In the late 1970s I traveled to London, Ontario to study at Fanshaw Collage recording engineering and production, and music law. I loved getting to know the instructors and sharing those times with all the musicians I met. While living there, I formed a band called the Stoves.
I used to have a thin, black leather tie that I wore on stage with a white shirt and jail pants. It was a funky band and we had a lot of fun together. That was in the early 1980s when the pretend punk thing was going on. I was 20 years old.
Canadian kids thought it was cool to pretend that Ontario was a repressed society like London, England during their brutal punk invasion period – rebelling against the government, poverty and repression. Kids in Ontario just acted out the part, because we really had nothing to rebel against. I never fell for any of that nonsense. I was the only guy with long hair in all the punk bands that were popular in Toronto. I was a hippy in a pop punk band!
Some teenagers do some dumb and dangerous (yet fun) things while growing up. But man, some of us did some crazy things in our late teens and early ‘20s. We were lucky to come out of it all alive.
I only stayed in that pretend-punk scene for two years. I quit the band and went off to pick tobacco north of London, Ontario, making enough money to buy myself a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia. When I got there, it took me all of five days to realize that what I really wanted to do was head north and not turn back.
I struck out on my own with my cowboy boots and bandanna around my neck and my Hudson Bay coat and my guitar and my Bob Dylan harmonica neck brace and two harmonicas, one in the lowest key and one in the highest key. I trekked up the Alaska Highway and played some real country rooms along the way. Really got to see it all.
There were some genuine trappers mountain man rooms where guys would stay during hunting season, and then bring their game back into town to sell. There were also a lot of rooms where the oil rig guys would get a weekend off every two or three months and they would spend so much money on booze it was just unimaginable. It was out of this world!
Back in 1977 until about 1980 you’d find all these different tradesmen out west – oil rig men, trappers, road builders, road graters, carpenters, Natives. They knew how to party it up, but they also worked really hard.
I remember as if it was yesterday… the oil rig guys who were away for ages working long days, finally getting the weekend off to come into town. One of the guys would pop his head up and shout, “I’m buying a round for the bar!” The bar was packed with 100 people. Guys would drop $1000 or more by the end of the night. I don’t know if this was a tall tale or not, but one bar owner on the Alaska Highway told me that in one night some guy’s tab was $3000!
Man, I look back on those days with fondness and disbelief. There I was learning the ropes, singing in front of Natives, trackers, oil rig guys, male strippers, female strippers, crazy wild drunks, ladies, carpenters, you name it.
One night I was singing in one of the most rugged bars in the Village of Pouce Coupe. Pouce Coupe means “cut-thumb” and was originally named Pouskapie’s Prairie after the local native band chief. Anyway, some guy from the audience ran up onstage and grabbed my raccoon fur hat of my head. He put it on his head, tail and all, and raced around the bar, making fun of me. Everyone was laughing. I was 22 years old. I thought for a second what should I do and this voice in my head said “don’t think Rick”.
I quickly walked over to his table, picked up his cowboy hat, plunked it on my head, climbed back on stage, and continued singing with this big funny smile and hick look in my eye. But I was scared shitless. In a matter of seconds, the whole room was laughing at me and laughing at each other. In the end, the guy ran past me and I sneakily stopped strumming my guitar and grabbed my raccoon fur hat off his head while respectfully placing his cowboy hat on his head, straight and even. I did it so fast he didn’t even know what happened and I just carried on with the show.
There was no trouble for me after that for the rest of that six-nighter job, and a Saturday matinee. I remember those Saturday Matinees only because they were so brutal on me. All the partying and the stamina an entertainer would have to have for a Friday night, and then wake up at noon and have to be ready to play again at 3:00 in the afternoon was hell. That’s when I would say laughing I better eat some liver and vegetables in the morning.
This is a snapshot of a small part of my gigging on the road when I was out there. I have so many stories to tell about that time learning the ropes, the time of my life in my early twenties. Ya man, it was enough to drive you crazy. The stories are endless all through my thirties, until I was 44. I have a smile on my face right now. I am so glad I’m here to tell the story.
Before I end I want to share one other experience I had in that time period that I always get a chuckle out of. It happened when I got to Fort Nelson. But first, let me backtrack a bit here… I had just left the Okanogan Valley where I’d met up with two great guys named Hugh and Henry. Hugh’s family owned an apple orchard in the valley and I stayed there for a month to pick apples.
At the end of apple pickin’ season I got a ride up the road with them in a rickety old truck with a four-foot-long stick shift. Imagine how big the front was with the two seats and a little seat in the back where I sat! We would stop every day to rest, then set up shop the next morning. We’d go to the nearby radio station and Hugh and Henry would pay for a radio ad announcing at which crossroads people could buy these delicious Okanogan Valley apples. I would stand at the intersection and play guitar for the folks who would stop and buy apples. But they got more than apples that year – they got a bonus song or two of thanks.
I can remember it still – how the skies would be so beautiful and the wind at times would catch my guitar strings if my guitar was at the right angle. It would make my strings sound without my touching them. It gave me the idea that one day I would build a guitar 27 feet long and it would be attached to a telescope type of design, so I could change the angle of the guitar to catch the way the wind would be blowing that day. I would tune that giant guitar to a mystical chord and the strings would just do their thing with the wind.
By the time we landed in the town of Fort Nelson we had sold all our apples and I found myself helping Hugh and Henry build a foundation for Hugh’s first log cabin. After a few months of helping to getting the cabin off the ground, I got itching to play live and get out and do some gigs. The road just three miles off the Alaska Highway had a funky name – Radar Road – and that’s where I lived.
I decided to go into town and visit the manager of the local bar. At my impromptu audition I sang him a few songs and asked if he would book me for a gig. He was very pleased with what he heard so he hired me. That was on a Thursday afternoon and he wanted me to start the following Tuesday night. I showed up with my guitar and harmonica and my songs singing in my head. I didn’t use an amplifier so in order to be heard; I had to belt out the songs. It was a very enchanting experience for me because I moved from table to table and sang to each group of people because I quickly learned that it was hard to just stand in one spot and really touch everyone’s heart.
Getting back to the details… the night I arrived, a guy seated at the bar said hi to me. I was running a few minutes late so I set up really fast. Luckily my guitar was already tuned. I started to sing. I wanted to make the best impression the first night and not appear to be late. The man at the bar was a worker. I looked around the room for the man who hired me but he wasn’t there. I loved singing for this crowd because they were tipping me and buying me drinks and every night the guy at the bar was thanking me a lot – a real lot. I would say at the end of the night, “Thanks so much, I had a good time. See you tomorrow.”
I showed up on time for the rest of this six-nighter gig. Every time I played there it was a blast and I really got into playing to each table, and either having fun with a song or being more intimate and serious, depending on what tune I was singing. I was footloose and fancy-free. I walked around everywhere. Later in the week, I was performing in the bar when a new idea came to me: why don’t I go out into the lobby and see if I can sing a song next to the restaurant and maybe draw some people into the bar. So that’s exactly what I did.
After about ten minutes, a big, broad Native walked in. He looked tough. I decided to sing him a song anyway. The song that instantly popped into my head was one I had written called ‘It Comes Back to You.’ The main line in the song was “it comes back to you everything you do because what you do remains and will come back to you.” About a minute into the song (I never left his eyes) and for a split second, I really looked at him and his big body and saw that he was holding his side. It was red and soaked in blood. Looked like he had just been stabbed. It was frightening to see the fresh wound on his side. I looked back up at his eyes. He stood there, his eyes fixed on mine, as I continued for three minutes or so. Somehow I kept on singing to the end of the song. After the last chord was strummed, he walked over and slapped me on the back real hard and said, “You’re a good man.” Then, still holding his side, he headed for the bathroom. I never saw him again. I was completely freaked out that he was bleeding so much yet stopped to hear me sing. I was deeply moved. His friend followed him quickly into the bathroom and he was out as fast as can be holding his side. I am sure they were going to get medical help.
I finished my gigging on the Saturday night and they all said to come back any time and if you want, come back next week. I thanked them and went back hone to Radar Road, to the shack attached to the small motor home on the same lot where Hugh was building his cabin.
The following Monday I walked back to the bar in Fort Nelson. It took me an hour from the cabin. I asked the lady at the desk for Chris, the man who hired me. She told me that he was out of town and that his brother Bart was the acting manager that day. So she went and got Bart. I recognized him as the bartender who worked there the previous week when I sang.
He smiled at me and said, “Hey, it’s good to see you Rick. How you doing?”
I said I was fine and that I was just dropping by to pick up my wages.
With a puzzled look on his face, he asked, “What wages are you talking about?”
I said, “My pay for singing and playing last week.”
He said “I never hired you to play and sing here, I thought you were just coming in to play.”
I said, “No. Chris hired me.”
He replied, “I don’t believe you. Chris is my brother and he would never hire any one to sing at our bar at this time of the year.”
I didn’t get mad because I knew that if I put down my guitar in that part of the country, I wouldn’t have much to protect me.
He said, “You got lots of tips and free drinks. That’s all I can give you.”
I asked when his brother Chris would be back and he said “Chris won’t be back until Friday.”
I waited all week, not knowing if I was going to get paid or not.
On Friday I returned to the bar in the late afternoon on a beautiful Indian summer October day in 1981 to find Chris. I found him.
As soon as he saw me he broke out laughing and said to me “I never told my brother Bart I hired you so he thought that you were playing for free, that you just came in off the street.”
We both laughed our guts out for a while and then he gave me an envelope of cash – my wages.
He shook my hand and said, “I’m sorry I never got to hear you sing and play but I sure got a lot of good reports and great comments about you.”
Well, like I said, I have hundreds of stories like many musicians do who travel and play and have different experiences. Those were magic times for me growing up. There is no one magic solution for success in life that we should replicate. Life is never solved. There are always going to be new challenges that we never knew existed.
Being grateful for where I am now brings me happiness. I am invisible doing what I love, and it can be darn hard at times when there is no real magical place to get to. I have to create that magical place.
Doing what I love every day is great but it’s not free of problems. The journey never ends; there is no quick fix. I listen to my own inner whispers. No one can teach us passion.
I hope you enjoyed the story of my early twenties, playing up the Alaska Highway, as much as I enjoyed recapturing it and sharing it with you.
All the best to everyone
From your musical friend Rick Washbrook