Segarini: In Praise of Older Musicians

I had to drag my sorry ass down to the nearest RBC last night to deposit some money (collected from my roommates and I here at the DeMilo Arms) so that when Hydro Ontario sucks their tithe out of the account Monday morning, there’s actually enough in there to insure heat and light for the next little while. Not only heat and light, but how would I be able to use the blender to make banana daiquiris without their damn electricity? I really must teach the kitties to run on the little kitty treadmills to charge the generator so we can get off the grid…according to my calculations, we only need another 1411 kitties (and kitty treadmills) to be totally self-sufficient.

Thanks to Google Maps, I found that the nearest RBC is down on Roncesvalles, a short bus/subway/streetcar expedition from here, so…armed with the cash and a Red Rain Sugar Free Energy Drink, (less than half the cost of a Red Bull, and just as addictively tasty) I hoofed it around the corner to wait for Old 89 (The Bus of Lost Souls) which only comes to this stop when the planets align and somewhere on Earth, someone buys yet another copy of Led Zeppelin IV. Fortunately for me, someone must have done just that about 20 minutes after I got to the bus stop.

The reason I feel that Led Zeppelin plays into a bus schedule is because every time I get on a bus, Kashmir starts to play in my head. I have no idea why, it just does. The Subway evokes the theme song from Mork and Mindy, this due to the fact that the ‘door-closing’ 3-note chime when the subway is about to leave the station are the first 3 notes of the melody of the Mork and Mindy theme song. I always feel compelled to finish the verse, which drives anyone sitting next to me to look at me and wonder if I’m going to ask them for money or wet myself. Generally, I do neither. The streetcar is my favourite. It varies, but the most recurrent songs that start-up when I sit down are Sinatra’s, New York, New York, or the Rice-A-Roni (The San Francisco Treat) television jingle. Maybe I should go back into therapy.

So, after a few minutes each of Kashmir, Mork and Mindy, and New York, New York, I walk the last 2 blocks to the bank, make the deposit, and find myself back out on the sidewalk.

It is a beautiful, almost summer-y night. I decide to walk back up Roncesvalles, past Barque (a fine barbecue establishment), The Dizzy, the Intersteer, and Timothy’s World Coffee, to The Local, which is owned by a wonderful brother and sister team and features fairly eclectic music 7 nights a week. There’s a streetcar stop right across the street. The Local also has its own micro-brewed beer on tap called Local Lager, which I have grown quite fond of, so…a pint and some music to catch my breath from the long walk seems the logical thing to do. The band on this particular night, are seated at a table behind me and are on a break…so maybe I’ll have two pints.

Next to Cherry Cola’s, (my favourite downtown destination), Roncy Village, with the Intersteer, The Local, and all the other fine boîtes in this newly gentrified area of Toronto, has become a great place to spend quality leisure time, especially if you’re hungry and thirsty. Like the stretch of Ossington from The Dakota (just north of Dundas) south past The Painted Lady, to the Reposado, an intriguing tapas and tequila bar, Roncesvalles should be high on your discovery list if you’re in Toronto this summer.

I fucking LOVE this city.

Anyway, halfway through my pint of Local Lager the band mounts the stage and picks up their instruments. I rub my eyes. There are no drums, no bass, no guitars or pianos. What there is, are a clarinet, a fiddle, an accordion, a trombone, and a sousaphone. Golly, Toto, I don’t think we’re on Queen Street anymore.

The Boxcar Boys

The width, breadth, and depth of music and musicians in this city still surprises me even after 35 years of Toronto bombarding me and its other lucky residents with world class music of all shapes and stripes. There seems to be no limit to the musical diversity that can be found in the bars and clubs that abound in the ‘City of Villages’ the neighborhoods of Toronto represent. We celebrate our uniqueness at every turn. From the food, to the fashion, to the music, no culture is subjugated or repressed. Toronto embraces the cultures of everyone who settles down here from all over the world, and they in turn, make Toronto the rich and varied community it has become. For all our faults and differences, we seem more a smorgasbord than a melting pot, where people become Torontonians without having to sacrifice their identities. Their cultural contributions as welcome as they are, and because of that we are more stew than soup, part of the whole without diluting our individual flavours. Nowhere is that more evident than in the mix and match quilt of our neighborhood bars and clubs.

So here I sit in an Eastern European neighborhood, in a UK Pub that has bangers and mash, quesadilla’s, butter chicken, and Cajun meatloaf on its menu along with the usual suspects, and beer from Guinness to locally brewed favourites, listening to a band whose second song is an insanely authentic reading of Rye Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, a reworked version of Jack of Diamonds (a.k.a. Jack o’ Diamonds and Jack of Diamonds (Is a Hard Card to Play), a traditional folk song. It is a song that was popularized by Blind Lemon Jefferson and believed to originally be a Texas spawned song about gambling. It was sung by railroad men who had lost money playing Conquian or Coon Can, a card game dating back to 17th century Central America. The song has been recorded under various titles such as “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia”, and “Rye Whiskey”, the best known version by Tex Ritter, late actor John Ritter’s father. Thanks, Wikipedia. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVWTeXzgkJE.

So, here I sit on a Sunday night in 2012, in a pub, listening to a group of young (and gifted) musicians playing it like they wrote it. When they played some of the music they did indeed write, it was evident that their love and knowledge of music is the driving force behind the joy of their performance. We were all smiling. It occurred to me, as I sat at the bar singing along with the chorus, that the Grammy’s, the Junos, the music radio stations, and the major record companies need to be taken over somebody’s knee and have the snot spanked out of them. At least there are people who see the worth in the great music thriving without the mainstream support of a major label or heavy rotation on a mainstream music radio station. Bill King, (another great Toronto musician) and sidekick to Ted Woloshyn on Ted’s CFRB radio show, both showed their support (and good taste) by featuring the group on Ted’s show in January. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPL5yveXSwc&feature=related. These kids will never be out of work.

If it wasn’t for having to write this column, I’d still be sitting at the bar listening to these people, but now I was psyched. I had already planned to write about Saturday night, a night so full of everything right about musicians and music and the people who love them and their music for all the right reasons, but stumbling into The Local and hearing the Boxcar Boys was proof of just how healthy music remains, Regardless of what that portion of the mainstream press who are reporting the ‘end of music’ due to its having become free, the demise of the CD because singles artists (read ‘radio darlings’) albums are selling less, and the radio conglomerates already discussing flipping under-performing music stations to talk, news, or sports, the truth is, most musicians don’t give a flying fuck about fortune and fame, even though so many of them deserve it, all they want is to earn a living making music. It’s what they do. It’s what they love…and it’s what they will continue to do and love until they can’t physically do it anymore, even if they have to get a day job to pay the bills. Being a musician is beyond the grasp of us lesser beings. Being a musician is more than a commitment. Being a musician is what you are and how you define yourself. Sometimes the great ones make it big, but sometimes the great ones don’t. Regardless, great or not, successful or not, real musicians never stop playing, never stop loving making music.

Saturday Night

When I see young musicians like Courage My Love and David Celia, Rival Sons, Harlan Pepper, Jumple, Research Turtles, Stacey Kaniuk, the aforementioned Boxcar Boys, the slightly older, but no less unique Fraser/Daley, I am always hopeful they will attain the fame and fortune I think they deserve, but I also know that they will probably continue to play whether they score or not. They are all motivated by the music, the creative process, and the joy they all share in performing. Saturday night I was in the presence of greatness…lifers…men who have been in the trenches since their teens and some even before that. They have all had their share of success, and failures, but here they are, excited, smiling, exchanging stories and tuning up. A room full of battle scarred veterans, Foot Soldiers in the 3 or More Chord Army. They are living proof of Been There/Done That, and in possession of something as intangible, yet as real, as a Soul; The Love of Making Music.

Honouring Our Own

For a little over a year I have been MCing a series of shows for Pete Otis and Jack Tasse (with the help of Gary Seventeen, who himself is a musician, journalist, and entrepreneur,  and Long and McQuade go-to guy and Jack Daniels preacher, Ratch), both seasoned musicians and habitual performers. Called ‘Honouring Our Own’, they pay tribute to Toronto’s mostly unsung musical heroes by throwing a party and giving the gate to the honoree and filling the stage with his friends, collaborators, and other musicians that want to pay respect to one of their influences or musical heroes. These shows have been wildly successful, and well attended by fans and friends who have followed the long and colourful careers of the musicians being honoured. The events normally took place on Tuesdays, but this month, the party was moved to a Saturday for a couple of reasons. One was to accommodate the growing audience and give them a day off (Sunday) to recuperate (these people don’t nurse a drink and have a Jaeger every 40 minutes), and the other reason was so this month’s recipient could celebrate his birthday at midnight with family and friends. Joining previous honorees including keyboardist Michael Fonfara (Downchild, Alice Cooper, Rhinoceros and Foreigner, to name a few of the bands he’s worked and toured with), folksinger/writer and founder of Winterfolk, Brian Gladstone, and frontman, singer/songwriter/comedian Robbie Rox, was guitar hero and all around good guy, Mike McKenna. For a full account of Mike’s interesting and rollercoaster-like career, go here.

These people are not exactly household names, but they are admired and respected by an awful lot of people, especially other musicians, people who have been entertained and moved by their music going as far back as the ‘50s in some cases. There are a lot of musicians in the audience who aren’t here to play, although most of them will find themselves on stage at one point or another, jamming with the scheduled players because that is what they do.

I look around the packed room which is the newly and tastefully renovated showroom on the second floor of the Black Swan Tavern, itself a veteran among the famous Toronto clubs that have survived decades of changing musical tastes and styles. My gaze is met with a sea of greying hair and happy smiles, I walk up to the mic, and without thinking I say, “So…that asteroid didn’t kill ALL the dinosaurs,” and we were off and running.

They are a kind bunch, my music loving peer group, comfortable in their own skin, laughing at my lame jokes, (“The patio looks like a Rascals showroom”, “I love the smell of Ben Gay in the evening”, “I had no idea why older people were always so happy and mellow until I found out that Geritol is 25% alcohol”, “So many old men, so many beautiful women.” To the women; “Are you still married because you slip a Viagra into his bed time glass of warm milk, or can you afford a poolboy?”), and the laughter comes easy to these people. Some of these couples have been together since high school, or met when the musician was wearing Beatle Boots and playing his own Prom. Women who love musicians are every bit a part of the music as the musician…and if he’s a good man and treats her right, they stay together through thick and thin. It takes a strong woman to ride out the ups and downs of a career player, and the women in this room are a big part of how these guys carry on.

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McKenna is a gentle bear of a man, He is quiet and smiling most of the time I’ve ever seen him, but when he straps on a guitar he becomes a poet, and speaks from the heart. Musicians can communicate with their instruments as clearly and eloquently as any orator. There are some whose choice of notes and phrasing can move people emotionally and as effortlessly as any great passage in literature. McKenna is surrounded this night by equals and compatriots, men whose experience has taught them what to play as well as when not to play at all. Players who listen, who understand dynamics, who know that feel and co-operation are more important to any song than flash and stance will ever be. To a man, in whatever configuration Mike’s guests ended up in onstage, the taste, the smiles, the fluidity of exchanges rarely wavered. Showboating was at a minimum, and even when someone got so excited their playing went from subtle contribution to the equivalent of beating an already open door down with a sledgehammer, the other players understood, gave room, and kept the whole intact. And even at his own party, McKenna was on stage every chance he got. The man probably played his own wedding reception. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlSDXx79VOw

So many great players that even with the festivities starting at 7:00, no one wanted to stop as closing time drew near. Scott “Professor Piano” Cushnie, Steve Ambrose(R), Joe Mavety (L), all the great players in attendance, made multiple trips to the stage. All those years, all those gigs, all those triumphs and failures all those long nights in vans, lousy fast food, sleeping on floors, non-stop touring, bad deals and broken promises, here they all are, playing for free to honour a friend and have a good time.

Smiling.

Playing.

Making music.

Out of all those young players still chasing the dream, how many will discover that the music is the only thing that really matters to them, that even if they fail to achieve financial success and fame, that they may find happiness in simply creating music and playing because it is in the blood, and as you get older, realizing that this is why you picked up the guitar, or bass, or whatever in the first place. Where a lesser light, shorn of his dream of fame and fortune, would feel like he was drowning in a sea of heartache and give in to the downward spiral or give up completely, real musicians confronted with the same situation, always discover they can breathe underwater.

It is always very satisfying when a great musician receives the accolades and financial rewards that come with popularity and success, and as fans of music, we have been blessed with so many who have. For the ones who don’t break through, those successes are perceived as a win for all musicians who love what they do, and when they mount the stage at their local pub, or play a few at a jam or open mic, or sign on for a tour of hinterland clubs and neighborhood halls in a rented van, there may be some discomfort, and the aches and pains that come with age may flare up, but that smile and those notes and that joy will be there when the stage lights go up and the break is over. As long as a musician can play his music for an audience regardless of how big or how small, he is living the dream. May God bless each and every one of them.

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For those of you to whom being a ‘rock star’ is paramount, I leave you with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9E9p7i7mhE

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Segarini’s column appears every Monday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, The Segarini Band, and Cats and Dogs, andnominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late GreatMovies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now sadly gone), and now provides content for radiothatdoesntsuck.com with RadioZombie, The Iceage, and PsychShack. Along with the love of his life, Jade (Pie) Dunlop, (who hosts and writes “I’ve Heard That Song Before” on RTDS), continues to write, make music, and record.


7 Responses to “Segarini: In Praise of Older Musicians”

  1. oh so NOW it’s letting me … okay, here we go again.
    Dang, i wish I had been at Mike’s tribute, but I was grinding it out at my own gig. i would have loved to have been there, with the players who inspired me then, and keep on inspiring me now.
    Me, I want to go out swinging and singing, mike in one hand, crazy salad hair, and a huge grin on my wrinkled face. Wait – that’s me at every gig! 😉
    As to the BoxCar Boys … yowza! i could see you fronting that gig, Bob, and enjoying the hell out of it!

  2. Greg Simpson Says:

    Brilliant piece of work, Bob. Last evening, here in Vancouver, I went to see a screening of The Wrecking Crew. Those guys all had their time of steady income, and some invested well, but the ones who didn’t become Glen Campbell all stayed true to the reason they were musicians….simply to play. Recommended viewing for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it.

    • Strummer Says:

      I would love to see this as well.Hope it comes to Toronto for a screening. The guitar players son has made this Doc (think Funk Bros) he is showing it to raise money for the soundtrack to be used,he is getting there.Then it can be released.

  3. Wayne Cullen Says:

    Tremendous column Bob. The sounds of transport are very funny. My microwave plays the first 3 notes of the Blue Danube when it’s finished its business and I carry on from there every time.
    Hearing about the bars and music in TO makes me pine for your fiords, and your enthusiasm regarding the musicians is palpably heartfelt throughout.
    And the Old Wild Men link. Holy cow. What a great memory. I was in full emotional breakdown by the 3rd note.

  4. Strummer Says:

    Bob,did you know any of The Wrecking Crew when you were in L.A.? Or work with them?

  5. Hey Bob..excellent writing my brother. You captured the essence, the glue that holds our musician brotherhood 2gether…..the joy of expression & community spirit. This is a “must read” for musicians or anyone for that matter, that haven’t figured out that elusive simple formula of “Doing things, for the thing itself.” So many good ones, musicians/good friends that were defined by external reward, be it $, popularity or acceptance, that suffered broken hearts and worse from unfilled expectations. Like you said…it’s wonderful when the stars align for some and they are showered with the love of respect and limelight but for the majority of us, never de~value the respect & love of family, friends, fans & fellow musicians…share your gift willingly as well as your “pat on the back” and good will towards others’ “livin’ the dream”..It’s all good..* Love is the cargo~Music the vessel *..thanx Bob ❤ Greg Fitzpatrick..23/05/2012

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