UFO

It was pouring rain, and dark. There was a gap in the driver's side wiper blade that messed the windshield in a way that forced me to squint a bit. Larry Carlton's "Room 335" was blasting on the car stereo - the perfect driving song in the early eighties. It was around nine, on a weeknight and I was on my way to play a club in the valley. There were no cars ahead of me on the freeway. There hadn't been for a while. No tail lights to follow through the downpour.

As I rounded a corner I saw moving lights in the sky up ahead. They were above an upcoming overpass - off to the side, not over the freeway. I slowed and saw that the lights seemed to be connected in a line and ... I pulled over.

 An internet-procured photo of something similar to the thing I saw

An internet-procured photo of something similar to the thing I saw

I got out of the car and stood in the rain, staring.

When I was eleven years old I was the editor of a newsletter called "The UFOEO Reporter". It was printed on the mimeograph machine at James Douglas Elementary school, thanks to Mr. Capon, the kind-hearted principal there. UFOEO stood for "Unidentified Flying Objects Enthusiasts Organization". There were about 15 members of the group, and none of them were in Vancouver, where I lived. They were also UFO enthusiasts, from places all around the world, and most of them had newsletters of their own. The idea was to report UFO activity in our locals and share the accumulated news through the mail by way of these hand-made publications.

I was also the youngest member of the "Vancouver Area Flying Saucer Club". My Mom and Dad took turns driving me to meetings in Kits, and I was warmly welcomed by an eccentric group of truth-seekers who thought I was just the cutest thing - until the night I stood up and mockingly questioned a presentation about two Australian boys and their suspicious close encounter of the third kind. 

I was a curious kid and often drawn to themes that called from the fringes of accepted science. UFOs played a large role, but if the topic could be found in FATE Magazine (used copies of which were available at Ted's Book Bin, on nearby Fraser street) I was determined to remain open-minded about it. Open-mindedness was a badge of honour for me in those days.

The string of lights seemed to be circling around something, or to be attached to something that was circling around. The object floated, or "hovered" as UFO folks used to say, above the overpass - occasionally lilting slightly, as though suspended from a string. There was no sound. The rain soaked through my coat as I stood on the highway shoulder watching the lights going around, and the UFO going nowhere. It was about the size of a quarter held at arms length, but I couldn't sort out a dependable sense of scale. The rain didn't help. 

Despite my youthful immersion in UFO culture, my first thoughts focused on a terrestrial explanation. I tried to imagine a balloon with lights tracing around it, and how big it would have to be if it was tethered to, or controlled from, the overpass. I was surprised to realize that the theoretical balloon would be roughly the width of a car. If this was an elaborate prank involving a very large prop, I thought, why pull it on a night like this? It was past nine on a weeknight, there was no traffic to speak of and it was raining hard. 

Fate Magazine was a small format pulp magazine that dealt with UFOs, psychic abilities, ghosts and hauntings, cryptozoology, alternative medicine, life after death, mental telepathy, ancient astronauts, and, as Wikipedia goes on to say; "other paranormal topics". I was into all of that. My open mind was often strained, as it was at that final "Vancouver Area Flying Saucer Club" meeting (I'm sorry Mrs. Beaton), but I valiantly attempted to know the unknown and stay abreast of, or even a few steps beyond, an unfolding future. 

A car pulled to the shoulder behind me and the driver got out. 

"What is that?" he called to me. 

I grinned in the dark at the idea that he expected a useful answer. I had been thinking, when he arrived, that if it wasn't right above the overpass and actually further away, it was very large. If it was a mile away, it was huge.

"A UFO, I guess." I called back. 

The object began to move. Slowly it moved off to the south and, although it was hard to be sure, away from us. Soon it disappeared beyond the tree-line - either descending or getting further away - it's lights still tracing at the same speed. 

As the night seemed to darken, buddy laughed awkwardly, said goodnight and got back into his car. He pulled away. Maybe it lasted five minutes all together. Maybe longer, I don't know. 

Music began to overtake my interest in the paranormal. Alternate realities, real or unreal, were becoming increasingly inconsistent with the world I needed to live in. Also, some of it was starting to scare the shit out of me. I sold my paranormal library for $30. I bought forty-fives with the money. I started singing in a band. 

I always believed that in exploring the unknown and otherworldly, I was learning about unfolding truths that would soon become self-evident to the world at large, and that much of what was called fringe science would be proven out over time and become real science. In the sixties, I was sure that proof of the existence of UFOs would arrive soon, and that we'd find out what they were and where they came from. Science would connect the dots and track down the facts. 

But it never happened. The evidence failed to arrive. 

So my trust shifted over time. Eventually, I came to agree with Marcello Truzzi, the founding co-chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, who said: 

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Or, put another way by the inimitable Christopher Hitchens; “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” 

I believe I still have an open mind. Where the truth is concerned, it's not over till it's over. 

I also believe I saw something hovering above a freeway overpass, out in the valley, one dark and rainy night many years ago. I'll just never be able to tell anyone, for sure, what it was. Which is OK with me. One last quote. My all-time hero; scientist, teacher, raconteur and musician Richard Feynman said this:
 
"I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong."
 
 
* I did not take a photo of the UFO. What I saw was similar to the internet-procured (and altered) shot above - only further away. About the size of a quarter, held at arm's length.

Trooper's 35th Anniversary

Trooper's first album was released 35 years ago, on July 1st, Canada Day, 1975. 1975 is the year the Vietnam war finally ended, and Sony first introduced Betamax video tapes - the first home videocassette tape recording format.

Bill Gates & Paul Allen wrote the first computer language program for personal computers in ’75 (and then went on to form Microsoft) and the two Steves were hunkered down in a garage in Los Altos, California, working on their first computer - incorporating Apple Computers the following year.

Jaws, The Towering Inferno and Young Frankenstein were box-office hits in 1975. Bruce Springsteen released his amazing third album, Born To Run, the film version of The Who's “Tommy” premiered in London and Saturday Night Live debuted on NBC.

As large stretches of time always do - it seems like an eternity ago - and it seems like just the other day.

Little Ramon and the Enduros

On November 22nd, 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was shot dead as his motorcade slowed round a bend in Dallas’s Deeley Plaza. A short month later, a British group called the Beatles released their double-sided single “I Saw Her Standing There/I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, initiating what would soon be called Beatlemania. Six months earlier on June 13th, at the onset of a seemingly endless Fraserview summer, I turned 13 years old.

Every man in the sprawling Fraserview housing project was a Second War veteran, the father of three or more children and the unwilling but not ungrateful recipient of a lower than average income. These were contracted conditions of the rental agreement. The houses in the project shared four identical floor plans. There were kids everywhere.

At the time, I was the singer for the Epics. The group’s guitarist, Brian Graham was my best friend. Derek Solby, a Killarney High School wunderkind, played the drums and Ken (Tarpaper) Hynds was the sax player. Gerry Andrews played a Fender Jazzmaster, and, with his guitar swung out of the way, the electric organ. It was Gerry who hooked me up with another group - a Fraserview soul band that would soon be called “Little Ramon and the Enduros”.

Gerry had signed on with the nine-piece horn band and had recommended me to replace their diminutive but muscular singer Fuji Forchuk. The remaining musicians were a hard-core crew of soul music fanatics in their mid to late twenties. The singer that preceded Fuji, and who had remained attached, talisman-like, to the band, was Rick Cameron - a quintessential James Dean greaser and a member of the notorious Bobolink Gang. I met with Cameron alone in his kitchen one afternoon to discuss my role in the band - tempering my adolescent admiration of his rebellious cool and juvenile delinquent fashion sense with wary respect and an abject fear that he was probably well accustomed to. It was hard for me to believe that these guys were giving me the time of day - let alone a spot-lit place at the front of their soul revue.

Brian Henderson, the lead guitar player was the fastest, coolest and funkiest player I’d ever known. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, sported a blonde pompadour and played a Fender Telecaster. He was Fraserview’s Steve Cropper. The band’s manager, a burly, hard-assed, unpolished lout, was the drummer’s father. He would occasionally visit us in his dungeon-like basement - where we practiced - and deliver what he thought were inspirational pep talks, in the manner of the Commitments’ Jimmy Rabbit - but lacking the conviction, passion and intelligence. It was this man who announced dramatically, when Gerry and I had finally tired of his two-bit tyranny and given our notice;

“Singers and Guitar players are a dime a dozen.”

Paul, the sax playing Sal Mineo look-alike, taught me ‘the Continental’ - the cool and casual step with which all the players shifted, in perfect rhythmic synch, from side to side - the pivot executed at the drop of the left foot, and then the right.

Fuji Forchuk stayed on to deliver a final unforgettable basement command performance, so that I would be clear about what was expected of me. Wearing a tight white wife-beater over his dark muscular torso, he moved with animal grace and sang ferociously. In the musty basement darkness, lit by a single bare light bulb, he jumped, shook, gyrated and, at one point, rolled on the floor. The band’s manager nodded in told-you-so approval. Fuji was the best.

I watched in hopeless appreciation and dismay, knowing that my thirteen-year-old feet could never fill Fuji’s shiny, black, and lightening-fast shoes. I was convinced I lacked the cool, the charisma and the menacing command of the stage that characterized Fuji and his band-mates, and I was probably right. I was thirteen, five-foot-eight, weighed 110 pounds and could not, for the life of me, get my mother-cut curly hair to stay molded into the essential pompadour position - despite liberal applications of my Dad’s Brylcream. Worse yet, I was a nerdy smart kid at school - I had skipped a grade only two years prior - introverted, socially awkward and nearly always afraid that guys like Rick Cameron were going to beat me up for sport. But for all that, no one in this new band seemed to notice, or care.

At home, alone in my room, I nervously dropped the needle onto a borrowed James Brown LP, ready to begin transposing lyrics and fleshing out melodies. The music filled the room and I was transported to a dark, wild and erotic alternate universe. This was not the clean-cut radio music I knew and loved. This music was dangerous and dirty - too passionate and overt for Fraserview. Songs like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me” - unashamedly over-the-top soul ballads - were unlike anything I’d ever heard. A week went by and I was emulating every note and emotional vocal scratch that came from the throat of the man soon to become the ‘Godfather of Soul’.

Singing with a full horn section blowing thick, sweet and menacing chords behind me was thrilling. Jumping on to, and riding, the careening guitar hook of “I’ll Go Crazy” was an exhilarating vocal adventure that was different every night. The tight, staccato horn shots punctuated the funky groove like syncopated rifle shots and kicked into my back as I sang.

I learned to dance - in a fashion. I did the Continental with the band at the appropriate moments. I lost myself in the deep soul groove. I may not have mastered Fuji Forchuk’s moves, and no one ever invited me to throw in with the Bobolink gang - but for a brief groovin’ moment in the long summer of 1963 I was Little Ramon, a soul singer unaffected by the cruel and clumsy teenage reality of his otherwise un-soulful world.

Above Alberta

(This is the introduction to my book, written on a plane on the way to our New Years gig at Reds in Edmonton.)

 

Jully Black closed her eyes and inched her lips toward the microphone. The first two words - the title of the song - seemed torn from a personal reverie ... surrendered unwillingly - as though her thoughts and emotions had boiled over and out of her mouth by accident, by mistake.

"Pretty Lady" she sang, and I let out an involuntary whoop.

"Here I am" she admitted, and other audience members gave it up. Spontaneous.

My nervousness turned to pride. Jully was singing the shit out of a song I wrote 40 years ago with my writing partner Brian Smith - and my wife and son and many of my peers in the music industry were there bearing witness. I grinned across the large round table - first at my family and then at Smitty. Debbie squeezed my leg.

After singing, Jully told the audience that her manager was a huge Trooper fan and had pulled strings to sit at the same table as us ...

"With God" she said.

She went on to describe our band as "honest-to-God Canadian legends". The crowd cheered as she called Smitty and I to the stage to accept our 2005 SOCAN Classic Awards.

Ann Lorie, who wrote "Insensitive" for Jann Arden, was also sitting at our table and had shed a few tears when accepting her award, but Smitty and I were too buzzed for sentimentality. We could feel a palpable connection with the music-biz crowd arrayed before us - many of whom had become friends and compatriots over the years. The evening's awards ceremony played out like a personal celebration of a long and successful career that continues to offer up the elusive rewards of adventure, challenge and straight-up fun.

I was proud to announce from the stage that night that my son Connor and I had just written our first song together. After the show, in Jully Black's dressing room, representatives of an independent record company approached Connor to talk about his music. He smiled and accepted their card appreciatively. Here he was, functioning comfortably in an environment that would have absolutely terrified me at eighteen.

I started singing in a band when I was twelve years old - five years younger than he is now. I recorded my first album 13 years later at the age of 25. I'm 55 years old now and have never had a real job. I've written hundreds of songs, performed thousands of shows and have traveled tens of thousands of miles - most of those back and forth across Canada. Trooper is as viable today as it was in the seventies when songs like "We're Here for a Good Time" and "Raise a Little Hell" were knocking down doors and serving as our invitations to the best party in town. In many ways our status has elevated recently to a place just south of legendary - where, for instance, total strangers embrace us as they would a favourite relative visiting from out of town. The party continues.

Trooper's first web site went online in 1996. Little Timmy Hewitt and I hacked together the html for 'Rev. 1' long before Google, eBay or Amazon.com had registered their now iconic domain names. I started my own personal site - they weren't called blogs then - not long after. I wrote about my life on the road and those things that someone unfamiliar with this kind of life might find interesting. I was surprised and encouraged by the enthusiastic response to that tentative and sporadically updated site, so, by the time Blogger launched their online interface, I had decided to maintain a semi-regular online account of a 53 year-old's rock and roll adventures.

This book represents the first three years of ramcguire.com. It was written in real time as journal entries. It has no beginning and no ending, but surprised me by telling more than a few seemingly complete stories.

It was written in airports and rented vans, on ferries and planes - in billet-rooms in remote high-north villages and luxury hotel suites in the heart of the Big Smoke. Some of it was dashed off quickly at four in the morning. Some of it might be more carefully considered than it needs to be. Often it reveals much more than I'd intended at the time. And sometimes, the story is fleshed-out by that which wasn't written down at all. Each entry came as a complete surprise to me - as did, of course, the unfolding events I was chronicling.

The SOCAN Awards were held in Toronto at the end of November. I'm writing this on a plane on the way to Edmonton Alberta on the last day of 2005. Our New Years Eve show tonight will be at Reds - a very large club in the West Edmonton Mall. It's going to be a total sold-out zoo!