Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 6

GOD SAVE MY SPLEEN

As the scholastic year invariably dragged on in Bullet Time TM, my best friend Gord and I continued writing songs with an eye to starting a new band by way of an interesting carrier pigeon solution. Because we only had homeroom and art class together, the only time we could actually work on melody was after school or on weekends with instruments in hand. But the lyrics were another pursuit altogether.

With our schedules set in classrooms very much apart, we would pass threads of song ideas back and forth during homeroom and then one of us would carry on with the most feasible idea during the next class.

We’d meet again in the hall 40 minutes later between our next two periods and the paper, now filled with a verse or two, was given to the other writer to carry on – then passed on to one another by girlfriends or as stop-gap mailbox drops in each other’s lockers. By the end of the day there was usually a completed draft of a full lyrical idea. We’d take it home, put some music behind it and there sat another song. We got really good at it too. And still, there was no band to perform the material. We were two Taupins without a John.

Like many events in life, it seems that the right solution always presents itself at the exact moment you need it. Just what I needed at that moment, as the Cars’ song intimated, was a Punk Rocker to step into my life. No, seriously.

One day at High School I turned to see him with this splash of green dye in his hair…along with a battered, faux leather jacket, safety pins and ripped jeans. Is it any wonder I didn’t notice this guy sooner? Gord was beside himself with laughter.

“Holy shit! What they hell is that?” He did a double take and couldn’t resist asking, “Is that green (bwahahaha) dye in your (haahahaha) hair?”

Cue: Tears in eyes. Holding stomach. Rolling on floor laughing one’s ass off.

We were in Mr. Baszak’s History class homeroom and the ‘punk’ – whose name was Tim James – sat facing the blackboard, unfazed by the snickering or the comment. He was prepared with a quick, snide, comeback, “I ran out of Red Dye No. 2”.  I was going to like this guy. But it would take most of Grade 11 to do it.

By Spring of that year, Tim James was better known to the masses just for looking his usual unusual self against such a straight-laced suburban setting. He and I shared other classes together and one day we got talking about music. Tim mentioned that his new band had lost their guitarist; turned out to be a guy that Gord and I shared art class with. Tim wondered if I wanted to audition. Jeesuz. Could this be the Big Leagues? What did I know about Punk Rock? Emphasis on the word punk. Hmmm, let me see. Absolutely, nothing. I was perfectly game.

He lived very close to me in the next subdivision over (and kitty corner to my Dad’s two sisters) so, after school one day, I went back to his townhouse where he lived with his Mom and younger brother (both non-punks) to let me listen to some music and see if I was interested in what his band was doing. His bedroom was in the basement of the house. His walls were painted black and adorned with faux graffiti in poster-board acrylics espousing anarchy and band names I wasn’t familiar with at all. This guy was badass. And it scared me a little ‘cos my parents would have killed me if I painted my walls…in any colour.

But Tim was still a music lover trapped inside that tough razor-blade exterior; I was relieved to find there was a normal, kindred spirit under that leather jacket as I thumbed through his collection of familiar rock and pop titles which happened to include Klaatu’s first album ‘3:47 EST’.

“Take whatever you want. I’m done with that stuff.” He handed me a batch of records he no longer wanted and flipped the lid on his stereo, putting stylus on vinyl to play me one of the most alien sounds I’d ever heard coming out of a set of speakers — with the exception of a 1960’s air-raid stereo test record of my father’s. Never mind that, I thought…it was something called The Sex Pistols.

“I am the Anti-Christ…I am an Anarchist. I know what I want and I know how to get it…”

This assault was immediately followed by The Clash, The Ramones and The Damned. What the hell was this? Tim brought out his vintage turquoise 1960s Teisco bass guitar and played along, note perfect, to every song. I didn’t react at first when he asked me if I liked it. I wore a wincing grin and nodded my head like you do at a noisy party when you can’t hear the hostess introduce you to her awkward cousin Lorraine. But it didn’t take long for it all to register in my sixteen year-old brain. In a world where I was only able to muster the most basic of guitar chords to play my own songs (i.e. four or five), it struck me like a freight train that this was easy music. Not simple, necessarily, but easy to grasp and easy to follow. It was “Three Blind Mice” on speed. Like a car collector with a new, sporty, foreign import, I was going to take this sonic cacophony out for a test drive.

Tim handed me a cassette of three songs his band could play – minus the old guitarist – and wanted me to come up with something suitable to fill in the missing parts for an audition in a week. The tape contained two original tunes that were pretty rudimentary – one fast (the non-Michael Jackson titled “Beat It”), one slower but still rock-based (“David’s”) – and their version of “New York City” by The Demics. The band’s singer was Ivan Judd and he had one of the most unique singing voices I’d ever heard – part Alice Cooper, part The Demic’s Keith Whittaker, part Lemmy from Motorhead. Years later bands like Creed, Nickelback and Metallica would call that vocal style their signature sound. But Ivan had it first. And Ivan was the singer for Tim’s band SWINDLE.

WE’RE PUNKERS
Swindle’s drummer was Jim Greeley – a guy I actually knew from Auto Shop at school.  Jim was a maniac behind the drums; part Keith Moon and part Animal from ‘The Muppets’. He was out of control, untamed and reckless. But he had more enthusiasm than most of the drummers I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with since. You never knew when a drum roll was going to go off the rails. But we were all unproven and undisciplined and found a way of working within his idiosyncratic style – as a unit. Besides, who was I to comment on musical proficiency when I’d never even been in a room with an actual drummer?

None of us had our drivers’ licenses yet, so we waited for Ivan to come and pick us up in his Dad’s company utility van. We would either wait together at Jim’s place where we’d hang out with his grandmother while she yelled at the TV during Maple Leaf Wrestling (and plotted her untimely demise with a tragic trip down the basement stairs in a bass drum), or at Tim’s place where he’d tie his little brother’s shoelaces together and we’d hang him upside down over the top of an open door, or at my house where we’d put a plastic CFL football helmet on the cat and use him as a curling stone across my parent’s polished wood floors. Needless to say, we were poster children for ADHD long before the term had ever been created.

The van had no back seats. Tim and Jim battled for control of the shotgun position. I sat on a wheel-well deep in the back and held on for dear life. The ride was chaos as Tim and Jim spent the time yelling at pedestrians from the window. I felt like an unwitting hostage being taken into the desert and unable to see where I was going to be executed. Turns out it was Pickering – only blocks away from where my Mom’s sister and her family lived. We were going to Ivan’s parent’s place where he had recently re-inhabited their basement following a move back home; they were praying for him to get a hair cut, buy a decent wardrobe, move back out and, hopefully, take this band with him.

I struggled along in that first rehearsal as we focused mainly on the tunes from the tape that Tim gave me to study. But I was nervous as hell not knowing if my sound, my style or my wardrobe (which included a not-so-punk Toronto Blue Jays’ batting helmet and a purple nylon cardigan) would be the pivotal factor in offending any or all of these guys. And to make matters worse there were two hot, blonde, women watching my every move. They were friends of Ivan’s but my teenage mind wanted to know immediately: Is this what a groupie looks like? But I was too focused on what we were doing to pay them much attention. However, Tim and Jim didn’t want any distractions and made rude comments and gestures to the ladies so they would leave in disgust. Which they did. Little did I know that one of them would become the future Mrs. Vernon.

The rehearsal ended with a Keith Moon-styled destruction of Jim’s tiny Stuart drum kit. He was in the midst of financing a new set and wanted to send his existing drums off with a flourish. Tim and Ivan were quick to help him succeed in retiring the hardware as well. Ivan’s parents were stiff lipped Brits and were quite alarmed at the fracas going on in the name of musical pursuit. It would be something they NEVER got used to with Ivan’s various bands. Typically there was a sigh of relief from both of them as we scurried out of the basement into the dark of the Pickering night each week.

Even after several more rehearsals, I was never officially told whether I was in the band or not. These guys were too cool for small talk. It was all presumed. They just kept picking me up and dragging me off in the back of the van to rehearsal or for teen shenanigans at the hands of these arrested development cases. It wasn’t unusual to find ourselves at Bay Ridges Plaza in the IGA supermarket as Tim and Jim donned lab-coats emblazoned with a competing supermarket’s logo to restock shelves, alter price stickers, goof around behind the meat counter or help old ladies load groceries into their cars. Other times we’d be down at the foot of Liverpool Road splitting French fries or a couple of burgers at the original Big ‘M’ restaurant after everyone pooled their pennies and pocket lint together to make a meal. Ivan worked for his Dad but used his cash to put gas in the van or buy new records. Jim worked part-time at Leon’s Furniture warehouse driving a forklift truck (dangerously) and was saving every dime to put against a new drum kit. Tim and I, for the time being, siphoned the pockets of our parents to get everything from cigarettes (Tim) to guitar strings (me).

It wasn’t long before we were hanging out together all the time and eventually I had to introduce Tim to the parental units. My folks’ and their friends had the same reaction to Tim that Gord Giblin initially had. Hysterical laughter followed by good natured acceptance once they realized Tim was all snot and no bite. Below the punk visage was a kind soul and my parents knew immediately he posed no threat. At least, that’s what they thought. Between rehearsals with Ivan we were working on songs at Tim’s place; Writing, listening, honing, crafting. I was soon given the challenge of contributing to the songwriting pool. Tim heard my pop writing demos and, thankfully, didn’t entirely dismiss everything I did. He was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt if I agreed to come over to the Dark Side of Punk.

He vetted a handful of my previously written lyrics that were road tested with new music that we jammed in rehearsals: the short-lived “Creepin’ Thru The ‘70s’, “Dig Me Grave” (which Jim sang while Ivan played drums),  plus “Eagle On Our Doorstep” and “(Are You Ready In The) Meantime” – two songs that managed to survive well into Swindle’s 2nd phase. My first foray into deliberately trying to write a punk song was a three-chord Ramones styled number called “We’re Rockers” – which Tim immediately hated. So I re-wrote it as “We’re Punkers”  naively believing that would somehow make it better. The guys humoured me by playing the tune for a few rehearsals but Ivan and Jim had the most problem with the lyrics which, despite already being bad on principle as a lame-assed Grade 9 Haiku, seemed to be mocking punks as much as celebrating them. Punks weren’t called Punkers. It seemed I didn’t quite have a handle on what the term ‘punk’ actually meant yet. It was time for an education. And true to the punk ethic, it was going to be figuratively beaten into me.

 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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