Artists That I Love - Episode 1 - John Gorka

When I started posting on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I blatantly stole Bob Cesca's routine of posting an interesting video as the first post of the day. He calls it "Morning Awesome" and I chose to call it that too. Hopefully, the fact that I'm hipping you to Bob's excellent political commentary site; "Bob Cesca's Goddamn Awesome Blog" will go some way towards earning his forgiveness - and help to avoid an ugly internets lawsuit. As if Bob knows I exist. Bob posts the vids right there on his site but, because of Twitter's 140 character limit, I can only supply a link and hope that my fellow twitterers will click through to what I want them to see. In my case, these are songs by favourite artists whose careers, for one reason or another, have played out somewhere slightly below the popular music radar. I've kept a list of all the links with the intention of sharing them here on my site, where an unlimited spew of characters is possible (and often, in my case, probable).

I've been experiencing an overabundance of mental disarray this week - with both taxes and an out-of-date contract rider calling for my undivided attention - so it took until last night to realize that I could probably embed the youtube videos the same way my good friend Bob does.

Once I learned how, I couldn't decide what song to post first, so I experimented with a random (but very sweet) video of two teenagers singing the first verse of a song I wrote forty years ago. Sarah and Kayla are the least well-exposed artists on my list, so they've turned out to be a very good place to start.

Today I'd like to present John Gorka, singing "Love is Our Cross to Bear" in what looks like someone's basement, but is probably a small club. Please notice his amazing songwriting and captivating voice.

If you like this one, check "Armed With a Broken Heart" and "Gypsy Life" - which contains one of my favourite observations on life as a gypsy: "People love you when they know you're leaving soon".

The Juno Awards


“How do you feel about winning the best group Juno?” I was asked.

“It’s fucking wonderful” I responded.

” ‘It’s wonderful’ said Trooper singer Ra McGuire at last night’s Juno Award ceremonies …” reported the Toronto newspaper headline the next day.

It has always annoyed me that I wasn’t quoted correctly. There is, of course, a HUGE difference between “fucking wonderful” and just “wonderful”.

The 2009 Junos took place in Vancouver tonight. I didn’t attend this year. Trooper has received seven Juno nominations - and won the “Best Group” award - but we’ve only attended twice. Once, in 1978, when we were nominated for “Most Promising Group of the Year” and in 1980 when we were up for both “Best Group” and “Album of the Year”.

We flew to Toronto for our first Junos when we were nominated for “Most Promising Group of the Year”. We arrived proudly in the Royal York ballroom which was decorated with large blown-up album covers of all the nominated artists, and saw that ours was the only cover that was, humiliatingly, conspicuous in its absence. The evening deteriorated further when the “Most Promising” award was presented to “The THP Orchestra”.

In 1978, we were one of five bands nominated for “Group of the Year”, but chose not to attend. Rush won that year. In 1979 we were nominated again for “Group of the Year” and we chose, again, to not attend. Rush won it again. In 1980, now simply following a comfortable tradition, we once again turned down the Juno organizer’s invitation to fly to the Toronto ceremonies. At first they tried to shame us into coming, which didn’t work. Finally, they broke down and told us that we were going to win at least one award. So we embarked on what was to become a great Trooper adventure that ended with, among other things, members of the band rolling, drunk and in white suits, in a Toronto hotel driveway with Burton Cummings. My personal most embarrassing Juno moment came that year when a young Vancouver friend shouted across a room filled with Canadian music-biz royalty.

“Ra McGuire!!” he shouted when he spotted me. “You’re BIG!!”

It’s funny that I still remember that. We’ve never returned to the Junos and, because the whole idea of them still makes me uncomfortably squirmy, I’ve only managed to watch them on TV two or three times in the intervening years. There have been a couple of occasions, however, when I would have enjoyed shouting back at Bryan Adams, who’s gone on to do quite well for himself.

I’ve had more to say about this (and other things) on Twitter. You can follow me, if you want, here.

White Rock BC - This morning

I’m watching a concert video of Prince from the 2004 musicology tour. I saw him on the New Power Generation tour, in the 90’s. Every vid I see of him he’s changed everything. The guy honestly must never sleep. His talent and energy are beyond belief. I’m simultaneously scoping t-shirt styles. Hmmmm. Hanes versus American Apparel. Spaghetti strap versus wider strap that hides the bra. You can see why I’m also watching the Prince vid.

New t-shirt design negotiated. New MacBook Pro ordered (after weeks of waiting impatiently for the announcement of the Penryn/multitouch upgrade), Time Capsule ordered (ships today, they say). Walking the boardwalk soon. Gentlemen of Leisure meet for lunch @ 1:00. Going into Vancouver with Connor tonight to see Jordan Carrier (Cozy Bones singer) at the Railway Club.

Connor’s Album

My son Connor has recorded his first album. It’s full of power, grace, poetry, honesty, and passionately performed music and singing. He wrote every note, every word. He created all the arrangements, played all the instruments (except the Cello, Viola and two violins on two of the songs), sang all the harmonies and wrote a large part of two string quartet arrangements. I helped him make the record, and so did Debbie. But, short of expressing our opinions when he asked us for them, we had nothing to do with the creation of his amazing songs.

I was nervous about the project from the moment we began talking about it. I wanted to help Connor make the record but I was conflicted. We work really well together and I’ve had a lot of experience with producing recording sessions - budgeting time, tending the vibe and generally keeping things running smoothly - and I could provide many of the services of a producer without the expense. But, I was concerned that my involvement might hurt as much as help.

A few years ago at a friend’s wedding, a drunk musician cornered Connor and belligerently chastised him for, essentially, being my son. He was angry that Connor had been given what he saw as an unfair, and undeserved, advantage in the music business. Connor was hurt and confused by the encounter, but I recognized a variation on a theme I had experienced when Trooper’s first album came out. Despite the fact that Randy Bachman, the guitar player from the Guess Who and BTO, had chosen to produce our band because of the quality of our songs and performances - we were often branded as his pet project and accused, repeatedly, of riding his creative coat-tails. Some people (including Randy in later years) even insinuated that Bachman had taught us how to write the hit songs we were performing when he first heard us.

Living in someone’s shadow diminishes the already minimal rewards of success. In Trooper’s case, our initial breakthroughs were seen by some as unearned. I didn’t like that, and didn’t want it to happen to my son.

Connor, Debbie and I talked it out. We agreed that I should help with the production of the record. Although I wanted to co-produce without credit, Connor insisted that my name be used in order to acknowledge the time and energy I had contributed.

While I was away, Connor and Debbie spent weeks preparing an application to “FACTOR” - the Foundation to Assist Canadian Artists On Record - an organization that awards talented songwriters and performers a sizable loan to help with recording costs. After months of waiting Connor was turned down. Although he received the highest marks for all categories related to the songs and their performances, they were apparently unimpressed with his “marketing plan”. So Connor took a loan.

My good friend, and award-winning engineer, Pat Glover signed on as part of the studio team. We recorded all the music, including the string quartet, at Whitewater Studio. We recorded all the vocals at home. We worked hard and conscientiously and had a great time making great music. We started in April and are days away from finished. There are two songs that Connor wants to re-mix and he’s been listening to them over and over in our upstairs music room that he wants to call “Liberty Studio”.

What I Did This Weekend

On Sunday, me, Connor and sound engineer extraordinaire Pat Glover settled into Whitewater Studio for an all day "Mic Shootout". We set up a collection of some of the best and most highly regarded microphones in the audio world and compared them, one to the other. It was a day of spectacular audio geekdom. We had an excellent time.

Connor McGuire @ The Wired Monk

Connor’s band, Anger and After, started to break up when their twenty-one year old drummer began devoting more time and attention to a twenty-something band with connections to a local recording studio. Just at the point where A&A had gig offers, he became double-booked - and chose the more mature band over his two seventeen-year-old Anger and After band mates.

Disheartened, Connor and Simon struggled through auditions. One young drummer brought his girlfriend and asked for a mid-audition break so he could smoke some pot. Another played, unaccompanied, the complete and extremely complex drum part from a Dillinger Escape Plan song.

With a new drummer failing to materialize, Simon became less and less committed to the idea of the band. He explained that his musical tastes were shifting toward more artistic and experimental music. One night he called Connor to say that he would be unable to attend the drummer audition planned for that evening because he was going to a concert by one of those artistic and experimental bands. Although the two of them had been best friends since grade six, their musical partnership ended that night.

Two years later, last Friday night, at a coffee shop in Crescent Beach, a standing-room-only crowd listened intently as Connor, acoustic guitar balanced on his lap, described one of the first songs he had ever written.

“I’ve revamped the chords a bit, but the words still suck.” he said, grinning.

Then he called his friend Simon to the stage to sing the song with him.

From the moment he said; “Hi, I’m Connor McGuire, I write my own songs”, he had the young, and usually fidgety, audience in complete pin-drop-quiet control. He played for an hour - just him and his guitar - interspersing his amazing songs with charming and engaging banter. The crowd cheered, whooped, whistled and hollered after every tune. He completely owned.

Just two years after the collapse of his first rock band, Connor has returned to the stage with a completely new, and improved, version of himself. He’s written a collection of heartbreakingly powerful songs - each new one better than the last. He’s taught himself finger picking and has profited from the classical guitar lessons he took. His singing has become natural and unaffected and his vocal phrasing amazes me.

Connor’s show at the Wired Monk on Friday was a watershed in his music career. He’s proven to himself that he can do this by himself. What he did on Friday can be replicated successfully on any stage anywhere.

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.

The Edmonton Show

It was raining and dark at the Edmonton airport. The ground transportation was late arriving, and the van sent for the gear was too small. Dave and Mikey waited another hour for a larger one to arrive. Everyone was in great spirits - undaunted.

My 3:00 PM TV interview, conducted in the lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel with Edmonton’s Graham Neil, went well, and as a surprise bonus, Graham informed me that it would also be aired on ‘E-Talk Daily’ - nationally.

Our show was scheduled for 6:30. All of us knew that this was way too early. It continued to rain heavily. Everyone remained in great spirits - undaunted.

In the dressing room, Dave reminded us to wipe our feet on the pile of towels at the top of the stage stairs to minimize the risk of electrocution. When we arrived on the stage - set up facing the night club’s parking lot - we were greeted by no more than fifty people, huddled under beer-branded umbrellas intended to shade the sun. Two brave, jacket-less girls danced enthusiastically, in the pelting rain, in the open space in front of us.

Everyone was in great spirits - undaunted. It was our best show in months.