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Chapter 2

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 9 months ago

Chapter 2

 

Al Hovden on Sneak Snyder's porch in Powell River, B.C. - 1970

 

The day after we returned from the Peninsula, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. The FLQ, a Quebec separatist terrorist organization kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Vice-Premier Pierre La Porte. The FLQ had been active since 1963 and financed their activities mainly through bank robberies. Cross was found murdered in the trunk of a car and the PM flipped out. This state of martial law instantly suspended civil rights right across the country. Any hippy anywhere could be arrested, beaten and thrown in jail without being charged. I looked over my shoulder walking down the street to breakfast.

 

We hid out in the basement of Alberni Street with bigger fish to fry. We had to get better – fast. All ears and senses became focused on musicianship - the performance of the songs instead of just the ability to write them. This put me in deep water. I was by any measure the worst musician. Officially I played rhythm guitar. Despite doggedly practicing in my room for hours, the secret of the guitar’s fret board refused to yield itself. All I could do was bang out loud, off-rhythm chords on my chunky Hagstrom guitar.

 

In the meantime word spread of the Burner Boys ahead of our ability to play. Our next gig was gratis, at a house party in Deep Cove, an isolated and wealthy suburb of North Vancouver. It was a big, three-story house overlooking Vancouver’s Indian Arm. The house was so packed we had to fight our way in to set up. I was unsure as to what was going on. Then I met the host. It was some dumb rich kid whose parents were out of town. The house was being torn to pieces. I was only 22, but compared to this kid I felt like a responsible adult for the first time in my life. We watched, incredulous, as he blandly let it go on. As we finished our second set someone walked out of the upstairs bathroom with the sink and threw it down on to the first floor. It was a suburban disaster that you still read about: Teen’s Parent’s House Wrecked In Live Band Concert. We passed our equipment out through a basement window and fled the place.

 

Clearly we had to find better venues. Sneek Snider said he was busy smuggling Maui Wowie so had no gigs for us. Maui Wowie was skunk weed imported from Hawaii. It had a spicy scent, a smooth herbal taste and was widely preferred in 1970 for a very pleasant high that was not overpowering.

 

In the meantime we practiced even harder so that we would achieve a tightness of play. A band can play tight only after rehearsing and performing songs hundreds of times, until the execution of the music becomes second nature and they forget about it. Then they can lay back and find the groove. Achieving this state of musical grace can take years. We didn’t know this. We expected to get there in a few more weeks then audition for another booking agent. Al drove us as a merciless music director. We worked four hours a day in the basement but still sounded noisy and sloppy. It made no sense. There should have been at least marginal improvement. The truth was that Al, Tim and Steve were getting better daily – widening the gulf with me and my talent-less rhythm guitar. I practiced harder on my own but I might as well have been licking a turnip for all the good it did. I began to dread going to practice. Perversely, while my playing remained miserable my musical ear sharply improved. Now I could hear how bad I was and so could everyone else. I said nothing, but there was a growing tension.

 

Finally I couldn’t take it any more. I needed help. Guitar lessons were the obvious answer but Al’s welfare check wouldn’t pay for them, and even raising the subject with the band would be an admission of failure. So I turned to the one tool I could afford – drugs - and in the Alberni Street house I got them for free.

 

In retrospect you’d think I would have made an intelligent choice and gotten a stimulant; something to enhance the action in my synapses and increase my guitar power. Synapses occupy the space between the brain’s neurons, or nerve cells and allow them to exchange signals, or neurotransmitters. A stimulant like amphetamine increases the ability of the synapses to carry neurotransmitters, thus making you briefly smarter, and so I theorized, better able to play guitar.

 

Instead I opted for peyote. Peyote is the fruit of Lophophora williamsii, a spineless cactus growing in Southwestern Texas and Mexico, used by native people for thousands of years. It is the big brother and natural source of mescaline, a hallucinogenic that became popular in 1970 as a less edgy alternative to LSD. Peyote is said to cause visions, changes in perception, time sense and mood. There are no ill effects and it is not habit forming. The state of Texas made peyote legal in 1970 for Native Americans, but otherwise it remains a controlled substance in all 50 states and in Canada. There is no evidence of its effect on synapses, or guitar playing.

 

Nevertheless I had read about peyote and convinced myself it would increase my intelligence and thus my mastery of the fingerboard in a more spiritual, holistic way. Waiting nervously for band practice I sat in the Alberni Street kitchen and was passed three peyote buttons. They looked like hard round dog biscuits. Each button, about an inch across, had a slight depression in the middle where white fuzz grew. I was advised to scrape off the fuzz because it made you ill. Someone handed me a butter knife to with which to do this. I can tell you right now that a butter knife is the wrong tool. I scraped and scraped, then became impatient and chewed down the bitter buttons like dog biscuits. Then I waited for band practice. I wondered if I should go and work on my guitar but I thought no, let the drug take hold and the way will become clear. Fifteen minutes later I felt queasy. In twenty minutes I felt like there was a live muskrat swimming in my stomach.

 

One of the long-haired hippie women who had brought the peyote up from California watched.

 

“I feel awful,” I moaned.

 

“Go upstairs and make yourself be sick,” she said brightly.

 

“I can’t make myself be sick. I don’t know how. I’ve never done it. It doesn’t run in my family.” This was later confirmed by my Uncle Otto who said no one in our family ever threw up, nor knew how to do it properly. He cited himself as an example. He’d recently had an operation where the recovery involved being ill regularly. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I tried and tried but I’d be shooting carrots out of my nose for days afterwards.”

 

A few minutes later I was in a cold sweat and felt ghastly. “Help me,” I begged.

 

“I’ve got just the thing for you,” she said, as if she were June Cleaver and I was The Beaver having eaten too many cookies. She got a beer mug and filled it with lukewarm water. Then she stirred in three big tablespoons of mustard. Then she dumped in a liberal dose of salt and stirred it. “Go upstairs and drink this. You’ll feel better.”

 

I climbed the stairs miserably, knelt down in the tiny narrow washroom and took a large swallow. It caught in my throat. My eyes bulged. It bounced back out with the force of a fire hydrant without ever reaching my stomach. Trying again I gagged. Out it shot with a loud splash. I staggered back downstairs having failed to be sick, feeling ten times worse from the mustard dose. White and sweating I sat at the kitchen table waiting for practice to start. At this point I felt vaguely as if I might have made a mistake. The nausea was just beginning to subside when the band showed up.

 

I said nothing about the peyote. We started to practice. As the drug took hold I began to experience not the anticipated peaceful intelligent mastery of the guitar, but instead a sharply heightened perception of how bad I sounded. Nervously I tried harder but the harder I tried, the worse it sounded. I became terrified of making mistakes so made nothing but mistakes. Over the next half hour my ability to play diminished rapidly. I became convinced I was going to get kicked out of the band for my appalling playing. In their position I would have kicked me out. It was only a matter of time. Perhaps minutes. I felt like one of the Jews in Schindler’s List who could be shot at any moment. The peyote got stronger. The pressure became terrific. I felt like my head was going to explode. Finally I reached the point where I could not play at all. I stepped forward. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I felt like I was going to be executed on the spot.

 

“I’m sorry but I can’t play anymore,” I stammered.

 

Then I fainted.

 

There was a huge BOOM! as my body launched backwards into the furnace pipes. At 6' 2" and over 200 pounds I made a hell of an impact, and it echoed to the rafters like a thunderclap. The peyote people ran downstairs in time to see Al bent over my unconscious body. He was trying to remove my guitar but the ground switch on my amp was turned off, so every time he touched me or the guitar there was a crackle and he got a jolt. It was like the peyote had turned me radioactive. Perhaps it had.

 

After a few minutes I came to. I felt strangely at peace, like I’d passed through some terrible barrier and come back a better person.

 

“I’m sorry,” I confessed. “I took peyote to help me play guitar better but I can’t play at all now. “

 

“That’s all right,” said Tim. “We were going to take it away from you anyway. We want you to be our lead singer and front man.”

 

I didn’t know how to take the news, but it very quickly dawned on me that anything was better than playing guitar. With this burden lifted, the peyote now made everything seem warm and loving. I went upstairs feeling relief and freedom, and joined the other people who had taken peyote. The drug was so powerful that at dusk it drove us to Lynn Canyon Park where I spent eight magical hours. In the dark and with the river's mist everything seemed peacefully enchanted and looked like a Chinese watercolor. After the horror of the basement it was like being on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise ship drug holiday. Curiously the peyote rendered everyone impervious to the cold and damp. Although it was October and dark, cold and misty, everyone took off their clothes and wandered around until the wee hours. Suzy Creamcheese was with us and took off all her clothes too. It was like having a tanned, blond voluptuous Playboy Bunny wandering off, innocent, wide-eyed and vulnerable through the woods. I spent a lot of time and effort trying to find her, proving that peyote may not be quite the spiritually ennobling drug it is cracked up to be.

 

The very next day we had a replacement rhythm player. This led me to believe that Al had been secretly recruiting for some time prior to the removal of my guitar. I was surprised at his choice. The guitarist, who we'll call Bob, had a chipped front tooth and a thick shock of hair over his forehead. He had shy ways and stumbled over himself. People sneezed on his meals at restaurant counters. At age 22 he already had a reputation as someone who was ridden with bad luck. Nevertheless we had to break him in. Sneak Snider had called without notice about a gig on Texada Island the next week. It was 50 miles and two ferry trips from Vancouver. We spent the last of our money renting a blue van and stuffed Bob in the back with the equipment to save on ferry fare.

 

Sneek greeted us in the morning at the dock of Gibson’s Landing. “Aha. Snider’s Riders,” he grinned and sucked his teeth. “There is so much business to do today,” he rubbed his hands together as if anticipating a plate of steak and eggs.

 

We waited while he completed a drug deal with a hippy in a red bandana. Then he jumped in. It was only then we realized he was part of the act. He combined his promotional activities with his other lines of business and used the free ride in the van to stop and make numerous connections and deals. At this maidenly slow pace we only made Powell River – still a drive and ferry away from our gig, by nightfall. He directed us to drive to a dance hall where another band was playing. With an eye to previewing us to local audiences he talked the other band into letting us play a guest set. We huddled and decided to give the audience a break from all that rock music and play our acoustic set. This was a set where we tried to show our versatility by having Al play acoustic guitar while Tim played the brushes on such novelty jug band numbers as Ukulele Lady and The Storybook Ball. It never failed to drive people from the dance floor. I don’t know why we kept it up for so long. We opened with Bald Headed Baby, an irreverent Northern bluegrass song we’d just written, and guaranteed, we felt, to enamor this isolated audience to our homespun original music.

 

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

 

Bald Headed Baby

 

I was a young man

So feather green

Gonna do things you ain’t never

I had an old truck

With a boot in the tire

I’m gonna set the world on fire

 

 

Chorus:

But now I’m mad and I don’t mean maybe

Went and done got myself this bald headed baby

I’m running round like a hound with the rabies

Since I done got myself this bald headed baby

 

Why is the night so long?

I see something must have gone wrong

I don’t see

No reason for your mirth

I didn’t know I was flirting with birth

 

Chorus:

But now I’m mad and I don’t mean maybe

Went and done got myself this bald headed baby

I’m running round like a hound with the rabies

Since I done got myself this bald headed baby.

 

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

 

The crowd stared back at us with mute hostility for trying to shove bluegrass down their throats in the middle of a rock ‘n roll dance. This didn’t bother Sneek at all. He pulled us off stage and we were in the van again, stopping here and there. One destination was a lighted house at the end of a long country driveway, where he stole gas from a riding lawnmower so we could keep going. We were pulled over by the police and thought we were busted for the stolen gas but it was a routine check. Thankfully we were clean. A van full of longhaired musicians was a target the police found hard to resist. We were pulled over often for no good reason, as in 1970 the police didn’ t need just cause. The worst thing they ever pinned on us was theft of motel keys. Finally we got to a big, rundown hippie house where Sneak negotiated a free night’s sleep. We were exhausted, broke and only halfway to the gig.

 

The next morning Sneak paid for breakfast and ferry fare, starting a running tab which he docked from our pay. When we landed at Blubber Bay on Texada Island we were worried – the former whaling station looked like a shanty town out of John Steinbeck. It was going to be a crowd of loggers, fishermen and grease balls – just like the Peninsula only more redneck and less polite. No one wanted to play. We set up in a rented school gymnasium and prepared for the hassle and abuse which must surely come. Then the crowd filtered in. They were a lot of teenagers who mingled strangely. They didn’t seem interested in booze. We opened with our best set, hoping for action but expecting them to sit down. They did neither. They stood on the dance floor and silently stared. It was unnerving. We felt like we were from another planet. I was having trouble performing. Without a guitar to hide behind I had no stage presence.

 

Stage presence for a lead singer must be earned. In the beginning you feel invisible, and the crowd senses it. Then you become aware of your extremities – your hands and feet. It is as if they then slowly come into view for the audience, materializing out of thin air. After a month of this you become aware of your arms and legs, and the audience begins to see them. Then you feel your head and torso and by degrees they become visible to the audience. Over the course of time you become aware of every part of your body while on stage, and they become apparent to the audience too. It is like an invisible man slowly coming into being before your eyes. Then, at some magic moment you become whole, and the audience sees and hears everything you say and do. You finally have presence. It can take a year.

 

But one chunky young woman of about 16 walked up and stood in front of the stage, fixing her eyes on Al like a laser. He had the habit of slowly moving his head forward and back to the beat of the song, not an especially sexy move. Still she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. When the first set was over she walked right to the edge of the stage, gazed up at him and opened her arms wide.

 

“Chicken!” she cried, love struck. She was stoned out of her cookie and saw Al’s rhythmic, forward and back head action as some sexy poultry move.

 

Relief washed over the band. Now it was clear. This was no crowd of bushed redneck kids. They were all stoned on LSD and just waiting to party. We were amazed that acid had reached a remote outpost like this in such profound quantities. We also couldn’t believe our luck. It would be a chance to try our original songs on people with truly open minds. Our second set got their bodies moving. During the break we basked in an unusual feeling - audience approval. As if to confirm it the chunky 16 year old girl materialized stage left. She gazed at Al.

 

The normally unflappable Al was flummoxed. He had no idea how to deal with this kind of affection. Without meaning to, his first genuine female fan was turning him into Foghorn Leghorn. During the third set she maintained her stage left spot. Every time Al looked over she lovingly called out his new pet name. Meanwhile we rocked the house down. When we finished the audience was a sea of waving hands hollering for more. The only drawback had been the new 5th Burner Boy, Bob. For the entire night he’d stood at the back of the stage facing away from the audience while playing tentative licks. Very un-Burner like behavior. We fired him the next day.

 

Sneak then took us to a house where we could sleep for free, and amazingly there was an after party in our honor. This was different - being around people who still liked you after they’d heard you play. Teenage girls hung around the back door trying to get in. We felt famous. They kept knocking until Al finally opened the door.

 

“Chicken!”

 

Al closed the door again. Nevertheless they loyally stayed on the back stairs until three in the morning, hoping to catch another glimpse of us. Our first groupies.

 

After Sneek subtracted his long list of expenses we made $18.00 each, which made us feel like Dickens-era workers from Oliver Twist. Nevertheless, it was a nearly 200% increase over our previous gig. With the new and sudden attention from female fans this could become addictive.

Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 9:16 pm on May 22, 2006

That house party was indeed a wild scene. The guy putting it on was Hugh James and was notorios for his all out,no holds barred,wing dings.He was also known for his incredible pain threshold.He jumped off the roof of his garage,on acid of course,and landed on his head.Feeling none the worse ,he went back to the bash!

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