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"Ajax & The White Tornados"
or
“Turn down your shirt”
or
“How To Form A Rock Band in Four Hours”

One summer I was hanging around with a girl named Wendy White and was jumping in and out of various struggling bar bands.

It wasn’t easy to stay fed being in just one band, so the habit was to join or form several bands, and then keep forming and joining bands, saying yes to any opportunity that came up.  At times you’d find yourself required to perform with more than one band on the same night, so you’d organize “subs” to fill in for you.  This could prove difficult since you knew (or half knew) the repertoire of the band you were sending a sub to, but he / she was coming in cold.  How did we get around this? One way was to prepare a “study kit” for the sub – music charts, recordings of the band live, etc.  The other skill was being good enough to jump in and basically do the right things at the right moments based on experience, a good ear and fast reflexes.  So, you’d choose “better” musicians to be the sub.  Also, generally speaking, drummers could sub in easier since, in the most basic sense, a beat is a beat and doesn’t have the complications of musical keys, etc. (some drummers might not accept this argument).  Then, from my point of view, guitarists can often just stop playing when they are confused, let the rhythm section carry it for a few bars, and find their way back it. (Again – sorry guitarists, there are many exceptions to this I’m sure). 

But the thing is, in mainstream music bass players can't just stop playing in the middle of a song. You are required to provide a foundation, be there on the down beat with the correct root note and in a comfortable groove – everyone is counting on you.  Okay so that might be a bass-centric perspective, but perhaps you can see my point.

Another way to deal with being in lots of bands was to prioritize the moiré difficult repertories or more desirable bands you want to be with, and work the other jobs around that.  In this sense, it was generally practice (especially for bass player s and drummers) to keep some country & western gigs as the ones you’d sub from when other (often higher profile) jobs came up.  So there were a number of us who would keep a country gig going and still be a non-subbing core member of a rock or R&B or jazz group.

At the moment I can think of three musicians that I knew of who were doing this.  Bazel Donovan was a member of Blue Rodeo and also operated a Country & Western band with his wife Vern.  I would sometimes sub for him in what I now think of nostalgically as really classic Country and Western bars around Toronto such as the Edgewater Hotel or the Gerrard House.  Here you might see drunken patrons passed out on the table and many flavours of misfits, country music lovers, and lonely souls, engaged in a fiasco of misplaced emotions on a Saturday night. And there you are, totally a fish out of water, (or maybe not),   trying to play credibly and find some love in it. 

I even remember Ed Bickert, the brilliant world class jazz guitarist doing some of these gigs (maybe not the worst ones) when he first came Toronto.  Another friend, Mark French played this circuit, and sometimes we’d work together on jobs.  Mark was a really nice guy, a unique drummer and had a hilarious “show biz” stage patter that you could always count on to keep the “welfare crowd” well entertained.  Not to take away from his deeper talent- Mark also wrote songs and had real star potential as a drummer.  He was adventurous and one day, frustrated with finding only temporary local gigs, picked up a British newspaper called Melody Maker, where he saw a London England ad which seemed humble, something like “rock band with record deal needs drummer”.  So, he called up the ad and it turned out to be for the Clash, so he flew there immediately, auditioned and got the job (which later fell through, but that’s another story….)\
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Anyway given that Mark was poorer than broke (as we all were)  I was impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit in that venture.  Later Mark became the drummer for Blue Rodeo, playing with Bazel (okay I guess that’s another story).

So there we all were, I guess it was the early 80’s, it’s a Friday afternoon, I had no gig for that night, the girl I was dating, Wendy, knew I had no gig, and her friend Joey got a call to play a chicken wings n’ beer tavern in an under cultured satellite town just outside Toronto,  called AJAX, Ontario
So Wendy told Joey I was available and  passed my number to him.  Joey had the gig but didn’t really sing, and I did. He called me and asked me to do the gig together that same night. I didn’t really feel like carrying the whole night as lead singer and bass player with no rehearsal whatsoever.  I knew the songs I would do, but how would the band sound faking through them all while I was trying to both cue them and “represent” to the audience?  So I called up Mark French, who also sang and had the hilarious “midway barker” routine just right for such a job. Turned out Mark was free and we decided to do the guitar-bass drums top forty rock trio thing and collect a few (and I mean a few) dollars each for the night.  So we scrambled for some PA equipment and a truck and headed off for Ajax Ontario – there is no way I’ll remember the name of the venue itself.  So there we are in a beat up budget rental truck in January with no heating on a Friday in rush hour, trying to make it on time to be set up and playing by 9 p.m.

I think maybe Joey and Mark had met before but I had never met Joey and in the truck we got acquainted and tried to come up with a strategy. One thing we seemed to have in common was an affection for bad television and the irony of out of touch TV commercials aimed at the unfortunate struggling class – you know the ones where doctors surveys reveal that 95% of people find relief in the product that is sure to cause you more harm than good in the long run……

So, one commercial we though was funny was one for a cleaning agent called Ajax- the “White Tornado” - whoosh -  here it comes, going to clean your bathroom or kitchen. It was a kind of funny commercial and we decided, since we were playing in Ajax, Ontario we’d name the band “The White Tornados”.  We had discussed this earlier and all brought white outfits.

 I also had a friend at the time, not a musician, named Kurt Weder who I believe was in training to become a private investigator.  Kurt had a deep love of kitsch, and rock and roll and in fact kitsch rock and roll and an even greater love for unlikely circumstance and plans going awry, so he decided he couldn’t miss this and insisted on meeting us up there with his video camera to document what may well be a hilarious event.  We all knew that somehow it would be good music at least at some points, given the caliber of players involved and the high tension of the challenge.

But even more, the likelihood of funny moments and cultural clash in this conservative truckers bar in a strip mall bar promised a worthwhile experience. And for me, I might earn enough to get some groceries and some pot to tide me over the next week – or who knows maybe I had back rent to pay.

So, we arrive late, the stripper was finished a while back and the crowd was restless.   We barely get things in place, no time to eat or change, our fingers still stiff from the unheated truck, and amid screeching feedback and hollering rogues we laid into the first song.  All of us had aspirations to be rock stars and were probably overdressed for the occasion – the cuts of our outfits may have been a bit flamboyant (probably influenced by the group YES or something) for this brute of a crowd with their biker chicks and Labbatts Blue on tap.

So, Kurt is delighting in the whole thing, with his video camera watching on, we’re playing the last chord of the first song and do the classic BBBBRRRAAAAANNG!!!!G  *#!!#!*#!*#*#*!*@!!!!!*(&&&& FLOURISH - guitarist Joey raises the guitar neck then slams downwards – and the band do the big THUD dry stop.  The room is silent and one guy yells out “Turn Down your shirt”.

It just so happens we have some of this on Video:

VIDEO FOOTAGE

The evening progressed accordingly – we’re not sure how they took us. But somehow it  felt like there was a bit of appreciation in the air (it’s hard to tell) and we got through our night.  One highlight for me was that after the first set I went outside to get some air. It was a strip plaza and nothing else was open.  I’m standing outside a concession at the end of the mall, away from the bar and decide to roll up a joint.  In those days people sometimes actually went to jail for even possessing marijuana.  As I tuck it together and lick the paper, I fire it up, reflecting on how to find a little beauty in frenetic moments, and it starts to snow.  Beautiful little flakes pattering down, kind of Christmassy, I’m having a toke, the pleasant marijuana fragrance is wafting around me, I’m  feeling a little blissful and at peace with the situation, my lowly music career, and life in general, then  I look ahead, and standing about six feet in font of me is a uniformed police officer.

Not really the threatening kind you might expect in Ajax on a Friday night shift – kind of an older, quiet type, just gazing at me. What the heck was he doing in the shadows of a lonely strip mall, no car in sight –was I imagining it?   My survival instincts kicked in and without thinking I immediately (Dropping the joint in a vain hope that maybe he didn’t see me toking or couldn’t smell it) and stepped quickly toward him, standing one foot from him – looked him in the eyes and said ‘Hello officer!  I’m playing in The White Tornados, at the bar here”  “Hello”, he said, not overly suspiciously.  “How are things? – nice snowflakes” -  I said

Yep, nice “ he said and calmly walked away.

g.

 

Here’s a picture of Kurt Weder ,P.I. today (he passed his private eye course and now runs Weder-Clark Associates, and is the co-creator of XXXX an as yet unreleased reality TV show about XXXXDX….but that’s another story.

Note –insert links throughout the story Blue Rodeo, Ed Bickert, Weder Clarke, etc….