By Dan Rubin
Episode I: Amazing Grease Grows Acoustic Roots
Part 2, Flying Mountains, was featured in issue 124.
Part 3, From Giant Clams to New Earth, has arrived from the future.
On a rainy evening in April, 1976, I stood outside the door of Rick Scott’s studio on Carrall Street in downtown Vancouver and knocked. I had arrived from Lasqueti Island for a series of urban performances with the trio with whom I had been playing – The Spaghetti Island String Band.
Rick and I had become close friends after playing together in a pickup band called Amazing Grease, a constantly shifting amalgamation of local musicians that had included banjo player Craig Wood, songwriter Smilin’ Jack Smith, but most steadily Rick Scott on mountain dulcimer, his longtime friend JR Stone on guitar, mandolin player Rick Van Krugel and myself, all sterling members of that quirky Vancouver music scene that developed during the early nineteen seventies.
Amazing Grease had taken shape barely two years earlier, after an initial performance at the newly opened Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Hearing that the decommissioned church, formerly a community centre presided over by lawyer Mike Harcourt, was now becoming a performance venue, I wandered in off the street to book the first of a series of nights, then had gone home to assemble a band to pull it off.
A long narrow handbill for the event featured the outline of a marijuana leaf and the words “Vancouver’s finest.” On it I listed the members of the band and invited anyone who cared to join us for an evening of original songs and toe tapping fiddle tunes.
The response was surprising: apparently, people knew who we were. I had first encountered Rick Scott slouched against a wall in Robert’s Creek, strumming on the elliptical shape of a mountain dulcimer, held sideways like a guitar and played in a way that blended the Appalachian roots of the instrument with syncopated rhythm patterns reminiscent of black blues and Southern rock n’ roll. With his own very special muse whispering in his ear, Rick was part crooner, part jester and hugely alive onstage. His friend JR Stone, who had built Rick’s dulcimer, was a solid acoustic guitarist who, like Rick and myself, had migrated north to Canada from the states.
To round out the original cast of Amazing Grease, we had Rick Van Krugel, an amazing musician who could play everything from fiddle tunes to blues on his mandolin, truly a wizard on the instrument. Van Krugel was the mentor who had introduced me to Old Time music, while we shared a ramshackle house facing north across False Creek. I was the one with too many instruments; emerging from a childhood of interminable violin lessons, I had escaped into the world of folk music, gradually adding tenor banjo and mandolin, then the guitar.
The folks who filled the Vancouver East Cultural Centre that first night were fine, furry, country people, the kind of people, Joe Mock would later observe, who “come to visit you and leave a ring around your bathtub.”
Whether they had migrated in from the islands of the Strait of Georgia, or the isolated valleys of the BC interior, they knew what this music was for; within a tune or two they were up on their feet and doing the cosmic country boogie all over the floor.
Amazing Grease continued to evolve. Somewhere along the way, Joe Mock stepped into the group to replace JR Stone and we continued to evolve a style of music that was half stringband and half acoustic rock. Jeannie Read, writing for the Vancouver Sun, summed it up with the headline “You Can’t Review Happiness” in which the rest of the band members were named and Shari Ulrich, who was sitting in with us for a few tunes was simply “the girl with the yellow socks.”
I booked a weekend at the Cultch, following a Friday night Songwriter’s Circle. That first night, we heard Erik Johnson sing “Crow’s Nest Pass,” Joe Mock debuted a couple of his new songs, and Shari sang one or two by Jackson Browne. But the second night, I was not able to be there. I had come down with a wicked flu, so I had to leave it to Rick Scott, Joe Mock and Shari Ulrich to cover the two nights.
This may not have been the first time the three played together, but it may well have been the night Joe turned to the other two and said, “This really works, let’s keep on doing it.”
Thus Pied Pumkin was born.
Episode II: The Spaghetti Island Stringband
After my earlier life as a musician in Vancouver, I had moved to an island with no car ferry, no paved roads and no power lines, joining the four hundred people and twelve hundred sheep who make Lasqueti Island their home. I thought I was leaving my music behind. But within a year I met Gary and Grover and we had formed the Spaghetti Island Stringband.
It may be a bit hard to believe that three guys playing fiddle, guitar and string bass could have the impact we did. But with Grover Foreman thumping away gut-bucket style on stand up bass, Gary Lansdown pulling shimmering cascades of notes from a Martin D-28, and me playing lead and rhythm on mandolin and fiddle, three acoustic players actually had the ability to get people up and dancing.
Our repertoire ranged from standards like “Six Days on the Road and I Gotta Make It Home Tonight” to fiddle tunes and bluesy ballads. But best of all was the moment when Gary led us into one of his extended jams, music that lifted you off your feet and took you places you had never been.
In many ways, although I was the more vocal front man of the trio, Gary was its beating heart. He had come north from California, driving a short frame yellow school bus, in which he was living. He had little more than a change of clothes and his guitar, but all he wanted to do was play music.
On our first try, we met but didn’t match. His enthusiastic driving guitar style was different from my dedication to dolorous ballads and introspective folk songs. But soon our music combined to create something diverse and strange and compelling. With Grover Peggs (as he liked to call himself) on bass, we soon acquired the perfect foundation, and the Spaghetti Island Band was born, named for an island inhabited by a mythical flower-breathing dragon, from a tale told by our friend Ezra the Storyteller.
Our first gigs, once we had assembled a diverse repertoire, were nights at the old Legion on Lasqueti, with its crazy crumbling walls and slanted floor, where dancers almost slid into the northwest corner. It was there that we premiered Captain Cole’s Waltz, dedicated to the wonderful, crazy skipper of the island’s foot ferry.
That night we played his tune for almost an hour, to give the Captain time to dance with every lady in the house, from eight to eighty. With a gold tooth gleaming from the middle of his crazy grin, and the lights shining down on his bald head, Ian Cole swept around the room with one partner after another, until he was completed satisfied.
Soon you would find the three of us down on the dock, loading piles of instruments onto the foot ferry, heading for gigs in Errington, Comox or Victoria. Word spread quickly as we gathered a dedicated regional audience. The only surviving tape of the Spaghetti Island Stringband. recorded at Open Space in Victoria, reveals the reason for our appeal. In it you hear the effervescent sound of Gary Lansdown’s guitar, the way he could pull rippling arpeggios, from high up the neck of his Martin, while Grover and I joined in, creating interwoven layers of melody and rhythm.
On the evening in April, 1976 as I stood outside the door of Rick Scott’s studio in Vancouver, ready for the next big step, I was not prepared for the news that waited on the other side of the door. When it opened I was met by my wife Stephanie, who had come in to hear the trio play, at the Classical Joint Coffee House, two nights at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Her news was a shock.
I had left Lasqueti several days earlier, after visiting Gary lying in his bus, deeply sick with the flu. Knowing that he might not be able to make it on our big breakout tour, I had made arrangements while in Victoria, for Rick Van Krugel to sit in, if Gary was still too ill to travel. But Gary refused to let anything stop him. He and Grover came across on the foot ferry to Vancouver Island, along with our friend Lawrence Fisher who was to play percussion with us. Together they had loaded the instruments into Lawrence’s VW microbus at the house near the Qualicum airport and headed for Nanaimo.
But realizing they had left an amp behind, they turned back. At the head of a long line of waiting cars, as they turned left onto the airport road, they were hit. A man driving a fully loaded gravel truck, on the last run of his last day of work before retirement, had grown weary of the wait, and pulled out to pass the line of cars. His truck slammed into the driver’s side of the van.
Grover later told me that he had “smelled death coming.” That sensation was so strong that when the truck hit, he was already standing at the side doors of the van, holding them partly open. He hit the ground running, and ran all the way back to the house to call an ambulance. No one else was hurt, not even the various instruments that had been thrown clear by the impact. But Gary Lansdown was lying on the road, face up, looking like he was taking a nap. He was dead.
Episode III: From Co-op Coop to Simon Charlie’s
The loss of my friend Gary Lansdown had put my life into a spin. It made me realize that life was short and uncertain. If there was something I truly wanted or needed to do, I should do it now. I chose music. Leaving my home on Lasqueti I moved back to Vancouver and settled in temporarily at Hemlock House, an older home that operated as a rooming house, just off Granville Street. Residents included Rick Scott and his family, instrument maker Bruce Sexauer and a rotating cast of extras perfect for the serial soap opera that was life in Vancouver in the late seventies.
At first I shared Rick Scott’s studio on Carrall Street. Pied Pumkin was in full swing by then, building an audience in the Gulf Islands and rocky valleys of the BC Interior that provided support for their subtle, quirky but professionally polished original songs. I was happy to be part of their scene.
The studio became a hub for local musicians as well as an instrument building shop. I remember providing advice to Gary Cristall at the time he and Mitch Podoluk were planning to start the Vancouver Folk Festival. It was all happening in this long narrow room, where Chinese matrons had formerly looked down from the balcony on loggers who had come to town between shifts in the woods.
To the dulcimers taking shape in the studio, were added music jams, workshops and soon Rick and I became co-publishers of The Dill Pickle Rag, a Journal of Music and Celebration. Into the Pickle we crammed our love of the strange, the wonderful and the diverse. Ruth Claire Weintraub appeared and joined in as assistant editor. Beginning with hundreds of subscribers to the Pied Pumkin’s handwritten newsletters, we soon built our own base of support; four editions of the Pickle followed.
There was a deep sense of community in those days: musicians knew each other, played together and supported each other’s creativity. Among the artists and groups making up the scene in Vancouver in the seventies were remarkable songwriters like Bruce Miller, Joe Mock, Smilin’ Jack Smith and groups that included The Cement City Cowboys, Powder Blues and Chilliwack, among others.
But the pullback toward home and the islands was becoming too strong at the same time. I might have escaped from the pull of Vancouver if it had not been for Simon Charlie’s Festival of the Sun.
Just days before I was planning to move back to the island, I heard about a musical gathering just south of Duncan and decided to join friends to head over to Vancouver Island for the event. Naturally I brought my instruments with me, hoping for a chance to play. I knew that my friends in Pied Pumkin would be featured, along with singer Susan Jacks (of the Poppy family), but you just never know. Maybe there would be room on some stage for me?
After crossing over to Nanaimo and driving north, we arrived at the well-guarded gates of the festival. The others in the van paid, but I was made of sterner stuff. Striding up to the entrance gate, with my guitar and fiddle under my arm, I announced I was there “to perform at the festival.” Oh really? asked the bouncer who looked me up and down. And who would you be? I gave him my name and waited to see what would happen. It might have been dumb luck, but someone on the other end of the walkie talkie said, Oh him? Better let him in.
After greeting my friends at the Lasqueti Seafood Booth, I sauntered over to the organizers’ tent, to announce my arrival. The frazzled coordinator was not pleased to see me. Who are you? she asked, and when I explained I was there to perform, admitted they might have a short slot on one of the side stages still to be filled. Oh no, I said, I am here to play on the main stage. Really? she replied, Well, leave it with me.
Once I had studied her schedule I knew that I found my chance. I pointed out that Pied Pumkin were scheduled on the main stage at a time that I knew they would still be in Vancouver, and not available to perform. How did I know that? Well, I live with Rick Scott. So there it was: I was offered a main stage set at Simon Charlie’s festival.
This was quite a wild scene with tents and stages filling the space between the well-known native carver’s house and the forest, where a main stage had been constructed from found wood. Bikers driving over people’s tents (some with people still in them) added to the confusion, and there was music day and night.
Well, if I had been given a set on the main stage, I would need to find a backup band. I soon found Rawn Mongovius, who had played bass for me at an earlier solo gig, then two hand drummers (one who played tabla and one who played dumbek) and Skye, a crazy but inspired guitarist, and we quickly organized a rehearsal.
We hit the stage just before Susan Jacks was supposed to go on. It was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, for sure, but we got through our set. Truthfully, with the two hand drummers (who did not like each other’s style) sending dagger looks at each other across the stage, and the rest of us scrambling to figure out where we were in the tune, it was a bit touch and go. But it still worked.
My fondest memory of that event is summed up in a photo Rick Scott now has. In it, looking from the back of the stage you see the profiles of the three members of Pied Pumkin – Rick Scott, Joe Mock and Shari Ulrich – in front of a sea of faces, stretching off into the far distance. On every single face is that look of transfixed wonder and joy that was always Pied Pumkin’s stock in trade.
by Dan Rubin
There is much more to this story.
Pick up a copy of BC Musician Magazine issue 124, coming this September, and read Dan’s subsequent years with Flying Mountain and more.
His stories will continue in following issues.
Big Miller & Tommy Banks – Legacy CD review Next Post:
Valley Hennell: Fifty years in BC’s creative community