Every time I catch up with Canadian Musician publisher Jim Norris, I whisper, – ‘Seadog.’
This is how we crossed paths in the early seventies, both of us playing the Kee to Bala in Muskoka.
Jim was the drummer in Seadog and me the keyboardist in Homestead. There was a chain of high schools, clubs, weekend venues, colleges, and universities throughout southern Ontario where bands could stay in constant motion and get paid. During winter months the drives were shitty and dangerous, but one thing for sure was that there was always an enthusiastic audience.
There was also a host of exciting bands beyond the mainstream that seemed to tour indefinitely, like soul unit Crack of Dawn, Grant Smith & the Power, Charity Brown, Crowbar, Goddo, A Foot in Coldwater, Brutus, Frank Motley & the Bridge Crossings, etc.
Then there were adventurous short-lived units like Chimo, with band members Pat Little, Andy Cree, Breen LeBoeuf, Jack Mowbray, Stewart McCann, Tony Collacutt, Ross Raby, Rick King, and John Johnson, with whom I had the good fortune to play back to back opening Festival Express at Varsity Stadium with Homestead in 1970.
I recently connected with journalist Randy Ray and he informed me of a new book written with longtime collaborator Mark Kearney – As the Years Go By – Conversations with Canada’s Folk, Pop & Rock Pioneers.
Ray started rattling off a list of bands compiled in the book and, suddenly, I found myself transported back to the Delhi Belgian Club in Delhi, Ontario and the strange parade that occurred as young men and women zombie-walked non-stop around the circumference of the room. Girls with girls – guys with guys. The band played on! Here’s our conversation.
The book is called As the Years Go By –Conversations with Canada's Folk, Pop & Rock Pioneers. What inspired you to put these in book form?
I used to be a reporter on Parliament Hill working for the London Free Press and Mark Kearney and I co-authored these books. We've been buddies for years.
Just before I was sent to Ottawa we started writing a column – a ‘where are they now’ column on Canadian music. We are talking 1986. I’d seen a copy of Rolling Stone magazine with, ‘where are they now stories?’ – The Young Rascals and Grassroots and others; so we decided to start a Canadian column. And we did this from '86 to '89. We were in seven papers across Canada including the Toronto Sun. When the column ended after three years, it was imperative to do something with the material, so we wrote a book from the Toronto Sun columns so it was tightly knit.
The Sun didn’t have any room only for a’ who, what and where’ column. All of the stories we wrote were for larger papers and were long; 1,200 - 1,500 - word stories that sat on a floppy disc for years and years.
We went on to write other books as I came and went from Ottawa and Parliament Hill, then a couple of years back I told Mark 'we have to get the long versions of the stories into print.' We updated a bunch of them. People had died, and life had changed. We wrote the book and updated the columns with pictures.
The real reason for this Canadian stuff is; both Mark and I were both big Canadian music fans going back to when we were in high school. I went to Wexford Collegiate in Scarborough and saw many of the bands that would roll through Toronto; the Ugly Ducklings, the Paupers, Lighthouse, Mandala, Stitch in Tyme, The Yeomen – unbelievable. That’s the beginning of my love for music. It sat there for years as I was listening to music and buying albums. Then lo and behold, later on, I become a writer, and it became natural that we would write about Canadian music.
The idea for the book comes from the woman I would marry who just recently passed away. We danced under the basketball nets at Wexford Collegiate to a lot of these bands. What we are trying to do with this book is take the reader back to days when you went to a smoky downtown bar and listened to a band blast your ears out or went to a high school or a church – we are trying to rekindle those memories.
Wexford Collegiate has one of the best music and arts faculty and programs in the country. Have they seen the book?
A bunch of teachers have bought it. That program wasn’t there when I was a student; I’m old. I took a five-year arts course. We had the four-year program with business, electricity, drafting and stuff. I was more of an artsy guy than an electrician.
I went to the University of Toronto and got a B.A. I started in 1974 then wondered what I was going to do so I applied to Teachers College and picked journalism. I’d written for the school newspaper and always loved writing and have been in the field since 1976. Mulroney was prime minister at the time. He was all about free trade, the CF 18 jet issue, Meech Lake Accord; but free trade was the biggie for sure. I’m not a political animal and enjoyed being on Parliament Hill, but I liked leaving it behind to do more simple things, so over the years we wrote the music column then a bunch of trivia columns that became books.
Was it the rise of popular board game Trivial Pursuit that prompted you to gather fascinating and obscure facts?
The trivia books are in much more detail than Trivial Pursuit. When we ask a question like, ‘what’s the longest river in Canada’ - we don’t just give four answers, and that’s it. If we say it’s the ‘Mackenzie River’, we would give you a five-hundred-word answer. It’s a good learning and educational tool, these books.
Have they been placed in schools?
No, we’ve sold a total of about 50,000 books which sounds good, but it’s not that many when you think about it. Trivia fanatics love the books. Some are in school libraries, but unfortunately, it never got picked up as a curriculum book. That would have been something.
The first book with the Toronto Sun was self-published, and the next eight were with publishers. Mainly with the Dundurn Group in Toronto. They liked the idea of the recent book but had enough music in the stable and needed to spread themselves in other directions.
In the soft cover, hard cover and eBook?
Softcover and eBook. It’s mainly online and in some bookstores. It’s so much work to get into Chapters; we decided to paddle our way through this and try to sell a thousand books and be happy with it.
Honestly, I walk into Chapters and I’m bewildered. There’s just too much. I kind of look for a book of note; something I’m aware of. There are big-name music books with Springsteen, Robbie Robertson this past season, and now the Lightfoot read.
When our trivia books first came out, there was no place to put them, so they placed them in the ‘humor’ section. They eventually ended up in reference and a lot of people don’t look in reference. Sometimes stores put them in Canadian history or with local books. They were hard to find.
When we were first writing, I remember there was no Chapters, just Coles and Smith. I can remember walking into a Coles and wondering where am I going to find a book in this place and if it is is in here where will people see it.
Small boutique bookstores would feature and isolate a new book. Easily accessible.
Let’s say for example Chapters in Toronto say they will take a hundred books. We get them printed and sent to Toronto and by the time they take their cut and ship and if they don’t sell and are sent back, we don’t make any money. They take fifty-five percent right off the top. If we sell for $20, that’s $11 right off the top and we must pay $7 or $8 to get it printed – we don’t make any money.
What sources do you use to print, publish, and distribute?
Our book is printed in Gatineau, Quebec. When you are on Amazon, they print-on-demand. If you ordered a book right now on Amazon.ca, they will publish a book and send to you. They do everything including shipping the book. I have some books to ship right now and must drive to the post office, put stamps on etc.
If you buy an eBook from our website, we make nearly as much as we do on a paper book.
When people read these interviews and shorts in the book, would you call these time capsules that give people a sense of what it was like being there?
I do. Say for example The Stampeders. Years back I interviewed Rich Dodson and he was at a point where the band was done and the players were griping about the business. Bad management, bad record companies. I’m sick of this. I’m going to become a house painter or a lawyer. But now the guys are back out on the road again. I saw The Stampeders in London rocking and rolling still.
I interviewed him four times and it was incredible. Every time I talked to him he had a different angle going. One day it’s raising money for charity, the next, playing on ships.
A couple of people said to us why aren’t the Guess Who and Crowbar in the book? Well, Crowbar should have been in the book. Other people wrote books on the big guys. Crowbar, we never got around to. Hey, like Jerry Doucette. When I was covering the 1988 election out in B.C., I went to his house and visited and interviewed him in his living room. He pulls out his guitar and gold records are lining the hall. He plays and we talked. That’s the kind of book it is, not a scalp job where we stole another person’s work.
Available at triviaguys.com