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Hornby Island Memories

The Ringside

Autumn Leaves (3:20)

I’m just filling time, browsing a tattered memory bank. As close as I can recall, this writing began some years ago as occupational therapy, to save me from the tedium of old age, activate my indolent brain. The alternatives unpalatable; the prospect of joining a book club to read and discuss Oprah’s latest recommendation horrifying, expending my small store of energy on a stationary bicycle at Joe King’s health club exhausting or Bingo at the church hall too dangerous.

Country life has not featured prominently in my wanderings, the odd weekend visit to here or there. What could there be for me in this place that seems little more than a scattered village populated by educated yokels, a residual of Vietnam draft dodgers populating a cultural wasteland, where all the occupations utilising my limited skills have been taken. There’s already a photographer, and what need could there be for a jazz columnist, and it seems unlikely that there is an active free-improvising scene. More likely country and western or the Beach Boys greatest hits.

Being a small tight knit community information is telegraphed with alarming rapidity. Information being gathered from the postcards, often from exotic places, arriving daily at the Post Office – keeping in touch with the travellers; neighbours in the line-up at the check-out counter of the Co-op Store prattling away about who’s annoying who, friends sharing a coffee at the Ringside or the cafe at the Cove general store, and the regulars leaning on the bar of the Thatch Pub. All places where the locals congregate, perfect for passing on the abundant supply of rumours. So you’re that bloke from Toronto that’s come to live with Sheila eh?

Where I’ve come from this closeness is difficult to achieve, the urban sprawl ghettoising the populace according to their economic, cultural and ethnic status. But here many are already privy to the news of my arrival. A curiosity. Some even aware that in certain circles I’m internationally famous all over downtown Toronto.

As the weather improves the Ringside begins to flourish: a clothing store specialising in garments produced by local crafts people, a pottery shop displaying in its gallery the work of talented artisans, some with international reputations, two cafes and an ice cream vendor welcoming the gradually increasing throng of incoming tourists. On a bench in the shade of a tree is a shrubby emulating a time before she was born, attired in the guise of a hippy, her shoulder length dreadlocked hair wrapped in a colourful bandana, a tie-dyed dress, her feet fitted with Indian Buffalo sandals completing the illusion of a hippy paradise by three-chord strumming a Taiwanese knock-off of a Martin acoustic guitar.

The two approaching young men, one with a ruddy faced innocence about him and his carroty headed companion, neither of whom are familiar, waste no time with niceties, launching straight into: “Are you the saxophone player?” Confirmed. It’s two local lads, whose chosen instruments are harmonica and electric bass, inviting me to sit in that evening at a regular weekly jam session taking place at the Joe King Clubhouse. I’m surprised by their invitation, because back there in the city it would be unlikely that anyone outside of your immediate musical circle would take any interest in you at all.

Joe King Clubhouse

Misty (3:21)

Up the hill from the Ringside the walk along Central Road takes me past mysterious dirt and gravel lane-ways shaded by overhanging trees, leading to who knows what hidden treasures, and vaguely seen through the trees a glimpse of a building, the suggestion of a rose arbor silhouetted against the patchy light filtering through. A trek that one day soon I will make as a member of a marching band assembled from a mishmash of enthusiastic amateurs parading in celebration of the annual summer fair, repeatedly playing the abominable New Orleans warhorse “When The Saints Come Marching In”. An eclectic group with a handful of semi-naked dancers prancing about a procession whose rear guard sports a naked lady on a white horse. Our Lady Godiva is causing the local detachment of the RCMP, tailgating in their cruiser, some concern.

At the top of the hill is the tee-junction of Sollans Road, one corner the spacious grounds and buildings of the Community School and dominating the opposite corner the fairytale Hobbit-inspired structure of the Community Hall. A splendid building this, with its sod and cedar shake roofs, the walls clad in a 2” thick stack-wall veneer, with its superb acoustically perfect performance hall and for the more informal assemblies a cosy round room that also serves as the bar at dances and concerts.

Over the years preceding my arrival Sheila had often sent me newspaper clippings and photographs, among them a picture from the Globe and Mail, an advertisement announcing an art show by Jeff Rubinoff, a Hornby sculptor, at a well-known Toronto gallery which on the reverse had a blurb about one of my bands; and once a photograph taken of the bassist Dana Inglis masked and dressed in a ghoulish costume, entertaining the children in the entrance of the Hall at their Hallowe’en Night party. So not everything was a surprise.

Radiating out in a quadrant from the intersection is a cluster of public service facilities. Along Sollans Road, in a clearing accessed by a lane-way at the back of the Hall is the Doris Savoie Medical Clinic and Peter Walford’s dental bus, further along, up yet another lane-way, the Betty Smith Centre, home of the island’s fabricators and the New Horizons Society which also houses the public library.

Continuing along Central Road takes me past the cemetery where my old mate Jerry Pethick now resides. In a nearside corner stands a 3/4 life-sized bright blue plaster Madonna, a sentinel overlooking the hallowed grounds, grounds that are lovingly maintained as befits the departed. Then the maintenance buildings of the Highways Department yard and the Firehall. Quite a collection all told, everything one could need for the musically and artistically inclined, those poorly, the artisans, the literate, those who have travelled to the spirit world, and firemen who are specialists in putting out the dreaded chimney fires.

Across Central is a triangular mound with three trees: a fir, a cedar and an alder, whose forked twin path leads to a large open space and a pavilion of sorts: the headquarters of the Hornby Island Athletic Association and home to the Eagles baseball team, where my musical adventures are about to begin. I call it a pavilion for want of a better description, and although not of the grandeur of Lords where the English Test matches take place every summer with its elite members’ enclosure filled with the cricket aristocrats garbed out in their summer finery sipping at gin and tonic, Joe King does have a veranda looking out onto a baseball field.

Its perimeter is bounded by an eight foot high fence of hand-painted hoardings
publicising a cluster of builders, painters and their suppliers, two splendid cartoon backhoes, the services of the Ford Cove marina, a film-maker, a blacksmith banging on an anvil, a bakery that claims it has pizzas galore, our already mentioned dentist assuring good-for-life dental health, and a Co-op store we’re proud of. The centre-piece of the fence is a billboard for the Thatch Pub that promises a free jug of beer if a batter can hit a home-run ball 240 yards through the hole in the catchers glove. An unachievable feat.

I should have guessed as soon as I saw the door of the equipment shed, off to the side of the clubhouse entrance, what was in store for me. The door had originally been a plywood sign board for a gig featuring Joe Elvis and the Hornbees. Joe himself, an Elvis impersonator, was an educator from the lower mainland who summer’d on the island.

Once inside the building I’m confronted with a hotchpotch of dangerous looking characters, a couple whose fizzog’s would sit well on a wanted poster; long haired, pony-tailed, some with droopy moustaches, slow moving loggers perhaps, their tartan work shirts, lace-up boots, tee-shirts with a pouch of Drum tobacco stuffed up the sleeve, disguising their real personalities, soon revealed as an engineer, a cartoonist, a master builder, an agronomist, a plumber and the two young fellas from the Ringside. Kenny Fisher, a master builder, is the singer, with a repertoire of sixties popular songs including some by Elvis, and Steve Pacheco the odd job, who plays a single string washtub bass with the neck made from a broom handle, is the beer courier who, as the cans of Lucky are depleted, makes a run to the pub for another flat. Gord Bateman the guitarist, a spitting image of another Gord [Lightfoot], takes me under his wing, teaches me how to cover the bases with the information that all the songs are in the key of G and he’ll tell me when to go to bat. Not many of the songs are familiar to me, coming right out of left field, but that seems not to matter, there are no critics in the room, and the intention is to boogie until the break of day. Kenny, a baseball player who is known, at miscellaneous social functions, to be an orator of Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”, a poem that is as much a part of baseball as hot dogs, the National Anthem and the seventh-inning stretch, is also something of a songwriter, and his song, “The Albert J. Savoie”, inspired by the legendary old ferry boat of the same name, is an island favourite. An auspicious inauguration into the island’s musical fraternity allowing me to touch base with many who will become fast friends. All these years on and Kenny’s song still reverberates in my subconscious.

It was a rainy February night and the boys was makin’ merry
they spoke as one to seek the sun
so we commandeered the ferry
Now the nightwatch was a gentleman (he wasn’t there to fight)
He lost his grip and abandoned ship, so we sailed into the night.
Oh we’d never been to sea before, as neither man nor boy
When we made our way to Montego Bay on the Albert J. Savoie.
And the first week we was on the sea the Coast Guard cruised around
But with fog as thick as a freighters deck we never could be found
And the second week we was at sea we decked her out in fronds
We filled the hold with Tequila (gold) fresh coconuts and prawns.
Oh we’d never been to sea before, as neither man nor boy
When we made our way to Montego Bay on the Albert J. Savoie.
So now we lay-at-anchor on a mighty coral reef
We eat and swim and dance and sing (have women for relief)
And we don’t regret a moment of the new life that we’ve found
And we planted gardens on her deck (so’s our feet are on the ground)
Oh we’d never been to sea before, as neither man nor boy
When we made our way to Montego Bay on the Albert J. Savoie.

The Community Hall

Unremembered Title (4:22)

Back in Toronto, the imaginary “centre of the universe”, most of the gigs were self-promoted, presented in the unused basement room of a hotel or the back room of a hip café. The advertising was usually posters, primitively concocted with Letraset, photocopied as limited editions, stapled onto any convenient wooden hydro pole by band members tramping around in the horrible winter weather. Self help. As far as the local press were concerned we did not exist, or if they thought of us at all it was as charlatans, certainly not as pioneers of a developing art form. Recognisable tunes played by a local trad band or a corny imitative big band were more within their purview.

What a different world I found myself in here on the island, the need to boast of one’s abilities ridiculous, to exaggerate, trot out an impressive curriculum vitae, was now of no relevance.

Dana Inglis seemed to be at the centre of things, his intuitive bass playing in any musical style, be it folk, rock or jazz, and because of his musical innocence often inviting me to participate in music outside of my experience. Most of the bands I was being welcomed into performed popular ditties, their short simple tunes akin to brief annotations, uncluttered by too many adjectives, making it possible for me to join in as a reasonable facsimile.

Dark rainy days can have a way of inspiring action, releasing one from the doldrums, generating, as Le Sony’r Ra would have it, an evening of joyful noise. Once again the Joe King clubhouse takes on a special significance, with Sweet Thursdays extending into evenings of live music, the setting for a bizarre series of happenings under the direction of the ever present Dana. On the night preceding a group of us would congregate at Kenny’s house, up yet another dark lane-way, to casually rehearse the next days program. Kenny, our star singer, backed by the vocal chorus of three exuberant local ladies, an eclectic electric rhythm section plus two or three saxophonists, could after a couple of beers and a toke or two, cook up a show of pop tunes from the repertoires of the Beatles, Bob Marley, Elvis, James Brown and the odd blues number. Payment came in the form of free beer and the pleasure of entertaining an uncritical audience dancing the night away.









Bye Bye Blues (2:28)


End Notes:

The monochromatic photographs are from the archives of Bob Cain. His history of Hornby Island in images can be found at: http://www.rcainphoto.com

Colour photographs by William E. (Bill) Smith

The music is performed by the Easy 3 with Jan Steen clarinet, Ron Emerson guitar, Bill Smith drums. This band existed on Hornby for four or five years and initiated the legendary music nights at the Cardboard House Bakery, played numerous parties, weddings, dances and a variety of social events. The final appearance was on August 21/1999 at Emily Wetzel’s wedding reception in the garden of poet Carole Chambers.

The text is an edited version from Chapter 21 of “Rant & Dawdle [The Fictional Memoir of Colston Willmott] as Imagined by William E. Smith” available at the Vancouver Island Regional Library [VIRL] and for purchase at Amazon.