone – including people whom I was courting for a record deal but never came on board like Abraham’s Children, Jerry Doucette and David Clayton-Thomas. There were several thousand emails dating back to the earliest launch of the website. Artists whom the world had forgotten and others I was surprised to hear from like Alec Somerville of The Brothers-In-Law (retired and doing fine in Scotland and STILL recording new music), BJ Cook from Skylark (David Foster’s ex), all the members of The Bells excluding Frank Mills, Paul Anka’s sister, and Bill Amesbury who had left the music business as a transgendered individual to spearhead philanthropic work stateside. Then, of course, there were the detractors who had no filter when pointing out spelling errors – one member of the Ardells threatened to sue me because I had the audacity to spell the band’s name with TWO “L’s” which was viewed by him as defamatory (WTF?).
“hey stupid ; re your scott merritt bio. it’s brantford he grew up in not bradford – i hope wayne gretzky comes and kicks your ass.”
And this piece of well crafted articulation (all grammatical and spelling errors have been left intact):
“bulls eye = lamers
how dare you immature, radically underappreciative gnomes in the dark rty and pass this site of as a real site for Red Rider..
Daddy…wheres my hat??? Daddy wheres my hat….you promised me that when we went to Disneyland youd buy me a hat,and from the looks of this site,were here MickeyMouse hadda be the author of this site…completely filled with gardbage and fallacies and groos inaccuracies,,get a life,,preferably in Canada so you get the facts straight. next time do your homework on the Canadian music culture before you expound form that toothless gaping maul of a mouth..How unfortunate that kids like you grow up to have kdis of your own,,,when and if you ever get the gaul to research your lamer site and revise it , try the library for your data,its online too,til then quit embarrasssing yourselvf and the fine cultural image that you desecrate..”
I laughed and laughed.
Some of the most amusing and/or disturbing emails are from those who think that the Encyclopedia is written and monitored by the artists contained within it. And so, I receive every form of confessional, invitation and ‘Dear John’ letter imaginable. Most are harmless from folks wanting to know how to get an autograph or could the artist come to their town and perform or did I have an MP3 of their most favourite Gary & Dave song of all time. There’s the nostalgic ones from folks who want to share their memories of sharing ice cream with the lead singer from The Crew Cuts or back-alley sex with a member of punk band DOA. But occasionally there are the truly troubling ones like the guy who said he was coming down to kill Geddy Lee of RUSH which I quickly forwarded to his management…who, in even more disturbing fashion, confirmed that it was one of dozens they get every year. There was also the poor woman who spilled her heart out about being raped by a member of a Canadian band back in 1962. After assuring her that the email she sent was NOT being directed to the subject of her anguish, I advised her to get counseling for what has truly been a lifelong trauma. Apparently I’d become the creator of a new reality show called Jukebox Confessional.
I respond to most emails with a ‘thank you’, but others I’ve challenged especially when coming from third parties or have gone down a derogatory, confrontational path. It accomplishes nothing sending me a note saying I’m wrong about facts when it’s littered with adjectives questioning my sexuality or my mother’s assumed weight and contains NO discernable facts to contradict or supersede what I’ve already written. And the third party ‘facts’ are just frustrating. These are people who heard something from somebody relating to someone who may or may not be connected to a real life rock star.
My favourite was from a girl who told me that Bif Naked was not born in India because a) she doesn’t look East Indian and b) her BFF went to public school with Bif and would never lie about such a thing! But as my bio points out…Bif’s parents traveled for their work. Mom gave birth in India. They moved back to Canada where she carried on life as a fairly normal Canadian teenager living in the wilds of
Amongst it all was real, credible information that built the foundation of my research – well, except for the unbelievably juvenile battle amongst the various members of The Haunted and their former manager. I was updating the website entry for them nearly daily for awhile because every new correction led to a new litany of messages from the band/management with yet another ‘correction’ refuting the previous one. I can guarantee the entry on them is now littered with half-truths. At the end of the day, only the band cares. The fans just want to know where they can buy the old recordings.
I also raged an inglorious battle with a session man who, emailing me weekly from a barstool in an Irish pub…in IRELAND, proceeded to slander, defame and air all manner of past grievances against every artist he’d had the displeasure of working once he discovered I’d left him out of all their biographies. I assured him it wasn’t a conspiracy but that his name just never appeared on the album covers of these acts. With his guidance (and insults) the internet actually allowed me to dig deeper and uncover at least some references to him. Finally, he was retroactively added to the band biographies he’d been written out of as a mea culpa. I’ve also been threatened with legal action concerning my own interpretation of the ‘facts’. It’s a hazard of journalism but, my God, there are so many divas and egomaniacs out there it’s any wonder there hasn’t been a book like this until now. Who the hell wants the headache of lying about some rock star’s age because he doesn’t want people to know he’s OLD? I even did battle with Robert Goulet’s second wife because I dared mention his getting fired from a job over excess drinking. As the man has since passed away I’ve taken the passage out permanently.
As far as data mining goes, some information just cannot be extracted electronically – Producer Ralph Murphy was invaluable with information he provided about 45 years worth of artists he produced and wrote songs for. An email exchange was impossible due to the shear volume of knowledge he possessed. Instead it was several phone calls to Nashville to get the overview and then correspondence with specific questions later. Other artists have not grown up or into the electronic world we now live in. Duncan White from the Greaseball Boogie Band/Shooter is a retired senior and preferred the telephone to trying to articulate his thoughts in emails so we talked at length about his years in the business. He was grateful that ANYONE, aside from his children and grandkids, cared about his story. The following week I received a package in the mail with newspaper articles and various memorabilia as a thank you for acknowledging his contributions to Canadian music. The icing on the cake was a set of Toronto Maple Leaf autographs from the 1967 Stanley Cup winning champions only because the team came up in our conversation (White was one of several Toronto musicians to perform at the team’s victory party in 1967).
Parsing thousands of emails and interviews and all the press clippings and records I’d collected over 26 years and turning it into a narrative was the challenge. People were leaving me bread crumbs and I was using the internet as a beacon for additional information that led to networks of fan pages, blogs, chatrooms, wikis, and artist websites (which, as a whole, are the most useless self-promoting NON-informational sites to ever visit – you might as well go to MySpace for all the good the artist sites will do).
And so, finally, after updating and editing the text from June 6, 2011 to February 22, 2012 the first volume (A thru K) was birthed. It was supposed to be the whole alphabet but partway through the editing process I realized I could NOT fit the history of Canadian music into one, single, book. Thus was born the CanCon equivalent to the Encyclopedia Britannica – which, sadly announced they were no longer doing print versions in the future!
There are more stories to be gleaned by me and there’s plenty of stories to be learned by Canadian music fans in the Encyclopedia itself. I encourage anyone interested in our musical heritage to grab it, not just because I need the money (hey, who doesn’t?) but because you might learn some amazing facts about your favourite artists and it will allow the continued documentation of this amazing history that’s been all but forgotten for Volume 2 in the Spring.
The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia – Volume 1 (A thru K) is available from http://www.bullseyecanada.com/encyclopedia.html
Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years.