Jaimie Vernon – Life’s A Canadian Rock: Part 13

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE – THE SEQUEL

For 26 months starting in May 1980 until July 1982 I was the guitarist in a punk band called The Swindle in its early incarnation and Swindled as its pro-forma public visage. We played more than 60 shows and released one 7” single that went unnoticed (at the time) before hitting a massive brick wall of self-doubt.

On August 4, 1982 bassist Tim James quit the band with the hope that myself and drummer Jay Clarke would follow him to the Darkside. Instead, Jay and I stood with singer Ivan Judd.

On August 8, 1982 Jay, Ivan and I resumed rehearsals at Ivan’s home in Pickering, Ontario affectionately known as “Little House on the Prairie”. It was an old railway workers’ shack with three rooms located in a field east of where the future massive Pickering ‘GO’ station would one day be built. The house was directly beside Art Thompson hockey arena where I once knee-capped myself, thus preventing my future as a Toronto Maple Leaf. The incident was directly responsible for my picking up the guitar and living the storied life of a starving musician.  I often stood on the front porch of “Little House” and would chuckle over the irony of rehearsing in the shadow of that arena all those years later.

The house was easily World War II era with a modest cottage style living era – two bedrooms, a storage space between the living room and the bathroom and an alcove kitchen. It was the perfect size for a new family like Ivan’s with just him, his girlfriend Sharon, and their nearly two-year old son, Kevin.
What it wasn’t big enough for was a band. The Swindle had tried rehearsing in the living room in Ivan first moved in but everything had to be dismantled and moved when someone wanted to go in and out of the bathroom…or the front door.

Fortunately, Swindled had turned the aging, crumbling cinder block and concrete basement into a swinging band pad. We’d found several industrial wooden s kids to build a drum riser for Jay’s drum kit as the room was prone to flooding in the rain or the spring thaw – and when that water collided with the sump water it made for a hell of a toxic mess. I remember on at least one occasion standing in an inch of water during practice while Tim James proceeded to drown an 8” white rat with a broom handle in the sump hole as it was attempting to find higher ground.

As Jay had been unhappy with Swindled’s musical configuration Ivan and I agreed to expand the band. With a few phone calls Jay had invited his guitar playing brother, Nick Clarke, and his drummer band-mate Paul O’Connor to come aboard. The idea of TWO drummers in a band fascinated us – more musicians meant….more power. Well, that was the theory, anyway.

Nick and Paul were a grade behind us when Jay and I went to Pearson Collegiate. The band they were in, but had also folded, was an early incarnation of Lone Boney. A revised version of that act, also featuring former school friends, would become quite big on the club circuit years later and whose members eventually formed Pink Floyd cover act Off The Wall. But I would cross paths with them in a future story.

At any rate, we were now a five piece who were short on a bass player. We’d solve that issue soon enough but the first order of business we needed to renovate that basement if we were going to be able to accommodate a 6-piece act. Jay had discovered that the JVC electronics factory in Malvern had an ample supply of wooden shipping skids stacked high in the back parking lot. On two consecutive midnight runs we drove Ivan’s van out to the site and pilfered what we could fit inside the vehicle.

Over the course of a weekend we moved Jay’s original riser against the long wall of the house which was the side that got the least amount of water during flood season. Then we began to layout the similarly sized skids in our stash and laid them out until they filled the room…leaving a reasonable space around the support pillar in the middle of the room. There were enough skids to reach as far back as the room’s access door without blocking it. We then did another raid in Malvern on garbage night and found enough scraps of carpeting to cover the entire subfloor we’d built. With the new floor in place we had about an inch of headroom. But the threat of flooding was immediately eliminated.

As we didn’t know any available bass players – and my decision to be a bass player was still six years in the future – I called up my old songwriting partner, childhood buddy and former Elysium Moon bandmate Gord Giblin and asked him to come out of retirement. Gord had returned to school – having dropped out in Grade 11 – to stop his parents from booting him out of the house. Gord liked the idea of being in a band again, so he was game. In no time we had our full line-up established and with the exception of Ivan meeting Paul O’Connor for the first time, we were all acquainted with each other as friends. So, what could possibly go wrong?

THE SIX-HEADED HYDRA
As the senior band members going into the project Jay, Ivan and I had pre-determined that we weren’t going to rely heavily on the Swindled catalog for our repertoire. Without even hearing us as a band, it didn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that a six piece band offered more versatility than was necessary for four-chord punk. But we did use a few of the tunes just to push the first few rehearsal/jam sessions forward or we’d be standing around gazing at each others’ navels. I picked my own anti-Nazi history diatribe “In a Holocaust” and Ivan’s pure pop tune “Son of the System”, Jay wanted to do “Apathy Rules” and Ivan was pretty adamant on keeping “Who Wants Guns?” and “Hymn No. 84” alive for no other reason than he still had a closet full of Swindled 7” singles that needed to be unloaded.

Everyone had agreed we needed to learn some cover songs if we ever wanted to be taken serious in a bar. As a collective, we took a quorum on cover tunes to do.  Jay, Nick and Paul were from the Rush and prog-rock school of lofty lyrics and complex arrangements. Ivan, Gord and I were old school rock enthusiasts and we all agreed that the compromise would be Alice Cooper’s magnum opus “Halo of Flies”.  The song exhibited all the signature stylings of a progressive piece of music. With our double drummer spin on it we could make it our own. Everyone went home and did their homework.

Meanwhile, the jams were yielding new original material. The first tune we created as a full band was something called “Making Martyrs” which was an Ivan original. Another song did evolve as a band based on an Ivan lyric and a lift of the guitar intro from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” called “Waiting for the Bombs (To Fall)”. It allowed me to play individual lines something outside of my rhythm guitar comfort zone while Nick could wail out in lead guitar arpeggiated glory. The song also featured a shit storm of hi hats (two drummers can make a hell of a racket!)

However, Nick and I began clashing both stylistically and personally. To his credit Nick brought a complex piece of guitar driven progressive noodling with him. We hashed through it a few times but it was beyond me. There was no place to put my patented ‘chucka chucka’ rhythm guitar and, in frustration, I ensured the tune didn’t get much farther than being named “Go Away”. The irony was lost on everyone, I think. Similarly, when Ivan and I attempted to revive the pre-grunge Swindled epoch “Yellow Rain” and an abandoned Swindle song from years earlier called “Fear Grips Small Town” the gloves were off. Nick voiced his immense displeasure with the songs and with the rousing chorus of Nays from Jay, Paul and Gord, the songs were killed dead.

My issues with Nick were pure jealousy as I sit it now. Having already played the bars and paid some dues I thought I was the superior musician in the group. I never acknowledged his skill as a guitarist or his contributions to moving the band forward. I was stuck in a style and wasn’t mature enough to see that I was the one that needed to go back and learn a few things about playing guitar. Over time the wedge between us grew wider and deeper. He was never kicked out of the band. He just gave up in frustration and stopped coming to rehearsals. For that I’m truly sorry. It was the beginning of the cracks that were beginning to form in a band that wasn’t even a real entity yet.

THE NAME OF THE GAME
Paul O’Connor and Gord were still attending high school and they caught wind of an upcoming Battle of the Bands. Inquiries were made and the school was willing to allow us to perform there, not as contestants but as special guest alumni. Ivan was the only one who hadn’t attended Person C.I. and so we were invited to be the bonus feature once the event was held in the spring.

This became our motivation to get our shit together and establish a battle plan. We finally acquired a decent P.A. system. Jay took out a loan to buy up all the outboard gear from Tom Jardin at Earthbound Sound where we had recorded the Swindled record. We also auditioned several of our friends to see who could operate a mix-board during rehearsals and in the event we went on the road. We called on our punk guru friend John Edwards as business manager and left him to find a sounds tech. John, to his credit, thought that our first Swindle drummer Jim Greeley might be the best man for the task as John himself was busy with his new rock at Stryder and way too busy to babysit six ass clowns in a bunker in Pickering. Jim turned out to be a worthy addition to our sound and even managed to get Ivan’s vocals up in the mix so that we could run recordings of our rehearsals that were sonically balanced.

Reduced to a 5-piece – with Nick now out of the group – we started getting tighter as we continued adding more songs to the set. We incorporated Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave” and The Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered” and two more original tunes in “Crime Pays” (about Canadian serial killer Clifford Olsen) and “Name of the Game” (which would be reborn as “Drugstore Roulette” about the deadly Tylenol killings in the US). It wasn’t apparent at the time but we were on the cusp of the punk/nu-metal movement with our brand of hybrid song preferences.

The next order of business was a band name. Unlike bands in my formative years, we didn’t yet have one and were already performing together. Everyone knows that all bands are created by name first, repertoire and activity second.

To be perfectly honest, Ivan and I had already, secretly decided to call the group Euthanasia which was the runner up to Swindled’s name change to Cambodians on Safari earlier that summer. When we presented this notion at one of our post-rehearsal drug and beer meetings (where, invariably, I was the only one not stoned or drunk) it was met with intense resistance. No one liked the connotation. We debated any number of alternative names like Simian Quake, Lost In The Suburbs, Zyntax, and Accapellago and Alfa Laval. Gord pushed heavily for the latter until I pointed out that it was the name of an existing, trademarked company in Scarborough. He knew that and didn’t see the problem with it. I told him I’d be willing to settle for Alpha Level, but Ivan feared people would think we were a British New Wave act.

I went home and slept on the conundrum. I was adamant about holding on to the name Ivan and I chose. It was an easy to remember mononym like Swindled and it conjured up immediate visceral reactions from people.

I decided that we could spin the word Euthanasia into a play-on-words by calling it Youth In Asia and giving it a second connotation. I created a logo overnight to prove it could be done by reducing it down to a contraction of Y.I.A in large, stylized block letters that could be stenciled on the bass drum skins of Jay and Paul’s kits. The letter “I” would be the focus of the logo as it contained an inverted image of an explosion stolen from the warning label of an aerosol spray can. Everyone liked it and all seemed good.

PARTYITIS
As we pushed on late into 1982, the band was spending less time playing and more time partying afterwards. Eventually, it got to the point where it was an hour of rehearsing and 2 ½ hours getting wasted. I would have been bored shitless if these guys weren’t at least nice people and a lot of fun to hang out with. Paul O’Connor was always the brunt of our juvenile fun. He loved to tell jokes. He was the entertainer in his group of friends, but amongst us he was the ‘newbie’ and we would never let him complete a joke especially if it appeared to be taking too long to hit the punchline. Inevitably the exchanges went like this:

PAUL: “A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar…”
US: “What was the name of the bar?
PAUL: “Umm…I don’t know…umm…Tapps, I guess.”
US: “Why were they in the bar? These guys aren’t supposed to be drinking.”
PAUL: “Well, maybe it was a business meeting.”
US: “They’re from different religions, what possible business could they be doing together.”
PAUL: “I don’t know…FUCK! It’s not important to the joke. Can I finish the joke, please?”
US: “Sure, Paul, sorry. We’re just yanking your chain.”
PAUL: “As I was saying…this rabbi and a priest walk into a bar and the bartender says – “
US: “Was the bartender a man or a woman? Please let it be a woman….one with big tits!”
PAUL: “Arrrrrrrgh….I give up. You guys are fucking assholes”.

And we laughed and laughed. Then there was the time we interrupted practice to watch the hockey game in Ivan’s living room. There wasn’t enough seating for everyone so Paul lied down on the floor. Within seconds Ivan’s pet terrier dog, “Cooper”,  lifted a leg and pissed all over him. We were beside ourselves crying in hysterics. Paul was a great sport about all our hazing and one of the single greatest drummers I’ve ever been in a band with. Interestingly, he came from a family of older brothers who were all drummers. Each of them was incrementally better than the next. Middle brother Kevin O’Connor played in that revised version of Lone Boney and Off the Wall (and most recently Rush tribute act Fly By Night) and the oldest brother could give Paul DeLong and Neil Peart a run for their money.

Paul was also the guy that got me my next job. Mom and Dad had been riding me since June of that year to find employment after I’d successfully earned an anachronistic Grade 13 diploma. A post secondary education was not in my arsenal of future plans and so I was being pressured to do more than slum it in a non-working band.

Paul was the nightshift janitor and rink rat at Mid-Scarborough hockey arena and community centre (now renamed Don Montgomery Arena) at Kennedy Road & Eglinton Avenue where the Scarborough Rapid Transit line would be built a short time later. He got me an interview and I started working there in September 1982. I had the day shift from 8AM to 4PM mopping floors in dressing rooms, the library, the senior citizen hobby room, the rifle range and the gymnasium. But on Friday nights we’d cut rehearsals short and I’d hop a ride to the arena with Paul. He’d work his shift and I’d sleep in one of the boardrooms until he woke me to start my morning shift. It saved me the trouble of getting up at 6AM to catch transit from my parents’ house. My own shift meant working with a loveable autistic fellow and a perpetually drunk ex-Korean war vet. The job was hard work and a drag but was occasionally entertaining watching these two try and have an intelligent conversation.

The job allowed me to pay my parents some rent money – when I wasn’t crashing at my girlfriend’s mother’s place – and buy some new equipment. Soon I got myself a new Honda Flying V guitar, a Boss Tube Screamer guitar pedal….and a kimono.

THE RAMP UP TO OBLIVION
With Paul, Ivan and Jay all with full-time jobs  – I would end up getting an office gig with my aunt and my mother at Seiko Time in early November – we started seeing less and less of Gord.  He’d been there that fall while we added Ivan’s original song “Fly to a Flame” and mine & Gord’s “Sidewalk Stewardess” to the repertoire. We even managed a heavy arrangement of “Back In the U.S.S.R.”.  What we didn’t know was that he was getting hassled by his folks again about cutting school and spending too much time partying. The climax of these escapades was Gord witnessing our good friend Brian Turmon – guitarist from our old Good Times Roll Band – do a header off the top floor of a construction sight and putting an industrial length piece of metal rebar through his head (yes, he survived).  His band focus was never quite the same after that. Regardless, we pressed on, did some promo photos. Learned more cover tunes and sat out most of December 1982 while Ivan had a large cyst removed from his sinus cavity.

We reconvened in January 1983 and received the news that Ivan’s girlfriend Sharon had been gifted a house in Ajax just before Xmas time. It would allow her and Ivan to move the family into a new home – which included kids from her previous marriage – and start a new life. What would soon be made clear is that plan did not include Youth In Asia. Sharon was quite vocal about not wanting to live the rest of her days with a band in her house.

Ivan’s whole life had been about rock and roll and singing and without a place to do that it would mean upheaval on a major scale. I’m not sure why we didn’t just chip in and get a rehearsal spot, but Ivan dug in his heels and through no small amount of compromise (on Sharon’s part) we ended up moving the band into the house’s basement in March 1983. With us deep in the heart of suburbia and a large contingent of neighbours to offend within earshot, we were limited to 10PM curfews on weeknights and afternoon sessions on Sundays. The basement was unfinished and looked like cavernous concrete bunker with little to no insulation. We had salvaged some carpeting from “Little House” and dampened the sound as much as possible to keep it from rattling the walls but it was cacophonous and untenable.

To make matters worse, Gord just stopped showing up to rehearsals. We were still confirmed for the Pearson Battle of the Bands and had been driving ourselves toward that goal for 8 months. Now we had to find a bass player quick. Luckily, Jay was still well connected to many of his high school bandmates and called on Dale Roberts who would have automatically gotten the job for no other reason than he owned a Rickenbacker 4000 series bass….like the model Geddy Lee of Rush used.

Dale had been in a very thorough and diligent cover band for many years and had found our playing (well, my playing) crude and rudimentary so it must have been like amateur hour for him. He was a phenomenal bassist and brought the rhythm section to new heights. With Dale’s addition, the guys wanted to push the musical boundaries and suggested things like the Ronnie James Dio driven Sabbath song “Neon Knights”. Ivan, ever the trooper, gritted his teeth and gave it a shot. But the tune was beyond the top end of his vocal range. Instead, I suggested a reworking of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” which Ivan was able to nail and it became a great tune for guitar – something that Nickelback would discover decades later.

The vocal limitation on that one song became a lynch pin in a series of contentious issues amongst the worker bees. The second issue was Sharon continually butting heads with us over the noise issues. Jay became particularly fed up with the griping and quit in a fit of pique at one point. She and Jay eventually made amends but Ivan was caught in the crossfire.   It led to him and Sharon getting into shouting matches in the middle of rehearsals and after. Ivan was forced to play diplomat and in an effort to keep the domestic harmony, he asked us to respect her wishes. The band saw it as a betrayal. The guys wanted out and if they couldn’t drop this house on the Wicked Witch of the West, they would drop it on Ivan.

On April 18, 1983 the Pearson Collegiate Battle of the Bands which was held in their auditorium. I hadn’t been in the school since 1981 and it was exciting to be back and show another generation what we’d accomplished. Several acts had gone on before us in the competition – Exodus, Zimbabwe & The Tequilla Monsters and Appalling Taste. We were the special guests and there was a certain amount of excitement leading up to our appearance. We were there to close the event.

We were given 20 minutes to play and we kept the set to three original tunes – “Fly to a Flame”, “Son of the System”, and “Crime Pays” with the return of Nick Clarke on lead guitar plus two cover tunes in “Children of the Grave” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”. It may have been my worst musical performance ever not just because I was handed an unfamiliar guitar amp to reproduce my “sound” but because I was totally distracted by the fact that I knew how the gig was going to end.

We left the stage to resounding applause and as Ivan came back from the parking lot with his van so we could load the gear out, Jay and I took him aside. We quit the band. It was like dumping a long-time girlfriend. Ivan was in shock but not entirely surprised. We wished him luck living out his domestic life with Sharon but we couldn’t handle their collective drama anymore. I regretted every second of the break-up. Ivan and I had been close but I was a chicken shit and hated conflict…so I followed Jay’s lead and chose, once more, to follow the band and not my friend. I had done it to Tim and now I was doing it to Ivan. Even after 29 years, I’m still heartbroken thinking about it as Ivan and Sharon would eventually become two of my closest friends.

Jay, Dale Roberts, Paul O’Connor and I attempted to continue – at a $5 an hour rehearsal spot in a third floor attic of a house at College & Bathurst – but we had no assets. I was the only one with any singing chops. I could sing back-ups but I didn’t have Ivan’s power to sing lead. Meanwhile, all my experience and knowledge, musically, was wrapped up in the original tunes I’d been playing for three years and 95% of those weren’t mine. So, we were left with a handful of cover tunes and jams of prog rock wankery. It was immediately clear that we’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater and now the tub was completely empty.

But, I was already planning my next move and it would involve fronting my own band for the first time and lead to the creation of a record label legacy.

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.

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