By Dan Rubin
Episode II: When Mountains Fly
Part 1 was featured in issue 123.
Part 3 will sneak up on you.
After performing an ad hoc set, with a quickly assembled backup band, at Simon Charlie’s Festival of the Sun, in the Summer of 1976, I was hungry to make more music. It didn’t take long to find the fellow musicians I was looking for.
First there was Rawn Mongovius, a bass guitarist steeped in country music, hurtin’ songs and the bluegrass scene. A friendly, easygoing man who favoured fringed jackets and a floppy hat, he hailed from Saskatchewan where his family had been farmers. Rawn was ready for anything.
Next was a rock and roll songwriter with a wonderful natural singing voice. Andy Suttles was born in Okinawa to an American father and a Japanese mother. He grew up in the US and had been on tour in Europe with the band Tomorrow’s Eyes when German immigration authorities descended on the club and put everyone on a plane back home. The problem was that Andy had been born Satoru Kuba Suttles, and still carried a Japanese passport. He later told me that he realized, as he sat on the flight from Frankfurt to Tokyo, that he did not speak Japanese (having left Japan as a child) and would know nobody once he arrived in Japan. Luckily, an older woman sitting beside him on the plane recognized his plight and helped him find his way back to the mother he had not seen for many years. By the time we met he was settled in Vancouver with his wife and two sons, but still open for some performing and touring.
And finally to round out the group there was Ferguson, or Fergosaurus as we called him, Neville. As trombone player in the Beefeaters Marching Band, he had cut his teeth on the music of brass bands, but he played a mean blues harmonica and loved to bang on things, so we simply adopted him as our drummer.
You could not have imagined a less likely quartet. So diverse were our backgrounds, instruments and musical styles, that the combinations seemed impossible, but somehow we fit together perfectly. All of us were songwriters. In addition, between us we played violin, mandolin, guitar, bouzouki, bass guitar, piano, flute, saxophone, trombone and pedal steel. All of these instruments and a few more exotic ones, such as pianolin (a weird 51-stringed psaltery that you pluck and bow at the same time) and a Coca Cola sign (which we used as a gong) and also something called an air drum would be featured within our original compositions.
Ours was a range of music drawing from traditions that circled the globe, from Pacific-flavoured ballads to foot stomping traditional fiddle tunes, bluesy songs, pieces underscored by Greek bouzouki rhythms or led by syncopated sounds of mountain dulcimer or conga drums. Our music was actually an early example of what we now think of as world music. Only we didn’t call it that at the time.
The image of the Flying Mountain emerged from a sketch doodled on a napkin in a diner by Fergie. It was the banner we marched behind, the image of something as unlikely as our collaboration. You would never expect a mountain to come winging through the clouds. Yet there we were.
We got our real start as performers when we found Sophia’s Folkdance Restaurant, a new venture started by three women who loved ethnic food and music. Their steeply tiered venue was being designed and built in a warehouse near the Granville Street Bridge when we showed up to audition. This would be the perfect place for us to play, we told the owners, who had not expected a house band to arrive uninvited. So we went out to the car, got our instruments and by the third tune, they knew that we were exactly what they needed.
Over the next half year, as the wonderful venue slowly wound its way down toward insolvency, we performed at first three nights a week, then two, then only once. By the time Sophia’s closed, Flying Mountain was well launched, with a complete repertoire rehearsed and ready to take on the road.
Following the lead of our friends in Pied Pumkin, who had pioneered the touring circuit through the islands and the BC interior, we were soon popping up in community halls all over the province. It was life on the road, old style, travelling in a tan Chevy van, the four of us packed in along with our various instruments, amps and that dinosaur of a sound system the Shure Vocalmaster. In little more than a two-year period we presented more than 300 performances, ranging from community dances to music festival sets plus a string of radio and television appearances. We built an audience that was so supportive that our first LP, Earth and Sky, was half paid for by subscription before we sent it off for pressing.
By some stroke of luck, we connected with Simon Garber, who produced our first recording in his house on Point Grey, where he put us in the basement with the microphones, while he sat in the kitchen with the mixing board connected to an eight track tape machine. I remember waiting for the furnace to stop blasting so I could take another run at a fiddle track. The result was an album that broke new ground and demonstrated the wonderful range of music that became the hallmark of the Flying Mountain. For the full story of Flying Mountain, visit flyingmountain.net.
Mountains Keep On Flying
Once the acoustic quartet Flying Mountain was well known to rural audiences across British Columbia, what we needed was a manager. At first our friend Larry tried to fill this role, but it was after we met Nora Specht that things really took off. Nora was a passionate folkie, with great connections. Among others she knew Mitch Podoluk, founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and she quickly got us a slot on the main stage at that event. We had a real manager.
One of my fondest memories of Winnipeg is lying on the bed in my dorm room at the university, where we were housed, listening to Mike and Peggy Seeger, who had not seen each other for many years. They sat in the stairwell just outside my room, playing Cajun tunes for hours, banjo and triangle ringing in that resonant acoustic space, their voices blending in perfect brother and sister harmonies.
Another memory from that event came while I was sitting, eating my supper, on the grass behind the main stage. I was just tucking into dessert when I heard a voice behind me plaintively whine, “I am just no good as a broadcaster.” “Well,” responded a deeper voice, “Peter, it’s just that that was television. You don’t belong on TV.” “No, it’s me. I’m just no good,” the first voice continued. “Come on now. Go back to radio, Peter. You have the perfect face for radio. They will love you if you do that. . . What’s that new show called that CBC wants you to do?” “It’s called Morningside, Richard.” “Well, just do it. You will be fine.” I am glad Peter Gzowski took Richard Flohil’s advice, because it certainly was fine.
During the short time that Flying Mountain existed we created a massive output of original songs. We also experimented with theatre, collaborating with a small choir called The Brass Tacks Vocal Ensemble to create two collaborative pieces based on myth and story telling.
The first of these was Voices of a Winter’s Night, produced by April North. This was a retelling of an ancient story in which a beggar is confronted by the voice of darkness then undertakes a journey around the world, gathering songs that are given as gifts to ensure that the world will be allowed to continue. Into this we wove choral pieces, poetry, ancient world traditions of the winter solstice and a soft shoe routine. About the time we had been given a yellow notebook of remarkable visionary poems, left behind in the Classical Joint. Even though the poems weren’t ours, we set several to music and used them in the show. They fit perfectly, but it was not until a year later, performing one of the pieces called Crossing the Great Divide that we met the woman the song talked about who connected us to the author, who wanted his notebook back but was delighted that we had used his work in our show.
The second collaboration was more of a variety show, with world traditions of the summer solstice as the focus. That show, Celebrations of the Sun, toured the BC Interior with funding support from the Touring Office of Canada Council, and resulted in a dozen shows plus a sold-out final performance at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. I remember doing an African stick dance with other members of the cast then trooping outside after our show at the Vallican Whole Community Centre to lead rings of people in concentric circles dancing under the full moon.
Another memorable performance was our festival set at the very first Vancouver Folk Festival. The first year the festival was held in Stanley Park, before it moved to Jericho. We were the last act on Friday night and by the time we were ready to play it was raining, buckets and buckets. We were told that because of the danger of electrical shock, we did not have to play, but we took to the stage anyway, performing for hundreds of happy dancers, up to their ankles in the dark mud.
Flying Mountain headed north more than once, to perform in Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Skagway Alaska and Faro, Yukon. The Faro festival was very special, because we met a whole series of local performers including Susan Shewan and singer Leon Bibb.
My connection with Leon grew tighter as we talked food and wine on the flight back home. He invited me to his house in Kitsilano where, over a series of great meals Flying Mountain became part of his plans for a television show called Run, Come, See.
After writing and recording the theme music for the show at Mushroom Studios, the four of us were present for the filming of the pilot version of the show. For the opening shot, our job was to lead a group of children from the playground in the park near Leon’s house, pied piper fashion, out of the park and around the corner to the front steps of the house where the rest of the show would be filmed. By the fourth take, and many equipment breakdowns later, we were simply going through the motions, too tired to stay in synch with the recorded tracks and basically messing around. Unfortunately, that time all the gear worked and we were told that that final take, terrible though it was, would be the one to be used. So it goes with television. In the end CBC did not pick up the series but Leon and I got to spend time together and I was able to join him onstage at the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse for an evening that included his trademark spirituals and two songs by Flying Mountain.
After two and a half years of intense work with the group, it was becoming clear that our shared interest in creating new material was waning. There is always this tendency to hang on to the familiar, to play what you know, to deliver what you think the audience “wants.” At that point I just knew I had to move on, to continue creating and exploring. It was time for my solo career.
Solitudes and Back to the Islands
Breaking away from Flying Mountain was not easy but it was necessary. I had accumulated a collection of more than a hundred original songs and instrumental pieces, including several meditative melodic explorations written for guitar, pieces that combined classical inspiration with an earthy sense of stillness. They provided inspiration for the solo album Solitudes, which we recorded in Goldrush Studios with the help of the producer Simon Garber and his assistant Phil Posner.
A solo album recorded with the help of a dozen other musicians. Though the songs and arrangements were mine, I was lucky to be joined in the studio by the members of Flying Mountain plus Holly Arntzen on French Horn, Dennis Nichol on bass guitar, Walker Fanning on recorder, Mark Dowding on various flutes, Ken Bloom on clarinet, sax and tuba, Tom Hazlitt playing his gorgeous eighteenth century acoustic bass, and to finish off the wilder tracks, Dick Smith on sax and Drew Neville (most recently of Doug and the Slugs) on piano. Rick Scott and Joe Mock wandered in to add backup vocals along with Craig Elder, Debbie Sherlock, Michael Hart and my good friend Satoru Suttles. I list them all here because the quality of the music we created depended on their inspired contributions.
The original vinyl disc of Solitudes, now re-mastered and reissued on CD by Blue Island Records, was a turning point for me. I had been on the road with the Flying Mountain, performing more than 200 times in little more than two years. Now I was on my own. Not an easy transition to make. With guitar, bouzouki and fiddle in hand I followed our familiar route through the Gulf Islands and the BC Interior, performing for concerts and festivals.
I was on my way from the Courtenay Faire to an outdoor festival set in the wilderness near Atlin, travelling with Valdy who was carving out the same circuit. Watching him wash his hair in the airport bathroom in Fort St. John it struck me: So this is success in the Canadian folk music scene?! It was certainly wild and wonderful. We flew west and north to Atlin in a float plane, landing on the lake and walking up to the festival, for yet another visit to the land of the midnight sun. Performing on that stage I met and played with Scott Sheerin, the amazing sax and flute player who would become my musical partner years later in Victoria.
Another memorable encounter in those days of solo touring took place at a festival on Salt Spring Island. I was chatting with a new, wonderful trio who combined Celtic roots with rock, asking whether they had ever taken their upbeat music out on the road? No, said Geoff Kelly, J. Knutson and John Mann, the original members of Spirit of the West. Oh, you really have to get out there, I told them; that’s where your real audience lives, not back in Vancouver. We immediately planned a jaunt through the Islands, with me tagging along as their warm-up act. On that tour we visited my home island of Lasqueti, performed on Hornby, then headed north.
It was our show in the tiny Gorge Hall on Cortes Island that summed up the whole situation. After a few of my quiet ballads the crowd grew restless. You could hear the chairs squeaking, then a voice called out “We wanna dance!” I could take the hint and retired to the backstage, giving way to Spirit of the West. The physical transformation was instant: chairs went flying then the fine, furry folk were up on their feet dancing, looking like stuffed toys on springs. I sat backstage listening to the trio’s wonderful music and taking advantage of a kind offer of some smoking material from a friend. So by the time the boys asked me to join them for their second set, I was in no shape to play, a joke we would still be sharing years later.
It was onstage at the University in Nanaimo when I finally hit the wall. Staring out at an audience that filled only a fraction of the theatre seats, I sank with disappointment then delivered a truly crappy first set. Back in the green room, ready to throw up, I dashed water in my face and had a good talk with myself. If it was so damned important how many people had shown up, then I was out there for the wrong reasons; ego had crept into what should be a purer thing, the giving of a musical gift. After that I went back out and delivered the goods to the dedicated fans who had shown up to hear me play. But I had seen the writing on the wall: it was time for me to take a break from performing.
I ended up remarried, back in the little house I had built as a squatter on Lasqueti, under the maple trees above the meadow. Soon I had a part time job as a teacher in the island school, a baby on the way and no idea that I might ever perform again. It was real island life, full of joys and surprises. A time to stretch out, a chance to share what I carried with me, but in other ways. Those years at False Bay School were memorable for the moments when students collaborated in the dramatic productions we produced, and I was more than happy to be part of creating a community unique in its dedication to independence and sustainability.