A few days ago I wrote a letter to my friends, fans and family across Canada with the hopes of cheering a few folks up, appeasing my conscience and basically offering some holiday goodwill. I even mentioned three times throughout the diatribe that I was very sorry for anyone I’d left out as it would be impossible to remember everyone (obviously) and that it was all written quickly over a few pints of Guinness. So, as good fortune would have it, many of you wrote to me personal emails wishing me the best of the season! That’s the spirit! Thank you. And as human nature would dictate, a few of you decided that no good deed would go unpunished and you’d rain on my Christmas tree with choice comments of “Thanks for the mention pal!” or “Are you for real?”
But hey…I expected that.
Rock n’ Roll’s a dangerous game kids.
You gotta have skin like leather if you want to survive in this business
(enter you’re own cliche here:)
Which brings me to this last email from: justin201@—–“
“Hey Jay, thanks for the vid and the letter. I remember we used to go to a bar called Cheers in North Toronto at Yonge and Eglinton. I think the guy that played every weekend was you? I really do! You mentioned McLean and McLean in your email and I remember a guy on the guitar singing the Rodeo song. Was that you or am I making this up?”
Wow! The internet. Full circle. “Justin, you’re not dreaming buddy. it WAS me.”
It was the mid-nineties and I was indeed playing McLean and Mclean’s Rodeo song (written by Gaye Delorme of Cheech and Chong fame – and one of Canada’s finest guitar players) – at bar called Cheers at Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto. The crazy part is, I think Justin is referring to the night I sang that song and all hell broke loose. I’ll get to that later. Let’s start at the beginning.
I’d just graduated from Carleton bluffing my way through a BA (and I truly mean bluffing!) How I managed to fumble my way through that WAS and still IS a mystery. I loved a few things about it though. I could write essays. I loved writing essays. I was good at it. I love reading the assigned texts. From the Romantics to Canadian lit, American lit , Shakespeare, Absurdist Theatre and Modern Poetry et al. It was really great. The only problem is, I have a memory like a sieve for most things and by the time it was all done, I was qualified for teaching, songwriting or Jeopardy. I wasn’t accepted into teachers college as my marks were too low and my experience was zilch. I obviously hadn’t made strides to move into that direction. Jeopardy? I’d already made my mind up I was a Wheel of Fortune kind of guy. Songwriting? Well….that sounds interesting.
I moved to Toronto with my flashy new B.A. and a $27,000 student loan debt ready to tackle the world. My sister knew a family friend who was the sales manager of a spring water company. They offered me a job in sales. As the sales manager said, “We stick a mirror under your nose and if it fogs up…you’re hired!” I was hired to sell water cooler units and bottles of water – door to door to businesses around the GTA. Most reps lasted a week. I last two years. Hunger and debt does strange things to a psyche.
After I was hired, the manager said “Well, what are you driving?” I said “ I just got my license last week and I don’t have a car!” “Well, you’d better get on that. You’re going to need to load up water coolers and bottles everyday so you should likely go for a small van!”
The next morning I perused the back of the Toronto Star and found an ad for a station wagon in Markham, ON. The woman who answered the phone assured me the station wagon was ‘top notch’ as it was her husband’s corporate ride for many years. Recently retired they only need two cars, not three! (Must be nice)
As I took the bus over to the address, I noticed the houses getting larger and larger. Two car garages, wide streets, yet postage stamp backyards where the houses all looked somewhat the same. Just add water subdivisions – I once heard some refer to them as. I knocked on the door and the nice woman invited me into her completely white kitchen, with white walls, white furniture and a small white poodle. She showed me her backyard pool and bemoaned the fact that they could only use it three months out of the year.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“We live in Florida for six months and travel the rest of the time.”
A part me cringed for every living soul struggling in the ghetto. (Then again, something tells me those struggling souls were having more fun – in an unknowing kind of way).
As we kept talking I really connected with this woman. I could tell she loved my story about coming from Northern Ontario, and how I’d recently moved to Toronto trying to get into sales.
“My husband was in sales his entire life. He did very well. Insurance. Have you ever thought about insurance?”
I’d only ever heard from others that insurance, although lucrative, would be one of those things that would leave you friendless after about five years. You find yourself showing up to the mens rec hockey league and guys are leap-frogging for the exits “Oh shit, here comes Aymar…gonna hit me up for some life insurance again!” And that’s no disrespect to life insurance sales reps! In fact, my father bought some for me when I as a baby (to help out a friend) and lo and behoild…I’m now worth more DEAD than alive!
So when she found out I was a Carleton U alumni with a B.A. she really opened up. “My god, that’s where my daughter went and she’s likely close to your age.”
When she told me her name, I was relieved to not know her. Who knows how we may have met in that blur of a party they call higher education? (If you know what I’m saying).
She called her husband and immediately asked if he could offer a better deal on the vehicle.
We eventually made it out to the garage and there it was.
A 1985 Buick Estate Station Wagon – fully loaded – complete with faux wood grain paneling ala Plains,Trains and Automobiles / Uncle Buck. In fact my nieces and nephews (who were quite young then) dubbed me Uncle Buck or UB for short – because of this ride. It was purely ridiculous. A tank. People got out of the way when I barreled down the highway.
Anyway, her husband agreed to a better deal and the next day I showed up with a cheque for $1500 and drove away in my new ride. Nothing says “Single styling salesman in his mid-twenties, like a wood grain paneled station wagon!”
For the next two years it was so grossly mishandled and weighed down with water coolers and bottles, the shocks gave way….the rust set in…and eventually it was spewing out blue exhaust enough to make David Suzuki put me on the fucking green party hit list.
It was during these years that I was sharing a house at near Yonge and Eglinton with some university buddies who’d also come to Toronto. (Albeit business grads where were much more interested in starting real careers at Bay and King).
I was playing my guitar regularly by then and had written a bunch of self-indulgent songs about hitch-hiking, kings and queens and fish in the ocean. They were all shit. A few of them found their way into a CBC contest and they made a little demo of my stuff. I was even playing a few folk festivals on weekends and opening for established artists like Fred Eaglesmith and Willie P. Bennett. I didn’t take it seriously at all.
Why would I? I had a great job selling water door to door. A pimped out station wagon and a Hondo Flying V electric guitar, fender amp, and a Samick acoustic for late night hangs. All I really wanted was a place to drink for free on weekends. I had a master plan. What happened next is something you really won’t believe (unless you happened to be there!)
…to be continued