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Wages: To Hell with Musicians

Chapter 4: The road to drugs is paved with work.

John Armstrong 30 Aug 2007TheTyee.ca

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[This is the fourth of 14 excerpts, running Tuesdays and Thursdays, from John Armstrong's memoir of the working life: Wages.]

Shortly after I started school at Princess Margaret High I fell in with a small crowd of musicians and that was it for church, junior varsity basketball and other childish pursuits, like jobs and schoolwork. They were smart, funny and had the same taste for alcohol and drugs that I did; we spent more time in the parking lot than we did in class.

Down the road from school at the rented house of a friend of a friend's older brother, Art, a musician, had what looked to me a perfect life. He'd driven a truck for the post office until he'd put it in a ditch, drunk. Now he was living on unemployment insurance, playing music with his band every night or lazing about at home waiting for the party to start. Once we began hanging out there it started about the same time he rolled out of bed, around 1 p.m.

If the government cheque had arrived, it was cause for celebration and if it hadn't then it was needful to have a party just to keep everyone's spirits up. Every few days we loaded all the empties into someone's car and took them back for the refund, and then we celebrated because we were rich. School was simply fading away, somewhere I checked in for the shortest possible time before the day really began. I didn't even take my coat off -- I walked in the front door and kept going until I was out the back. It didn't take long before I stopped doing even that and there were hard words and tears about that at home. My stepfather roared, my mother wept and I slid out the door again.

Work leads to drugs

They couldn't agree on what to do with me but they knew the cause of this tailspin into sloth and sin. I was on drugs. They'd seen it on television and read the pamphlets from the doctor's office. All the signs were there. The only problem was that all these experts had it ass-backward: I didn't hate school, church and a decent life because I drank and took drugs. I took drugs and drank because I hated school and church and work. At 17, I was exhausted by it all. I could see where it was heading and it terrified me.

There wasn't one happy adult I could name, not one who woke up and looked forward to the day ahead. All of them worked like Chinamen on a railroad and never got any further ahead; it took all their efforts just to stay where they were and not lose any ground. They had one ear cocked at all times for the bad news that was surely coming. It was all a crock and it was too late now for them to cease believing in it but if I stopped now I might still have a chance. It was only sensible to take it.

My mother and the school counsellor got together and came up with a plan. Until the last semester my grades had been high and the counsellor pled my case to the admissions officer at the community college. Maybe I wasn't being challenged enough by high school. It was worth a try. I thought so -- my parents made so little money I qualified for a student loan and bursary, around $5,000. All they wanted in return was a promise that I would straighten out and knuckle down before it was too late. It was already a lost cause but I told them what they wanted to hear and they gave me a cheque. It was easy. It was the kind of work I could do all day.

Art the short-timer

The new year came and with it my cheque for school. I was enrolled as a "mature student" in the philosophy program and after tuition I had a fair chunk left over, enough to take an apartment with Art and two of his friends down by the beach, a few miles north of the border. One of them worked on a tugboat, out on the ocean for a week or ten days then back home for a week. The other drove a truck on long hauls.

They both made good money and were admirable in their determination to spend it as fast as possible when they were home but to my mind Art had the thing solved. He worked, when absolutely driven to it, until he had enough weeks to qualify for unemployment insurance, then quit. He made some extra money with the band, not much, but enough to make life that little bit more pleasant. When pressed he took anything available -- swamper on a furniture-moving truck, gardening, construction, anything that could be endured for a few days and then abandoned.

That was the way to do it -- a necessity-based approach rather than the endless nine-to-five slog. Both ways you ended up losing but if it was unavoidable the trick was just not to care about it, an attitude that was easier to adopt when you knew you weren't going to be there any longer than you had to. Most are given a life sentence at hard labour with no appeal possible; we had been handed the same, but we were taking it in small, manageable doses. We were short-timers who got frequent and extended passes back to the real world.

Would you work for this car?

My parents believed if they worked hard enough they would one day be out of debt but it was a fool's dream, contrary to everything they could see around them. Then again if they could believe what the priest told them they could believe anything. The world conspired to keep them in debt and it was created and organized for just that purpose: they bought furniture on the never-never, years of easy payments for crap that wouldn't last six months.

My stepfather's car was a budget import, Japan's revenge for the atomic bomb, a glorified Safeway cart. Each day he cajoled it into farting, shuddering life and aimed it for the freeway, bouncing along in a bucket of reclaimed tin and recycled plastic, only the fused and reshaped amalgam of doll parts, empty dog food cans and broken pens between his ass and the tarmac. It was a rolling, rattling piece of shit but he needed it desperately, to get to the lousy job where he could earn just enough to keep up the payments and insurance on the car. He was racing along a hamster wheel of futile suffering and wasted effort. He could have saved all that time and misery by running the hose from the Eureka vacuum in the hall closet -- only 19 payments left on that -- straight from the exhaust to the driver-side window, idling in the driveway with the radio on to sing him home to glory, but with his luck he would run out of gas halfway there.

So there were two roads: one where you worked and slaved till the day you died, relieved to breathe your last and be shut of the weary business, or another which you walked down at an easy pace, admiring the clouds and the flowers in the ditch -- always keeping an eye out for returnable bottles and cans -- and stopping now and then to rest under a tree and watch some other poor bastard working out in a field. Did I need to stand at the fork and think about which one to take? Save your breath -- I was already a small figure in the distance....

Music no one wants to hear

I called myself a musician if anyone asked but I was no more a musician than an actor reciting the daily specials was a movie star. If I had any goal it was to support myself playing music and to do that you needed to get out of Podunk and into the big city. Our band was not that bad, actually, but there was nowhere to play in White Rock or the neighbouring farming towns outside of house parties for beer and pass-the-hat. These were the days of the Top 40 bands who cranked out note-perfect versions of the hits of the day in the clubs and cabarets. It was a decent living but utterly soul-destroying and we had nothing but contempt for these people, the bands and the audiences alike. The musicians were an afterthought in those places at any rate -- if the owners could have taught a tape deck to sweat and hustle beer they would have fired them in a minute.

We had gone the other way. We wrote our own material and turned up our nose at commercial success, which was just as well as no-one in their right mind would have considered paying us to do anything other than stop. The music was loud, fast, distorted and purposefully vulgar, filthy jokes with a roar of feedback and a primitive beat like a drunk beating on a garbage can with a broken stick: people in their right mind were not our audience. The truth was there was no audience outside the bikers and drug dealers in our hometown.

They would have to get along without me, though. By the time I qualified for the unemployment rolls I was on my way to Vancouver. I told Rob I would call him with an address to forward my cheques to and put myself on a bus to the big city.

On Tuesday, John Armstrong lives on the Downtown Eastside, discovers what passes for fame as a local musician, and gets busted by welfare.  [Tyee]

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