Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rock n' Roll is a Hard Life (Part 1)

The following excerpt is from Rock n’ Roll is a Hard Life: A Mitch Metzger Mystery by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Suicide Club Press in May 2009

Since The Squeegees were a band that did everything they could to present themselves as group of homeless punks standing on street corners begging for change my original idea was to interview them at soup kitchen. Ethically It was pretty hard to justify going down to shelter and taking away a couple of bowls of soup from some hard up guys that really needed it just for a gimmicky publicity shot. So it was agreed that the interview would be held the ‘The Only’ seafood restaurant.

‘The Only’ is actually pretty close to being an actual soup kitchen. It is located at number 8 Hastings Street in an area where feral looking drug addicts spend the entire day swaying back and forth on the sidewalk in front of it. None of them even attempt to hide their drug deals with subtle hand offs any more. They pass money and drugs back and forth and then smoke them right there.

“The Only” has a great classic neon sign hanging over top of it with a sea horse lit up by tubes of blue and green gases. The bus to the coffee shop would pass by it every day and the sign would always look cool but it was hard to imagine eating at such a run down seafood diner.

It wasn’t till the Vancouver Sun ran short history of the building that I deemed it worth visiting and its great seafood was discovered. It had been an oyster bar in1911. That may have been when the last coat of paint was brushed on but you can still order a half a crab for eight bucks.

Men coming back from the Great War ate there in the twenties. A block up the street during the Depression out of work men organized at Carnegie Hall then marched down Hasting and on to Ottawa almost causing a revolution. In the 60’s broke draft dodgers ate soup here. That may have been its peak. ‘The Only’ seems to have been on a steady decline for the past 30 odd years.

A group of smelly punks that looked like they had been on a steady decline since birth ought to fit right in.

The bell above the door rings as I step in from the streets out front. ‘The Only” is a very small operation. There are two small curved lunch counters with maybe six stools at each counter and two small booths that seat four each. It’s all in the space of an area the size of most newsstands. Sitting down at the lunch counter the tiny Chinese waitress brings me a cup of coffee, a menu, and smiles at me as if to thank me for coming down to the troubled downtown eastside to spend money.

It’s already ten after two, which means that the Squeegees will be predictably late. Since they refuse to submit to any of societies stupid conforms including the concept of time it’s hard to gage when they will be here.

A creamer is poured drop by drop into my coffee. Each drop of coffee looks like a tiny cumulus cloud in a black coffee sky. With a spoon they are stirred away and the stirring is continued long after the cream is mixed together. Who knows much time is going to have to be killed waiting? I order a clam chowder.

The spoon scrapes across the bottom of the soup bowl and The Squeegees still haven’t arrived.

I flip through my notes on the band to prepare for the interview.

The Squeegees act like they have seriously damaged their brains by huffing glue which is what makes them brilliant.

They are four punks with three chords and maybe two nickels between them. Each of their songs are less than three minutes long not because they want to leave you wanting more but after two minutes you are ready for the next song. Every song is about some simple basic primal want.

They are notoriously under rehearsed so once it was a huge surprise to see them come onstage and place a set list at Johnny’s feet. They looked like they were trying to act professional for once. After the show I realized it was all a joke. The set list read “SEX, DRUGS, AND ROCK AND ROLL”

This basic template for a band doesn’t make The Squeegees any better or worse that the fifty or so other bands that scraped together some instruments and got a few gigs at the downtown eastside punks bars.

Any kid in the suburbs can get it together to form a band. The Squeegees got it together enough to form a brand.

While those other bands were listening to Ramones songs, The Squeegees listened to what made the Ramones great. Before they had even written any songs they changed their names to Jimmy Squeegee, Johnny Squeegee, Derrick Squeegee, and Ronnie Squeegee and designed a logo with a squeegee and a baseball bat crossed like a coat of arms.

They were all met at the corner of Main and Terminal, below the sky train, where they squeegeed car windows for pocket change. Johnny said that he used to make more money as a busker so he saved up enough money for buy a ukulele at a pawn shop. It was easy to learn and simple to carry and people laughed and gave him more money when he played punk standards like London’s Burning on it. People loved to see a big scary punk with a silly little guitar.

It inspired the other three and they were going to buy ukes themselves but Johnny knew if there were other ukulele punks it would ruin the novelty and put them all out of work. He convinced them all to buy other instruments and start a band.

The Squeegees were a marketing force from the beginning.

They hung out at the corner of Main and Terminal and very time the squeegeed a car they handed out a photocopy for the shows they were at. They started to make more money cleaning windows and soon every one with a car in Vancouver heard about this band. They started getting booked at more places. When a carload of kids drove by the kids, they went out of the way to give them some coins. Soon they were pulling in ninety dollars a day in pocket change.

To a nineteen year old kid that only wants a futon to crash on after he drinks himself sick that can seem like a lot of money. They rented a two bedroom slum for the four of them and spent the rest on the band.

They made two thousand stickers with the baseball bat and squeegee logo on it and sold them out at Main and Terminal for three dollars each with a complimentary windshield cleaning.
It made more people come to shows so after that they made another two thousand.
Once while a cop car waited at a red light Johnny slapped a sticker on it and then ran like hell.

The legend grew.

They sold enough stickers to get a thousand t-shirts silk screened and they sold all of them. After a few gigs and more Squeegee money they booked four hours of studio time. 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. when the time was the cheapest. They recorded twenty two songs and it clocked in at thirty six minutes. They pressed one thousand copies of an album called “self titled debut”.

After they paid for it they had to start cleaning windshields again right in from of the studio because they had spent every last penny and couldn’t even buy a 99 cent slice of pizza.

They sold every last copy and now the labels are interested in signing them.

The word on the street is that they are dragging out the process of getting signed because they want the label to take them to more dinners. Maybe this is why they haven’t shown up yet. They have gotten used to a higher standard of food than the The Only.

By three thirty its clear that they are probably not coming but some much time has already been invested that it’s hard to leave. From three thirty to three fifty I try and take some more note to prepare for the article. I fought like hell to pitch this story and now Janet Mah is going to scoop the music section from me.

There is nothing else about the band that can noted so soon the notes just descend into mindless doodles and amateur cartoons.

The cook staggers from the back freezer holding a giant grey halibut to his chest in a fireman’s carry and throws it down on the kitchen counter that is clearly visible from the lunch counter. He starts hacking into it with a cleaver like the fish owes him a great deal of money or slept with his wife.

There is no longer any reason to watch this. After two hours it’s time to take a stand.

If those guys don’t want a free bowl of clam chowder it’s their loss but I’m not waiting around any longer.

Outside the sky is a typical grey Vancouver overcast. The colourless sky clashes with garish red and yellow of the Chinatown storefronts. The sidewalk is crowded with produce that is rarely seen out side of this part of the city. Buckets of sea cucmbers. Plastic tubs of razor clams. What looks like an entire family of BBQ duck, descending on order of size hang in a shop window by their beaks. One man has small speaker and and a microphone and patters about his great produce in Chinese. Every now and then he throws in an odd English word like “John Wayne” or “ Big Mac” and it seems impossible to even guess what he might have been talking about.

From Chinatown it was a sharp right turn onto Main Street. The fact that these ungrateful little punks stood me up make me too mad to hop on the bus. It seems better walk the entire length of Main and burn off some of the anger.

At Main and Terminal I stopped for a minute or two and looked for the band. Maybe they were out working the intersection but they were nowhere to be seen. With the label wining and dining them talking to coffee server slash music writer is beneath them, so wiping bug innards off a Volvo must be out of the question.

The only evidence of their presence down at their old place of work is the fact that The Squegees stickers are plastered all over flat surface available. They are on newspaper boxes, the bus stops, even on the garbage can. The only place you didn’t see stickers was on the Starbuck located under the sky train tracks. Obviously they were slapped there but diligent employees peeled them off the corporate surfaces for a few dollars an hour.

The only other reference to the group was on one of the concrete pillars that held the skytrain track in the air. The pillar was scribbled all over like front of a high school student’s textbook. Mostly there were illegible graffiti tags with the letters twisted and bent into hip hop hieroglyphics but there was the occasional cuss work or anger fuelled political slogan like “Fuck you fucking pig cop.”

In the middle of this someone had written “EVEN IN HEAVEN JOHNNY CANT SQUEGEE THE TARNISHED HALO CLEAN” Assumedly this was from a Squeegee’s song.

It seemed a bit maudlin for Squeegees lyrics. Most of their lyrics began with phrase I WANNA and then something involving drugs, sex, or maybe rocking.

Maybe they were trying to reach a larger audience if they were going to get signed to label.

Maybe should take advantage of national distribution pull in some of that disposable teenage girl income.

Maybe I’m just grumpy because they didn’t show up.

From terminal I hike up Main. It’s a long slow haul up a steeply grade hill to Broadway and the street gets trendier as the altitude increases. The shops change from industrial suppliers to cafes that serve vegan food and play industrial music. At the corner of Main and Broadway there are three espresso slash internet joints on four corners of the intersection.

Standing outside of the coffee shop on the left side of the street is Graham. He is pulling on a cigarette like a doctor told him he didn’t smoke he might die. Graham works the espresso bar there and when I’m buying coffee, we share stories about the idiot customers at our prospective coffee jobs. He probably has some other ambition but he hasn’t told me what it is yet.

He is wearing a black squeegees T shirt and it makes him look like he has a bit of a belly.

As I walk towards him Graham gives me a bit of a nod in acknowledgement as a way of saying hello.

“Nice shirt” I say

“It’s a bit of a tribute,I guess."

“Those guys are a pack of jackasses”

“What?” Graham looks at me wide blinking eyes. He seems at in disbelief like I just walked up to him and punched him in the nose and he is trying to decide how to react.

“I was supposed to you interview those dicks today at The Only and they never showed up. I just sat around at the dive for two hours. Selfish asses.”

Graham keeps staring at me with a look of confusion. He never appeared to be such a squeegees fan but it doesn’t look like he likes any criticisms of them. He raises his cigarette to his mouth, stops and pauses like he is about to say something, changes his mind and takes a drag and then says “You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Johnny Squegee is dead.”

1 comment:

Chris W said...

Good stuff, Ben! I want to read this book.

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