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Storytime: The Bottle & Can Concerto

As regular visitors know, I’ve been posting some short-short stories here at 27th Street. These are all part of a series of pieces I call The Lazy Allen Stories. They’re set, or at least they’re being told in 1982 in Toronto, and they’re all stories involving a couple former musicians, Lazy and his younger friend Staashu, who work together in a bottling plant. These are works of fiction; I made them up, and so any similarities to any real people living or dead are purely coincidental.

I’ve received some encouraging feedback from the previous stories, so here’s one more….

The Bottle & Can Concerto

From the first day I walked into the Bottle & Can I became fascinated by the rhythm of production.  I suppose all those years playing music for a living, I was extra-sensitive to the relationships sounds have with one another, but I know to most people it was just factory noise.

That first day, I was taken prisoner by the rattling, banging, chugging, sucking, clanging, dripping and popping – so many rhythms and exotic melodies dancing across the expanse of the plant. These sounds, by-products of the work-a-day task of producing sugary beverages, took on their own life in my imagination.

Chook chika chooka cheeka chook chika chooka cheeka
Chookita chika chooka cheekita chookita chika chooka cheekita
Chook chika chooka cheekita chook chika chooka cheekita
Chookita chikita chooka cheeka chookita chikita chooka cheeka
Chickita chookita chookita chookita cheekita chookita chookita chook.

This became the basic background track for my years at the Bottle & Can.

Different areas of the plant added in different sound colours to the main bottling rhythm – the silo in-feed, bottle discharger, filling, cleaning & recycling, the air transfer conveyer. Add the cascades over at rotary rinse, the vacuum whir at blow-moulding, not to mention the rolling and tumbling un-scrambler and the satisfying thumpa-thump of cardboard boxes over in packaging.

At times I became lost in that symphony of sound. Most of the men and women working the line blocked it out or simply stopped hearing it after a while, but I never did. When I wasn’t shooting the shit with my buddy Staashu across from me on the line, I made up dozens of melodies in my head over the complex and incessant soda-pop rhythms.

And then, when we least expected it, the line would stop and the rhythm would disintegrate into a groan punctuated by discordant industrial spasms, and then silence. Total silence. Even those who had long ago stopped hearing the magic rhythms of the line were taken aback by the intensity of the silence when it all shut down.

A stoppage on the line meant a break for everyone, save the mechanics crawling around the system to jimmy belts into place or clear bottle-jams, but it left us restless. It just didn’t feel right not being surrounded by the pulse, the heartbeat of the operation.

Late at night, long after Ruby’s Public House shut its doors, I’d go down to the basement of my bungalow, down to the music room I created long ago out of what was once my parents’ rec room and home bar, and I’d sit amongst my accordions and concertinas and button boxes, my Vox Continental electric organ, my battered old drum kit, stacks of old tube amps, and assorted other instruments I’d accumulated back in my past life. I’d pull the big accordion onto my shoulders and I’d try to imitate the rhythms of the plant with my left hand, and when I got it right, when I could feel the pulse, I’d try to remember those melodies I made up while working the line.

I’m an old polka-man but these weren’t polkas. They weren’t pop tunes either. They weren’t jazz exactly. What the hell were they? Work songs? Factory music? I didn’t think much about it. I just tried to play them the way I imagined them.

I finally saved up a little dough and in 1980 I bought myself one of those 4-track cassette porta-studios and enough egg cartons to staple over the plywood panel walls. I started thinking of my basement retreat as the studio instead of the music room. I began recording The Bottle & Can Concerto, and until today I haven’t told a soul.

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