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Chapter 1

Page history last edited by Alan Hovden 11 years, 5 months ago

Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

 

The Burner Boys were formed September 1st, 1970 - the same day I got out of Federal Prison on appeal bail for importing hashish with the intent to traffic. It was a fluky bust that got me a two year sentence. One of my friends had gone insane from a combination of schizophrenia and LSD so we tried to keep drugs of any kind away from him. I agreed to hide our collection of hashish where I was living with my parents. That same week another friend named John McIsaac phoned from London asking me to join him there. He would pay all expenses. I turned him down flat. I hated Europe. I’d just spent a ghastly stretch there with Ross, my now insane friend, and never wanted to go back.

 

By co-incidence, the next day Interpol raided the London house from which McIsaac had phoned and found quarts of LSD hidden under the beds. They traced his phone calls and when they found one going to Vancouver on Canada’s West Coast – my parent’s place – they erroneously believed they had hit the mother lode of acid suppliers. Thus, on a beautiful spring morning in 1970 a Federal drug squad stormed in. They were led by Abe Snidanko, Canada’s most feared narc, so notorious his character was later recreated on Cheech and Chong albums. He was also played by actor Stacey Keach in the movie Up In Smoke. They were hunting for LSD but they instead found the hash, and letters I was writing bragging about my success in selling it. That was good enough for them.

 

Months later at my trial, when judge Mahon, a evil old alcoholic, read my letters bragging about selling hashish he loathed me. He hated me so much I honestly believe he would have had me choked me with his bare hands right there in the courtroom if he thought he could get away with it. At the end my lawyer made a last ditch motion to re-open the trial to introduce new evidence.

 

“No, I’ve heard enough,” Judge Mahon snapped back. He whacked down the gavel. “Guilty. I sentence you to the maximum. Two years less a day.”

 

There was a gasp from the audience. My mother burst into tears.

 

The judge fixed me with his cold blue bloodshot eyes. “People who think like you should be off the streets for a while.” He hated me so much it blinded him to the law. He'd violated the Canadian Bill of Rights in sentencing me so now, today, September 1st, I was out on bail pending an appeal.

 

The prospect of returning to penitentiary for two years now hung over me like an anvil. The band wouldn’t wait for me to do two years, and there was no way I would get off this charge on appeal. The jail time I’d already done was ugly enough. My first move on entering prison had been to refuse the prison hair cut – mandatory in 1970. This landed me in the warden’s office.

 

“What’s the problem with the haircut?” he asked. I was aware that in his eyes I was just one more convicted drug peddling troublemaker. I had to let him know that drug peddling was just a sideline and my future lay in the performing arts.

 

“I’m only going to be here for a week or so. I’m getting out on appeal bail.”

 

He rolled his eyes. He’d heard this before. “You’re here now so you get the cut.”

 

“You don’t understand,” I pleaded. “I’m in a band. My hair is part of my uniform. I need it so I can work.”

 

“You should have thought about that before you started selling drugs.”

 

“But I didn’t know I was going to be in a band when I started selling drugs,” I replied, too dumb to protest my innocence. “Long hair is part of my rehabilitation.”

 

That he hadn’t heard before. “I’ll think about it.”

 

It didn’t take him long. A few days later I was humped down to a single old fashioned barber chair, fixed, isolated and dead center on the vast ground floor of a cell block. Five tiers of cells towered up to the left, five stories of barred windows to the right. An impeccable little con in a superbly coiffed grease ball waterfall glided up beside me.

 

“This is bullshit,” I told him.

 

“I know,” he replied smoothly, combing out my shoulder length hair.

 

“I’m getting out in a few days.”

 

“I know, I know,” he soothed, still combing. He raised the scissors and started snipping.

 

“This is wrong!” I shouted. “I’m getting out! THIS IS BULLSHIT! THE WARDEN IS A DICKHEAD AND I HATE THIS FUCKING PLACE!”

 

In the huge hollow cellblock my shouts and screams amplified and echoed up to the ceiling five stories above. There was a huge cheer. I looked up to see five tiers of cons leaning over the rail and watching, whistling and shouting encouragement to the barber. My future may have been in the performing arts but right now I was the entertainment.

 

I responded in kind. “FUCK YOU TOO! YOU BUNCH OF BASTARD JAILBIRD LOSERS!”

 

My echoes boomed up with even louder noise. The prison population yelled back, "FUCK YOU, HIPPIE!"

 

I shouted back, giving them more. It turned into a deafening pandemonium. In the midst of the uproar the little con barber leaned close, whispered in my ear like some soft spoken therapist and crooned, “Let it out, man. Let it all out.”

 

Afterward, with a grunt haircut, I figured I hadn’t been too smart, insulting all the prisoners of East Wing B, one of the worst cell blocks. It was crawling with junkies, hoods, wandering queers and a huge population of exiled, duck tailed grease balls. As I hid in my cell I had time to think. Up until about the 1967 Summer of Love grease balls had been rife and a feared part of the culture. They were mainly grubby hoods with motorcycle boots, greased back hair, dirty leather or denim jackets and an anger management problem for whom The Fonz from Happy Days was the archtype, although real greaseballs were nearly never so well dressed. They had roamed like terrible lizards at the top of the food chain, beating up hippies and each other. Then – almost in the blink of an eye – they vanished from the landscape. It was as if they had been extinguished by a comet, like the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs from the face of the earth. For some time I’d been wondering what had happened to them. Now I knew. They were all here. In jail. But they didn’t seem unhappy. Far from it. Prison was a hard core happy hunting ground for grease balls who couldn’t adapt to the quick changing environment of the early 1970’s. Sitting on my prison bunk it hit me like a revelation. It was like discovering Conan Doyle’s Lost World.

 

I knew if I brought back songs from prison it would impress the newly forming band and mitigate against the possibility of my returning to jail. Paradoxically prison proved to be an excellent place to concentrate. Hiding in my cell, with grease balls roving up and down the corridor like velociraptors I got some prison stationary and wrote a Country and Western lament:

 

************************

 

Greaseball Heaven

 

They say I’m going to Grease ball Heaven

Up in that Wildroot Cream Oil sky

Up there, short hair in Grease ball Heaven

Oh Lord, I don’t deserve to die.

 

I’ll play softball till past eleven

I’ll work on broken cars and dreams

And fight each night in Grease ball Heaven

I’ve got a hole here in my jeans

 

This hanging around the clouds is new to me

Gee its just like 1953

 

Hello tattoo, goodbye marijuana

Goodbye brother, hello fear

If you see me in Grease ball Heaven

Shut your mouth, boy, and drink your beer.

 

And if I seem a trifle indisposed

It’s just the grease ball that’s inside me trying to stretch his toes

 

They say I’m going to Grease ball Heaven.

I can’t imagine nothing worse.

If you see me in Grease ball Heaven

Make sure that I don’t see you first.

 

*******************

 

That same day I got out of prison I met Al Hovden, my co-writer, at a touch football game between the Upper Lonsdale Iron Lungs and the Capilano Good Timers. Al and I had already been perfecting our skill as songwriters for five years and performing. It was now time to take it to the next level – create a band that would perform only original songs reflecting the lives and times of them and their audience.

 

Admission to the football game was a case of beer. In return a pound of weed was openly provided on the sidelines, expenses shared by both teams. Today this brazen flouting of the law would be unthinkable, but in 1970 police were behind the curve and there was defiance in the air. I stood alienated in a post-prison funk next to Al watching the game, feeling the wet grass seep into my boots. His long straight Norwegian blond hair was in contrast to my stark jailhouse butt head. I was expecting to be told the band was dead, or at the very least I was no longer a member due to my prison absence and future liability.

 

“I found a drummer,” he said.

 

“Yes!” I punched the air.

 

We’d been struggling for months, practicing but with no drummer and me in jail it was hopeless. Frankly I believed we were so bad that any good drummer would sneer at us.

 

“Who?”

 

“Tim Francis. I was walking down Robson Street and I saw a big hand painted bass drum coming toward me. I thumped on the drum and he looked over top. I asked him if he wanted to join a band? He said sure.”

 

“Then let’s do these,” I pulled out my prison songs.

 

Al eyed them. He was a very cool guy to work with and in the last five years of writing songs with him I’d learned a trick. Take a set of lyrics. Stick them under his nose. Then take them back and say you’re still working on them. Then give them back and say you’ve got another copy. Then leave. That means he has been programmed. To this day his mind works like some problem solving diagnostic music computer on the job 24/7. He cannot resist solving a problem, be it fixing a toilet, a car, or putting a melody to a set of lyrics. His mind works all night, in the darkest hours, even while he sleeps. In about 24 hours he comes back with the music and it’s driving, hooky, spare, clean, filled with great riffs and highly commercial.

 

 

 

Al and Dave had been writing songs since they met at Sutherland Junior High in North Vancouver 5 years earlier

 

Of course by now I had learned to write lyrics so they were set up that way. It was like putting a still damp sheet of lyrics into a clothes dryer, switching it on, leaving and then coming and opening the door to hear great music coming out. Magic.

 

That was going to be the underlying power of the Burner Boys. Original commercial AM music that sounded like it had come off the top of the Top 40 but that you’d never heard before – and wanted to hear again. After five years of writing together we were confident in our ability to pull this off. We had real creative strength for both words and music. There were plenty of bands with talented musicians out there now playing the club and hotel circuits but they simply covered whatever songs that dominated AM radio at the moment. People heard them and almost by rote got up and danced like robots. Occasionally bands would play something they’d written on their own. Compared to the rigorous writing discipline Al and I had put ourselves through for the past five years these attempts were appalling. The audiences showed it by sitting down. Fast.

 

It proved the adage that, with some exceptions, a great musician seldom makes a great song writer, and a great songwriter is rarely a great musician. Randy Newman is a good example. He admits he couldn’t get a job playing piano in a lounge but for 30 years has been one of the most popular and respected songwriters in America. It is a problem that plagues many bands to this day. A tight club band full of excellent musicians will play the circuit covering songs and eventually get noticed by a record label. It is only when they sign the record deal that they come to understand that the royalty structure pays much more money to a musician writing a song than to a musician merely performing a song for recording. The inevitable result is that everyone in the band tries to cross over into becoming a songwriter overnight. They are entirely different disciplines, probably originating from opposite sides of the brain. The result is that many bands filled with talented musicians put out crappy songs. It also explains why it is hard for professional songwriters to place songs with a recording band. The band members are worried about losing potential royalties as writers. They fail to understand that if they cherry picked the material from freely available songwriters they would get far better music, please their fans more and end up with more royalties as performers than if they had written them.

 

We would be the opposite. We believed that if we knew how to write songs that were just as good or better than what people got on AM radio then they would keep coming back to hear us. Our big edge in highly creative songwriting craftsmanship would mask and outweigh our musical shortcomings. Or so the theory went.

 

 

Dave Jenneson chowing down on a toast breakfast at the Alberni Street house.

 

Al was good to know for another reason. He was on welfare. We envied him. In 1970 welfare carried much less of a stigma. In many circles it was viewed as a membership card in the counter culture. You didn’t fit into the square world. You rejected their values. Hence you were unemployable and chose to exist on welfare, brown rice and root vegetables.

 

At that time the Burner Boys operated under a crude communism. He who has shares. When Al picked up his check The Burner Boys appeared a few hours later. Rather than brown rice and root vegetables the band fully expected to be taken out to have beer and dinner bought for them. Al generously complied.

 

The drawback was that Al had read the Fritz Pearls’ hit book on Gestalt Therapy, In and Out of the Garbage Pail, and was an active practitioner. Gestalt therapy is supposed to be a technique that focuses on gaining an awareness of one’s emotions and behaviors in the present rather than in the past. Advocates are encouraged to become conscious of immediate needs, meet them, and let them recede into the background. The well-adjusted person is seen as someone who has a constant flow of needs and is able to satisfy those needs. After six beers in the bar on welfare day Al interpreted this quite literally. In an effort to become well adjusted he got in touch with satisfying his immediate needs immediately. With bland innocence he’d reach out, grab a passing woman and sit her on his knee. Worse, sometimes he’d sit on her knee, honestly believing he was practicing Gestalt Therapy instead of being a masher. These Gestalt assaults got the Burner Boys run out of a lot of bars.

 

But now we had a drummer. Tim Francis was also a painter, and too well dressed to be a hippy. He had jazz roots and was very well connected. He lived with Dawn Jepson, the local speed dealer, so he had good focus. In 1970 there was no brutal methamphetamine – just hundreds of kinder, gentler pink heart-shaped pills.

 

We moved into an old house on Vancouver’s Alberni Street and immediately scheduled daily practice in the basement. This changed things. The place was a drug mall. People shared the kitchen and bathroom and had their own rooms. From each room you could buy a different drug. The regular hash and marijuana for a conventional buzz, LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and peyote for hallucinogens, drugs that briefly flared into fashion like Peace, (horse tranquilizers), even the occasional hit of opium. But it wasn’t the drugs that altered the fate of The Burner Boys. It was the foot traffic the house got. Hundreds of people came through every week to score, and when they heard a band in the basement they stayed, got loaded and listened.

 

 

We moved into an old house on Vancouver’s Alberni Street...

 

One of these people was a fisherman and drug dealer from the Sunshine Coast. Sneek Snider. With his sad sack face and ragged hair he came down to the basement, leaned his thin frame against the furnace and heard us play. Two nights later he returned. It was late. He summoned us upstairs to the living room. It was hard to find a seat because it was packed with rugby players who’d just bought two lids of weed. The air was thick with dope. They were stoned out of their cookies, drinking beer and listening over and over to Goin’ Up Country by Canned Heat.

 

Sneak tried to talk to us over the cranked up music but before he could make himself heard the curtains parted from the room opposite. Suzy Creamcheese stepped out. She lived here and was one of our new fans. She wore a baby doll nightgown and panties. With her long shapely legs and tremulous breasts she looked exactly like the cartoon bunny from Playboy Magazine. She was rumored to be a nymphomaniac. Someone switched off the music. Silence.

 

“I can’t sleep,” she rubbed her eyes and looked coyly at the dozen men in the room.

 

Everybody in the room got an erection. It was so quiet you could hear the hair squeak. She turned and vanished through the curtains into her room.

 

Finally Sneek was able to speak. “I got you guys a gig.”

 

Two or three rugby players got up and followed Suzy into her room.

 

“It’s at the Peninsula Drive In in Sechelt. In two weeks. Can you do it?”

 

“We’ve only been at it for two days,” Al said, ever practical.

 

The rugby players were ejected from Suzee’s room. Two more went in.

 

“Yeah we’ll do it.” I said.

 

The next two rugby players were ejected from Suzy’s room. Their leader screwed up his courage, rose from the couch and went in.

 

“Cool,” Sneak sucked his bad teeth. We shook hands.

 

The leader of the rugby players never did come back out.

 

For our part we went back downstairs to practice. We were now afraid. Working day and night for the next two weeks we put together a three act set. The hurriedly cobbled together song list included I’m Satisfied With My Gal, Mobile Line, Fishin’ Blues, and other electrified, rocked up versions of jug band songs that can only be called jug rock. Jug band songs started in Louisville and spread along the Mississippi River, were written and performed from the 1890’s to the Depression then largely forgotten. It is some of the most infectious music ever written. It embraced ragtime, the blues, a little bit of country, even jazz. With a stroke of what we considered to be genius we revived them. We were ahead of our time. Several years later the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band got rich doing this. Since it was unlikely anyone had ever heard them before the songs would sound brand new. These, along with our freshly written hooky pop rock and country, would capture the heart of our generation. Or at least it would be a start.

 

At this point we still needed a name. We sat around the big old fashioned furnace in the basement and discovered how hard it is to name a band.

 

“I still like Sweet Licks,” Tim insisted.

 

“No, lets go for something with balls,” said Al. “The Slime Devils.”

 

“I’ve got a name with balls,” I announced.. “Thirty-Six Inches.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Four guys in the band. Thirty six inches divided by four guys equals nine inches each. That’s pretty impressive. Real penoid powerhouses.”

 

“That’s ridiculous!” sneered Steve.

 

“Then you come up with something, smart guy.”

 

“The Burner Boys.”

 

“The Burner Boys?” I narrowed my gaze at him like a priest in a holy office catching a heretic. “Apropos of what?”

 

“There’s a bunch of little bastards who live in the lane behind my parents house and they’re always lighting fires in the alley. Everyone calls them The Burner Boys.”

 

I had to admit the name fit, but I didn’t want to give Steve the satisfaction of winning. “I guess we have to call ourselves something.”

 

Two weeks later we stood on the ferry to The Sunshine Coast. Pacing in the late afternoon September sunshine, we nervously stepped cigarettes out on the deck and wished we were somewhere else. The smug Burner Boy confidence began to evaporate before the real thing. After an hour of driving along a deserted two lane road we finally found the place in a small redneck town called Sechelt – The Peninsula Drive In & Motel Dine and Dance. These old fashioned roadhouses probably only exist in the most remote rural places in America now. The collection of low slung buildings offered everything from drive in fried chicken to live music. To us, with The Burner Boys clearly lettered out on the sign-o-graph, it was like Vegas.

 

There was a nervous clearing of throats as we faced our first audience. They were a collection of fisherman, loggers, native Indians and various grease balls who filled the tables with beer and eyed us, at the beginning, with equanimity. They were prepared to be entertained and it was up to us to screw it up. Amazingly we’d forgotten to decide who the front man would be. This is the person in the band who talks to the crowd. No one knew what to do. I stepped up.

 

“Hello, we’re the Burner Boys. I just got busted for dope so we’re going to play you a song we wrote about Abe Snidenko, the narc who busted me.”

 

 

We played The Abe Snidenko Blues. With a more intellectually inquisitive and better informed audience it might have been appreciated, but they just stared dumbly back at us. We launched into jug rock. Again, the same blank looks. The empty floor stared back at us. This was before I’d developed the as a front man of making men buy their girlfriends doubles, which seemed to open the way later on.

 

At the end of the third set there was some desultory dancing, but not enough to constitute any kind of success. Desperate to pull out a victory I called for the last song to be Greaseball Heaven, the song I had written in jail. It eventually became extremely popular, especially among the grease balls in our audiences. They took it as their own anthem. I felt this would connect with the Peninsula crowd and give their lives meaning on an allegorical plane. We played it. No one moved. The only response was a 250 pound Native Indian who got up and stood right in front of the stage. I was obliquely encouraged. I thought, if this guy is getting it there’s hope. He let us finish then moved closer to speak. I thought he was going confess how Greasball Heaven had resonated with him. Instead he walked up to our bass player, Steve Renshaw. He beckoned the nervous Steve toward the stage. He said something. Steve couldn’t hear. He bent closer.

 

“Play Slow Motion Walter," he slurred.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Play Slow Motion Walter,"

 

“We don’t know that song,” Steve said diplomatically.

 

“No. You know it. Go on and play it. PLAY IT, y’asshole.”

 

“But we don’t know it.”

 

“You know it. You know it. It goes ‘Slow Motion Walter’ he sang it to the tune of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, then a radio hit. Unfortunately we didn’t know Smoke on the Water either. Nor would we learn it. We still sneered at learning Top 40 songs. The high minded artistic merits of this policy were lost on our Native Indian friend, and on the crowd. Yet we were sure that if we kept hammering away audiences would come around to our way of thinking. They would, we felt, be better for it.

 

At least The Peninsula paid us. After our bar and motel bill the profits were approximately $43. Standing on the dock the next morning waiting for the ferry we were actually arm in arm, with $10 each in our pocket. We had survived without being driven from the stage. That was enough. We felt like kings.

 

Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 9:04 am on May 28, 2006

When Al met me on Robson Street I was carrying an antique marching band bass drum. It was to be the centre piece of the oddball drumkit that I had thrown together after my drums had been ripped off at a garage I had rented in the West End to practice at. The set consisted of the bass drum, rack mounted bongos for side toms and a cheap conga drum for a floor tom. Whoever ripped off my drums had ripped off my brand new stereo that I had just purchased on credit. Right after joining the burner boys it was clear that the thrown together set wasn't going to cut through the increased volume. I was lucky enough to get a set of old Ludwigs from a friend in need for $125.

Anonymous said

at 4:53 pm on May 28, 2006

I cannot seem to get through to Al H. on his posted e-mail address ????? can aanyone enlighten moi.
delliott@interchange.ubc ca

Anonymous said

at 4:45 pm on May 29, 2006

Martin - if you read this I had my email wrong. It's ahovden@telus.net

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