At ten o'clock on Tuesday night I'm sitting on the floor of my apartment with bills spread out in front of me. I'm trying to work out my overall financial picture, and figure out exactly how deep the monetary pit I'm in has grown. I list my assets, which basically add up to a closet-full of worn clothes, a few guitars, amps and some other musical gadgets and doohickeys. My only steady income at this rather fragile point in my career is from publishing royalties I receive four times a year for my songwriting credits with Tremors Of Intent. Beyond that, I don't currently earn anything.
Over the last several years I've been a working musician, playing all over town in pubs as part of different low level groups, typically cover bands with other guys who have to get up in the morning and head to work in the post office, factory, or wherever else they might be fortunate enough to work. I've played rhythm and lead guitar, bass, and even keyboards for crews who would show up to host jam night at hotel bars, crank out Mustang Sally at the road houses, and even play the occasional wedding or private function. If you work enough and you've got a wife who also works hard, you can make a decent living. Not a great living mind you, but a decent one.
The problem now is that I decided to quit all of those earning bands to try and go all or nothing with a new group, playing primarily original material. And that group, the newly-named Clutch Dogs, is currently earning a big fat nothing. On top of that, my hard working wife and I are currently looking for ways to bankrupt ourselves and each other through the use of seedy divorce lawyers we found in the phone book.
These are the problems I'm busy occupying myself with when the phone rings. I get up, nearly upsetting my empties, and grab it on the third ring.
Hello? I answer. I can hear muted music in the background. There is a pause before I hear a voice.
Yes, am I speaking to Terry Wilson? I hear. I don't know the voice.
Yeah, this is Terry. Who's calling?
This is Bob. I'm the manager at The Bovine. We met last week when you played with Machine Within a Machine.
Oh, yeah. Hello Bob. How are things?
Fine thanks. I see that you dropped off a CD here that night. You're available for gigs, is that right?
My heart starts to beat a bit faster. Yeah, we're available. Did you have a date in mind?
Well, that's the thing. We've had a cancellation for this Friday. We like to have someone in the place on a weekend. Could you fill in the spot for us?
My first thought is that we would not be ready in time, since we only have half a set ready to go. My second thought is that there's no way I'm going to tell this guy that.
Yeah, we're ready to go, I say. That's not a lot of time to advertise though. What about promotion?
Don't worry about that. We'll try and get the word out. Of course, if you've got friends that you could tell, that would be great. Um, we usually pay the band from the door, but since we don't know what kind of crowd we're going to get He trails off.
Well, you understand that we can't work for free.
Oh, of course, I wasn't suggesting that. How about we charge three bucks at the door, and we guarantee a minimum of three hundred dollars.
That sounds fine, I say, but I really don't know if we'll draw anyone. We haven't gigged in the city, so we don't have any fan base to bring.
We usually get a good crowd on a Friday, he says. So the most important thing is having a quality act on the stage.
Um, yeah. No problem there. Questions about the quality of our act flit through my mind, but I keep them to myself. What time should we load in?
I call and leave messages for Mark and Jason, imploring them to call me as soon as possible so that we can figure out getting to the gig. We have just one practice left before the show, and we'll have to sharpen up the five songs we've got down, and run through at least five or six more with Mark to get him ready.
Jason calls up at midnight. Are you serious? he asks me. Terry dude, I don't think we can pull this off.
I don't see why not, I tell him. You and I know the songs cold, and Mark is a good drummer. Shit, the first time we met him was at a jam and he did just fine playing through songs he may have never even heard. We'll just get him familiar with the stuff and we'll keep it simple. It'll be fine.
I don't know man. I don't want to get up there and look stupid.
Look Jason, for you, that's inevitable anyway. You're tempting me to use the p-word here.
What's the p-word?
Pussy. Just be on time for practice tomorrow, we'll go hard and get it together. Don't sweat it. It'll come together fine.
Mark calls the next afternoon and sounds excited as hell, and although he too is apprehensive about not being properly prepared, he sounds ten times more ready to perform than Jason did. I give him a similar admonition to be on time, and tell him I'll see him at the rehearsal facility.
After I hang up, I pick up Have A Nice Day, the book I've been reading for the last few days, by Mick Foley of hardcore wrestling fame.
Two hours later, wiping tears of laughter from my eyes, I have a look at my watch and immediately launch myself across the room, ejecting a long stream of swear words as I run to get ready. It's almost six-thirty, and after warning both Jason and Mark about punctuality, I've made it nearly impossible to get to practice on time myself. I quickly brush my teeth, grab my jacket and my bass and head out the door.
My options are either to take the bus, which is dodgy since I'm unsure how long I'd have to wait for one, or walk the dozen blocks to the studio. Taking a bus would make it impossible to grab anything to eat on the way, and I don't want to show up without eating since my only food all day has been a bowl of fruit loops more than seven hours ago. I wouldn't want to practice for an hour and fall over.
I start walking and manage to show up only fifteen minutes late with a burger and fries in a brown paper takeout bag. When I walk in, Jason looks like he could wrap his hands around my throat. I decide profuse apologies would not be a good way to go, since Jason might get ideas of superiority.
Hey guys. Sorry about the time. Just let me eat this thing and we'll get started.
Shit man, Jason starts. What the fuck? You say to be here on time and where are you? How are we supposed to play a show on Friday if we can't even get in a full practice?
Relax, Guitar-star, I say. You and Mark just run through 'Runaway' while I eat. I won't be long.
Jason looks like he's got a lot more to say, but Mark nods to him and counts it in. Before Jason has a chance to continue he's playing a song. I wolf the burger down, stuff a bunch of fries in my mouth, wipe my hands and I'm plugged in by the time they finish the song. Jason and I get in tune, and there's barely a pause before we head into another song.
In all, we manage to make it through twelve songs, and I feel confident Mark will be able to manage when show time comes. Actually, just improvising he sounds very clean, very sharp. It probably won't be so easy with the stage lights in his eyes, but by the time we unplug to head home, I feel pretty good about the whole thing. Mark sweats like hell, but he's smiling as we finish up. Jason on the other hand, looks stressed out trying for the first time in weeks to run through every song we've got. Sometimes I wonder if he actually enjoys playing anything besides 'Sweet Leaf.'
While Jason and I put out guitars in their respective cases, Mark brings up a critical item that I had forgotten about. So Terry, does the place we're playing have a house drum kit?
Shit, no, I say. You said there was one you could borrow from a friend, right?
Aye, my flat mate's, but it's no much of a kit. It might not be the best for playing a show.
Um. It'll have to do I guess. I don't know where else we can get one.
Aye. So, can you like, pick us up or something?
Jason and I look at each other. He shrugs and says, Don't look at me. I don't know how I'm going to get my amp down there either.
Yeah, I guess we'll have to rent something. We'll take it out of the money from the show.
How much will that cost? asks Mark. I'm pretty much skint.
Jason furrows his brow. You're what?
Skint. I've not got much cash.
Jason shakes his head. Fuck man, you've gotta talk more Canadian.
I look at Mark and expect him to tell Jason where to stick it, but he smiles likes it's a joke. I clear my throat. It'll probably be twenty or thirty bucks. I'll call around and see what I can get. Just write down your addresses for me. We're not on until ten, and we can load in at eight, so I'll pick you up a while before then.
We work out the details, and come Friday night I pull up to the address Mark gave me in a Chrysler minivan with more miles on it that a Rolling Stones groupie. The house is old, needs painting, and is located in a wonderfully rough, low income part of the city. I park across the street and look warily around as I cross and run up to the door. There aren't many places in Toronto where a grown man feels unsafe, but in light of recent gang activity and the proclivity of local news stations capitalizing on urban violence as a method of drawing in viewers, I find myself more and more uncomfortable in areas that I don't know well.
I ring the bell and Mark answers a second later, with a freshly clipped haircut and battered blue jean jacket. Hey mate, he says, ushering me in. Come on, we'll grab the drums and head out.
The kit is down in the basement of the house, which looks on the inside to be some kind of flophouse for several single, untidy young men. We pass a kitchen full of dirty dishes with a kitchen table covered in empty beer bottles, and Mark leads me down to an unfinished basement where he shows me the kit.
Hmm. It's tiny, isn't it? I say, looking at the little setup, which looks like it was ordered out of the Sears catalogue back in the nineteen-eighties. There are baseball stickers, half peeled off, stuck to the bass drum. It looks very much like something a kid would learn to play on.
Well, maybe we can act like it's my gimmick, Mark says. Like those guys who had that 'Peaches' song. Stripped down. Simple gear.
Yeah, but I'd rather have good gear. We each start grabbing pieces to carry out to the van. Have you used them at all?
Yeah, a bit. They don't sound as good as the drums at the rehearsal space, but they're not that bad. They'll do for one show anyway.
We get the stuff in the van, but before we get in ourselves Mark tips his head toward the house. Fancy a quick hoot before we go?
Smoke up a bit?
I'd rather not smoke up before we play. A couple beers maybe. After would be better.
I wouldn't mind having a quick one.
I check my watch, looking for an excuse to get going. Do you have to?
So I don't get too nervous.
We end up going back in and sitting down with one of his roommates, who packs a massive bong, which is shaped like a green alien head. They each take huge hits, and I have to refuse several times. I'm driving, I tell them.
Eventually I get Mark out the door and into the van, which to my surprise is still there, and with all the windows intact. We start heading to get Jason, and the digital clock in the dash tells me the bad news: the pot session has put us behind schedule.
Mark starts bantering on, yapping a mile a minute about god knows what, with his accent growing more impenetrable as the smoke kicks in.
Jason is standing in front of his building when we pull up, and he slips his guitar and amp through the sliding door and climbs in. He's got a big smile on his face. Hey boys, he says. Are we ready to rock?
Haddy-fie ye doff dun fucker, responds Mark, or at least that's what I pick out from his mangled speech.
What? laughs Jason. What the fuck was that?
He's high, I explain.
Shit man, he laughs. How high?
High enough to faddle-fay yer muddun slee, ye doss cunt, says Mark (approximately).
Can you understand a word he's saying? asks Jason.
Don't worry about whether or not he can talk, I say. Hey, Mark? Are you going to be able to play tonight?
Abba play ye bastards like the free duddun puts the bus up the lane, he says. And ye bastards have no idea a word I'm fockin' saying, do ye?
As long as you can play, I say, gritting my teeth and reaching for a cigarette..
The load in at The Bovine goes quickly, mostly because the drum kit is so small and easy to move. All the same, when it comes to setting the drums up and positioning them, Mark turns surprising vicious for a guy so stoned, slapping at our hands when we try to help him. I get set up, work with the bar staff to set up the house mikes and work out how they run the sound through their p.a. It takes a while, because Jason insists on dicking around with the effects peddles he never uses. We work out the mikes for the drums before he allows us to get his amp miked.
There are people in the club already, standing around with beers. On the televisions behind the bar they're playing some Japanese animation, with ninjas fighting in a forest. I sit down at the bar and order a beer, and in the notebook I brought along I start to write out set lists with a fat black marking pen.
Well, hello there, says a voice behind me. I turn around.
2006 Nolan Whyte