A number of years ago, when Rush and Max Webster were two of the most popular rock bands in Canada, I was about 22 years old and had a good friend named Ken Basman. Ken was a very inspired and skilled guitarist who had done a turn at Berklee School of Music in Boston and had a unique approach to rock guitar, employing aspects of bebop and extended harmony techniques. This had gotten him quite a lot of attention from forward-minded musicians in the Toronto area, one of them being B.B. Gabor, an anti-communist, anti-fascist former journalist from Hungary who was creating quite a buzz as a new wave/punk music artist.
This was before the Air Canada Centre, before the "Dome", perhaps before Roy Thompson Hall. The largest indoor venue in Toronto was Maple Leaf Gardens.
Ken and I had a band together called The Zebras doing covers and starting to write our own music. Gabor was sort of taking off as a "new wave" artist with inventive, jazz-influenced songs. This was the punk era and Gabor had some underground hits in Europe and Canada such as "Metropolitan Life" "Moscow Drug Club" and "Soviet Jewelry", which sounded like "Soviet Jewry" when sung. The picture for his single release had him wearing a set of handcuffs, which brought another meaning to his title.
Gabor a very intelligent and interesting man. Very present and intuitive, a good communicator and often edgy. Something was troubling him deep down inside, yet his song messages were insightful and wanted the world to wake up from our painful dream and habitual frenzy. He pointed to the manipulation of the masses and wanted us to resist. There was an underlying compassion for our plight as programmed consumers, caught in a trap of projected expectations that were never to be fulfilled in the ways made available by the mainstream bourgeois lifestyle we are cultured into. This was evident in his songs "Consumer" and “Metropolitan Life”., where the opening scene has the singer tyring ot reaon with a mugger wielding a knife. And his heartfelt concern for the environment was expressed in his sad slow version of Joini Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. Her version was. Perhaps inappropriately rendered as a happy upbeat ditty ,even though her lyric spoke otherwise, but Gabor’s version well described the message, using her words and melody but rearranging the music to better tell the story.
This is Gabor’s version: Big Yellow Taxi by B.B.Gabor.
Gabor was also known for antics such as french kissing on-stage with boys from the audience, wearing torn black stockings with a rose between his teeth and telling his record company to fuck off. Not quite as inventive, our band The Zebras sometimes used to start our show by running to the edge of the stage spitting beer all over the audience and doing encores in our underwear.
Anyway, Gabor developed an interest in Ken's playing and sort of slowly pulled him out of our band and into his, which eventually led to our band falling apart and my joining B.B. Gabor as bass player for a short stint which happened to include a gig at Maple leaf Gardens on New Years' Eve, opening for Max Webster, Rush and Goddo.
We also did some other concerts with Max Webster, one of them at Ottawa Civic Centre, during which I saw a really cute thing. I was picking at the food table provided for the talent backstage, which included a vegetarian buffet and some nice champagne, when I looked out and saw Kim Mitchell peeking his head out of the curtains so that kids in the audience, waiting for the show to start, would see him for a second here and there. This was creating quite an intrigue among the crowd.
I was thinking of his song writing, and in particular one of his hits "A Million Vacations , which had a line in it that said " ..'cause you can only drive down main street so many times - and a million vacations is what you've got in mind...." I thought about how, in a way, he was very dedicated to understanding and connecting with the youth in Ontario small towns, and perhaps hoping to give some inspiration and empowerment to them. THese were the people he played for, the people who bought his records, and he seemed to understand and care for them, knew he had a responsibility of some kind that ran a bit deeper than being cool. Then to watch him playing his hide and seek game in a really playful, fully engaged way was to me an inspiration for really doing what you do, all the way, no matter what it is.
Anyway, so we're about to go on (we are first) and Gabor is in one of his typically moody moods - you never completely knew where you were with him. His band was usually comprised of top notch players who could handle almost anything - and Gabor made sure they were fully challenged. I had done only a couple of gigs , little or no rehearsal (had gone out and purchased a copy of his record to learn the songs) and we're about to go on in front of - I don't know - twenty or thirty thousand people - for me the first time ever on such a large stage.
I had little idea of how my bass amp would hold up in this situation, except that the sidewash monitors which provided our foldback was a P.A. system way larger than what I was used to as the front of house system in most of my regular gigs.
It was as if 35 minutes went by in 3.5 seconds - like a blink. All I could see was the front forty rows where the stage lights spilled onto the audience and then a star lit sky of people holding up and waving their bic lighters like candles in a black sea.
Gabor wouldn't provide set lists, so we had to live off his moment to moment cues to know which song was coming next. This is interesting when you hardly recognize which title goes with which song because you only learned the songs in an all night cramming session several days before.
So here's the part where Gabor liked to challenge people. For those of you who aren't acquainted with music harmony, there are many ways of approaching scales, and one could generalize by saying that most pop music is written in the ionian mode of the diatonic system - you know "do re mi fa.. "
Jazz employs modal techniques which turn all that upside down by deciding that you could start the scale from re or mi or fa, etc., each of which would constitute a new scale with a new name to it, and in response all the chords and melodies based from those modes would be structured differently and each have a characteristic sound, quite unlike 'yer basic do re mi fa pop song. An example would be a mixolydian mode which starts from the fifth or "so" of the common ionian mode.
Gabor subscribed to the idea that there was little point in playing your song like it was on the record, or eve like it was last night, and that the fans who come out to a show should see a whole new side to what you can do. He was always looking for ways to do this.
So, we're waiting for what the first song is going to be and Gabor calls out "Metropolitan Life - mixolydian - 1, 2, 3, 4..." which means he wants us to transpose the entire harmonic structure of the song to something other than what we know from the record, which changes the chords to be played ,the bass line and all instrumental and vocal melody parts!
So anyway, these were great players and we probably pulled it off....
Here's B.B.Gabor doing "Soviet Jewelry" :
Soviet Jewelry mp3