Bittersweet memories

I wanted so badly to be able to play the drums. I tapped my fingers incessantly on the desk at school to the current song of the day, until I was sent into the hall for being a distraction. I did the same during lunchtimes at home, though I dared not do it at supper for fear of upsetting my dad. And though my mom put up with her “fidgety” son, it was dad who wanted me to be a drummer. In fact, the only concert he ever took me to was at the Winnipeg Concert Hall in 1973, for a glorious evening with Buddy Rich and his big band. We had 2nd row seats, and I was completely transfixed the entire show. And when it was over, Dad went up to the stage and boldly asked a drum tech for a souvenir stick. I still have it.

Shortly after, Dad allowed me to set up my blue sparkle Coronets in the living room for the purpose of regaling my visiting grandmother with Rich’s Dancing Men, some 7 minutes of impossibly fast jazz, played to the record on a very 70s style consul stereo. My properly Mennonite Grandmother had never heard such a bombastic cacophony, and along with most Mennonites of her day would likely have deemed it “devil music”. But she survived and never held it against me. To this day I think Dad had his own reasons for subjecting her to this.

My sister Bonnie wanted to learn guitar, so just after her 13th birthday she got a shiny blue electric guitar for Christmas. I was over-the-moon happy for her, until I opened my present… a table top hockey game. I was devastated, but got over it when Bonnie allowed me to play her guitar. Nothing could, or would ever compare to the gift of rock & roll! She hadn’t wanted an electric one anyway, and for the short period of time until it was traded for an acoustic, I got to play with it. Two long years later it was my turn, and when I saw the blue sparkle Coronets in the living room on Christmas morning in 1972, well, all was forgiven!

I practiced, and I practiced, and practiced some more. I played before breakfast, when I came home for lunch, and for hours every evening. It consumed me until it became my identity. I had drums. I was a drummer.

In the fall of 1974, Harold Sokyrka, a representative of the United Conservatory of Music knocked on our front door, offering lessons in guitar, piano, and accordion. I stood behind my dad, listened to the pitch, and proudly nodded when Dad said “My son is a drummer”. Harold looked at me and said “We don’t teach drums, but have a combo program that needs a drummer. If you are interested, there would be no charge”. He said just the right thing. The following Sunday afternoon, Mom drove me to the rehearsal space at 883 Notre Dame, and I met the guys who I would play with for the next 4 years — Allan Barrett, Joe Castellano, John Vagi, and Mark Brooks… collectively, “Phase 5”.

The Conservatory hosted an annual music competition, and in 1975 it was held at the Winnipeg Convention Centre. Phase 5 both competed, and “entertained” in one of the ballrooms.

We also competed as members of a concert band, my favorite part of the weekend. Guitars, bass, accordions, 5 singers… and me, at the middle of it all. We played a medley of 60s hits, ending with “The Night has a Thousand Eyes” by Bobby Vee. We finished to thunderous applause, and shortly after were presented with a grand champion trophy. It was one of my proudest moments as a young drummer. We celebrated like we’d won the Stanley Cup, and kids from the other groups (and their parents) came to congratulate us for our win. It was absolutely euphoric. The best of times.

We separated for the rest of that summer, and got back together in September, less Mark Brooks. We did add another guitar player for a short time, named Alex, but the core group remained Joe, Al, John, and me. No longer a 5-man group, we changed our name to “Bittersweet”. We rehearsed on Sunday afternoons, alternating between Joe’s family home on Margaret Avenue in the North End, and our home on Riel Ave in St. Vital. We played a few gigs including an Italian christening, our manager Clark Tauber’s wedding, and a disastrous appearance at Manisphere in front of Winnipeg Arena, where my snare broke on the very first song.

Our most memorable gig was a teen dance at Hedges Junior High in St. James. We pulled out all the stops. We rented lights - 2 banks of 3 (red, blue & green). We had two washtubs packed with dry ice, and some fans to blow the “smoke” over us for the requisite playing of Smoke on the Water. I think we even had a strobe light for my drum solo. Joe unbuttoned his shirt to expose his unusually hairy chest and his gold chains. He had naturally curly brown hair; a younger version of fellow Italian Gino Vanelli, and was the sole vocal, and focal point, of the band. Al occasionally made a song introduction, but John and I remained silent. It was no different on this night.

Then it happened. A small group of girls were staring at me, and in between songs started a chant along the lines of “Say Something! Say Something!”. I waved at them and we played another song. Then another chant. “Say Something! Say Something!”. It was surreal. Joe handed me the mic, and all I could think to say was “Uh, hi”. They exploded into cries of “Oh my God!” (I swear I am not making this up.) For that one moment in time, in June of 1975, I was at once a rock star and sex symbol. By the time we left I had received a proposal or two, lost all the buttons on my shirt to my “fans”, lost several pairs of drum sticks, and almost lost Ken Haller’s cool lumberjack jacket, which I had borrowed to look even more cool than I apparently was. The boys had to pull me into the van while I pulled the jacket back from a fan. It was a Beatles moment I will never forget!

But as they say, what goes up must come down. At our next gig at my junior high alma mater, My drum solo was augmented with a super-cool flip toss of my drum sticks to an adoring crowd, after which I played with bare hands. Following lukewarm applause, a young lady asked for my attention. “You dropped these” she said, and gave me back my sticks. And so the memories, like the band, were Bittersweet.

In the years since, I have reconnected with Al, who Olivia affectionately calls “Uncle Al”, and Joe, the North End Italian Stallion who has settled in of all places, Winkler, Manitoba. I’ve lost track of John, however I still think of these guys as my brothers. And I’ll never forget the night we were The Beatles.

A collection of life stories, and thoughts.