My son Ben, who is now pushing 50, has been in the business of popular music all his life. Whenever he comes to town, as he did recently, he meets some of the boys he began playing with in the 1970s, many now rather paunchy, bearded, or slightly careworn middle-aged men, and he is happily transported back into the days when they were young.
Most of them have given up music as a means of making a living --- it is just too hard --- and have become warehousemen, teachers, insurance salesmen or whatever, although their interest in music, and their memories of the heady days when they hoped they could build their lives around it, remain strong within them.
In those days I had a minor role as what might be called a supporting player, putting out from time to time for the gas for the bus --- or even sometimes for the bus itself --- and turning up whenever the son played. Thus for a few years my wife and I in our role of supportive parents became kind of fixtures around most of the bars and clubs that provided live music, many of which have now disappeared, or been renamed.
Many of Ben’s colleagues in these struggling young bands were very talented musicians, and occasionally, even to this day, one can run into them, still playing their hearts out, in the local bars. Going along with Ben to Irene’s, on Bank street a week or so ago, with his brother Thom, now writing movies in Montreal, and his friend Olivia from Los Angeles, an extraordinarily talented graphic and visual artist, we ran into a couple of Ben’s old musical buddies, Ken Kanwisher and Kurt Walters, and the mention of other of their colleagues from those days immediately precipitated a flood of reminiscence and laughter.
Particularly, a fantasy embarked on years ago by Kurt came to mind. He invented an alter ego whom he called Flem Mucus, a specialist in the composition of salacious, hilarious ditties that are scarcely fit to be repeated in polite company. Kurt may have been their composer, but in Ben he had probably their number one fan, and when Kurt started to talk some of the rhymes with their simple tunes, Ben was, without a moment’s hesitation, able to join him and go through the tunes, word perfect. What is more --- and this proves that Flem Mucus still lives --- he took out his recently-acquired lPhone and with a flick of a button brought up an immaculate song-list of Flem Mucus’s greatest compositions.
“You know,” said Kurt, as the hilarity subsided, “I have put out something like twenty discs over the years, and the only one there is any memory of and demand for, is the disc of Flem Mucus.” He exploded in laughter as Ben kept on chanting the ditties.
I’ve forgotten the names of a few of the bands Ben played in. They began, I think, with one called the Blue Current Preserve, an orthodox swing band, which eventually disintegrated in the course of time. It was followed by a five-piece epic called Traffic Jam, whose main singer was a boy called Brady Bidner, the mention of whom at Irene’s provoked a veritable storm of reminiscence. Then came Saints and Sinners, with an Italian boy called Tony DeTeodoro, now better known around Ottawa as the blues musician Tony D, and with a talented harmonica player who called himself --- and was called by everyone else --- Tortoise Blue. (During this period Tony’s father, Dante was usually there, just as we were). In those days the boys seemed to be playing every week in a cherished bar on Somerset street called the Saucy Noodle, now, alas pulled down to make way for a parking lot or some such.
Saints and Sinners was a popular blues band, but Ben was discontented to be always playing blues, and with our encouragement, he went off to Toronto to join a couple of other Ottawa boys, Jerome Godbout and Joe Toole, in a band called The Phantoms.
This was, I think, the closest Ben ever came to that dream of all rock musicians --- making it big --- because The Phantoms became Toronto’s most popular bar band, always just a touch away from getting the big deal. In fact, they were offered a deal once, the usual sort of slavery deal that is offered to new bands, but they turned it down with contumely, and thereafter having proved to the industry that they had minds of their own --- a grave fault in the popular music business --- they never got another offer. Which, I have always felt was a shame, because Jerome Godbout had the capacity to become a major star.
Ben’s next move was to Austin, Texas, with Gordie Johnson, who was already a rock star within Canada with his leadership of the band called Big Sugar. As Ben had done earlier, Gordie felt he had outgrown the Big Sugar music, and once he and Ben had tasted the delights of the Austin music scene, they decided to form their own band down there under the name of Grady, which came from Gordie’s nickname. They have been hoeing a tough furrow in the American music industry for the last three years, even though yheir band has reached a high level of accomplishment as one of the loudest and most rocking bands in the business.
Their task has become infinitely more difficult with the huge changes that have overcome the popular music business, as the internet has replaced record-buying as the most usual way for people to get their music. But along the way Ben has acquired other skills besides those of an expert bass guitarist. He is a master of front-of-house sound, and is in demand from other bands to do that, and he has also become a well-organized tour manager with a sure touch in the precarious business of organizing and carrying out gigs and getting paid for them.
Anyway, this is where music has taken Ben, and I am sure he has no regrets. But it always amazes me to discover how lively in his imagination are the steps that have led him to where he now is. A few months ago I accompanied him to a reunion of the Rotter’s Club, which had a brief existence on Bank street as the first punk rock club in Canada where aspiring musicians could stand up and strut their stuff.
The Action was one of the first punk bands and was led by Ted Axe and the three Fenton Brothers. Ted Axe turned up for the reunion, and performed impressively with the Fenton Brothers, still on the job after all these years.
That night was a veritable orgy of reminiscence as people I had never heard of before came up and renewed acquaintance with Ben to talk about the old days.
It may be a tough way to make a living, but it is one that seems to hold out the possibility of glory so long as it is pursued.
In summary, I would say of it, as I have said about journalism, making films, and other cultural activities, it is better than working in a factory. Or even, one might say, better than working.