Published Dec 01, 2000When it comes time to write the history of alt-country that is, the reinvention of country music by a generation weaned on punk it will be written by Americans, and it will exclude many Canadians that are in danger of being forgotten in their own country. Because of this, Jr. Gone Wild will never take their historical place alongside Uncle Tupelo. Blue Rodeo, because they had commercial success that immediately reduces their "cool" factor, will always be overlooked next to minor players like the Jayhawks. And because Canadians had a tendency to gravitate towards their rediscovered influences with enthusiastic levity, it was easier to take the artists less seriously, much like Stompin' Tom had always been perceived as merely a novelty act. But the revisited roots music created in Canada during the 80s was rarely imitative, consistently inventive, remarkably enduring, and ahead of its time.
Mike McDonald of Edmonton's Jr. Gone Wild recalls being tagged with the term "cowpunk" before it ever appeared in the press. "I remember three drunk guys at three different times in three different places coming up with the term cowpunk,'" says McDonald. "'Thatsh what you guysh are! Cowpunk!' In each case the guy was so inspired by his epiphany I was certain he was going to the copyright office the next day. Being a punk rocker, a part of me liked it. The other part of me didn't like it, because I wasn't about fashion and clever little catch phrases. What we did, we did naturally. There was never a band meeting where we agreed to experiment with country and western.
"For what it's worth, and it isn't worth much, we were ahead of the game by about ten years," he continues. "Alt-country exploded almost the very next day after Jr. Gone Wild split up [in 1995]. Being ahead of your time sucks."
This is the tale of two Canadian roots revivalists, one east and one west. One wanted to bring traditional country to punk and new wave audiences, the other wanted to play country with the attitude, energy and volume of punk rock. They both battled substance abuse, and only one of them got out alive. And in the true blue Canadian tradition of cultural bulimia, both run the risk of being forgotten for their musical legacy. Ladies and gentlemen, the ballads of Handsome Ned and Jr. Gone Wild.
On January 9, 1982, a tall, imposing figure in a large cowboy hat took the stage in the back room of Toronto's Cameron House. He called himself Handsome Ned, and he was about to start a five-year tradition that galvanised the Toronto music community. Every Saturday afternoon, Handsome Ned's matinee performance would be packed to the rafters with punks, rockers, country fans, new wave refugees and anyone who knew that it was the place to be. Armed with a larger-than-life personality and a voice as towering as his physical frame, Handsome Ned turned his audience on to the compelling charms of country music, which was hardly in vogue at the time. Handsome Ned made no attempt to dumb it down, camp it up, or fuse it with modern forms instead, he tackled it straight on with a fiery passion that was entirely convincing. Five years later, to the day, he would be struck down by a heroin addiction, shocking his peers and fans, and leaving behind music that still sounds vital today.
After hitchhiking across Canada and spending some time in Austin, Texas, Handsome Ned (born Robin Masyk) started a rockabilly band, the Velours, with his brother Jim. "The Velours used to do a lot of early Elvis, some originals, and Velvet Underground covers," says Jim Masyk. "It was a mix of influences. We also did Sleepin' With the TV On' by the Dictators and various things. When we formed, Ned had this cowboy hat and lamb-chop sideburns and we were going for rockabilly with a country edge, but targeting the new music audiences at the time. We weren't going after country music audiences, we were going after the people on [Toronto's] Queen Street."
The Velours morphed into the Sidewinders in 1981, which included drummer JD Weatherstone from the Demics, and they often gigged with the Viletones and the One-Eyed Jacks, featuring ex-Forgotten Rebel Chris Houston and guitarist Steve Koch. "I started to get into country when I met Ned," says Koch. "It was never a traditional part of my musical upbringing. But at that point I was ready to be turned around, because it struck me as not being a dead art form. It was happening right now, was really talking to people and wasn't all smoke and mirrors. It was the lyrical content and the dedication."
In 1983, Koch and Ned formed an outlaw country band called the Running Kind. "I can't think of anybody else on Queen St. that was doing that at that time," says Koch. "There were certainly the real professional bands playing country, just like there always were and always will be. But they weren't downtown, and we brought a different perspective to it, having been through the musical upbringing we had been through."
That same year, the Sidewinders broke up when Jim Masyk left for the stability of a day job. Before the split, the band released a seven-inch single, "Put the Blame on Me." Perhaps Ned's strongest composition, the song would be used to great effect in Bruce McDonald's 1989 film Roadkill, where it plays over the opening credit sequence featuring the Good Friday parade down Toronto's College Street the title phrase juxtaposed with shots of an actor portraying Jesus carrying his cross.
By 1984, his Saturday afternoon matinee was the weekly social hub of Queen Street. "There was this whole scene built around Ned," says Jim Masyk. "I can't imagine how many people he knew. He was very street level Hey, you coming out to see me?' just a promotional machine."
"Ned was the king; he was a scenester," says Blue Rodeo's Greg Keelor. "Because of Ned, [Blue Rodeo] had something to do, that didn't seem like we were doing something on our own. A Valentine's Day gig he did was our first or second gig. We didn't have that facility as a band. Luckily, there was something there for us to step into and for our music to be heard. He was really legit, and committed to that sort of amphetamine country. He had a very exciting voice and a great, cool band."
Ned's vocals were central to his appeal. In his voice, one can detect traces of all the rockabilly greats to come out of Sun Records in the 50s the grit of Johnny Cash, the sweetness of Roy Orbison, and the unshakeable swagger of Elvis Presley. "He had an amazing voice, a really great set of pipes," says Steve Koch. "Sometimes I wonder if it really comes through [on recordings], but he could sing louder than the average guy, had great sustain and really good control. It's an honest kind of sound. He talked the same way he sang. There's nothing fake about it, and people liked that."
In 1984, the Handsome Neds were born, with Koch, Weatherstone, and upright bassist Rene Fratura, who had moved from Vancouver and Herald Nix's band solely to play with Ned. Their one and only seven-inch was well received at campus radio and on the CBC, but the support of Toronto's mainstream country station CFGM made a big difference. They invited the Handsome Neds to play on their syndicated "Opry North" program, recorded live at the Birchmount Tavern in Scarborough. "Apparently, we got the first encore that was ever allowed [on the program]," says Steve Koch. "That was a step into the mainstream, but Ned was never really interested in going into the mainstream. He definitely knew what he was doing and what those people were doing was not where he was going."
While everything seemed to be moving forward for the Handsome Neds, the band broke up on the eve of the third annual Handsome Ned Picnic on Toronto Island in 1986. It wasn't a great day for Ned: he was abandoned by his band, his guitar was stolen and the police busted the event, seized all the money, and charged him for not having a liquor license. "All of us were supposed to go, and we said That's it, we're not going,'" recalls Steve Koch. "Nobody likes to say it, but there were dope problems, which leads to not getting paid' problems. We were losing a bit of focus as to what's important."
In the meantime, he had assembled the New Neds, and was scheduled to record demos for a full-length album in January, 1987. But that same month, the night before his Cameron matinee was to celebrate its fifth anniversary, Handsome Ned succumbed to a heroin overdose in the back of his beloved Cameron House. "It was a real shocker," remembers Steve Koch. "We'd pretty much figured that all of that stuff was in the past, that he was headed for new and bigger and better things."
Once news of Ned's death broke, his friends and fans congregated at the Cameron. "It was an immediate wake," recalls Steve Koch. "Everyone knew where to go, right away." After his funeral a couple of days later, there was a procession of cars down Queen St., and like the death of a public figure, people lined the streets to pay their respects. "Hundreds of people were standing around who knew him," says Koch, "and that's not including the people who actually went to the funeral; there must have been 50 cars."
Ned's death was noted in the media with a mixture of drug sensationalism and fond musical memories. "The media needs some kind of sensationalist angle," rationalises Steve Koch. "That's how they sell papers. You can't deny that he died of an overdose it's true, you can't gloss it over. A lot of papers also reflected on the importance of the music and what he'd done."
Two years later, a posthumous compilation was issued by Virgin Records Canada, whose president Doug Chappelle had been a Ned fan and had conducted preliminary conversations with Ned about a record deal before his death. The Ballad of Handsome Ned consisted primarily of Sidewinders recordings, as well as the two songs from the Handsome Neds' single.
This year, after researching Ned's audio archives, Jim Masyk compiled a two-CD set titled The Name Is Ned, featuring re-mastered versions of every studio session he ever did, as well as live tapes from his Cameron House shows featuring the Handsome Neds, and live solo radio performances from CKLN. The fact that Masyk convinced EMI Canada to release it is a testament to the fact that Ned did have fans in the industry, who could have helped bring him to larger audiences had he not met an untimely end.
"It's helpful to reflect back," says Masyk of the compilation. "Not only for me personally, having grown to understand better and seeing where his music went and listening to the influence. This was for me and his fans. If other people like it, great. This is Ned, this brings him alive. This is what he said and how he was. It was his character that came through, not just in his singing or his activities like picnics and radio shows, but on stage, how comfortable he was. To take what he was really like when he was sitting around with friends and a few beers."
Mike McDonald of Jr. Gone Wild lived to tell his tale of fusing country and punk, taking the low road through Canada's dingiest clubs, fed with a rugged determination and a dangerous amount of alcohol between 1983 and 1995. Their influence remains strong, particularly in Western Canada, either through the umpteen bands formed by ex-members or through the memories of people who picked up the torch. Carolyn Mark of the Corn Sisters and with her own solo career recalls having a revelation after hearing Jr. Gone Wild's "Slept All Afternoon" for the first time.
"Lyrically and rhythmically, the song made me feel all funny inside like time had stopped and, you know, it spoke to me.' A few months later Jr. Gone Wild came to Harpo's in Victoria for a weekend and I saw them every time they came to town. I had never heard music like it before. Later, I found out the stuff they were influenced by Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams etc. but they were the vehicle that brought it to me. They made me want to play in a band."
Mike McDonald formed the band in Edmonton on his 20th birthday, June 26, 1983, influenced equally by Neil Young and Moe Berg's local power-pop punk band, the Modern Minds. "I was kind of thinking of doing a heavy sounding folk rock type of deal," he says. "The whole idea of starting acoustic and building to the wall of distorted sound seemed amazing to me. The problem was, everyone I knew was getting into the L.A. hardcore punk scene." SNFU's Kenny Chinn exposed him to Alejandro Escovedo's L.A. roots-rock band Rank and File, and it all clicked. "It was as if I was given permission to proceed with my ideas," McDonald admits.
Within a year of forming, McDonald was the only founding member left. He regrouped with a new line-up, including Jr. Gone Wild stalwart and bassist Dove Brown. They shared management with SNFU, which led to a record deal with SoCal punk label BYO, for whom Jr. Gone Wild recorded their jangly 1986 debut, Less Art More Pop. The next three years were crammed with thousands of kilometres and a few rotating band members, including new guitarist/songwriter Steve Loree. After a potential major deal with Island went south, Jr. Gone Wild released the seminal Folk You cassette, featuring live material and stray demos of material that would find its way onto future releases.
Around this time, they were enlisted onto Stony Plain, an Edmonton roots label. "Back then, the new' thing was roots music, whatever the hell that is," says McDonald. "I went from thinking I was a punk rock survivor to roots rock visionary Christ, our press kits were embarrassing!"
Jr. Gone Wild's first Stony Plain album was titled Too Dumb To Quit, their best-sounding recording to date, beefing up the best Folk You material with louder guitars and just enough of a pop sense to make it a potential crossover. The album title is a phrase that Canadian rock critics like to recycle often. "That was my romantic view of the band: the show must go on and all that rot," says McDonald. "People quit the band or got kicked out all the time: fighting, bad health, drinking, playing shit-holes, getting robbed, being cold. We'd been through all that hell before we made Too Dumb. I knew bands who broke up over things that occurred to us on a daily basis. If you were in Jr. Gone Wild, you were part of something that not everyone can handle. It may have destroyed my mental health, but it did wonders for my self esteem."
A 1992 tour in Europe was one such example. "It was the hell tour from hell," says McDonald. "We landed in Amsterdam to find out immediately that a) our van just got towed and, b) half the gigs were cancelled. We were very broke and went three days without food at one point. Our soundman was hypoglycaemic and losing his mind. I was the only one who was kind of used to not eating; by this time I was an amazing alcoholic. It was a shitty situation all around.
"However, whenever we did get to play we made the most of it. We went over well pretty much everywhere we went. When we went back a couple years later to play Berlin, there was a lot of kids in cowpunk bands who came to see us. We had Lance Loree playing with us then. I guess they all knew what pedal steel sounded like, but they had never actually seen one in the hands of a master, so they had the treat of their musical lives. I was surrounded by guys asking questions about us, country music, the Beat Farmers they were duly impressed to find out I was friends with them and when I brought up the name Gram Parsons, they all fell silent and listened with reverence to anything I had to say about the man. It was great."
The Pull the Goalie album was made immediately after that tour, a four-week recording break in the middle of seven months on the road, and captures the band including guitarist Chris Smith, who contributes "1000 Miles to Go" at their peak as a group of players and writers. Unfortunately, it was also the height of McDonald's alcoholism, which was threatening to kill both the band and himself before he decided to go sober after a disastrous gig in Jasper. "I had alcohol poisoning, and was doing a bad job," McDonald recalls. "I hated everyone and everything. Rock bottom. I had already contracted alcoholic hepatitis and gastritis, and it came down to quit or die.
"I was avoiding a lot of stuff, so denial is definitely a part of [the drinking]," he continues. "We were basically a bunch of twisted individuals who made their own therapy and got busy, instead of going on psych pensions and such. Things were never the same after I quit booze. I started writing better and playing better, and our audience packed up and went home. They deserted us."
It was also a time when an explosion of new independent music shoved some veterans off to the side, a time when cowpunk was considered dead and alt-country had yet to become a catch phrase. Jr. Gone Wild's swan song, 1995's Simple Little Wish, was about resilience and survival, although the band folded a few short months after its release, when Dove decided that was it.
"He was the first one to see we'd hit God's brick wall," says McDonald. "I tried very hard to talk him out of it. I just couldn't carry it on without him. He was quiet and polite and a very nice guy, unlike the rest of us, but he was a strong factor in how we defined ourselves as a team and a band."
After Jr.'s demise, McDonald formed a fast and furious punk trio, and in 1997, recorded an album with them that he scrapped at the last minute. He then formed a more pop-oriented band with two female vocalists and a keyboardist, and released an album called Is This Thing On? this fall. "There were tons of unresolved musical issues from my past," says McDonald. "Here I had an opportunity to explore all that. That stuff never got done in Jr. because it wasn't Jr. type of stuff. My post-Jr. work was all based on the music end of things. Jr was so much about character and impact. I wanted to see if the music itself could have an impact."
Meanwhile, McDonald has become a ubiquitous presence in Edmonton as a solo acoustic act, mining his rich songbook and hosting open stages. "I've really gone deep into the songwriting thing, and my disdain for the business is such that I am hesitant to participate in the current marketplace," he says. "The art end of things is more important to me still. I either really believe this, or I haven't shed my teenage naïveté yet."
Today, McDonald greets the Jr. Gone Wild legacy with a mixture of pride and what-ifs. "I had a musical agenda," he insists. "Over time I started to look at the rock/country fusion with an eye towards changing the face of modern country music. Pure hubris, and the band died before I had a chance to beak off about it. Over time one gets used to a fate of being a conduit: always a bridesmaid and all that shit. My only regret is that we ended so alone but we started that way, so what the hell. If we were an influence in a positive way, I can be happy about that, and maybe that is good enough. My deepest hope is that we get at least a footnote in the history of Canadian rock'n'roll. It would be good to know that it all really mattered. We put everything we had into it. I won't bullshit you and say we did it for our fans. We did it because we felt we had to. We were driven to do it. For what it's worth, we were glad to do so."