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Monday, March 12, 2012

Rock Against Radiation, Toronto 1980

Randy, Joey and Dave of DOA

Jaimie Vernon: Life’s A Canadian Rock – Part 7


My initiation into the world of punk was going to be on a grand, Technicolor, scale. It was the summer of 1980 and the second wave of punk was now in full discordant swing. At Toronto’s City Hall there was a public awareness concert called Rock Against Radiation set for Nathan Phillips’ Square. And as part of my initiation, my new band Swindle was going to attend collectively so that I could be shown the street etiquette and absorb the punk ethos.

On the bill that day were Stark Naked & The Fleshtones, Joe College And The Rulers, The Diodes, The Forgotten Rebels, The Demics, The Viletones, and the Godfathers of Canadian hardcore: DOA (Note from Joe College: The Diodes were never on the bill and The Demics didn't play because they didn't bring amps and people were not into sharing that day - read Joey's book for the details). It was their set, and a rather angry lead singer/guitarist Joey Shithead, that opened my eyes to the energy and the fury that the genre, and its political armour, had to offer.

Truly, they were not Punkers. They were spittle dribbling, blood spurting, fist-flailing Punks with a capitol ‘F.U.’. During the band’s set someone hurled a rather sharp lapel button, with safety pin fully extended, at Joey Shithead’s dome-sized cranium and sliced open his forehead. Without missing a beat he wiped the blood from his face onto his guitar and kept playing; blood continued to drip into his eye and he never broke stride until the song was finished. Then he let loose with a venomous tirade. I was scared for the audience. I fully expected him to dive into the crowd and pummel someone. Instead, the band left the stage. Huh. Even punks had tantrums, it seemed.

Was this a lifestyle I could embrace? At that moment I wasn’t entirely sure I could make the commitment. To wit: I was wearing a polyester three-piece dinner jacket and vest from my Grade 8 graduation festooned with chains, buttons of the Beatles (and thankfully, The Clash – borrowed from our bassist Tim James) and a home-made button featuring our own logo. My T-shirt was a sleeveless ‘Night at the Opera’ album cover by Queen that I’d scribbled over with black magic marker. And I was sporting brown suede Hush Puppies. I knew it wasn’t entirely about fashion, but I must have been embarrassing to be around for Tim, vocalist Ivan Judd and drummer Jim Greeley who, in contrast, looked and acted the part. It also didn’t help that I bailed out after the DOA set to go to Ontario Place’s bandshell stage to meet up with my suburban friend to catch Larry Gowan and his Prog band Rhinegold in action again. My friends thought I looked like an idiot. My band thought I looked like an idiot. I was
outgrowing my old life and trying to grow into a new one.

Punk was a reaction to the repression of the British underclass by disenfranchised unemployed youth who, initially, had nothing better to do but collect dole and disturb the peace. But those who were tired of loitering and rioting with police took up guitars to battle the establishment. By 1976 an unstoppable rage had risen up from the back alleys and soon the punk movement was born (though historians will argue that, in America, the Ramones were already there by 1974). An intrepid bondage shop store proprietor named Malcolm McLaren seized the opportunity to turn unbridled angst into a fashion statement and his meal ticket – one that came complete with its own poster children: The Sex Pistols.

Steve Leckie and Screamin Sam of The Viletones

Johnny Rotten and crew had bristled against the status quo and bands like Status Quo. Both corporate rock and progressive rock were viewed as the enemy; self-involved wanking by rich kids who flew through the ranks of musicdom having never wiped their own arses, never mind their own blue-blooded, snotty noses. It was an elitism that excluded all but those who trained at the finest music schools in Britain. The Sex Pistols were the anti-music; and as the world soon found out – the anti-Christs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeP220xx7Bs

But Malcolm McLaren turned punk into another product. He franchised the entire movement with public spectacle, leather boutiques and catchy, bumper sticker sloganeering. He had done to punk what Andy Warhol had done to soup cans: turned the mundane into the obscene. Punk no longer had street cred. It had become a commercial marketing strategy between toothless yobs and suited Artist & Repertoire record executives in Hollywood. In the face of McLaren’s greed, Johnny Rotten was unwilling to allow The Sex Pistols to become corporate shills. The band could not co-exist in a world where it was merely another by-product. Rotten blew up the band in the middle of their one and only tour of America. True to their misguided, miscreant internal integrity, the Pistols had committed suicide to save themselves, and punk, from becoming the thing it was trying to fight: the Establishment. In less than a year, they had managed to offend an entire nation with their metaphorical pissing on sacred cows and it only took the release of one solitary fuck-you statement – their debut album ‘Never Mind The Bullocks’ and a little pop ditty called “God Save The Queen” – to do it. The band and the album had left an indelible stamp on restless youth worldwide – unmatched in the coming generations until Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana.

And so, It was left to the second generation of angry young men – who were saddled with Ronald Reagan’s new economic vision (read: recession) – to enforce the punk credo on a whole new level. This generation was never going to allow punk to be co-opted through corporate logos and brands. This generation wasn’t just angrier, it was educated, literate and politically aware. Guitars weren’t just a means of keeping hoodlums off the street, they were now being used as swords. The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Germs, and other California bands led the charge. And in Canada, D.O.A. was the new ambassador because it had survived the transition from first generation to second generation by being allowed to grow progressively more caustic without the interference of a major record deal.

The saving grace to the growth of the Canadian punk scene was that it was never watered down by commercialism. The country just wasn’t, and still isn’t, big enough to have an exclusionary star system or a government dividing its citizens along class and race lines (unless you’re aboriginal and then all bets are off). But the tide was turning as we shifted to a Conservative (and conservative) power structure at the same time as our neighbours to the south. The over-riding fear was that any moves made by the United States to escalate the Cold War with the USSR would undoubtedly sweep Canada into its wake.

Swindle was born on the tide of this change. Ivan, Tim and Jim were suburban kids looking for an outlet. The seeds of discontent were being sewn by the media. Would Ronald Reagan push the little red button to launch an inter-continental ballistic missile strike on the Soviets and offer mutually assured destruction following their own retaliation? Seventeen year-olds imagining Canada as the foul line between a Russian and American game of nuclear volleyball was a pretty real fear to live with on a daily basis. Especially when it threatens your cozy middle-class existence where everyone’s biggest concern is who would mow the lawn this week.

So how would I fit into this puzzle? Did I fit into the puzzle? I certainly didn’t fit into the clothes…or, as it turned out, the hairstyles. A near-fatal set of blood-clots at birth left me with some rather unsightly scars on my head for life, so I couldn’t even consider so much as a brush-cut, let alone a Mohawk – though, had I already embraced my punk rock alter-ego this would have been a worthy war-wound to parade. So a check list needed to be made and annotated:

1) Was I politically aware enough to deal with the subject matter that was becoming more progressively entrenched in the punk identity? Maybe. I was now writing songs for the band that directly addressed more socially conscious issues and less “Boy-meets-girl, boy loses girl, boy does header off the Bloor Viaduct” topics.


2) Was I angry enough? You betcha. I was a walking time bomb of rage. I was a toxic cauldron of hormones and resentment from years of living in near poverty on the fringes of the inner city under the tutelage of ill-equipped, and under-educated street-smart parents that were extreme disciplinarians who both had fathers that abandoned them early in life. In other words…where was the love?

I was 20 years away from some decent therapy and I wasn’t fucked up enough to toss it all away on booze, drugs and impregnating the girl next door. No, I was merely a repressed suburban kid who was internalizing everything. Toronto’s suburban gang warfare was still decades away so punk became the new urban warfare. And I gravitated to it like teenage girls toward an outlet mall.


Before taking on the world with musical and civil disobedience, I had to take the first part of July 1980 off for summer school as my Grade 11 math average had plummeted while my regular school grades remained constant. Couldn’t blame the bad math on my new musical interests, I had always been getting 2 + 2 = 5. My school friends and I caught wind of a job opportunity at the Canadian National Exhibition – Toronto’s annual fair – through the end of August. I jumped from summer school right into work. Most of my buddies ended up on day shift so we never saw much of each other. I, somehow, lost the job lottery and ended up pulling 2PM to 10PM shift, meaning a long, tiring streetcar/subway/bus ride back to Scarborough late every night.

I was grounds keeper along with a team of 30 other guys scraping breakfast, lunch and dinner pizza, popcorn and puke off the pavement around the Food Building, the Better Living Centre, The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, CNE head office and the Press building with an occasional foray over to the Hockey Hall of Fame and the gates of CNE Stadium if it got excessively busy (usually on the weekend). Once the Food Building was cleaned, the remainder of the shift was off the beaten path and was pretty easy to keep tidy. By mid day a few of us would hide in a shaded spot under the Gardiner Expressway behind the Horse Palace to shoot the shit, eat lunch, get sunburned and hit on the Conklin Rides carnie girls.

Our boss looked like future film maker Michael Moore and was as big a shit disturber. He was pretty easy going but was adamant that the management of the janitorial company we worked for were screwing us teenagers over for barely-minimum wage. This would come to a head when he and another manager decided that the final week of the CNE would have us in a state of ‘work-to-rule’. I ended up losing a lot of money and my first dislike for unions over this job action.

But I did get the opportunity to sneak into a number of great concerts when I was hauled in to help CNE Stadium’s work crews with clean-up: Chicago, Queen, The Cars, The Who and Alice Cooper. Well, I almost saw Alice Cooper except he never showed up minutes before his scheduled time to hit the stage, leaving opening act Zon to buffer the unrest beginning to take over the impatient crowd. As the audience began booing and showing their discontent, my team of janitors was told to get out of the building and back to our regular positions on the CNE grounds. And then all hell broke loose. Ivan and his very pregnant girlfriend, Sharon, were in the audience. Ivan witnessed chairs flying and other objects (who in the hell brings vegetables and fruits to a music concert?) and the crowd surged forward while policemen on horseback raged in to try and get the masses to stand down. The cattle were scooped up and tossed back into the arms of ground officers waiting with billy clubs and handcuffs. Sharon barely escaped with the help of folks giving her a hand over a security fence. There was thousands of dollars in damage and Ivan caught the entire fiasco on audio tape which we’d use years later as a backing track to a song he wrote about the incident entitled “Fly To A Flame”.

I missed it all and was safely on my way home from another tiring eight hours in the stifling Toronto heat. But, during my shift the next day I happened to be in front of the CNE head office where Alice Cooper and his entourage arrived in two black limos. As he walked to the office doors to quell the anger of the mayor, City Council and a team of CNE executives I asked him what had happened. In a low grovel he said, “Asthma”. Cooper’s family had moved from Detroit to Phoenix when he was young because the pre-fame Vincent Fournier had asthma. He hadn’t had a flare-up in years…until he arrived in Toronto the night of the show. He and the promoter were on the hook for $25,000. Fortunately, the second time I saw Cooper, in 1989, he was asthma-free. http://youtu.be/scrIUhGUQuo

On one of my last nights working the CNE, my parents had taken off on vacation and left it to my grandmother to pick me up from transit and deliver me home. As she rolled out of the driveway on a promise I wouldn’t destroy the house, I was left to my own devices. Soon, as planned earlier in the week, Tim and some of my gal pals arrived at the door for an impromptu party. My former girlfriend, and now Tim’s love interest, Cindy, was nowhere to be found. We had to run under cover of the parkette across from my house and help her escape out her bedroom window so she could join in the fun,

We kept the lights off and hung out in the backyard so that no one would see that we were drinking and getting into no amount of trouble. But I decided not to stir up neighbourhood curiosity and ushered everyone inside where we ended up playing strip poker in the living room – except that Tim and I were losing…badly. The ladies found this highly amusing and when we pointed out how unfair it was that they were clothed and we were semi-naked they promised to disrobe only if Tim and I stripped and streaked around the neighbourhood first. We did. It’s the fastest I ever ran in my life. But when we returned to the house, the ladies had locked the front door. We had to go through the backyard (which also faced onto the adjoining street) and we attempted to enter the back patio doors. Except the lady living behind us – and the mother of my sister’s best friend – had decided at that moment to walk the family dog. From the distance we could hear a taunting call, “Jaimie. I’m telling your Mom & Dad”. Tim and I pounded on the door and yelled at the girls inside. “Let us in. Someone saw us!” They opened the door and we dove in blindly. After shutting the door and the drapes we sat breathless giggling, and fretting about what the neighbour might say to my folks while trying to put our clothes back on. The party came to an abrupt end.

My folks never found out. She never told on me. And never could. In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments you hear about on the news, she was stabbed to death by her boyfriend a few years later. Murder had come to the community of Malvern twenty years before the infamous gang wars. Between the punk rock initiation, the job and this sobering real-life headline, I became an adult that summer.

We now have an email where all of us here at Don’t Believe A Word I Say can be contacted dbawis@rogers.com. Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s hear what you have to say.

- Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and is the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia. He keeps a copy of Lightfoot’s “Sundown” under his pillow at night.

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