the true stories
It was the tail-end of the Seventies and the Eighties were trying to figure out how to redeem themselves from Disco. There was a newly energized spirit of greed that was palpable. The Sixties were a quaint myth and any good ideas from that era had been jettisoned as everyone banged heads trying to become landlords. A lot of people were doing a lot of coke and yes Virginia, there was a direct connection.
It was a time when you might bump into a former high-school buddy and he would be toting a briefcase and try to sell you a mutual fund, a pyramid scheme, some sketchy stock or a time-share in Pago-Pago. If you weren't interested in any of that, he may suggest to you that you could benefit from Astral Travel, Ekankar or Scientology. People were taking up Backgammon.
I was in my early twenties and after thirty months of marriage, I was somewhere in the middle of the long three year wait to get a finalized divorce. I had already been a cook, a chef, a gas-fitter and a banker. At the time of this telling, I was on a second round of gas-fitting. There were no jobs available, so I made my own company.
I had no business training but had taken university level accounting while training as a bank manager. The name I chose for my gas business was already taken, so I didn't register it as a limited company. Besides, I had already designed and printed the cards. I started out steady and was soon busier than I wanted to be.
My accounting showed me that I had made far more money in far less time by working for other people. It was discouraging. I sang a lot on the jobs. Sometimes in Spanish. One rich old man in West Vancouver came to my truck as I was leaving a job one afternoon and said he had been listening all day and thought I was in the wrong business.
I found a French restaurant one evening after an exhausting long day. I was in dirty coveralls and my hands were stained with lead pipe dope and cutting oil. I parked my truck and tentatively approached the door. There was white linen tablecloths and a small vase of flowers on each table next to a candle. The sign had boasted of baked rabbit, aka Lapin Chasseur.
I gingerly opened the door and several people looked up and wrinkled their noses at my tired and hungry self. A waiter whom I will never forget jetted across the carpet fast as an Exocet missile and took me by the elbow and waist in a firm and friendly manner and guided me to a little table right in the middle of a dozen romantic couples. His manner was such that it made me feel as welcome as would have in my grandma's kitchen and at the same time put the other customers on notice as to who ran this place.
I immediately ordered the rabbit, a Cesar salad, and wine. It was clay-baked and covered with a sauce of mushrooms, red wine and savory herbs. There was home-baked baguette, creamery butter and at that time, the bottle of Rose D'Anjou cost about seven dollars. I was famished and left every plate clean and the bottle empty. The coffee was exceptional and I was an expert on coffee.
During the meal I heard the most enchanting music that touched me deeply. I inquired as to the title and my waiter later brought me a note which he placed discreetly on my table. It read, “Concierto de Aranjuez - Joachin Rodrigo”. I came back so many times, I made a deal eventually for them to be my supper cooks for a fixed monthly fee. I discovered Debussy and Sibelius.
I got an education in classical music while decimating the rabbit population of the Fraser Valley and emptying the casks of Anjou. I weighed about one hundred and eighty pounds and was not fat, rather, I was sassified. I had a girlfriend and she joined me there on many occasions. Eventually they closed and I found new quarters at a German restaurant only a block away. I discovered Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart Hayden and Bruckner. I also discover that what we call “chicken-fried steak” in Texas is called “schnitzel” in Germany. Their gravy is better and so are their potatoes and rot kohl.
I was still drinking daily as I had been since about seventeen years old. With my newly growing appreciation for the finer things in life, I had abandoned draft beer and thus no longer called in at a local pub which I had frequented in my time among the Danes. The place doesn't exist any longer except in legend.
It was situated about two blocks from the Burrard Reserve in North Vancouver just west of Lonsdale Avenue. The clientele were of two persuasions: native peoples of the Squamish Tribe and the Danes. The Danes joked and sang Scandinavian chanties while watching the Indians bust chairs across each others teeth. There was a stabbing or broken bottle incident every week. I was thought to be a Dane by the natives and known to be a Swedish Cherokee by the Danes. You could buy anything your imagination desired in the back parking lot.
One afternoon, I had a rare day with no work to do and I got gussied up in my best jet-black cowboy shirt with red piping and pearl snaps. I decided I would go have a civilized refreshment. Instead of going to the tawdry St. Alice Pub, I went to the adjoining lounge, appropriately named The Cockatoo Lounge. It had red leather booths instead of purple beer-stained, terry-cloth upholstered lion-tamer chairs.
I settled into a booth and ordered a specific Jamaican amber rum straight. I was sipping on it when I was joined by a big old Squamish man. We got to talking and I told him about my work, my girl-friend, my brief marriage and such. He became fascinated with my shirt. Although it was hopeless to think it would ever fit him, he couldn't stop wishing for it. Someone kept playing Back On The Chain Gang by the Pretenders on the jukebox.
As the man and I got to talking more, I mentioned that I played a guitar and sang some. I was going to go to my girlfriend's place later that evening for her birthday party dinner. I was wearing my best because I would be meeting some of her siblings and her father for the first time. I was bringing my guitar. I had a present to give her. It was a jean jacket with her name in Chinese characters embroidered by hand on the back in scarlet thread.
The old fellow turned the talk back to my shirt at every opportunity. I remember wanting a fleece-lined jean jacket I had seen hanging in the window of an Army Navy Store in Beaumont, Texas one time when I was twelve. I was obsessed with it and even though I could see it was five sizes too big, I had to have it or the world would have to tell my why not.
After a few rums, I traded the shirt right off my back for two packs of smokes. The old man was ecstatic and put it on immediately and just left the snaps undone. He was so pleased with our trade, that he told me that he knew the owner of the establishment and that if I wanted, he would speak with the man this day and set it up for me to play a show with my guitar in the pub. If the owner liked me, it could become not only a steady paying gig but I might also be discovered and making records in no time.
When they were reading the story about the magic beans in Kindergarten, I must have missed that day. I thought about groping around in spider infested crawl spaces and sweating in attics full of fiber-glass. I thought about skinned knuckles and sheet-metal lacerations. I thought about lugging water tanks and furnaces up and down basement stairs. I made up my mind.
I left that place and drove home to get another shirt, practice some picking and grab my guitar case. My next stop was to my girlfriend's house where I was met at the door by her and her sister. I explained that at long last I had stumbled onto my big breakthrough chance in the music business. I gave the gift jacket and then apologized for having to miss the dinner.
The old man had said to come at eight o clock precisely and that the owner wouldn't be along til an hour or so later. He told me to just take the stage and get started playing. He himself wouldn't be there but he would catch my act at a later date. I ran through a bunch of songs in my mind and decided on a first and last song. The rest would fill themselves in.
My palms were sweating a bit as I parked my truck and marched in with my case. I cut a quick path through the boisterous crowd and kept along the west wall well away from the pool tables. The Danes were in the far side and None saw me come in. As I neared the stage, through the smoke and noise I could see and hear that there was a four piece band already playing a set.
The name on the Drum said Siwash Rock Band. They were aboriginal guys from the reserve two blocks away ranging in age from late teens to mid-twenties like myself. There was an empty table right up by the corner of the stage and I sat down, ordered a beer and put my guitar against the wall. The boys in the band shot some hateful stares and launched into their first tune.
It was a Rolling Stones song and well done. They followed with some blues, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and such. The crowd was drinking heavy, talking loud and the dance floor was deserted. The set ended and the boys came to the table. It was a tense few moments to put it very mildly.
A few guys accidentally bumped into my chair or my shoulder on their way to their own seats. I was asked who the #%*& I thought I was and just what the $#%@ did I think I was doing? This was their turf and their gig. I was angry about blowing off my girlfriend's birthday, about trading my shirt to a liar and about being had in general. I channeled my own anger into resolve. I wasn't moving until I played like the man had promised.
One guy said that it wouldn't be that night or that week or that year. I ordered another beer and sat like a bag full of hammers. They had a few beers and tried in vain to get me to leave. They rose to do their next set and the songbook went further into Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple, B.B. King and Steppenwolf. The din of the crowd went up and down with their choices. After an eternity from my perspective, quite a few beers and three sets, the fellows finished their performance.
Immediately a patron punched up Back On The Chain Gang on the jukebox. They packed up their axes, left their drum kit, their amps and mikes and sneered that I could go on now if I was that stubborn. I said mighty fine. I unpacked my Yamaki and walked on up to the black plywood stage. When the juke song ended I tapped the mike and asked the crowd if they wanted me to play. I got a hearty, “Bloody rights!” “Give her!” in reply.
As is my tradition, I opened with Neil Young's Old Man. The folks quieted down a little. Acoustic music will do that to a person. I tried out John Prine's Illegal Smile next and a few people were singing along. Next I did Willie Nelson's Whiskey River and a woman and her man got up and danced, Texas two-step style. I did Truck Driving Man, Tell Me Why, Mama Hated Diesels, Tequila Sunrise, Bobby McGee, Home With The Armadillo , Long-Haired Country Boy, Looking At The World Through A Windshield , Diggy Lo and Good Old Natural Habits.
The dance floor was soon packed solid and there was a lot of belly-rubbing and buckle-polishing going on. The feeling got to me and I found I was able to take requests. Even if I didn't really know how to play the song exactly, the swaying couples showed my hands what to do. The dancers up front helped me out with muffed lyrics. The medicine was strong and it was right.
I closed out with Cowgirl In The Sand. I heard lusty shouts of “Bloody Rights!” “Yee Haw!” “Give Her Boy! and “Bobby McGee!” as I turned off the mike. Everyone returned to their previous seats. Someone punched up Back On The Chain Gang on the juke. The first woman who had begun dancing yelled across her beer as I was leaving, “You should come back, eh?” I never saw the old man with my fancy shirt nor the Siwash Rock band again. I know they are out there and God Bless them each one.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.