By Jean-Pierre Allard
I was much too young to remember Elvis Presley’s 1957 concert at the old Auditorium on Argyle, but how can I ever forget when the Beatles invaded North America in February 1964 and changed our humdrum existence overnight? Having just lost my dad a few weeks before, the Mop Tops provided the balm to help ease the pain from his fatal heart attack.
The ripples from the Fab Four’s new musical twist on the old beatnik blues were also felt in Ottawa when the Staccatos and Esquires made the AM charts with the Mersey-inspired songs It’s A Long Way Home and So Many Other Boys respectively. This led to an eruption of other local bands (Townsmen, The Heart, Don Norman and The Other Four, 5D and the Skaliwags) and happenings (The Roost, The Rib, The Hub and The Oak Door) all over what was still a staid and fun-deprived government town. Adding to the lore was Ottawa journalist/music manager Sandy Gardiner, whose quote was reprinted on the cover of the Capitol label’s Canadian release of With The Beatles, his name growing in stature as he was eventually credited with being the first to coin the term Beatlemania.
By late September 1965, some of us ninth-graders had been coaxed (more like coerced) by our would-be girlfriends to go on CJOH’s Saturday Date, a pale version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, whose original host, newscaster Peter Jennings, had been lured to the Big Apple by the fledging ABC network and was replaced by John Pozer, who soon gave way to crooner Dick Maloney, after founding the Sir John A. MacDonald record label. Long before that station’s You Can’t Do That On Television (of Alanis fame) shocked some hoity-toity types in the early 80’s, a young Rick Lefebvre was showing Ottawa that you certainly can appear on television as a male go-go dancer and get away with aping Hullabaloo’s finest gyrating girls.
And in the aftermath of the Summer of Love, here I was, barely 15, sneaking my first “mickie” inside my pea jacket on a Sunday afternoon rendez-vous at Eastview’s old Roost, where a couple of quick swigs and the soulful beat of The Mandala featuring Domenic Troiano of later James Gang fame – another week it was George Oliver and his Soul Revue – got you dancing madly with those west end girls, ever-so-hip in their mini-skirts and knee-high leather boots. One of those emancipated girls, whom we’d been eyeing with amorous intent all afternoon, told us in between taking long drags from her weird, filter-less cigarette, that we’d better get our asses down to Parkdale United Church because bands called The Heart and The 5D were playing groovy music there on Friday nights.
I wish someone else would have been nice enough to inform us to go down to The Oak Door on Bank because by the time we heard that girls were admitted for free on Wednesdays and Thursdays, that promotion had been canned. Pity, for l’embarras du choix would have been such a happy dilemma for us hungry wolves.
Most Saturday nights would find us hitchhiking to what seemed like far-away Pineland’s Dance Hall on Riverside Drive, hoping to meet some more hot stuff, but instead invariably ending up fighting their boyfriends whom we recognized as the same ones we had just lost to earlier in the day in Robert Campeau’s Cradle League hockey games at the Auditorium, the precursor of the Ottawa District Minor Hockey Association. Yes indeed, Sir Elton, Saturday nights were alright for fighting.
Building upon this dance craze, the slick city fathers converted part of Union Station, the cathedral of railway gares by the Rideau Canal which had recently been rudely relocated east to something called Hurdman, into a dance hall known as The Hub, allowing us restless teens to drop in on Friday nights for some very loud and lewd rock and roll, courtesy of the Modern Rock Quartet (later shortened to M.R.Q. when they became the house band at Hull’s majestic Chez Henri club). We were also frequent visitors of the Chaudière Hotel’s Green Door where one particularly mean and ill-tempered bouncer named Gerry Barber made damn sure we always behaved, for fear he’d leave us hanging down from the vestibule’s ornate chandelier. But that was later in the decade when everything had become such a fog that I simply cannot recall any of the bands, except for Merge whose drummer was my best friend and who had a semi-permanent gig at the Ottawa House at the corner of Rue Principale and Eddy in Hull.
Lest we got bored, we could always find our thrills at the old decrepit Coliseum, adjacent to Lansdowne Park that was home to the football Rough Riders and the Canadian Central Exhibition, and whose rock concerts proved to be just a tease for the major ones that we would soon experience at the centennial work-in-progress Civic Centre (say, did John Bonham’s drum solo really last more than 5 minutes at the April 1970 Led Zeppelin gig?), or at the brand new National Arts Centre (so sorry for all those burn marks in the Opera’s thick red carpet.)
Another day in March 1968, I was at Harvey Glatt’s Treble Clef record store on Rideau Street listening to Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love with my girlfriend when I heard that something called The Jimi Hendrix Experience was coming to the grand and lavishly decorated Capitol Theatre on Bank Street, but it hardly sounded like a rock band to me so I passed, idiot wind that I was.
Years later, I read in the Ottawa Citizen that on the same night of the Hendrix concert at the Capitol, Jimi went to hear the hip, up-and-coming Saskatchewan folk singer Joni Mitchell at the eclectic Le Café Hibou on Sussex Drive, owned by Denis Faulkner at the time and one of only two Ottawa spots where one could get an espresso or cappuccino.
Later on that night, both musicians apparently ended up at the Motel de Ville on Montreal Rd. in Eastview, along with their token groupie contingent. This seedy little spot, which would gain city-wide prominence only a year later when its disco dance club ‘‘The Moussepathèque’’ became the place for all cool cats to “be at” during that wild Polk-Salad Annie summer of 1969, was only a stone’s throw away from my backyard. Upon reading this, I immediately thought: how dare that Jimi dude bring his crosstown traffic into my neighborhood and not drop me off some of his purple haze! Although by then, I most likely had already blasted off, busy listening to Ottawa’s first underground radio show on CKBY-FM, “Free Form Radio” with iconic host the late Brian Murphy turning us on to music never heard before, such as War’s eerie Fidel’s Fantasy, reminiscent of the Cold War era, the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, with its round album jacket or The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out which actually did make me freak out one sleepless night.
Every night did seem like Saturday night back then, a time when the music never was over, even if the Doors’ perception clearly stated otherwise. Whatever, Jim Morrison was dead right about music being your only friend in the end. Some fifty years later, I’ve yet to forget that supreme lesson.