Jaimie Vernon – Life’s A Canadian Rock: Part 12

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME
20/20 Hindsight is like an alternate universe window into the past. With the benefit of maturity, context and distance of time you can envision a different out come for what seemed like a smashing idea at the moment it was conceived and executed.

My band, Swindled, was at the end of a long creative streak and exhausting performance schedule. It had been a year of writing, gigging and recording and we were burnt out. Our drummer, Jay Clarke, was giving us the subliminal message that he was tired of the grind. Following the release of our independent 7” single he celebrated this milestone by heading to Florida for a vacation. Tim James (bass), Ivan Judd (vocals) and I (guitar) were sitting around, idly, trying to figure out what to do next.

We were at a cross roads of where to take the band. In the summer of 1982 we’d been crowned ‘The Fastest Band in Toronto’. But amongst Tim’s scene-making punk cohorts there was push-back. We didn’t dress like punks and we vicariously tread the line, musically, as a punk-pop band. There were grumblings in the scene that we weren’t punks at all but rockers posing as punks for no other reason than to make fun of the whole movement and mock them. On the surface it was easy to see their point. Only Tim lived and breathed the scene. Ivan certainly lived the credo but he, Jay and I still walked cautiously where our fashion sense was concerned as we still had to survive the streets of Toronto’s eastern suburbs.

A gal pal of mine used to ask me how I could feel safe walking down the dark streets of Toronto at night. During 1982, I was more afraid of walking down the streets of Oshawa, Ontario in broad daylight when rednecks were out in full force. And so, you’d dress innocuously to avoid being noticed.  But, Tim wasn’t pleased with having to excuse our look and our behavior to his friends. It wasn’t long before we were riddled with self doubt and we began to get defensive as if it were criticism of our talent. Tim, with precision John Lennon stealth, would poke holes in that weakness and before long we were at each other’s throats. While Jay was away I think we split up twice, reformed and then proceeded to kick each other out of the band on the days of the week that ended in the letter “Y”.

As Tim was still occasionally hanging out with me in Scarborough at our old Donut Town haunt, we got discussing our dilemma with the godfather of suburban punks, John Edwards, who had sent us on a quest the year before to track down a band called Vital Sines. That had worked out rather well with a series of opening slots on their shows and so Edwards had become the Sensai to our grasshoppers.

John had long given up the punk wardrobe – mainly in an effort to stay warm while living in the back of his car at the edge of the neighbourhood strip plaza’s parking lot many years before. My gang of friends would take turns getting our parents to help him with food and showers and occasional bunking in the basement when the weather was unbearable. But John was still the agitator and spent his idle hours dreaming up schemes of urban anarchy. Tim and I became willing henchman to his Joker-like psychopathy. His first reaction to our crippling band boredom and directionless predicament was one of glee. It meant we cared enough and were desperate enough to do something better.

And in John’s mind better always meant BIGGER. This was a guy who painted his 1970’s gas-guzzling boat of an automobile in military colours, cut a hole in its roof and mounted a decommissioned machine gun in its place, donned army fatigues and drove down the middle of Yonge Street leading a parade of revelers following the Toronto Argonaut’s Grey Cup victory in 1983. He made the front page of the
Toronto Sun newspaper with the headline that read ‘Argolypse Now’; and this was the same guy who gathered all the local kids and convinced their parents to give him cash so he could create a Youth Camp to keep them off the streets while Ward & June Cleaver went to work during the kids’ summer holidays. Of course, he never told them that the ‘camp’ was a military school where he had them crawling around through the dense woods near the wolf habitat of the Toronto Zoo shooting blank rounds from real M-16 semi-automatic weapons; He dabbled with film and often got some of us to star in his Monty Pythonesque sketches he hoped to sell to a local cable channel. They were never sure what to do with skits about Jesus walking through downtown Toronto looking for a head shop to get a decent pair of sunglasses he could use while nailed to the Cross; And there was his biggest stunt of all – rallying those of us with drivers licenses to buy derelict cars from the local wrecking yard for $100 so he could film a demolition derby in the Repak Paving gravel pit…without permission or permits. The climax of the film was sending the cars off a cliff, lemming-like, into the Rouge Valley.

Tim and I had been to his many ‘theme’ parties which were usually an excuse for his band, Endangered Feces, to perform their chaotic brand of rock and entertain us with near legendary songs like “Come Be A Non-Comformist Like Me” and “I Want To Be A Crown Corporation”. Edwards was Keith Moon on helium. And like Keith Moon, the party wasn’t really a party until something was destroyed or someone was maimed (i.e. him). The most memorable was his ‘Dress as a Pirate for New Years Eve’ party in the townhouse he shared with his girlfriend Anna. In the true spirit of the event he managed to get his hands on an entire pirate ship worth of props from CBC television’s warehouse. His home had two floors separated by a dining room balcony that looked out over the living room below. He posted a six-foot ship’s steering wheel there and draped  fishing nets from the ceiling and chandelier. There were sails and ropes and he’d managed to rig up a talking parrot. On the ground floor he had positioned a miniature cannon in front of the patio doors. It was a five foot half-scale replica and completed the authentic looking décor.

As the party got hopping and the drinks got flowing Edwards rolled out two massive P.A .speakers and placed them outside the patio doors. At two minutes to midnight he dropped the needle on his record player with a version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E Flat Major”….better known as ‘The 1812 Overture’.  As the piece progressed he dialed the volume up incrementally until the speakers were vibrating outside and the cacophony was echoing back to us from the other townhouses across the yard. As the final crescendo was drawing near, Edwards lit a fuse on the back of the miniature cannon. The orchestra peaked. The cannon jolted. There was a puff of smoke, a flash of flame and then a deafening roar followed by the shattering of glass. Despite the patio door being open, it exploded outward followed by the sound of glass breaking elsewhere outside. John crawled across the cannon, stepped outside and proceeded to survey the neighbourhood. As several of us followed him through the lingering cloud of smoke, he lifted the eye patch from his face, scratched his head and said “Hmmm…guess I used too much gunpowder”. His girlfriend, Anna, just stared in disbelief and said, “You think?”.

In the cold light of day he’d managed to crack and/or break 17 windows on the adjoining houses.  That the police were never called is a miracle. But this was the low rental section of the Malvern Community. People wanted no trouble from the law…though they’d get plenty of it 20 years later when the drug gangs moved in.

Needless to say…Tim and I were both excited and cautious to know what John had up his sleeve in getting our band out of the duldrums.

THE HEART OF DARKNESS
What John suggested in achieving the goal of leaving the clubs and becoming punk superstars was that we needed an actual stage show – not just white light and sweat. It needed to be good ole fashioned Barnum & Baily Circus. Cherry bombs, sirens, and bleeding snot. But it needed a theme. It needed to be part rock spectacle and part Broadway camp.

Then the words tumbled out: ‘Apocalypse Now: The Musical’

Tim and I didn’t even blink. To anyone keeping track of Edwards’ destructive antics it became clear that he was a fan of the Francis Ford Coppola film: Disturbing attachment to hand guns and phallic weaponry? Check. Unhealthy fascination with exploding ordinances? Check. Paramilitary fashion sense? Check. Careless disregard for one’s own safety and those around him? Check.

There we sat in mild mannered Donut Town drinking coffee and smoking (remember that?) over a four hour period hashing out the plot for mounting a musical version of one of the most intense war movies ever made. There would be sandbags surrounding the camouflage painted drum kit. A tank turret would hover over the stage containing spotlights that would swing back and forth searching, helicopter-like, for enemy combatants. Blood splattered guitar amps. Netting. Sirens. Piles of bones representing the dead. There’d also be military garb and camo-green guitars. And explosions…yeah, we’d have those too. But Edwards even had a twist on that. Put the cherry bombs in the AUDIENCE! Under tables and chairs. They could be detonated from a foot switch on stage. And maybe even buckets of blood tipped from concealed panels over their heads. It soon became frighteningly apparent that Edwards was as insane as Marlon Brando’s character Captain Kurtz. And we were willing to go along for the thrill ride. Hell, it beat drinking stale coffee and smoking cigarettes in Donut Town for the rest of our lives.

EXTREME MAKEOVER
We went back to Ivan with the concept and he was guardedly enthusiastic. He ran out the next day and bought the ‘Apocalypse Now’ soundtrack. Wagner’s ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ and Robert Duvall’s speech about loving the smell of napalm in the morning became our rallying cries. But for it to work we had to be all in. New look. New sound. New attitude.

Attitude was something we already had so it was imperative we focus on fixing our sound. We threw ourselves head long into writing new material and re-working old songs into the ‘Musical’ theme with new lyrics where they were anonymously generic. Our tried and true songs like “Soldier of Fortune”, “Who Wants Guns?” and “Call to Arms” remained unchanged. It took us about a week of meeting and eight hour rehearsals to thread our material into a ‘plot’ concept not too dissimilar to ‘Apocalypse Now’ itself. And just maybe Coppola wouldn’t sue us.

Then there was ‘the look’ to deal with. Tim had argued for years that punks don’t have moustaches. Ivan, Jay and I all wore them. It was a fashionable stud-like porn statement in 1982. I had lost that particular brow-beating from Tim and got rid of mine when I no longer had to worry about looking old enough to drink in the bars. But Ivan had always shown more strength of character – or stubbornness – and refused. Tim was relentless and through the cajoling of Ivan’s girlfriend, Sharon, finally talked Ivan into it. The moustache came off and he immediately looked 10 years younger. The hair was next. Ivan is still the person with the biggest Afro I’ve ever been in close proximity to. And he’s Caucasian. So it always made for a bit of interesting conversation – especially when people found out his parents were both white Anglo-Brits who survived the London Blitz in WWII.  The hair was no doubt some throwback to the Vikings or the Saxons.

However, I’m not sure the make-over was entirely successful. The lack of facial hair left Ivan baby-faced and his lid looked more like a pompadour – kind of a Ron Mael/Lyle Lovett thingy. But for Tim and I it was everything. It meant change. It meant new. We were excited Professor Higgins’ and wanted to show off  our new and improved Eliza Doolittle and so we ventured downtown to wander Queen Street. We spent the day checking out record shops and then landed at the Beverly Tavern to talk to our old friend Rick Winkle of Vital Sines who was working sound for Maja Bannerman that night.

Rick gave Ivan’s new look the punk equivalent to a thumbs up buying Ivan a drink. Or maybe 12. We ran ‘Apocalypse Now: The Musical’ idea past him. He laughed his ass off. Then his facial expression changed when he realized we were serious. “You know, you could seriously injure somebody with that flash-pods-under-the-table thing.” We figured it would bring us notoriety. What we hadn’t thought through was the lawsuits and potential jail time. We’d have to re-asses that particular idea. The rest of the plan, though, seemed to amuse Rick because if anyone had the energy to pull it off it he knew it would be us.

The final reveal was our name. We needed to distance ourselves from our Sex Pistols-related Swindled moniker. The new handle needed to be offensive in its reflection of the absurdity of war – something we all felt strongly about (and against). The Dead Kennedys had the most visceral reaction to any band name up to that time. I had wanted to call us The Flaming Apostles as it was both black humoured and tasteless but it was a religious reference and not really indicative of what we were going to do thematically.

The inspiration came from a most unlikely place. A game preserve west of Toronto had been advertising on TV for years and the catch phrase was quite singable that went: “A-fri-can Lion Sa-far-eeee. GO WILD!!” One particular day this ‘jingle’ inspired Tim to have an epiphany and he blurted out:  CAMBODIANS ON SAFARI.

We had our new name.

BREAKDOWN DEAD AHEAD
The problem with developing plans in a vacuum – even one between tightly knit friends who were on the same page – is that there’s always someone on the outside willing to throw a monkey wrench into the frying pan. The reality pill to our newly found happiness would be from our drummer Jay.

It was July 1982 and he was back from Florida, rested, tanned and unwilling to play along with our newest arsenal of deviant ideas. Whether it was the respite away from us and the stage, or clear headed pillow talk with his girlfriend, we’ll never know. But he was not interested in anything to do with the new musical direction, the look or the band name. He was still willing to carrying on…but not by throwing everything away and starting from scratch. Jay resisted change even more than Ivan did. He just wanted to be in a rock and roll band…even if he did have to put up with one that played punk music at 500 miles per second. It had become his new comfort zone. However, there were some changes he would like to see adopted. He wanted us to get a new P.A., he wanted Ivan to take singing lessons, he wanted me to either take guitar lessons or for us to bring in a second guitarist (his suggestion had been for his younger brother Nick). Tim saw most of this as justifiable criticism probably because none of it was pointed at him. But we all acknowledged he wasn’t happy with the band in its current form. There was a real chance he would quit if we didn’t make some drastic compromises.

We went home and slept on it. Soon there was a flurry of phone calls between me, Tim and Ivan. Tim wanted Ivan out of the band if it meant losing Jay. Ivan and I didn’t want to lose Jay but I was loyal to Tim. It was a pickle wrapped in a dilemma shrouded in a black curtain of back-stabbing paranoia.

Tim manned-up to save us all the awkward moment of decision making and offered to quit the band outright if Jay and I came along. We reluctantly said yes just to push things along. But it backfired on Tim. In the harsh light of day, Jay convinced me to stand by Ivan. We had a better shot of regrouping if we only had to replace a bass player. Had Jay and I gone with Tim it would have meant finding a singer, a P.A., and a new rehearsal spot. Ivan was willing to get the P.A. replaced which would address part of Jay’s complaint about Ivan’s signing. We convinced him that any criticism from listeners about his singing was a manifestation of their inability to hear him – not his actual ability to sing.

So there it was. Tim had inadvertently left the band and the rest of us were back to figuring out what was next.  We agreed that no one would use the name Swindled or any variation there of. Tim would bounce back with his new act The Flaming Apostles featuring vocalist Skinhead Doug who I’d gone to high school with earlier that year. Doug was a dangerous individual – not in a John Edwards incendiary device kind of dangerous – but in an emotionally unstable substance abuse kind of way. The week he and Tim formed The Flaming Apostles Doug got a massive flaming skull tattooed onto his head complete with the band’s name.

While I was still trying to maintain a friendship with Tim – who I still considered the brother I never had – we would go to concerts and bars together. One of these outings was seeing the Dead Kennedys at the Masonic Temple in Toronto. Doug came along and, on this particular night, was wound up hymen-tight on mushrooms, mescaline, speed, alcohol and/or all of the above. During the show he climbed up to the venue’s second floor balcony and swan dived off it into the crowd. In movies you see the happy-go-lucky crowd below catch the joyous savior so that he might body surf out of harms way. In reality, this crowd parted like the Red Sea and we saw Doug hit the floor, chest first, with a thud. The Dead Kennedys stopped playing in mid song. Singer Jello Biafra yelled out to no one in particular: “Hey, is that guy alright”? The house technicians turned a spotlight onto the floor where the crowd was now milling about. There was a pregnant pause of dead silence from the audience. Then, like a human ballistic missile, Doug shot straight up in the air, fist pumping and screaming “YAAAAAAAAA!” like Roger Daltrey in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Biafra yelled at the band with a requisite ‘1…2…3…4’ and they carried on the song from where they had stopped as if nothing had happened.  I told Tim he needed to get as far away from Doug as soon as possible. Needless to say, The Flaming Apostles did’t last long. I hope somewhere out there Skinhead Doug might still be alive despite that ridiculous tattoo still stuck on his head.

As for me, Jay and Ivan – we reconvened under the new name of Youth In Asia. It would become a chapter in my music career filled with nothing but rehearsing, partying, fighting, partying, damaged egos, partying, broken friendships and a drummer that couldn’t tell a decent joke. Oh, and did I mention the partying?

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

– 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 12”

  1. Max Brand Says:

    Keep the good stories coming Jaimie. looking forward to part 13.

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