TRUE TALES OF THE ROAD: Chilliwack’s trash can jam

Don’t upstage the headliner if you want to work in this town again.

This is part of “Vegas rules,” in old school showbiz lingo, an unwritten code of performer conduct that discourages warm-up bands from attempting to blow their headliners off the stage. It’s just common courtesy.

But sometimes it can’t be avoided – especially when the headliners are dicks who try to make you look bad on purpose. It happens.

Chilliwack’s Bill Henderson can remember the ‘70s pretty well, “which is weird because I was there,” he says. “It’s the ‘80s I have a problem with.” Indeed, there was one occasion where the band was forced to be the opening act for itself and the only thing Bill can remember is that the late Brian “Too Loud” MacLeod wore a rainbow clown wig. It might’ve made a good road story.

Playing Friday at the Century Casino, the 67-year-old guitarist recalls more clearly being an opening band at a Calgary arena in 1971 or so. In the heart of the hippie days, at least 20 years before My Girl (Gone Gone Gone) would thrust Chilliwack into the annals of Canadian rock history, Chilliwack was some kind of freaky acid-rock improv trio. It featured Henderson on guitar, Claire Lawrence on sax (playing bass on this particular night) and Ross Turney on drums. They looked like cast members from Escape from Planet of the Apes and played whatever they felt like at the time. Rebels. Backstage before the show, the young hippies were beating on some metal garbage cans they found, just for fun. The headliner was Eric Burdon and War.

“They had that song Fill the Glass? Spill the Wine, that was it,” Henderson says. “So we went on stage and started doing our show. In those days we did a lot of jamming. A lot of people think of jamming as the drums and bass play a rhythm and somebody solos on top of it for 15 minutes. That wasn’t what we did. It was all the musicians improvising at the same time. We would let the audience become part of the music. It’s not easy to do. You have to be very, very attentive and in the moment, trying to make every note you play true to what’s happening in the moment. And when you get it, people feel it and they know they’re a part of it, it’s exciting. It’s way more exciting than just playing a song.”

Unfortunately, they jammed a little too long, five or 10 minutes over their allotted time. Instead of sending up an impatient roadie to tap his wristwatch, come on, boys, time to wrap it up, Burdon’s people pulled the power plug. Guitar and bass were gone. All they had left were the live microphones and the drums – and Ross was apparently so far into the zone that he just kept playing.

Henderson continues, “So I say to our road manager, ‘go get those garbage cans from backstage.’ So we get the garbage cans, laid them on their sides, pushed the mics down and started playing them with our drum sticks. The audience went crazy. We were just making shit up as we went along. We would actually make up lyrics. We would’ve sung to the crowd and told them what was happening in the moment, made up a chant, ‘They pulled our plugs, they pulled our plugs.’ The audience would understand what’s going on and even understand that we didn’t care – and that’s what made it so great. We had a wonderful time.”

A question must be asked at this point: Were drugs involved?

“We usually had a little something going on,” Henderson says. “It wasn’t drugs or alcohol that did that. It might’ve made us a little looser, but we already had that attitude. These were the days of the hippies, for one thing, and prior to that some of us were involved with the beatnik thing, Jack Kerouac. We identified with the anti-establishment current in culture, to do something different, to respond differently, to not be cowed by pressure from people who are above you, as it were. It was the whole rebel spirit. There was John Lennon – who had the kind of balls that guy had?”

The garbage can jam did end eventually with no further incident. War went on as scheduled, maybe a bit late. Henderson says he never once exchanged a word with Burdon or anyone in the entourage, and the headliner “just played their hits” – as Chilliwack would wind up doing two decades later once the spirit of free jamming gave way to serious songwriting and recording. Maybe the trend had already started to turn at the War gig, which is maybe why they got unplugged. Who knows? One of the few examples of such attitude left today is Phish.

Henderson offers a short review of War: “The audience found it rather boring.” As for being the maligned and unfairly unplugged opening act, he says experiences like the trash can jam represent the most fun he’s ever had in his four decades-plus of playing music.

There’s a lesson there. Now if only we can remember it.