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Books, Criticism, Seen & Heard

Death By Champagne: Nanaimo Girl

June 16, 2020

“Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”
– The Beatles

§ § §

wtgwg-nanaimo-coverPrudence Emery is the eponymous “Nanaimo Girl.”

Now in her early 80s and living on her native Vancouver Island just outside Victoria, Pru has written a memoir that is quite astonishing in its detail. While recounting events that chronicle her personal life, the reader is left with a dizzying array of interlocking stories that culminate in – if you’ll excuse the phrase – one hell of a life.

The book follows an ‘everyone is from somewhere’ thread, and this book, this woman’s life, unspools its thread beginning in “…a murky little coal town…”

“…in a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous,
almost no one I met had heard of Nanaimo…”


Pru as a young entertainer

And so her story begins, and rich and famous they were!

By her own admission, she “…behaved so badly…” as a child, she was sent off to a boarding school (twice) to learn her manners. Her first tastes of life outside the clutches of parental control gave her free reign to push envelopes and test boundaries. She was precocious to a fault, but her ‘antics’ still managed to earn her ‘black marks’ in school and scowls from her elders. Despite her rebellious ways, she graduated grade 12 in the mid-1950s with a B+ average and was promptly ‘launched into society’ as a debutante. Not bad for a girl who was once slapped by a teacher, the result of one of her escapades.

After a short stint at the University of British Columbia, Pru had had enough. She packed her belongings into two trunks, and with her best friend, shipped off to Europe.

Her decision to drop anchor in London after a whirlwind tour of the continent would serve her well for the rest of her peripatetic career, for it was here that the ‘rubbing of shoulders’ began in earnest.

Although attending art school during the day, it was during her ‘wild evenings’ in the pubs of Chelsea and Covent Garden that she met Irish screenwriter Patrick Kirwan. He gave Pru her first real job in the film business, typing a script for the musical comedy feature, “Tommy and the Toreador,” starring pop star Tommy Steele, and British stalwarts Sidney James and Bernard Cribbins. Pru and Patrick hit it off, and he soon became her mentor, a mentor with ‘benefits,’ shall we say.

Her time with Patrick was fruitful. He introduced her to the prestigious Irish Club in Eaton Square and squired her to the Royal Ascot. The connections she began making would go into a Rolodex that would soon become the foundation of her professional life.

Those early personal and business contacts, however, did not immediately help generate income. Pru remained ‘an impoverished London art student’ until she one day landed a job as a barmaid at the famous le Pétit Club Français. Not a high paying position, but her contact list grew.


Pru with Sophia Loren

In the Spring of 1962, after five years in London, Nanaimo Girl returned to Canada and decided to try her hand as a proofreader at The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. Then she landed a job working on animated films in Ottawa for Canadian film icon, Budge Crawley. She loved the film business, and so she pursued acting, finding herself in movies directed by Irvin Kershner (who would go on to make The Empire Strikes Back) and working with actor/author Robert Shaw who still had Jaws and The Sting to add to his resume.

Her people skills were amiable and infectious, and those in high places remembered. It led to Pru being employed in Visitor Services for Expo 67. It was her job to escort VIPs around the huge Montreal site. The list of those famous people is a literal Who’s Who of the day: Liberace, Hugh Hefner, Twiggy, Haley Mills, Jack Benny, Marlene Dietrich, Glenn Gould, David Frost, and even the leader of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. But it was playwright Edward Albee and one prominent Soviet journalist who had the most impact on Pru’s life. Albee, who had already received a Pulitzer Prize for his play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would become a lifelong friend, and the reporter from the Russian wire service TASS (who may or may not have been a KGB spy) became her lover.

Pru with playwright Edward Albee

Pru with playwright Edward Albee

It’s been said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. While Prudence isn’t entirely convinced of the former, she has had oodles of the latter and capitalized on it. When Expo 67 closed, she took an extended vacation back in London to relax and catch-up with old friends.

One day over a cup of tea, the father of a family friend, knowing her background, asked her if she’d like to be a press and public relations officer at his hotel. He was the Managing Director of The Savoy, one of the most luxurious and famous hotels in the world. She yes, of course, and her stories during the five years she spent as Head of PR with The Savoy are among the most entertaining in the book.

The final act of Nanaimo Girl’s professional career began with her requisite ‘rubbing of shoulders’. Back in Toronto, she was interviewed for the freelance job of Unit Publicist on a Canadian feature film. But not just any feature film. Black Christmas would eventually gain cult status and remains one of the most successful Canadian films ever made.

Although Pru would navigate many other career moves, it was filmmaking that she found herself best suited for, and it was, after all, where her contacts sent her.

Beginning in 1975, Nanaimo Girl started work as a publicist on her second film, and there was no turning back. She never accepted a permanent job again. Her work for another Canadian film icon, David Cronenberg, put her name on the map as the ‘go-to’ film publicist. Over the next thirty-five years, Pru would work as Unit Publicist on one hundred and twenty film and television productions, ten of those for Cronenberg. Her motion picture career, although based in Canada, would take her around the world several times, and allow her to work with some of the biggest names in international cinema. Her stories and anecdotes during this period are illuminating, with many falling between amusing and hysterical.

Author Prudence Emery

Author Prudence Emery

After a dizzying professional career spanning some 60 years, Prudence celebrated her 80th birthday in 2016 back home in Victoria. While she is reflective of those years ‘rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous,’ she reveals neither conceit nor false modesty in her remembrances. Even Pru’s love life that “…bobbed like a duck in a storm…” doesn’t escape her self-deprecating pen.

One of the best sections of this memoir is entitled, “Turning Eighty.” It should be required reading for anyone over the age of fifty, if only as a primer for their later years.

Memoirs, as with all forms of autobiography, are complicated animals, good ones even more so. Many historical accounts of a personal nature, written and verbal, tend to drift into ‘I went here, I saw this, I did that’ – “Nanaimo Girl” is no different. What sets Pru’s entertaining stories apart, however, is that there are so many of them. The result is that the reader finds themselves asking… Where’s she going? What’s she doing? What happens next? And of course, that’s the perfect chemistry of a page-turner.

The Beatles once sang: “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?” And play she did. What a life!

A Memoir
Author: Prudence Emery
Cormorant Books
ISBN: 9781770865273

§ § §

This book review first appeared in The Ormsby Review #809 – April 25, 2020

Books, Criticism, Music, Seen & Heard

Song Book: 21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74)

June 16, 2020

“Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music,
Any old way you choose it,
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it.
Any old time you use it.
It’s gotta be rock and roll music,
If you wanna dance with me.”
– The Beatles (Chuck Berry)

§ § §

wtgwg-song-book-coverIt’s been said that if you remember the 1960s you weren’t there.  Well, I do, and I was.  And like many others of my generation, the music of that time was a massive part of who we were.  New bands, new singles, new albums were erupting from speakers big and small on our favourite AM – and increasingly, FM – radio stations.  If you owned a car, it was not unusual to pull alongside another vehicle at a stoplight and hear the same song emanating from both.  Smiles and peace signs would be exchanged, and then both cars would continue on their separate journeys.  The music was a uniting force.

In the new book, “Song Book: 21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74),” author Fiona McQuarrie chronicles the inside story of fourteen songs from the 1960s and seven from the early 1970s.  She digs deep into the history of those twenty-one compositions and takes the reader on a personal journey of discovery – frequently surprising, always musical.  Each song’s long strange trip is traced from creative inception through studio production and on to release.  McQuarrie details each tune’s historical impact (or lack thereof), and the trials and tribulations involved in getting lyrics and music from paper to vinyl (with the occasional lawsuit adjusting the ‘written by’ credit).  That would be enough content to whet any appetite for subject matter such as this, but there’s more.  She reveals why some songs – many that were under-appreciated when initially released – found themselves re-recorded and released years, sometimes decades later; some even became hits by well-known artists.  Tim Hardin’s original song, “Reason To Believe,” written and first recorded in 1966, is a good example.  Hardin, who also wrote, “If I Were A Carpenter” (he sang both songs at Woodstock), never seemed to crack the ‘hit’ market with any of his songs.  But many were covered and recorded by the likes of Bobby Darin, The Carpenters, Rod Stewart, Cher, Johnny Cash, and dozens of others.  “Reason To Believe,” in particular, became extremely popular and made the Top 40 more than once.  McQuarrie’s description of Hardin’s musical career is a stand-out and a rockin’ good read.

wtgwg-song-book-45-hardinAuthor McQuarrie knows what she’s talking about here.  Aside from significant research and an eye and ear for detail, she was music critic for The Vancouver Sun and The Province newspapers for six years.  She’s been writing about music for much longer, and although she is now part of the Faculty of Business at a B.C. university, her musical interests haven’t waned.  We should be thankful for that.  It’s to the reader’s benefit that she has, in her own words, “…a mind full of useless musical trivia.” After reading this book, I would take issue with the word ‘useless.’

wtgwg-song-book-deshannon-2The songs and artists she includes in this collection are certainly favourites of hers, and it’s clear that her musical tastes are eclectic, to say the least.

The first installment is about the rise of Jackie DeShannon.  We know her as the songwriter behind such hits as “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” “When You Walk In The Room,” and even the song that made Kim Carnes famous in the early 1980s, “Bette Davis Eyes.”  But did you know that on the strength of her singing and songwriting The Beatles chose her as an opening act for their first North American tour in 1964?  (She celebrated her 23rd birthday on stage at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium.)

wtgwg-song-book-bonzoLater, we are introduced – many of us for the first time – to a British band called The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.  Their live performances are described thusly: “…horror masks, weird instruments, explosions, and a life-size rag doll named Alma.”  While the ‘Bonzos’ were very well received on the club circuit and through multiple appearances on a children’s TV show in England, their popularity decidedly did not translate to hit records.  However, their one major release, “I’m The Urban Spaceman,” was the exception and ended up spending 14 weeks on the U.K. charts, most of that time in the Top Ten.  Author McQuarrie relates this fascinating tidbit about the song.  When the band went into the studio to record ‘Spaceman,’ the day would be a memorable one.  During a break in the session, the producer of the song sat down and played what was likely the first ‘performance’ of “Hey Jude.”  The producer was Paul McCartney.  According to Paul, The Beatles had always been fans of the Bonzos, and he eagerly agreed to produce the record for them.  Once word got out that McCartney was involved the song became so popular that the single was selling more than 15,000 copies per day.

wtgwg-song-book-beatlesA handful of years later one of the Bonzos, Neil Innes, hooked up with Eric Idle of Monty Python and supplied music to many of the Python’s TV shows, records, and films.  Neil and Eric eventually collaborated on a hilarious television rock ’n roll satire of The Beatles entitled, “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.”

Chapters on Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Donovan, The Beach Boys, Long John Baldry, and many more are provided by McQuarrie.  But along with the popular songwriters and bands we are also introduced to esoteric recording artists like the Bonzos, and a band called ‘Hotlegs.’  Who…?  By the end of the six-page chapter on this group and their music I realize I’ve been reading about the birth of one of the seminal ‘artistic’ rock ’n roll bands of the 1970s, and one of my personal favourites: 10cc.  How did I not know this? All the stories detailed in this book contain surprises.  Each story could easily be the pitch for a documentary.

In the early 1970s, the Government of Canada instigated Canadian Content regulations for cultural industries.  Radio stations would, henceforth, have to adhere to ‘CanCon’ rules that required a certain percentage of radio play be Canadian.  McQuarrie uses multi-award-winning musician and songwriter Michel Pagliaro as an entry point to help explain the Canadian music scene – English and French – during this period.  By detailing Pag’s ascent into rock royalty, McQuarrie attempts to decipher the issues that affected both musicians and radio Program Directors that CanCon presented.  A difficult task, but she mostly succeeds.

You don’t need to like these twenty-one songs, and you don’t even need to know who the bands are; the stories themselves are worth the price of admission.  You can find articles and non-fiction books that treat their musical subject matter with reverence, sometimes bordering on sycophantic hero-worship.  This is not that book.  McQuarrie’s writing is eloquent, to the point, and pulls no punches.  If she likes something, she says so.  If she doesn’t, she says so in no uncertain terms.  No pussyfooting here.  Even her publisher suggests the book contains “…the occasional dose of snark.”  I can tell you, it’s a refreshing style.

Author Fiona McQuarrie

Author Fiona McQuarrie

Parsing the DNA of 60s and 70s popular music has become a bit of a cottage industry in the last few years, primarily through websites and podcasts.  Radio, too, is prone to looking back into the ‘stacks of wax,’ with Santa Monica super station KCRW’s “Lost Notes” being one of the best examples.  Is this just nostalgia?  I think it’s more than that.

The 1960s gave an entire generation its own music – rock ’n roll as a genre, a cultural phenomenon, and ultimately an art form, came of age.  In the 1970s it matured.  Old, white, male politicians and lawmakers, whom, with few exceptions, adhered to old school ways and means, and perpetuated post-war ideals and policies for a new war, were put on notice.  Of course, we were disaffected.  But the voting age was lowered, and ultimately, the bar was raised.  The youth that asked for change, then pursued and protested it, and then demanded it, got it.  And the music wasn’t in the background – it was the soundtrack.

If I have any quibble with “Song Book” it’s that it’s too short!  I’m hoping there’s a second volume lurking on McQuarrie’s computer hard drive somewhere.  Reading this book was not only enlightening; it was also fun.

It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  If so, I’ll leave the final comments to ‘dancer’ Fiona McQuarrie.  In her introduction to this book, she says: “The best songs, or our favourite songs, are like sparkling jewels – from different angles or in different settings, they shine in different ways, but each of them fuses sounds and words into something else entirely distinctive and wonderful.”  The same could be said of her book.

21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74)
Author: Fiona McQuarrie
Walthamstow, UK & New Haven Publishing
ISBN: 9781912587155

§ § §

This book review first appeared in The Ormsby Review #611 – September 9, 2019

Books, Travel

In Her Own Words…

December 15, 2016

Back in December 2016, we created something special for readers of the new adventure biography, “Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer” (you are reading the book, yes…?)

The date marked the 94th anniversary of Idris Hall’s rebirth as Aloha Wanderwell and the beginning of her life’s global journey with the Wanderwell Expedition. She became known far and wide as the ‘Amelia Earhart of the open road’ and secured her place in history as the first woman to drive around the world.

Her ‘voyage of a lifetime’ began in 1922 in the south of France.

She was sixteen years old and at the wheel of a Model-T Ford.

Forbidden to write a personal record of her road trip experiences by the leader of the Expedition, Captain Walter Wanderwell, she nonetheless kept a logbook.

On Sunday, December 18, 2016, we began publishing, day and date, what those secret diary entries revealed.

Readers followed along and experienced life through the eyes of a teenager caught between two world wars
almost a century ago. In real-time!

If you’re new to the exploits of this adventurous, courageous, peripatetic explorer… a primer.

§ § §

Spring 1917

It was the mathematically square windows of the dorm room on Vancouver Island that pushed 10-year-old Idris Hall’s imagination into high gear. Staring through those windows she could see life before the war. A life when her father would take her and her baby sister down to the ocean at the edge of their property to play in the surf. Or perhaps take a tour on grand, sunny, daylong trips in their new boat, exploring hidden coves and watching seals and otters and even orcas. Idris had gotten used to people asking why the Inlet Queen had square portholes. ‘Because that’s what mummy wanted’, she would say. Margaret had always maintained that the Hall Family had to be distinctive, had to be different. Idris would often smile at that thought.

The smile rarely lingered. Idris’s mother had taken her baby sister, Miki, and gone to England to help nurse her injured husband, Bertie, back to health – leg shrapnel, the telegram had said, ‘recuperating at Aldershot.’ Idris didn’t go. Margaret enrolled her in an all-girl private school to tend to her studies until ‘this beastly war’ was over – a few months at best, her mother had said. That was a year ago. Letters were rare.

aloha-11The starched-collar attitude of private school life was not to Idris’s liking at all, and it was certainly no match for the teasing promise of adventure offered by the square portholes of the Inlet Queen. But she had discovered an antidote to her indentured scholastic existence – the windows of her stuffy domicile could be put to good use.

The window across from her dorm room bed faced south, and standing there she could move her head ever so slightly to reveal the tops of towering Douglas Fir trees waving against a perfect blue sky, or she could lean to one side and eliminate them altogether, revealing instead the puffy white clouds. At another window, standing exactly three steps back from the sash – no more, no less – Idris could frame the skyline of Victoria’s Inner Habour barely a mile away. She could watch two- and three-masted schooners and motor launches slide in and out of her view. Pictures, she thought – moving pictures.

Clear nights were best. Kneeling on her small bed, elbows on the sill of her own window, she could make out stars and planets and entire constellations, and frame the moon to suit her fancy. In those moments she hoped her daddy was looking at the moon, too. Occasionally, she wondered if her family had forgotten all about her.

§ § §

More than two thousand miles away, in the American state of Georgia, a young Polish adventurer named Walter was sitting in a small jail cell in Atlanta’s antebellum Fulton County ‘Tower’. He had been arrested along with several other ‘wanderers’ under suspicion of spying for a foreign power and was attempting, unsuccessfully, to negotiate his freedom.

While young men of the Dominion had been fighting the ‘wrath of the Hun’ for some years, the United States was not yet committed to the task. However, military attitudes and political desires were quickly changing. America’s entry into the ‘War To End All Wars’ was but a pen stroke away.

Captain Wanderwell, as he was known, was of particular interest to local constabulary and his activities within America had even attracted the attention of federal law enforcement officials in Washington. Very little had been confirmed, and much was suspect. To begin with, a check of international records revealed confusion over Walter’s true name. They had, however, discovered that he was from a large German-Polish family, and had been arrested numerous times in several countries for many different infractions. Authorities demanded answers to some very pointed questions.

aloha-carUnder suspicion for some time, police had searched a locked steamer trunk at his lodgings at the local YMCA. There they discovered photographs and camera negatives of important and strategic seaports, lighthouses, wireless radio stations and military encampments. Maps, weather charts, shipping schedules and even letters to and from German consuls and embassies throughout the U.S. were also found. There was also carefully concealed evidence of a great deal of cash in bank accounts scattered across the country. Most intriguing of all, his hiking partner and current fellow cellmate, Hugo Coutandin – also a German, not French as he was steadfastly maintaining – carried a two-way wireless telegraph apparatus on his back. With whom were they communicating, the Justice Department wished to know, and what were they saying?

Unbeknownst to the Captain, the Attorney-General for Georgia who was leading the investigation into the hikers’ intentions, had placed another of the so-called ‘wanderers’ into Walter and Hugo’s cell to act as an informant. The Dutchman had stated under interrogation that he was sick and tired of being lumped in with the German foreigners just because he spoke with an accent. He was keen to secure his own release and was more than happy to eavesdrop on this alleged spy.

Walter, however, for all his mysterious ways and means, was saying nothing of any consequence. He only continued to protest his innocence to anyone within earshot. However, while he stared at the scarred, peeling concrete and plaster of the mouldy prison cell, his mind was sorting through several optional stories he could relate at his next interrogation, wondering which one might be good enough to exact his freedom.

§ § §

More than four thousand miles away, in central Europe, Lieutenant Herbert Hall’s ears were still ringing. It had been almost a week since the tons of dynamite so carefully placed in the tunnels under Messines Ridge had been detonated killing more than ten thousand German soldiers instantly. The event was already being hailed as a major British victory, even though very few soldiers had known until recently what the Royal Engineers had been up to. The blast near Ypres, Belgium was heard as far away as Downing Street and rattled pint glasses in Dublin. All Bertie really knew was that the normally filthy dour faces of his fellow trench rats and even the ‘higher-ups’ had been replaced with smiles and talks of going home soon, and that was good enough for him.

Up the line about two miles from the former German stronghold sat an area referred to on their maps as Battle Wood, Hill 60. On a moonless night, Bertie and his troops of the 12th Durham Light Infantry were hunkered down preparing for a ‘fixed bayonet’ attack on an enemy encampment nearby.

aloha-helmet-gogglesThe German artillery barrage usually began early, long before the sun came up illuminating the vast wasteland both combatants called home; you could set your pocket watch by it, Bertie often thought. But this night had been unusually quiet for a battlefield.

The first pale signs of pastel orange and purple were creeping above the horizon. As the morning haze was beginning to burn off Bertie removed his helmet and slowly raised his makeshift periscope above the edge of the trench until the mirror was just level with the horizon. Beyond the wreckage of one of their own artillery carriages and the still rotting corpse of the unfortunate horse that once pulled it, he could just make out a German periscope peering back at him from the edge of an identical muddy trench barely 500 yards away. Bertie quickly ducked down sucking in the fetid air.

And then it began – ‘thump… thump thump’. The German launch of artillery had started, followed by the tell-tale ‘whiz bang’ sound of the incoming shells announcing yet another deafeningly dangerous day ahead. They’re close, Bertie thought.

§ § §

It was unseasonably warm for an almost-Summer evening in Victoria, British Columbia. In a bed she was quickly outgrowing, young Idris Hall tossed and turned on the edge of sleep, wondering what was to become of her.

Unknown to her then, and in ways she could not yet imagine, events were indeed unfolding. The British officer who was not her father, and the German ‘spy’ who was not yet her husband were about to change her life… forever.


Books, Politics

The Icebox Cometh

September 15, 2016

“It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst…
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”
– Leonard Cohen

§ § §

[Note: I wrote this for a previous iteration of my website in September of 2008. Barack Hussein Obama and John McCain were neck and neck in the polls at the time, and the outcome of that year’s presidential election was anything but certain. The Sarah Palin ‘factor’, initially thought by Liberal hopefuls to have been the GOP’s Achilles Heel, had actually raised McCain’s chances in several polls. It was ‘crazy’ time and the media was having a field day. Eight years hence ‘crazy’ has taken on a whole new meaning. It seems like an opportune time to take a look back at what was, and reflect on the life of a man who had such a significant impact on Democratic rhetoric right down to public speeches and political discourse dating back to the campaign of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his run at the White House in 1960. – REW]

§ § §

As I write this, it’s exactly 53 days to the American presidential election. Republican Senator John McCain has been basking – some would say ‘wallowing’ – in the glow that is Sarah Palin. Democrat Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been huddling with his advisors trying to decide how best to counter the effect that having a female on the GOP ticket has had on McCain’s popularity – he’s on top in almost every primary tracking poll. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

About eight months ago some low-level political media darling who added ‘pundit’ to his resume suggested that “…a refrigerator could beat McCain this year…” But it was Howard Dean, head of the Democratic National Committee, former governor of Vermont and former presidential candidate in 2004 who said the following words on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart more than a year ago:

“The Republicans are the best campaigners. They know how to campaign – but they can’t govern. Democrats, on the other hand, know how to govern… but we have problems campaigning.”

Not a very soothing thought. Not a phrase that instills confidence in the left-leaning electorate.

sorensen_jfkWatching and listening to Senator Obama for the better part of nineteen months it’s tough to see how anyone could have launched, conducted and maintained a better-run campaign for the presidency, even if you forget the fact that he’s black and that his relatively rapid ascendancy to challenge for the highest office in the land is both historical and awe-inspiring. A comparison of his suggested policies and voting record opposite John McCain should leave no one in doubt as to who the better president would be. The last eight years alone should shave more than a few points off McCain’s chances with Vegas odds-makers.

And yet, here we are. Today’s Financial Times of London contains a banner headline, “Democrats On Capital Hill Fear Obama Fallout”. A wire story circulated to newspapers all across the United States last week stated that, privately, congressional Democrats are ‘suddenly’ concerned about Obama’s chances. Yesterday’s Gallup Poll on the congressional races was headlined, “Battle For Congress Suddenly Looks Competitive”. It would appear that the ‘refrigerator’ isn’t fully stocked. No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

It seems so easy to have it all slip away. The brass ring, within grasp, is snagged by an interloper. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Perhaps a look back will help put some distance – literally – between the desire that was and the reality that is. Take that ‘sure thing’ and knock it off its pedestal so we can all get a better look.

counselor_sorenson_bookI’ve just finished reading Ted Sorensen’s autobiography, Counselor. Ted was President John F. Kennedy’s head speech writer, confidante, advisor, and friend. He was a policy wonk of the highest order when policy was everything. He wrote (or co-wrote) all of JFK’s speeches during his short presidency, and was on the front lines during all of Kennedy’s critical moments – the Cuban Missile Crisis chief among them. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Sorensen wrote it. Kennedy said it. America heard it and responded.

A lot has been said and written about Obama’s similarity to Kennedy, some of it even by Obama himself. There’s no question that the idealism Kennedy represented in the early 1960s is shared by the senator from Illinois almost fifty years later – the comparisons and connections are striking. And perhaps – perhaps – Ted Sorensen deserves some of the credit.

Ted was and is a proud liberal Democrat [Ted passed away in 2010. – REW] He’s been a supporter of Barack Obama from day one, and it’s been reported that he serves the campaign as an ‘unofficial’ advisor, sometimes writing sections of Obama’s speeches. During Obama’s Super Tuesday victory speech back in February – the now-famous ‘yes we can’ speech – Obama said the following:

“You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have little; who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream; that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes they can.”

Is that pure Sorensen…?

One of the significant aspects of Ted’s autobiography is the way in which he places campaigning, specifically presidential campaigning, into context. With the media reporting on every little mistake, misplay and gaffe the candidates make during this election cycle, I found it fascinating to read Sorensen’s ‘take’ on the subject. His insight is peppered throughout the book, but two of his viewpoints are specifically appropriate, and I wanted to quote them both. I think they help in putting this election, and the way in which it is being reported, into perspective.

“As hard as it is on the speechwriter and staff, a presidential campaign is even rougher on the candidate. It is impossible for him to remember the names of all the people whose hands he shakes, to remember the time of day, the day of the week, the town in which he is speaking; to remember his own previously stated positions on issues, much less those of his opponents. But if he sounds temporarily inconsistent, the press calls it weakness; if he is ambiguous, his opponent calls him a coward. Through it all, he must appear sincere and self-assured, smile through the rain and pain, protect his hand from being crushed and his suit from being torn, freeze in an open car, perspire in a stuffy banquet hall, smile at those who curse him, listen patiently to those who repeatedly advise the obvious, and repeat his own positions until he tires of his own words, restrain his natural candor, be cautious about his humor, and exude enthusiasm about the ordeal he is enduring and every person he meets. All day, the press is outside his door and window, the rooms are full of sweat and smoke, his hand is bruised, scratched, full of calluses…. Everyone you meet wants something from you, your time, your endorsement, your support for some local project or measure; and then you move on to three more stops in three more states before you fall into bed. It is an exercise best suited to fanatics, egomaniacs and superbly fit athletes.”

From: “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen – Chapter 15
Senator Kennedy’s Quest For The Presidency – pp. 186-187

Later in the book, he admits to having given advice to many presidential candidates and would-be candidates over the years. Considering the debate that still rages between the McCain and Obama camps (and in the media) over the ‘experience’ issue (or lack of it), I found this section especially appropriate. “For those future presidential candidates among my readers who want my advice, the following is a condensed compilation of all the related memos I’ve written to would-be presidents who approached me for advice over the last several decades – including Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Mario Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry and Barack Obama…”

To: Presidential Hopeful
From: Theodore C. Sorensen
Subject: So You Want To Be President

“…am I smart enough to be president? I suggest you review that question in three contexts: First, compare your intelligence, judgment, courage and ability to lead with those of the others who have recently held, sought, or will be seeking the presidency. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln is running this time. Experience is relative. No office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency.”

From: “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen – Chapter 32
My Continuing Involvement In Politics – pp. 480

No office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency. One assumes he means previous experience as mayor, governor OR senator.

sorensen_obamaI’ve never pretended to be ‘fair and balanced’ in my political views; I dress to the left, so to speak. Were I an American I would not only be voting for the Obama/Biden ticket, but I’d also be campaigning for it. My view of American politics has been shaped by decades of watching, listening, comparing and assessing American policies at home and abroad, mostly abroad. It’s why I believe that this election is the most important election of my lifetime – the most important election in the world, for the world. I say that because American foreign policy is one of its cornerstones, and it impacts not just Americans but everyone that its policy touches regardless of country. The Republican administration of Bush/Cheney is the perfect example of how NOT to govern, and Senator Obama’s mantra of ‘change’, while simplistic, has hit fragile nerves from Bakersfield to Berlin. And yet, here we are.

I’m hoping that the addition of Governor Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket energizes the Democrats anew. That on the heels of that idealistic ‘first wave’ of ‘change’ – a mantra now co-opted by the McCain camp – there occurs a ‘second wave’. One of firm opposition, surgical confrontation, adroit campaigning and unfettered optimism in the future with a Democratic administration led by Barack Obama, Joe Biden and a laundry list of the best and brightest minds in America that becomes contagious.

Clock’s ‘a tickin’!

Personal, Politics, Spies

I Spy With My Little Eye

September 30, 2015

“Then we got into a labyrinth, and, when we thought we were at the end,
came out again at the beginning, having still to see as much as ever.”
~ Plato

§ § §

Even after all this time (and perhaps BECAUSE so much time has elapsed), artwork and artefacts from World War II are still being discovered. Purloined paintings spirited away by the Nazis during the latter years of the war will always take centre stage, and rightly so. This story, about a looted oil painting, found hanging in a small home in Columbus, Ohio for 20 years, is a good example of what’s still missing and yet to be found. So too, is the recent unearthing (literally, in this case) of the so-called Nazi ‘gold train’ buried deep in Poland.

However, it’s not just precious metals and works of art from the war years that have remained ‘buried’, and eventually discovered in odd places. Documents, maps, letters, paperwork of all kinds continue to show up in long-forgotten, dust-ridden attic and basement boxes in locales that defy simple explanation.

My recent trip to L.A. was initially a short research excursion in support of a new book I’m writing. The job at hand involved viewing and making notes on a recently discovered cache of formal Nazi documents written in 1945 as the Russians closed in on Berlin. Those documents – including a crudely drawn map that lies at the heart of my new tale – were nothing short of eye-popping. But it was the story of how and where they were eventually found that was equally exciting.

No spoiler alert here, but this is the Reader’s Digest version.

As the top echelon Nazis increasingly saw the writing on the wall in the Spring of 1945, much of their work was occupied, not with trying to counterattack the Russian Army who had already infiltrated the Berlin city limits, but rather in attempting to squirrel away and/or destroy documentary evidence of their war crimes. Included in that effort was the mostly successful attempt to find secret repositories for material central to the their basic thesis of a ‘thousand year Reich’ – a FOURTH Reich, as it were, to rise from the ashes and live to conquer again another day, in another place – South America, as it turned out.

Eventually, more than five years later, some of that material ended up in the hands of the East German secret police archives – the Stasi. Amongst that material was a 22-page dossier – the one I made notes on a few weeks ago. How and why Nazi documents found their way into a massive archive in East Germany – a Communist bloc country (the Nazis, of course, were virulently anti-Communist) – is another, far more lengthy story, and odd enough for any researcher. However, it’s what happened to those documents next, in the early 1990s, that confounds imagination.

As the Eastern Bloc Communist manifesto-driven lifestyle began to falter politically and socially, and eventually fail completely in 1989, the Berlin Wall tumbled to the ground. The GDR, or the German Democratic Republic as East Germany was known, was caught completely off guard according to some historians. Two things were becoming abundantly clear to the members of the GDR politburo. Their ‘partners’ in the Soviet Union were going to do nothing about this deteriorating (to them) state of affairs, and, therefore, it would only be a matter of time before everything collapsed, and newly ‘freed’ citizenry would begin storming political offices and trashing or stealing everything in site. The decision within the secret police was to destroy everything. Ironically, this, in fact, is the reason so much Stasi documentation exists to this day.

The Stasi was the largest, most detail-oriented intelligence organization the world has ever seen. It was also the most devious, ruthless, and arcane. Their interrogation techniques were… creative, to say the least. It is said that at one time or another ALL residents of East Germany were working for the Stasi whether they knew it or not. The smallest, simplest detail rarely went undetected by someone, who then either ‘reported’ it to the police, or spoke about it to someone else in a bar, or on the street, and THAT someone revealed the information to someone else, which found its way to the Stasi. A phone number written on a used paper napkin in a small bistro and thrown away by restaurant staff after the meal would be retrieved and presented to the police in hopes that one day this little act of ‘patriotism’ would be remembered and, therefore, deflect any investigation or interrogation of THEM. It’s no wonder that the Soviet KGB would often send their agents to East Berlin for training in ‘technique’.

The Stasi, by design, destroyed nothing. They kept, and cross-referenced everything! As such, they had no incinerators or paper shredders! Their job was to KEEP everything, not DESTROY it – such was the root of their power.

While they scrambled to find incinerators and shredders in other parts of Berlin and beyond, the police concocted another scheme. Staff members of the Stasi (there were literally tens of thousands of individuals and married couples, as it turned out) were tasked with spiriting away bits, pieces, chunks, boxes, and crates of material. One such box was taken into the German countryside by a husband and wife team and hidden away.

After the tumult of the fall of Communism began to fade away, and Germany once again became unified, this couple emigrated to the United States taking some of the Stasi archives with them. The story goes that the 22-page dossier in question was found less than five years ago. In a steamer trunk. In a barn. On a farm. In the fields of Nebraska!

The dossier became part of a larger assemblage of Nazi documentation, and through some deep, forensic research over the better part of two years, I located its resting place.

Its discovery made me dig into what might have happened with the rest of the Stasi archive. Did it survive in some form? How much survived? How much was destroyed – eventually shredded or incinerated? Where is it?

In a large, very secure ‘business park’ within an office/warehouse complex just outside Berlin, lies the Office of the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records. It is the new international ‘home’ for the Stasi archives. Aside from materials that were ‘taken away’, most of the archive was NOT incinerated, and only a partial amount was shredded, although the word ‘partial’ here is entirely relative.

Inside this complex of buildings, an extensive staff of paid workers, volunteers and even students work tirelessly around the clock, seven days a week piecing back together the entire surviving archive. It is estimated that the job of reorganizing will take decades to complete. Why?

The archive as it now exists comprises almost a billion individual pages of data, which translates to about 111 kilometres of shelf space if it were all laid end to end. That figure doesn’t include 1.8 million photos, negatives, and slides; 30,000 films, videos, and audio recordings; 39 million separate file cards; 47 kilometres of microfilm; and 15,500 garbage bags stuffed with shredded material. Volunteers are painstakingly reconstructing the contents of those bags back into their original individual pages… one shredded sliver of paper at a time. This specialist group is known as ‘the puzzlers’.

Finding a needle in a haystack suddenly seems like so much child’s play!

Internet, Movies, Television

Content Matters Most

September 20, 2015

This thrust of this article is exactly the subject of a series of conversations I had with a couple of Hollywood suits a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. It’s really why we had any conversation in the first place, as it turns out.

My writing portfolio ended up in the hands of a half dozen ‘studio types’ who are involved in the creation of a new entertainment venture. The key to this venture is, plain and simple, content – written content. (A friend passed my portfolio along to a couple of executives, and they in turn handed it to a few others – I had no idea this was happening!) At the end of these conversations I had a ‘first look’ deal for a book with an option on two others in the series.

The whole confab went kind of like this…

Most of the traditional studios – majors and mini-majors – are scared to death of entities such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. They are also very concerned about cable networks like AMC (i.e. The Walking Dead, Mad Men), USA (i.e. Mr. Robot, Graceland), and Starz (i.e. Outlander, Blunt Talk). They are scooping up writing, directing, and acting talent for lower budget fare (film and television), and telling motion picture-style stories in longer arcs. Instead of 92-minute movies, or two-hour films (sometimes even three-hour epics), much of the material is ending up on the outlets mentioned above (and others) as ‘short stack events’. The new “X Files”, for instance, is only six episodes, and they refer to it as an ‘event series’.

The bottom line is the paradigm has shifted once again. Hollywood will always make block-busters with budgets in excess of $100 million dollars (some way in excess of that figure) – the superhero films coming from Marvel would be a good example. But what about everything else – the thrillers, the romcoms, the biographies, the mysteries? And what about all the new distribution outlets, the ‘agnostic screens’ (tablets, smartphones, laptops, computers)?

If it all begins with the written word, then why not have a single, powerful business that starts with the written word (book publishing), and shepherds that book through global distribution and sales (book copies), followed by multimedia exploitation (film, TV), all aided and abetted with purpose-produced social media? Why indeed. The outlets for this ‘word’ can be anything and everything: film chains, TV networks, online streaming, etc. The surprise here (if there is one) is the addition of ‘publishing’ to the overall mix. How that affects and changes the traditional business model of book-to-film is a subject for another time.

This Variety article about the head of AMC Networks is really the first time I’ve seen someone in the business address the subject of ‘content as business model’.

As I was leaving Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. (where better to have an industry meeting?!) the ‘suit’ who offered me the ‘first look’ deal told me that, aside from content, the corporate consolidation we’ve seen in the entertainment industry is far from over. He said that he and his compatriots are convinced that within two to three years (possibly sooner) someone will make a play for Apple. Impossible, I thought. Who has the capital to make such a pitch? Imagine, he says, Google or Amazon… or a consortium of BOTH (with perhaps a wealthy investment firm as top up)…? NOT impossible, he said. Of course, he continued, the opposite is much more likely – that Apple will buy a major (mini-major) Hollywood studio. They DO have the capital.

And that returned us to the subject at hand: content. Apple doesn’t own or control any content – not yet. But the release of a newly-configured AppleTV barely two weeks later, and rumours of Tim Cook sniffing around some back lots would certainly lead one to believe where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Is that crazy? Tim Cook secretly toured a handful of automobile race tracks and testing facilities leading to the rumour that Apple was going into the ‘car’ business. Most tech pundits scoffed. Ridiculous, they said. Apple then proceeded to hire several automotive executives after discussions with Elon Musk (Tesla) appeared to go nowhere. Barely a month ago, a former naval base at Concord, California, frequently used by automotive manufacturers as a test track, signed a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) with… Apple.

I’m on this train, and I can’t wait to see where it leads!

Books, Travel

Drive, She Said

September 8, 2015

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.
The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”

– Albert Einstein

§ § §

Let’s begin with an indisputable fact of nature. No one has ever travelled around the world using an automobile as the means of transportation… ever. Can’t be done. Geography is a bitch in that regard, always putting seawater in the way of a good ribbon of blacktop, or even a navigable dirt road for that matter. Nope, sorry – can’t get there from here.

This doesn’t stop people from suggesting they have, or will do just that – drive around the world.

However, take away the literal context of the journey, and add a ship or three to assist in the ‘portaging’ of said vehicle across vast expanses of ocean, and attempts to accomplish such a feat take on a competitive edginess.

heidi-hetzerHistory shows that for well over a hundred years many would-be thrill-seekers, from all walks of life, have attempted to circumnavigate the globe by car, several also laying siege to the claim of having been the first to do so. Whether merely pursuing a sense of adventure, participating in sponsored or money-making schemes, or simply for the bragging rights, the words ‘drive around the world’ have always held a certain sense of freedom, excitement and escape, even danger. And it’s not just men who have fallen victim to this internal combustion version of wanderlust – women have not only tackled this ‘extreme’ pursuit, they have excelled.

Heidi Hetzer hopes to be one of those women. And therein lies the beginning of a story with more twists and turns than the Nürburgring.


Heidi owns one of the largest automobile dealership chains in Germany, and cars have always been a part of her life. She is also a race car driver and has competed in many major races including international rallies such as the famous ‘Mille Miglia‘. In 2013, she embarked on her dream quest in her treasured Hispano-Suiza roadster. The car is 91-years-old. Heidi is 75.


As Heidi tells it, the inspiration for her long trip comes from a book she read a few years ago about the first woman to drive around the world, a feat completed back in 1929. Heidi thought: ‘Why not me? I can do that, too.’

That ‘first woman’ Heidi read about was fellow German, Clärenore Stinnes. Like Heidi, cars were in Miss Stinnes’ blood, and she was an avid racer. She competed in dozens of automotive competitions and won seventeen first-place trophies by 1927 when she was barely 26-years-old. By then, she was famous throughout Europe for her driving prowess.

Attempting to duplicate this amazing feat of geographical tenacity and skill, if not stamina, is remarkable, especially for someone like Heidi who is now approaching octogenarian status. And taking nothing away from Miss Stinnes’ original accomplishment, Heidi’s plan of following in the footsteps of the first women to drive around the world would be amazing but for one not-so-small detail. With all due respect to Heidi, the story’s not true.

Clärenore Stinnes was not the first woman to drive around the world. Aloha Wanderwell was.


In a world of competitive ‘firsts’ – first person to reach Antarctica, first person to sail the Pacific Ocean, first person to ascend Mt. Everest – the claim of ‘first person to drive around the world’ has had a murky history, with several men and women staking that claim. Even the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this (and they get it wrong, too).

But let’s compare these two women and put their accomplishments side-by-side.

clarenore-stinnesClärenore Stinnes left Berlin, Germany on May 25, 1927, at the age of 26 in an Adler Standard 6 automobile. She was accompanied by a cinematographer named Carl (whom she subsequently married), two mechanics, and a support vehicle containing spare parts and equipment. The entire venture was supported by the German automotive industry to the tune of 100,000 Reichsmarks – about $25,000 in 1927 (U.S.) dollars, which has a relative value over $300,000 today. Using ferries, ships and other modes of assisted transportation, Miss Stinnes and company returned to Berlin two years after departure.

Aloha Wanderwell left Nice, France on December 29, 1922, having recently celebrated her 16th birthday. She was accompanied by a Polish aloha-wanderwelladventurer and cinematographer named Walter (whom she subsequently married) driving a modified Model-T Ford. This particular ‘Tin Lizzie’ had a canvas roof and plywood floorboards, but no windows. There were no support vehicles, no spare parts and no extra equipment. They had no external cash support whatsoever. The entire venture was supported solely by Aloha’s and Walter’s wits and resourcefulness. Using ferries, ships and other modes of assisted transportation, Miss Wanderwell and company returned to the south of France five years after departure.

In short, Aloha not only began her circumnavigation of the globe while still a teenager, and more than four years prior to Miss Stinnes’ departure, she completed her trip while Clärenore was still on the road.

Was Clärenore Stinnes the first woman to drive around the world? No. Was she the fastest? Quite likely. But there can ever only be one ‘first’, and Aloha is it.


If you suspect that I have an axe to grind, or perhaps a hidden agenda in my telling this story, congratulations, you’re wearing the clever trousers today.

The world is full of people and events lost in the wisps of time. Aloha Wanderwell is one of those.


Aloha was once spoken of in the same company as Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham, Nellie Bly and Amelia Earhart. She was one of the most celebrated adventurers of her day. Her importance is such that museums the world over contain collections of Wanderwell memorabilia and artifacts from her global tours and explorations during the 1920s and 1930s. The Smithsonian Institution maintains a Wanderwell section in their archives for her films and photographs, and they regard her as one of the foremost ethnographers of her day.

Now, a new book will finally tell her amazing story. It will place her and her accomplishments – including being the First Woman to Drive Around the World – back into the pages of history where she rightfully belongs, and introduce her to a new audience.

The new book is called, “Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer”. It is the culmination of many years’ of research, travel, writing and editing by myself and my co-author, Chris Fink-Jensen.

To suggest this project had a long gestation period might give the false impression it was completed in nine months. It was not. The research phase alone took some years and plenty of international travel to both established and esoteric archives alike. The book was written once and rewritten three times because of the eye-popping discoveries we made while attempting to document this adventurous woman’s life and times.

Discovering that she was Canadian was the first revelation… how had we, nor anyone else, never heard of her?! Then, astonishingly, we found ‘Aloha Wanderwell’ was not her real name. We uncovered a birth certificate buried in government bureaucracy that revealed her true birth name and proved she was born in Winnipeg, and then raised in North Vancouver and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. We unlocked a long-hidden tin box containing her personal diaries begun the first day she left the south of France in 1922 at the age of sixteen. We found her daughter living in an extended care facility in Honolulu, and her son living on a houseboat in Sausalito – both siblings now in their 80s – and two granddaughters. They all opened their homes, their hearts, and their memories to us, thrilled that we were going to tell Aloha’s story. But that wasn’t all we discovered.


Some photographs and documents hidden amongst her personal memorabilia, and notes, references and marginalia scattered throughout her personal writings, contained references to people, events, places and dates that appeared, at first blush, to have no correlation to the story we were telling. Was there still more to this tale, more to her life and adventures that we hadn’t uncovered?

hooverSixty Freedom of Information Act (FOIA – American) requests, a half dozen Access To Information Act (ATIA – Canadian) requests, queries to British government archives, and countless hours poring over subterranean historical material at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., revealed a second, completely unknown history buried in the shadows.

Documents, internal memos, ‘action reports’ and even personal correspondence involving the FBI, the Justice Department, the Secret Service, purvismilitary intelligence on three continents, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Homeland Security) revealed that Aloha and her companion Walter, were under constant surveillance. They were being investigated for various unsavory matters, including espionage. J. Edgar Hoover himself was so concerned about the Wanderwell’s world tour, he issued specific instructions to more than 20 FBI field offices requesting “…any and all information…” about their activities. Melvin Purvis, the G-Man who a few years later would ‘get’ gangster John Dillinger, was put in charge.

And then, of course, there was the murder. The killing that remains unsolved to this day. What about that…?

Aloha’s life was many things, boring was not one of them.

From the book’s publicity material:

“During the Roaring Twenties a young girl ventured to the ends of the earth armed with nothing but a car, a camera, a few companions, a make-up kit and an attitude. Within a few short years she had driven around the world, hunted elephants and tigers, dined with world leaders, dodged a Russian firing squad, fought alongside Chinese warlords, talked her way into and out of countless life-threatening confrontations and become the kind of media star only Hollywood could invent. She had also become the centerpiece of one of the biggest unsolved murder mysteries in American history. Her name was Aloha Wanderwell. This is a true story.”


If you think that Aloha, Clärenore and Heidi are ‘vehicular’ exceptions, go stand in the corner.

The first long-distance journey by automobile was also a promotional tour, and the car’s very first endurance test. The year was 1894. The driver was Bertha Benz (yes, THAT Benz), wife of Carl who actually invented the motorcar.

The first person in history ever to pass a driving test was the French Duchess Anne d’Uzes. The Duchess was also the first person in history to ever receive a speeding ticket (you go girl!)

londonderryThen, of course, there’s Annie Londonderry (aka Annie Cohen Kopchovsky), the world’s first ‘spokes-woman’, so to speak. Annie was the first person to ‘drive around the world’ on TWO wheels. She bicycled her way from Boston and took the long way back… in 1895!

Women such as Violet Cordery, Alice Ramsey, Osa Johnson, Dorothy Levitt, and many, many more, all made their mark in the motorcar world long ago. And although Aloha was only 16-years-old when she began her life’s journey, other young girls were getting a head start even sooner. In 1916, the Girl Scouts of America introduced the ‘Automobiling Badge’ for which girls between the ages of 11 (!) and 17 had to demonstrate driving skill, auto mechanics, and first aid.

Ladies, start your engines!

Personal, Travel

Welcome To The Breakfast Show

August 27, 2015

“I was born in a cross-fire hurricane.
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain.
But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas!”

– ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, Rolling Stones

§ § §

I: By The Time We Got To Woodstock

Danniel (with two ‘N’s) wandered over to me beer in hand, a common sight. Barely audible over the din of the party, he yelled, “Road trip! You in…?” Here we go again, I thought, and rolled my eyes. “Hey, c’mon, man. Hear me out!” And so I did.

Danniel liked the Stones, but loved the Airplane. He knew I was a Stones fan, too, and that I loved Santana. So that night he tried to twist my arm into traveling with him to a concert to see all three. “That would be great, right?” he’d yelled. “Hard to argue,” I’d yelled in response.

But there were obstacles. It was November, and there was snow on the ground, lots of snow. And this concert was in San Francisco. “That’s California,” I’d said. “Are you nuts? That’s… that’s a thousand miles away!” More, he’d said. Fine. But then there was the issue of transportation – how would we get there?

Obstacles for sure, but there were mitigating circumstances as well. Could I be swayed…?

breakfast-show_05Danniel had recently gotten his much older girlfriend pregnant. They were getting married in June as soon as school let out, and the baby was due not much later. Everyone involved seemed okay with it, especially his father. He was so thrilled he bought Danniel a car as an engagement present. And not just any car – a used 1963 two-tone, shit-brindle-brown Lincoln Continental with suicide doors and automatic-electric everything. The beast could sleep six without popping the trunk. But Danniel was antsy. He desperately needed to get outta Dodge before his life changed forever, he’d said, and a free rock ‘n roll concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (where it was much warmer for starters) seemed like the perfect ticket. Danniel was 16-years-old.

I was 15, and I’d already been burned once that year by a ‘road not taken’. At the time that happened I was only pissed that I’d missed hanging with Keith and Butchy for a few days south of the border. A couple of months later, when the impact of what I’d missed went global, I lost my shit.

It began like this…

On a hot Saturday afternoon, I was stuffed into a lurching school bus along with three-dozen other teenagers – all male, all about my age, all heading home. The bus was on loan to the Canadian Army from some rural Catholic parish – Our Lady of Something or Other printed in big black Helvetica on the side. The bus was transporting us from Camp Ipperwash on the shores of Georgian Bay back to the thriving metropolis of London from whence we came. I had marched, bivouacked, fought, bitched, complained, and marched for the past six weeks. To make matters worse, this was the summer of 1969, and I had the shortest hair of anyone I knew. I couldn’t wait to kick the Army-issue attitude to the curb, drop the khaki fatigues, and slip back into t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. And a hat. I was glad to be going home, but I had to wonder… how had Keith and Butchy’s roadtrip worked out…?

They had come to visit me at the camp a week earlier in Butchy’s pride and joy: a turquoise Chevy Nova. It had more bark than bite, the curse of a small block engine, but it had Mickey Thompsons, hood pins, and a giant STP sticker on a hood that we’d all painted flat black with spray cans back at the first sign of spring. Even when it was parked it looked like it was going fast. At least that’s what we told ourselves.

Cruising the drag that day in Grand Bend with the windows down and the music up, Keith and Butchy were trying to persuade me to go on a road trip they had planned for the following weekend. We’d done a handful of minor trips in the past year, mostly to The Pinery to camp out, look for girls, and get drunk. I’m pretty sure we were all still virgins at this point. Well, maybe not Butchy. The Pinery was always a great place to test those waters – the girls were just as adventurous as we were – but nothing much ever happened, so the order of priorities frequently changed.

Between Army camp and Labour Day I had only two weeks of summer left before Grade 10 commenced, and I began work on the school play. So I was all ears. I wanted to know what the master plan was. “Where ya goin’, anyways? What’s the deal…?”

“Rock and roll, baby!” Keith said, “Rock and fucking roll!” Butchy wasn’t giving this intervention his full attention. He was concentrating on a well-developed bikini on the back of a Kawasaki that had just pulled up next to us. “Ya gotta come, man,” Keith continued. “Fuck theatre arts – this is life. Besides, school doesn’t start till after Labour Day. We’ll be back long before then.”

“We’re leaving on Thursday morning,” Butchy finally said. “Cross the border into Buffalo, be at ground zero by late afternoon. Tent pitched and scopin’ chicks by dinnah tahm.”

“Pass me anuthah beah, tarbender!” Keith added. We all laughed, but Keith and I shared a knowing glance. We both knew from experience that we’d be the ones pitching the tent, while Butchy pitched himself to the ladies. “Three days of peace and music, if you catch my drift. Pure bliss, pal.” Butchy’s favourite saying. Keith just kept laughing and shook his head.

That capped it – I couldn’t go. I was at camp until Saturday afternoon. I may only have been a cadet, but the army still had fairly strict rules about going AWOL.

So that’s what I was thinking all the way home in that crowded, sweltering school bus. What was this rock and roll weekend going to be like? What was I missing?

It was August 16th, and at that precise moment I was missing Santana take the stage at Woodstock. So, yeah – you might say I had my own mitigating circumstance.

It took a couple of more conversations – quiet ones, no more yelling – and a few more beers before Danniel and I decided to piss on the pitfalls and embrace the adventure of possibility. Danniel’s parents…? His mom had passed away, and his dad had given him the Beast, so yeah – he got it. My parents…? Fuck it! We were going on a road trip!

§ § §

II: Born To Be Wild

This was the plan…

Monday after school we’d pack the car, drive to Sarnia and cross the water into Michigan, and then head south. Continuing south, we’d drive until the snow disappeared, and then hang a right and drive straight to the coast. We gave ourselves four days – plenty of time. Seemed simple enough.

Monday blew past like a Denny McLain fastball. Before we knew it the Beast’s trunk was loaded and we were ready to depart. My idea of packing was somewhat less bohemian than Danniel’s.

Me: 2 changes of clothes, 1 toilet kit, 1 blanket.
Danniel: 1 blanket, 2 two-fours of Labatt’s Blue.

Packing didn’t take long. By dinnertime we were off.

The snow persisted for more than ten hours. As the sun was coming up around breakfast time the next day, we were just within sight of the Louisville city limits. The skies opened, the sun came out, and the roads were clear as far as the eye could see. We made our pre-destined right-hand turn.

The half dozen music mix tapes that Keith had made especially for us (labeled Stuff 1 through Stuff 6) were getting heavy airplay courtesy of the Craig 8-track sound system Danniel had installed in the Beast. Marvin Gaye, Steppenwolf, Cream, Hendrix, CCR, Bowie, Sly, Zep, and of course Santana and the Stones. Music up. Cruise control on. California here we come!

Cruise control off. The break in the snowfall had been just that – a break. Approaching St. Louis we made the decision to slide on down toward Oklahoma where we serpentined our way through more snow. The white out conditions rendered any serious attempt at keeping the car on the road a 50/50 proposition at best. Black ice leading to blind ditches was a combination barely avoided on several occasions. My nerves were on edge. And I wasn’t driving.

Somewhere in Oklahoma (God knows where!) we detoured again and headed south, then west driving through the Texas panhandle, and skimming the tops of New Mexico and Arizona. We made for Las Vegas, thankful for the desert and warmer climes.

There was nothing but blackness on the highway for hours, then – BOOM! Vegas reached out of the darkness with throbbing neon fingers as we approached. Was it beckoning us to come closer, welcoming us into its grip, or warning us, waving us away? We were too tired to entertain any activities The Strip may have offered, and we were way behind schedule. We crashed at a cheap motel in Henderson. They were the first real beds since leaving Southern Ontario four days earlier.

At the first hint of light we were back on the road, blasting through Death Valley, finally on our way to San Francisco. It was Saturday December 6th. Concert day. We made the city limits around lunchtime.

§ § §

III: Go Ask Alice

A couple of days earlier, at a gasbar in Texas (maybe New Mexico, who knows) we heard a rumour that the concert at Golden Gate Park had been cancelled. Parking issues with an expected 100,000 plus fans apparently the cause. Someone else said they’d heard on the radio that Sears Point Raceway was the new venue. Regardless, it didn’t matter to us – we didn’t know where these places were anyway. We needed answers and directions and soon. And food, sooner.

breakfast-show_08We pulled off the 101 into the Mission District, and stopped into a family restaurant for much-needed sustenance, and some much-needed information. After quickly gorging on a cheeseburger and fries (his), and a Chicken Clubhouse (mine), we settled on a plan. I was still in Cadets, and I still had the shortest hair, so it made sense that the these people would be more likely to talk to me, and not Danniel, whose hair was long past dusting his shoulders. I was now the designated requester of directions.

Had I given the mostly middle-aged clientele of this eatery even a cursory look before I started grazing the tables, I would have known without asking that they were the last people in Frisco to have known or cared where the Rolling Stones were staging their free concert.

Stymied, I hit on what I hoped was a brilliant solution: The Fillmore. Fillmore West was one of those rock palace meccas that became positively iconic in the 1960s. Everyone who was anyone, especially if they were SFO-based, played the Fillmore.

On the way there, amidst a plethora of fantastic FM radio stations in the Bay area, we’d settled on KSAN (I still have the t-shirt). We were rewarded with the news that the ‘free’ concert was now underway at Altamont. Shit! Ten minutes later Danniel and I were introducing ourselves to Tulip in a messy suite of offices on the top floor of Fillmore West, and asking what and where Altamont was.

Tulip was short and cute, with long red hair in pigtails. She wore a bustier, a purple mini skirt, purple ‘Roger McGuinn’ glasses that were perched on the end of her nose, and purple go-go boots. Tulip corrected me – the go-go boots were ‘fuschia’, not purple. “Oh, most definitely,” she said.

breakfast-show_03She was surprised to see us, because no one was around. Everyone was at the Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, she said. She was even more surprised that we’d come so far. “Wow! Canada! That’s a long way. You must be disciples or something. Groovy!” We asked about directions to Altamont. She proceeded to tell us all about the free concert issues and the seemingly constant shifts in finding a location. Then she added: “Everyone in town is trying to come to terms with the issues of the day. The persecution of young people by the ‘Man’, you know? And the oppression we feel over our entitlement to free expression and free thought.”

I could dig it, but we needed directions, not an SDS tract.

Danniel had had enough. Remembering the middle-aged restaurant clientele, he said, “Everyone? Not everyone in town can feel that way…” he chided her. “Oh, most definitely,” Tulip said.

Our window was rapidly closing. “Directions…?” I asked again. “How do we get to this race track? Where is it, exactly?”

“It’s not a race track, it’s a speedway,” Tulip said. “Cars, not horses.”

Danniel saw a stack of napkins on a sideboard, grabbed one and handed it to our flower child. “A map! Could you draw us a map?” he said, barely containing his frustration.

“Oh, sure. Just jump on the highway and head outta town. It’s about an hour east.” She took a pencil and began drawing lines on the napkin. Danniel and I looked at each other, and then he looked at his watch.

The lines, as it turned out, were practically meaningless – tic-tac-toe without the symbols. Next to those lines she wrote, “Go this way,” with an arrow pointing to the right side of the napkin. I assumed this meant ‘east’. Underneath she wrote, “Good luck. Have fun. Love always. Toolip.” The two Os were little hearts.

breakfast-show_13“Well, THAT was a fuckin’ waste of time! Jesus!” Danniel said as we jumped back into the Lincoln. He gunned the V8 and wheeled out into traffic without looking, squealing the tires and blowing smoke. I reminded him that this was the city where they shot ‘Bullitt’ and that he should be careful. “A Charger could come FLYING OUT OF A BLIND ALLEY at any moment,” I said, trying to put a smile on the deteriorating situation. Danniel wasn’t biting. He was serious, and he was seriously pissed off. I kept forgetting that he’d been doing all the driving, and the fatigue he was feeling must have been overwhelming. His crankiness had been earned.

About two minutes into our ‘getaway’, I consulted Toolip’s ‘map’. I knew from San Francisco’s orientation on the coast that we were paralleling the ocean on our right, so that meant we were headed south (I took my role as navigator seriously). I started to say to Danniel, “We’re headed south, so we should –”

“Fuck that stupid MAP!” he said. He grabbed the napkin out of my hand and tossed it into the back seat. “The first opportunity we’re turning left and heading east. Yell when you see a freeway.”

As we drove through an intersection, I attempted to retrieve the crumpled napkin. I noticed the sign of the cross street: Haight Street. My mind raced. “Danniel, um… that was Haight we just crossed.”

“What?!” he said. “Haight. Haight Street? Haight-Ashbury…?” Danniel looked at me with recognition. Then resignation. “FUUUUCK!” he yelled. Steve McQueen took the next right at speed, on an amber, drifting to the left. As we hurtled around the corner, I held on and secretly hoped we’d lose a hubcap, just for effect.

§ § §

IV: Do You Believe In Magic

We did NOT have time for this. But, hey… we were there, and when would we be again?

breakfast-show_10Haight-Ashbury is to San Francisco, what the Left Bank is to Paris. What Greenwich Village is to New York City. What gin is to vermouth. People who have never been to the Bay Area acknowledge the significance of the neighbourhood. Since the Summer of Love, more than two years earlier, this was pretty much ‘hippie central’. Or so we thought. As we were about to find out, by 1969 the area was barely a shadow of its former self.

Danniel and I wandered in concentric circles. We made our way to a park trying in vain to find 1967. And then, there it was, or at least the last vestiges of it. Or maybe a group of actors trying to recreate it. We wandered into the park and mingled. The whole corner of that park looked, felt and smelled like an acid-induced renaissance fair. I walked into the crowd of maybe a hundred people and immediately was swallowed by it. It was intoxicating. What a trip! I turned around with a big stupid grin on my face to see where Danniel was. Where was Danniel? I’d lost Danniel.

I turned around again and found myself face-to-face with a very pretty girl. She had long blond hair, a freshly painted flower on each cheek, and eyes as big as moons. She handed me a roach clip clinging to the tiniest of burning hash embers. A feather wisp of sweet smoke curled around her face. “Here… go ahead,” she said. I complied and inhaled. She smiled and tried her best to run her fingers through my hair. “You look funny,” she said, continuing to smile. Maybe it was the moment. Maybe it was the location. Maybe it was the ‘medicine’. I leaned forward and kissed her. She tasted like a girl. She giggled and began to move away from me, slowly fading into the crowd, disappearing into the colour of the corner. It was only then that I noticed she was naked. And pregnant.

I finally spotted Danniel on the other side of the street carrying a paper bag. He waved, and then pointed to a large sign. I looked. Golden Gate Park. How funny was that?!

Danniel was waving again. He pointed to his watch. I nodded. As I started to leave, I looked over my shoulder. Through the wrong end of the binoculars I could see what it was, what it had been, for real. People laughing, singing, dancing. Frisbees floating on air, competing for attention with soap bubbles being blown by… who knows how many people. People of all shapes and sizes… A guy with dreads sitting on the grass playing a lute. Bongos, and a recorder somewhere. And flowers… lots of flowers. Man, what was it like actually living here, I thought. As I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change I saw her. An elderly gray haired woman in a paisley pattern kaftan was sitting in a wheelchair and sucking on a makeshift hookah, her German Shepherd keeping watch beside her on the sidewalk. Haight-Ashbury, circa late 1969.

We jumped in the car and headed east.

§ § §

V: When The Truth Is Found To Be Lies

We knew the concert was already underway. That knowledge was a bitter pill. The thought of how much we had missed – how much we were still going to miss – burned. I wanted to turn the radio on, so we could at least get a play-by-play analysis of what was happening. Danniel didn’t even look at me when he said, “Don’t.”

We had lost all our enthusiasm. The whole trip had become an exercise in blending – one day into the next, one experience into the next, one distraction into the next. We were on the cusp of seriously losing it altogether, when our whereabouts suddenly was in question.

“We’re now 75 miles east of San Franscisco,” Danniel said, acknowledging what the odometer had been predicting for about ten minutes. “Where the fuck are we?!” He looked over at me.

We had driven through Livermore and were definitely headed for Tracy, but… we should have been there by then. I hastily consulted Toolip’s map again, hoping it would magically all make sense now. It didn’t. We were missing it, we were losing it, and we were fucking lost! Most definitely.

I was about to suggest we turn around when two low-flying helicopters buzzed overhead. One had large radio or maybe TV call letters emblazoned on its side. “They have to be going to the concert,” I said. “Which means Altamont is back there,” Danniel said pointing over his left shoulder, “and over thataway.”

breakfast-show_15A few minutes later we made the first left turn available, and then we saw it – traffic from hell, all six lanes of it. We made a slow curve down onto the highway becoming part of a parade of vehicles heading west. Ironically, missing the original route turned out to be a big plus. It meant we were approaching the speedway from the southeast, the opposite direction as most of the traffic. Then we heard it… a bass-reflex thumping that sounded familiar. Someone’s radio, perhaps. Maybe the stage….

We were getting close. Cars that weren’t slowing down were parked along both sides of the highway, now – nothing appeared to be getting through. A motorhome suddenly lurched out in front of us. With a loud sustained honk, and a few well-chosen expletives, Danniel quickly reversed into the spot, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth. He threw the Lincoln into park, and shut off the engine. We looked at each other. “We’re here!” we said almost simultaneously.

Packing the blankets and leftover beer into a canvas bag, along with two orders of street souvlaki Danniel had scored in The Haight, I slammed the trunk shut. We crossed the highway in a slow motion dodge between motorcycles, mini buses and other vehicles that were now moving at funeral speed. Jumping a fence, we trudged through a dry field toward the speedway. Our internal compass led us to join a few thousand other stragglers on the same mission. This is what we’d come so far to be a part of. We were young refugees marching to the sound of a distant drummer that held the promise of peace and music, just like Woodstock. All of us drawn to a beacon of Daliesque rock and roll light a mile or so away, just over a hill.

The weather had cooperated all day, but the temperatures were beginning to dip. The mercury had dropped to near freezing in the Bay Area the night before, and KSAN said that there were portable heaters at the ready near the stage just in case. Some of the massive crowd that had arrived earlier – many the day before when the second change of venue had finally been widely reported – were still jockeying for position, possibly for heat, a frenetic dance of humanity against the music that had long since started. Twilight was already upon us, bringing with it friction and bad vibes mixed with the chilly air. We were dog-tired, so we gave up trying to get closer. Instead, we settled on a flat spot on a hill with a handful of hippies from Oregon about a half-mile from ground zero.

The full velocity of the music that we anticipated wasn’t there. We’d missed Santana AND Jefferson Airplane, and although the recognizable sounds of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were now apparent, their songs and harmonies were reduced to muffled acoustics. The sound was awful. Still, we were there. The great Rolling Stones ‘free’ concert. End of the tour, theirs and ours. Altamont.

§ § §

VI: Freedom’s Just Another Word

The gap between CSN&Y’s set and the arrival of the Rolling Stones on stage was long. Danniel and I drank and smoked, and did our best to enjoy the festivities, to soak it all up, to catch the party atmosphere. But it wasn’t there. It was all pretty hazy.

breakfast-show_01Later, the souvlaki was history, the warm Labatt’s Blue had been reduced to seven empty stubby bottles, the Stones’ erratic set was over, and our hippy friends appeared to be asleep. All except two of them – they were fucking.

The blankets and beers had come in handy, although we were now too stoned to mind the cold that had descended on the retreating, post-concert horde. We were also too tired to move. The weight of driving 2500 miles back to Southern Ontario after four days on the road and an anticlimactic day of seeking our own Woodstock hung heavily. We were road weary. The mechanical humping going on just to our right was at least entertaining.

Wanting to or not, I did think of the drive home. I wanted to go home. I was ready to go home. I had school – I liked school – and I had a lot to catch up on. I was going to stage-manage another play, this one a musical, and rehearsals would start a week before the Christmas break. I had a short story due in English class, and a history project worth 40% of my year was in jeopardy. What the fuck was I doing here?! Was I completely irresponsible? Was I a keener? Would a keener fuck off for more than a week without telling anybody…?

I was an “A” student with a “C” attitude, which meant I got a lot of “B”s. Life has a way of averaging out that way if you’re lucky. I still had the shortest hair of anyone in the world, but at least one girl thought I looked funny and let me kiss her anyway. See – averaging out. But what would my teachers think…? My internal conversation was filled with conflicting arguments. I was counting on the law of averages.

I thought of the drive home – the desert, the plains, and the snow. The snow that was lying in wait, waiting to rise up to fuck with us. I didn’t think of the bands we didn’t or couldn’t see, or the music we could barely decipher – I thought of the drive home.

Then I thought of my mother, my stepfather. What were they thinking? What – were – they – thinking…? What would they say? I hadn’t thought of them once during the trip, not even a flicker. I realized at that moment… I didn’t care. What would the negative results of this impromptu road trip amount to? Would there be any? I didn’t care. I sat forward on that hill, suddenly feeling very lucid, very aware… very alive. I. Didn’t. Care! Huh. Funny how some events, that may seem trivial in the moment, are recognized only much later as having left life-altering consequences in their wake. Mine did. But it would be years later before I made the connection.

I looked over at Danniel. He was watching the stream of people trudge back to the highway and the cars that would carry them home, wherever home was. He looked more than tired, he looked beaten. All the exhilaration of the past four days that had once been so present on his face had fallen away, revealing huge disappointment and failure. He looked lost. I wish I’d had some empathy at that moment, but instead all I felt was excitement. The clarity of my own feelings was crystal – command and control. Command and control of my own life. I thought of my mother and my stepfather again, just to check. Nope. I still didn’t care. I didn’t care what they would say or do. It was what I was going to say to them when I got home that I cared about.

Then, as if to signal the official end of the festivities, to our right there was an orgasm. And that, as they say, was that.

§ § §

VII: Waitin’ On The Judgment Day

It was decided that I would drive. Well, not decided in any democratic sense, so much as through the process of elimination. Danniel had thrown me the keys and said he was going to sleep for a while. He said the cops would be too busy directing the death march of traffic out of the area between Livermore and Tracy to bother checking for valid drivers’ licenses, or even existing ones in my case. Seemed plausible.

Eight hours and two fill-ups later I pulled the Beast into a gas station outside Lake Havasu City, and Danniel took over. He drove the rest of the way home.

breakfast-show_18Two and a half days later, we pulled up at the end of my snow-covered cul-de-sac in London. I grabbed my shit out of the trunk, and told Danniel I’d see him at school. “Yup,” was all he said.

As Danniel drove away, fishtailing on the icy road, I began the slog home in the almost knee-deep snow.

At a distance I could see the curtains were open slightly, and a glow from the two floor lamps we had at opposite ends of the living room spilled out onto the drifts. It was dark and near dinnertime. “Good timing,” I said to myself, more than a little facetiously.

As I took the two shallow steps to the front door, I caught a glimpse of my stepfather lying on the couch watching television. I’d last seen him in the same position eight days earlier. I took a deep breath and entered. As I shook the snow off and began to remove my shoes, he neither stirred nor acknowledged my presence. My mother appeared in the alcove adjacent to the kitchen, spatula in hand.

“So… there you are,” she said. I smiled and gave a half-hearted wave awaiting the barrage. “Dinner’s in twenty minutes,” she said, and returned to the kitchen.

That was it. Not another word. I had been gone for more than a week, but it was good to know dinner would be ready in less than half an hour. What had she said, what had she done about dinner every night at this time over the past week?!

I had been putting up with this from my ‘family unit’ for far too long. If they didn’t want to be parents when I pulled shit like this, then they had lost the right to weigh-in anywhere or anytime else. As far as that history was concerned I was fifteen-years-old, but I could have been twelve, or eight – same shit, different day. Once someone decides to become a parent, they’re a fucking parent. They can be anything else they want as well, but parenting is 24/7, not an episodic avocation. You can’t look after your children Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, with weekends and holidays off. If that’s what they’d wanted, they should have installed a fuckin’ time clock with punch cards at the front door. Buy in, or get out. I’d made my decision.

I looked over at the still-life on the couch. My younger brother made an appearance at the top of the stairs with a wide-eyed ‘what-the-fuck’ look on his face. There was a hint of recognition from Friskie, our pet cat.

Dinner passed without comment. You guys just made this way too fuckin’ easy, was all I could think.

§ § §

VIII: Groovin’ On A Sunday Afternoon

Christmas came and went, likewise, New Years. Three weeks later I turned sixteen – the magic number. A few days after that, I met with three government social workers at City Hall. One of my teachers, Martin, had arranged for me to see them so I could detail my situation, and lay out my plan. I needed their written assessment and eventual approval to move forward. The meeting was scheduled for an hour, the usual amount of time it took for the panel to hear evidence pertaining to a petition for underage emancipation.

Two hours later we finished up. I answered all their questions, and asked plenty of my own. My presence was supported by Martin, who attended for the sole purpose of supplying confirmation about my academic standing, but he went above and beyond, and was one of the reasons this initial meeting went long.

A week later I was summoned to City Hall and presented with a paper form. I was told that my request had passed first reading, and that what was now required was signatures from both parents and a witness acknowledging my petition. There were check boxes that required ticking and initialing for each parent or guardian. One check box said ‘yes’, the other said ‘no’. The question: Do you agree to the terms of this petition? There was space to add further comments if necessary.

After dinner that night I sat both my parents down on the sofa. I handed my stepfather the form. I said, “Read it, initial it, sign it.” He read it, and then looked at me. He initialed it, signed it, and then handed it to my mother. She read it. “Are you sure this is what you want?” she eventually said. I just looked back at her. She initialed it and signed it. I took the paper back to check it – both tick boxes, ‘yes’. A neighbor who I occasionally housesat for witnessed it. Done, and done. All that remained now was the official interview the panel would have with my parents to confirm all the details, and give them one last chance to challenge the petition. They didn’t.

Two weeks later, two large manila envelopes with identical return addresses were delivered to our townhouse. I opened mine. Inside was a three-page official-looking document – Copy 1 of 3, was stamped in the lower right corner. It began,

“As of the execution date of this document, petitioner is granted…”

Blah, blah, blah. I had successfully divorced my parents.

In less than forty-eight hours it was Sunday. I piled the remainder of my belongings into the back seat of Butchy’s Nova. I waved to my mom standing in the living room window. “You got everything?” Butchy asked. “Nah. One more thing…” I said, settling into the bucket seat. “Peel out and squeal the tires!” Butchy laughed. The engine raced, the Mickey Thompsons spun, and we lost our grip fishtailing about twenty feet. Half a donut later we came to an embarrassing stop, sideways. Butchy slammed the steering wheel. “Fuckin’ ice!” Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.

breakfast-show_16That day, I moved into a five-bedroom brown brick bungalow owned by Vinod and Popi, an East Indian couple. Four of the bedrooms had been turned into housekeeping suites for university students. When I interviewed with them, and said I was a student, they assumed I attended Western, and was not just merely half way through Grade 10.

Butchy helped me move my stuff into the front bedroom. We talked about all the cool parties we’d have in this great place, a place for just hanging out. And a place for girls – like I hadn’t thought of that! I wanted to unpack and settle in. I walked with Butchy back to his car. We both stood out front, looking at the house. Snowflakes falling, Christmas lights still up. The place practically screamed ‘Happy Holidays’. Home sweet home, I thought. “Pure bliss, pal,” said Butchy. It was February 22, 1970.

§ § §

IX: The Kids Are Alright

I suddenly became the most popular guy in Grade 10 – I had my own place!

Weekdays were taken up with school, of course – projects, theatre, and creative writing. But weekends were party times. Friends and I would hang out, listen to music, drink, and get small. Occasionally, there was a girl.

As the weather turned and it got warmer, I also spent a lot of time on weekends with Vinny and Popi and their friends and family (many of whom didn’t speak English), cooking and learning about East Indian food and culture. The smells escaping from the newly installed homemade tandoor in the backyard created a huge issue for the neighbours, to say nothing of the Bollywood music blasting out the windows. On those occasions, Popi’s uncle would wander outside with his ceremonial talwar and start to sing and dance. And then the police would show up. Fun times.

That summer Danniel got married and became the father of a baby girl. I didn’t see him much after that. He dropped by Casa Waldo a few times to have a beer and shoot the shit, but we never did talk about the trip to California or Altamont again. I’d heard he’d sold the Beast and bought something more ‘family friendly’. “Yup,” was all he said.

breakfast-show_19The academic standing that Martin, my teacher friend, had been so convincing about on my behalf in front of the emancipation panel, paid off again. It allowed me to alter my own curriculum so long as I continued through Grade 13, in those days considered ‘college prep’. One day at the beginning of July Martin dropped by with a six-pack of Lowenbrau. He talked to me about a new course being offered by a friend of his at a different high school – Communication Arts. You needed decent marks through Grade 10, along with a letter of recommendation to even apply for one spot in a class that was limited to about twenty students. The school was getting applications from all across Ontario. It was a two-year course (Grades 11 and 12), and at the end, provided you graduated in good standing, you received a special course certificate along with your high school diploma. He thought I should apply.

“Right up your alley,” he said. It was bootcamp for radio, television, and filmmaking. Right up my alley, indeed. “You’re running the show, now. Time to move some of those chess pieces around on the board. But don’t wait too long to make up your mind. Let me know this week, okay? I’ll write the letter.”

breakfast-show_14Before he left, Martin handed me a present wrapped in butcher paper, and tied with a string. “Gird your loins,” was all he said, and then burst out laughing.

Popping another beer, I unwrapped the package. It was an old, used hardcover book. Its faded paper sleeve was tattered and could barely hang on. “Quiet Days In Clichy” by Henry Miller. My turn to burst out laughing. Yup, I thought, that’s Martin! Inside he’d written an inscription:

“Your life’s under new management now. Don’t fuck it up! – Martin, The Year Dot.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been as moved by a gift as I was in that moment. Martin had some great books on his shelf at school, and also at his home where I’d been many times with groups of friends and students, drinking, eating, falling down. His wife, Candy, had bought him this book at Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris during their honeymoon in 1966. Her inscription to him was adjacent to mine:

“A cautionary tale… not a how-to! Ha, Ha, Ha! – Candy”

I blushed because I understood the reference.

§ § §

X: It’s A Gas, Gas, Gas

I got in to the ComArts course, and emerged with the certificate and the diploma. I then arranged my last year in high school, Grade 13, with five English courses, including CanLit, Classics, and Journalism; two theatre courses including theory and stage direction; and two creative writing courses that included play writing. I was set.

That summer I got a job with a cinema rep house playing second-run films in 16mm. It was one of the most consistently popular movie theatres in London. Patrons could see a double-bill for less than the price of a single first-run feature at any of the other cinemas. I became their new projectionist. And concession stand server. And janitor. However, I also managed to put together some killer double bills that increased the theater’s attendance.

The movie house played to a mostly university and college crowd – Western and Fanshawe students accounted for more than half of our clientele. However, because it was summer, most of the students had gone home and our box office receipts had fallen off. It was thought by the theatre owner that younger talent (i.e. me) would attract, and hopefully increase the younger audience with some targeted double bills.

breakfast-show_02My double bills became the talk of the town. Marx Brothers one week, War themed movies the next, then Swedish softcore, followed by a John Waters special week featuring “Pink Flamingos”. Most of the racier films I programmed weren’t available in what was called ‘theatrical 35’. In Conservative ‘Big Blue Machine’ Ontario at the time those films would have been heavily censored, or simply banned outright. My distributors in Toronto and Montreal, however, taught me a valuable secret – most theatrical films also had 16mm copies. They weren’t categorized as ‘theatrical’, but as ‘educational’, the only other designation available. I’m sure John Waters would have pissed himself over“Pink Flamingos” being categorized as having educational merit!

On Tuesday, the first night of its run, we had a smaller than normal house. However, two plainclothes vice squad officers made their presence known about half way through the film. After interviewing the owner, his wife and me, they issued a written ‘shut down and property seizure’ notice if the scheduled six performances were ‘held over’ due to popular demand. They were aware of the loophole, but were sure to close it soon, they said. They never did.

I sprang into action. I wrote a press release and sent it to both campus newspapers. I detailed the police presence and quoted liberally from the ‘asset seizure’ notice. I then offered fifty cents off the ticket price upon presentation of a copy of the published release, good for any screening.

On the Friday night during that run I went out with some friends to celebrate, because we’d sold out three nights straight and even turned people away. More free press! But, I got drunk. Really drunk. I forgot to change the marquee for the Saturday matinee (also my job). It was a FAMILY matinee. A photograph that ran in the Saturday evening edition of the local newspaper showing moms and baby carriages lining up to see “Pink Flamingos” instead of Disney’s “Fantasia” was… awkward. More free press!

I used to receive flyers from distributors detailing new releases to the educational market. One of these flyers was devoted to documentaries. I hit upon what I thought was a terrific idea for a double bill: D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” (produced by John Phillips and Lou Adler), backed with the Maysles Brothers’, “Gimme Shelter”, the documentary about the Rolling Stones ‘free’ concert at Altamont. Easily promotable, especially to our target audience. A couple of weeks later, the shipping canisters arrived. Obviously, I had ulterior motives for booking “Gimme Shelter”, and I looked forward to my own private screening.

breakfast-show_09It was a ritual I had followed many, many times. I took the three reels of 16mm film out of its shipping case and spliced them together onto a single one-meter aluminum feed reel. Then I spliced exactly one and a half minutes of white leader onto the head, and looped the film through the massive, clunky Hortson projector. Dimming the house lights and activating the automatic act curtain, I switched the projector on, bolted out the booth door, and ran down two flights of stairs. Rounding the corner on the main floor I had enough time to grab a bag of popcorn and a medium size Hires Root Beer. In the dark I settled into the center seat in the center aisle of this converted Salvation Army Chapel. As I popped the first kernel of butterless corn into my mouth, Mick Jagger announced to the Altamont crowd: “Welcome to the breakfast show”. Then the biggest rock band in the world launched into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

Over the coming week I watched “Gimme Shelter” six more times along with almost sold-out audiences, primarily students as I’d anticipated.

What I saw blew my mind.

§ § §


“Well, the Rolling Stones tour of the United States is over.
It wound up with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway…
There were four births, four deaths, and an awful lot of scuffles reported.
We received word that someone was stabbed to death in front of the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels.
Nothing’s confirmed on that. We were there – we didn’t see it.”
– Stefan Ponek, KSAN Radio, San Francisco – December 7, 1969
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Over 300,000 people attended Altamont. No one left unaffected, not even the bands.

Hours, days, weeks, months, years later, as its cultural impact grew and grew (in diametrical opposition to its Woodstock counterpart), the attendees would be forced to formulate a response to the question others would often pose when they discovered you had been to that infamous ‘free’ concert; the one where the black man in the lime green suit and fedora was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel. “What was it really like?” they would ask. There would be 300,000 answers, 300,000 stories to tell.

“Gimme Shelter” was NOT the Altamont I’d been a part of. Perhaps it was a matter of proximity – we’d been about a half-mile from the epicenter, and so the violence that was so raw and visceral in the movie was someone else’s violence, someone else’s experience.

The ‘adventure of possibility’ that Danniel and I had wished to embrace was far different than the one we found. But perhaps we’d found something more. I know I did. The epiphany I had on that small hill on a cold night in December 1969 in the middle of fucking nowhere was a direct result of everything that had occurred on that road trip. In the end, the possibility of leaving home and starting my life anew at such a young age became the adventure I sought. I was about to step out on my own, and for good. Would I, could I have arrived at that decision without the road trip, without Altamont?

If Altamont was my ‘beginning’, it also symbolized an ending. Some came to believe that Altamont signaled the ignominious end to the idealistic 1960s – the media still does. No news story, no documentary on the life and times of any segment of the Swinging Sixties is complete without a statement that includes the words, “…and then Altamont happened.” Altamont became the ‘fade to black’ for an entire era.

That decade affected everything.

The 1960s gave an entire generation its own music – rock and roll as a genre, a cultural phenomenon, and ultimately an art form, matured. Old, white, male politicians and lawmakers, whom, with few exceptions, adhered to old school ways and means, and perpetuated post-war ideals and policies, were put on notice. The voting age was lowered, and ultimately the bar was raised. Of course we were disaffected. The youth that asked for change, then pursued it, then protested it, and then demanded it, got it.

Every generation has its own signature event, its touchstone moment that resonates so loudly, that its cultural and personal impact becomes part of its DNA: JFK, Vietnam, Moonshot, Beatlemania, Trudeaumania, King, Bobby, Woodstock, Altamont. All 1960s.

So, maybe Altamont in December of 1969 was the smoking gun. That year – 1969 – still sticks out in my mind because it was the year, for me, that everything changed. It was a hell of a year. President Nixon began peace talks in Paris to end the war in Vietnam, while at the same time authorizing the secret bombing campaign of Cambodia; Frankenstein died of a heart attack, Brian Jones and Mary-Jo Kopechne drowned, both under suspicious circumstances, and following separate roads Dorothy finally went over her rainbow and ODed, and Jack Kerouac reached the end of his; Zodiac hunted humans in Northern California, while Charlie and his family went all ‘helter skelter’ in the City of Angels; James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King, and Sirhan Bishara Sirhan pleaded guilty to assassinating Bobby Kennedy – both would eventually recant their confessions; John and Yoko made it official, so did Monty Python; ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ got naked, Stonewall got raided, ‘Abbey Road’ got crossed, and we all learned how to get to ‘Sesame Street’; Slaughterhouse Five was read, Hee Haw was watched, and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was heard; David Bowie and Major Tom took us to space, Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 took us to the moon, and according to Arlo Guthrie we could get anything we wanted (except Alice); and on August the fifteenth, I did not go to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York with my friends for three days of peace and music.

But there were other events that pivotal year, too. One warm September evening I became ‘acquainted’ with an older woman named Candy. And that, as they say, was that.

In a bankers box at the bottom of a closet there sits an aging letter-size manila envelope. Inside, there is a set of emancipation papers with a bunch of signatures and a government seal on it; a crumpled yellowed napkin with black squiggles on it; a pristine, never been unfolded road map of the State of Oklahoma, courtesy of Texaco; and a small plastic baggie containing one (1) alligator clip. Printed in black Sharpie across the front are the words, Welcome To The Breakfast Show.

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 Note: Copyright In The Photographs Remains With The Original Owners

Books, Movies

The Power of Research

December 19, 2014

“Good writing has a musical quality to it,
a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm…”

– Laura Hillenbrand

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A terrific article here about a terrific writer. Laura’s books, “Seabiscuit”, and “Unbroken”, are, stylistically, the best non-fiction tomes I’ve ever read. However, her method of writing, as evidenced in this New York Times article, reveals a truly unique approach to research – the cornerstone of engaging, believable narrative non-fiction.

Article & Author Photograph Copyright © 2014 The New York Times