The very first live gig I ever played was 40 years ago this month – September 19, 1980 – with a band called The Swindle (we’d switch drummers and become SWindleD a year later). We were a bunch of barely passable punk rockers from Scarborough who were too young to play clubs. What does one do when you’re underage and need to get your rock on?

Well, we rented space at an audio production company called Syntha-light Sound on Coronation Blvd. in Scarborough, rehearsed every night for a week, and on the Friday charged all our friends $5.00 to come see us play three sets of originals and covers. We were awful, but we recouped our costs….by December we would play Larry’s Hideaway for the first time opening for Nasty Habitz. Because I was the youngest and barely looked old enough to not need a babysitter, they made me sit on stage the entire night so if the cops came in I’d be considered a ‘performer’ and not a patron. My girlfriend, however, had no such protection, was carded and quickly removed from the venue. I think she missed our whole set. It was a point of contention years later while we were married – and was just one more nagging thing that lead to our divorce.

Anywho…it was humble beginnings and first steps to a very long, frustrating, and exhausting career as a live performer in music (I did DJing as well, but that’s an entirely different kettle of grift). I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The irony is that the entire thing is pock-marked with bad gigs and that’s what, I think, is the romantic aspect for many musicians who do this for a living. Doing a great gig becomes a blurry series of uneventful nights. They become mostly forgettable. The real excitement of playing live has always been the catwalk on the edge of a razor blade. Will the sound suck? Will the drummer suck? Will the bar owner pay us? Will the audience show up? Will they boo us? Will I play well? The most seasoned musicians, over time, have a quick fix or response to these things. The most simple of which is “what do you do when you break a string on stage?” The most unexpected is “what do you do when the lead singer drops dead in the middle of a song.”

I’ve dealt with the former (you have a second guitar at the ready or if you’re really well off, a roadie that hands you a new guitar), and thankfully, never the latter but you never know which one it’s going to be when you show up at the venue. If there is a venue. On two occasions my band Spare Parts showed up for gigs with padlocks on the venue’s doors. No notification just a sign from the Sheriff’s office pinned to the door. Sucks to be us. Worse still, the gigs were a week apart. 1994 was a bad year for bars in Ajax, Ontario.

My punk band Swindled (The Swindle re-christened) did pretty well during the two years we were together. At that time – during the Great Depression of the Early 1980s – there was no expectation that a venue would be standing or that you’d get paid. All our gigs panned out. And we were making a few hundred dollars a show. Not bad for an all original band with no promotion. It set an expectation in my mind. And that was to always get paid. It didn’t always work out, but I was never in any act that accepted “exposure” as its reward.

The best way to do that is play venues known for paying its acts – or a promoter who would do same. And believe me we got involved with some seriously shady characters. Those relationships were short lived or there was an understanding. I recall working with Toronto promoter Danny K who controlled some of the most exceptionally ratty B-level rooms in Toronto (maybe even C-level). He always reminded me of a cross between Truman Capote and Danny DeVito. Most of the artists we interacted with hated him. But he was always fair to us – and that had to do with our ability to bring in audiences and self promote. That band was Moving Targetz and we ran a fan club that distributed a newsletter monthly. That newsletter eventually became a music ‘zine that I distributed all over Southern Ontario – and it promoted Danny’s other shows around town. We had an understanding. And always got paid.
Even when the bar’s owner didn’t want us to.

Targetz did a stop-gap show on the back-end of the three-night weekend at Shaker’s strip club on the North Queensway in Etobicoke.  I figured it was as good a place as any to make a few bucks. I set the gig up myself with the club offering us $500 to do an early Sunday-night (9:30 PM to 12:00 PM). With it being a Sunday and the club being in an industrial area, I knew the crowd would be thin. For us to cop the $500, we had to guarantee 100 bodies in the room. With several weeks advance on the show, I placed an ad in NOW Magazine looking for two “aspiring” bands to do the opening slot knowing very well that any high school or college garage band who wanted their “big break” were going to bring friends. I’d offer each act $100 for coming out, they’d be grateful to play their first “Professional” gig and we’d take the remainder of the cash for arranging the entire event.

Well, the night of the show 210 people showed up…but after the second band got off the stage the crowd, predictably, thinned out to about 80 people for our headlining set. Following our performance I attempted to get paid from the floor manager. He refused to pay me citing our meager 80 attendees and not the 100 I promised him on the phone. I insisted on getting the full paycheck because we’d put 210 bodies in the room – as promised. He still refused.

I went back to the band to get re-enforcements. Drummer Stacey Washington accompanied me to the club owner’s office – which was in the bar’s kitchen – and Stacey proceeded to go all Heath Ledger’s The Joker on the guy pushing him back into a chair and pinning him against the wall while knocking things randomly off his desk. Like true gangster fashion, this guy pushed a button beside his desk and two rather large no-necked bouncers appeared in the kitchen door ready to tear our arms off. I surveyed the scene, and realized we were trapped in a room with two thugs and a pissed off manager. There was no other exit except the one behind us). So, I grabbed Stacey by the arm and said, “We can’t win this one. Let’s cut our losses and get out of here alive.”

We pushed our way passed the no-neck bouncer tree stumps and proceeded to pack our gear and leave. The band did a huddle in the parking lot and I had to explain that we didn’t get paid. Just then Stacey pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket…$280 to be exact; it seemed that while tossing the stuff around from the club owner’s desk Stacey grabbed a fistful of 20 dollar bills and shoved them down the back of his pants while pinning the guy against the wall.

We divvied up the first $80 to cover gas and gear. The other $200 would go to the bands that we promised would get paid. As our convoy of cars began to leave the parking lot, I saw the bouncers bursting out the front door down the street behind us and a pathetic footrace commenced in my rear-view mirror just like in a bad b-movie. The club went out of business a few months later.

Targetz became a force. We all worked full time, music was the passion, and what we really wanted to do was record. And so we saved our money from gigs and our jobs and did just that. We sold that music from the stage. Cheaply. It was a self-fuelling machine. Our end goal was never to be a live act playing crappy dives. We headlined our club shows and opened for bigger acts at larger venues. We were able to turn that momentum into shows playing with Harem Scarem, The Killer Dwarfs, Lee Aaron, Haywire, and a mini-tour with Canadian mainstays Trooper.

The band was fraught with internal strife and never made the big-time, but it went out headlining to a few hundred people at Rock and Roll Heaven in December 1991. No compromise. And that’s my message to other performers, I think. Don’t take second best. Don’t be bullied. Don’t let people tell you that you cannot do what you are passionate about. When the pandemic ends and the smoke clears it will be a new wild west. Carve out YOUR path.  ‘Cause the one that existed before this is now gone.  You’re free to write your own rules.


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 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon.

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