A Band called Southdown

The transition from innocent childish pranks to nasty teenage tricks happened without our knowledge. Each dare, whether silently acknowledged or boldly accepted propelled us further down the road to maturity. Although there were many paths to choose from each path would ultimately lead us in only one direction and the first step put us entirely beyond the point of no return. We never considered consequences, never looked back.

By the age of thirteen we could freely roam the town, pushing well past the curfew set by those parents who dared to go there. We were fascinated by wheels. Skateboards were crude affairs and deadly, roller skates were OK at the roller rink; roller blades were still  someone’s dream. And our old bikes were no longer cool. For one thing, one of the older brothers, out with mother’s car might happen by and offer us a fast joy ride around town. It would never happen if we were seen with an un-cool bicycle.

At fourteen we became bored with most things, especially any of those activities our parents would suggest weekend after weekend. Shopping buggy races down the hill at the local mall might last for hours on a Friday night and might attract the attention of a passing gaggle of girls. Sometimes the nicer looking ones would sit in tight groups on the nearby grassy knoll and watch from a respectable distance, at least until that older kid with mommy’s car would happen by and take them away to the A&W. Some girls were tomboys; they were lots of fun and would join in the races, street hockey or whatever else we were doing, but they weren’t the kind who would want to kiss you. Being a tomboy must have been a great defense tactic approved and encouraged by lucky moms and dads everywhere. It would work well for a while, but then one day the tomboy would find some red lipstick and some tight jeans and look out boys, “Betty Lou’s gettin out tonight.”

By fifteen we were pulling the sleepover trick and could stay out all night if we wanted to. There was the occasional party at somebody’s house whose parents would be out of town for the weekend and if you played your cards right you could end up on a nice soft couch with a nice soft girl to cuddle with. There might even be some snuggling and a bit of face sucking. If you were lucky someone might offer you a beer or a blanket. Mostly, though, we just hung out or later, drove around sipping on whatever alcoholic beverage someone older was able to buy for us. Once I spent the whole night curled up under a tree in the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) parking lot, drunk as a skunk and sicker than a dog. I believe that lemon gin has not passed over my lips nor past my gums since that sinful evening.

My first experience with the killer weed, a disaster to be sure, happened one school night when I was home alone. One of the cool kids; he was a year or two older and had really long hair, sold me a $5 lid at school. I had guarded it all day through class and finally when I got it home, managed to get some of it rolled into a poorly fashioned joint. I stepped outside the house, flashed it up and prepared myself for entry into nirvana. Nothing happened at first. Puzzled, I smoked another and one after that. Still nothing happened, although I did feel a tingle sensation in my throat. I settled into a nearby lawn chair to see what else might happen. About then my older brother came home and found the remnants of my burnt offerings. I still remember his smirk as he asked me what I was doing with all the oregano.

Music was our constant. Whether on the road, at a party or just hanging in a basement the omnipresence of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, acid rock and those mystical arrangements from the west coast and the deep south became our safe drugs of choice. We spent hours sprawled around in basements playing our favorite albums over and over until we knew every note and every word.

It was the late sixties and bands like Cream, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, the Allman Brothers, the Byrds, Janis, Morrison, Garcia, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and John Lennon were leading America’s children away from the stilted confines of Elvis, early greaseball rock and roll and out of the Age of Deception. Sock hops in the high school gyms were being replaced by all night adventures in the dark mysterious depths of night clubs like Toronto’s Rock Pile, Yorkville’s Green Door, The Cave in Vancouver and the Fillmore’s, East and West in the USA.  A few local homegrown bands like Lighthouse, Crowbar, McKenna Mendelsson Mainline, April Wine and Rush were playing dances and concerts that were accessible to us and we went to as many as our budgets and our parents would allow. Desert boots and turtle necks were dumped in favor of psychedelic t-shirts, fringe coats, bell bottoms and sandals. Hair grew longer. Soda pop gave way to Southern Comfort and the drug of choice was black hash from Afghanistan or Lebanon by way of Montreal. Minds were expanded. Of course, none of us ever actually inhaled the stuff. That would have been against the law.

Somehow, during the social event familiar to many as high school, our group of wannabe rock stars came together and formed a loose knit band called Southdown. Rather than worry about us roaming the streets looking for trouble, our parents had thought it better to allow us our Saturday evenings collected in one place where, unknown to them, trouble often found us. Trouble would appear as 24 beers, or maybe a 26er of whiskey, or if there were girls hanging around there might be a mickey of lemon gin. And as I recall, there were always girls hanging around and they always caused trouble of one kind or another.

So the boys would get together to play in the old church hall on Mosley Street. We usually had to beg and cajole our dads to help rent us the equipment and then one of them would reluctantly offer up his afternoon to drive us around, gathering up all the bits and pieces, wires and amps, microphones, guitars, drums and keyboards. Finally by 4 or 5 in the afternoon we would make some sense of it all, plugging all the wires into the right places, and we would set off on a magical adventure into the realm of volumes and rhythms.

Usually after some initial unorganized jamming, we would get down to the more serious business of copying whichever songs were on the charts and were easy enough for us to copy. I don’t recall there having been any formal musical training evident in any of us but we found that if we cranked our amps into the distortion range we could sound almost good enough to play in public. We managed to put together a repertoire of enough songs to fill out 4 or 5 sets for an evening. That was, of course, assuming that none of the people from the first set would still be there for the last set or if they were they would be so out of it by then that they wouldn’t remember that we’d already played those songs. This is a common trick used by most amateur bands.

Vocalists were always difficult to find. There were just so many words to learn and remember. The front man of the band had to project an element of professionalism, not to mention some degree of talent and coolness. We were lucky enough to have two fine singers who vied with each other for the top spot. The band flip-flopped back and forth for a year, each practice coming closer to the point where we would actually be ready to meet the masses. We couldn’t decide. We were all good friends and for a while we just accepted that we would have two great singers.

The decision was eventually made for us when one of the singers arrived one day with a van into which we could stuff all our equipment, ourselves and our little group of hangers on. Ah, sweet freedom. No longer reliant, we released our parents from the silliness of it all and in turn were released from the over zealous watchful eye.  We could come and go as we pleased. We could arrive at parties en masse and bring noise, friends and beer. We could cruise around town in search of pizza and groupies and bring them back to the practice or to whatever party was happening.  Now had the means to get to real gigs.

Sometimes we’d take a break. Joined by a few others,we’d all go down to Ray’s Cafe, the local Chinese joint just around the corner, and order up some chicken chow mien or war wonton soup. Higher than kites, we’d sit there in the vinyl booths with the turquoise Formica tables flipping through the charts on the Seabreeze Juke box menu. Later, after more giggles and hearty laughter we would order huge slices of banana cream pie and coffee. About this time Ray’s was undergoing a metamorphasis from the bleak Chinese decor of the thirties into the glossy decor of the sixties and the name changed to Moon Gardens. It was the only cafe that would put up with our rowdy bunch, and it was always almost empty on a Saturday night. The area north of Toronto was known as the “mink and manure” township where a lot of wealthy folks owned most of the land and many had high priced thoroughbred horses in their paddocks. None of those folks would be caught dead in Ray’s Cafe so we felt pretty safe there. Like a thousand other Chinese cafes across the country, it has survived decades of change, depression and boom and is still in business in the same location today.

We played at a few high school functions and some private parties, none of which paid all that much. Throughout the summer of 1970, our grad year, we played a few gigs around southern Ontario. One weekend we loaded the van and headed for Honey Harbour, on Georgian Bay. We arrived at the dock, loaded all our gear on a water taxi and were whisked away to a little community hall on a remote island. As I recall now, there was free food, loose ladies and alcohol involved and by the end of the night our instruments had gotten pretty inibriated causing at least one of us to fall off the stage.

Along with the little bit of fame from our hometown fans and a smaller bit of fortune from our paying gigs came a sizable boost to our young egos. And that was our ruin. By the end of that summer we had pretty much had it with the perilous life of musicians on the road. I was the first to leave town to seek my fortune elsewhere. I never returned to live there. Over time we gradually drifted apart although some of us do communicate through social media from time to time.

I think about those great friends who I abandoned when I moved away. I never thought about consequences and for the longest time I never looked back. Aside from those few great moments with our tight knit group, for me there was just way too much baggage following me around. I had just to peek over my shoulder and there it all was, glowering and grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I kept running. We all have those moments in our life when we made a snap decision, choose one road over the other or say things that once said, can not be unsaid. For what is life but a string of points in time. Like Forrest Gump, one day we just stop running and when we are ready, we take a look back. If we have enough guts, we begin the task of sorting through that bundle of baggage, fixing what we can, releasing some back to the elements, filing some away for later deliberation and simply throwing the rest in the trash bin where it should have gone in the first place. I believe that if we are lucky, we are given time later in life for reflection, to make amends where possible and to put the rest in order while we can. I also believe that there are some things that can not be repaired. They will follow us to the grave and those individuals unlucky enough to have not been able to unload their baggage may rest uneasily. So there just may be something to the term, “Making Amends.” Amen!

The one thing that I brought with me all the way from Southdown and that I have refused to give up all these years, for I have used it over and over throughout my life, is the improvisational musical ability that developed in my teen years (such as it is.) Having had no formal training and being musically illiterate has seriously restricted my chances of ever becoming a concert pianist. But in terms of collaborating with others, finding trouble and getting into it and out of it and creating something for others to enjoy it has been a wild ride so far and I plan to “Keep on rockin in the free world” as long as I can.

One thought on “A Band called Southdown

  1. That was a fun read. Our recollections of the glory days of Southdown, OUR band, vary I will admit that we manage to have a GREAT time. You were a super addition when the band really needed a boost and your exceptioal skill and musical sense were very welcome. We did have some fun, hell man I hadn’t thought of Lemon Gin for years. Our wine list of May use, Baby Duck, Castelvetro. Drinking warm Dow Ale at Dave’s. The horrid cattetwalling of Topp! Then punch in the head by Topp with the rest of the band behind him. Anyone seen that asshole? We should do a jam again. Let’s see where and who’s in. Stay well Bob. I sure miss the west and In would consider consider Victoria or Muskoka?!?! Kent Johncox

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