Jaimie Vernon – Life’s A Canadian Rock: Part 10

When last we visited our intrepid Pickering, Ontario punk band The Swindle it was the fall of 198 and bassist Tim James, singer Ivan Judd and guitarist Jaimie Vernon had finally found a drummer in former high school mate Jason Clarke….

SWINDLED PEOPLE OF CANADA

With a new, permanent, drummer in the band rehearsals began in earnest for our re-launch as a live act. It also meant tweaking the band’s songs and image. Between Tim James and Ivan Judd the decision was made to distance ourselves from the Sex Pistols and the movie ‘Great Rock and Roll Swindle’ where we had originally extracted our name The Swindle.


Ideologically we would no longer be the ones taking advantage of a gullible public and, instead, would represent the defiant ‘everyman’ victims; to do that we added the letter “D” to the end of our name. It was a subtle difference that few others would appreciate. Also out the door went our theme song called “Swindle” which was written in our earliest days with original drummer Jim Greeley and related the story of the rise and fall of The Sex Pistols. Despite these changes, we would forever be thought of as some sort of Pistols’ related act to those who never actually heard us play.

Politics would dominate the new repertoire and our logo would be a nod to British anarchist shit-disturbers Crass with a giant dominant letter “A” amongst a capitalized S, W, and D. Of course, Crass had merely stolen their logo from the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation show ‘Captain Scarlet’.  The plan was to create a political party called the Swindled People of Canada spreading the message through our musical avatar: Swindled. Our friends just thought we were loud and obnoxious.

Our official unveiling came only three weeks after Jay Clarke had joined the band.  On the recommendation of our punk pal John Edwards, Tim had gone in search of Edwards’ favourite band The Offenders. But the Offenders had changed their name, if not their style, to Vital Sines. Tim had infinite persuasive skills and would engage people in deep ego-stroking conversation while passive-aggressively consuming their cigarettes and beer. Before they realized what he’d done he’d talk them into letting us open for them. In the case of Vital Sines this meant Larry’s Hideaway. As we’d already played there once before, he assured them we could handle the room.

Meanwhile, Tim’s earlier networking had landed us another show, a warm-up gig, first. We’d been rehearsing and writing for what seemed like an eternity. Drummer Jay Clarke was tossed into the fray with only four weeks to learn all the tunes. A 45-minute set list was chosen two weeks in advance so we were ready. At 3 minutes apiece that meant 15 songs!

THE TURNING POINT
Swindled’s baptism was going to be at a place called The Turning Point. On the north side of Bloor Street west of the Park Plaza hotel where University Avenue becomes Avenue Road there was a doorway that led to a two storey walk-up. There was no signage indicating what it was. If you didn’t know there was a club there you’d walk right passed it unless it was one of the rare occasions where a band had glued their gig poster to it. The black door was squeezed between a Remenyi’s high-end piano store and one of the first McDonalds’ restaurants to grace downtown Toronto. The burger joint had been installed to cater to the patrons of the Royal Ontario Museum and/or students of the Royal Conservatory of Music whose hallowed entranceway was directly across the street from The Turning Point. It never occurred to me at the time that we were the most uncultured individuals ever to walk through that otherwise erudite neighbourhood.

Once you were inside the door the staircase was immediately in front of you. Accidently or by design there was no foyer to allow loiterers a chance to congregate to have a smoke or to plot fiendish ideas like Skinhead mob attacks or music gear thefts. You had no choice but to immediately climb the staircase or the front door wouldn’t close behind you. It was thirteen stairs, then a landing, and then another seventeen stairs. I know this because it was the only way to get gear into the club and you’d count them off as you trudged your way up or down them. The staircase was also at an angle no less than 30 degrees and no more than 45. For those of us still in school (which I was) it didn’t take a math genius to realize that when there is a direct, uninterrupted view from the bottom to the top – even with the landing in the middle – these stairs were dangerously steep. Many a band was known to drop an amp or guitar down them and you could be sure the gear was permanently damaged as gravity is the same all over. This turned out to be the first of two strategic security systems in the club.

Once you made it to the top of the stairs the room opened up into a long and narrow dance hall with yellowing, Stucco-encrusted vaulted ceiling. The stage and dance floor were immediately to the left of the entrance. The soundboard was position against the far wall in front of both. The walls were covered with red velvet wallpaper, horizontal chandeliers and the majority of the seating consisted of Vegas-styled red leather booths that could hold six regular sized people or eight punks in need of a meal. Down the centre of the room was 15 or 20 single tables pushed together to create a banquet styled seating arrangement. Rumour had it that the place had once served as part of the Irish Rovers’ restaurant franchise. Most likely it had been a burlesque club back in the days when Ronnie Hawkins was the only musical entertainment in town. The bar itself was at the very back of the club with its typical 1960s British pub décor – wood paneling, mirrors, and two salty old owners named Joe and Anne. Anne was the second strategic security system in the club.

For all intents and purposes the place had no staff. Occasionally a relative would clear tables and get drinks. Sometimes it would be one of the sordid characters from a band who had nowhere to sleep but was given accommodations underneath the stage if he hustled empties and mopped the puke out of the bathrooms. Anne didn’t need staff. She was a 5’ 3” walking embodiment of old-school hellfire and even the punks were afraid of her. If you got out of line with her or couldn’t pay your tab she’d slap you in the head. If the mosh-pit in front of the stage became violent you could be sure her boots were in there as well. And if you started a fight she would grab you by the collar and toss you down the staircase. If you were lucky you’d hit that landing in between. If she was having a particularly constructive night you’d by-pass the landing and hit the door at the very bottom with your face. Full stop.

Our first visit was December 7, 1981 and as typical of those days you never really knew who the other acts on the bill were going to be until you say the handmade posters Joe had scrawled with a magic marker and posted haphazardly on the entrance walls. Back before promoters were sticking six or seven acts on a stage in one night, the scene at the time was relegated to two bands of significant popularity or three bands of unknowns. We were on a triple bill with AFHAKKEN (pronounced Ah-fuck-en) and future The Remains founder Steve Cameron and his current band Doomed Youth. When we walked in with our sparkling new equipment – including drummer Jason Clarke’s 10-piece black Pearl drum kit – the other bands immediately nominated us as headliners. This was quite unexpected so we emphasized to all concerned that we only had enough material for about 45 minutes stage time. They just assumed our shiny amps and instruments meant that we were experienced enough to hold a crowd. That was a faulty bit of logic. We’d never played live as a unit before. We had to hope that the four weeks of continuous rehearsing was going to pay off. And so it did.

We blew through the songs with no problem though the sound system, as it typically was back then, made it impossible to hear any of the vocals (mainly because the soundman was either off having a smoke or drinking heavily back at the bar). The room also had no proper stage lights – just stark white podlights recessed into the ceiling making the stage look like the transporter room on ‘Star Trek’. It was all the more surreal with the painting of Jose Feliciano’s giant silhouette as a backdrop on the wall behind the performers.

The crowd didn’t care – those that were there to see the opening acts and even our own friends who had no idea what to make of the moshing, spitting and fist fights were impressed with the sheer energy of our performance. We must have won the Miss Congeniality talent portion of the night as we even took home $180 which was a pretty good haul for a Thursday night on a $3 cover charge in 1981.

We would play The Turning Point nearly two dozen times over the next nine months – always as headliners.

VITAL SINES
The next evening, December 8th, was our actual ‘debut’ opening for Vital Sines at Larry’s Hideaway. Tim and I headed down to singer Rick Winkle’s house on Fulton Avenue so we could catch a ride with the band down to the club. As they were gracious enough to give us a gig, we offered to help move gear for them. And that gear was impressive. These guys had a touring roadshow in the back of a van. Tim had already met the members of the band during their monthly showcases at The Beverly Tavern, but I was freshly introduced to bassist Terry Michaelson, guitarist Gord Wilson and drummer Chris Weeks. Each was affable and willing to show us ‘kids’ the ropes. And they really liked that we brought our own drum kit. After sixty years of rock and roll, drummers are still known to get bent out of shape having to share their kit in a live scenario. As most drum sets cost the equivalent to a home mortgage I can see why they’re not good at sharing (though it never seems to be a problem when it comes to girlfriends).

We hadn’t told too many people about the gig the night before and saved this particular show as the night for all our friends to come out. Various and sundry relatives and high school buddies – including my clan from the Donut Town hangout in Scarborough who were all of age by this point (as was I – having dodged the police during our last gig there the year before). There was excitement in the air. We had a real sound system, real gear, and real stage lighting. We proceeded to Mach Show. Tim even managed to convince Vital Sines’  Chris Weeks – a black man – to come up on stage and introduce our incendiary anti-KKK song “Fight to Stay White” which was met with the satirical laughter we intended. We had a smart audience who got the irony and what we were all about without having to hit them over the head with it. By all accounts we had a great second night.

Then Vital Sines hit the stage.

I knew nothing about them going in except what Tim had told us, so when they took the stage with their mixture of Talking Heads American obtuseness and XTC eccentric British artpunk wrapped in a blanket of black humour, I was gobsmacked. The experience and confidence coming off the stage only added to the spectacle.  Gord Wilson was one of the most unorthodox guitarists I’ve ever seen. He wore a safari jacket and Doc Marten boots and at well over 6ft tall he dwarfed his own guitar. His hand ate the fret board and he was playing chords I’d never even imagined. With a Vox amp, tremolo and some well placed reverb he was traveling in Brian Eno/Keith Levine/Edge territory – all ambient sounds and rolling arpeggios; Chris Weeks, if I might be so bold, was a Jamaican drummist with some mothereffin’ tribal chops. Add to it Terry Michaelson’s big, bad-ass bass patterns and you’ve got a killer rhythm section.  But the lure for everyone was singer Rick Winkle’s command of the stage. He was mesmerizing to watch. A bum knee had made it necessary for him to wear a leg brace that he used effectively as a prop. He could stand on one leg, stork-like, for an entire song without breaking a sweat. He was parts Iggy Pop agitator and Bryan Ferry charisma. He was a singer that women and men were attracted to. If the Queen Street Circuit had a sex symbol it would have been him.

Vital Sines ran through well over an hour of material including songs from their just released independent single like “Subway Suicide”, “Eric the Generic” and “Sex & Babies”. These tracks were hold-overs from their punk days as The Offenders as were their foot-stomping renditions of “California Sun” and “Twenty-Flight Rock”. The rest of their set list consisted of newer, darker material like “Urbane Guerilla”, “Cognitive Innocence” and “Correct Prognosis” that would define their style and their award winning EP and video ‘Collage’ in 1984.

We left the show with a sense that Swindled had a long way to go before we could captivate an audience with that much authority. However, Vital Sines liked us enough to give us the opening slot at their next show on December 17th at The Cabana Room.

COPE WITH CABANA
Between the Larry’s Hideaway gig and the Cabana Room show I was sent to get my wisdom teeth out. I’d been experiencing massive headaches since the summer and four out of five dentists agreed that I had too many teeth in my head. Apparently, the operation didn’t go according to plan and they had to double dose my sedative to put me under. Except, I found out later, I nearly didn’t come back out of my induced coma. Eventually, the dentist was able to rouse me again but not without an extraneous amount of yelling and screaming from my panicked parents.

When it came time to play the Cabana Room I was still nursing stitches and a swollen face. In any other situation it would have been a detriment, but in this case I was fashionably punk. The Cabana Room was located at the corner of Spadina and King Street in Toronto on the second floor of the Spadina Hotel. The ground floor housed a cool 1950s styled diner that had been converted from what must have been a jazz lounge in the 1930s or 1940s. There was a narrow staircase leading up to the second floor. If you turned left, it led to the third floor ‘hotel’ where you could rent rooms by the ¼ hour. You turned right to get into the ‘club’ which was fire-rated for 62 people. For all intents and purposes it was a wreck room with dinner tables. The layout was “L” shaped and was divided by an obstructed view from one corner – not by the “L” itself, but a maddening half-wall topped with designer metal bars that had been installed as ‘décor’; if you were there to see a band and unlucky enough to be relegated to that part of the room, it was like being surrounded by Mike Oldfield’s tubular bells.

The stage sat in the corner of the “L” and faced the section of the room without any obstruction. The sound man sat at the back, albeit only 20 feet from the stage, in front of the fire exit. The fire escape was attached to that door and bands loaded their gear in from the parking lot on King Street. Unlike The Turning Point, this staircase was dangerous just to look at…never mind stand on. All rusted metal and broken welding. To lose an amp or a guitar over the side would surely mean the person carrying it would still be attached and suffer the impact on the cars below. Only The Black Swan Tavern on the Danforth has a more dangerous fire escape (from which I *did* drop an amp in the 1990s).

The bar itself was a counter top about 6 feet long set inside the front entrance like a cantina – complete with a crime busting roll-up steel gate. That’s where Jimmy, the owner, sat each night serving drinks and watching the people. He didn’t care much for the music he booked into his room. But if your friends showed up and they didn’t drink he’d be the first to say that you were the worst sounding band he’d ever heard and you wouldn’t be asked back. To avoid such a fate we regularly bought Jimmy drinks at the end of the night and helped him clear tables and stack chairs when the people left; I managed to parlay that kindness into a few gigs for another band of mine in the mid-80s.

The room was a little more upscale than our band outwardly projected. There was no doubt that this room was more suited to Vital Sines and it was their audience that endured our intensity and volume. The show got a little more exciting as we blasted quickly through our set when the stitches in my teeth ripped. As I went to sing back-ups on one of our more pop-oriented punk tunes (probably “Gary Is A Pig”), blood started pouring out of my mouth and down the front of my, now fashionable, Devo jump suit. It also dropped on my strumming hand, the fret-board of my guitar and then the floor. I was relieved to see that Jimmy hadn’t noticed that I’d messed up his freshly puked-on tiles. But the audience did. The horror on the faces of some Vital Sines fans turned into smiles and laughter after I grinned and said, “Gene Simmons, ladies and gentlemen!”

Afterwards, Jimmy offered us New Year’s Eve with a house band called The Tenants who were regularly packing the joint. [They would later have massive success on the back of a Top10 hit called “Sheriff”. The band eventually grew too big for the Cabana Room but not before Jimmy was charging $5.00 to the hundreds of fans lined up outside for a mere 20 minutes of viewing time. He’d figured out a scheme to rotate 500 people during the band’s three sets and pocketed $2500 in a room that only held 62 people!]

The capper of the night was Vital Sines’ Rick Winkle offering to sell me his mother-of-pearl inlayed sunburst Epiphone guitar from England. I took it home that night and gave him $200 the next time I saw him.

THE LONE ADVENTURE OF TRYFONO & THE HEAT RESISTANT SHEEP
The next time we met was December 30th, 1981 at The Turning Point. We’d convinced Vital Sines to open for us. Not wanting to piss off their regular club haunts by performing gratis in a dive (and potentially ruining their chances at better, paying shows) the band changed its name for the promotional advertising to TRYFONO & THE (HEAT RESISTANT) SHEEP. Bassist Terry Michaelson was Greek and they decided to use his real name in the fake moniker. The whole evening turned out to be a bad idea, however, as the room was not prepared for Vital Sines’ manicured and slick rock star presentation. This got under Rick’s skin because no one was paying much attention to them and so he decided he needed to make them aware of the band’s presence in the room. He jumped off the stage and climbed on the row of banquet tables in the middle of the club. Now he had a catwalk and their undivided attention. Before he could get through a few bars of “Subway Suicide”, Anne The Owner was running out from behind the bar to yell at him. Rick took this as a challenge and began running up and down the table tops as the climax of the song – which goes to double time – egged him on. Now the crowd was getting into the spirit both cheering him on and taunting him. Anne caught up with him as he dove off the last two – now broken – table tops closest to the stage. Not surprisingly, Vital Sines were not asked back to The Turning Point.

Swindled did get asked back for January 1st which we were able to accommodate as the Tenants’ New Years Eve show proved to be a bust though Tenants’ singer Gary Brown would one day cross paths with me and impact my life in a whole other way. But more on that later…

We had managed to go from zero to sixty instantly and closed out 1981 with four shows in as many weeks. We were looking forward to continuing on at the same pace in 1982.

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.

2 Responses to “Jaimie Vernon – Life’s A Canadian Rock: Part 10”

  1. Jaimie I am really enjoying this. This episode brings back memories of lugging equipment (think big blue monitors) up stairs and fire escapes. Fear of falling or dropping was far from my mind as I was usually to drunk to care and often had Anthony behind me.

  2. susuz_oto_yikama…

    […]Jaimie Vernon – Life’s A Canadian Rock: Part 10 « Segarini: Don't Believe a Word I Say[…]…

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