Clubland Memories From An Era When Playing Was Hazardous
I got to thinking about how civil this break from live playing has been - just you, your home studio, a guitar, Garage Band, a few ideas, and no place to go.
By Bill King
I got to thinking about how civil this break from live playing has been - just you, your home studio, a guitar, Garage Band, a few ideas, and no place to go. Maybe a live hook-up on Facebook and a cover of Stairway to Heaven or you and the missus baking a loaf of banana bread.
With the recent planned opening of the El Mocambo and the shrinking club scene, I thought I would give you a refresher course on the "wild wild" club scene I experienced nearly fifty years ago in Toronto. There was a degree of abuse that would never fly today with too many cameras, too many cellphones with 4K capacity. Too many lawsuits, too many spectators.
Before coming to Canada, let's say 1965, my brother Wayne and I got ass-whipped in an elevator in Indianapolis, Indiana, as members of soul unit Cosmo & the Counts. It was my rude gesture that caught us running down the street, through a hotel kitchen into an elevator and slow door close that nearly secured us a severe beating.
We were approached by a gang of youths released for the weekend from a nearby work farm. The three of us bandmates were growing Beatles locks when one guy spots us - walks up and asks me, "do you squat when you piss?" Silence. He then slithers away, laughing and rejoins the pack. The joke on us. With what I assumed was plenty of distance between us, I pop the bird, Indiana style. Not good. The wolves see and come sprinting back at an Olympic pace and catch us in the elevator – kick, punch, and stomp all over us. I must say the bruises and torn clothing and ruptured egos gave Cosmo big laughs. He'd look back at brother Wayne, and I on the bandstand howled and grinned as if to say – fools!
This brings me closer to home and my first days at the El Mocambo.
The bouncers would pound the stuffing out of Barbie if given the crooked eye. That's how I saw those psycho weightlifters that operated outside the entrance of the El Mocambo, the Generator, Jarvis House, Mad Mechanic, and other downtown meat markets back in the early 70s. As threatening as the neo-Fascist Western Guard and their hatred for bands of mixed colour were, these guys made them seem a carnival sideshow.
You'd think my coming from America I'd have volumes of horror stories about disobedient bouncers' intent on breaking bones and `guns a-poppin'. Not the case! I saw the worst of the worst right here in Toronto.
Americans packed firearms and had a per capita of scary people to rival HBO's Game ofThrones hanging around bars. You never spoke to them. The unspoken rule? Do not make eye contact – turn and run if confronted! Toronto of the early seventies was the wild west for muscle "mean" men whose job description was checking IDs and collecting cover charges in front of the most popular Toronto nightspots.
A few months before arriving in Canada, I witnessed one rare, but an unnerving incident in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.
I played this bar along US 41A just outside the gates of the 101st Airborne Division – the last place I parked my beloved Morris Minor. I wasn't part of that 101st, but a piano playing, clarinet swinging musician in the 82nd Army band. The stormtroopers had a gung ho demeanour. "Badass" comes to mind. As far as the army band – we were viewed as circus clowns stuffed in military costumes. The roadside hotspot just happened to be one of those dives Jimi Hendrix played before injuring himself in a parachute jump.
During the summer months, the post steamed a fearsome 98 degrees with 98% humidity. You never stopped sweating. The roadside watering hole crawled with NCOs – non-commissioned officers - a few lifers and some genuinely creepy party women, the hard types. You would see those tight asses in Capris wiggle around the dance floor - then about-face in front of you. It was like Halloween ran three hundred and sixty-five days a year. They had booze for blood and wore stockings that looked as if they'd been shot-up on the firing range.
This occasion, a long-haired, six-foot-five bouncer with a pleasant disposition oversaw the premises. I hung around, chatting him up between sets. The two of us spotted a drunken biker gas his prized Harley and cartwheel just before hitting the highway in a mix of sand and gravel. An ugly sight. Sirens, ambulance and goodbye. DOA. All the big boy had to say was, "Asshole."
Late at night, a mouthy paratrooper in a muscle shirt enters and struggles to reign over the bar. "Big man" attempts to calm and convince him back to his seat. The jerk chooses provocation over hindsight. Soldier boy starts pushing people around – turning tables over. "Big man" smiles and gives him a buddy slap on the back and advises he return to pacifist drinking. "Wham!" The guy takes a wild swing, and in a flash, "big man" picks him up - body slams to the floor and delivers a memorable spinal, a painful jab to the back. You cannot physically salute parades after that. So goes the night.
I sidle up to the cowboy and remark, "Yeah, man, good work. Taking care of da business." He says nothing in response. Instead, looks straight ahead at the highway; eyes fixed on the long trail of streaking high beams signalling the first evidence of nightfall.
Two years later, I am standing in a line-up at the El Mocambo Tavern, facing two or three surly assholes who take pleasure intimidating and shoving people around. One, I'll call "Big Red."
Red was a freckled-faced whack job who spent most days at the central YMCA pushing weights. I did not know this at the time until I started hanging around the weight room, after engaging in an afternoon of pick-up basketball games. I recognized the headband and carrot orange puff of hair.
While lifting weights after an afternoon run, Red yells to me. "Hey, I know you. You play in that band downstairs at the El Mocambo." I assumed it was safe to admit. "Yeah, that's my band. We play a week each month – sort of a house band." Red pauses, "Damn, I miss that place – broke a lot of bones, some great fights," he says." I love it when they cry." Wow! Red then confided he was facing a batch of assault charges. He took pleasure tossing young men down the stairs over any small infraction.
There was something wrong with this picture and many of the doormen shoving patrons around across Toronto. I truly despised them. Perhaps the worst was one scary evening at the Generator Club – Berwick and Yonge Street, near Eglinton Avenue – 3rd floor of an office tower.
The first time we played there, it was with my fusion-jazz band. The place featured a curious variety of jazz groups – not at all popular with the disco bunnies. We survived a couple of sets, but not before my replacement drummer gets belligerent drunk. The guy takes a big swing at his crash cymbal – falls forward and practically hits his chin on the snare drum. Then repeats with absolute precision until just about plummeting from the drum stool to the carpet. I had to fire him on the spot and bring in a stable "beats" man.
We limp through a set of swinging fusion-rock-jazz – staggering the beat. The audience of raccoon eyed, mascara tarts in their push-up bras, snarled back at us. Not long into the set, the club manager drops by to admonish, "Play something they like." I remember thinking – what they would like is a different band. We endured to Thursday night before revising the repertoire. Less jazz more dance.
Six months later, we get invited back for the long night from hell, a new band – much funkier and different repertoire. It featured my new rhythm section stolen from Jamaica's reggae God – Jackie Mittoo. Everton Paul, drums, Wayne McGhie, vocals and guitar, George Philip, bass and Kenny Baldwin, tenor saxophone.
The Generator was a meat market of sorts – capacity around 700. It was all about dance music and never getting laid. Us? We played plenty of Bob Marley and funk and a few originals. I detested most cover bands. I'd already served far too much time playing songs I cared little for. On this night, the Gods high-fived Satan!
The Generator's dressing room was a storage bin with shelves lined with Drano and plastic containers of Pinesol - a real mood room. I brought along a fat hash and tobacco joint to arouse the band. It worked! The only issue - where to dispense of the still smoking roach. There were no windows or hidden places to bury the singed root. Instead, I locate a pencil size puncture in the wall I thought would suffice. I stuff down the gap and watch it disappear and assume all is well. Then it begins to smoulder. Moments pass, and "big ass" bouncer arrives, catches a nose full - plants his large frame in front of the storage room door and threatens punitive action. The lecture received with dubious band looks and a stoner's eye. Then, the owner, Mr. Braemer, slides in. "I want party music, you hear me, party music, and no drugs, hear me?" I keep my cool and respond, "What drugs?" "Don't fuck me, King. The place smells like a hippie den," says Braemer.
A table of loudmouths huddles side stage. One asshole keeps making hostile remarks about women then lunges at one as she passes towards the washroom. He then grabs another in the rear who happens to have a connection with a house busboy. The incident passes. Not long after, my wife Kristine joins her girlfriends on the dance floor - starts moving when the guy from the table surfaces. He slither-dances down the front of Kristine and grabs her in the crotch, something I would never advise doing to any woman, especially a pro from Long Island, New York. I've witnessed Kristine's zeal for justice. A broker guy once tried doing something unnatural to her up on Eglinton that nearly cost him his job and jail time – not to mention the humiliation of a good ass-whipping in front of his male friends. The woman packs a punch.
After whacking the guy in the face, Kristine warns him to stay far away and reports the incident to management. As she is returning to her seat, she passes near his table. The jerk reaches out then grabs her in the thigh. Kristine yanks him by the hair, spins his head around and punches in the face. Not long after, a busboy arrives and dropkicks the guy with the heel of his Cuban boot, in the gums. A fistfight ensues, and in confusion, I yell for security.
It was like a scene out of Kill Bill. The "beefers" come from every region of the room with fist-swords swinging and steamroll over people – past tables, over chairs, as if they were pursuing wild game through a dense jungle, huffing and panting until reaching the edge of the forest. Then the beatings begin. I mean high-kicking, head pounding - bone-crushing force. It was a sickening sight. One guy was beaten unconscious and placed in a chair and punched over and over as we watch helplessly from the stage. I snatch a microphone and plead for the ruckus end. Then a bouncer stumbles to the side of the stage – "Pla,y King, that's what you're getting paid for." We do just that. By now, my stomach is frayed and spirit demolished; all I wanted was to leave and never return.
We wrap up the night and head towards the elevators to discover no one was allowed to leave. The "beaten men" had called in reinforcements armed with guns. Here we are locked-down on the 3rd floor of a business establishment with no way out. Eventually, things begin to clear as police surround the nearby buildings and disarm the bunch. I press the down button, and the door opens. The floor of the elevator, two bloody young men near unconscious, all tangled together. It was a throw-up moment.
After that, I refused to play any club manned by parasites as such. I performed at the Mad Mechanic once and, although booked again, cancelled – another "hitter" bar.
It was the fall of 1973, and the Edmonton Eskimos were in town to play the Ottawa Roughriders at the CNE. The clubs were running at full capacity.
I was playing downstairs at the El Mocambo, and the front door was handled by Mad Mike. Mike was a "frozen face dude," who never smiled. Compared to the doormen looking for a dust-up, Mike held hostility in check.
The club filled up with "out of towners" – fun-loving football fans. One such table housed five Eskimo fans, in full-out party mode - loud and boastful. Not exactly what the house had in mind as patrons. Remember, this was a controlled environment. Management sends Mad Mike to silence the rowdy bunch. Keep in mind Mike looked like one of those British character actors who starred in gangster flicks – the ones who administer savage beatings to football hooligans. Mike leans in to deliver the warning and "wham," gets smacked. Then smacked and smacked again, then knocked to the floor. I do not think Mike ever took a beating as bad as this in his previous life. It took a host of bouncers to drag his whipped ass from the club.
Years later, I'm sitting at the table of our rented house on Bathurst Street, having morning tea with a tenant, a young woman making serious bucks working as a stripper at the Cheetah Club and putting herself through university. She's being hounded by a bouncer from the club who took more than a liking to her. He had determined she required twenty-four-hour protection.
We cross paths in a communal kitchen where he introduces himself to me and starts talking violence, then says, "you're Bill King. I have seen you play. Remember the Generator? What a night. I popped some eyes." Suddenly, that sickening feeling returns and consumes me. "Fuck, it was fantastic. I sat that guy up in the chair and just thumbed his eye out," he continues. Holy shit! "I should show you how to do that." The guy goes on to describe the many ways you can pop a man's eye and get away with it. The brute was from the mean streets of London, England. Gangster #1! I could have used a therapy session after morning tea. Fortunately, the courts laid a hand on this guy and most of those like him and kept far from the downtown clubs.
Not long after, a new breed of bouncers like the Elmo's Reggie Bovaird, who chose negotiation - talked and shoved, and rarely used force, arrives. Out go the hitters. You can still find a few of these "slug it out places" in the low-lying beer halls in North America and Western Canada. In many ways, they are becoming extinct. Guys today just shoot each other and speed away. Why mess up a clean shirt or feel compelled to hire a lawyer?