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Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Stickman - at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop

I had been hired as a facilitator to help with stray students that
sometimes feel alienation from being lowered into a boiling vat of
advanced musicians. They feel after a very short time they can never
be on the same page with all these advanced players.
I would sometimes find them behind a tree somewhere playing quietly
by themselves. I would walk up to them with a smile and say "Hi my
name is Keith, that sounds good do you mind if I play along ?" Out
would come my chromatic from my leather holster clipped to my waist.
Sometimes all that is needed for a new person is to make a connection
with someone that will accept them for who they are and the level
that they can play at.
This is a very important time in a beginner's musical life where they
either feel accepted and grow or for whatever reason feel isolated
and alone and in many cases give up music all together. Often later
in the week I will observe with great joy the same person playing
along and having a great time with new friends feeling accepted and
Another duty I gladly accepted when hired was to do a vocal warm-up
for all interested singers from the 120 or so participants.
It was a great way to start the day and as the week progressed the
group of early morning stretchers and singers would swell.
On this particular session an oversight had been made in the booking
of the years facilitators as Ed Johnson one of Americas top vocal
choir directors was also chosen for this year. I bowed to his wisdom
letting him take the vocal classes and warm-ups decided to find
other things that could I could find to utilize my talents. It was
also a great thing for me as I had much more time on my hands to help
with individuals and plan....
On the second day I announced we were to have a luminere night and as
know one had ever heard of the concept, it was easy to plan without
spilling the beans so to speak. The first project was to secure come
tin cans to make candle lanterns with. I marched into the kitchen
and asked for some empty soup and tomato cans.
I had asked for 5 on a previous year in order to make a 5 pin
bowling lane and teach the Americans a little about our culture on
Canada day. There was a kids area where I had the cans punched with
star holes and asked everyone to make a can each.
I spent a lot of time with a nail and an old hammer after the
honeymoon was over and the children had moved on feeling rather like
the one valiant adult at the end of a fund raising car wash. Next
was the sewing of the costume. I had asked a convention tech if I
could have the unused light sticks at the conclusion of a large
budget convention I performed for.
I brought them with me and had some Shanghighed seamstresses help me
sew them into some black material that I rummaged for. The sticks
were activated by breaking a tiny tube of chemicals inside and
spinning the rope like plastic to activate the chemical reaction to
produce the green glow. The stick man was made with lines of glow
sticks following the lines of the body and making a circle for the
face. They had to be carefully sewn onto the black material so that
they did not activate before the special night. When they were done
the skeleton like creature looked like the logo in the TV show: Simon
Templer as "The Saint".
On the night of the luminere we all met at the big field at 10:30 PM
and the participants were met by a huge circle of cans with candles
in them. I handed out 80 - 16 inch glow stick necklaces for the
parade. I tried to enlist every percussion instrument available for
the Mardi Gras like procession. There were drums, shakers gongs,
whistles, sticks lots of other organic instruments that were made.
The percussion in complete darkness first circled the field and then
we all headed down the gravel road towards the entrance to the trail
down to the lake.
I had volunteers standing with flash lights pointing to the ground
all the way down the many stairs to the lake like the lights on the
isle of a movie theater as you go to find a seat in the dark. One of
my favorite memories of the night were the many glowing necklaces
moving like a green snake winding down the stairs towards the lake.
When all arrived at the large sandy clearing on the shore of the
glassy lake the music continued until I whispered to the head drummer
playing a dumbek drum and on his cue all the drumming stopped. There
was an ere silence that followed and out on the lake the sound of a
flute could be heard.
Suddenly there was a single line of light that appeared out of the
lake and waved back and forth in one spot. Everyone was riveted to
the movement and the sound of the flute. Suddenly sticks of light
could be seen unfolding from the blackness of the lake and rising up
into the image of the stickman with a sword.
For the next 5 minutes the stickman did an exhibition of some of the
most creative sword Tai Chi ever witnessed. For under the black
costume was a Tai Chi master that was doing the impossible a sword
routine on top of a moving swimming dock in the dark and covered with
black material from head to foot. When the routine was finished,
stick man slowly melted into the lake again and disappeared leaving
only the sword to be seen floating above the water as if by magic.
The sword floated out on the lake and slowly moved to the right along
the lake with the flute continuing as the tiny sword disappeared
around the corner.
After some thunderous applause, we were treated by my friend's vocal
class doing a Portuguese 4 part harmony song led with his guitar that
had a light stick in the sound hole. When the music subsided to
silence the procession began to thread their way up the stairs to the
top of the stairs and back to the field.
The next day at lunch I got a chance to introduce and formally thank
the stickman played by a good friend of mine and Tai Chi master, the
canoe instructor and wonderful flute player who sat in the bow of
the canoe. I also gave a special thanks to all the volunteers that
put in a lot of time and effort into this project .
For those that couldn't attend this experience, I can only say that
you had to be there would be an understatement. It was a very
special evening and one that I will remember always.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

When My Baby Smiles At Me I Go To The Rio

I was playing at a little restaurant on Alberni Street one night when this guy walks up to me and says,
“Hey man you sound really good. What are you doing for the next month?” I slowly looked at the ceiling as I wondered where this was going. “Nothing,” I said. “What do you have in mind?” He then proceeded to explain the scenario: They needed a third member of a trio that had been performing at a little bar in Cabo San Lucas called the Rio Bar & Grille. There was a keyboard player, a drummer/bass player and they needed someone to front the band. The more he explained the situation, the more I wanted to go to Mexico as I was long overdue for a trip somewhere and this sounded perfect. The only problem was that I had to leave in two days and understandably there were a few things I had to cancel and defer.

My passport was still in order as I ran around and packed my suitcase, and got everything else taken care of. I was quite nervous on the day before my flight, as I was supposed to pay for one way down there and would be reimbursed when I arrived. This was something I almost never did, as not having plane fare covered was often a sign of things to come. I threw caution to the wind and before I knew it, I was on my way to Cabo with my harmonicas, a guitar and a bass. I was asked to bring along a bass because the_bass player didn’t have one down there.

When I arrived at the airport I was met by the drummer of the band, a New Zealander. What I didn’t know at the time was that the keyboard player couldn’t find the money to come down, and I was now doing a duo with a drummer that was learning the bass out of necessity and had only just begun the journey. As soon as we loaded my bags into the van he owned to do his carpet installation business, we headed straight to a gig at a private estate on the road to San Jose. It was a windy and treacherous ride along the shoreline. Our estate was a trailer home that had been fashioned out of a summer cottage trailer and slowly turned into a small mansion by adding section-by-section and continuing to improve the grounds. In this country, labour is cheap and wonderful grounds evolve from the feeling of obligation to keep locals employed.

We acquired a Mexican drummer from somewhere and before long the three of us were set up in front of the ocean and were playing between two palm trees. I will never forget how strange it was to unexpectedly leave the rain of a Vancouver winter and find myself standing in front of huge beer coolers of ice brimming with 8-inch mini-bottles of Corona and Pacifica beer. I called many of my easier songs not knowing the rest of the players and noticed that everything started to sound the same. The drummer was a one trick pony and the bass player seemed to be running after a train. This turned out to be something I was never very comfortable with as I am used to _a very high caliber of musician. We played for the party and the people loved the music and generally enjoyed themselves.

We drove back to Cabo San Lucas and went to the Rio Bar & Grille where I would spend the next five weeks performing every happy hour and evening under the stars as there was no roof. _Without the keyboard player or drummer in Cabo, I had to try and figure out how to access the drums that existed somewhere inside the keyboard. There was no manual, so I spent many hours poking buttons and trying to figure out the architecture of this Japanese equivalent to the Rubik’s Cube. I finally was able to get the monster to play three simple beats and I revised all my songs to fit into one of the three. I had one more sound that was the thump of the bass drum only, which funny enough, was used more often than not. We called ourselves Dos Heuvos, which means “two eggs” in Spanish.

The accommodations were in a round hut high on the hill overlooking the whole town. The bass player had his own house where he lived with his girlfriend, and I had the tiny apartment to myself with a half-circle of windows offering a view of the whole town. There was a bed and a writing table and a great porch where I spent a lot of time practicing my guitar. The people next door to me had been hired to look after a boat owned by a rich businessman from San Diego. His marlin fishing boat sat waiting in Cabo for his occasional trip down with clients and friends.

My neighbors were the crew/caretakers of the boat and although I never got to go on it, over the five weeks that I was there, I sampled almost every kind of local fish that was available, as they always shared the spoils of their day’s catch. We had some great fish fries on the deck between our two buildings. Because I had to perform the happy hour and then return again to play well into the night, I could never stay too long.

Many people come to Cabo, San Lucas to enjoy a brief holiday with friends. They lie on the beach by day and visit the clubs and restaurants by night. As the weeks passed I started noticing that some of the locals had stories in their past that would make Desperate Housewives look like Bambi. The one rule about the place that you learned quickly was not to ask where people came from or how they ended up in Cabo. I saw more than one local get up and walk away from too many questions being asked in a conversation. There were many that could never go back home and after a while, I heard stories about some of the most seasoned characters the frequented the Rio Bar & Grille.

We had a 2-for-1 happy hour every day, and before the band started every afternoon we would clink our gold tequila glasses together and toast another day in paradise and down a shot of some very smooth tequila kept behind the bar for us. As the weeks went by we built up the business so that soon we were the happening happy hour in town, which made our bosses happy. Our bosses, by the way, were five girls from Boston, who after much cajoling to mom and dad, opened a bar in Cabo with the help of their Mexican boyfriends.

Nothing is accomplished without the help of locals that know the lay of the land in matters of permits and such. One Saturday, all the staff decided to take a boat trip out on the ocean. I was there working on some gear problem when a man walked in carrying a clipboard and a briefcase. He spoke English and demanded to see the manager and owner. I told him that I didn’t know where they were but assumed they would be back soon. He said that the restaurant hadn’t paid their business license and he was going to shut the restaurant down if the license was not produced. He then proceeded to take a strong wide tape out of his briefcase tape up all the beer fridges so they could not be opened for Saturday night, the busiest night of the week. After a while one of the sisters showed up and tried to reason with the inspector. He stood firm and would not budge and by this time all the coolers had been sealed. She took him into the back room where some kind of deal was agreed upon. After paying the man off with an undisclosed amount, he took all the locks off the coolers and proceeded on his way.

When the gang got back from the boat trip, the story was relayed to the manager who went into the office and produced all the permits fully paid and up-to-date. A call made to the city permit office revealed that the inspector had never worked for the city permit department and the whole thing was a scam. Perhaps it might have been overheard in conversation that everyone was leaving for the day. The inspector may have offered with $40 or $50 for his trouble but that would have been more than a week’s wages for most people there.

One afternoon as we got off the stage we were invited to sit with a man sitting alone, who introduced himself as Dean and bought us a drink. We sat down and had a friendly conversation where Dean explained that he was down on a holiday from San Diego doing some marlin fishing on his boat, and that his wife would rather read a book on the beach than go out on the boat with all those crazies out there. I didn’t have a clue what his wife was referring to but we were soon to find out as the man invited us to go fishing on his boat the next morning.

For those of us who had never experienced marlin fishing, I will try to describe the phenomena: First off, everything about it is expensive. The reels used to hold the hundreds of yards of line are huge and can cost $5000 a piece. This particular boat was 36 feet long with a high deck for scanning the horizon. On the rear of the boat in the center of the main deck sat a massive white padded chair, similar to an old fashioned barber’s chair. It had big footrests to push against when the person playing the marlin has his fish on. First however, one has to find the marlin and so we stopped the engines and waited in silence, scanning the horizon in all directions with binoculars. On a typical day, twenty miles or so off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, will sit 50 to 100 boats spread over a square ten miles by ten miles. All the boats watch each other waiting for the right moment. The moment comes when whoever spots the marlin school takes off like a maniac as fast as they can go and starts to chase the school. What the other boats are patiently waiting for is the telltale puff of black smoke that comes from a boat engine being gunned to the max. As soon as the smoke is noticed, the entire group of boats race towards it and the madness begins.

We were fortunate in being quite close to the sighting boat and we tore after it as fast as we could. On the way to the fishing grounds, Dean had briefed us in advance what to do next so we readied ourselves for the hunt. On the end of two attractor rods that we attached to each side of the stern of the boat, was a wooden plug that looked like six inches of carved salami with two huge eyes on it painted red and yellow, with plastic tassels along the sides. It had a huge hook at the back of it and I was told that one plug cold cost around $90. The front contour of this monster lure was designed in a way that the plug would dive deep under the water and then return to the surface, only to grab air bubbles from the surface and carry them down under water mimicking a school of fish. The boats would be trolling very fast towing these plugs.

Very soon there were 30 or so boats doing the same fast troll in a close area around the school. I think a good deal of the appeal of the sport is the excitement of the evasive driving with these huge fast boats during the trolling. After about 20 minutes the marlin school disappeared without a strike. We wound in our lines, and motored off to another quiet spot on the sea to watch.

On the next smoke sighting we had more luck and soon after our plugs were in the water we had a hit. Now the beak of a marlin is almost all bone so even after hitting a plug in the water, the hook will easily break free and the marlin will escape. This is when the live bait is used and the bait carp are hooked through the front of the nose and quickly thrown overboard one on each side. We continued to troll with the baitfish skimming the top of the water and then WHAM! The bait line got a hit from a marlin and I was instructed to sit in the chair to be strapped in. Dean handed me the huge rod and reel and I heard the “vzzzzzzzzzzz” as the line left the boat to follow the escaping fish. I was instructed to let it go and not try to reel in until the fish had had a chance to leave the area around our boat and settle down a bit. I was only to keep constant tension on the fish.

The engines of our boat now stopped and Dean ran a fish on a flag up the flagpole. When the other boats around us saw this flag hoisted they courteously moved out our area to let us have enough room to play our fish. It was now quiet around us except for the sound of the marlin breaking the surface and becoming airborne 200 yards off the stern of the boat—an amazing sight! The adrenalin was rushing through my body as I now started the long process of reeling in the fish. Heaving the rod towards me with all my might and then quickly winding as I dipped the heavy rod down towards the water again would sometimes only yield one or two turns of the highly geared reel.

Sometimes the line would disappear into the water to my left and I would watch this spot, only to see the marlin breach the water far in the distance to my right. After about an hour, I managed to wind the marlin to within about 20 yards of the boat. With one look at the boat, vzzzzzzz, my rod started to whine with all my carefully wound line flying out again. It took an hour and 45 minutes to finally land the beautiful thing before I could say anything. Dean’s wooden club ended the life of this beautiful animal. At that time it was the custom of the local fishing guides to donate the catch of the day to the locals of the village if it was not taken home or stuffed.

On the return to shore I kept looking at the fish and feeling sadness in the pit of my stomach. The joy of the day had been tarnished. After having my tourist photo taken with my 127 pound marlin, the fish was given up to be shared with the poor. I felt a bit better about this. I have since heard that you cannot keep any marlin in the area of Cabo San Lucas. I hope this law was instigated before the depletion of the species in the area.

That night I could hardly hold up my arms to play the guitar. Like a prizefighter that had just boxed 15 rounds there was trouble even lift them. One of the sisters Maria, who had been travelling with her boyfriend arrived back at the restaurant and decided to do some spring-cleaning of the storeroom, which had become appallingly cluttered in her absence. She did this on a whim late at night when no one was in the place.

The next day at 4:30 when we arrived to collect our box of paraphernalia that we stored nightly in the storage room, we couldn’t find it anywhere. We tore the room apart and before long everyone was helping to look and noticing that everything have been moved around in the room. When Maria was located she proudly announced that all the junk in the room had been cleaned out and taken to the dump to be burned. Tires squealed in the parking lot as the manager and his girlfriend raced off to try and find our equipment. When they returned the manager held up my microphone that had melted in the fire and looked liked an ice cream cone with the ice cream ball melted half way down the cone. We lost everything: cords, mics, harmonicas, tuners, picks, everything. So there I was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with two weeks to go before I cold fly home on my return ticket.

We scoured the town for any kind of microphone from a ghetto blaster or old fashioned tape recorder that we could jerry rig to work for us. The closest music store was in La Pas many hours away. The days that followed were a bit of an anti climax as it is always frustrating for a cook of any discipline to try and conduct his or her business without the proper tools to do the job. We ended up with one microphone salvaged from an old plane with the talk button taped down. We had to revamp almost all the songs with harmonica to the key of G as I only had one harmonica left and used modified swizzle sticks for guitar picks.

It was hard to get used to this new equipment but we dutifully finished the two weeks said our goodbyes and before I knew it I was sitting on a plane heading back to a rainy winter day in Vancouver. I looked out the window and couldn’t stop shaking my head and smiling at the rampant abandon that constitutes the norm in Mexico.

Viva Dos Heavos!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Birthday Present

Often times when I am teaching throughout the year I am asked to make gift certificates for people that are bought by friends or relatives. It is funny how often those recipients don't claim there presents. I often never hear from them. I am sure there are myriad of reasons that I have never even heard of as to why they couldn't use their gift certificate. Perhaps bought by the lover who is now an ex and it goes without saying the last thing you would be caught using is a present from your ex partner. Some people are too shy to call you for their lessons. In many cases they were given lessons to encourage them out of their shell and music is an accepted way of doing that and is much cheaper than a therapist.

I received a call from a lady whose husband was just turning 50 and she thought it would be good for him to experience music before he died. To possibly relieve some of the stress of being a high level businessman along the way. She ask me how much the lessons were and asked if she could pick up a gift certificate to give him on his birthday the following weekend. I generally use quite informal wording in my gift certificates to lighten them up; 'Because you are a good boy
and will continue to be a good boy an elf has granted you a ______lesson at Keith Bennett studios.' She left with the present printed on the best paper I had. The day after his birthday the birthday boy called to arrange a time for his lessons. She had bought him 2- one hour lessons and he was eager to get started.

He knocked on the door, I introduced myself and we got down to business. I showed him what I call the " entry level" lesson. History of the harmonica, some simple rhythm playing and the 12 bar blues explained and then explained according to the harmonica player and what he or she would play in it. He was fast learner and very keen; nodding his head after each important idea that he understood. He left quite excited and I closed the door after him thinking that times like these make me feel that it was a good thing to get into teaching after all. Helping someone to find a voice. The next week he came back at the same time for part 2 of his gift certificate and I noticed he now had 3 harmonicas with him and a book. I asked him what harmonicas he had bought he showed me and I noticed that they were all in the same key.
It customary to buy different keys of harmonica of which there are 12 but no one had told him that and he
wanted some more so now he had 3 in the key of C. I suggested that if he was going to purchase additional harmonicas he might consider the key of A followed by the key of D or G. He wanted to continue his lessons and on the following week he showed up with 3 C's, an A , a D , and a G harp, 3 books and 8 blues CDs.

Each week his collection grew and he carried everything in a plastic shopping bag. I finally decided to get him a present for his next lesson. I stopped by the Salvation Army store to buy one of those 1950's ladies overnight cases with the little elastic pouches on the inside and the mirror in the lid. I thought it would be better than a plastic bag - somewhere to put his harps and paraphernalia.

He was outwardly thankful when I gave it to him but didn't say much after I think it had something to do with the fact that it was pink. The very next week he arrived with the most expensive soft pouch camera case I have ever seen. He demonstrated it to me with all it's hidden pouches and zippers and padding. Each and every pouch was filled with either a harmonica
or a microphone or a cord or a book or a CD. He even bought a mini sequencer which he had spent some big money on. I was starting to get the idea that the store manager of the music store he went to must know his name and have instructed all his staff learn it. When I started to play I waited months for my next harmonica and it took me years to amass such a horde of harmonica stuff.

There are those that do and those that collect things. It didn't take me too long to see that his heart was really in possession of the accoutrements and not so much in the practicing of the instrument. We plugged along and month after month he would show up at my door with his collection. He did start to show marked improvement after I suggested he play in his car while driving and before too long was playing through the songs I had given him.

He told me that recently he had been on his way to a very important board meeting about 70K away on the freeway. He was having a great old time playing blues harp along with some backing tracks I had made for him. He drove right past the exit for his meeting and kept going down the freeway in the wrong direction. When he finally noticed, he realized that the next place he could turn around was 8K away so he was very late for the meeting. When he finally arrived to a large board room table filled with people waiting for him he turned to the president of the company and came clean. "I'm sorry I'm late I have to tell you that I was playing harmonica in my car and drove right by the turn off". The president, who up to this point wore a scowl demanded " You play harmonica? I play harmonica too. What kind of harps do you use?....... Needless to say the meeting was a success and another musical bond was formed that day.

About a year into teaching him I had to make a schedule change so I could record on a Doug and the Slugs CD so I called him up to change the time. His wife answered the phone. "Hi it's Keith. I need to change the lesson time this week so I can.." "It's you! She interrupted. He's driving me crazy! He plays harmonica in the morning, he plays harmonica at night, he plays harmonica in the car, he plays harmonica in the bathroom, he's driving me nuts with that thing!"
Then there was a silence. After about 5 seconds she said calmly:
"Can you teach me to yodel" I really want to learn to yodel."

I thought about it for a few seconds and as I always do before I properly think things through. I said: "Sure I can do that, it's just like singing” I lied. "When can I come in" she said and I found her a spot on another day from her husband and hung up the phone.

The next week she arrived for a yodeling lesson and her husband appeared later for his weekly harmonica lesson. I had to do some quick research at the library on the art of yodeling and was surprised to find out exactly how difficult it really is.

Can’t you just picture those two lovebirds at a campsite in the summer sitting around the campfire. He plays his harmonica and she yodels and every so often they look into each others eyes and sigh and look back at the fire. It would be very quiet there as they would no doubt be surrounded by deserted campsites.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I Crack Me Up!

New Years is the musician’s goldmine. It is the one night of the year that
a band can command up to twice what it would normally charge.
Not having a gig on New Years would be like a girl not being asked to the prom.
In the months that lead up to the big night there is a flurry of phone activity with most musicians asking each other “Are you booked for New Years”?

This particular year, my band had been asked to play for New Years Eve by a promoter I had not heard of before. It is fairly common practice for promoters with little experience to suddenly appear on the scene a month or two before New Years Eve. They will book a venue, hire a band, a caterer and then charge $75-$125 a ticket with the hopes of
walking away with a large chunk of money for one night.
On two occasions in the past I have witnessed the best intentions crumble
at the last minute due to poor advertising and just bad planning.
I learned my lesson and made sure I got a hefty deposit.
The venue he had chosen was the Old Holiday Inn off Robson
with a revolving restaurant on top.

The load in was one of the worst the band had ever experienced.
We had to load our gear into a tiny service elevator around the back
of the building and ride up to the 19th floor. We then had to take everything out of the
elevator and walk it down a cluttered hallway to load it all again into
another tiny elevator that would take us to the roof.
In a revolving restaurant there is a ring about 25 feet wide that
moves 360 degrees in about an hour. The bandstand was luckily in
front of the elevator when we arrived on top and we quickly loaded
our gear before it escaped too far. Set up was quite difficult
with such a narrow stage; behind us rose a 20 foot high window
that was engineered so that the top of the window was pushed out
at least 6 feet farther than the bottom. This gave a very panoramic
view of the surrounding city.
In setting up a band, however, one gets used to the world of 90 degree
angles and walls to lean things against. Setting up on this night was like setting up in a china shop. We finally got everything set just right and I noticed two people were
missing -- the promoter and our bass player.
“Downbeat,” as it is called was for 7 PM and we were now at 6:45 and
still no sign of either. It was 7:05 when the bass player lugged his amp and his bass towards the stage. I just wanted to do a good job and ignored the excuses and
just said, " let’s get started." He had not brought an extension cord
to help his bass amp reach to the closest power source which is often
longer than the amp cord. So in desperation, I decided to plug him
into the power bar located behind my guitar amp. I was using a
Roland JC-120 guitar amp at the time. I liked the great sound it produced and the convenience of the built-in wheels to help it roll around
with. On top of my guitar amp sat my Pevey 6 channel PA head for the

I reached behind the amp to plug in the bass amp cord when the whole
amp swayed slowly backward on it wheels and crashed into the revolving window.
This was no ordinary window. The crack started at the bottom from the
impact from the corner of the amp head hitting it. To my horror it
grew like a convoluted spider web until every corner from floor to ceiling was joined by tiny cracks. I pulled the amp back onto the stage and stood watching dumb-struck
with my mouth wide open feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me.

I looked at the band members and saw various degrees of shock on
their faces. I pictured a thought entering their collective minds: "Sucks to
be you man ….Ouch! "

I had to tell someone. I had no time to waste as people were arriving,
the lights were dimming and we had yet to tune up. I went downstairs hoping to find the promoter but I found only someone whom he had hired to take the money at the door.
This was the early days of cellphones when they were still the size of bricks
and I didn’t have his number to call him.

I went downstairs to find someone in management but could only find
the catering staff. When I returned to the bandstand the lights had
dimmed and the shattered window was leaving the scene of the crime.
I decided we should start playing and we did the first set. It was
very hard to concentrate knowing that any moment the window could
break and shower the busy street 30 floors below with thousands of shards of falling glass.

During the third song of the second set, the promoter finally arrived with
two of the managers. They stood pointing at me and waving their arms
in the air. The head honcho of the hotel shook his head stormed off.
I had a bad feeling about this and dreaded the rest of the night having to
deal with the promoter and management. I had visions of not being paid
and having to be on the hook for the band's wages.

And so we reached the end of an otherwise uneventful New Year’s Eve party. After the last song of the night, I went to find the promoter, received our wages and paid out the band members. I made it clear to each one of them as I paid them that the band would be on the hook for half the cost of the window replacement. Not one of them offered to help with the cost of the window even though they were receiving three times what they would normally make on a gig throughout the year. They all took their money and fled into the night.
I packed the sound system and my guitar gear by myself and
threaded it downstairs to my van.

As it turned out, the cost of the window was shared three ways by the hotel, the promoter and myself. The hotel decided it didn’t want to increase the insurance deductible by claiming the window so in the end my share was $800.
I asked for an invoice from the glass company they were using which was faxed to me and I decided in the end to pay the cost. I could have complained and
tried to make a stink even taking it to small claims court. It has been my experience however, that the stress endured in situations like that more than outweighs the cost
one might save even if you win. I was the contractor, I broke the window so I paid the $800 out of my own pocket and wished myself a Happy New Year.

I have since changed my concept regarding the traditional term “band” and the so-called loyalties assumed therein. From that day forward I use only Union musicians as a farmer would hire hands to help harvest ripe fruit. I now phone around to see who’s available when I need them. Now I know where they got the term “Hired Gun”


The 1 mile square of high-rises called the West End in Vancouver BC, hosts one of the most densely populated areas in North America. There is a hotel in the base of one of the many towers with a pub called Shampers. I call it the living room of the studios as most of the clientele live in the high-rise towers and tend to call bars such as this their watering holes.

One weekend I was performing in the pub with a keyboard player and a drummer.
During the second set I could see a strange man standing by the doorway of the bar wearing a long raincoat and
carrying a garbage bag under his arm. I was in the middle of singing and I noticed him by the door.
He stood by the entrance and listened to the band for a while. He had long straggly hair and hadn’t shaved.
We were doing some mellow early evening songs as there were few customers at that point in the evening.
Shampers was the kind of room that allowed me the flexibility to pick the songs that I thought the regulars would want to hear. Our friend at the door waited for me to finish a song, ambled towards me and asked in a soft low voice
" Mind if I sit in?” “Sure man, what do you play?” I answered. “Well,… I play…. this!”
He said as he slowly pulled a plastic saxophone out of his paper shopping bag. It was smaller than a real saxophone and had a kazoo instead of a normal mouthpiece. The keyboard player and myself exchanged uncomfortable glances and I surveyed the ten or so people in the room, most of whom were playing pool.
What the heck I thought “How about a blues in Bb – ‘Route 66’ ” I asked. Our new band member just nodded his head as I started to sing the first verse. After the second verse I turned to him indicating that his was the first solo.
Now I haven’t heard a lot of kazoo players in my time but this guy could make that plastic sax sound like Mckoy Tynor one of the masters. He looked like his fingers were actually playing the little plastic keys while his voice hummed the sounds of the sax; he had amazing talent. It sounded so good that I rolled my first finger in a forward circle indicating that he should keep soloing while the rest of the band smiled at each other.
After his solos I sang the chorus, repeated the first verse and ended the song. He carefully put the little plastic sax back in his bag and was walking slowly towards the door. “Hey man, what’s your name? I called after him.
He slowly turned around and softly said: “Space” before walking out the door.
After he left I said into the microphone in a low voice:

“Ladies and Gentlemen: “Space”.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cookies Anyone?

For 11 years I had a teaching studio on the River in North Vancouver.
I had a full teaching schedule at my studio by the river in I preferred to teach over few days and stack my students in less days to free up time to compose later in the week.
At my studio one day, I was visited by an ex-student of mine Steve, who stopped in to say hello and drop off some cookies he had baked for me.
Steve had gone on to be a talented songwriter that was working hard on his performing career. He supported himself by working as a cook in a restaurant with a quite good reputation. There was an up and coming concert in the works and he wanted to let me know about it in the hopes that I might entice a few of my students to come to the concert. When he arrived, I was preoccupied in preparing for the days teaching and still had some preparation to do before my first student arrived. I told him I would tell my students about his concert and excused myself for not being able to have a proper visit.

Soon after he left my first student of the day arrived and I taught for an hour. I then had a one hour break before the major part of my teaching day began which would take me till 9:00 PM. I walked by the small bag of cookies and decided that I was hungry so I took one out and started to munch on it as I went to the filing cabinet to find a piece of sheet music for a student. Once I found the music I was looking for, I noticed one cookie hadn’t filled me up and had another one on my way back. (When you work alone restraint if difficult with no one to answer to.)

I had a few things to do and before my next student came I decided to visit the washroom as it would be more difficult later on when I was teaching. While I was sitting there, I noticed the room tilt slightly for a second. I looked around puzzled. What was that? I thought there was an earth quake. It happened again and this time I shook my head like someone trying to stay awake. When tried to stand up I knew something very strange was happening to me. I stumbled out of the washroom and headed strait for the telephone.

Pulling out my student telephone book, I furiously started dialing the parents of students informing them that I had contracted stomach flu and had to go home. They were all very gracious but as the calls continued, I sensed some puzzled responses from some of the parents. As I hung up the phone canceling my last student, I noticed colors fluttering in my periphery vision.

It seemed like a movie was going on either side of me just out of view. When I turned my head to try to watch it the movie would move with me just out of reach.. It was a scary feeling and was steadily getting more intense by the minute. Concentration was now proving difficult as I turned the pages of the phone book trying to look up the number of the local taxi company. I dialed the number and gave the address of the studio to the dispatch operator. I hung up and crumpled into my chair in relief. All I had to do now was to close up the studio and get in a taxi.
The colors were now like a halo around my field of vision. My eyes felt like I had been swimming in a chlorine pool for hours, and everything had that misty look to it.
The ride home was uneventful as sitting in the back seat, I mumbled the address over the seat to the driver. I looked out the window at the rain soaked streets and wondered how on earth l I had ended up in this predicament. The cookies my friend had left for me were laced with something and thanks to him, I was passing through the threshold of lousing control. One of the worst feelings imaginable.

When I got home I paid the driver and stumbled inside.
I did a b-line for the bed tossed off my shoes and lay on my back looking at the ceiling as a symphony of colors and sounds painted the ceiling in an ever changing collage. When my wife came home she helped me get undressed and I lay there frozen, eyes open for the rest of that day. Every time I tried to close my eyes I got the ‘dreaded whirlys’ and had to open my eyes again. It was all that night and into the next morning before I could finally fall asleep. I slept most of the next day and when I finally woke up I was furious.

Who knows what could have happened from this irresponsible act. I could have given one of those pot-laced cookies to one of my young students or my own child. I could have had to drive somewhere and not noticed until I was on the road behind the wheel somewhere across town. I could have lost it and done something irrational to myself or someone else.

I called my friend Steve and took to him like a school of piranha fish welcoming a stray goat. I called him everything I could think of that resembled the word irresponsible. His excuse was that as I was a musician, he assumed that I would “get it” when he said he made some “cookies” for me. I’m sure most of his friends smoke pot on a daily basis so someone like myself who is “out of the loop” would be a rarity. Because I played a musical instrument I was whitewashed with the same brush as all those “groovy cats that lived to get high, play music and float across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

I continued to let him have it as I thought he needed to know what catastrophe he might have put into motion. When I calmed down, I informed him that he would be paying me, in full for my lost wages for the whole day’s teaching including the taxi fare home. If he didn’t I would go to the police and make a complaint against him. I think he got off easy and I hope he thinks twice in the future before offering anyone drugs as a gift.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Too Many Notes—Not Enough Seats

I met Massa in my twenties when I used to hang out as guest in a Bohemian household occupied by classical musicians in Lynn Valley, North Vancouver. Massa was from Osaka Japan and at one time he played with the Osaka Symphony.

I never did hear the reason he decided to settle in Canada. He was very tall for a Japanese man and spoke French and some English. Another tenant of the house was a concert pianist from Nice, France. They loved to talk for hours in the kitchen and if I were present the conversation would politely start in English but would invariably end up in French. A typical conversation would take place around the kitchen table with a bottle of good scotch, lots of filled ashtrays, foreign cigarette boxes and lighters strewn across the table. The room would have a smoky haze and talking would usually last well into the night. In those days I couldn’t get enough of the sound of Parisian French
and would sit quietly and listen by the hour gleaning what little I could from the animated tête-à-tête with a pair of world-class musicians.

I first heard Massa play from inside a locked room where he would practice his clarinet. I had never heard anything like it and got a chair to sit and listen. He could articulate notes up and down the clarinet so fast that I was dumbfounded. He had exquisite tone and would fly through any key with lighting speed. Major, minor, whole tone, diminished, augmented and altered all came streaming effortlessly out of the room. At the end of his scales and arpeggios sessions he would move on to a stirring rendition of wonderful classical solo clarinet pieces. He didn’t know I was outside listening and when he ended his practice I would quietly move away from the door as I heard him packing up his instrument. Here was a master and I didn’t even have a clue as to the realms of music he must know.

Over the next years we became friends and talked for hours usually around the kitchen table with a good bottle of scotch. He told me that he had tried to audition for many symphonies since he came to Canada. One audition story comes to mind:

It was in Chicago for the Chicago symphony where there was one opening offered for third clarinet. There were 240 applicants from all over North America that descended upon Chicago for their chance for this one position. Massa practiced six to seven hours a day for the two weeks leading up to the audition: scales, arpeggios, long tones, and a number of very intricate pieces. And then there was the reed selection. He told me that in a typical box of 12 Rico clarinet reeds he would be very lucky to find one or maybe two that would be good enough to perform at his level of playing. So as he neared the date of departure he opened box after box of reeds and examined them carefully to finally end up with 4 reeds that he could trust for this very special audition.

On the day of the audition, Massa took a taxi to the airport, picked up the ticket he had paid for in advance, and sat on the plane with his clarinet case on his lap and his reeds in his breast pocket—he at last was ready and on his way. With eyes closed he practiced various pieces with his fingers playing an imaginary clarinet in mid air: a common exercise of traveling concert musicians.

When he arrived in Chicago he went straight to his hotel and checked into his room to try and do a quick warm-up before the audition that started an hour and a half later. He opened his reed case and un-clipped one of the special reeds he had carefully chosen, placed it on the mouthpiece and slid the custom ligature he had had made in Paris over the reed. Adjusting the placement of the reed with tiny screws placed it exactly in the right position to obtain the response needed. He placed the mouthpiece to his lips and squeak! He adjusted his lower lip against the bottom of the mouthpiece. Squeak! Not a single note would come out of one of the finest instruments money could buy. He tried another reed. Squeak! And another squeak!

Suddenly Massa’s world began to crash around him like thundering waves. Not one reed would work! It was now 35 minutes before his audition time. He hurriedly packed his clarinet case and ran to the taxi stand and caught the first taxi to audition hall. The drive took almost all the remaining time he had left and he stumbled into the audition room with minutes to spare. Massa has a very thick accent and he had some trouble explaining that his reeds had been selected in Vancouver but the humidity was completely different in Chicago and the reeds wouldn’t work at all. He finally begged a fellow clarinetist for a reed and when his number was called he walked into the audition hall still adjusting the reed as he walked. He was allowed to play for exactly two minutes and then heard “Thank You” coming from the judging table.

He bowed slightly turned and left the room pausing in the hallway to thank the person who had lent him the reed. He returned to the hotel, packed his things and went to the airport to wait for the plane home. When he returned to Vancouver he had to go straight to work as soon as he got back. This trip had been expensive as were all the others
before it. All paid for with his own money to try to get a job doing what he loved to do.

Massa had more qualifications and had paid more for his education than most doctors or lawyers. He had taken expensive private lessons since early childhood, studied with world masters, attended expensive music retreats and sought after and bought the best clarinets money could buy. He was, in my opinion, one of the elite of the classical music world. Perhaps it was his age or his thick Japanese accent or perhaps there are just too many really good musicians at that level and not enough jobs for them all. Massa returned to his regular job as a short order cook at a greasy spoon called Franky’s at the bottom of Lonsdale Avenue and never picked up the clarinet again.

This sad story reminds me of my last visit to London when I saw a lineup of well over 500 people, the longest I have ever seen stretching all the way around a city block. I was curious as to what it was for so I walked over and asked one of the people in the endless cue what they were waiting for. One of the tired hopefuls explained to me, “It’s a dance audition for two parts in the The Lion King”

Vive l’artiste!