Hells Angels, Thunder Bay and Kundalini Yoga
A long time ago I played in a show band comprised of musicians from Barbados, Guyana and St. Vincent, assembled by a female Toronto booking agent who enjoyed vacationing in the West Indies. As I understand it, she enlisted young musicians she met while on vacation, sponsored them into Canada. Utilizing these musicians she formed cover music groups, playing Holiday Inns and show clubs, perpetually on tour, mostly around Canada and the U.S. She kept several bands going, and enjoyed performing herself in one of the bands (the one I played in as bass player). She was a backup singer, with her daughter as the other backup singer, together flanking the handsome and charming Aubrey Man, our lead vocalist. Aubrey had some hit records back home in BArbados. He had a huge smile, a regal carriage, full of himself, diplomatic and quite a good crooner - style singer.
This was in the disco days. we were playing “Hotline”, “Disco Duck”, “Love Hangover” and even “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. That might sound a bit sucky, but we played those grooves deeply. Aa bass player this was super fun and great training. The bass parts on those songs were really inventive and playful, and in spite of the “sellout” aspect of the marketing and some of the lyric themes, the musicians on those records were amazing. It was wonderful to explore these songs with good players who could pull off the deep rhythm and good grooves -especially considering they were from an entirely different culture.
I got into the band after a quick audition when they were in a hurry to put their show together since Marilyn had set up dates before forming the band and there was deadline looming. Once I was hired I had to go to M&M Taylors and Dufferin & Dundas, who specialized in stage outfits for show bands. I had to purchase three costume changes before receiving any pay - to show my commitment. One was a tux, another a purple satin flared pants kind of disco outfit, another was an "island theme" Hawaiian kind of thing. We did theme sets including a 45 minute Sly and the Family Stone medley, a disco set, a set of 50’s/60’s tunes by the black vocal groups like The Inkspots and The Platters, and a Hawaiian set complete with fire batons, fire eating and an ever lowering limbo bar for the audience to try out.
At that point in time, this might have suited a Club Med, a cruise ship or a waterfront Tourist Hotel, but we often found ourselves booked into venues that were something quite otherwise!
The nature of our show was somewhat comical in that, although they related to the content of the music, these guys (myself included) had no real connection to the culture they were representing -. So why did our agent/leader want us to do this show? There was this whole Canadian idea that, to make some money you had to be “commercial” and conservative in order to attract people who would spend some money in the club. I think this was more a Canadian attitude. to mimic stars instead of becoming a star by culturing your own music and your own message. So, as a working musician these were often the kinds of choices one made- in order to earn enough salary to be able to stay in the game. The other choices were play in an original music group without any pay, or form a group and get bogged down being a leader instead of practicing your instrument. I circled between all these form time to time, occasionally getting work with established groups that were both cool, did original music and were successful enough to pay a salary. But being in this group was a compromise, something you did for awhile while trying to figure out another move.
Still the situation had many redeeming points - one of them being my roommate Derry Etkins from Guyana. Now he was cool dude. All the other guys were totally busy chasing skirts and getting into territorial situations with each other, and they would come to Derry to solve their issues. Derry was a yogi, deep into Kundalini and Hatha Yoga. For the year I was with the band he taught me much yoga, gave me books and got me started on a path that was to last a lifetime. Daily we would do practice together and he instructed me in philosophy of yoga, meditation, pranayama and a gentle, powerful asana practice. He was the keyboard player, arranged all the vocal harmonies and functioned as the MC, introducing Aubrey Mann and doing a bit of a comedy routine for the audience to warm them up before our shows.
Before each evening he would do a meditation, then soak in a cold water bathtub with ice cubes to charge his prana. Five minutes before the show I would knock on the bathroom door and Derry would raise up, dry off, put on his tux and bound onto the stage shining to address the audience. The we would play some really funky instrumental music -Stevie Wonder, some fusion and maybe I’d sing a number -then Derry would announce Aubrey and the show would start. The two girls (mother and daughter) would come out, dressed in huge afro wigs and we would try to work the room into a high energy frenzy with a 45-minute Sly and the Family Stone Medley -you know - “Stand”, “Sex Machine”, “Everyday People”, etc. Later we’d try the limbo set and if it fit go back in time to the Platters and all that.
So, during one deadly winter we had few bookings and accepted some cancellation slots in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In those days you would book a six day week, Monday to Saturday as a single contract. In this case they gave us two weeks back to back, then two more weeks a month later, all in the same club, The Inntowner, which was one of those 1940’s style hotels -about 40 rooms, a restaurant and had a huge nightclub that serviced the local area residents (In a rough part of the city).
The first night We went on stage to play and the audience was not yer show band audience. These were tough people, used to hard rock and country, burgers and beer - and not black people or black culture. The guys in the band were "on alert". We’d do a number then stop and the place would be silent. They’d never seen anything like this and didn’t know why a black and white group were performing funky pop and love ballad and wearing tuxedos in their rock club. Many left and they were replaced by the late night crowd who kind of warmed up to us a bit. Musically we were really good and its hard to deny a high energy funky groove, sometimes even for white people. So we kind of got through and didn’t get fired the first night. But there was potential for trouble and you could sense a bit of racial tension in the air.
I noticed on the second night, one or two of the male band members had purchased knives and stuffed them in their socks, just in case. Thunder bay had quite an underworld vibe, There were a number of bikers lurking about and even guns seemed to be a part of the club scene. In fact, the club had so much trouble with the Hell’s Angels that they had to hire a Hell’s Angels member as their security because he was the only person they would listen to. Luckily nothing much happened in that first contract and most of the excitement had to do with band members attempted exploits with young ladies and the (successful) avoidance of their boyfriends.
The other drama was that two of them seemed to be after our leader’s (legal age) daughter so it was like, whenever the mother wasn’t in the room all kinds of things were going on, then she’d walk in and everyone would play straight. I learned a bit of Patois and Creolese and the various code language for discussing the matters of flirtation and exploit. My fellow band members had a colourful language and could discuss entire scenarios without whitey knowing what was going on.
So, we got through that contract, came back to Toronto to play a gig, but the return date was canceled. We also had only spotty bookings in the month preceding the return 2 weeks Thunder Bay engagement. With these holes in the bookings I was out looking for something to fill in with and the craziest thing happened. I got a call from a friend I had played with in another group, to play in Thunder bay a month later -at The Inntowner!! It turned out this was the same date that the Showband had been dropped from!
Thunder Bay is a major drive from Toronto - perhaps 12 hours, and I’d never played there before the Showband, so it was an interesting synchronicity. This other group was more rock / pop based, did some original tunes and was an all white four piece of stellar players that was kind of thrown together to fill this fill-in of a fill-in date. It wasn’t really a group but various pros who were in between dates and borrowed from their common experience and their own songs, some of which had made it to radio (most notably Leon Stevenson's and Dennis Keldie’s “Circular Impression” from their record with The Extra’s, which I was somewhat involved in.
Now here’s where I learned a bit about how bike gangs do business. On arrival to the club we were greeted (Not like the first time, where it was the club manager) by the bouncer, security person - a Hell’s Angles dude. Then, once we had our gear set up and had changed to get ready to go on, he quickly wisped us into a storage room in the back, insisting that all the band members attend. One in the room he locked the door -he and his buddy standing in the way so we couldn’t leave. He whipped out a joint, lit it up and passed it around -you know in that biker kind of way, staring you down and telling you to take some -so that refusal felt like it would start a fight. The he lit another, and another, and pulled out some pills, saying “we want to see what your show will be like totally baked! This is how it’s done around here!
Somehow I avoided any if the pills, took a few cursory toques from the joints and got out of there in time to have a glass of water, take some air outside and make it on stage for our - interesting - first set. Things progressed like that during the week as I noticed that in one month, the Hell’s Angels had totally taken over the business -bartenders were Hells Angels, managers were Hell’s Angels, and in the end we were paid by Hell’s Angles. To be clear, I think it was Hell’s Angles, but it could have been Satan’s Choice or even the Vagabonds -but it was one of those organized, uniformed, intimidating groups that were muscling in on the Ontario underworld at the time.
So it was about when Disco and Punk were overlapping, and this second group were closer to the punk influence, so one of the things we were doing was pogo-ing -you know, jumping up and down while playing. I remember pogo-ing and having this big fat biker guy trying to grab my legs to knock me out so I might fall when landing, and me always having to watch where he was so I wouldn’t fall over. I also remember meeting a really nice girl who I visited a few times during the two weeks, then finding out that her “husband” ( something I knew nothing about) was packing a gun and wanted to meet me. (Luckily that never happened either). What a wild place - Thunder Bay.
Here’s more news on Thunder Bay. Within a year of this, I played in a Rolling Stones tribute band called Sticky Fingers. The group had been together for ten years, had built up a huge PA and lights system, a Winnebago tour bus, a three man crew and had grown to become somewhat like the roles they played. Unfortunately all their gear was blown up in a bomb blast in Thunder Bay as the result of a war between one club and another -their gear was set up in the club that was bombed. It might have been the Inntowner or one of the four other major venues. It turned out their manager had let insurance lapse and they did not get compensated. Some of their band members left, and I replaced the original bass player -doing a “last ditch effort” tour with a small rented PA system where the band was trying to recoup using their prior reputation. You can guess none of the dates we did were in Thunder Bay!