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The High Life

 

by

Jim McDonald

 

 

My lucky sticks. Had em since 1974, when I toured Northern British Columbia with The High Life. Not a bad name for a band. The High Life. Leo’s band. Leo Van Spronsen: Dutchman, hack guitarist, and con-man.

 

So, Leo sells some bullshit story to a Vancouver booking agent, and lines up six weeks of gigs. Now he needs a band. That’s the kind of guy he is, books gigs without a band.

 

Suitcase and I meet him at a jam on Hastings. Suitcase plays bass and I play drums. Leo asks us to join his band. Three weeks later, we’re on the road. High Life’s the Name - Rock & Roll’s the Game. We play Stones, Beatles, Elvis, Chuck, CCR, and lotsa rockin blues.

 

The gig pays 250 a week, with free rooms. OK bread for 1974. Suitcase plays in his band, but he can’t stand the guy. Calls him Leroy Van Spricken. Leroy.

 

*

 

Our first gig is Burns Lake, B.C., at the Alaska Way Cabaret. Nice ring to it, the way it rhymes: Alaska Way Cabaret. Owner Jack VanOort, another Dutchman. We are in like flint. The people like us cause we rock. VanOort keeps us on for three extra weeks, over Christmas and New Years. Five weeks in all. We settle into small town life. At the liquor store they call us by name.

 

Suitcase hooks up with Mona, half native, the eighteen-year old cook. I meet blonde Krista Van Kamp, married, lives out in the sticks. Leaves her husband, and moves into our hotel, The Tweedsmuir. Hangs out with our band. While we’re in town, she’s my girlfriend. Livin’ the High Life.

*

 

Our next gig is The Frontier Inn, Fort St. John, land of the New Totems. The new totems are the high oil towers all over the frozen land. The oilmen, bored out of their skulls in the barren oil fields, go nuts when they get to town. Throw their money around, drink like fishes, hire hookers.

 

One night a couple of young girls tell us they love our band. Groovy. One sits on my lap, gyrating her money-maker, trying a little too hard to turn me on. I see on her forehead a tattoo: a Christian cross. Weird. Reminds me of Charles Manson’s Swastika.

 

“Hey, Drummer Boy, why don’t we go to your room after?” I don’t say anything.

 

“What’s your room number?” It comes to me: She’s a hooker.

 

“Gonna buy us a drink?” I go: I’m broke. Suitcase goes: I borrow from him.

 

She’s mad. “Oh yeah? Y’know, your band stinks, anyway. Drop dead, jerkoffs!”

 

Leroy is pissed. “Hey! Dere dey go. Two horny chicks...”

 

Suitcase goes: “Leroy, you numbskull. They’re hookers. Can’t you tell?”

 

Leroy rolls this idea around, and goes, “So what? What could dey cost? What duh hell?”

 

Suitcase goes: “Go ahead, Romeo. Pick the Manson girl. She’s a sweetie. No disease there, right? And after she finds out your room number, no one will break into it while you’re on stage. Whores are very trustworthy. Right, Leroy?”

 

Fort St. John is a hellhole. We rock on to Kitimat, Prince Rupert, and Terrace.

 

Reelin and a-rockin, rollin til the break of dawn. People follow us from town to town.  They lay dope on us: pot, blow, amanita shrooms. Sex and drugs and rock and roll.

 

Livin the High Life.

 

But we have no gigs lined up after Terrace. We call our agent in Vancouver every day. Any gigs? Any gigs? Ant gigs yet? He’s got dick.

We limp out of Terrace with no gig, no home, no bath, and no bed. Where to go? How about Burns Lake? Mona and Krista. Maybe someone will put us up.

 

*

Leroy drives through a mountain blizzard. Suitcase and I huddle in the back under piles of blankets, drinking beer, and smoking blonde Lebanese hash.

 

In Smithers a neon sign flashes, “Live Bands - Six Nights!” Leroy slams on his brakes, skids on the ice, hops the curb, and just misses a parking meter.

 

Suitcase yells: “What the hell?”

 

Leo goes: “Look. Read duh sign. Live Bands.”

 

“So?”

 

“So, we go in, and say we’re duh band.”

 

“That’s stupid. What if the real band shows up?”

 

“Look, it’s snowing. Dey might not show up. I’m goin in.”

 

I follow Leroy to the hotel desk. Leroy goes: “We’re duh band.”

 

The fat desk clerk narrows his eyes: “Are you The Gem Tones?” He points to a poster on an easel. It says: “Dance to the Rockin’ Rhythms of the Fabulous Gem Tones. One Week Only!” A picture of the band shows four ugly short-haired guys in red shiny coats with black lapels.

 

We are not the Gem Tones.

 

As I leave, I hear Leroy still trying to convince the guy: “What a mistake. Our agent called us. He said we’re booked. We’re The High Life.” Blah-blah-blah.

 

Back in the van, I down half a beer. Suitcase looks at me sideways: “Dick?” Yeah.

 

Leroy gets in the van. Suitcase taunts him: “Hey, Leroy. How much we getting paid? Do we get the penthouse suite? Where we going now, Leroy? Got any more bright ideas, Brian Epstein?”

 

Leroy turns up his radio.

*

 

At 4 a.m. we stagger into the Tweedsmuir Hotel in Burns Lake.

 

The desk clerk Ralph slaps two keys on the counter, and we gotta pay for them. What a drag, to have to fork over folding cash for the same rooms ya had before, free of charge.

 

Ralph tells us the new band is upstairs. They call themselves The Hive.

 

Suitcase goes: “Those bastards are up in their goddam free rooms.”

 

The next day in the café, we meet The Hive’s drummer, Jacko, and lead guitar, Wally. Their rhythm guitar is asleep. He never gets up til the sun goes down. They are just kids, about 19-20 years old. They start guzzlin brewskies early in the afternoon. Waiting for their bass player to arrive from Saskatoon.

 

At nine, an hour before first set, we zip over to the Alaska Way Cabaret. Mona, Krista, and the owner, VanOort, are all smiles and hugs.

 

Suitcase goes: “Hey, man, that new band is shit. Ya gotta fire them, and hire us.

 

Leroy goes: “Duh equipment is right out in duh truck.”

 

VanOort waves us off: “No, No, Boys. This new band, The Hives, is under contract for two weeks, eh? Their sheet says they’ve been around, y’know. Played Saskatoon, there.”

 

Suitcase goes: “Whoop-de-do!”

 

At nine-thirty The Hive buzzes in, still missing a bee, their bass player. Suitcase is on stage in a wink. Talks to Jacko, shakes his hand, returns to our table, and goes: “Their bass player is out. They hired me. I know most of their songs. I’ll fake the rest.”

 

The Hive’s first song is “Release Me,” by Engelbert Humperdinck. Sad, sad, sad. They sound like a Legion Band. They wouldn’t know a rock song if it jumped up and bit their ass. No one dances. People sit there with sour faces, and leave after one drink. VanOort tears his hair out. The drummer is drunk, keeps dropping his sticks. The singer can’t sing, the rhythm guitar stands with his back to the audience, and the speakers buzz. After the set, Suitcase unplugs his bass, and climbs on a barstool. “Bummer, man. What a downer. I quit. I need a beer, a shot, a zombie.”

 

Now they have no bass player, but they tell VanOort, “Don’t worry, man. We’re professional enough to play without one. No problem.”

 

VanOort takes them into his office. After five minutes, he comes back. “OK boys, I fired em, eh? Get up there. You’re my new band.” What a break! I almost smile.

 

We play a helluva set. The stage is our home. We are tight after all those weeks on the road. The people jump up and dance. Phone their friends, and by last set, the joint is half-full. The guys from The Hive don’t take it hard. I guess they know they suck.

 

VanOort hires us for two weeks. He calls the Tweedsmuir, and tells them to give us our rooms back, free of charge.  That night, after two, we down victory drinks with Mona and Krista. And when we kick open the door of the Tweedsmuir Hotel in triumph, with girls and booze, we do not have to fork over any folding cash to Ralph.

We are back in the High Life.

 

 

2002