From the author: What a certain famous band would have been like had they come from the Great White North....
THE CANADIAN INVASION 3500 words
By David Perlmutter
The weirdest part about it all was that we were so popular, eh? Like, when I made that remark about us being more popular than God I was only foolin’ around, but everybody took me right serious ‘cause of who I was, ya know? But there was some truth in it, given how many records we ended up selling and all that.
The thing is, none of us meant to become stars. We were just after playin’ some rock and roll, and trying to make a living at it, eh?
And me, I probably needed the companionship more than the others, given how I was raised up.
You see Toronto on a map, it don’t look like that big a place, but it’s right big enough to disappear in and never come out. I got brought up in Etobicoke, which is as far out as you can get and still be in the city. It wasn’t the greatest thing, what with my mother out in the psych ward downtown- she went nuts when I was little and never got better- and only my aunt to raise me. So I grew up having only two things excite me: the hockey games on the radio on Saturday (naturally, I was and always for the Leafs); and, then when I was in my teens, this new-fangled rock and roll came on the scene. None of the local stations would play it at the start, ‘cause Toronto was and is such a conservative place, but I could get a good signal on my transistor to the American stations that did play it, out in Buffalo and Detroit. Sometimes, on a clear night, I could get WINS from New York City and hear Alan Freed’s show. That guy forgot more about rock than most people knew, and really turned me on.
Next thing you know, I got a guitar and learned how to play, and then I started hanging out on what passed for a music scene on Yonge Street in those days. And that’s how I ended up starting what eventually became the Beavers…
Back at that time, Montreal was kind of a divided place, even more so than now. The French people lived in their neighborhoods, and Westmount, which is where I lived, was all rich English people. Mount Royal, in the center of the island, was the divider. Nobody told me outright you couldn’t go visit the French folks, but you were sort of looked down upon if you were an English person who did.
Not that I cared.
I’d always been into music, since my dad had a sideline playing in a brass band when we wasn’t holding down a day job. And, with us being alone at home together, with Mom dead and gone, there was a lot of impetus to do something exciting with my life. That was when, after playing guitar for a while, I started taking it more seriously.
Montreal, back then, was really the entertainment capital of Canada- Toronto was squaresville in comparison- so a lot of big acts came to play the clubs downtown. I could never afford to get in those places, but the English language radio stations would play their records to promote the gigs. Adding to that was the fact that we were close enough to the American border that we could pick up their radio signals with no trouble at all. Occasionally I might tune in to the local French stations, because their music was so spirited you could dance to it without understanding the language. That was the kind of stuff I was trying to copy when I wrote a lot of the bilingual stuff the Beavers cut.
Anyhow, one day there was a party going on in a church parking lot in my neighborhood, and that was where I met John for the first time. He and his group- the Maples, they were called in those days- had driven up from Toronto because the kids wanted a pop music group, and there weren’t any local ones around then. After they were done, I went up and introduced myself, and we connected. I told him I played, and was there any chance they needed somebody new? Actually, there was. They were short one player since one of them had quit. And since I played, was I interested?
Yes, I was. And that was how it all started for me.
When you live on the Island- Prince Edward Island, that is- there aren’t a huge number of options for you in terms of steady work. Maybe if I lived in Charlottetown, our “big city”, I might have found something regular and stayed. Only I lived on the other end of the Island, where the red clay comes up thick, and there wasn’t nothing there in terms of work except planting and digging up potatoes. Which I didn’t want to. Fortunately, being the youngest of four boys, and my three older brothers being okay with working the farm with Dad, I could shift for myself, as far as they were concerned.
I had friends who had moved to Toronto, so I went there. By that time, I had picking on the guitar my whole life, and everyone was saying I was good enough to be a pro. But not on P.E.I., I couldn’t. There was some spots in Charlottetown I could play, and some other isolated spots in the more remote areas, but not enough to help you make a living at it.
What happened was, once I got to Toronto, I found out that there was this rock band who needed a new player and was having auditions. I went, and that was how I met John and Paul. John was the boss of the group then- like he always thought he was- and he told me to start playing and we’ll see if you’re good enough. I did, and when I finished, they had their mouths hanging open, like nobody had played that good for them before.
I was not only in, now, I was the lead player, with John on rhythm and Paul taking over for their old bass player, who’d just kicked the bucket.
And that’s how it stayed until we broke up.
I wasn’t exactly what you would call a healthy kid. The year I was born, 1940, the War was on, and everyone was worried that the Nazis was gonna kill us all. My mother more than some others. So, as a result, I got born prematurely, and I kept getting sick so often it seemed that I was in hospital more than school. But, somehow, I survived.
St. John’s, my hometown, is the main town on the island of Newfoundland- the Rock, as we locals call it. It’s in a very strategic part of the Atlantic Ocean, so we got a lot of the traffic coming in from the other side of the pond, and business picked up right quick due to the War. The Americans helped us out a lot that way. Once they entered the War in ’41, they set up military installations on the Rock. They liked it so much that they stayed on for some time after the War ended, and nobody was man enough to make them leave.
But that had a side benefit. They brought their culture with them, including their music. Once rock and roll started up in the mid-50s, you could hear it blasting out of the PX at their base at all hours of the day. Some of us didn’t like it, but not me. It was wonderful, I thought. And when I discovered that people made their living- as in a steady job- doing it that was it for me. I wanted in.
I couldn’t play no guitar, like most of the players did in those days, but I had a good feel for rhythm, and, once I got behind a drum kit for the first time, I knew how I was going to be part of the scene.
There were and are plenty of folk music groups on the Rock, but none of them needed a rock-and-roll drummer, so I knew I had to go somewhere else to find that kind of gig.
Since Newfoundland became part of Canada in ’49, I knew I could go there and not change my citizenship or nothing. So I went down to Toronto, hoping to find something there.
I started auditioning, with nothing coming at first. But word got round about me sure enough. A couple of bands approached me about taking over for them. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks offered me something, and the Beavers something else. Obviously, I went for the Beavers. The key thing was the money: they promised me a steady weekly wage. And that was all I needed to hear.
By about ’62 we’d been making enough noise around Toronto that we had more gigs than we could handle, so we needed a manager. That’s when Brian Mulroney took over. His family owned the shop where we were buying instruments, so that made him a natural for the job. Or so it seemed. How were we to know that he knew nothing about cutting good deals and would end up get us financially screwed, eh?
Brian shopped our demos around, but not many of the few record labels that there were would have us. The only one that was interested in us was Quality, on account of the fact that they were already distributing a lot of the big American rock records in Canada, so having a genuine Canadian rock band on their label wouldn’t be much of a stretch. And that was how we met our producer, George Chuvalo.
That first session didn’t go too well. John and Paul weren’t writing too much, then, and so we didn’t have a lot of decent material to record. And Chuvalo was right mad about that. He read us the Riot Act about how we should have come in with our act tightened up and decent arrangements and all that. He went on for nearly an hour before any of us could get a word in edgewise. Finally, he wanted to hear what we had to say in our defence. I was tired of being lectured, so I told him that, to begin with, I didn’t think his tie was on straight enough. There was a pause, and then, boy, did we ever laugh! From that point on, Chuvalo was in our corner.
Up until then, we’d mostly been doing cover tunes, but that was when John and Paul realized that we could make more money if we cut stuff we wrote ourselves. So they started writing, and never stopped. They had so much going that George and I, even when we came up with something decent, could barely get space for it as a B side!
We got good at fixing up tunes, Paul and I. I’d start writing a piece, and he’d finish it, or vice versa. Or, sometimes we’d be sitting together with our guitars and a couple of Molsons and work things out right from scratch. Either way, we were luckier than a lot of the bands that came after us. We came up with our own stuff pretty regular like. Whereas they weren’t so good at writing, and had to depend on the Tin Pan Alley gang in New York to give ‘em stuff. And it didn’t sound as authentically Canadian as ours did ‘cause of that. That was our advantage. We weren’t a fake American band- we were always Canadian from Eh to Zed.
The hit run began when “Lover, Love Me” hit #1 in Canada. An American label licensed it to play down there, and it hit #1 there, too. Same when it went over to the U.K., where they were really starved for rock, it seems, and a lot of other places. After that, we could have released a blooper real of us goofing off in the studio, and it would have made the top 40, or the top 10, or #1, anywhere in the world.
We were Pandora, and had opened up a musical box that people really needed. And we were just as surprised as anybody when it happened.
That whole time, from ’63 to ’66, is such a blur to me now. We were always doing something: making records, going on tour, playing on TV shows everywhere. And that weird movie! Everyone wanted us like we were going to die the next day. We couldn’t pause or reflect or anything. We trusted Brian to take care of the money and the legal stuff, and he just told us where and when to be, and we showed up on time, always.
It was probably no wonder we started drinking more often in the few off hours we had. Molsons and Labatts and O’Keefes to begin with, and then more expensive stuff when we could afford it.
Drugs, not so much. At least with me. I know John and Paul did acid because they told me they did, and shows it on some of their weirder lyrics. But Rango and I weren’t into that stuff at all, even if a lot of people thought we were.
It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and I let George know. He felt the same way.
John and Paul had started to think that they were the band, and that me and George were just add-ons. That was something we knew about. P.E.I. and Newfoundland have both been exploited plenty economically in the past, with the natives not getting much at all. And usually it was Ontario and Quebec, where John and Paul were from, doing the exploiting.
So George and I were thinking about quitting, and letting John and Paul shift for themselves without a rhythm section.
But then things changed.
We found out about this Transcendental Meditation stuff from India, and we took a shot on it, and it really calmed all our nerves. For a little while, anyway. We went over to India, and saw the boss man behind the movement. He didn’t practice what he preached, so to speak, so we lost interest. Except George. He took a real liking to the place, and probably would have stayed if he could. His solo records are all about that kind of Indian groove; if you’ve heard ‘em, you know what I mean.
The other thing that happened was more serious. Mulroney up and died on us- suicide. And we found out we weren’t as rich as we thought we were ‘cause he hadn’t done the numbers right. I bet he killed himself so we wouldn’t have to do that job ourselves.
We had to straighten things out. So, to start with, we quit touring. We didn’t need the hassle of being on the road anymore. On the last dates, we couldn’t hear ourselves play for all the audience’s screaming, so we didn’t know what we were playing! No. It was a lot easier to get it right just working with Chuvalo in the studio. A couple of takes and some overdubbing was all we needed.
We were determined to have control over our career- not just control over the music itself, but over the way it was marketed. We didn’t want to be just your average rock group because we knew we could be a lot more than that now. So we asked Quality if they’d let us set up our own label for our own records, plus make some records for some fellow artists who we knew could be as big as us with the right kind of marketing. They said all right. As for the name, we were Beavers, and beavers live in lodges, so calling the label Lodge seemed like the right way to go.
It wasn’t just supposed to be about music, though. We had plans for other businesses underneath the Lodge umbrella. I went back home, and found this old neglected building on Rue St. Catherine that seemed like a good place for a shop. We made into the Lodge Boutique, with a stock of old interesting antiques and things. But we must have rubbed somebody the wrong way, because nobody came to the shop, and it went bust.
Turns out we were good musicians but lousy businessmen. Our records on Lodge were just as good, sales wise, as our Quality ones had been, and our friends had some hits on the label themselves. But we weren’t good at translating that into decent equity. Soon we were losing thousands of dollars every day. Thousands. We couldn’t ignore that- we had to do something.
We’d heard some things about this Alvin Klaw fellow from the States. An accountant, but not a boring one. He specialized in finding money recording artists never knew they made, and getting it for them. The contracts we got were always kind of one-sided and full of legalese, so you never knew everything that was going on under your nose in the deals. Klaw was able to discover that there were millions of dollars being withheld from the artists for the stupidest reasons. Like how many records got broke during the shipping process. How was that our fault? We didn’t ship ‘em.
It was some of the Canadian acts what came up in our wake that let us know about this. The Rolling Rocks, out of Ottawa, got a big amount of Canadian Decca after Klaw was done with them. Same with the Pegs, out of Winnipeg, after he’d audited Canadian RCA. This was not to be sneezed at.
So we hired him to do an audit on our relationship with Quality. And our worst fears were confirmed: they were holding money back from us for the same reasons. And he got us what we were due, same as with the authors.
But that was really the beginning of the end.
It had nothing to do with John hanging out too much with his Filipino artist girlfriend and starting to record more with her than us, even though a lot of fans think that was the cause. It also wasn’t because Paul wanted his own band and to work with his new wife, or because George and I wanted to go solo. That was all gonna happen, anyway; we all had the fame and the resources to do it now.
We just needed an excuse to break up, and Klaw gave it to us.
I, for one, didn’t like Klaw, and didn’t want him going over our books. The other guys did, and I got outvoted, which I stewed over. There were other things in the works that caused the split, mostly the fact that familiarity breeds contempt. So, once we were clear financially, I told the other guys that, maybe, we needed to stop working together professionally if we’re going to save our friendship, which we valued more. And they agreed.
So, really, it was the Klaw that broke the camel’s back.
But we still felt the loss. Even when I went and told the press we were done, and they shot those pictures of me, you can vaguely see tears in my eyes.
It was bound to happen, eventually. Things had gotten way beyond anything any of us could handle or control. That business stuff screwed us up. If we’d been able to just concentrate on playing tunes, like how we started, maybe we would have lasted longer.
I knew I did something important- the evidence is all there. Sometimes, I did feel like I was just a sideman, being told what to do. But, now that I’ve had to record all on my own these last few years, and still have hits, it’s not entirely the same as it was with the Beavers.
The most enduring memory I have is how I accidentally came up with the title for our movie. It had no title to start with, and might not have had one but for me. It came out like this. We’d finished shooting for the day, and I’d said goodbye to the others in a way that’s fairly customary in Newfoundland. Evidently, the Hollywood types surrounding us weren’t familiar with it, ‘cause they thought that’d be the perfect title for the flick!
I still don’t know what people who have never heard of us and our work, much less Newfoundland, are going to think when they look up what’s on TV for the day on their schedule sets and come across a movie called Long May Yer Big Jib Draw!