JAIMIE VERNON: THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTER

Jaimie 2I’ve been posting a steady stream of travel pictures on Facebook both for posterity and to entertain the millions of ‘friends’ I have online who might be tired of my abrasive and often hostile status updates. From these postings came comments from people who dream of traveling or visiting such exotic places as Flin Flon, Manitoba or South Bend, Indiana.

1975_AlbertaIn 1975, when I was 12, my granny pulled me out of school during the last two weeks of the school year and drove us west across Canada in her vintage Skylark. It was 14 amazing days. I’ve had the travel bug ever since. I saw Eastern Canada in 1977 with my folks. My first wife and I toured the entire lower 48 states on two separate vacations by car. I did it two more times with the Rock Goddess, Sharon Vernon, including our Honeymoon in New Orleans where we took haunted day tours of 200 year old cemeteries and got author Anne Rice’s autograph; There were dozens of trips to the Gatineau Mountains in Quebec as well as Sherbrooke on family business; Half a dozen jaunts to Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Cape Cod and New York City; Quick plane visits to Atlantic City, Hollywood and Las Vegas – once with my kids, and on a separate trip to celebrate our anniversary, to Zion Canyon and Rachel, Nevada to check out Area 51.

Anne RiceI’ve also taken four trips to Chicago – once as the PT Barnum ringmaster to a bunch of rock stars and three times as a solo performer myself; I spent a week in Playa del Carman selling CDs to record label execs and visiting the pyramids; I’ve also been to Liverpool, Manchester and London twice – once to meet some Bay City Rollers and the second time to perform at the Cavern Club; I’ve also traveled Canada by plane with Greg Godovitz as his promo manager to peddle his autobiography ‘Travels With My Amp’, and to Civil War battle sites with Terry Draper (Klaatu) to promote his CDs ‘Civil War…And Other Love Songs’ and ‘Civil War (Not Very)’  [warning: never travel to Gettysburg in a van without A/C or beer in August!]

Needless to say, I love to travel. But sometimes the traveling part is a complete pain in the ass: waiting for planes, waiting to get through customs, waiting to rent a vehicle, going through the endless nonsense inflicted by Best Western staff while trying to check into a hotel that you’ve pre-paid, or finding out you’ve run out of cash or that some hotel reservation operator has triple charged your credit card and you end up four-to-a-room with your kids at a sleazy L.A. MicroTel for $69.99 (but only after you’ve returned the rental van a day early so you could use the deposit money to bribe the desk clerk to let you stay).

But probably the biggest issue with traveling is occasionally getting in over your head somewhere you’re not familiar with.

MexicoHaving to leave the confines of our bunkered all inclusive Barcello Maya hotel in Mexico to get some cash was risky and frightening – especially when taking a 20 minute cab ride into the tumbleweed laden streets of Playa del Carmen, seeing the bullet proof glass in the bank and no immediate way back to the hotel without waving to another cab and drawing a lot of attention to ourselves. But the danger was short-lived.

Getting lost in one of the Parishes near, but not in, the Garden District of New Orleans during a torrential rainstorm at night could have cost us our money, our vehicle or even our lives if not for the help of a kindly rummy who offered us directions for the princely extortion rate of $10.

LakePowellWhile house-boating on the magnificent waters of Lake Powell, Utah in 1991 I fell nearly a hundred feet off a cliff face. I was on a rocky ledge taking photos of the canyon below. I bent down to tie my shoe before heading back and the weight of my camera and telephoto lens around my neck were so heavy, it shifted my weight forward, I lost my balance and went over the edge – face first. I somersaulted down the side and twisted my ankle trying to stop my fall. It took me 45 minutes to crawl back to the houseboat at the entrance to the canyon…in a 120F heat. Lesson there was to never explore a canyon in the desert alone! I could have easily become vulture food in a heartbeat.

That’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to dying on a ‘holiday’ – though hanging by toes and fingernails to visit some cliff dwellings on the side of a 400 foot windswept Colorado canyon came a close second. I didn’t get injured on that one. But my wife, the Rock Goddess, did…and wound up on crutches for months upon our return eventually needing surgery to correct her injured foot that will never properly heal.

DependsHowever, the most fear I’ve ever experienced while traveling, I think, was being confronted by people who, in my own paranoid mind, were determined to rob me and kill me. Whether it was true or not didn’t matter. I was scared beyond shitless. The Depends Company now have a new brand inspired by me called “White Boy In Danger Depends”.

In 1989, myself and the lead singer of my old band Moving Targetz drove to New York City to spend a weekend Marriottindulging in the massive music industry New Music Seminar festivities. Thousands of music related delegates converging on the Big Apple to wheel and deal and schmooze. At that time the industry was still bloated with ‘stupid money’ (as Bob Segarini often calls it). We wheeled, we dealed, we nearly got a publishing contract with Living Color’s publishing company Famous Music. Circumstances after the event conspired to make it untenable, but I stayed in touch with Famous Music’s guru Jerry Love. I continued to send him demos and when the band was back to full steam following some personnel changes I arranged to meet him again in New York with our latest recordings in July of 1991.

I was also writing my music magazine at that point and I decided to connect with ex-pat music manager/lawyer guy Steven Shipp in Manhattan to interview the former Montreal punk singer of the 222’s (and, later, 39 Steps) Chris Berry for the magazine.

So, a strategy was hatched. My then wife and I had friends in Hartford, Connecticut where we could stay and I’d save a ton of money on a hotel. I’d commute into Manhattan by train, visit Jerry Love at the Marriott Marquis to play him our new stuff, deliver promo packages around to the various label head-offices (thus bypassing the need to set up meetings with dozens of label reps, usually the office copy boy, at the NMS) and end the day with the Chris Berry interview before heading back to Connecticut for the night.

LeftBankeWe hooked up with our friends in Connecticut – and ended up having dinner with The Left Banke’s Michael Brown who was their next door neighbour at the time. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that beyond “Walk Away Renee”, I had no reference point to their music at all [International Pop Overthrow honcho David Bash and others in the Power Pop community would later educate my sorry ass].

The following day, I got a lift to the train and dressed lightly for the July heat by wearing a new comfy pair of Nikes, blue jeans, a white T-shirt I’d gotten from HMV following the chain’s grand opening in Toronto a month before, and a knapsack with 18 promo packages, a tape deck and some light snacks. It was going to be a long day.

GrandCentralMy ex’s friends told me distinctly to only get off the train at Grand Central – mainly because it put me the closest to the Marriott Marquis at Broadway and 45th Street which was walking distance. But the other reason was that ‘uptown’ (above Central Park) was dangerous. I was cognizant of their warning and listened for the announcements over the PA. Sure enough a guy came on and said “Next station stops – 125th and Grand Central”. Great, I thought. What a short trip.

The train stopped and I stepped out. Something wasn’t right. Few other people were getting off. Grand Central should have been the end of the line – the transfer point for everyone connecting to other trains. This was an elevated platform. I could see high rise apartment buildings everywhere – not business towers. Maybe this was the northern platform for those not wanting to go directly inside the station. I looked behind me….nope…just more buildings…none of which were Grand Central. Where the fuck was I?

125th_StationThe signs on the railings said 125th Street. I pulled a battered old map out of my knapsack which I’d bought when I was in New York in 1989. I was nowhere near Grand Central station. I was far north of Central Park and I couldn’t see any recognizable landmarks. I put the map in my back pocket and when I looked up everyone else had scattered, rat-like, down to street level. The decision I had to make was whether to wait for the next train – which could have been another hour away – or find my way on foot. The bottom of Central Park was at 59th Street. ‘Blocks’ in New York were relatively close together. It was a beautiful summer’s day and I estimated I could walk the 64 blocks in under an hour – especially if I cut through Central Park at 110th. The Marriott was only another 15 blocks below the park.

Slowly I walked down the stairs of the raised platform to the exit. I grabbed the handle on the shadowed staircase and immediately recoiled from something sticky on my hand. I was getting a sick feeling in my stomach. Instinctively, I knew I’d made a massive mistake getting off the train and possibly a bigger one leaving the platform at all.

MrChickenI held my breath and continued down the stairs with a cautious old-man shuffle – I was Don Knotts expecting to battle the unknown in the ‘Ghost & Mr. Chicken’.  There were 58 stairs. I knew this because counting them distracted me from the throbbing heart beats in my ears. Being lost in Manhattan gave me every reason to be afraid.

Harlem_NYCopsThe first thing I saw in the shadow of the train trestle was a police car with two wheels askew on the curb. One officer was leaning against the front fender and was facing to the left beyond where I could see. He was eating a sandwich. The other cop was facing the rear of the car, wearing what looked like a fur-collared motorcycle jacket, and scraping some crap off the bottom of his shoe with a baton.

Then I was overwhelmed by the smell. It was a culmination of rotting trash, urine, fetid sewer water and other things that may have, at one time, been alive…but now wasn’t.

NYC_BumI stepped onto the sidewalk proper and strained to see what the first cop was looking at. Under the train trestle was a pile of rubble from crumbled brickwork that years of overhead traffic had dislodged and gravity had pulled to the ground. Among the ruins were two old derelicts rustling amongst the cardboard and clothing they had gathered and piled into a makeshift shelter. They were dressed for blizzard conditions – hats, coats, gloves (sans fingertips) and scarves. It was at least 90F or hotter. Worse still was that they were burning something in an oil drum in front of a flipped over husk of vehicle…and warming their hands!

WarriorsSuddenly episodes of ‘Hill Street Blues’ and the opening sequence to ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ began to play in my head. Had it been night-time I would have fully expected to hear the haunting chant of “War-ri-ors! Come out to play-yay!” 

My immediate reaction was to run back up those stairs as fast as I could and wait – all day if necessary – for the next train to come even if it was going to Brooklyn or Queens. But my legs were frozen to the ground like in a bad nightmare when you know you should run away but, oddly, can’t. The next thought was to approach the cops and ask where the hell I was. But I was immediately struck with the hysterical, unfounded, notion that maybe these were bad cops. I needed to get the hell out of this neighbourhood and fast so I ducked into a shaded area beside the stairway and pulled out the map again.

Malcolm_X_BlvdI had previously marked the map with X’s for all the places I needed to visit that day with promo packages. There was no X located anywhere near 125th Street. However, the subway lines were marked and the nearest connecting station was at 8th Avenue. I needed to find out how close I was. The cops had now crossed the street to speak to some street kids who were disrupting traffic. I took about 20 steps and could read the first intersection sign: 125th and Lenox Avenue – better known as Malcolm X Boulevard.

Not only was there X’s in this place but the “Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!” alarm bells finally went off as I realized I was in the middle of HARLEM
BoyzIntheHoodI hatched an emergency plan:  keep my eyes open and walk as fast as I could. I want to make this clear. I’ve never had an issue with black people – the drummer in my band at the time was black and we had been best buddies for ages. I grew up in a multicultural part of Scarborough where we all had gotten along and changed our parents’ perception of how different cultures could interact with each other. But this was Harlem. I was as white as the driven snow. I might have been the only snowflake any of them had ever seen. And this particular part of Harlem was depressed economically. The burned out cars and boarded up store fronts were a definite clue.

Harlem_Street sceneThe noon sun was blistering down. I was going to have to perform a run worthy of the movie ‘The Longest Yard’ if I wanted to get through the area without hassle. But the sidewalks were as congested as the road. The few surviving shops saw their keepers out front hocking their wares from wooden box stands. Every face was jet black and smiling ultra-white smiles or aging, toothless grins. People were minding their own affairs with arms akimbo or motioning in conversational gestures. Over the Martin Luther King Blvddin of the traffic could be heard the echoing resonance of music from store apartment windows, street vendors and kids with portable stereos.

And it dawned on me. I was invisible. No one was noticing me. I passed through the crowd unchallenged. I finally glanced up and noticed the signs now. Harlem Hair Salon. Harlem Grocery. Harlem Upholstery. At the next intersection the street sign changed from saying 125th Street to the properly named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I most definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Apollo TheaterI soon rushed past 7th Avenue (later renamed Adam Clayton-Powell Jr. Blvd) and farther ahead, to my right, was the beacon of hope. No, not the subway station. It was the Apollo Theater sandwiched between the non-descript brownstone buildings. The famous, iconic marquee was every bit as impressive as the pictures I’d ever seen. It was a Mecca for generations of music lovers: black, white, Hispanic. Here the racial lines became subverted and frequently blurred as the music that came from its hallowed walls was together unifying and transcendental.  I wish I’d had a camera. But I needed to move on.

DieHard3By the time I hit the New York subway at 8th Avenue I had completely forgotten my fear, my bigotry, my panic. It had been both exhilarating and life affirming. It also opened my eyes to being a stranger in a strange land. With that said, John McLaine’s experience with the same neighbourhood during ‘Die Hard 3’ turned out a bit differently and I can only think that caution was the correct course of action.

I made it to my meeting with Jerry Love of Famous Music – he passed on the new material from my band Moving Targetz. I had time to deliver 12 of the 18 promo packages I was carrying (each later sending me the requisite ‘Please Fuck Off’ letters from A & R departments) and I made it to my interview with Chris Berry at Steven Shipp’s office.

JoanJettThere would be one more surprise before the day was finished, though. Shipp shared office space with Kenny Laguna’s Blackheart Records – home of Joan Jett. As the interview with Chris Berry progressed Joan showed up in leisurely attire of track pants/head band/black satin jacket and gave me a slice of New York pizza. We shot the shit awhile and she made sure that Laguna gave me a stack of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts CD re-issues to review in my magazine before I left.  

It was a memorable and unusual trip. As I said, I wish I had brought a camera. Never leave home without it.

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.
Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “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 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com

One Response to “JAIMIE VERNON: THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTER”

  1. Chris Barry Says:

    Hi Jaime. I just stumbled upon your prose and am writing you today about my personal musical hero, Chris Barry, the criminally overlooked genius you discuss in your NYC adventure above. His name is Barry, with an “a”, not Berry, with an “e”. Sheesh. But I’m sure he still loves you anyway.
    sincerely,
    Chris Barry.
    tee hee hee

    PS: Steven Ship only has one ‘p” in his last name. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the amount of love that remains in HIS heart for you after this glaring, unforgivable spelling error. He’s awfully sensitive, you know, possessing that delicate, caring spirit shared by ALL music industry professionals throughout the ages.

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