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Chapter 4 – Stars Among Us

Posted on: June 7th, 2018 by wrayadmin No Comments

First Brush With "Celebrity" - Kapuskasing 1980

We thought we were going to be stars. It gave us that kind of determined optimism that offered physical and emotional durability. We put up with the low pay, long road trips, terrible living conditions and the feeling of isolation because we knew we were destined for bigger things. Much bigger things. And we were always looking for that big break. We thought we'd found it on our return to Kapuskasing.

We were now playing Kap regularly, but exclusively at the Commercial Hotel. We always liked to check out the other acts in town and it was especially easy here as the main competition, the Radio Hotel, was right across the street. Often we'd see players we could learn from, or musicians we knew. It made our time on the road much more enjoyable.

We were building up a following so whenever we rolled into town, we usually had pretty good crowds. The boys would come in from the bush and we would serenade their evening of beers and brawls.

This one particular night, a guy came in who just didn't belong. He was too different to be a local. He had Gino Vannelli hair and chest with a fancy two-toned leather jacket draped over his shoulders. (40 below outside, but this guy`s dressed for spring.) He sauntered over to a table in the corner and started watching us. I`m afraid we weren`t delivering much of a show. The PA was howling. The tempos were all over the place. Didn`t seem to matter to this guy though. He became more and more enthusiastic the worse we played. We cut the set short when Mickey broke a string and got a standing ovation...from one guy.

I took off my bass and as I leaned over to turn on the juke box, our fan came over to us and RAVED. You guys are fantastic!...What are you doing in THIS hick town?... You should be in L.A... We laughed him off, but he was serious. He introduced himself as: Michael-Just-Michael. (I wasn't sure if he had one name or three.) He said he was a piano player originally from Toronto but relocated to Hartford, Connecticut to get away from L.A. music scene. And he just happened to let slip that he was Neil Young's keyboard player. We glanced at each other in shock. Apparently he didn't spot our collective thought bubble yelling Neil Young?! Michael-Just-Michael explained that he got stranded here by a snowstorm and it was so nice, he just decided to stay put until Neil's next tour. After hearing us play, he said we had to get one of our tapes to his friends in L.A. Better yet, he decided, I'll take you to L.A. myself and we'll do the recording there. I have a suite at the Charlotte Hotel on Sunset...

This was all we needed to hear. As we got up to do the next set, Laurie nodded to the bartender that Michael-Just Michael was drinking on Rainbow Wind's tab tonight. If he wanted to eat, get him whatever he wants. When we hit the first note, it was like a bomb went off. Any band gripes, girlfriend issues, miles and bad food - it all slipped away...and we rocked. We played better than we'd ever played. Whatever was going on, it was magical. Michael-Just-Michael got the place rockin' with him. It was an amazing night. After the show, we sat up in the band room until dawn drinking, smoking and listening to his tales of partying at the Playboy Mansion with Heff and how he once turned down a gig with Steely Dan. As we parted ways in the morning, Michael-Just-Michael gave us each a pair of tickets to his solo show in Toronto. (Turns out it's just the one name.)

The next day, we were torn. Half of us thought we'd found our meal ticket. The other half pointed out that he never pulled out his wallet all night. I decided to solve the question once and for all: I went to the mall. Before the internet, whenever you wanted to know who played on an album you didn't own, you had to go to a record store. I went to Sam The Record Man in the Kap Mall. I looked for his name on Neil Young's current release, "Rust Never Sleeps". Not there. In fact, Neil wasn't even using keyboards on that album. I checked Neil's other albums. No one-name-only-Michael. Then, I remembered his concert tickets. I slipped into Coles Book Store and checked their calendar section. When I worked out the date of the concert, it didn't add up. The concert was either past, several years in the future or it's simply a made up date - and a made-up ticket. I headed back to the hotel and passed on my findings to the guys...who were crestfallen. Our big break turned out to be a nickle and dime con-man schmoozing for free drinks. We decided that if Michael came in again, we'd give him the cold shoulder. Laurie told the bartender there's no more free ride for Michael.

Sure enough, half-way through the first set, in came Michael, coat over his shoulders, and slipped into a booth. After each song, he applauded. He whistled. We ignored him and carried on with the next song. No back and forth - which must have been strange for the guy who the night before was our newest best friend. He eventually left.

Later, in between sets, we went across the street to catch a few tunes by the country band at the Radio Hotel. Poking our heads into the smokey beer hall, the crowd was sparse. A four-piece country band was performing "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" and we knew we didn't have much to worry about. The song ended to polite applause - except for one guy whistling and yelling GREAT JOB! and Fantastic! Sitting at the front table was our boy Michael saying things like: You guys need to come to my ranch in Nashville! On Michael's table were several rounds of drinks. (No sign of a wallet.)

As we turned to leave, the band leader hushed the crowd so he could introduce Neil Young's keyboard player and thank him for the concert tickets...

Chapter 3 – Bad Bad Mr. B

Posted on: June 4th, 2018 by wrayadmin No Comments

It had been a miserable trip to Windsor. The van broke down just outside of Bracebridge so we had to rent a trailer and pull it behind my 1969 Chevy Bel Air. Unfortunately the fully loaded car and over loaded trailer made the 3 hour trip take 10 - with us at the side of the road overheating every few miles. Eventually we limped up in front of our destination - a nasty looking club in a nasty looking part of town. This was about as industrial an area as you could get without having to wear a hard hat. Abandoning the steaming car, we headed inside - only to discover the club owner was equally nasty. He wore a lot of rings and his hair was extremely wet. But, he was very insistent on one thing: Stay away from the guard dog, Mister B. We never saw any dog, but we agreed anyway and he gave us the keys. Rooms were on the second floor. No singles this time. It was Terry and Laurie in one room with Jeremy and I in the other. I stood at the window and drank in the view. It was pretty uninspiring - unless you`re a fan of belching smokestacks and lumpy water. Jeremy pulled a drummer magazine out of his coat, sat down on the bed and started to read. Laurie looked in the room and yelled disapprovingly: No time to admire the view boys - let`s go! He was right. We had a trailer and what was left of my car to unload. I took a shortcut down the fire escape. All the way down, I kept my eyes peeled for the dreaded Mister B but it was getting dark and I couldn`t see anything. I headed back to my car and grabbed my gear.

My luggage consisted of two Adidas gym bags and two guitar cases. I had a pretty good system. If I looped my arms through the gym bag handles, I could carry a guitar case in each hand and get everything to the hotel room in just one trip. On this night however, there were several variables that I didn`t factor in. One was the fire escape. While it was fine for one person at a time, if two people got on it (or one person with 2 gym bags and 2 guitars) it became dangerously unstable and would sway from the building. I however, was unaware of this fact and happily barrelled up the darkened fire escape, fully loaded, two steps at a time. Suddenly, out of the depths of hell came a growling, snarling devil beast with epic jaws snapping away just inches from my ankles. It scared the CRAP out of me! I jumped up a step but with all the weight, the fire escape shifted and I nearly fell over the side. It was close - and I didn`t know what had attacked me. All I saw was a huge black demon with very big, very white teeth. Gathering myself, and my stuff, I gingerly climbed the rest of the fire escape and noted to myself that I probably should have shown more respect to Mister B.

Mister B was a master of the ambush. You hardly ever saw him. He had the run of the fenced yard but he always stayed hidden. Waiting.

After our show ended at 1 AM, we went over to Detroit to jam with a band that we had met earlier that day called Iron Mountain Country. Great bunch of good ol`boys who showed us Canadian fellas a pretty good time. When we got back to our side of the river it was just before dawn. We were still buoyed by an evening of smokin' tunes and cheap American beer. Then came the final challenge: four giggling drunks, a wobbly fire escape and the lurking Mister B. As the boys wobbled up the steps, I waited at the bottom. Just as their heels got to the strike zone, he pounced. 200 pounds of oh-no-you-don`t came charging...snarling...barking...growling...snapping. I figured, enough was enough. Mister B and I were going to settle this thing once and for all. I marched up to the fence and met Mister B eye to eye, his paws thumped down on my shoulders. Spit bubbles erupted between his teeth with every rumbling growl. (He was a lot bigger up close...) `Gimme a hug`, I slurred. His tail started to swing. `Gimme a huuug...` Mister B melted into my arms and gave me the biggest, warmest, smelliest hug and slobber-wash I`d ever had. Those on the fire escape were dumbfounded, but from that point on, Mister B and I were pals. 

In hindsight, that is one of the dumber things I`ve ever done. Don`t do that to a strange dog ever. But, I`ve always had a way with critters. And I don`t think Mister B made many friends. We just connected I guess. Now, when I think of playing that nasty bar in that nasty part of Windsor, I can't help thinking about my great, big, scary, sweet old friend...Mister B.

Chapter 2

Posted on: June 3rd, 2018 by wrayadmin No Comments

The Radio Hotel, Kapuskasing. 1979

I was brand new to Rainbow Wind. (I was brand new to everything.) Luckily for me, being a good bassist was secondary. The guys knew I couldn’t play bass, but I was pretty good on guitar and could sing. Since I was willing to learn, I got the gig. It was on-the-job training. After I joined, the band was able to travel farther afield. Suddenly, the whole province became open to Rainbow Wind. And as much as the other guys tried to play the roles of the experienced “older brothers”, we were all just a bunch of big kids on the road for the first time. The oldest among us was 23.

We would do many northern tours, usually in the winter. I felt strangely giddy being squished into the van and pointing it north. This was no luxury travel. Terry drove. Laurie rode shotgun. Jeremy and I had a Traynor PA column with a folded sleeping bag for a seat. I lived in a tiny cubbyhole behind the driver's seat. That's where I would read, chat, sleep, and basically call "home" for the next 2 years. As we headed north, with each fill-up, the snow got deeper and the temperatures fell.

The Radio Hotel and the Commercial Hotel were enemies that sat across the street from each other. The Radio was our destination. It seemed a bit less run-down than the old Commercial but we would soon find out that the Commercial got the better crowds. However, the place your really wanted to play in The Kap was The Jack Pine Room – a huge bar where the “rock shows” took more time setting up their pyrotechnics than we took setting up our whole stage. Our “show” consisted mainly of the silliness Laurie provided in between songs. Laurie was a short, red-bearded fellow who women, to our unceasing amazement, found irresistible.  

The Radio Hotel was a small, but bustling family-run business. We quickly got to know the family members because we’d see them every day. The daughter cleaned the hotel rooms. The mother worked the day shift in the bar. Dad kept his patrons in line after it got dark. (You’d have to be pretty big, or extremely stupid, to want to tangle with dad.) There was also a teenage son named Kevin who was a wonderful kid. We met him on Monday and he helped us haul in our gear. Kevin was always friendly and helpful. A budding guitar player, he wanted to know all about Laurie’s effects pedals...What each pedal did, why Laurie used this brand and not some other. But, almost immediately, dad would bark out an order for Kevin and he'd have to run off. On one occasion, the old man handed him a shovel and told him to go clear the hotel parking lot. I thought he must be kidding – there was a three-foot blanket of fresh snow and their parking lot was vast. But, he was deadly serious. Kevin did what he was told and shoveled out the parking lot, by hand, until long after dark.

One winter night, coming back from our post-gig 2 a.m. breakfast at John’s Grill (I had French toast with bacon), we noticed a ladder leaning up against the hotel with someone at the top, trying to pry open a second floor window. Suspecting foul play, we surrounded the ladder and made him come down and identify himself. It was Kevin. He explained that his folks had taken away his key and on this particular night, he’d missed his curfew and had no way to get in...until we came along. We shook our heads and agreed the kid had it pretty rough, but headed upstairs to have our usual nightcap before turning in.

The men’s room of the Radio Hotel was located directly under the stairs to the second floor hotel rooms. The reason I mention it is because that's where I was when a huge commotion erupted on the stairs just over my head. It sounded like a battalion in a full-out charge going upstairs. I thought it might be a raid as we’d seen that before in Belleville and Windsor. I stuck my head out and looked up the stairwell. Police and paramedics were milling around outside our rooms. I alerted Laurie who, after a brief word with an officer, came back with shattering news: Kevin shot himself. He's dead.

I was dumbfounded. I couldn't piece anything together. None of this made sense. The bar was immediately closed for the night and after answering a few questions from the police, we were left in the deserted hotel. I went up to my room, sat down on the bed and looked out at the closed door across the hall. The silence was deafening. Here we were, four kids on the road for the first time in a late-70s free-for-all. What had just happened in that room brought our whirling little party to a jarring halt. Tough internal questions began. Why didn’t I do something? Was there somehow I could have prevented it? I still don't know.

We never went back to The Radio Hotel. We accepted an offer to play at The Commercial instead and The Radio eventually burned down. Today, Kevin would probably be a grandfather. So much has happened in the world since the late seventies but he missed out on all of it. He ended his life before it really began. That was too heavy to process at 20 so I put that life-changing event in a box and didn't open it again for decades. But, whenever life throws me a nasty curve and I wonder how I'm ever going to get through it, I remember Kevin...and keep going.

Kevin (in his room across from mine)

 

Chapter One.

Posted on: May 30th, 2018 by wrayadmin No Comments

I lived in cottage country, Ontario. "No traffic light" kind of place. From the day I turned 18, old enough to get into hotels, (June 26, 1976 - and not a moment sooner...so kid, stay in school) I would do the circuit every Monday night to check out the bands. In Haliburton, there was the Beaconbrook Hotel - with its tables adorned in red terrycloth condoms - festooned with cigarette burns. Through the week, you could catch duos or single acts. On the weekend, it was full bands. Usually country. Out on the highway, there was the Paradise, where you could play shuffleboard on the back deck overlooking Paradise Lake. By far, The 'Dise was the more picturesque as the name would suggest, but it had a decidedly rougher clientele. More of a rock bar, I once saw a 7-pc band from Madoc do the entire album: Dark Side of the Moon. Later that night, I saw a hammer settle an argument. In Minden, you had the Rockliffe Hotel which was famous for its ubiquitous t-shirts and long weekend lineups. Cottagers and resort staff flocked to it. The Rock had the best bands. They were loud, had lots of sound equipment, cables...and lights. It was a longer drive with a much greater chance of being pulled over by John Law so we preferred to stay in town. But, wherever the good band was, that's where I'd be.

One of the regular bands I particularly liked was called "Rainbow Wind". They did an odd mix of country & rock. Plus, they were a good bunch of guys who'd let me sit in and jam. I say "I", but often it was "we". Mike and Tom were two regular cruising pals. They came from different social circles so I got exposed to several universes. Different social circles meant different parties and different stacks of records for me to pore through. I was the turntable nerd. The guy who could change records in almost complete darkness and never nick a groove. It gave me the chance to sample these ever changing stacks of albums. Doobie Brothers. David Bowie. Bay City Rollers - who I never really cared for but could appreciate the marketing.

My parents always said not to get into music until I had something to fall back on. So in the summer of 1978, when I had graduated as an Audio Visual Technician from college in Peterborough, I was free. With my little scroll stuffed in a tube, I went off to Bracebridge to see my buddies in "Rainbow Wind". Terry, Steve, Jeremy and Laurie - or Mick as he was more commonly known, had become good friends. They could play traditional country or heavy blues-based rock so they could play anywhere. Whenever they played the local taverns throughout the Highlands of Haliburton and Muskoka, I'd be there. On Friday nights, I'd show up with my Strat and sit in for a tune or two. Usually, we'd just jam the blues in E. Laurie, a Tele player, always longed for a Strat and would use mine for as long as I'd let him play it. At closing time, we'd go up to the band rooms and jam until the sun came up.

Rainbow Wind had a rotating bass chair. Sometimes it was Mike, sometimes it was Steve. Both had other bands on the side. But when Steve announced that he was moving on to spend more time with his bluegrass band, I sensed an opportunity. I desperately wanted to be a touring musician...and they needed a bass player. Hey - what if I learn to play bass? I convinced Terry to float my name as Rainbow Wind's new bass player - never mind the fact that I had never even held a bass before. However, Laurie and Terry generously gave me an audition. We sat around the music store in Haliburton and jammed a few tunes. I somehow managed to achieve a thumping sound out of the old bass they had kicking around. To be honest, I was terrible...but luckily, I was also funny. So, I got the job - not from my playing. It was for my "entertainment value". (I didn't care. I was in!) After a few days of casual bass lessons from Laurie, we were off to North Bay on Sunday for a two-week gig. At the tender age of 20, I was on my first tour.

After a couple of hours on the highway, we pulled up to the Belmont Hotel - a once-glorious art deco building, now having seen better days. Entering the grand, terrazoed lobby, it was as if time had stopped back in the late 40s. The front deck was both sleek and imposing. A wall of identical diamond-shaped key tags hung in perfect symmetry. As we dropped our suitcases and drank it all in, it was deserted. Personally, I was leaping inside! I was impressed by the lobby, the old leather chairs, even the cigarette machine that still sold matches for a penny. The sign on the desk says: Please Ring Bell. Never one to be shy, Laurie slams his thick palm down on the bell. The eruption of tone pierced the stillness like a machete. ... Nothing. He was just about to ring it again when we heard the shuffling. Distant at first, these were slow feet in slippers coming our way. Slowly. Still coming...must be a thousand years old. Around the corner came a sad, stooped fellow, maybe in his mid-30s. He carried a wiener dog.

"This is Fritz", he apologized softly. "I'm Glen. You get two rooms." This would be the first of many situations where I was glad Laurie was the leader: "Oh shoot, Glen - didn't our agent Francine call you...? We need 4 rooms - it's in the contract." "F-F-F-OUR rooms?", Glen stuttered. Rather than checking, Glen exhaustedly pulled 4 keys down from the board and handed them to Laurie. We signed the guest book and headed up the sweeping stairway to what was surly going to be four lavish suites with all the modern luxuries...

As was tradition, Laurie inspected the rooms first and decided who got what. None of the rooms was what you'd call luxurious. Each room had a twin bed, a dresser, a sink and towel rack - with one towel. While sparse, it was clean. Terry and Laurie got adjoining rooms. Jeremy disappeared, as I would come to expect. By this time, it was late on Sunday night so there was little discussion. I was given the smallest room and, closing the door behind me, I dropped my suitcase (and borrowed bass) on the floor and plopped down on the bed. The sudden silence consumed me. I had done it! I was on tour with a rock band. Okay, so there was some country and bluegrass music...but at this very moment, I had arrived! I gazed out the window into the empty streets of North Bay. Giant flakes of snow drifted lazily into the beam of street light outside my window. What a beautiful scene. How perfect, I thought. Here I was, on my own...finally an adult. No parents to answer to. I hadn't played a note, and yet, I was a professional TOURING musician. As I sat there admiring myself, I realized the future was in my hands. This was it! What amazing, crazy, wonderful times lay ahead of me? I couldn't imagine. It was beyond exciting.

I had never felt so alone. I sobbed.

Hello world!

Posted on: January 24th, 2014 by wrayadmin 1 Comment

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