JAIMIE VERNON – THE STRANGE ANIMAL RETURNETH
Through a generous offering by not one, but two friends (thanks Stacey and Danielle!), my wife and I got to see the solo return of Canadian singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Lawrence “But You Can Call Me Larry” Gowan this past week at the Empire Theatre in Belleville to a sold out crowd.
It was an auspicious return for the Strange Animal with a hot new band that included Canadian soul singer Divine Brown, brother Terence Gowan on bass, Styx drummer Todd Sucherman, keyboardist/guitarist Ryan Bovaird and Lady GaGa guitarist Ricky Tillo.
To the world at large Mr. Gowan is currently the lead singer for Styx having replaced founding member Dennis DeYoung. Most musically inclined Canadians know Larry prior to giving up his solo career status from 1981 through 1998 and his half-dozen solo albums featuring hits like “A Criminal Mind”, “Moonlight Desires” and “Strange Animal”. My reference point to Larry goes back even farther. 39 years, in fact.
While growing up in the fabled suburbs of Toronto some friends of mine had a cousin who played drums in a popular Toronto club act called Rhinegold. We couldn’t see them live as we were 13 years old. But we found out that they were the entertainment at a gala event celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the Scarborough Town Centre shopping mall in 1977. The band was to play centre court for free so we decided to check it out. The lead singer/keyboardist’s name was Lawrence Gowan. He and the band were the embodiment of a Saturday morning cartoon, or more accurately, comic book heroes come to life; Gowan was decked out as Spiderman; the Giblin’s cousin, Danny Bourne, was Superman; the guitarist/synth player, Pat Bourke, was Captain America; and bass player Chris Brockway was dressed as Bugsy Malone – the gangster (later replaced by Gerry Mosby). They even performed their own theme song called “The Comic Strip Boogie” – a three-part melodic suite with a ragtime groove married to a progressive arrangement. Every one of their original songs, it seemed, was an extended, mystical, magical tour de force. And their choice of cover tunes was impeccable – “Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles, “School” by Supertramp, “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” by Genesis, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen plus “Lorelei”, “Miss America” and “Come Sail Away” by Styx.
The attraction with Rhinegold, and specifically Gowan, was cerebral. KISS had always been a manifestation of the id – Simmons was lust, greed and sin; Stanley was the romantic, the voice of reason and compassion, and so on; but there was a fine line between their on stage personas and their real ones. When Simmons stepped off the stage he commanded the same physical presence he projected while on it. To an extent, Alice Cooper was the same and as Alice himself admitted during his rehab years, it was hard for anyone to tell where Alice Cooper the performer ended and Vincent Fournier, the pedestrian, began. Even David Bowie couldn’t keep his personalities straight, and ultimately, he lost a portion of his audience because of it.
Rhinegold was pure fantasy and was the promise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ fulfilled sonically and visually; a three-ring circus come to life; the ‘Wizard of Oz’ set to a Rock back beat. The ego of the band members was suppressed and set aside in favour of trips driven by third person storytelling. Gowan became the ringleader and a narrator for six and seven minute flights of fancy and journeys of the imagination.
It’s obvious, looking back on it now that their music would inform my choice of picking nits over the self-proclaimed Prog movement. Most Progressive Rock, as I saw it, turned out to be nothing but ego and pretence – vehicles for unchecked virtuosity; There’s nothing wrong with being good at something, but it always seemed to us mere mortals (with half or no talent of our own) that it was exclusionary. Scads of doughy-eyed fan boys, and occasionally girls, bowing at the feet of the Gods hoping to absorb, by aural osmosis, the Manna of the musically gifted.
It was a world I couldn’t relate to because it didn’t include me. But, Rhinegold allowed the audience to participate by landscaping the visual imagery through catchy, melodic, music. Gowan was an expert at setting the scene and the music would allow the listener to populate the theatre of their own ears like the mind’s eye would with an engaging book or well crafted movie. That, and the boy could sing and play piano like Elton on steroids.
I found myself gravitating to this specific element of Prog and rarely ever strayed. The good storytellers got my ears – Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies of Supertramp, John Woloschuk and Dee Long of Klaatu, Roger Waters and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and to a lesser extent, Syd Barrett (his stream of consciousness lyrical doodling, unrestrained, got tired really fast). Of course, many will argue that none of this is really Prog. And to that I agree. But, Real Prog – King Crimson, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Rush, et al – remained inaccessible to me for a whole other reason…that being its lack of pop sensibility; it’s really hard to get your groove on or harmonize to a musical passage with 38 1/2 chord progressions, six time signature changes, five guitar solos, a drum break and a chorus of Gregorian monks chanting the Tibetan Book of the Dead – and that’s just in the first minute of the song. But I digress.
It was at this Scarborough Town Centre Rhinegold performance that the musical adrenal injection collided. We were hormone-fuelled, teenaged impressionable youths with a whole lot of our own id to create. The very next day The Giblins and I formed our first “band”.
With theatrics a primary part of our envisioned wonderland, we ultimately settled on the name The Gods. It conjured images of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology but was generic enough to be interpreted any way we saw fit. Like Rhinegold, we were soon getting inspiration from comic books, and by default, KISS. If we’d only had instruments and talent to match our enthusiasm we’d have been deadly. But why let a little thing like musical ability stand in the way of a great idea? The band evolved into MOON (and later Elysium Moon) and soon I stepped into another world of punk rock with a band called Swindled.
By then Rhinegold was gone and Gowan was carving out his path as a solo artist. His ‘Strange Animal’ album was released the year I launched Bullseye Records. I continued following his exploits and going to shows for each of his album releases. We met briefly backstage at the Diamond Club in Toronto on my 30th birthday in 1993 – I took one of the Giblin Brothers with me to celebrate. He graciously signed a copy of his self-titled debut album for me as I attempted to condense the above story into a 30 second handshake.
Through the years I had remained in touch with former Warner Brothers A & R man Bob Roper who eventually moved to Rush’s label Anthem in the early 1990s. Over time Gowan’s solo career and Bob intersected at Anthem and Mr. Roper would ultimately take over management duties of Gowan’s career as well. When Larry got the call from Styx to audition for the band in 1999, Bob called me out of the blue telling me the unbelievable news. The reason for his call was that I was the only person he knew who had seen Rhinegold during their tenure around Toronto in the late 1970s. He wanted to know if I would come out to a secret gig at Tailgate Charlies’ in Oshawa, Ontario where Larry would be performing only Styx songs, as a soloist, to an unsuspecting audience – and critique his suitability as frontman on these songs. Bob was anxious to know if Larry still had the chops or was he going to embarrass himself?
My wife and I were guests for the night and not only did Larry exceed expectations on the Styx songs – but he closed the night with “Criminal Mind” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“Mama mia, Ravioli!”). Lawrence Gowan would become a member of Styx April 24, 1999.
So here we are 17 years later watching Larry do his uniquely Gowanesque thing in Belleville. Back to his roots. Back to his unbridled, unbelievably talented self. He teased and kibitzed with the audience. He was humbled in our presence and thankful for the opportunity to play again and not be forgotten for the things that he did before becoming the lead singer of Styx. He allowed his band to steal the spotlight and acknowledged them graciously. And for the first time in 40 years I got to watch him not as a fanboy and not as a nostalgic day-dreamer but as a music lover. Thank you, Mr. Gowan, for inspiring my music career and I’m glad we could reconnect as music loving equals. You taught me well. Ominous spiritus.
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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 recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released 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’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon