Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 3

THE PUCK STOPS HERE

The archetypal pop culture perception of America follows that they have an unwavering love of Mom, apple pie and baseball; the perception of Canada is beer, beaver and hockey. If God had wanted man to skate, He/She would have made our ankles pre-sharpened. It cannot be overstated just how bad a skater I was – after eight years, I still couldn’t keep the blades pointed down on the ice. They were usually facing skyward, or at best, sideways…rocketing toward the boards along with the rest of me.

Inertia is a bitch. It became my undoing when, in 1978, I crashed for the 91st consecutive time that season. Knees first. I made it through eight seasons in the West Hill Minor Hockey Association by making up for my lack of skating prowess with the ability to stop pucks with my face, groin, ribcage or other available body part (many of them simultaneously). Where the opponents’ shots went, I artfully slid across the ice in time to drag the puck into the corner where the play would stop. An excellent skill set for a goaltender. Not particularly useful for a left winger [though the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Borje Salming managed to make a career out of it until some bastard drove over his face with a pair of steel belted ice picks]. And so it was on this one fateful super-slide across the ice at Art Thompson arena in Pickering that I conversed with particle board and Plexiglas for the very last time; I immediately handed my kneecaps over to the ‘Bobby Orr Home for Retired Body Parts’.As far as doctors could ascertain, the closer I got to puberty, the farther the space between my knees grew. At the rate my growth was going, I would soon have sufficient room to smuggle six Pomeranian dogs and an imported Romanian automobile in the pit of my knees [I would later own that car]. The reality of my situation was that the cartilage was bruised and in danger of eroding. One more severe blow and I’d be unable to walk forever…or longer. My Hockey Nights in Canada were to be permanently pre-empted. Somewhere out there were league officials dancing jigs of joy knowing that my Hockey Mom would no longer be tormenting players, coaches, parents, Zamboni drivers and snack bar hostesses with epithets like “Get off the ice, you idiots!”

Even though hockey was my favourite sport, I never agonized over not being able to play anymore. The game was getting too competitive, too violent, and far too expensive. It was costing my father an arm and my two legs to maintain this hobby and I felt a responsibility to ease up on his wallet. However, being fourteen years-old and most likely to do things that teenagers do, my parents were determined to keep me off the deserted ‘mean’ streets of suburban Toronto; ironically, back then Malvern was a spanking new, quiet, bedroom community…not going to hell in a hand basket for another 20 years or so.

They asked me what I wanted to do for a new hobby. I didn’t even blink. I don’t think I even thought about it. The words just blurted out of my mouth:  “Play guitar”. They thought it harmless enough. Little did Mom & Dad realize that they wouldn’t be sending me out to cause havoc in the streets, but in nightclubs instead!

WHEN WE WAS FAB
A more likely impetus for wanting to play guitar was a subliminal yearning to emulate my new musical heroes.

Not long before the ‘Vernon Hockey Mishap’ my musical palette was broadening. I had just made friends with some new kids on the block – the Giblin Brothers –  who were entertaining me with a lot of new music including a re-introduction to The Beatles (well, it was new to me). I had been impressed with the release of the Red & Blue albums in 1973, but I was too young then to appreciate the material or buy the albums for myself. It wasn’t until this new ritual of spinning tunes at The Giblins that I really divested my time not only in the Beatles, but music in general. It was my audio awakening, as it were.

My symbiotic bond to AM radio was still intact and so with a newly displaced American friend, John Shuler, along for the ride, we lived and breathed radio while we played board games in The Giblins’ garage during restless summer days or between tag football or during street hockey games in our townhouse complex. And in 1976, the airwaves were alive again with the strains of Queen, Sweet, Steve Miller, Thin Lizzy, Nazareth, David Bowie, Elton John (with and without Neil Sedaka), Peter Frampton and classic ’60s acts making big comebacks – The Four Seasons, Johnny Rivers, The Beach Boys and, of course, The Beatles.

The Fab Four’s deal with Capitol Records in North America was set to expire and the label negotiated a renewal that included a bigger commitment to repackaging their catalogue and to exploiting the vaults. It would be another year before the new Beatlemania would strike with ‘Live At The Hollywood Bowl’, and ‘Rarities’. But it was 1976’s ‘Rock And Roll Music’ – on the heels of McCartney’s re-domination of the charts with “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs” – that made Baby Boomers start buying records by their heroes again.  Who’d have believed that 10 years after its initial release on ‘Revolver’  the song “Got To Get You into My Life” would be cracking the charts for the first time ever?

I received the gatefold 2LP ‘Rock And Roll Music’ for my 13th birthday that year. It glistened from its tinfoil sheen which I immediately dropped and scratched on the front patio while trying to impress the girl next door. To this day “Helter Skelter” skips at the “do-you-don’t-want-me-to-love you” part (which is what I was trying to ask that girl next door). The cover was decked out with artwork that seemed to suggest that the Beatles were 1950s sensations: wing-tipped Cadillacs, jukeboxes and soda fountains — all symbols of an innocent era that died with the assassination of JFK in 1963 – all memorable historical hallmarks prior to the Beatles getting off that airplane in New York in February of 1964. The anachronism of those images was lost on the art department at Capitol Records, it seems. And it’s still debatable whether Capitol’s decision to call the album ‘Rock And Roll Music’ at the same time as their former act The Beach Boys released a remake of the Chuck Berry song that the album was named after – in the same summer – was a deliberate F-U to the band, an unfortunate accident, or an ill-conceived marketing strategy [I pick the latter].

Rebranding the Beatles legacy of Top 40 hits as a ’50s-styled “Rock And Roll” legacy seems incredulous now. They were once a teen pop act and then grew into a serious songwriting pop entity. They stopped being a tried-and-true Bill Haley & The Comets type R’n’R band the minute they left the hellfire Star Club in Germany and Brian Epstein stuck them in charcoal grey collarless jackets and stove-pipe pants. Even a 13 year-old could see that.

But the brilliance of picking the band’s ‘rockers’ as a compilation was second to none save for the inclusion of “Helter Skelter” which was not so much a rock song as a pre-cursor to heavy metal. Pitting McCartney’s Little Richard impressions against John Lennon’s Gene Vincent bravado was the first sign that the two Fabs had more in common than previously believed. And the importance of Ringo’s contribution was immediately re-written with a choice selection of cover tunes – “Boys”, “Matchbox”, et al  – otherwise relegated to reverb soaked album filler on the American repackaged versions of Beatle albums post-1964. George, alas, still received post-Beatles short-shrift as he had during his entire tenure with the band.

Needless to say, the album sparked an interest for me in the Beatles that I can truly call obsessive. Christmas of ’76 became a hunt for all things Fab. With the non-hits from that album as a primer, I decided to go after the hits. I snagged the Red and the Blue albums and spun them until the grooves turned white. Being Canadian, I was fortunate enough to have gotten the version of ‘1962-1966’ that contained previously unavailable mono mixes of the five earliest Beatles’ tracks and the George Martin James Bond theme lead-in to “Help”…none of which was on other global releases of this set. Kudos must go to Capitol Canada Anglophile and British Invasion cheerleader Paul White for having the foresight to make the Canadian version unique to satisfy one of the biggest Beatle fan bases in the world…even years after the band’s demise.

IN YOUR MIND YOU HAVE CAPACITIES, Y’KNOW

Then something happened in early 1977 akin to a Superman/Bizarro World comic book crossover. Radio began playing a track called “Sub-Rosa Subway” by a mystery act called Klaatu. As DJs were quick to point out, the song SOUNDED like The Beatles. And as Steve Smith of the Rhode Island Journal in the USA had postulated following the band’s debut album ‘3:47 EST’ [the time that Klaatu lands on earth in the original 1951 sci-fi movie classic ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’] released to NO fanfare in September 1976 – there was a good case to believe that maybe the Beatles, who were hot again, might have been building up to a secret reunion. After all, Capitol had failed to re-sign any of the band members to solo works except Paul McCartney that year. Lennon had done ‘Walls & Bridges’ and then let his contract lapse into a life of blissful retirement until 1980. Harrison had launched his own Dark Horse Records while Ringo went to Atlantic Records effectively putting both him and George in the hands of WEA.

True or not, Klaatu might have been the closest thing to having a ‘new’ Beatles record we were going to get. And the band had already fast-tracked a second album called ‘Hope’ that the Giblins unveiled to me in the Fall of 1977. This new album wasn’t Beatlesque at all with the exception of the title track. In fact, it was more ethereal, majestic and other-wordly like the 8-minute opus “Little Neutrino” had been as the parting shot on their first album. This was an overwrought Queen-styled concept record that was orchestrated, progressive and fed the imagination with visual images of a distant human struggle for survival. It was a space opera and considering my penchant for astronomy, I was immediately intrigued. The Giblins put the album on cassette for me and so I would don the headphones in bed at night and be lulled to sleep with the plaintive words from Klaatu’s song “So Said the Lighthouse Keeper”.

I am the very loneliest of all creatures in the universe
Indeed, I am an epitaph to man.
For having witnessed mass destruction
Like you’ve never dreamed…and worse.
I fear I shall bear witness once again.

At the age of 14 it wasn’t hard to identify with the loneliness and isolation of wending through the teenaged social (dis)order. The words held a certain melancholy resonance for me especially after the high of leaving Middle School as Valedictorian, a baseball champion in softball and having a steady girlfriend only to be thrust into the empty chasm that was now [dum dum dum dum dah]…HIGH SCHOOL!

We now have an email address where all of us here at Don’t Believe a Word I Say can be contacted: dbawis@rogers.com Please use it to askquestions, 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.

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