Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 5

In February of 1979 my family up and moved a few miles east to the new Phase IV of Malvern at the north-eastern corner of Morningside and Sheppard Avenues. It was an unproven wilderness carved out of hectares of wooded farmland just west of the new Metro Toronto Zoo. At night you could hear the wolves howling from their habitat just across the banks of the Rouge River. Gord Giblin and I had spent many summers riding his Dad’s Suzuki 125 motorcycle up Morningside’s original namesake, Littles Road, to Finch Avenue to visit our school pal Wendall Dyke’s family farm or even farther still to retrieve golfballs from the edge of Morningside Golf Course on Steeles Avenue and race around the gravel pits on Reesor Road. Now it was paved and subdivided and was about to be invaded by throngs of urban dwellers.

As the winter turned to spring the view from my bedroom window was inspiring. The panoramic scene enveloped the entire centre of the subdivision: a parkette and public school yard with a bike path, wading pool, football field and playground as well as a small thicket forest in the centre. There were adjoining paths coming out of the midst of no less than half a dozen side streets. I could see everyone and everything entering the park simultaneously. I would slide the windows up in my bedroom and sit on a chair with my guitar and begin imagining the lives of those from the world outside. As the weather got progressively warmer I would go outside and sit on the front step as my Dad began building a garage expansion on the side of the house. Soon the guitar was replaced with a shovel and I was in the trench with him digging the footing for what would be a one-man construction marvel.

By this point Gord had gotten his driver’s license (back when you only had to take one test) and would drive from our old neighbourhood in Malvern’s Phase One to visit our new digs – often dragging his brother Brad with him. When Mom and Dad weren’t home we’d take our guitars into the basement and jam. Once the garage was completed, it would prove to be a good place to hang-out with the new people I’d meet in the neighbourhood and a refuge for our guitar playing when my Mom got tired of us scaring the family cat.

Eventually, I caught wind of another guitarist in the area – an older oriental fellow named Walter who had himself some exceptional, real, music gear that he was airing out with a one-man recital from his back patio about six or seven houses behind ours. I flew down the street in search of the plaintiff riff from Toto’s “Hold the Line”. He was Pat Morita with a Les Paul. Over the course of the summer I took lessons from him in rhythm guitar and timing techniques. Riff on. Riff off.
I never learned his last name but he was certainly a performer in a cover band, somewhere. To this day I owe him a debt of gratitude.

When I couldn’t find him for more Sensai-to-grasshopper tutelage, I moved to the more transportation accessible Musonic Music store near Morningside Mall to continue my guitar lessons. It was there that I discovered my second personal guitar mentor in Don Noseworthy whose background as one of Ontario’s leading Bluegrass guitarists was eye-opening. He looked like Johnny Cash circa 1963 – all black leather vest, crypt-kicker boots, black jeans and an authentic greasy duck’s ass pompadour haircut. He taught me the art of multiple-finger picking on an electric guitar – a technique I still use to this day. Unfortunately, Don is now serving life in prison for causing the neglectful death of his aging mother in the 2000s.

Armed with a new guitar vocabulary, I started absorbing and applying what I heard from my favourite albums to my new songs. It’s only now, when I listen to my old songwriting demos, that I can hear what songs I stole things from. Ah, the unbridled inspiration of youth!

It appears the biggest riff-offs I’d committed were cribbed versions of KISS songs and with good reason. In July of 1979 Gord and I camped out for an entire Saturday at the Zounds mega-store on Eglinton Avenue to get tickets for the upcoming KISS Dynasty tour. With the exception of our continued patronage of Rhinegold shows at the Ontario Place bandshell, we had never attended a real rock concert before. Tickets for the Red section at Maple Leaf Gardens were $10.50 ($9.55 plus $0.95 RST!!!)  and after putting them safely in our wallets, spent the next month bouncing off the walls and absorbing everything related to KISS we could get our hands on including the latest album ‘Dynasty’ (or as critics were correct in re-naming it: ‘Die Nasty’).

By this point my mother had wrangled me my first part-time job at Consumer’s Distributing – a retail shopping warehouse where people came in, looked through a catalog, placed their order with counter staff and droogs like us would pull the product from 30 foot high shelving units. This usually resulted in the product, the pickers or both landing on the floor before ending up – pre-broken – in the hands of the customers (occasionally things like exercise ‘vibrators’ would find their way to the front showroom with batteries in them…and in the ‘on’ position). It was grueling having to unload 18-wheelers in the summer heat to restock the shelves, but the warehouse stereo kept us entertained while blasting new, exotic tunes by the likes of Dire Straits, Flash And The Pan, Sniff & The Tears and, of course, KISS’s “I Was Made For Loving You”.

With the money I made at Consumer’s I would bicycle across the entire length of Scarborough from Morningside Avenue to Victoria Park – about 20 kilometres – to a discount vinyl warehouse called Kennedy Record Sales on Gordon Baker Road. With $25 bucks in hand, I managed to scoop up Supertramp’s ‘Breakfast In America’, ELO’s ‘Discovery’ and KISS’s ‘Dynasty’. It was going to be another musical awakening.

When the KISS concert finally came around it turned out to be one of the most memorable shows I would ever see. As Gord and I found our way to our seats the air was sharply perfumed with hemp by-products and there was an energy in the air – even from the stoned masses. The opening act was the Paul Stanley produced band New England who had some pretty decent tracks that I later discovered entitled “Hello Hello Hello” and the anthemic “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose You”. But we were there for the main attraction.

The lights dropped and that legendary intro echoed against Maple Leaf Gardens’ walls: “You wanted the best, you got the best. The hottest band in the world….KISS!!!!” The crowd, understandably, lost their patchouli-riddled minds. And for two non-imbibing 16 year olds who had been idolizing this band since they were 12, it was like winning the lottery.

The house lights were off and the stage was dark with only the four theme colours of each band member shining as dull footlights on the stage floor. As the first guitar notes of ‘Detroit Rock City’ began blasting out of the speakers, and with the full band entering on Peter Criss’s hammering military snare shots from trap doors in the floor, the stage exploded not just with magnesium flashes, but the sounds of cherry bombs like canon explosions at twenty paces. You could feel the heat from the fire right up to where we were seated – at the farthest end of the Gardens where, traditionally, you’d find the mini-scoreboard over the opponent’s hockey net. By the time our ears stopped ringing they were already into the chorus:

Get up!
Everybody’s gonna move their feet
Get down!
Everybody’s gonna leave their seat
You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City!

And the audience did what they were told. They sprang to their feet waving their banners and punching the air. It was a youth rally gone kabuki. The rest of the night was a two hour adrenalin high as they rolled through their catalog of fan favourites: “God of Thunder”, “Black Diamond”, “Beth”, “Shout It Out Loud”, “I Want You”, “I Was Made for Loving You” and just grazing their 1978 solo tunes like Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” and Gene Simmons’ “Radioactive”. We left smelling of pot and emotionally drained. It would take a week to come down from that contact high. We were itching to show our schoolmates what we learned over the summer.

Kids from my neighbourhood had originally been shipped off to a temporary high school at West Hill Collegiate until the new school in the Malvern subdivision could be completed. Gord and I had shared a single locker with a third kid from our region for all of 1977/1978. But, because of a carpenters’ strike the next summer, the new school was still unfinished for the 1978/1979 sessions. So we were sent off to share the confines of yet another, even smaller school called Albert Campbell Collegiate in a section of Agincourt I would end up living in some 20 years later.

However, this time we weren’t going to be co-mingling with the residents of this established community. We’d be bussed in for half-days starting at 1PM and driven home again at 6PM for the first half of the year; the permanent students from the school were forced to go in at 7:30AM and finish at 12:45 PM (poor bastards). The classes were chaos and it was difficult to get to know any of the new neighbourhood kids because we had no downtime, other than lunch hour, to socialize. Gord wasn’t  in any of my classes at this strange place and I ended up hanging out with, as it turns out, the sister of someone I would eventually end up in a band with. Otherwise, I kept my head down, practiced my guitar and kept writing new songs.

Once we were firmly ensconced in the new headquarters at Lester B. Pearson Collegiate, The Giblin Brothers and I spent much of our time dreaming our rock and roll dream despite the fact that our band idea, MOON, never quite got off the ground. We just couldn’t find that magical ‘fourth’ individual, a drummer, to bring it all together. Who the hell was going to listen to two guys with guitars, a bass player and no backbeat?;  umm, make that three guys with guitars, a bass player and no backbeat. We did have a fourth member – a new school pal named Brian Turmon who had fancied himself an acoustic guitarist and slowly began hanging out with us at Gord & Brad’s place to practice on nice warm days when going to school was the last thing anyone wanted to do.

Brian ‘replaced’ two other guys who said they wanted to be in our yet-to-be-a-band band: Gord’s friend George Dobson – the man who, gratefully, introduced all of us to Klaatu, Alan Parsons and Pink Floyd – and one of my cousins. Neither of them was duly motivated to learn an instrument, attend rehearsals or be anything but stand-by affiliate members. The fact that they both lived miles from where we were in Scarborough made this no real fault of their own. What Brian shared with us was a common interest in the self-titled debut album by The Cars. Brian also loved his own hair and from The Cars’ song “Good Times Roll”, he nicknamed his lengthy mane ‘That Rock And Roll Hair’ and insisted that we refer to it as such. We also renamed the group ‘The Good Times Roll Band’ because it was the only song any of us could play — together.

The all-guitar orchestra idea soon wore thin. So, Brad Giblin eventually scraped together bits and pieces of a drum kit which amounted to a few toms and some metal rims he rigged up as a hi-hat/cymbal combination; my technically gifted father had managed to build me a homemade guitar amp, complete with distortion pedal which I customized so I could replicate Rick Neilson’s guitar lines on Cheap Trick’s ‘Gonna Raise Hell’ (but not much else, it seems); and Gord was driving his bass through an exceptionally old Sears guitar amp of his father’s which had no third-prong ground on it so it would nearly electrocute whoever was touching the instrument – or the ‘Car 54’ microphone my father also let us borrow – when you plugged it in. As rudimentary as this set-up was we were actually developing the caveman-like tools necessary to at least have a fighting chance at becoming a real band.

The library at the school had a state-of-the-art conference-sized tape deck whereby you could plug in half-a-dozen headphones allowing several people to listen to the same cassette recording simultaneously. The librarian, Mrs. Gordon, was pretty hip and would grab us copies of the latest, and greatest, albums available. We made it a mission to convene at school as early as 8AM, when the library opened, and would decide what album we were going to indulge in each morning. Usually we’d go with Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or the newly released ‘The Wall’, Alan Parson’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ or Paul McCartney’s ‘Wings Over America’. These were great recordings to start our day. All that was missing was some Cheetos and a good bag of weed!

Along with this ritual we continued practicing our instruments and started writing original songs as a unit. Even as a drummer, Brad was starting to get into the act as he was now absorbing all things Black Sabbath. Meanwhile, I had written a hundred songs over the course of the previous year – some of them for the girl I was dating. Her girlfriends thought this was awesome. She wasn’t as easily impressed and soon dumped me and began dating Gord’s brother, Brad. I would soon call this my “dark, tortured artist period” just so I could make her feel guilty. She felt so bad about dumping me that she dated a member from my next band as well (but we’ll get to him in the next chapter). Ain’t love a bitch?
But as the girlfriends encroached and Gord and Brian started part-time jobs at Canadian Tire it became apparent that this band wasn’t going anywhere soon.

We now have an email 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 would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s 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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