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Squeeze Box Man Commentary (part 4)

THE BOTTLE & CAN

Is the idea that two talented musicians would find themselves working an industrial job to make ends meet far-fetched? I don’t think so. In fact, it may have been just that situation that sparked the stories in the first place.

After I finished my Fine Arts degree, I needed work to support my art habit, and got a job doing break-out cutting at a factory making inexpensive pine frames and bookcase headboards for waterbeds. Back then people were buying a lot of waterbeds. I had a really difficult time finding a job. I was upfront with people about starting a career as a painter, which didn’t do much for my prospects. I applied for some jobs that interested me, but as one employer put it, “I’m sure you would do a good job, but your first priority is painting and you will leave as soon as you’re able. I need someone who will stick around for at least a few years.” It got to a point where I needed any kind of job, but for labour jobs employers told me I was over-qualified.

The waterbed factory was, among other things, a safety nightmare. Some ugly injuries occurred while I was there. One guy sawed off some fingers with dado blades on a table saw. Another put a 2 inch nail into his kneecap with a pneumatic nail gun. The guys who worked the spray booth did so without wearing a mask. The best thing I can say about it is that it was a job and I needed work.

Then I landed a gig as a part time postal clerk for Canada Post. This was perfect. At that time it was possible to live on the cheap in Toronto. I rented a storefront on Ossington Ave which had a painting studio in front, then a modest living space, and further back a kitchen I shared with another artist who had the studio in back. We had a bathroom and shower in the basement. We never paid more than $550/month for that place, split two ways. The job was steady and pretty easy. There was plenty of vacation and a very generous sick leave program. For me it was an ideal situation. Still, I considered it a temporary gig. Who could have predicted I would stick around for 30 years in all kinds of different jobs? Not me. I experienced plant life from both a worker and management perspective including some labour disputes along the way.

When I wrote about Lazy’s adventures at the Bottle & Can, I was thinking about my own adventures at Canada Post, and elements of my adventures crept into the stories for sure. For instance, when I was a postal clerk, there really was a supervisor who took attendance with a clipboard every day, a man who was remarkably poor at interacting with people in the workplace, and it is possible that maybe stealing his clipboard was a thing. Maybe.

I remember two things about getting hired on. The first was they required me to come in for something they called a dexterity test. They put me and other candidates in front of a one-hand keyboard, flashed postal codes at us, and the test was to type in all the postal codes accurately within the time limit. I didn’t think I had any better than average dexterity and I was nervous about the test. We were only allowed a couple errors so I worked really slowly and double checked my accuracy. Then I started to panic because I thought I was taking too much time and wouldn’t finish. Finally, I got through the test. I thought everyone else would have been finished way before me, but no, everyone was still working. Panic came again as I was convinced I had done something terribly wrong and blown the mission. I had worked so slowly, how could I be finished before others? Yet, it turned out I used only about half the time and made no errors. Go figure.

The other thing I remember was having to pledge allegiance to the Queen. Although we retain the Queen as a figurehead in our government structure I felt no relationship to the monarchy at all and found it ridiculous I was required to make this pledge. I did it though because I wanted the job. I just didn’t mean it.

In my time at Canada Post I met quite a number of really talented people, who, like me, needed a gig to support whatever else they wanted to do with their lives. This included quite a few excellent musicians, writers, artists, and even one of the strongest chess players in the country. Fortunately, it seemed there was plenty of room for misfits like us.

I think it was 1986 or 87 when I experienced my first strike. I was a postal clerk at the letter plant just east of Downtown at the time. I thought I had the perfect job. I was happy with the pay – I was making ends meet working part time! Working conditions were far better than the job I had at the waterbed factory. I had no complaints, but it wasn’t about me. There was little doubt in my mind many of the things which made the job ideal were achieved through the collective bargaining process. I understood full well where the Union was coming from. I felt though, I was just passing through and simply wanted to put in my time and take home my pay.

The last thing I wanted to do was walk a picket line. I went down the first evening and the whole scene was getting ugly. There were people I knew who were normally pretty laid back, who were worked up and in some cases liquored up. There were police there with horses and there was some pushing and shoving going on. I didn’t want to push or shove or confront anyone and wanted no part of the whole scene. Fortunately the strike was settled after a week.

By the time another strike occurred, I was working as a supervisor. The housing situation had changed and I needed to work full time to make ends meet, and the repetition of coding or sorting all day became unbearable to me over time. I was punching in postal codes on a machine known as a Group Desk Suite or GDS at the time. I could do this accurately up to speed and still hold a conversation with the person beside me. She told me she was going to apply to be a supervisor and she talked me into applying too. I did, and it turned out I got the gig and she didn’t.

This second strike, in 1991, was all around craziness. The company decided they were going to move the mail and the Union decided they were going to stop the mail. There were helicopters and bikers involved. I’d get phone calls in the dead of night. “This is the deployment centre. Be at Buttonville airport at 5:00 AM. Take a Metro cab.” One morning I found myself in a corn field somewhere near Markham. 6:00 AM and half a dozen vans drove up driven by honest to God bikers. A couple of them parked and sparked up a joint while we all waited for the helicopter full of mail to show up.

Later that day they flew me and some others down to the Island airport where we unloaded more helicopters and loaded up 5-ton trucks. I was dog-tired by the end of the day. The guy running the show told us they were going to fly us back up to Buttonville and from there we could take a cab home. At the time, I was living just a few blocks from the Island airport. I said no thanks I’ll just take the ferry and walk home. Well, they wouldn’t allow me to do that because of picketing activity but I dug my heals in and said there was no way I was going all the way back to Buttonville when I lived up the street. They had a confab, then came back to me and said, OK we have a solution. A speed boat, one of those cigarette boats came roaring up to the docks.

“Get in – this guy will take you to the foot of Bay Street and you can take a cab home from there”. The boat was driven by a guy who introduced himself to me as the local president of an organization of motorcycle enthusiasts. He reached into a cooler and pulled out two cold brews, handing me one and opening the other for himself. I barely had time to finish my beer when we arrived at the foot of Bay Street. There was no dock there, but a ladder instead I had to climb to get to terra firma. I took a cab home.

The Bottle & Can was as perfect for Lazy Allen as Canada Post was for me back in the day. I think of his time there as his Limbo, that period between when his first life as a musician fell apart and his second life as a musician began.

Lazy is the narrator for Squeeze Box Man and his narration takes 3 streams. He tells stories about his work life at the Bottle & Can. He tells stories to his NPK bandmates of the old days when he led Lazy & the Rockets and he tells the story of the rise and fall of the New Polka Kings. These stories are mixed up together, and for the reader provide the bigger picture of Lazy’s life.

*****

If you’re interested in copies of any or all of the issues of Squeeze Box Man, email me. Cost is $12 + $3 shipping to anywhere for any individual issues. Payment within Canada is by e-transfer. For customers outside Canada, payment is by Paypal.

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Some Squeeze Box Man Commentary (Part 3)

Many songs are referenced in Squeeze Box Man. Although NPK are a so-called “polka-punk” band, they actually play a huge variety of covers as well as their originals and those covers are all over the place musically. One of the things about this band is their ability to filter different genres of music through their own sound and approach. Here are the songs referenced by volume with examples.

VOLUME 1

The first song referenced in the novel is a polka classic called She Likes Kielbasa Better than Fish. Here are the Dynatones playing it.

The next reference is radically different. Staashu and Lazy go to a basement punker bar in Kensington Market and hear the Young Street Strip play Too Drunk to Fuck. Here are the Dead Kennedys.

They also play I Want to be Sedated, the Ramones ditty.

The last song reference in Volume 1 has The Strip playing again, this time another Dead Kennedys tune, California Uber Alles.

VOLUME 2

The first song referenced in Volume 2 is not played by Lazy or NPK but is sung off-key by a supervisor at the Bottle & Can. It’s I Ain’t Got Nobody, the Louis Prima song.

The next song is being performed by West King’s band, which Staashu played keyboards for. It’s a soul tune called Cry to Me, recorded by Solomon Burke.

That’s just before James Brown appears. I don’t know if James Brown ever sat in with a band at a club in Toronto. He did play up here though, at the Mimicombo Roller Rink. In my imagination, Mr. Brown played Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag with the band.

The last song referenced in Volume 2 is the Li’l Wally song, Johnny’s Knocking.

VOLUME 3

When the Boneyard Show opens, Lazy steps to the microphone and delivers the famous spoken word intro to Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again.

There is just one more song reference in Volume 3 – to Ian Dury’s anthemic masterpiece Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

VOLUME 4

There is just one song mentioned in Volume 4 but it’s a great one, the Tex-Mex-pop classic 96 Tears by ? and the Mysterians.

VOLUME 5

There are 3 songs referenced in Volume 5. The first is a song which is sometimes called the first rock ‘n’ roll song, Rocket 88. Here’s James Cotton with a fabulous live performance. Many years ago I heard an interview with Mr. Cotton in which he claimed to have co-written the song with Ike Turner. On record, it’s credited to Jackie Brenston, the singer and sax player in the King’s of Rhythm.

The second song in Volume 5 also goes back to the 1950s. It’s Lee Dorsey’s Ya Ya.

During Staashu and Sabina’s break-up scene, the lyrics to Tainted Love appear. Lazy would have heard the 1981 Soft Cell version but you can bet he also knew the 1964 original by performed by Gloria Jones and written by Ed Cobb.

VOLUME 6

When NPK does their northern tour, they played a real venue, the Kee to Bala. It seemed right they should perform a song set in Northern Ontario so I had them play Algoma Central 69 by Stompin Tom.

When Boomer proposes to Ndidi on stage, Maggie starts the band playing The Chapel of Love by the Dixie Cups.

The last song referenced in Volume 6 is another polka classic, No Beer in Heaven. Here’s a fabulous contemporary version by Atongo Zimba.

VOLUME 7

The first song in Volume 7 is Hank Snow’s I’m Movin’ On. It foreshadows Staashu’s behaviour later in the story.

Zosia, I’ve mentioned in a previous post. After that, it’s Dancing in the Street, a song NPK’s producer Ricky Diamond insists the band plays. Here’s Martha and the Vandellas.

The final song Squeeze Box Man is played by Lazy and Dakota. It’s Shake, Rattle & Roll. I imagined they would play it much like Rod Bernard and Clifton Chenier did with a blistering accordion part. It’s love at first sight for Dakota and Lazy, a big love, and it completes Lazy Allen’s transformation.

*****

If you’re interested in copies of any or all of the issues of Squeeze Box Man, email me. Cost is $12 + $3 shipping to anywhere for any individual issues. Payment within Canada is by e-transfer. For customers outside Canada, payment is by Paypal.

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Some Squeeze Box Man Commentary (Part 2)

NPK plays the Ian Dury & the Blockheads song Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

It is true that the characters in Squeeze Box Man don’t live the healthiest of lifestyles. They all smoke, more or less all the time. When I think about musicians I knew and the bars we used to drink at to hear them, there was always a haze of smoke in the air. Today, it’s hard to even imagine it. The characters also drink a lot and smoke weed just about as much. They all see drinking smoking tobacco and smoking weed as normal activities.

Maggie on the other hand, was a heroin user, and the band all considered that a problem to be overcome. In the story Late, we see Maggie injecting drugs. I don’t know very much about hard drugs like heroin, but I know there was a heroin scene in Toronto at that time. I don’t think I was even aware of it until the day Handsome Ned died. Later I had a painting studio in the old casket factory on Niagara St. I was aware of users in the building and next door to my studio were some guys who were once part of Toronto punk band who were selling drugs. Constantly, day and night I could hear knocks on their door, and sometimes if there was no response, they would knock on my door. “Sorry I can’t help you.” “Um, why not?” “Because I don’t sell drugs, sorry.” That was an eye-opening experience. I expected rough and tumble characters in that scene but was surprised when I saw the guys in slick suits and and women in evening gowns knocking, looking for a little something.

In The Fall, in Volume 5, Jacob depicted Maggie feeling sick through much of the story. This was a nice touch Jacob drew in. Nobody talks about why she was sick, but the reader knows Maggie is struggling with her addiction and it isn’t a big jump to conclude she is going through withdrawal on the northern tour.

In Volume 5, Lazy tells the story of a psychedelic experience.

It’s a strong memory for Lazy but he is non-judgemental about it.

There is one other drug reference in the novel which nobody comments on but which helps us form an opinion of the producer, Ricky Diamond.

In the foreground we see Staashu getting drunk as he knows the whole recording session was a really bad scene for him. In the background, we see Ricky Diamond and his un-named companion snorting cocaine in the booth.

*****

If you’re interested in copies of any or all of the issues of Squeeze Box Man, email me. Cost is $12 + $3 shipping to anywhere for any individual issues. Payment within Canada is by e-transfer. For customers outside Canada, payment is by Paypal.

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Some Squeeze Box Man Commentary (part 1)

Squeeze Box Man is a graphic novel told over 7 issues. I wrote it and Jacob Yerex illustrated it. The individual issues were published one at a time as we created them. We had actually planned for completing the story over 6 issues but we simply had too much material so we decided to extend it to a seventh issue. Although it was based on a group of stories I had previously published as The Lazy Allen Stories, the original stories were all re-written for the graphic novel format, and as well I wrote several new stories. Jacob and I had many discussions about the direction we were going as well as about details and character development and in some cases his illustrations took the characters in directions I hadn’t imagined. That’s part of the joy of collaboration.

I’ve introduced Squeeze Box Man on this blog but I haven’t previously provided commentary. It’s about time I do that so I’m going to create a few posts here in which I talk about the novel and the characters and some of the themes going on throughout. Squeeze Box Man looks like a comic, but it was created for an adult audience. In fact I’d say it’s not appropriate for kids – the characters swear up a storm. They drink and smoke constantly and drugs and addiction come up regularly throughout.

LAZY IS SHORT FOR LAZARUS

Lazy’s name is really Lazarus and Lazy is a short form. That is no accident, but is in fact a biblical reference to Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus brought back to life in the Bible story. One of the underlying themes in the novel is around Lazy’s second chance at life. He used to be a polka star, leading a band called Lazy and the Rockets. It all fell apart for him along the way. His wife was killed in a macabre art accident. The popularity of polka and accordion music in general fell off in a big way. Gigs became harder and harder to get, but by that time Lazy was drinking so much nobody wanted to hire him anyway. His buddy Staashu got him a job at the Bottle & Can, a good union job that saved his bacon, since he was no longer earning money playing music.

Early on we see Lazy as a sad sack, sitting around, moping, smoking, listening to the old polka music. For a decade he kept his history as a musician to himself but late at night, drunk, he’d stagger to his music room in the basement of the bungalow he inherited from his parents. He’d pull on the big accordion and play.

Staashu got Lazy involved in his dream of bringing polka back to life by starting what might be described as a polka-punk band. In the story, present day is 1982, when I was 22 years old. I was thinking about about bands like the Pogues, who took traditional music and punked it up, creating something altogether new. By the late 70s, I was bored of pop music. I couldn’t even listen to some of the material filling the airwaves – until I heard some of the music coming from Stiff Records in England. I was listening to a lot of blues, learning about jazz, and exploring folk music from around the world. My own music interests informed the music in Squeeze Box Man for sure.

Playing music in a band again was a crisis situation for Lazy. He felt old and tired. Staashu was younger and so were the other players. Lazy didn’t know if he could go through with it. Maybe he was scared to fail. He did go through with it though, and the more he played music the younger and stronger he got. In issue 4, there is a key moment in his transformation, when Lazy goes to get his hair cut and emerges a new man. The only direction I provided Jacob for the transformation was to suggest he look at pictures of Vincent Price, both as an old and a younger man.

My own barber, Steph at the Nite Owl, was the model for Lazy’s barber, also named Steph. We arranged for Jacob to get his hair cut and I took dozens of photos he could use to help create the illustrations.

When I considered the old school polka music Lazy loved, I was thinking of a band from Buffalo NY who were at their peak in the 80s, known as The Dynatones. In my imagination, Staashu looked a lot like Scrubby, their concertina player, but somehow Jacob made him look kind of like me! Here’s Scrubby and the boys performing Zosia. It will give you an idea of the spirit of the music I was thinking about.

Look how the accordion player is handling his instrument in this video. He’s shaking the bellows to drive the rhythm of the music, so in Squeeze Box Man, when Lazy describes himself as a bellows-shaker, that’s what he’s talking about.

FAMOUS FACES

There are loads of famous faces that appear in Squeeze Box Man.

For instance, the accordion player above resembles Canada’s polka king, Walter Ostanek.

Another polka king who puts in an appearance is the one and only Li’l Wally.

Here’s Li’l Wally performing the song he performed with Lazy in the novel, called Johnny’s Knockin’.

I also introduced a third polka king to the story, when Lazy had a chance to play poker with the Clown Prince of Polka, Walt Solek.

Here’s Walt Solek’s most famous song, Who Stole the Kishka.

Polka players are not the only famous faces in Squeeze Box Man. For instance, James Brown put in a appearance.

The character of Senor Steve, who you can read about in vol 5, was inspired by Esteban “Steve” Jordan, the late great conjunto button accordion player from San Antonio. Here’s Steve Jordan in action.

We’re grateful to Toronto artist Andy Fabo for allowing us to fictionalize his 1982 persona and to show in comic format parts of the actual Chromaliving exhibition, a milestone in Canadian art.

People who have been around the Toronto art scene for a long time might recognize another of the characters in this pair of pages. The fellow in the top right, shaking hands, looks suspiciously like Av Isaacs, one of the most important art dealers in Toronto at that time. Was Mr. Isaacs actually at Chromaliving? I don’t know for sure. Maybe it was just some guy who looked like him.

*****

If you’re interested in copies of any or all of the issues of Squeeze Box Man, email me. Cost is $12 + $3 shipping to anywhere for any individual issues. Payment within Canada is by e-transfer. For customers outside Canada, payment is by Paypal .

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Invisible Galleries

The new episode of The Agency Podcast is now available. Listen right here or find it in the usual places.

We talk to two captivating artists this week. They both utilize public space for art. Chicago artist, teacher and curator Jesse Malmed shares his community-based approach to showing art. If you were ever in Toronto’s  Kensington Market, Queen West or Parkdale neighbourhoods in the 1980s and 1990s you might have seen art bolted to fences, walls or telephone poles by Rocky Zenyk. 

We know you are going to love these guests. Please email us your thoughts, ideas and dreams.

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Take a walk with me – Lambton Woods

Giant puffball

Some years, Lambton Woods is a great place to go to find giant puffballs in September. There have been some years when I’ve seen 10 or more soccer ball sized puffballs near the trail. Today I only saw a couple. It looks like something has been eating chunks out of the one I photographed. Giant puffballs are edible. I like them sliced into steaks, dipped in egg and then panko and fried up. If you find one and you want to eat it, the first thing to do is slice it in half. If it is in fact a giant puffball, it will be uniform inside (no shape of a mushroom within). They are good to eat when they are solid white throughout.

Trestle over the Humber

How many times have I walked this trail? How many times have I stood on the footbridge and photographed the Humber River and the trestle? I have to say dozens at least. It isn’t a remote area. There are always people out walking or riding their bikes on the trails. It is an area that shows off a good variety of plant and bird life, and at times mushroom life as well, and it’s an area that is constantly changing through the seasons. It’s a treasure in Toronto in my opinion and not a far drive from where I live.

Today as I walked away from the car toward the woods, I was greeted by a blue jay, happy to move around on its branch, posing for me.

Blue Jay
Blue Jay

The star of today’s walk were the abundant spotted jewelweed flowers (Impatiens capensis). Throughout the walk I saw these bushy plants showing off their bright orange blooms. This plant has some medicinal properties. I’ve read that the juice extracted from the leaves and stems has been used by Indigenous peoples to treat skin rashes, including poison ivy. The effectiveness of the plant for this purpose has been supported by peer review study. However, the studies (apparently – I haven’t read them) also concluded that some people are sensitive to jewelweed and applying the juices can cause a skin rash even worse than poison ivy in those people, so you take you chances I suppose. The plant also has scientifically verified fungicidal properties and has been used to treat athlete’s foot.

Spotted Jewelweed

Squirrel
Buckthorn berries

The berries of the buckthorn shrub look attractive but better not eat them. The scientific, or Latin name for the plant tells us why: Ramnus cathartica. Eating these berries is sure to cause a cathartic experience. The buckthorn is a non-native invasive species. It was brought here from Europe as an ornamental plant, but it has spread widely, so much so that it is very likely you will see examples of this bush on most of our urban trails.

Is this the New England Aster?

We have half a dozen or more species of asters which bloom each fall in Ontario. I confess I’m not great at identifying them to the species. My best guess at this one is the New England Aster.

The City has been planning to rebuild a bridge over what amounts to a ditch on the trail for some time, and they’ve finally got around to it. It’s a sturdy bridge for sure, made from steel as it is, but it strikes me as overkill in this forested area.

The new bridge

Compare it to one of the older bridges crossing similar spans.

An older bridge

Which do you like better? I think the wooden bridge fits much better into the landscape, and does the job just fine.

A hole in the forest

In order to construct the new steel bridge, the City had to make some room to get their equipment in there, so they’ve clear-cut a swath of forest. I expect they will plant some native species in there, but in the meantime it’s quite a scar on the landscape.

Toward the end of my walk, I was fortunate to run into naturalist Miles Hearn, out with a group for a nature walk. I’ve participated in many of Miles’ walks for the Toronto District School Board and I highly recommended them. Miles is tremendously knowledgeable about birds and plants and I’ve learned so much from him! The injury I sustained to my right knee over a year ago now, along with the pandemic, sidelined me from continuing the walks for a while but I’m looking forward to rejoining them for the spring session. Check out Miles’ website where he has documented all the walks he’s done going back well over a decade.

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The Shining Birch Tree

Since I was up north canoeing, I’ve had the late great Wade Hemsworth’s songs jumping around in my head. I’ve shared this one before. It’s Murray McLauchlan with the McGarrigles performing The Shining Birch Tree with Mr. Hemsworth sitting on stage taking it in. I could listen to this 100 times in a row.

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Henny

The new episode of The Agency Podcast is now available. Listen here or find it at all the good podcast places.

After stacking up U-Hauls the agents need a little Hennesey to chill and listen to Certified Lover Boy, Donda, The Courier, fiddle Youtube channels, Bob Ross and catch up with each other. Please join us.

We love to hear from listeners. Email us anytime.