It’s amazing what can happen when you say yes. After years of dormancy, my rock ’n’ roll band recently agreed to its first gig in over a decade.
The Smugglers formed back in 1988, when my suburban high-school friends and I were inspired to start a band after sneaking into Club Soda, a downtown venue on Homer Street, to see Montreal garage-rock stars the Gruesomes.
Our first gig happened a year later, at Chicago Pizza Works. (Anyone? It was also on Homer Street, kitty corner to Club Soda, and both businesses have since been Vancouverized; which is to say, they’re long gone). From there, we played more and more shows all over Vancouver, at other hallowed, now-defunct clubs like the Town Pump, the Starfish Room, and the Cruel Elephant. The Smugglers were a mainstay at Nardwuar’s legendary series of all-ages gigs.
Soon we began to venture out of town, to places like Victoria and Calgary, and we started releasing records. By the end of our 16-year-run, we’d played hundreds of shows in such far-reaching places as Japan, New Zealand, and all through Europe and North America.
When the band finally wound down like an old dog, in 2004, our problem was saying yes to just about everything. One of our founding members finally said no. And so began a very long hiatus that, for band members and fan(s?) alike, seemed liked a permanent break-up. When anyone asked, I told them I didn’t think the Smugglers would ever play another show.
Then, this past summer, I received an email from a 19-year-old promoter named Alex Botkin, asking if the Smugglers would consider a performance. I was reminded of my own teenage self, when I would cold-call our favourite bands to ask them if they would come to Vancouver to play a show.
Alex wanted the Smugglers to reform and play with several of our former Lookout Records label-mates for the 30th anniversary of 924 Gilman, a legendary all-ages punk club in Berkeley, California. We had played it many times, and it was considered the epicentre of the pop-punk explosion of the 1990s, led by Green Day, a band that practically formed within its walls.
I sent an email to the rest of the Smugglers. To my surprise, everyone said yes. Suddenly, we were back in action, booking practices, flights, hotels, and a rental van – all for one performance. At our rehearsals, despite the epic time lapse, everything clicked. Therein lies the magic of rock ’n’ roll: There’s a special alchemy that occurs when you reassemble the exact people and parts who wrote and performed songs together. I had forgotten how exciting it could be.
The days and months passed, and suddenly we were on stage in front of a packed crowd in Berkeley. Our drummer took a deep breath and gave his drumsticks three quick clicks. Just like that, we threw ourselves into our first live performance in almost 13 years. People still danced, people still cheered, and our unique five-way chemical reaction bubbled over into 45 minutes of exhausting fun.
We couldn’t help but try to capture the energy of our past, which many times had me gasping for air and wondering if Gilman had a defibrillator on hand. When we bowed to the crowd at the end of our final song, it felt like I had been repeatedly smacked in the chest by a baseball bat. But I was happy. Really happy. I don’t know if we’ll ever play again, but here’s to the magic of rock ’n’ roll, and to the power of saying yes one more time.
Grant Lawrence’s memoir of his touring years with the Smugglers, Dirty Windshields, will be out this spring. No word on any other performances.
IT’S BEEN MEMORY-BUSTIN’ REALLY COLD IN VANCOUVER THIS WINTER!
Sure, there have been some big snow dumps followed by cold, sunny weather, but rarely do they last more than a week in this town. I had to claw through my memory, back to the 1970s, to remember something similar – when it got cold enough, long enough, that they opened up Lost Lagoon for public skating. My entire family took advantage of that snap, skating time and again on the downtown lake, when I was just a kid.
Jump ahead 40 years (40 years!) and now I’m the dad with a three-year-old who’s obsessed with skating and hockey. He repeatedly asks me to build him a “backyard rink,” and I explain to him that Vancouver is just too warm.
Then, about a month ago, when that first cold snap struck, I thought, “Well… maybe, just maybe, I could pull it off for the kid.” I am not handy, so I went online and watched a few rink-making videos from the east. The easiest method I found is to buy some long two-by-six planks and the biggest tarp you can find. Thanks to several tips culled from Instagram, where I was posting my progress, I screwed the planks together into a frame and laid the tarp over top (a mistake; in retrospect, I should have put the tarp down first, then the frame, so the water could freeze at a right angle against the boards). I filled it with an inch of water from the hose. Within an hour, it was already frozen. Huh!
I should mention there were as many detractors on social media as there were helpers. Many told me an outdoor rink in Vancouver could never be done. Undaunted, I added an inch of water a day (which, itself, was a hassle, since I had to bring the hose inside to thaw it out between floodings). By day three, my son Josh’s dream had come true: He was skating on his very own backyard rink.
It worked! And it sure attracted a lot of attention. On day four, Bob Kronbauer from VancouverIsAwesome.com, did a story about the rink and posted a video of Josh skating. By day five, other kids were trying it out, and we borrowed the neighbour’s outdoor fireplace for après-skating rink-side s’mores. By day six, the rink was on page three of the daily paper as well as the nightly news. Needless to say, my family was taken aback by all the attention. “If you build it, they will come.” Too right.
We enjoyed about a week of action on the rink before it started to thaw, but by Christmas Eve it was frozen again and we enjoyed a Christmas Day skate in the bright sunshine. The snow and ice on New Year’s Eve thickened it even further, allowing for even more skating fun, which was so much more than we ever would have imagined. At last count, the VancouverIsAwesome video of Josh had over 100,000 views. To put that in perspective, my band’s videos have about 60,000 views.
Sure, it sucked that the sidewalks were slick and the roads were dicey and the city was slow to respond, and it was very challenging for seniors and the disabled. But if this kind of winter only happens once every 40 years, I hope you enjoyed it while you could. My son sure has. Drop the puck!
Here’s my roundup of the top-five best books released by BC publishers this year, just in time for your last-minute literary gift shopping. Let us rejoice in the glory of our written word!
By Mark Leiren-Young (Greystone)
Leiren-Young expertly tells the heartbreaking story of Moby Doll (a young, doomed orca captured in 1964) as a means to illustrate our transition from referring to the world’s apex predator not as a “killer whale” but as an orca. This timely, riveting book is a must-read for anyone who cares about these highly intelligent social beings living just below the surface, right out there. What you’ll learn is guaranteed to fill you with a new level of respect for the endangered orca.
By Chris Kelly, Pat Kelly, Peter Oldring and Dave Shumka (Tite Publishing)
From the very funny fellows who brought you CBC Radio’s satirical current-affairs show This is That comes an equally hilarious first book. This fake guide was co-written by show producer Chris Kelly, and hosts Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring, along with Stop Podcasting Yourself co-star Dave “Shummy” Shumka. It includes everything from detailed descriptions of the best strip-malls of the Maritimes (“the epicentre of every community”), to the Top Five Walks in Canada (including the Walk of Shame: “walking home in the morning after a romantic tryst in the clothes you wore out the night before”), to the “maximum legally allowed number of Australians” in a Canadian youth hostel. The perfect stocking-stuffer for the CBC fan in your family.
By John Armstrong (New Star Books)
One of the injustices of human life is that a dog’s lifespan is so short compared to ours. If you’ve ever owned a dog and gone through the love and heartbreak of its life cycle, you’ll know what I mean. Author/musician John Armstrong (AKA Buck Cherry of legendary Vancouver band the Modernettes) seems to know exactly what I mean. This is a funny, very relatable, well-written memoir that tells the touching stories of the many dogs John has had, backdropped by his rough-and tumble-life in and around Vancouver. Essential reading for dog lovers!
By Carol Daniels (Nightwood Editions)
The best novel I read this year was the fictional portrayal of Sandy, a First Nations woman victimized by “the Sixties Scoop.” There’s nothing fictional about the Scoop, however: Between the 1960s and ’80s, over 20,000 Aboriginal Canadian babies were “scooped” at birth from their mothers and placed in foster care by order of the provincial governments of the day. Out of this shocking chapter of Canadian history comes this very important and gripping book, partially based on author/former journalist Daniels’s life experiences.
By Aaron Chapman (Arsenal Pulp)
Vancouver “after dark” author Aaron Chapman (Liquor, Lust, and the Law; Live at the Commodore)has done it again with his third book, which chronicles a bloody era of Vancouver that had previously been cloaked in a Mac jacket of mythology. Chapman does fine journalistic work here: the research is top-shelf, and he manages to never reveal bias to either the police or the gang, even though you sometimes wish he would.
• Grant Lawrence is the author of two books: Adventures in Solitude (2010) and The Lonely End of the Rink (2013). His rock ’n’ roll memoir, Dirty Windshields, is slated for spring of 2017.
A few weeks ago, the Westender assigned me a story about the counter-culture scene on West 4th Avenue in the sixties. The story soon took on a life of its own…
“King of the Hippies” – that’s what the caption read under the photo of a young David Wisdom, snapped on West 4th Avenue in the summer of 1967. It was the Summer of Love, which blossomed in Vancouver more than just about anywhere else in the world outside of San Francisco. You’ve likely heard about Kitsilano’s hippie heyday, but let it not be understated: for a few short years, Vancouver, and most especially West 4th Avenue between Burrard and MacDonald streets, was indeed the hippie capital of Canada. The movement rocked this formally conservative logging town to its roots, and changed our city forever.
The photo of David Wisdom (who went on to a 30-year-career at CBC Radio) was part of a larger story on Vancouver’s counterculture, which appeared in Japan’s equivalent to Life magazine. Wisdom was in a local band called the French Hand Laundry and the writer’s tour guide. The only problem was, David Wisdom never considered himself a hippie.
“I was a rocker,” proclaims Wisdom, who currently resides on Salt Spring Island, itself a garden of retired original hippies. “I liked the Jefferson Airplane from San Francisco. I saw them at the Kitsilano Theatre in 1966,” referring to what is often considered the city’s first “rock” concert. Locally, Wisdom dug bands like the Painted Ship, the Tom Northcott Trio, and the Seeds of Time. “I lived at a pretty notorious place in Kits called ‘the Peace House,’ at 3148 Point Grey Road. The Grateful Dead stayed there when they came to town and would walk around the house naked. Ginger Baker, the drummer from Cream, slept over when he was in town too. I guess the Japanese magazine thought I was a hippie because I was the guy with the fourth-longest hair in Vancouver.”
The longest-hair-on-a-dude-award went to Doug Hawthorne, a West 4th legend. Now deceased, Hawthorne came up again and again in conversation about Kitsilano’s hippie past.
“Doug was a thin, cool guy with a big belt buckle and hair down to his waist,” remembers Wisdom. “It was Doug who was really the king of the West 4th scene.” Hawthorne ran the Psychedelic Shop, Vancouver’s first-ever hippie emporium, and one of several hippie-friendly joints that began to pop up on or near West 4th Avenue in the 1960s: the Village Bistro (a coffee house that doubled as a venue), the Black Swan, Rohan’s Records (which eventually became a live music venue called Rohan’s Rockpile), the Blind Owl, the Last Chance, Positively 4th Street, and the Naam, among others.
Longtime Vancouver journalist Lynne McNamara was freshly graduated from UBC in the mid-’60s and working as a teacher in the Fraser Valley when flower power hit full bloom on West 4th.
“I was a weekend hippie,” says McNamara. “I remember beautiful, hot summers, the smell of pot in the air, lots of long hair, women swirling and twirling in long Afghan dresses, and everybody being stoned out of their minds. People were swarming here, especially from the States, and it made it all so exciting. From my experience, it was an open and accepting place for women.”
Conveniently located in the centre of the scene was CFUN, Vancouver’s number one radio station, right at the corner of West 4th and Cypress. “Jolly” John Tanner landed a gig at the station in 1964 at age 21, and would literally call the play-by-play of Vancouver’s love revolution.
“What was really incredible was that it happened so fast. Suddenly, by the early spring of 1967, hippies, flower power and free love was everywhere,” says Tanner. “Vancouver had much more in common with the West Coast USA than with Toronto or Montreal at that time. California was a huge influence.”
By 1967, Tanner was not only working on West 4th, but was becoming fully immersed in the culture. “I lived in a house with a bunch of people at Maple and 3rd. One night we smoked some herb in the bathroom and headed out to a show at the Russian Hall, probably to see the Collectors. We got in my ’53 Chevy to drive to the gig – which was only a couple of blocks away – and “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles came on. I started tripping out to it so much that I thought my car was flying through the air. I pulled over and said ‘I have to walk the rest of the way.’” Tanner went on to many more radio gigs and a near-50-year career at the Vancouver Planetarium.
The Russian Hall, at 2114 West 4th (still there to this day), is cited by many as a primary reason the hippie scene revolved around Kitsilano (cheap rent, large houses, and a world-class beach also helped). It was also known as the Kitsilano Concert Theatre, the Overtime, and one of the venues of the Afterthought, an infamous psychedelic concert series by a young promoter named Jerry Kruz.
“I’m the reason the hippie scene existed on 4th Avenue,” states Kruz as a matter of fact. “I did the gigs at the Russian Hall, and that’s why the kids came to Kits, to see my shows. I really wanted to control 4th Avenue, so much so that I would pay Doug Hawthorne to close up his shop and come and do the lights at the Afterthought just so the hippies couldn’t hang around his place.” Kruz also booked the bands at the first Be-In music festival in Stanley Park, in March of 1967. “The only local DJ who supported me was Timothy Burge, who is now Pamela Burge.”
However, not all Vancouverites were feeling the love. Former Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell, now deceased, assumed office in 1967 and waged war with the peaceniks for much of his tumultuous time at City Hall.
“He made life hell for the hippies,” says MacNamara. “He was as straight as the hippies were wild, and hated any guy with hair below the earlobe.”
“Despite all the great things that were going on in the scene, there was a real paranoia about getting caught with pot,” remembers Tanner. “Raids happened all the time.”
Mayor Campbell’s enforcer was a notorious narcotics officer whose name still sends a shiver down many an aging hippie’s spine: Sgt. Abe Snidanko, who was later famously lampooned by Cheech and Chong. “He was ruthless”, says Tanner.
“The mayor believed I was corrupting the youth of Vancouver, and so he sent Snidanko after me,” states Kruz. Snidanko busted Kruz twice for pot possession. The second time, the court sentenced Kruz to eight months in prison for “a couple of baggies, nothing really, but they wanted to make an example out of me.” Kruz’s incarceration still infuriates him, and marked the end of the Afterthought concerts, but not the Kitsilano hippies.
Renowned broadcaster Terry David Mulligan returned to his hometown right in the middle of the Summer of Love. He accepted a DJ gig at CFUN alongside Tanner. He was immediately shunned by the hippies.
“You have to imagine: I was barely two years out of the RCMP Academy, which I quit soon after graduation, because of my burning love for rock ‘n’ roll radio.”
After a series of DJ gigs around the prairies, TDM arrived onto West 4th Avenue just as the Afterthought was shut down. “Everyone was convinced I was a narc. Entire rooms would clear when I would walk in. People wanted nothing to do with me!”
Like Wisdom, TDM never considered himself a hippie. “I lived right on 4th, a block away from the Russian Hall,” reminiscences Mulligan. “A parade of hippies went by my front door, day in, day out, and they were as stoned as I was straight. I found it very depressing. It’s never a period of time I take pleasure from, simply because so many minds were lost as the decade progressed and the drugs got harder. It became some ugly shit.”
Many who lived through the West 4th scene agree that harder drugs were one of the reasons the scene fell apart, but there were other factors. “We really were connected to the California scene,” says Tanner. “So when things like Altamont and Charles Manson happened, it threw a pall over everything. Free love was over, the trust was gone, and the drugs really did get bad. Acid, heroin, people OD’ing all over the place, and then Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin all died within a year of each other. That felt like the end.”
Rent in Kits was also on the rise.
“It was very exciting for a few years, but by the early ’70s it was pretty much over,” says Wisdom. “The true hippies moved to the country: the Sunshine Coast, the Kootenays, or the Gulf Islands. Lots of Americans just went home.”
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and the rumours are billowing like pot smoke of some major events to mark the occasion, possibly even a 50th anniversary Be-In. You can bet that many of the West 4th hippie survivors will be making the scene, half a century later. Peace out.
The aftershocks of Kitsilano’s counter-culture quake can still be felt to this day
Health and wellness
You could stir up a potent argument that our city’s appetite for vegetarianism, organic food, alternative medicine, massage therapy, and our blinding obsession with yoga, all stretch from West 4th Avenue.
The global environmental movement
In 1969, one of Greenpeace’s first office spaces was at West 4th Avenue and Maple, sharing the space with SPEC (the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation). Prominent members of Greenpeace founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Years later, the Green Party of Canada first sprouted at Trafalgar and 6th. David Suzuki was a professor of genetics at UBC from 1963 onwards, and has remained in Kits.
Pubs and grub
Three of the first pub licenses in Vancouver were located on West 4th, and they’re still there: Bimini’s, Darby D. Dawes, and Jerry’s Cove (now called the Cove). And yes, the Naam vegetarian restaurant remains, at 2724 West 4th Avenue, since 1968, with service still so charmingly slow it feels like you must have ordered your veggie burger sometime around 1970.
World-famous Wreck Beach is debatably another product of the free-love hippie spirit of the sixties. The Wreck Beach Preservation Society was formed in 1977 and has been mostly successful keeping it pristine, wild, and naked.
Much to the shock of those that include “Jolly” John Tanner, marijuana is still illegal in Canada 50 years later, and yet there’s a medicinal marijuana dispensary on every corner. Our pot culture, for better or worse, can be traced in pretty much a straight line right back to the hippies.
Vancouver’s Human Be-In Festival, held on March 26, 1967, was inspired by the first Be-In in San Francisco held two months earlier. Our Be-In predated the Monterey Pop Festival later that summer and Woodstock by over two years. The Stanley Park Be-In was held each spring for almost a decade. Expect a 50th-anniversary event next spring.
Museum of Vancouver
Nestled on the Kitsilano shore, our distinctive landmark museum re-opened in 1968, and has since done a wonderful job keeping our past alive. Check out their current exhibit (and chapter two to this story): Vancouver in the Seventies, on now until February 2017.
• City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties by Lawrence Aronsen
• Mulligan’s Stew: My Life So Far by Terry David Mulligan
• The Afterthought: West Coast Rock Posters and Recollections From the ’60s by Jerry Kruz
We’re thrilled to be Haida Gwaii bound this week, an area of my own province that I have yet to set foot on, but it’s been on the bucket list ever since I read John Vaillant‘s The Golden Spruce.
This week, my family not only gets to visit the world-famous archipelago, but I also get to do some readings and my wife Jill Barber will perform her new Family Album with her brother Matthew Barber.
Here’s our tour dates on the islands. Please share with or tag anyone you know on Haida Gwaii!
Wed Sept 14, Queen Charlotte Public Library, 7pm
Thu Sept 15, Port Clements Public Library, 7pm
Fri Sept 16, United Church, Skidegate, 7:30pm
Sat Sept 17, Howard Philip Hall, Masset, 7:30pm
Have you ever had a place that you love threatened? Have you had a favourite corner of the world changed by the onset of industry? Have you rallied around that place to try and save it? Is that even possible anymore? Was it ever?
When I was first contacted by the non-profit society whose mission is to “Save Desolation Sound,” my first question was, “from what?”
Their answer was this: a gravel quarry has been proposed a few kilometres northeast of the wild waters and forests of the Desolation Sound Provincial Marine Park. The company is Lehigh Hanson Materials, based in Alberta, which is in turn owned by a German mega-company that is one of the largest cement makers in the world.
It sounds preposterous. This is an area that was turned into one of the largest marine parks on the west coast of Canada because it is so spectacularly beautiful, an oceanic paradise that boasts the warmest ocean water north of the Gulf of Mexico, the steepest drops from mountain peak to ocean bottom in North America, and ocean mammals that include orcas, dolphins, humpback whales, porpoises, seals and sea lions. The marine park boasts over 60 kilometres of undeveloped shoreline, all of it boat-access-only, just 200 kilometres north of us in Vancouver, but seemingly a world away.
To be clear: the gravel quarry proposal site is not within the park, but close enough that it is presumed to be visible and audible from within the park. Noise, scarring of the mountainside, light pollution, and heavy barge and freighter traffic are all possible threats to the park, the community, tourism, and the environment (the gravel barges will have to pass through Desolation Sound in order to head south).
To be clearer: I also get that all those kayakers who love to paddle the park, as well as my family, drive cars on paved roads made from gravel to get to our launching point for Desolation Sound. I understand the need for industry in our society. What I don’t understand is why a quarry is proposed in such a special area that many thought had recovered from industry for the last time.
Russell Hollingsworth is one of Vancouver’s leading architects and one of the founders of the Save Desolation Sound Society. He agrees with the inappropriateness of the proposed location of the quarry: “The natural beauty and long-term economic value of this area are worth far more than the short-term gains of gravel extraction. A gravel pit in Desolation Sound is an inappropriate and environmentally unsustainable project for this area.”
Lehigh Hanson’s application to conduct bore-hole testing has been approved by the province, and will begin after Labour Day.
According to a June press release from Lehigh Hanson, nothing is –ahem– set in stone: “Lehigh Hanson does not have any specific plans for a mining operation at present and fully understands that any such decision would be subject to respectful involvement of First Nations, dialogue with communities and stakeholders, and consideration of environmental stewardship. As with all of our operations, Lehigh Hanson is committed to performing these exploratory activities in a safe and environmentally responsible manner and will seek every opportunity to minimize disruption to the area.”
Uh huh. If you know what it’s like to have the place you love come under threat, you can add your voice to Save Desolation Sound. The society has set up a petition at SaveDesolationSound.com/join-us.
Everybody knows there’s two seasons in Vancouver: the rainy season and the wedding season. Between mid-May and mid-September, hundreds of hopeful couples will legally tie the knot, everywhere from Prospect Point to Wreck Beach. Rejoice! I’m here to help you get your big day right.
The last Saturday in May is typically the beginning of marriage season. This year it happened to rain all day long on Saturday, May 28. I know of at least two weddings that were washed out in Stanley Park, one of them not having an indoor Plan B! Heels and mud don’t mix. We still live in a rainforest! Plan for an indoor alternative no matter what your wedding date.
Mind the gap
Take all of your lame wedding photos before your guests arrive to avoid the ridiculous “wedding gap” that often occurs between the ceremony and the reception. Where are 150 people dressed in their Sunday best supposed to go on Bowen Island for three hours while you awkwardly pose in your gown and tux down on the beach?
Fuel for the masses
Unless your entire wedding is going to be under an hour, you must must must feed your guests an entire sit down meal, along with plenty of snack options before and after. With the cost of weddings in 2016 cresting an average of $35,000, many couples cheap out on food, thinking cheese and crackers at standing bar tables will suffice. They won’t. If you don’t provide a meal, your guests will quickly get drunk, hangry, and indignant. They will be ordering pizza to the parking lot during the speeches. And the only potluck at a wedding should be the medicinal marijuana in your midnight brownies.
Don’t skip the speeches! The speeches are my sentimental wife’s favourite part of any wedding. Why? Because there’s something about a wedding that brings out a raw and honest love that is so rarely spoken in every day life, from speakers who aren’t usually behind a microphone. And if there’s a drunken mother-in-law-trainwreck-speech, all the better, really. Just avoid the open mic.
Beer me beloved
There’s nothing worse than a wedding in full swing suddenly running out of booze. My only mathematical gift is to be able to eyeball exactly the correct amount of alcohol needed for a large number of people. I have literally saved wedding days by making emergency booze runs before the party has even started, just by looking at their stack of beer behind the bar. Always budget for more booze than you think they’ll ever drink. And buy local.
Couples trying to save costs by creating an iTunes playlist instead of hiring a DJ or a live band usually have great intentions but ultimately fail. Here’s the secret to a packed wedding dance floor from start to finish: most of us dance to what we recognize. At your wedding, you must respect the multi-generations in attendance. Therefore, plan your playlist chronologically through the ages and don’t let anyone mess with it. Start with hit tunes from the 1950s and ‘60s for the old-timers, then slowly progress into the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s. Schedule one slow dance number for every four upbeat songs. By the time you get to the Black Keys and Robin Thicke ‘round midnight, the grandparents have gone to bed and you can really blur the lines between your bridesmaids.
Most crowd sourcing is obnoxious to begin with, so don’t you dare even think about Kickstarting your wedding or honeymoon. Instead, drop a private line to maybe your best man or maid of honour to organize a larger wedding gift from a group of friends. We once surprised my best friend and his wife on their wedding night with a honeymoon to Hawaii that 20 of us all chipped in on. Much more memorable than a collapsible salad bowl from Canadian Tire.
Follow these simple planning vows, invite me to your wedding, and congratulations in advance on a perfect day! Did I miss anything?
I cradled the baseball in my hand, staring down the throw line into the catcher’s glove. I imagined the perfect sizzler releasing from my fingertips, right into the mitt, burning the catcher’s palm. I glanced around, feeling the pressure. It wasn’t the same kind of nervous anticipation the members of the Mt. Pleasant Murder and the Railtown Spikers were feeling for their first game, watching from behind sunglasses in their dugouts on either side of the sandlot. This was a different kind of pressure. I was throwing out the ceremonial first pitch on opening weekend of the brand new East Vancouver Baseball League (EVBL).
Co-founder Justin Banal from the Isotopes Punk Rock Baseball Club offered me a cold can of Postmark Blonde, brewed about four blocks away. I looked at my watch. It was two minutes past noon on Saturday. He leaned in and gave me some words of encouragement for the pitch.
“Just don’t 50 Cent it.” Excuse me? “Rapper 50 Cent did a ceremonial pitch for the Mets and threw it to first base”. Oh… OK. Just before I strode out to the non-existent pitcher’s mound, another skinny punk in an East Van Murder uniform walked up. “Don’t Carly Rae Jepsen it, dude.” It turns out that Mission’s own “Call Me Maybe” star attempted to throw out a pitch for the Tampa Bay Rays and literally dropped the ball. Michael Jordan, President Obama, and even pitching legend Nolan Ryan have all completely blown their ceremonial pitches.
The PA crackled to life. It was a guitar amp with a RadioShack microphone plugged into it. EVBL co-director Sean Elbe introduced me.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome former lead singer of the Smugglers, current beer league goalie, and author of The Lonely End of the Rink, to throw out our first pitch!” A light smattering of confused applause followed. The heat was on. I wound up.
The founders of the EVBL, a bunch of baseball-obsessed punk rockers, are living out their own Field of Dreams-meets-The Bad News Bears baseball fantasy, bringing a lost era of baseball back from the dead. They’ve built the EVBL from the sand up with a very specific heritage-style design. They built it, and the players came. Those players just have to play by the EVBL’s rules. The EVBL maintains complete artistic and aesthetic control over the teams in the league, right down to the logos. EVBL merchandise is already a hot property, and the league, for this year anyway, is full.
Banal explains the concept. “This city is really good for a lot of things – street hockey, soft ball – but there was no one playing real baseball for fun.” Co-founder Court Overgaauw, of the East Van Black Sox, continues. “At a certain point, many of us who grew up playing real baseball got turned away or off from the sport of a variety of reasons. This league gives us the opportunity to play the game the way it should be played.” And what is real baseball? Think hard balls pitched overhand against wooden bats.
Besides the Isotopes, the league is heavy with members of the local arts community, specifically of the punk rock variety: members of the B-Lines, the Courtneys, Nervous Talk, the Tranzmitors, the Parallels, Uptights and more all suit up, but true to the EVBL word, this ain’t ultimate Frisbee. No shorts allowed.
“Shorts are just not appropriate for baseball”, says Overgaauw. Really? “We’re serious,” says Banal. “You don’t wear shorts in baseball.” Luckily, the rule doesn’t extend to fans watching the games down at the sandlot in Strathcona Park, southwest diamond, corner of Hawks and Malkin. Games are most Saturdays through August.
I let the ball fly from my right hand and watched it smack into the catcher’s glove. In an instant, I managed to achieve what I never could as lead singer of the Smugglers for 17 years: perfect pitch. PLAY BALL!
I hope you have successfully navigated another winter season like the hero of The Revenant, as we push forward into the glorious spring of 2016 (speaking of The Revenant… the movie was pretty good, but have you read the book?! It’s incredible!)
Our family started the year with my wife successfully pushing forward our new little hero: on January 1, 2016, our daughter Grace Heather Lawrence came into the world in a planned home birth at our house in Vancouver. Grace is doing very well, and is now giving big smiles to her loving big brother Joshua.
With two kids under three at home, I’m in the midst of taking my longest break of my career from the CBC: an entire year of paternity leave! And while I temporarily miss the day-to-day honour and hustle of working at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, I’m treasuring the time I’m spending with the kids and Jill. Just not right now while writing this.
Besides trying to learn how to be a better parent (don’t bring peanut butter snacks to the family drop in at the Community Centre!), I’m also ever-plugging away at my third book: the trials, travails, and treachery of 17 years in a touring rock ‘n’ roll band. I think I’m on my… sixth or seventh re-write?
Just like the tours, the book has been a slog, but it’s also been amazing to re-connect with all the musicians and mentors the Smugglers crossed paths with 20 years ago or more on the touring trail, while I try to piece together the stories like the time the Hoboken club caught fire (while we were in it), the time the Cleveland club flooded (while we were in it) and the time the Denver club erupted into a riot (while we were in it).
Since I’m still writing, the publishing date of the next book is moving target… will it be fall of 2016 or spring of 2017? I’ll let you know as soon as I know.
In the meantime, I continue to plunk out the Vancouver Shakedown, my weekly column for the Westender, Vancouver’s longest-running entertainment weekly. On any given week, the column tends to either delight or enrage.
And just because Jill gave birth to our second child doesn’t mean my ever-prolific wife is slowing down. On April 1, Jill Barber and her brother Matthew Barber release The Family Album, their first record together, a radiant mix of covers and originals, performed as beautiful folk duets.
Both Jill and I will be on the road this spring and summer… hope to see you around and thanks as always for your support!
Grant Lawrence Spring 2016 tour dates
Fri – Sat, Mar 11 – 12, Words on the Water Literary Festival, Campbell River BC
Fri – Sun, Apr 8 – 10, Okanagan Writers Festival, Penticton BC
Fri Apr 15, North Shore Writers Festival, North Vancouver BC
Sat Apr 30, Authors for Indies, 32 Books, North Vancouver BC (afternoon event)
Sat May 7, A Whisky Library, Lynn Valley Library, North Vancouver BC
Sat May 14, LitFest, New Westminster BC (afternoon event)
Mon Jun 13, Canadian Independent Music Association Awards Gala (CIMA), Berkeley Church, Toronto ON
Fri – Sat July 8 – 10, Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, Nelson BC
Fri – Sun July 15 – 17, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Vancouver BC
Jill Barber Spring 2016 tour dates (all dates w/ Matthew Barber for the Family Album Tour)
Fri Apr 15, Arden Theatre, St. Albert AB
Sat Apr 16, Arden Theatre, St. Albert AB
Sun Apr 17, Eric Harvie Theatre, Banff AB
Thu Apr 21, Casino Regina, Regina SK
Fri Apr 22, West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg MB
Sat May 28, the Great Hall, Toronto ON
(more dates to be announced soon across Canada and North Eastern USA)
When it comes to listing off renowned Vancouver bands through the decades, groups like Trooper, Skinny Puppy, the New Pornographers, Be Good Tanyas, or D.O.A. might spring to mind. The band that might not is the Evaporators. That’s a shame, because the Evaporators will always be on my list as one of the greatest groups to ever hail from our Terminal City. What might be more immediately recognizable to you is the name of the Evaporators’ lead singer: Nardwuar the Human Serviette.
Over the past several decades, Nardwuar has not only become one of Vancouver’s most unique citizens, but truly a Canadian treasure, mostly because of his incredible stockpile of highly researched and wildly entertaining video interviews with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Mikhail Gorbachev. On a Canadian level, his (mostly successful) attempts to get Canadian political leaders to play a ridiculous ‘60s party game called the “Hip Flip” is always amazing, and surprisingly humanizing.
But back to the Evaporators: Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, marks the band’s 30th anniversary. It was on that night, three decades ago in the dusty gymnasium of Hillside Secondary School in West Vancouver, that Nardwuar and his band mates took to the stage for the first time, at Variety Night (a yearly talent revue hosted by our English teacher). The Evaporators performed three cover songs: “Shot Down” by the Sonics, as well as “Goo Goo Muck” and “Human Fly” by the Cramps.
I remember the night well, because I was in the audience. The Evaporators blew my nerdy teenage mind, and were the primary reason why I formed my own band a year later. To me, the Evaporators were the coolest of the cool, mixing ‘60s garage rock with ‘80s surf-punk to maximum effect. Nardwuar was the manic frontman. Back in ‘86 he rocked a brush cut, looking nothing like his signature tam o’ shanter-atop-the-Prince Valiant-haircut he’s famous for now.
For years, the Evaporators were essentially the underappreciated house band at all of Nardwuar’s legendary all-ages shows all over Vancouver. In 1992, they finally released a record: a punk-fuelled seven-inch EP entitled Welcome To My Castle. Their first full-length album wouldn’t arrive until their tenth anniversary in 1996: United Empire Loyalists, a vinyl LP that highlights Nardwuar’s obsessive love of Canadian history, coming complete with a massive foldout sleeve. They really started rolling after that, releasing I Gotta Rash in 1998 (a split LP with Nardwuar’s other bizarre band Thee Goblins), Ripple Rock in 2004, and Gassy Jack and Other Tales in 2007 (arguably their best, a salute to Gastown founder Gassy Jack Deighton). The songs on many of the records reveal a glance into the mind of Nardwuar: “Addicted To Cheese”, “I Feel Like A Fat Frustrated Fuck”, and “I Say That On Purpose To Bug You”, etc. The backing instrumentation by veterans of bands like the New Pornographers, Slow, and Destroyer is wicked.
Over their three intense decades, Nardwuar and the Evaporators have steadily evolved into absolute masters of live entertainment as well, often featuring in-set cameos by everyone from heavy metal legend Thor, to Scottish hit makers Franz Ferdinand, to New York party rocker Andrew WK. If you’ve ever seen an Evaporators show, say for instance in recent years at the Khatsahlano Festival, it probably took you hours to wipe the smile from your face.
Unfortunately, there won’t be a big celebration for the Evaporators’ 30th anniversary this month. Nardwuar is busy concentrating on something much more serious: recovering from a stroke he suffered in December, along with reparative heart surgery last month. The good news is he’s doing well, and promises new music from the Evaporators later in 2016. Long live Nardwuar, long live the Evaporators, and happy 30th anniversary, from a life-long fan. The Evaporators will always be on my list of Vancouver’s best-ever-bands.