Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 1

CAREER OPPORTUNITIES

No one sets out in life wanting to start a record label. It’s not an occupation with a true calling like a doctor, a policeman, or a porn star. In public school they’d often have career days and would go from student to student asking what we wanted to be when we grew up. At the time I said: ASTRONOMER.

I loved and lived for Space. I borrowed and scoured every related book from the Cedarbrae Public Library in Scarborough and held dear my personal collection of Space-themed Red Rose Tea collector cards (which I still have). But even at age eleven I was already aware that Canadians weren’t going to the Moon anytime soon – though Mark Garneau taught us all later that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. It left me looking at space rather than flying through it. I read my personal dissertation on the pride and joy of scanning the night sky looking for the next Pluto – which is still a planet in my Solar System – or any sign that there was intelligent life in the universe (cause Lord knows the jury’s still out on the life forms down here). The astronomers who came before us were now folk heroes – Ptolemy, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton. With sights set on the cosmos, one could potentially become a different kind of star. In my lifetime Eugene Shoemaker had a comet named after him and, following his untimely death, has become the only human so far to be buried on the Moon. Now that’s not a bad career trajectory.

But, what I should have said at Career Day was this:
“I would like to be the president of my own record label spending 18 hours a day, on-call 365 days of the year struggling to make the world submit to the artistic musings and the gravity defying egos of little known Canadian musicians through the release of small shiny audio discs containing not less than 10, but not more than 18, musical compositions. I expect not to be paid for doing this, but will instead inject my own life savings and the considerable personal fortunes of others for no other reason than I think they deserve the success, the wealth and the perks offered by skanky chicks who frequent the back room at The Knob Hill Tavern in Scarborough as the result of such ridiculously delusional optimism.”

Had I said this, someone would have shaken me violently until I snapped back into reality and you would now, most certainly, be reading a column called “Life’s An Aurora Borealis” instead. But even in an era when shaking someone violently wasn’t, yet, a human rights violation, it seemed I was given unfettered freedom to make that ill-fated decision unchallenged. Why the hell didn’t somebody stop me?

THIS IS YOUR SONG

I grew up weaned on the mono broadcasting wind of AM radio from a very young age. Toronto’s 1050 CHUM-AM had been my narcotic of choice. It was in my blood and pumped through the dashboard of my Dad’s ‘67 Plymouth Valiant (in the colour turquoise no less) . CHUM was a new rocket fuel for my undiscovered musical identity: the spitfire DJ patter, the colliding playlists of Motown, Brit-Pop, American rock and Canadiana. Their promotional giveaway tagline became my mantra – “I LISTEN TO CHUM”. In Toronto, this was the station that everyone had their radios pre-set to. It seemed like there were endless summers lying around the communal swimming pool at the Scarborough high-rise apartment building we lived in where someone – usually the lifeguard – would have the tunes wafting on the summer air all day long. It was all still so shiny and new. And because of the implementation of Canadian Content regulations in 1971, the explosion of new Canadian sounds was what bum-started my penchant for homegrown talent so early in life.

The 7-Up Cola Company ran a promotion one summer with all the latest hot Canadian acts’ promo pictures lining the inside of pop bottle tops and the bottom of cans with their alien, mustachioed visages staring back up at me in what seemed like a nod and a wink to foreshadowing my long distance future.
Burton Cummings once commented that the contest gave him the creeps after relieving himself outside one time and having the face of another Guess Who member staring back at him from the ground while he took a wiz.

If you collected the various ‘Rock Tops’ you could win an album of tracks by the stars themselves. I never won. I lost the game card with the bottle liners. But I still had the songs on the radio to keep me comforted:  April Wine’s “Bad Side of the Moon”, Lighthouse’s “One Fine Morning”, Crowbar’s “Oh! What A Feeling”, Edward Bear’s “Last Song”, A Foot In Coldwater’s “(Make Me Do) Anything You Want”, The Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman”, Ian Thomas’s “Painted Ladies”  and, of course, the ubiquitous Guess Who with songs like “American Woman”, “These Eyes” and “Undun”; radio seemed to be owned by Burton & Randy in those formative years and 30 years later they would repay my loyalty to them with a CD of rarities issued on my own Bullseye Records label.

RADIO-ACTIVE

I adopted the routine of having a radio and earpiece with me at all times. Like today’s iPod drones I, too, was attached to my Realistic hand-held portable transistor radio from Radio Shack…the one with the antenna that would poke you in the chin when you had the thing in your breast pocket. But it was usually tucked under my pillow, hidden from Mom & Dad, and muted softly as I drifted off to dreams of rock and roll.

And the radio soon fed the record-buying beast. Like my Dad – who had a rather large collection of records from DJing dances, sock hops and parties in the ‘50s and ‘60s – I started my collection with a pile of 7” singles he’d donated to me as a means of keeping me from playing, and breaking, his own coveted vinyl collection. These were singles with small holes…most of them played at 33 1/3 and they sounded different than what was coming out of the radio. In the early 1970s, these records were already ‘oldies’: Hank Williams, The Andrews Sisters, Jim Lowe, Eddy Arnold, Ronnie Hawkins and even lesser knowns on labels like REO, Sparton, and MGM. I didn’t care. It was scratched and discarded, but it was music. And despite living a low-income existence, my electronics wiz of a father still managed to build me a turntable and speakers out of scraps of console systems he’d salvaged. There was no tuner; it was just a turntable with two volume knobs drilled right into the front and a headphone jack to ensure the most phenomenal of private listening sessions.

I could stack six 7” single records deep and get nearly 20 minutes of uninterrupted playing time. I was acquiring quite the collection of Canadian and international hit records by saving my allowance every week and going across the street from our apartment to Cedarbrae Mall to scour the CHUM Top 30 at The Disc Shop. Those 7” singles – at the iTunes defying $0.69 a-piece – became my personal chapter books; each telling a short, three minute story or six minutes as I began flipping to the B-sides to get my hard-earned money’s worth. How many people know that the flip-side to Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” was an innocuous little ditty about a pet dog called “Put the Bone In”? [I kid you not]

But it wasn’t long before I graduated to LPs as I craved longer musical stories and better narratives which included my very first full-length: Elton John’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1. That was soon followed by K-Tel ‘hits’ collections of current Top 40 fodder – or whatever K-Tel could negotiate out of emerging Canadian indie labels at that time – bargain priced and designed for our generation’s ADD listeners. Titles like “Believe in Music” and “Music Gallery” and “22 Explosive Hits” said it all: three or four minute songs neutered to the length of two minute jingles. It was ‘Hit Parade’ on speed dial.

And so, the radio was replaced by the stereo as a means to drift off to Cloud Nine. Forget psychotropic drugs; twilight time was the best way to listen to music. Somewhere between awake and asleep the brain absorbs the music as it does with visual images. I firmly believe my own unfailing musical memory comes from the neural pathways carved out during these hypnotic listening sessions. Jukebox recall, if you will.

But as I grew older the clock radio became the new portable device tuned to my favourite station that was still ‘dialed’ in by hand. It was no longer a device to fall asleep to but the accompaniment to my morning ablutions instead — stumbling from bed, showering, coffee and breakfast with the DJ spewing 30-second run-on sentences about rainy days and Mondays while juxtaposing Lighthouse’s “Sunny Days”. And the musical stream would flow into our cars with their combination radio/tape decks  – first on 8-track, then on cassette –  while we headed off to work before rinsing and repeating again the following day. It would be on one of these seemingly routine days  that radio changed my view of it…and the world around me…forever. [to be continued…]

We now have an email address where all of us here at Don’t Believe a Word I Say can be contacted: dbawis@rogers.comPlease use it to ask questions, tell us what you’d like to read about, links you’d like to share, and let us hear what you have to say.

– 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 is the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia. He keeps a copy of Lightfoot’s “Sundown” under his pillow at night.

3 Responses to “Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 1”

  1. Thanks, Jaimie… I Was There.

  2. Jim Chisholm in Campbell River Says:

    There’s a guy on my block he lives for rock he plays records all day long… The KinKs

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