“There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian. What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all Canadian’ boy or girl? A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.” —Pierre Trudeau, Conversations with Canadians, 1972
NOTE: I’ve been remiss in not writing this chapter of the Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll earlier, especially given that I’m Canadian! I have tickets to see the Stampeders perform at the Charles Bailey Theatre in Trail, BC, and it got me thinking about those long ago days…
Summer 1972. Mackenzie, BC. It’s a time in my memory when the days seem suffused with golden light, when the edges of things seem softer somehow. I’m coming up to my 13th birthday in September, and already the strains of transition from childhood to adolescence are showing. My voice is starting to crack like a door suddenly heavy on its hinges. My body is developing in an uncontrollable, erratic way. In school photographs I look like my teeth are too big for my head, like some kind of grinning rabbit. It’s not helping with my budding interest in girls, nor is the fact that I wear glasses. In 1972 a kid with glasses might as well be walking around with a target on his back. I’d have to fight with my parents to get the hip new wire-frame, aviator style glasses to replace my outmoded, now deeply uncool Buddy Holly horned rims. I’d have to fight my parents for the right to wear long hair and bell-bottom jeans. I was geeky even before the term was invented and hopelessly flunking the adolescent charm game. The teasing is relentless and heartless. Whoever came up with the myth of childhood innocence anyway?
So to walk through the door of the local pool hall was to walk through a portal into another world. And at the very centre of that world for me wasn’t the billiard balls and green cloth tables but the jukebox. To those of us living in the Canadian outback—by choice or not—a jukebox was a magical creation. Beautifully decked out in coloured lights, it descended like a UFO mother ship to bring us news of the universe. And Gawd, livin’ out at the end of the road, in the middle of the Canadian bush, did we need it! Pop music for an awkward teen who can count his friends on one hand was far more than mere entertainment. It was a lifeline, a Rock of Gibraltar steadying the storm waters of adolescence. Hell, however briefly, I was prepared to steal to get the latest LPs if I couldn’t afford them on my meager weekly allowance.
Jukeboxes were a magnet to a kid like me. I could stare for hours through its glass case, reading the band names and song titles while the linoleum floors rumbled to the drums and bass. To name just the Canuck rock gems that studded the jukeboxes in 1972: Neil Young: Heart of Gold. The Guess Who: American Woman and Running Back to Saskatoon. Stampeders: Sweet City Woman and Wild Eyes. Chilliwack: Rain-O. April Wine: You Could Have Been a Lady and Drop Your Guns. Edward Bear: Last Song. Valdy: Rock and Roll Song. Lighthouse: Sunny Days. Crowbar: Oh What a Feeling. “Oh, what a feeling. Oh, what a rush,” pretty much describes the vibe of the year. Or as Lighthouse sang: “There ain’t nothin’ in the world you know, like lying in the sun with your radio.” Bachman-Turner Overdrive wouldn’t fully arrive for another couple years, and then with a bang whose echoes have never died out. 1967 might have been the Summer of Love in San Francisco but in Canada in 1972 was the Summer of Love in Toronto and Vancouver. That its vibe reached deep into isolated northern communities like Mackenzie was down to the miracle of the jukebox. Where we were, FM radio had yet to penetrate.
I remember seeing Heart in Prince George in 1973, before their first album Dreamboat Annie came out. I realize Heart is American, but we felt we discovered them, so they belonged to us Canuck kids. I’d hitchhiked the 100 miles or so from Mackenzie to meet a group of buddies, all of us excited about the concert. Late that night was also my first taste of marijuana. There were about six of us, crammed into a dingy motel room, the air thick with sweet smoke—me on my back on the floor, drifting. But I digress. Sweeny Todd, Heart’s opening act, blew us away with Roxy Roller. Canada’s very own glam rock! When Heart came on, all us young bucks were like, what? Chicks who play guitars? No, can’t be. Never seen that before. Rock was still pretty male dominated, a tough guy’s game. Just like April Wine would sing a few years later: “Rock ’n roll is a vicious game.” (Read Ann and Nancy Wilson’s biography, Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock ’n Roll to get a sense of the battle they had to be seen as musicians rather than sex objects.) But when the Wilson sisters cranked up, we were instant converts. These women could shred with the Pages and the Claptons.
And what could be sweeter, more tinged with the gilded rays of adolescent summer than Sweet City Woman? It spoke to us of joy, of first love—at 13, the most mysterious thing imaginable. Tinged with the angst of growing up, the tension in the cells of our bodies as they changed before our eyes. Romantic love a prospect both delicious and terrifying. And everywhere in the air the sound of these perfect songs. As if the universe were pouring out a Niagara of creative genius. Everywhere you looked between 1970–75, recordings of astonishing range and accomplishment. For my money, this was the Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll, as Mott the Hoople would remind us in 1974. It seemed like every band working then was hitting their peak at the same time. As any writer, artist or musician will tell you, it’s a mystery when it works. And while “a poet at 21 is 21; a poet at 40 is a poet,” musicians seem to flower early. Although they continually improve as performers, often they struggle for a lifetime to recapture the magic of their classic early recordings. Which is why ‘magic’ is the right word for it.
In American Woman, the Guess Who two years earlier had articulated a simmering fear that was still in the air: fear of engulfment by the elephant to the south of us. And a strong Canadian dissident movement opposing the Vietnam War. (Pierre Trudeau said living next to the US was like “sleeping next to an elephant.”) Where I live in the Slocan Valley was one of the main destinations for American draft resisters, often via Toronto or Vancouver. It was the era of CanCon—Canadian content regulations—often derided in retrospect, but at the time it was the right thing to do. Without them, many of these great rock and pop bands north of the 49th parallel might never have stood a chance. Not because they couldn’t compete for sheer quality and hard rockin’ appeal, but simply because Americans had a way of snowing us under with sheer market mass and noise. They do, after all, outnumber us. (And then there’s all those guns….)
And the Stampeders. Some of their songs were pure distilled sunlight. The very essence of an age. Carry Me. Devil You. Monday Mornin’ Choo-Choo. Wild Eyes. Oh My Lady. Minstrel Gypsy. My school buddy Billy McGillivray was the one who introduced me to them. A Stoney Indian, Billy was just as marginal socially as I was in those days. By 1972 you couldn’t turn on a radio in Canada without hearing Sweet City Woman. One of the first rock albums I remember buying, along with Ten Years After’s Rock ’n Roll Music to the World, was the Stampeders’ debut Against the Grain. The soft focus lens used to shoot their album covers at the time, most often in summer at a leafy park somewhere, were the perfect visual representation of the age. It was a portrait of a young, prosperous society written in three-minute rock and pop songs. The cost of living was low, so it freed people up to devote their lives to music. It’s no accident the Sixties and Seventies saw the greatest efflorescence of popular music in modern history. The postwar system of social supports that had been established in Britain and Canada also helped make that possible. Losing your job no longer automatically meant landing in the street. My good friend Jon Burden, guitarist for Holly and Jon, tells me that even a bar band in the ’70s could make top dollar.
Meanwhile record company talent scouts were interested in creativity as much as sales, each label anxious to be the one that broke the next new sensation. Already the by the end of the ’70s that model was succumbing to corporatism, making the bottom line the top line. And the music suffered for it. No wonder Punk came in swinging its fists. The music industry needed a kick in the ass by then. To my ears, Punk wasn’t better, but at least it was honest.
Still, it was a long way from the summer of ’72 or ’73 or ’74. No wonder then that the music of the Canuck rockers of the era remains a precious picture of innocence, however unlikely to last. God bless them all.