(from Part 1) I was playing my guitar regularly by then and had written a bunch of self-indulgent songs about hitch-hiking, kings and castles, 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….
I figured if I could learn another fifty of the standard sing-along songs (Brown Eye Girl, American Pie) I could cold call my way into a deal with some local bar owner and see what we could work out. I’d already had several hundred of them blazed into my memory. How? I don’t quite know how. That little miracle just happens to me. A strange memory for songs I like.
My roommates were more than happy to be rolling with the liberal arts dude now. They could make real money during the week, but the true currency would be with the party happening back at our house after the gig when the bar was invited over.
So, I did my walkabout and after several unsuccessful attempts I stumbled into a bar called Cheers. (Back when the sitcom CHEERS was a mainstay in North American culture, every uncreative, copyright infringing trust fund baby from the Greatest Generation decided he would invent his own version of the bar ‘as seen on TV’!) Now in my quest to find a suitable partner for my pending venture, I thought, ‘hmmmm – anyone who’d be willing to stake their life savings on ripping off a TV sitcom theme for their bar is likely going to an easy sell!”
Cheers, was just as you’d think it should be. A typical wood and brass interior with a pool table in the back, a long narrow bar along one side, a stage in front of the window. Patrons were greeted with that familiar odour of fried chicken wing – meets carpet freshener – meets stale draft and cigarette smoke. A notch above the basement lounge of the Waverly.
“Hi I’m looking for the owner!”
“I’m the owner. How can I help you?”
“Hey…my name is Jay Aymar a singer songwriter guy who just moved into the neighbourhood. I’m looking to find a place to play my guitar and sing songs every weekend. I’m just making some cold calls as I live around the corner.”
“My name is Zoran. Nice to meet you. Interesting you say that. We were JUST talking about mixing things up in here and recently bought a new PA. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I don’t know really. Make me an offer?”
“Well, how about you come in this Saturday night and we’ll see how it goes. I’ll offer you $300 and all you can drink!” (Ahh the good old days – try to find a place in TO that’ll give an upstart solo sing-along ACT more than $100. Wait a minute! The solo singalong thing barely exists anymore (outside of el tourista patios down in Margaritaville . Guess they pay DJ’s a lot more than that now).
“Sounds good to me Zoran! See you Saturday.”
With that, I raced home and told the gang the great news. We were now hooked up to a three second stumble from our home at the place where ‘everybody should at least know our names’ in short order!
It was going to be epic.
The first gig was quiet save for one group of Northern Secondary High grads in the back room playing pool. They were seemingly on the boarder of being of age but it struck me very quickly that Cheers was not looking too closely at the fake ID’s. The two servers had been working with Zoran since it opened a few years prior, and they were not only TO beauties, they loved to have fun and encouraged rowdy behaviour at every step. We got to know them all so well as they would come back to the after party ritual every weekend. So during my first break, I met Jim, the kid who was the biggest music fan of them all. “Hey buddy, that was great stuff. Are you going to play here every weekend? If so, we’ll get everyone form the neighbourhood to come out!”
“Yeah, it’s a test run tonight but if it goes we’ll we’re going to keep going every weekend.”
Oh so it was. Jim and his crew told everyone in the hood and before too long the tables started filling up. Let me state again – this was in no way a professional gig. I would stand on the stage and play for four hours straight – singing, drinking, smoking, telling jokes, bringing up people for some stupid human tricks. You name it.
One time a bra-less peroxided blonde with huge 90’s hair jumped up on stage, took her top off and began to grind me and the mic stand! Mid song! (I’m sure I protested loudly! lol). Now you’d think someone would have found this inappropriate behaviour? Not so. Everyone laughed and cheered until finally Jim ran up onto the stage and raised both of our arms like we’d just finished a prize fight and battled it to a draw! I can’t make this shit up! She fumbled around for her Iggy Pop t-shirt, put it back on and resumed drinking. I recall seeing her at our party later on that night.
One night, Jim brought in about five tables of his friends and some relatives who must have been from the east coast. These guys kept requesting Stompin Tom Connors and McLean and McLean! I knew about two Stompin Tom songs but hadn’t really learned any McLean and McLean. For those of you who don’t know the difference between the two? Well, it’s very slim. One sings funny songs about Canada and the others sings funny songs about Canada – only one is peppered with filthy words. McLean and McLean’s biggest hit was a cover called The Rodeo Song “It’s forty below and I don’t give a fuck gotta heater in my truck and I’m off to the rodeo!”
Things got so ridiculous that these guys were walking up on to the stage with weed crammed into their cigarettes (cleverly disguised – NOT) and placing it LIT – into the ashtray next to me, while the crowd challenged me to a chugging contest. Yes this all happened. The strange thing was, it didn’t matter how many pints I downed, I could always remember the words to every song and many said they enjoyed my really intoxicated show better than my semi-intoxicated show. I believe they were right.
Jim’s east coast relatives who showed up must have felt right at home when I started singing Stompin Tom and The Rodeo Song. The place erupted. I mean ERUPTED. That night about forty of us piled into our house for the after party and played as many songs as I could. That week I immediately learned ten more Stompin Tom songs and a few more McLean and Mcleans with the promise to see them all again the following Saturday for round two.
The one thing you have to know about Maritimers (especially Newfoundlanders) , when they find something they like, they’re loyal as hell. I swear the have their version of an underground railroad and secret telegraph and when they want to show their support – the ‘put the word out’ and BOY do they come out of the woodwork.
The next week I showed up and the place was filled. Suddenly, I was the draw. The main event. I was barely ready for this. I mean emotionally. It meant continuing this charade of playing the big drinker, loud , obnoxious, pot smoking humourist with a guitar singing bawdy songs for drunks. How would my liver manage? How could my psyche manage? I was still trying to be a respected songwriter in completely different circles? I don’t quite know how I embraced it all …but somehow I managed.
I stood up that night and drank my way through the proceedings. The server told me she’d served more draft that night then any night previous. “Jay, I think you should renegotiate your deal with Zoran! You should go for a higher percentage of the bar sales!”
“No Joanne, a deals a deal. Zoran’s been good to me and he lets me drink and eat for free. I’m good with this arrangement (if I only knew then what I know now! Geeeshhh).
The weekly Saturday engagement turned into a lot of doubled up dates. (Fridays and Saturdays) .Saturday’s often had capacity line-ups and suddenly I was the one responsible for drawing every Newfie from parts unknown into the Yonge and Eglinton area . It was bound to blow up. it had to! Nothing this crazy can last forever. Right? It carried on for 20 months like this and there was no end in sight. I’d dated every girl who worked at the place and my liver was now about as efficient as a colander.
One Saturday I arrived a few hours early in the dead of winter for some pre-show dinner and drinks. I used to eat, read and drink on my own in the back booth by the pool table with occasional interruptions from the staff. It was my happy place. It was always the same questions “Do we need someone to pick up beer for your party afterwards? Is there a party afterwards? I have hash. Do you have vodka?”
Suddenly, that night, Zoran decided to pull up a seat and have a beer and talk about life. I learned a lot about him and his family that night. The heir to a Yogurt fortune from a wealthy European family.
“Jay my friend. How’s the beer and food? Zoran’s treating you right – right? You’re happy here?”
“Oh yeah man. It’s been great. What’s up?”
I knew something was up because Zoran was always much too busy to actually sit and break the bread during a Saturday dinner rush. “Jay, tonight’s a special night as my parents are visiting. They have friends and relatives coming in from the old country. We’re going to reserve these tables in the back and have a traditional meal prepared for them. It’s my mother’s birthday! I know it’s going to get busy in here in a few hours and those crazy fans of yours…well you know what I mean…the Newfies will get a little crazy. They’re going to want you to drink on stage and play those funny songs. Now you know I like that normally? Right? You know I like what you do, but just for tonight I need you to calm down. Just take it easy. You can still have some drinks but don’t play those songs. Especially that one about “It’s forty below and I don’t giva fuck! OK? Just wanted you to know!”
“You got it Zoran. I’ve got you covered.”
Famous last words….
(to be continued)…