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Frankie Venom 1957-2008
Well, where does one start? I’ve just survived a week of music here in Hamilton, Ontario, where the king is (was) a punker and rock still rolls but there is room for everything. The Hamilton Music Awards is an event that stretches over four days and takes up the downtown of the city. This is my fourth year volunteering backstage and each year I’ve been turned on to more great music, met more talented and whacky musicians, and come away having walked and danced beyond what my feet are happy with.
The Hammies are the work of Jean Paul Gauthier, who grew up around his parents’ bar and the musicians who played there, then went on to establish the Hamilton Music Scene Festival in 1995 that has now grown into the music awards and festival. JP manages musicians, produces concerts with Daniel Lanois and has brought a variety of names to the awards – Lanois, Garth Hudson of The Band, Eugene Levy, Ronny Hawkins, U2(via satellite). The venue changes each year and this year the show took place in the Hamilton Place Studio Theatre, a very industrial mid-sized concert room – and the room was packed. This was the year of Teenage Head, one of the original punk bands, and they were being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. That honor was announced back in October the same day that their lead singer, Frankie Venom, died of throat cancer. So the weekend naturally became a memorial gig for Frankie. As was said in the local paper on Monday, this weekend was a punk love-fest. I have to say, there is something very sweet about a roomful of leather-clad hard-rock looking punkers with tears in their eyes. After eight years in this city, I’m quite sure that the music community here is about the tightest and proudest in the land – tribal, as one of them said to me. They may fight inwardly, but outwardly they’ll watch each other’s backs. And proudly declare their love of the Hammer. And grieve for the loss of their own together.
On Friday, the weekend kicked off with a music conference for high school students. I was out at the Thursday night opening reception and had gone to catch some of JP Reimens and Brian Griffith picking their guitars and singing sweet songs till late at night, but was up to help at the registration table for the conference. I agreed to come in just to have the chance to see the morning panel. It was on the future of the music album and was moderated by our east coast friend, Bob Mersereau. Bob lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick and is a long time arts reporter for CBC TV. Last year he authored the bestselling “Top 100 Canadian Albums” and now spends his time discussing his choices with people from across the country. I doubt that the conversation will ever stop.
Bob’s a great guy. I met him last year when he came here to be a presenter at the awards. JP had invited him since 16 albums on the list are from Hamilton. Bob loved it here and begged (as he says) to come back. He was joined on Friday’s panel by Graham Rockingham, who covers music for the Hamilton Spectator; Ric Taylor, all-round media music guy; Amy King, a music producer in Hamilton who also came from the east – Newfoundland; and Hamilton’s own Tom Wilson of Florida Razers, Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
Although Jean Paul is in charge of keeping the embers glowing on all aspects of the production of this awards weekend, Tom is the flame that keeps things hot. I’ve talked about Tom before in this blog [see East Coast Pleasures] when he showed up on the hamilton365 website on Canada Day – I agreed that he would be my choice of Canadian songwriter who speaks to me of home and has an attitude I can identify with. Tom is a big guy – physically he towers over you, vocally he fills the room, and his presence is impossible to ignore. The best part of him to me, besides his musical genius, is his irreverency. He will say anything and he keeps things stirred up.
With two nights of award-giving, tele-prompted introductions and drawn out back-slapping amongst the musical community, it could get real dull if it weren’t for the fact that Tom throws out verbal darts that prick you awake every once in awhile. He is smart, experienced and very very funny. He has been engaged for a few years to a well known east coast (are you sensing a sub-theme here?) comedian, Cathy Jones, but made a point of announcing that that relationship was over. So whereas his little darts in past years had a bit of lovedust dulling them, this year they were definitely sharper. He sat at the outrageous end of the morning panel, he emceed both the music industry awards on Saturday and the big award show on Sunday (along with the very wonderful, very nice, very funny actor Patrick McKenna), he took his turn singing a few songs at both Teenage Head shows and did a set with his hot new band (musical collective he calls it), Lee Harvey Osmond, on Saturday night. And then he actually hung out on the dancefloor at the rap party on Sunday night when the young band, the Mississippi Kings, played. That’s a lot of energy - keep it rolling, Tommy – don’t ever let it stop.
Bob Mersereau says that after spending years going to musical events and gatherings all over Canada, he thinks that the best ones are the East Coast Music Awards, held in various locations in the Maritime provinces, and this weekend in the Hammer. I would guess that, beyond other reasons, it is because these are events that celebrate home grown music that rises out of the soul of the place - though there would definitely be a different tone and rhythm to the east coast than here in the industrial Hammer. I missed if the panel on Friday drew any conclusions about the future of the album, but I did see a room full of students saying they still buy CDs, not just download single songs; I heard alot of discussion around some of the incredible albums that have come from Canadian artists – The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Willie P. Bennett, on and on and on – and I heard them all talk about the difference between the business aspect of the industry and the artistry of the musician. Real musicians/songwriters will probably always be inclined to make multi-song albums as complete reflections of the full collection of their creative work, despite what the industry might demand for sales. I had an interesting conversation a couple days later with my friend Dean Huyck who pointed out that the workshop aspect of weekend musical festivals is dying out along with the complete album – because of modern technology, today young musicians are able to produce single hit recordings in their home studios but aren’t necessarily experienced at jamming with other musicians or able to play beyond their own isolated basements. As the older musicians, more experienced with playing collectively, stop participating in the workshops, the music jam slowly disappears. High-quality albums filled with one brilliant song after another are getting harder to find. The industry demands commercial success more than musical ingenuity…aaargh, it goes round and round.
Over the weekend, there were many bands playing everywhere, but I can only talk about the shows I saw. On Friday night, I worked the door at the Pearl (my old friend, the Pearl Company) – where the Ron Palangio Jazz Sextet played a tight set of standards; followed by Shawn Trotter, a funny finger-picking guitarist with Scottish roots and great stories; and then the Lowest Lanes provided smooth harmonies to fill the lovely acoustics in the room. This little trio does nice covers and a few originals – they get their name because they all work at the Hamilton Spectator, our local daily newspaper (on a side note, I finally did an interview today about Walking with Wolf with Jeff Mahoney who writes a column in the Spec). Then Santucci and Doumas were going to be playing but I cut out to go and catch the Teenage Head show that was to be a tribute to the fallen Frankie Venom.
It was late when I walked into this sea of men with big frizzy hair, cloaked in black leather jackets (can there be a black cow left alive?), with many a blonde at their side, at Hamilton Place – fortunately, in true punk-style, the show was going to start real late so I didn’t miss anything (I knew I would miss Rackula and The Forgotten Rebels who played earlier). The remaining members of Teenage Head – Gord Lewis, Jack Pedlar and Steve Mahon - were accompanied on stage by two huge photographs of the late Frankie – as well as a line-up of local singers, each who covered a couple of songs – all aware that they couldn’t fill Frankie’s bottomless shotglass, that alone his stageman shoes. Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons, Edgar Breau (who, in his nervousness, did this dance thing that I thought was brilliant - great seeing new moves Edgar!), Adam Castelli, Brad Germain of Marble Index, Jimmy Vapids, Chris Houston, the always colorful Mickey DeSadist and the raver, Dave-Rave, along with the Head musicians, rocked the house in Frankie’s memory.
Gord’s brother John came out and sang a beautiful Irish lament accompanied just by Gord’s guitar, a song that they had performed at Frankie’s funeral – sorry I don’t remember the name of it – but it was a somber sweet note amongst the otherwise kick-ass stuff.
As someone who wasn’t a Head fan when I was young (I was living in the northern bush in Quebec in the late seventies when the Head reared its ugly self listening to Harmonium) but came to love them when I was a little older – and who is pretty new in this community – it was very touching watching the emotion of the musicians and listening to the influence that Frankie and the band had on all these other musicians in the city. Gord Lewis talked alot over the weekend – on stage and while receiving awards – and spoke eloquently of his band brother Frankie. I think the most recurring theme was that he influenced them to write original songs – that it wasn’t good enough to be a cover band, and so as long as they were writing their own music, they would all support each other. That is a big reason why the Hammer is so smack full of original sound now – this town has its own distinct snarly voice. Frankie was a rebel, and a punk, and a growling showman and a great singer of songs. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like punk music or even rock n roll, but you have to appreciate someone who has a stage presence that ignites rooms and a manner that inspires others. That kind of charisma is a gift and the rest is talent. The night was magical, in a dark gruff steel-city kind of way and you had to be moved.
Saturday was the music industry awards that recognizes the work by media, promoters, album designers and music producers. The lovely Kim Koren won an award for Musical Event of the Year for the concert she organized and played at raising money for the SPCA. I caught her resting, reading, and guarding her Hammie in the Green Room. Kim and her husband Frank can be found contributing their talent to benefit concerts and needy organizations everywhere in the city. She deserved the award, not only for the quality of her work, but in appreciation of her big heart.
Following the awards, there were three concerts that followed: the first was by local blues man and guitarist, Alfie Smith – who is recovering from his house having been burned back in the summer. Then we were treated to a set by John Ellison, the man who wrote the song “She’s Some Kind of Wonderful” – originally recorded by his band the Soul Brothers Six and played on the black soul stations in the United States in the sixties, then made super famous on the white radio stations by Grand Funk Railroad. Apparently that song is one of the most covered songs in the world – and as John said, every time you hear it, be assured he is getting the royalties and still being supported by it. He and his drummer Dean put on a high energy soulful set of covers and originals, including that famous song. Although when they came into the Green Room earlier in the day most people didn’t know who they were (and Dean told me that though John lives closeby in Dundas, they mostly tour in Europe, and we were lucky to have him there that day), by the time they rocked out the awards ceremony on Sunday with Some Kind of Wonderful to a prolonged standing ovation, we all knew who he was - not just a great entertainer and songwriter but a real nice proud gorgeous man.
The last show on Friday night was by Steve Strongman – by now I was only dancing and the camera didn’t come out, but his show blew out the room. When all was said and done, two words came to mind with him – he was versatile in his guitar playing and song selection, and beautifully restrained in how he delivers both the vocals and the screaming guitar…as in it isn’t always screaming. And, having talked with him backstage a few times, a real nice guy. MY HEAD GOES HERE
We jumped into a taxi and tried to make it to see Lee Harvey Osmond at the Corktown, but walked on to the dancefloor just as the last chord hit – and despite a real appreciate crowd, the band didn’t return for an encore. We headed to my nearby pub, Fisher’s, to finish off the night with the Sugardaddies – always a great band for dancing.
So before I finish up on this lovefest of Hammer-music, I have to throw in a fashion statement. Last week I went to Blackbird Studios where the design duo of Buckshot (she of the Evelyn Dicks) and kiki (she of the Lorrainas) make their glam rock creations. It’s a beautiful space they have and a dramatic line of clothes. I bought this little number to wear to the awards show. There were at least four of us wearing their line – and I got a lot of comments all night on the dress – to which I replied – “kiki from Blackbird dahling”. Like at a real awards show! Very cool. Next year I’ll seek out a jewelry designer who will lend me a million dollar bauble to show off!
It was a long night but a musically-incestual hilarious celebration of the remarkable talent in this little city. There were many super performances by everyone from my old friends the Evelyn Dicks, to Rita Chiarelli, to Brian Melo (who won the big Canadian Idol contest last year and happens to be a Hammer boy), to Danny Lockwood – a session drummer who won at least three awards for his new big jazz album “A Few of my Favourite Grooves” and filled the stage with musicians and latin-beats (making me a little homesick for Costa Rica) - and finished off with another set by those never-say-quit Teenage Headers. It was a repeat of the concert on Friday night, but we all could have kept jumping with them for hours more. The after-party continued at the Corktown and I danced till the last chord was struck and the feet pleaded to take them home.
Whew – this blog is easily as long as the weekend was…I need Tom Wilson to step in hear and say something outrageous to keep you all going – but almost done…just a couple more things.
Monday I slept.
Tuesday I went up to Guelph to present Walking with Wolf in my old university town at the eBar. A good sized group of long-time friends, activists and many new faces came out to see the book show and hear the sweet sounds of The Regulars, who played before and after my little photo journey and readings. I sold a nice buncha books and have to thank my pal Lynda Lehman (who I met in Monteverde in 1990 when she was with her old boyfriend Emiliano – who I saw in Guelph for the first time in maybe 15 years). Lynda wrote a beautiful review of the book for the Bookshelf’s publication Off the Shelf and helped me put this evening together. I saw some of the folks who influenced me in my early years as an activist – Peter Cameron and Carole Milligan. What a privilege to share my book with them all these years later.
And the lovely Laurie Hollis-Walker and her husband David came up from their home an hour away to share in the celebration since they hadn’t made the launch at the Pearl back in September – and gave me the opportunity to embarrass her in front of a crowd, thanking her for her work on laying out the book. And I made a fistful of cashola!
Wednesday night I had free tickets to see Great Big Sea – a band from Newfoundland who’s been singing its shanty songs across the land for years. My friends, Cocky and Peter, in Maine had met them last year and because of that, I got comp tickets here in the Hammer so I took my friend Bob. We had real great seats but were barely in them as it was an on-your-feet Newfie kitchen party most of the night. My still recovering feet were not amused yet rose to the occasion but actually I found that it was more of an arm work-out with all the hand-clapping involved.
After all the east coast references through the awards weekend, it was funny to go see an east coast band a few days later. They played in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place to a very packed-to-the-rafters house. The strange thing was that they made many many comments on not being a punk band, generally to a swell of applause by the crowd – obviously many east-coasters. It was a great show and I thank Brit, the guitar tech who arranged for me to have the tickets. But after the punk lovefest that I had been a part of all weekend, and knowing that the Hammer is still mourning its king, Frankie, it seemed disrespectful. I’m not sure what was behind all the comments(they said they’d been watching a Sex Pistols video that day), but I felt like I was in a foreign land, well a stranger’s kitchen, and I felt a bit like a traitor to my tribe.
Then I thought about Wolf’s line in our book that people shouldn’t get too territorial about things – and shook off the strange feeling. Instead I appreciated the performance for what it was, put the tendency-to-drama backstage, and remain thankful that there is this thing called music that rocks our worlds and satisfies our souls.
If you’ve been reading this blog (and I know there are people faithfully reading – amazing but true!), you’ll know that I’ve been moving around a lot in the last few months. Since I started writing this little cyber-journal in April and then printed Walking with Wolf in May, I’ve written about my impressions and experiences while wandering through a bunch of places, selling a bunch of books. However, I don’t think I’ve written all that much about Hamilton Ontario, my birth place which I returned to after about twenty-five years of living in the northern bush and the tropical tangle.
In 2000 I came back here and bought a house with my ex-partner, Jim, in the fiercely proud north end of the city. Hamilton is a port and this is the oldest part of the city, close to the water. It was the only neighbourhood I was interested in living in, as it is bordered by the Hamilton Harbour and the Bayfront Park, giving me close access to the waterfront, as well as being a fifteen minute walk to downtown. Although I wouldn’t swim in the water here, there are places that I can go to sit on a park bench and look across the bay, and totally forget where I am which I find quite conducive to day-dreaming and creative-writing. As it says on the back of Walking with Wolf, I was born here but left, then came back rather unwillingly but stayed because I found this artistic renaissance happening here - and, always a grassroots person myself, I appreciated that the cultural revolution was swelling from the ground up.
Hamilton, once a raging steel-factory-dominated city, built by Italians and with deep working-class roots, has always been maligned. I grew up across the bay in Burlington, a suburban city - from there the body of water is called the Burlington Bay. From the big houses along the Burlington lakeshore you look east or south at the Hamilton skyline of smokestacks and shoreline of slagpiles. When the industrial barons built those big houses over in Burlington, they no doubt liked to look at the factories that were making them rich. That skyline was one of the things that sent me running to the northern bush as a teenager.
Now, from my vantage point on the Hamilton side of the bay, I don’t see the factories at all. I go a few minutes from my house and look north toward the tree-lined coast of Burlington, at the sailboats flying across the waves, the sun setting in the west, and the convoluted rocky Niagara Escarpment that adds a geographical uniqueness to the landscape.
I told Jim that I would stay here for two years and that was IT! I quickly found out that I could live here cheaper than in most places and that was reason to stay, since I was gone half of the year to Costa Rica. Jim had his work here and I began writing the book and didn’t want to uproot in the middle of that process. After a couple years, we bought the house directly across the street from where we were living - an indication of how much I liked the street and our neighbours. The neighbourhood changes constantly - people can actually afford to buy houses here and, even in a collapsed market, houses in this barrio sell quickly. About four years ago I gave up my vehicle, realizing that I didn’t need it to get around in this city, preferring to walk or ride my bike, and public transit can take me easily to Toronto and the airport. When Jim and I split up a few years ago, I stayed in the house which is perfect for one person, on this street where a number of single women live (a sign that it is a comfortable and safe neighbourhood to be in), and in this city, which slowly but surely seduced me with its dirty urban charms and incredible artistic community.
This is the appropriate time to focus on the gritty city (even our literary festival is called Grit Lit) because it is the week of the Hamilton Music Awards, when local fans and music industry folk get together to celebrate the Hammer’s musicians and the music. This is my fourth year working as a volunteer backstage. I do it simply to help JP Gauthier, whose brainchild this is, to honor the musicians, and to spend several nights feasting on the fine music here.
Although the classics in all fields are represented in Hamilton (there is a thriving Philharmonic Orchestra and an ever-growing jazz scene), the music that excites me the most is the stuff that feels like it was born on the streets. The musicians I’ve met and those I’ve watched perform have a voice and a sensibility here that is very different from the other musical communities I’ve been part of - Quebec and Costa Rica – which actually share many characteristics - or eastern and northern Ontario. I’m not sure how to describe the difference – beyond being urban - but it is definitely fed by gravelly-voiced irreverant singer/songwriters (Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons), vixen songstresses (Lori Yates, Buckshot Bebee, Jude Johnson), smokin’ guitarists (Brian Griffith), flying keyboard fingers (Jesse O’Brien) and a whole slew of talented musicians, raunchy performers and hard-working producers. Uber-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, on and on) comes from here and returns regularly. The music community tends to be very supportive of each other. In this city of about half a million people, there is still a feeling of it being a town, a hard-rock over-sized village, but there have been enough imports and exports that there is a bit of a cosmic-politan air as well, even if that air is a little dirty.
Last Sunday afternoon, I set up a little Walking with Wolf table at the Mad Hatter’s Green Tea Party in Dundas (once its own town, now considered part of the larger Hamilton area unless, of course, you live there). After a week of balmy weather, it had turned cold and grey with frosty flakes drifting about. So it was pleasant to be in a cozy room with a number of greenish vendors, a silent auction, live music provided by locals Kim and Frank Koren, and a bonus to be set up right next door to the coffee and goodies. They were healthy ones and exceptional, especially a chocolate-covered mousse-filled biscotti….
Besides spending a very nice afternoon, I sold two books and traded another one for a stained glass peace dove and a glass bauble. I also bought a theatre ticket from a fast-talking man who I had met the night of my book launch at the Pearl Company [see A Pearl of a Night.] The play, “You Are What You Do” is actually at that same Pearl in December and now I’ll be going, thanks to this very good salesman (not that I mind at all-in fact look forward to it). The organizers of the tea party – including Peter Ormond, a local Green Party candidate, and Barbara Maccaroni, a raw food chef and soon to be house-sitter while I head south – did a great job, provided us with a pleasant time, and even made a fair chunk of change for the Green Party.
The rest of the week is about the music. It got started off in a great way as people gathered last night at the Bread and Roses Cafe to celebrate Jackie Washington’s 89th birthday. Jackie is a local legend, a great blues man but not just that - he is reputed to know more than 1200 songs off the popular charts. He is a very entertaining storyteller, his voice strong and clear even on the cusp of his ninetieth year. Jackie was born in Hamilton and has been singing songs since the age of five, first with his three brothers, and then as a regular well-loved participant in blues and folk festivals around the country. He’s played with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. He no doubt could have had a career in the United States but instead rode the rails in Canada working for Canadian Pacific to satisfy his restlessness and always lived his life in the Hammer - in the words of songwriter Colin Linden, in a song sung by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – ”He never crossed over that American border, though he lived just a few miles away. He said ‘everything I need I can find right here – north of the USA’.”
A crowd of local musicians, fans and friends came out to honor him last night and listen to his stories of what the music business was like in Hamilton in the thirties, the sixties, the eighties – well, close to ninety years of tales and tunes. So very happy birthday, Mr. Washington – “long may your sweet song carry on”.
I was there with my pal, Lori Yates, and also bumped into guitarist extraordinaire, Brian Griffith. Brian is Jackie’s nephew – he has the incredible musical genes that have been passed through this family – these genes also have given them both the longest fingers in the land. He is another man happy to stay in the Hammer and as he says, will only go on the road if the opportunity is just too much to miss – as in when he toured with Willie Nelson for three years and played with Bonnie Raitt or was asked by Dan Lanois to sit in on recording sessions. He is Hamilton’s guitar idol and the sweetest man as well. That’s in his genes too.
So for the next four nights I will be out at musical events, taking tickets at the door (at the Pearl, once again), running around backstage first at the industry awards on Saturday and then the big celebrity-laden rockin’ Hammies on Sunday, each night followed by fun and frolicking in the Hammer-core. In the days, I’ll be re-working my power point presentation to present the book in Guelph at the eBar next Tuesday night as well as be connecting with the kind folks who are helping me set up book events next spring in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Maine. Yaaaaawwww - excuse me -nnnnn…I’m getting tired just thinking of it.
Your roving reporter will be back in a few days with more musical tales from the Hammer.