My Life as a Teenage Boy in the Nation's Capital!
Back in high school I had this friend Simone. We kind of drove each other crazy. She was as blase as Lauren Bacall on Valium and I was as eager as a St. Bernard puppy. Once, in the art room, I grabbed the left headphone of her Walkman and asked her who she was listening to. I'm still recovering from the withering look she gave me. "The Beatles?" she sighed, rolling her eyes like she was amazed that one so retarded could have found her own way to school. I mention her now because after highschool, she went to Ottawa for the summer. I had gone the summer before, having been granted my first taste of freedom in the form of a summer French programme, and had all kinds of great times like getting snuck in trojan-horse style to the bar by the Canadian National basketball team, seeing The Pogues, falling into the Rideau Canal in a thunder storm and making out with a hot french guy on a bench to name a few. Of course, when I asked Simone about her stay in the Nation's Capitol, she paused mid french fry, gazed heavenward and sighed, "Ottawa bites" which went on to become kind of a catch phrase amongst all us yet-to-be jaded losers.
I broke up with her on the spot thinking that if a person couldn't have good time in Ottawa then they probably couldn't have a good time anywhere.
That was a lot of years ago...
The Night Before:
Photo shoot at Lily Fawn's with Baby Honey and J. for our Three Faces of Evil tour outside in the fog with an antique tricycle lit by the car headlights with us in our corsets and boas and beauty marks and fishnets and then the whisky train came out (Woo! Woo!) but we were home by 11-ish and so proud of the early hour, uncorked a second bottle and Baby Honey helped me pack god knows what and then it was down the street to the going away party at the Bearded Ladies' house and then it was 4 and then it was 5:30 and still dark out with Tolan standing over the bed in his roofing coveralls saying "Airport! Airport!" and me saying "Ye-e-e-s" like The Countess from Pee Wee's Playhouse and rolling over like it was a joke or something but he got me up and into Aunt Trudy's Aspen with my suitcase and guitar. Got the purse on the second trip back inside and made it to the airport with moments to spare!
Three landings to save money. Seven hours in transit drifting in and out with the tabloids and T.V. and pretzels and arrived in the dark. So weird to not see any light in a day. I felt like dying and was contemplating Never Drinking Again. I'm thinking that the Ottawa airport code is YOW for a reason.
My friend Tom Stewart came to get me. He's the one responsible for bringing me here. He has always been a total musical enabler figure. He's like The Mayor of Ottawa. He helped us book Vinaigrettes shows, rescued us from cancelled gigs and let us play on the bill with his band Furnaceface. He also organized the recording session on Party Girl for the song Both Ways where we got to go to a mansion and swim with inflatable alligators between takes. You know, a total dude.
I had forgotten how relentlessly positive he is. The opposite of a Simone. It's like if you took an axe and chopped off one of his legs he'd say "It's so GREAT that I have these two AWESOME hands!" It's a pretty loveable quality.
Here's the pitch for the rest of the night which he delivers like I've just won The Price is Right in his rolling Ottawa Valley accent:
"Okay so here's the thing: Tuesdays are kind of like my night 'off' so I have a Manpower practise and then after that my brother's having a going away party for his seventeen year old son who's going away tomorrow and that's where you'll be staying but here's the thing: since he doesn't leave until tomorrow you'll be staying at our house and the thing about that is that our place is tiny and there will be a diaper changing going on right by your head at 8am!"
I deserve all this and more.
But it's all fine of course. At the band house, while the metal riffs seep through the floor boards, me and a skittish german shephard named Rudy watch Friends on the giant T.V. and check out the guitar player's extensive action figure collection. Holy cats! He's got The Big Foot board game!
Then it's the going away party. The house is filled with seventeen year old boys and there's some older folks and a keg of beer. Suddenly a sign-up list is consulted and we're all ushered outside, which is freezing by the way, to an arm wrestling table where father and son go at it. I think the dad won.
Then father and son donned red boxing gloves and took swings at each other in the drive way. I was standing on the deck amidst a pack of seventeen year old boys flinching at the sound of the repeated kidney punches saying "Jeeze, you never know where you'll end up in a day!" to anyone who would listen.
Then Tom and his old friend Noel (one of the former members of The Gruesomes) took me on a driving tour of our Nation's Capitol and pointed out where Bannister passed out and where Squirrel Boy fell off the roof and the where the old Vietnamese Soup place was that's now the new Vietnamese Soup place that's not as good and where the guy's wife got sheared in half in the revolving theatre and lots of other useful facts.
Did you know that they replace the Canadian flag on the top of the parliament buildings every day and that you can put your name on a waiting list to get one? Well now you do.
Slept right through the diaper change and had coffee with Tom and his wife before relocating to Tom's brother's house.
While lugging my suitcase up the street, Tom and I came up with the concept for a new reality show:
"Next on Fox: What Happens When You Exchange Your Seventeen Year Old Son for a Boozy Chanteuse?
"Dad, can I HAVE the car?"
"Absolutely not. You're 41 and you're drunk!"
"How can you possibly take so long in the shower?"
"Well, 'Dad', I jerk off in there!"
The digs are fine. Top bunk. No ladder. The house number is 63 which I will remember from Tom saying "Oh threes and sixes rule my world. I was the third born of the third born in 1963!" as we were going in the front door.
I am here to play Slo Tom's Annual Rock'n'Roll Rodeo. Saturday night. Barrymore's. We have three days to practise. Instead of bringing a band with me, Tom has found me one. In real life they go by the name The John Henrys. They are a handsome pack of young gentlemen with modern jeans and good hair.
Practise goes well. I knew they were going to be great because when I first walked into their house I thought someone was listening to a record but it was them playing! They had learned all my songs and everything.
That night I realized that the curse of the lead singer is telling people what to do when they're already doing it.
After practise, I lured my new best friends to a club called Babylon because I had seen The Goose (our drummer from back home) smiling at me in his bowler hat on a poster downtown that said he was playing tonight with Big John Bates.
And Holy Naked Ladies!
Dancing girls make everything better! Even sludgeabilly or whatever that was. It was so fun getting to watch the faces of my new bandmates go from the resignment of no doubt seeing some crappy band to the disbelief of their good fortune once they realized that titties would be involved! Oh stick with me boys, I know where the good times are!
Trudged around all day in the cold. Went down to the Rideau Canal to see how the ice was coming but apparently it doesn't freeze until January. Wish someone would have told me that when I kept going on about how excited I was to be bringing my skates.
Went home for a while before band practise just in time to find Brother John preparing a salad as I guess he'd been briefed about the whole vegetarian thing and we had a great chat. Obviously we root for different teams but I think that we're both nice people. Plus he's smart and calm like a doctor and says things like, "Yes, I can see how it would appear if you were to start looking at things through that lens." (Whaddaya mean? There's other lenses?! This IS the lens! It's MY movie!)
Then Tom picks me up for practise.
Okay, my new band mates' names are Ray, Steve, Joff, Darryl and Doug. At first I can only remember who's who if they remain in practise formation but mercifully they all kind of look like their names. Eventually as we get to know each other we start joking around. I think it sounds great but Ray, their leader, is a perfectionist and it's hard to give him a compliment. Smoked some weed with my boys and sang in the living room after practise. They like Neil Young and The Band like all bands do.
Jeeze people go to bed early in the Nation's Capitol. Oh, I ain't complaining. My organs are grateful for the holiday. Only thing is I'm between books and the only thing to read back on the top bunk at the hostfamily's house is this book about how Australasia was inhabited way earlier than most people think. Sure. Whatever. A fine theory. But holy, it goes on for over four hundred pages. And the author writes in a dry scientific fashion but keeps throwing in these personal anecdotes like "I remember when Mother used to put fake holly on the christmas pudding etc" which is kind of distressing.
Got to see Tom, the most positive man in the world, kind of snap. Oh it wasn't when the car wouldn't start at midnight in the blizzard. No, that was no problem. He was all smiles for that. It was when he started talking about how a local Led Zeppelin tribute band had changed their name, under orders from Led Zeppelin's People, from The Song Remains the Same to (get this) The Vibe Remains the Same. Tom was livid. "The VIBE remains the same?! Come on! The VIBE remains the same?!"
While I totally agreed, I was thinking about the way that men are so Clint Eastwood all the time and how, unlike women, they find the safest valves to blow off steam.
Woke up feeling like it was Christmas morning and not just because it had snowed two feet! Took the bus up to the university to promo the show on the radio station and met John Westhauer who hosts a show called The Guest List and holy does he know his indie rock. He's like the Linehan of Cancon! He gave me a ride back to town and I ditched my guitar at the music store where Tom and Ray work and headed downtown thinking all the while about that old commercial (for Unicef I think?) with Lotte Heechmenova urging people in her clipped accent to send money to 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa Ontario.
Met up with my old pal Jon Bartlett and broke into the Lord Elgin Hotel pool and spa which was awesome. Winter is so great because with everyone all wearing big coats and hats, the lines blur between hobo and guest which makes for perfect sneaking-past-the-front-desk conditions! Tee hee.
Was wondering when old Ottawa would cut loose and guess what? It's Friday night! Went to a get together with Bartlett and met an awesome lady. May have humped her leg slightly because I realized I hadn't talked to one in days. Left early to go to band practise and had me a party all by myself all the way there in the freezing cold.
Ran through the songs with the men and left feeling like the show was gonna rule! They're even doing harmonies and have figured out all these fancy noodly bits and I love them for it. The host of the get together lent me a book. It's fiction but it offers up the theory that Hank Williams was actually killed by his tailor who kept him drugged up so he could suck the life forces out of him through his ass! Sweet Dreams...
I knew my host was going off to teach an ESL class at 10am so I laid around until he left so I could have his house all to myself. What are those things called? Scavengers? Parasites? Those things on the beach that move into the shells of other species? That's me. I live in the homes of other animals. It could be worse. I could be a weasel, making my home in the carcasses of the animals I've killed. Anyway, I do dishes and sweep and always use a phone card.
Met my My Chauffeur in a hotel lobby and went to see Lucky Ron play before soundtest and the dude still sounds great and he's had a weekly gig way longer than me! I invited him and his lady to the show but I know all too well how hard it is to make it anywhere after an afternoon gig.
Went to meet up with Tom and the boys at the club to set up. The Chauffeur had brought some hay bales from his uncle's farm which we were going to decorate the stage with but the bouncers came running over the second they saw us and said no way, citing the Great White concert which has become the Roe-vs-Wade of nightclub litigation. Since we weren't gonna be using any pyro and the place was non-smoking, they eventually relented and let us have them on stage.
Had hoped to be able to see Sarah Harmer play at the church around the corner but it wasn't meant to be. By the time we finished checking the instruments and running through the hard songs, it was almost time to start the show.
The John Henrys hit the stage in their new outfits. They'd ordered matching embroidered western gabardine shirts on line for the occasion and were rockin' them with confidence. They sounded great too. The last song they played should be in a movie for sure.
Then it was Slo Tom's turn. The John Henrys were backing him up too and it was awesome. Barrymore's is a big old dance hall with golden edges and the sound is great. There's nothing like an opulent backdrop to make the music sound better. I went up and sang on a duet Tom had written called "We Did the Best We Could" which I am totally in love with. It starts: "Well it was all too much and yet somehow not enough..." So good.
And then it was me, and the people of Ottawa were so nice. I haven't played here recently for a number of reasons but all of them slipped my mind once we were midway into the set. I never wanted it to end. That's the thing about live shows. Or the ones that go well anyway. Right when you finish is usually when you're just feeling ready to start. I told the audience that I was gonna stop referring to Ottawa as The Bermuda Triangle of Rock from that moment on.
Had me a show at a francophone bar called L'Escogriffe courtesy of my friend Li'l Andy, who is The Chauffeur's brother. When they stand together I feel like I am a corgi hanging out with a pair of Great Danes, which is a pretty nice feeling.
I was kind of freaked out because I am a total poulet when it comes to the old parlez-vous-ing but before I left I wrote to my mother, the former french teacher, and asked her how to say "I am just as scared and nervous as you are" figuring it's a nice ice-breaker in any language. Within moments the former french teacher wrote back "Je suis aussie effraye et inqiete que vous" so I wrote it down and taped it onto my guitar so I could practise.
A few days later my mother wrote back, "Er, to whom will you be saying that?" like she had suddenly pictured me chained to a furnace in someone's dungeon or something. Ah my poor mother. She finds out where I am from the CBC. Or maybe she's reading this with one eye covered.
Anyway everyone there was really nice. Especially the bartender who had been up for two days. Li'l Andy's set was so good I forgot I had to play which kind of worked out. The best shows make you forget about yourself and believe me, I was trying to. Andy has a low voice and while he was singing, the bartender says "Handy 'as a nice bottom". Since he was moving his hand up and down by his lungs as he was saying it, we knew what he meant. But it's still funny!
While we were in the bar, the streets, like mon coeur (which is, surprise surprise, masculine!), had turned to sheets of ice. Like you couldn't even walk two steps without falling down. Good thing we were drunk! Ended up at some awful disco where the girls were wearing underwear. But in retrospect staying at the scene of the crime where les frenchies would have given us free drinks all night would probably have killed us. It's all about staying two steps away from what you think you really want.
Breakfast at Bagel Etc. No sign of Lenny.
Then a stroll around the no longer icy plateau. Ended up in a record store where Li'l Andy found a record by Lottie and Lonnie- brother and sister country singing midgets from Maniwaki! It said "Good things come in small packages" on the back and had song titles like "I'm So Afraid of Losing You"! I couldn't believe he was debating the purchase. "Come on, Dude! $4.99 for singing midgets is a fucking bargain man!" Avery, Li'l Andy's girlfriend took a look at the cover and said, "Oh that's so sad..." Our friend Larry, who had been kind of quiet all day due to a punishing hangover courtesy of bluegrass night, kind of snapped and hissed, "Sad?! They got to make a record!" which kind of put everything into perspective. The record store owner was devoid of irony which I had already discovered when I bought a Tori Amos postcard because of the 1980's cut of her jeans and body suit. "Why is zat so funny?" he asked making me feel like a shallow hipster asshole with no soul. He watched us get excited about Li'l Andy's record and said something like "S'il vous aimez des nains qui chante...(If you're into singing dwarves! ) I once saw Jeanne Mance Cormier sing and she vas about zee length of a baybay"!
When we got back to the house, I phoned my friend Alexis who of COURSE one-upped us all by telling me about the singing Siamese twins she'd heard about. "They're attached by the head and the one that sings is quite small with long red hair and the other one's kind of big and just stands there not really into it". Ha! Sounds like The Corn Sisters!
Went to the studio where Andy is recording. Funny story: He asked me to sing on a song called "Why'd You Have to Ruin My Whole Goddamn Life?" and then sent a second e-mail saying that if we got done, perhaps there would be time for us to sing "Part Time Lover". Naturally I thought he was joking, referring to that Stevie Wonder song ("We ah strange-ahs by day, lovahs by ni-i-ght") so I wrote back suggesting that if we got done THAT we could tackle Almost Paradise by Mike Reno and Ann Wilson! So imagine my surprise when the dude actually has a song called Part Time Lover and the joke's on me cause I gotta learn it stat!
The sesh went fine and when we were done, Case, the engineer treated us to some eight-track recordings of Queen. So comforting to realize that even Freddy Mercury himself sounds just as crappy as everyone else when you hear his vocals isolated and dry with no effects. Also heard Marvin Gaye and Tammy Tyrrell doing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and realized that that Motown distortion is their actual voices, not some effect, and felt good for once about my own little rasp.
Afterwards my Twin Chauffeurs took me to The Wheel Club where the old folks play country music every Monday night and have done so for the last fifty years. ("No Song After 1965!")
If you ask they'll let you play a song and if they like you they'll ring the bell and you can play a second. I started with Almost Persuaded figuring it would be a safe bet, plus I love it, and when I was done I held my breath and they rang the bell and I felt all Sally Field ("You people like me!") Bought a CD off the seventy year old hostess because one of the song titles was "Why Should I Cry Over You?"
An old guy came up to Andy when we were packing up and said "You're girlfriend's got a great set of pipes on 'er!" When he left I was like yeah it's amazing how you can't even see his arm up my back making my lips move! But you know, I can kind of get off on the stealth that comes with being given no credit.
Early start. The Chauffeur passed off the keys to the family corolla to his brother because I guess those first year papers don't mark themselves. Back to the Nation's Capitol for a CBC sesh.* A programme called Fuse where they put two people who've never met together to collaborate musically. Felt like one of those nature shows where they put a scorpion and and field mouse in an aquarium and film the hilarious results. My partner was Tony Dekker of The Great Lake Swimmers. A tender soul with translucent skin. I kept thinking I was scaring the hell out of him. Like you could see his hair blowing back everytime I spoke. He is a sweetheart who writes beautiful songs. We were greeted by The Producer who took us to a room. I kind of thought that he would leave us alone for a while to work out some songs because trying to harmonize with someone you've never met before with somebody watching kind of feels like fucking in public but remembering that The Mothercorp was footing the bill, we miraculously overcame our prudishness and got down to business. They let me play The Steinway grand piano which felt very glamourous and then before we knew it they let in the studio audience and we were taping the show. Miss Jenny Whiteley had hopped a train so we could hang out and all the staff knew her because she had taped one last year with Stephen Fearing and some other nice people who had been at the Barrymore's show resurfaced.
I completely forgot how Tony's first song went because I became kind of stunned as they played the show's intro with our pre-taped voices over our own music. I was just sitting there open mouthed like a retard thinking 'Heheheh. Oh my God. I'm, like, IN the radio!"
We got through everything and they let us re-cut a couple of songs at the end. The question period felt kind of like a border crossing in that you find yourself answering questions that you've never asked yourself for the first time in front of people. The audience was very kind and they seemed to dig my new song "You're Not a Whore if No One's Paying!"
It was great to be invited into the inner sanctom, like it might pave the way for next time, because Ottawa won't do nothing unless the CBC tells it to, kind of like how some people won't read books that haven't been recommended by the Oprah Oracle.
Afterwards we checked into the Crowne Palace Hotel thinking all the while about the "Screw You Taxpayer!" Kids in the Hall sketch as The Ceeb was footing the bill. Tony came ove' with wine and pastry and Li'l Andy came by and me and Jenny got too drunk to play The Hootenanny Theme song to our ersatz dates after we bored them with rambling reminising of the fall tour. Tried out the complimentary earplugs and eyemask combo but turns out entering a vortex with no spatial reference or context doth give a bitch thee spins.
Some day I am going to be so good you won't even recognize me.
I guess this week's lesson is that you can either be a "Simone" or a "Tom" in this life and that Ottawa certainly doesn't bite if you have a team of experts working around the clock to make everying okay.
Thanks to my enablers: Tom Stewart, John Stewart, The John Henrys, William McClelland, Andrew McClelland, Colin Vincent, Amanda Putz, Caitlin Crockard, Bill Stunt, Jon Barlett, Tolan McNeil and Baby Honey.
*Li'l Andy's Shit-hook** rule:
Andy did a U-turn on Bank Street in front of three parked cop cars. I think I gasped or said Oh my god or something. He said "What? You're always allowed to do a U-turn unless it says not to."
Can this be true? If you were to follow that logic then people could get the idea that they'd be allowed to do ANYTHING unless a sign was posted telling them they couldn't! Hmm.
**(Wow. it's a footnote to a footnote!) For those of you that don't know, "shit-hook" is Albertan for U-turn. Or, in some circles, you can simply refer to it as "flippin' the bitch".