Tales From The Road (Part 1)
There is nothing in this world that compares to being in a touring rock band - especially when you're young and haven't yet experienced much of that world. Driving from town to town, not knowing what you will find just over that hill, knowing there will be adventure, possibly violence, maybe sex if you're lucky and more fun than any young rocker has a right to is a unique situation. I'm sorry, but I just can't imagine anything better. Oh sure, there was that one time when the accountant neglected to carry the 8 and ended up in a bar with his gorgeous boss who got him drunk, took serious advantage of his young, slender body and then fired him in the morning while he was still so hungover he didn't realize what had happened until he got the pink slip in the mail the following day. Sure, that's fun - but come on! A rock band on the road? That is a different animal.
Clinton Ontario lies two and a half hours due west of Toronto. It's a rough little town, known for the huge radar installation in the middle of town or at least it was when we came to that particular fork in the road. Our band "Bearfoot" had been on the road for months. We were tight, performing well and we had songs receiving decent airplay on the radio. We were actually kind of famous in the way Canadian bands can be. The bar was similar to all the other Ontario bars we played - unremarkable really, except that it was well designed to showcase bands of our size - and it was packed. During a break we all went outside through the back door to get some air. Myself, our drummer, Malcolm Thomlinson, our guitarist Hugh Brockie, and our bassist, Chris Vickory were standing there in the sand beside the bar, breathing the cool moist air coming off Huron, minding our own business when a car drove up and decanted a couple of the local toughs.
I had been bullied my entire life (up to this point) and my intuition immediately went on high alert as these two thugs slowly walked up to us with that menacing swagger all bullies are incapable of hiding. "What are you doing here," one asked. I told him, "We are playing here tonight". He stared at me for a long moment, "What the fuck does that mean," he growled. "It means...." but before I could finish he punched Malcolm right in the face. Not hard, but hard enough to know we were in it now and there would be no walking away. But I did walk away - right after I kicked the bastard in the nuts as hard as I could. Sadly, I missed the sweet spot but I got his attention and I knew right then he wasn't as brave as he thought he was. But I did walk away. I walked back into the bar, went to the stage and unscrewed the mic-stand. It took a few moments and I was concerned about my band mates and how they might be suffering a serious beating at that moment or worse, thinking I was a coward to have so quickly abandoned them. Everyone knows you just don't do that. Not in a rock band. You don't want to be branded a coward for the rest of your life. You have to defend each other. That's why it's called a band.
But I returned - just like MacArthur - only instead of a well equipped fighting force I carried a stainless steel mic-stand (minus the bottom). When I came out the side door of the bar I saw, much to my relief, the toughs back in their car preparing to leave. I know I should have just let it go - but I couldn't. Something in me had snapped. Too many years of being pushed around had finally brought me to a boiling point and I was going to have, by God, some justice.
My first blow shattered the rear passenger side window. It was an enormously satisfying sound - all the glass flying up in the air in slow motion - the terrible silence afterwards. I swung again, this time hitting the top of the car just above the broken window. I saw the dent for a split second before the rear wheels began kicking up gravel. They were desperately trying to avoid any more damage to their prized muscle car (it actually was a very nice car) but they weren't quick enough to avoid my third blow which came down squarely in the middle of the trunk, leaving an even more impressive dent. They drove 30 or 40 feet before slamming on the brakes. The driver (the guy who punched Malcolm) got out and started swearing and threatening me again but I was fired up and wasn't going anywhere. I assumed my best Mickey Mantle pose and shouted, "batter up, motherfucker".
This was the classic "who was going to back down first" scenario. I knew it wouldn't be me because I was committed. I would either prevail or I would be beaten senseless but there wasn't going to be any reconciliation or negotiation. Not from me. My heart was pounding so hard I thought I might pass out - which would have been embarrassing, not to mention dangerous. They could have kicked me to death right there. My bandmates were all begging me to calm down and rightfully so. It was over. More violence was really not necessary but I was out of my mind just then and determined to make sure these idiots knew there would be a steep price for fucking with us. Looking back on this I must say I have never been more relieved when I saw them get back in their car and drive away. I have also never felt better. The combination of adrenalin and the certainty that my violence was righteous and justified, knowing for once I had not backed down, was a wonderful thing to experience.
We had another set to play which we did, although with a strange looking mic-stand on the stage, leaning at a wicked angle drawing odd looks from the crowd. "Molly" was our big hit on the radio at that time. We were about half way through it when I noticed a very large police officer standing beside me saying, "Son, you need to come with me now". I had to yell over the music, "I'll be right there but I have to finish this song first". Oddly, he nodded his head in agreement and we finished the song.
Later at the police department I learned my fate. Every police officer in the room was smiling at me for some reason and I was wondering what the hell they thought was so funny. They told me these "toughs" were known to them and they were an ongoing problem in the town, causing fights and generally stirring up trouble all over the place. The officer in charge told me he didn't blame me one bit and that these guys certainly deserved what I had given them but the law was the law and their hands were tied. They gave me the choice of staying in town over the weekend to appear in court on Monday or pay the damages to repair the guy's car. "How much," I asked. "Based on the initial estimate," said the officer, "three seventy five will cover it. If you agree to pay that now, you guys can head on down the road". I couldn't believe I was getting off so easily. I was certain the damages would be in the thousands but, to be fair, this was in the early 70's and the cost of repairing automobiles had not yet become insane. So we avoided court and coughed up just slightly less than the amount we had been paid for the gig.
Once we got back to Toronto my manager gave me a thorough tongue lashing. I could tell his heart wasn't really in it though and there was just a hint of a smile on his face as he did his managerial duty. Managing a touring rock band was something he absolutely loved and my violent behavior did not surprise him. These things happen. He knew that. What he didn't know was I had passed a milestone in my life. I had not backed down for once and the payoff was a new certainty that standing up to bullies was far more rewarding than walking away just to avoid potential damage to your teeth, hands or face....or spleen or balls or brain. Death is always a possibility. I often wonder how those bullies dealt with it all. Were they ashamed? Were they remorseful? I doubt it but I still wonder. I know one thing for certain. They had vastly underestimated their intended victims and would probably think about that the next time they wanted to start trouble.
Violence is as much a part of rock and roll as is the music itself. During my time on the road I experienced several encounters with bullies and troublemakers. Smart people avoid violence. I really try to walk away from it every chance I get. Sometimes, however, you simply don't have a choice. Sometimes you just have to fight. I'm approaching old age now (if I'm not there already). That comes with some benefits. People don't bully me anymore. I guess there's no glory in beating up an old guy. Even if they did there isn't much I could do physically to defend myself. Shoulder surgery, bulging disks in my back, pulled hamstrings in both legs and a litany of other age related conditions prevent me from even considering violence without a lethal weapon. That, my friends, is a good thing.