Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 4

ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL

With our induction into first year of high school at West Hill Collegiate in Scarborough, my teen friends and I were determined to keep music first and foremost in our cross-hairs. When we weren’t copping feels of female students during the requisite Leo Sayer slow dance at the school mixers, we were taking in several touring Canadian acts that passed through the school’s auditorium: Nightwinds (featuring future brilliant songwriting brothers Gerald and Terry O’Brien), Zon, Max Webster, Goddo and Triumph to name but a few. As well, we’d occasionally wander off to Records on Wheels music retailer at Morningside Plaza to scour the racks for new 7” single and LP discoveries.

Using the money I’d collected from the paper route I’d outgrown, but desperately held onto, [I finally had give it up when the clients started complaining that some creepy 15 year old was wandering across front lawns at 6 A.M. every week] I was always coming home from school with a stack of 7” singles like The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, Frampton’s “I’m In You” (yea, he DID have hits after ‘Frampton Comes Unglued’), and McCartney’s “Girls’ School”  – which was the unsung hard rock B-side to MCartney’s gazillion selling pedantic bagpipe anthem “Mull Of Kintyre”. I was also sucked into getting the novelty song-de-jour “Star Wars/Cantina Band” by Euro-trash disco maven MECO.

Through these three and four minute appetizers I was introduced to Paul McCartney’s ‘Wings Over America’, George Harrison’s ‘33 1/3’, Ringo Starr’s ‘Blast From The Past’, John Lennon’s ‘Shaved Fish’, Nazareth’s ‘Hair of the Dog’, Foreigner’s self-titled debut, Steve Miller’s ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ and ‘Book of Dreams’ (which, unbeknownst to the public at large, had been recorded simultaneously), Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Night Owl’ and ‘City To City’, ZZTop’s ‘Tejas’, Black Sabbath’s ‘We Sold Our Soul For Rock And Roll’, Queen’s ‘A Night At the Opera’ and ‘A Day At the Races’, Sweet’s ‘Give Us A Wink’ and, later, ‘Level Headed’, Bad Company’s ‘Straight Shooter’, The Eagles’ full-length ‘Hotel California’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’, Alan Parson’s ‘I Robot’ and the seminal Pink Floyd masterworks ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ and their latest conceptual mind-f*ck – ‘Animals’.

Almost overnight, I graduated from K-Tel length edited AM pop ditties to album-length FM epics. Add our not-so-secret love for KISS’s “Alive II” and the freshly minted solo albums in early ’78 (Peter Criss should have been booted from the band on the failure of that album alone) to the menu of theatrics and larger-than-life superhero-esque wonder and you’ve got a diversely inspiring musical palette to paint from.

With countless hours of ingesting every song from all our favourite bands and committing them to our mental jukeboxes, we proceeded to build mock guitars, stand on the nearest hydro utility box at the busiest intersection in downtown Nowhereland (i.e. Malvern) and act like crazed teenaged Rock Gods in the presence of defenseless motorists. We were an all out dedicated air-guitar band if ever there was a dedication to air. And this was 30 years before karaoke, YouTube or American Idol. There was a naïve spirit to our play band and it would take a diverging event to turn three wanna-be musicians into the real deal.

PASSAGE TO THE RHINE
Our trio featured two brothers, The Giblins, who had a cousin who played drums in a popular Toronto club act called Rhinegold. They were the entertainment at a gala event celebrating the anniversary of the Scarborough Town Centre shopping mall. The band was to play centre court for free so we decided to check it out. The lead singer/keyboardist’s name was Lawrence Gowan. He and the band were the embodiment of a Saturday morning cartoon, or more accurately, comic book heroes come to life; Gowan was decked out as Spiderman; the Giblins’ cousin, Danny Bourne, was Superman; Gowan’s brother Pat was Captain America; and bass player Chris Brockway was dressed as Bugsy Malone – the gangster. They even performed their own theme song called “The Comic Strip Boogie” – a three-part melodic suite with a ragtime groove married to a progressive arrangement. Every one of their original songs, it seemed, was an extended, mystical, magical tour de force. And their choice of cover tunes was impeccable – “Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles, “School” by Supertramp, “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” by Genesis, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen plus “Miss America” and “Come Sail Away” by Styx; these last two songs were the most memorable for me as they would foreshadow Gowan’s tenure as frontman for Styx some twenty-two years later – for which I would play a very tiny role [but more on that much later!].

The attraction with Rhinegold, and specifically Gowan, was cerebral. KISS had always been a manifestation of the id – Gene Simmons was lust, greed and sin; Paul Stanley was the romantic, the voice of reason and compassion, and so on; but there was a fine line between their on stage personas and their real ones. When Simmons stepped off the stage he commanded the same physical presence he projected while on it (and smells of better perfume than most women I know). To an extent, Alice Cooper was the same and as Alice himself admitted during his rehab years, it was hard for anyone to tell where Alice Cooper the performer ended and Vincent Fournier, the pedestrian, began. Even David Bowie couldn’t keep his personalities straight, and ultimately, he lost a portion of his audience because of it.

Rhinegold was pure fantasy and was the promise of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band fulfilled; a three-ring circus with cherry bombs and glittery unitards; the ‘Wizard of Oz’ set to a Rock backbeat. The ego of the band members was suppressed and set aside in favour of mind trips driven by first person storytelling. Gowan became the ringleader and a narrator for six and seven minute flights of fancy and journeys of the imagination. He was the Genesis era Peter Gabriel without the Arthur Brown wardrobe malfunctions.

It’s obvious, looking back on it now, that their music would inform my choice of picking nits over the self-proclaimed Prog Rock movement. Most Progressive Rock, as I saw it, turned out to be nothing but ego and pretence – vehicles for unchecked virtuosity. There’s nothing wrong with being good at something, but it always seemed to us mere mortals (with half or no talent of our own) that it was exclusionary; scads of doughy-eyed fan boys, and occasionally girls, bowing at the feet of the Gods hoping to absorb, by aural osmosis, the Manna of the musically gifted.

It was a world I couldn’t relate to because it didn’t include me. But, Rhinegold allowed the audience to participate by landscaping the visual imagery through catchy, melodic, music. Gowan was an expert at setting the scene and the music would allow the listener to populate the theatre of their own ears like the mind’s eye would with an engaging book or well crafted movie. That, and the boy could sing and play piano like Elton John on steroids.

I found myself gravitating to this specific element of Prog and rarely ever strayed. The good storytellers got my ears – Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies of Supertramp, John Woloschuk and Dee Long of Klaatu, Roger Waters and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and to a lesser extent, Syd Barrett (his stream of consciousness lyrical doodling left unrestrained got tired really fast). Of course, many will argue that none of this is really Prog. And to that I agree. But, Real Prog in the hands of King Crimson, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Rush, et al – remained inaccessible to me for a whole other reason…that being its lack of pop sensibility. It’s really hard to get your groove on or harmonize to a musical passage with 38.5 chord progressions, six time signature changes, five guitar solos, a drum break and a chorus of Gregorian monks chanting the Tibetan Book of the Dead – and that’s just in the first minute of the song. But I digress.

ROCK IT TO THE MOON
And so…it was at this Rhinegold performance that my previously traumatic ‘Kneecapping Hockey Mishap’ and the musical adrenal injection collided.

We were hormone-fuelled, teen aged impressionable youths with a whole lot of our own id to create. The very next day The Giblins and I formed our first “band”. But what to call it? As all aspiring musicians deduce early on, the name of the act always precedes the actual development of talent and occupies more time than either writing or performing of any actual songs. So it came to pass that we trotted out a parade of soon-to-be discarded names: The Dragons, Simian Quake, The Warlords, O’Cappella, Stars and even Toronto – which we argued over because you could never name a band after a city and be taken seriously.  And as history would later show: Boston, Chicago and an actual act named Toronto were utter failures, right?

With the theatrics a primary part of our envisioned wonderland, we ultimately settled on the name The Gods. It conjured images of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology but was generic enough to be interpreted any way we saw fit. Like Rhinegold, we were soon getting inspiration from comic books, and by default, KISS. The characters and the costumes came first: I was the God of Ice, Gord was the God of Magic, Brad was the God of Fire and a fourth, yet to be named draft pick, would be the God of Electric Power [I know, I know…].

If we’d only had instruments and talent to match our enthusiasm we’d have been deadly. But why let a little thing like musical ability stand in the way of a great idea? Enter my Hockey Mom again. It was now late 1978 and a work friend of my Mother’s had tried to force-feed an acoustic guitar down the throat of one of her children before realizing that the child not only couldn’t breathe, but was still unable to master the instrument, so I was given the guitar until mine arrived from
a) the guitar stork
b) Three Wise Men
c) the parents of a whining teenaged son at Christmas via the pages of a Simpson-Sears catalogue.

We were already committing songs to paper – lyrically – but we needed music to accompany such freshly penned masterpieces as “(We Are) The Rock And Roll Demons”, “Bittersweet Baby” and “Way of The Unholy Rogues” [I can’t imagine why these never became monster hits]. And so, I began taking lessons at a small strip plaza music store called Danny’s Music Post on Markham Road in Scarborough. Danny was a Brit and looked like maniacal conductor Leopold Stokowski with Coke-bottle glasses and a bad comb over (‘cause, you know, there are so many good comb-overs out there). He was also rather stuffy and stiff and made learning guitar a military training exercise ordeal especially for a kid like me who was already a mouthy, impatient but, secretly, insecure teenager. The Giblins used to tag along to my lessons to see if they’d actually like to start learning their instruments as well; Brad would take up guitar; Gord would take up bass. After one particular lesson Brad discovered a short guitar piece in one of my exercise books called “Rock It To The Moon”. It was a Eureka moment when he exclaimed, “Here’s the new name for our band – MOON”. We debated endlessly about using something as ubiquitous as ‘MOON’ because it couldn’t possibly still be available for anyone to use, could it? So, until we were told to stop using it, the name would fit the costumed rocker motif quite well. And so, we became the boys, er, men in the MOON.

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 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.

One Response to “Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 4”

  1. Margaret Says:

    I really enjoyed this piece…great writing!! I could relate to a lot of it. I lived down the street from the “Knobby” at Danforth and Eg. in the late 70s…convenient walk home after seeing Crackers, Mac Lean and Mac Lean and so on. Just a note. L.G.’s, musical brother’s name is Terrance Gowan and it was Patrick Bourke and Daniel Bourne who where brothers and Rhinegold members. Hey, is that you or Larry in the Spidey pic…doesn’t quite look like Larry… Anyway, enjoyed the trip; thanks

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