TRUE TALES OF THE ROAD: Streetheart’s fickle fingers of fate

If you had told Streetheart 30 years ago that they’d be playing a sold-out show in Fort Edmonton Park in 2011, “We would’ve called you insane,” says guitarist Jeff Neill.

And yet, here they are – headlining Rock the Fort at the Blatchford Air Hangar on Saturday night – after road tales so numerous the best is impossible to pick. Plus the really good ones can’t be told, because, as Neill puts it, “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.”

Booze, drugs and groupies throwing themselves at you without the fear of AIDS? What’s not to understand?

We’re getting off track here. Guitar players out there might want to avert their eyes for this story. It’s a bit gross – and not just because it’s 1981 (the year the Bad Hair Began). Neill has just joined Streetheart, having replaced John Hannah, who in turn had replaced Paul Dean, who left in 1979 to form Loverboy (we need one of those rock ‘n’ roll flow charts right about here). Neill’s in the recording studio for the first time, very excited to start the first day of sessions what would become the platinum 1982 “Streetheart” album. The sliding glass door to the isolation room is a little sticky. The guitarist wrenches on it, it springs free and slams shut– on the two inside fingers of his fretting hand.

“It slammed so hard that it popped the tops of both of my fingers wide open,” he says. “It split the calluses right through to the meat, popped them open like sausages – bloody freakin’ sausages. Blood was pouring out.”

Does he cry? Does he quit? Does he sue the studio? Does he demand a trip to the hospital and put the $1,500-per-day recording session on hold? He does not. He takes some painkilling medication that just happens to be on hand – “alcohol eases a lot of pain” – and does his gig. Although Neill later gets a chance to overdub the solos, you can still hear his two-finger playing in the rhythm guitar track on One More Time.

“It actually worked out. I don’t play particularly difficult stuff anyway,” Neill says. “I write stuff that I can play while I’m jumping around. It’s not about the guitar anyway. The song is the master – always.”

He thought he’d “pulled a Tony Iommi” – referring to fact that the British guitarist lost the tips of two fingers on his fretting hand while working in a Birmingham sheet metal factory before he formed Black Sabbath; Iommi plays with special prosthetic ends to this day – but Neill’s fingers turned out just fine.

His band? Not so much.

Sorry if this is starting to read like an episode of Behind the Music, but the ridiculous economics of the Canadian rock industry of the time caught up with Streetheart. Making a record in the good old days of analog tape cost around $100,000 – so even a successful album “wouldn’t make you rich.” The band was also getting killed on the massive production necessary to do Canadian arenas – all eight of them – and still weren’t having any luck breaking into America. It didn’t help that the next album “Dancing With Danger” tanked. In 1983, they released the double-live “Live After Dark” set (some of the tracks recorded live at Northlands Coliseum) and hit the road again. Streetheart suffered the death blow as the tour ended. They went to count their profits – and there weren’t any. “Our manager ran off with the proceeds and left us completely high and dry,” Neill says. It’s not a unique story, he allows, but “it spelled the end of Streetheart.”

They tried to carry on, but it didn’t last. “We were frustrated with the fact that we weren’t getting anywhere – and then this hit and it was like, aw, fuck, that’s it. We’re done.”

We wouldn’t be here if the story didn’t have a happy ending. Neill, singer Kenny Shields and keyboardist Daryl Gutheil reformed the band in 1996 and to this day remain a staple of the Canadian classic rock circuit. Streetheart has not returned to the studio since.

Opening Saturday’s show will Train Wreck, the Flying Saucers and Danielle Morin.