Three Hilarious Books, a Miles Davis Tale, and more…

June 21, 2015


(Originally published on February 28, 2011)

THIS TIME: Greg Godowittz, Dave Bidini, The Rheostatics, Paul Quarrington, Porkbelly Futures, Miles Davis, Donald K. Donald, Kendel Carson, Chip Taylor, Peter Karp & Sue Foley, Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, Roseanne Cash

Such an old-fashioned pursuit, reading

A few years back, I taught a course at Toronto’s Harris Institute called Music & Media, and I soon discovered that hardly anyone in any of the classes I spoke to had ever read a book about music.

However, since we’re grown-ups here, I feel safe in recommending three amazing autobiographical books about music that will widen your horizons. Warning: Do not read these on public transportation, since laughing like an idiot on the bus causes people to react nervously. 

TRAVELS WITH MY AMP, by Greg Godovitz (2000). He’s Canada’s rock and roll bad boy, a man with a thousand groupies, a mountain of drugs, and a hallowed name in Canuck rock circles.  Amazingly, Godovitz is a still-active rocker who screwed up more opportunities than most people get in two lifetimes, and survived to laugh about them all.

Travels With My Amp tells tall tales and outrageous stories of substance intake, carnal relationships and the early characters who built Canadian rock and roll. Did you know thatRay Danniels used to be a roadie, and that the late Barry Harvey (who later managedGord Lightfoot for years) had a long run with Goddo and Fludd in his youth?

Oh, sure, the book needs a rewrite, some updating, more spell-check and a good editor, but there are apparent plans — next year — for an E-Book version. Meanwhile, it’s a great Christmas present for folk who are not easily shocked.

ON A COLD ROAD, by Dave Bidini (1998)

Dave Bidini is passionate about music, hockey, and Canada, and this ground-breaking book of rock and roll stories manages to combine all three with grace and humour. On the road for the first time, he discovers that others have been before him — he’s amazed by the signed 8X10s of now-forgotten bands he sees in bars in Wawa and Goose Lake and Saskatoon, and — years later — he collects their stories.

Those old road stories merge effortlessly with his own tale, as The Rheostatics find themselves opening for The Tragically Hip, and inhabiting dressing rooms in arenas — or should one say Hockey Shrines? — from one end of the country to the other. His book thus cleverly covers Canadian music history, hockey, and the story of the band he helped start as it begins to dissolve.

Since a couple of my own tales are included, I should mention a conversation I had a year ago when I spoke about his latest music book, Around the World in 57½ Gigs.

“A better book,” I told him, “but not as funny as On a Cold Road.” “Ah, he responded, “that’s because there are none of your stories in it.” I’m not sure whether that was a compliment.

CIGAR BOX BANJO: NOTES ON MUSIC AND LIFE, by Paul Quarrington (2010)

Paul Quarrington was a musician — the frontman of Porkbelly Futures — but much better known as a novelist. His best-known book, Whale Music, was loosely based on the story of a sandbox-lost Brian Wilson. Published in 1998, it was later turned into a movie — and the Rheostatics performed the soundtrack.

Cigar Box Banjo was originally a book about the music that Quarrington loved, but the publishers — while not rejecting it — turned it back and suggested he rewrite it with a more personal slant.

He certainly did that — in May 2009 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that became part of the book. Despite the grim medical verdict (“You have Stage 4 cancer, there is no Stage 5”) that colours the story, Quarrington is dry, wry, funny and only occasionally angry at the cards he was dealt.

There’s a wonderful sampler CD with the book — one of the other things he did in his last eight months was finish a solo record, complete a documentary, and tour with his band. And the funniest, saddest song he recorded is here: “Call Jim” is a scratch demo, almost a ragged rehearsal. As it stumbles to its end, Quarrington shouts “Perfect!” — and he died three days later, in January this year.

Postscript: A few weeks ago, I heard Porkbelly Futures at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. His old band-mates — Martin Worthy, Chas Elliott, Stuart Laughton, Teddy Leonardand the wondrous Rebecca Campbell — pay their respects, but have made the transition to become a band of their own. Paul Quarrington’s musical and literary legacy is alive and well, and we can all laugh with him, even though he’s not here to hear us.


It was the first Miles Davis concert in, if memory serves, six or seven years. It is January 27, 1974, and for some reason lost in the mists of time, I am the innocent promoter of this “comeback” show at Massey Hall in Toronto.  Every single seat in the place — including those behind pillars at the back of the top balcony — has been sold. The stage is covered with huge Marshall stacks — painted in Jamaica’s national colours — and there are clean white lines of a powdery substance, neatly arranged on top of them.

And Mr. Davis has not shown up, although the show was due to start 20 minutes ago. The nervous promoter — no, not nervous: shit-scared — is on stage, suggesting to the 2700 people in the hall that good things come to those who wait. As he does so, he looks down; the seam of the left sleeve of his suit has split; the sleeve is about to come completely loose. Losing his train of thought — or speech — he stumbles off stage, just as Davis and his band come in the stage door, hand him their coats, and walk on stage.

Later, the limo does not arrive, and I am forced to give him a ride in my rusting Toyota back to his hotel.  “So,” he says in his sandpaper whispery voice. “How much is this car worth?” I mutter that I had an old one as a trade in, and paid $2,000 for this one.

“Cool. So if I give you two grand can I take this car?”

Gently, politely, I refuse.

The next night, due to perform for Donald K. Donald at Place des Arts in Montreal, he fails to show up at all, apparently claiming illness. That’s a story that would have worked better had not Donald spotted Davis on television in the front row of a Cassius Clay fight at Madison Square Gardens.

I’m glad Miles Davis didn’t drive my car down to New York, and I’m sorry Donald had to disappoint a sold-out crowd. And he told me, years later, that he never got his deposit back.


Video of the Week:


Kendel Carson

One of the best fiddle players on the Canadian scene shares a distinctly European video with her mentor, Chip Taylor, who wrote the song — another ambiguous piece that raises questions about the relationship between a beautiful young woman and an older man.  Taylor, of course, wrote “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing”