True North

Gravenhurst. Huntsville. North Bay. Sudbury. Gogama. Chapleau. Wawa. White River. Marathon. Thunder Bay. Our crazy-assed manager Bananas Foster booked The New Polka Kings into joints across Northern Ontario. And it was a kick too, let me tell you. Those were some of the best days I had with the band.

We had this beat up old school bus, plenty big enough to hold the band and all our crap. It was a real old shitter if you know what I mean, with one of those engines that just ran forever. What it didn’t do was go fast, and it seemed like we spent a sonofabitchin lot of time rattling around in that thing.

In the city we had some good crowds, especially since the punkers kind of adopted us, but up in those northern mining towns and pulp and paper towns, it was always a fantastic party. I don’t know, Maybe The Kings just connected with northern audiences in some special way or maybe it’s like that for rock bands playing up there too. I just know I loved every minute of it.

One night we were playing in, oh Jesus I can’t remember which town now. It was at some joint with a name like the Empire Hotel, and if it wasn’t the only bar in town it was one of maybe two. The band was cooking, and the dance floor was crowded and everyone was just having a great time.

Between sets, we were standing around, chatting with the locals, and I see this big guy lumbering towards me. He’s got an armful of beers, Labatts 50s if it matters, and when I say an armful, I mean he’s got to have more than a dozen bottles and he’s locked his arms around them and he’s somehow holding them up by pressure or maybe divine intervention. I could see he was aiming for a table just past where we were standing. His buddies were over there, laughing and having a good time. I’m seeing all this while I’m talking to somebody about his Uncle Clem who used to play accordion. Anyway, this guy is just a couple feet in front of me and he stubs his toe on something and he’s lost his balance and I can see he’s going to go ass over tea kettle, beers akimbo.

I abandoned Clem’s nephew and pivoted around and grabbed this guy and his beers, but the beers were popping out and we were spinning around and and the both of us were grabbing bottles. Staashu saw what was going on and he joined our crazy little dance. The three of us somehow or another spun to a stop over at the guy’s table without spilling a drop.

I guess a bunch of people noticed what was going on because they started to cheer and once a few people started to cheer, everybody started to cheer. Beer guy, who was very drunk, held up a bottle and shouted at the top of his lungs “POLKA IS GOD” then drained his beer in one fabulous gulp. The crowd cheered so he did it again and at this point everybody is clapping together and I look at beer guy and I can see the glint in his eye and I know he’s not done yet.

Beer guy grabbed another bottle of 50 and danced his way onto the stage, with the crowd urging him on. He started into a drunken parody of a burlesque dancer, and began stripping off his clothes, first shoes, then socks, then shirt and  trousers. He was whirling the clothing around his head, hurling each item from the stage into the cheering crowd. Buddy was down to his jockeys by the time his friends led him down from the stage toward the front door of the bar.

I turned to Staash and said I think it’s time to play some music, and we headed for the stage. Ndidi, Boom-Boom and Maggie were right behind us. Well the crowd was amped right up and everyone was dancing and having a fantastic time. Man what a set.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted, dragging my ass down the three steps from the stage, when this woman approached me, and she’s got one of beer guy’s socks and one of those heavy duty black markers and she wants me to autograph the sock, which of course I did. In fact I got the whole band to sign it. Why the hell not.

Now I never thought another thing about that sock until one day a guy I know calls me up and says there’s a New Polka Kings bootleg out. I didn’t know anything about it and Staashu didn’t know nothing either, so I go down to where he tells me and it’s a head shop on Yonge Street. Seriously, a head shop, where they sell bongs and shit. I go in there and I say, um do u sell records? And the guy he looks at me like I’m from Mars and points to a corner at the back of the place.

There it was, right at the front of the rack. The back cover had a picture of our old bus, and on the front there were 3 letters across the top – NPK – and below that, a photo of the sock, with all our signatures on it.

The Fall

Once the New Polka Kings started gigging, the project became all-consuming for Staashu. It was no surprise to anyone when Sabina finally packed him in. From what I could see, Staashu had been ignoring her for months. If I’m going to be drop-dead honest with you, I don’t think Staash was ever the kind of guy who put a lot of effort into relationships. He seemed surprised Sabina left, but if he was upset about it he didn’t show it.

Sabina and Staashu, they were an unusual couple. Any old fool could see the spark, the magnetism between them, but their relationship was volatile. At their happiest, they were arguing all the time. I never seen anything like it. When The Kings started to take off, though, all Staash wanted to do was rehearse, write, arrange and play. Everything was about the band. I’ll admit I was swept up in it too. I mean we were really starting to cook, and we were fast becoming known as the best party band around.  I suppose when the arguments stopped, it was the first sign of trouble.

The break-up hardly phased Staashu, but when Sabina took up with Jerzy Nojinsky, that stopped him in his tracks. Staashu had a hate-on for Jerzy. Me and Staash, we still worked for the Bottle & Can, although you wouldn’t know it with the strike going on so long. Jerzy headed up the local union, see. He was like some kind of workers’ evangelist, by all appearances a real zealot – but appearances can be deceiving.

At the Bottle & Can, everyone swore Jerzy was the real deal. He was super-active in the union, the kind of guy who returned your phone call, and took on your fight, and eventually he was elected president of the local. Employees who found themselves in a heap of trouble had nothing but good things to say about Jerzy Nojinsky.  I knew him from the old neighbourhood, though, from back in the day, and I didn’t believe it for a minute. All his life, anything Jerzy touched somehow or other turned to shit.

When the strike started, Jerzy was all over the papers and TV, fighting the good fight, speaking up for the little guy and all that jazz. Both sides dug in their heels though, and by the third week of the strike the story lost its currency. Those workers who still showed up to picket were getting strike pay, but word had it there wasn’t much left in the coffers. We were also hearing rumblings the Bottle & Can were going to pack up Canadian operations completely and retreat to someplace where there weren’t any unions. The whole thing was a mess. By that time though, we were gigging all the time so at least me and Staash, we were putting bread on the table.

Sabina was by Jerzy’s side that morning the cops came for him. They hand-cuffed him in the hallway outside his apartment and led him away to a waiting police car.

Jerzy stood accused of an elaborate scheme. He was creating fake contractors and billing the union local for imaginary jobs, all this over a two year period. The union had a sign-off protocol to prevent any shenanigans. Any expense over $500 had to be signed off by a member of the executive. Once Jerzy got himself elected, he simply signed off the invoices he created. He was draining the union dry.

Jerzy almost didn’t get caught.  It turned out an honest math error triggered a tax audit. The auditor smelled something fishy and he was one of those bulldogs who dug and dug and dug. The day after the arrest, the Bottle & Can announced the immediate closure of Canadian operations.

I wanted to go over to Ruby’s Place and get drunk with the guys I used to work with, but instead I was helping the band load up an old school bus with our instruments and amps and clothes and whatnot. Our manager Bananas Foster had booked The New Polka Kings on a whirlwind tour of Northern Ontario. By the time Sabina showed up at the practice space looking for Staashu, we were halfway to Gogama.

 

 

 

Bananas Foster

Gomer Kendrick Foster. Nobody ever called him Gomer, though. He was known in the music business as Bananas, like the dessert. Foster was an impresario, promoter, manager and general mover and shaker in the Toronto music scene. Legend had it he set up countless record deals and made more than a few careers. Even back when I was on the polka circuit I’d heard Bananas Foster stories, but you have to understand the polka scene was its own universe, and it was strictly meat and potatoes – no dessert.

Bananas Foster was the furthest thing from my mind that night at The Shoe. By this time, we were playing 4, sometimes 5 nights a week. We were the New Polka Kings but we were becoming known around Toronto as simply NPK. We’d been traveling around, playing anywhere Staash could book a gig within 3 and 4 hours drive of Toronto. It was all word of mouth, no marketing, no nothing, and it came at just the right time, because the strike at the Bottle & Can where me and Staashu worked, showed no sign of settling. Any cash we could get our hands on was welcome, believe you me.

People called us polka-punk and I guess that’s as good a way to describe the music as any – if nothing will do but you need to attach a label to it – nobody in the band ever used that term though, as far as I know. I mean, in a way, sure I guess we were a hopped up polka outfit, but we weren’t trying to put a box around what we did. You could hear elements of all kinds of music in our repertoire – punk and polka sure, but also Zydeco, Tex-Mex, R&B, Irish folk tunes, 60s pop music – we were all over the map, and we were having a blast developing our own sound. Besides, I was way too old to be a punk.

Playing The Shoe was like a graduation for us. We were moving up to bigger clubs. I guess you know you’re having some degree of success when the kids from the suburbs start coming out to your shows. We just wanted to fill the club, do our thing and get everyone dancing, and we were getting gigs so I guess we were doing something right.

It was after the second set. We were sitting backstage, chilling. I was sore and tired, I can tell you, and at that time it seemed I was pretty much always sore and tired. Back in my first go-round as a musician, I had the energy to play all night every night without paying for it later. These days I was OK while I was playing, but when I stopped and slipped the big accordion off my shoulders, man, I really felt its weight.

Like I said, it was after the second set. It was hot and really close in the club. I was covered in sweat, happy to have thought about bringing along a change of clothes. We were having a great night. I mean we were on fire out there, and the dance floor was packed, punkers in the centre by the stage, and off to the sides, the kids from the burbs trying to approximate the polka.

There were a couple people I didn’t know in the dressing room, friends of Ndidi and Boom-Boom, our rhythm section. We were draining bottles of Labatt’s 50, re-hydrating you might say. Our guitar player Maggie rolled up some reefer and sparked it up. I was going over a couple arrangements for the third set with Staashu.

The door to the dressing room burst open, and there stood a big man, scanning the room. He must have been six-seven or maybe even taller, stocky, dark-skinned. He had the biggest hands of anyone I’d ever seen. And he was wearing this get-up – I don’t know what else to call it but a get-up.

He had a white 10-gallon cowboy hat perched on his massive round noggin and snake-skin cowboy boots with brass tips on his equally huge feet. In between, he was wearing one of those Nudie Suits like Hank Snow and Buck Owens wore, except this one was more like Hank Snow on acid if you asked me. It had everything you could imagine going on, flowers and stars and musical notes and God knows what else, all arranged in an insane stew of gaudy rhinestones, glitter and tapestry.

Everyone in the room stopped talking and stared at the big man in the doorway. He worked the silence for several seconds and when he finally spoke, his voice was a deep, loud baritone, revealing just a hint of an accent from somewhere down in the Caribbean.

My name is Foster, Bananas Foster, and I’m going to make you famous.

Superheros

You get that notice from the union?

You mean the “you better picket or else” notice? Yeah, I got it.

You going?

I don’t know. You?

Jesus I don’t know. It’s not like I got a personal strike fund.

Me either. We got the gig Saturday night though and I got us two more lined up. That’s something.

Something, but not nearly enough to live on yet. That article sure helped though.

I’ll say. I had no idea The Sun even sent someone.

New Polka Kings Invade Punk Scene. The Sun gave us a quarter page including a picture of Maggie diving into a sea of dancers. Now that was a sight to behold.  Everyone was on the dance floor by that point, not exactly dancing the polka, but getting as close as this crowd was ever going to get.

By that time I was running on pure adrenaline. This was the first time I’d played a show in a decade and my body was protesting big time. I was hot and sweaty, and my fingers were swelling too. Now we were playing away and we had this fantastic groove happening when suddenly the guitar cut out of the mix. I glanced over to see what happened and there was Maggie taking off her guitar. I figured what she had in mind, but there was no stopping her. Two strides and she launched herself off the stage, her arms outstretched like some kind of polka superhero. If she had planned it, she didn’t tell anyone. The rest of us just kept on playing.

The gig at the Boneyard had come up fast and we didn’t even have a proper name yet, so we were billed as The Staash Dudas Band. That changed right after the article. Now we were The New Polka Kings, NPK for short, and people were talking about us. That was exciting and all, but the truth was we were still starting out. With the strike at the Bottle & Can, me and Staash – who both worked there to make ends meet – had to think about how we were going to put bread on the table. I didn’t much want to walk a picket line but I didn’t see a lot of options.

That afternoon I met Staashu for lunch and a few beers over at Ruby’s, and we walked down to the picket line together, both of us complaining about how we’d rather be anywhere else. Some of the guys were doing it out of a sense of solidarity. Others were scared the union reps would target them later if they didn’t picket. Me and Staash, we were doing it for the strike pay.

It was chaos down there if you know what I mean. The afternoon shift managers and soops were starting to cross the line and the picketers were giving them a hard time, trying to stop them from crossing. There were maybe a dozen hardcore strikers on the line stirring up trouble and there were a lot of workers down there who were seriously liquored up. It was so strange seeing how people, really mild-mannered people, people you know, can get so aggressive on a picket line. The whole scene smelled ugly. Staashu’s gal Sabina saw us and waived us over.

What’s happening?

We got word they’re bringing in scabs.

Really? When?

I don’t know. Anytime. I’m glad you’re here.

There’s a lot of drinking going on here.

What do you expect?

I don’t know. People do stupid things when they’re drunk.

And you haven’t been drinking?

Well yeah, but we only had 3 or 4 beers over at Ruby’s.

She laughed.

Don’t worry. It’s under control.

Shit, what’s that?

We heard the telltale clip-clop of horses and sure enough, 4 cops on horseback were slowly riding up the road.

Christ they’re bringing in the fucking cavalry.

The crowd of picketers pushed forward as the riders approached. Sabina rushed into the mix. There was chanting and shouting and the usual union sing-songs erupted from the crowd. The cops sat silently up on their horses, flanking the roadway. More cops poured out of a van and lined the street. It was happening. A bus filled with scabs turned the corner and that’s when it all went to Hell.

The whole thing happened in a blink of an eye. First there was a frantic ebb and flow as picketers tried to block the road and police pushed them back. The bus crept forward inches at a time. Somebody behind the line hurled a brick, smashing the front window. Glass rained down on picketers and the police. The cops on horses pulled out billy clubs. More shouting, then a horrible scream and a horse collapsed, stabbed with a shard of glass.

The cops went crazy when the horse fell, and started beating on picketers, throwing them to the ground, cuffing them, whacking them with their nasty little clubs. Paddy wagons pulled up. More cops. I never seen so many cops.

Lazy, I don’t see Sabina.

Me either Staash. Last I saw she was in the crowd by the road.

Aw Christ, man.

Staash started pushing his way into the crowd with me at his heels, but we ran into a wall of cops who shoved us back.

Sabina…. Sabina…. Has anyone seen Sabina?

There! She’s over there. The cops got her.

Sabina’s hands were cuffed behind her back. A burly uniformed officer dragged her toward the open doors of a paddy wagon and Sabina she was fighting and kicking all the way. A second cop joined the first, picked Sabina up and tossed her into the back of the van.

I saw Sabina spit in the cop’s face as he slammed shut the paddy wagon door.

The Boneyard

I was dreaming. We were on stage but it was some dive I’d never played before. Staashu was sitting down, playing concertina. I was behind his left shoulder with my big accordion. Maggie was there, wearing her Stratocaster and her Ramones t-shirt. Ndidi and Boom Boom were driving home the rhythm, loud and edgy. We were not your average polka band.

I was lost in the rhythm, shaking the bellows and man we were rocking. The dance floor was full and everyone was having a good time. Now this is where it gets strange. Everyone in the audience and everyone in the band, everyone except me – looked dead. Dead – like in some kind of cliché Hollywood way. It was like we were trapped in a bad zombie movie. Everyone was dancing and having a good time, but in my dream I was certain everyone was dead. I started laughing because it was such an absurd image, but nobody was laughing along with me. And then the music started changing. Boom Boom’s bass drum got louder and louder and all the other instruments got quieter and quieter until all I could hear was the loud thumping of the beat. Thumpa Thumpa Thumpa Thumpa.

I opened my eyes and the beat of the drum became a banging on my front door. My mouth was dry and my lips felt crusty. Every bang on the door echoed around my skull.

Go away!

Lazy, are you in there?

Go away! I don’t want any.

Lazy wake up, man. Wake up! It’s me, Staashu.

Aw man. My head hurts. What time is it?

Lazy, open the door. It’s 7 PM. You were supposed to have all the equipment down at The Boneyard an hour ago.

Aw Hell.

I staggered out of bed, pulled on a robe and opened the door.

What the fuck, Lazy? Jesus Christ, you look rough. What time did you stop drinkin’?

I don’t know.

We got a gig tonight, as if you didn’t know.

Aw fuck, Staashu. About that….

Don’t aw fuck Staashu me, Lazy, pull yourself together.

I can’t do this, Staash.

The Hell you can’t.

Just go away and leave me alone.

Get it together Lazy. I’m not going anywhere.

Geez man, I can’t do this.

Staashu started opening and closing cupboards in the kitchen. Where do you keep the coffee?

In the…it’s in the bottom cupboard.

Go take a shower.

I need to sleep.

Go take a goddamned shower. We don’t have much time.

Reality began to sink in. We had a gig, our first gig, at an old dance hall called The Boneyard, a place that featured a steady diet of punk acts these days. I was supposed to pick up all the amps and other equipment from the practice space at the Polish Hall and get it over to the gig and start setting up. This was not my finest hour.

I don’t know what happened, Staashu.

He shot me a look, a really nasty one. I tried to duck but was way too slow.

I um…

Just go shower. I’ll have coffee ready.

Unfortunately the shower neither eased my mind nor made the pounding in my head go away. By the time I emerged, Staashu had coffee and a sandwich ready for me. He took the Crown Royal dead soldier from the kitchen table and tossed it in the garbage.

I can’t do this. I haven’t been on stage in a decade.

You should have thought about that before joining the band, Lazy. We’re counting on you.

Staashu…

You’re gonna play.

Staash…

You’re gonna play. You’re gonna drag your sorry ass on stage and play your heart out. Then if you want to quit, quit, no hard feelings. Tonight you’re gonna play.

The truth was, I was scared, damned scared. I’d been on stage hundreds of times but today I was terrified. When I quit the music business I was running on empty, burnt out. I thought I was finished. I felt old. Of course, compared to the rest of the band, I really was old. What the Hell did I think I was doing?

We didn’t talk on the drive over to The Boneyard. I let my mind drift back to the last gigs I played all those years ago. It was a very dark time in my life, one I didn’t think about often. There was one thing, though, I could recall with certainty. People stopped coming to hear us play. That’s what finally finished it. People stopped coming.

It was obvious as we approached The Boneyard attendance wasn’t going to be tonight’s problem. Ndidi and Boom Boom had spread the word to all their friends, and it seemed like every punker in the city had come out for our little polka party.

Inside, I could see all our equipment was on stage and set up. Staash must have sent someone else to fetch it when I didn’t show. We walked back to the dressing room. I took a step in and just stood there, ready to take whatever abuse the band was going to hurl at me. I was feeling like an idiot. Maggie got up and gave me a big hug. Ndidi just grinned. Boom Boom looked at me and slowly nodded.

Fuckin’ eh. You’re here.

Yeah, I’m here. All those punkers out there know we’re a polka band, right?

Don’t worry about it. Just play hard like we been doing.

Staash gathered us around to go over the set list. His plan was to start the show with a long double-speed rendition of Who Stole the Kishka. We need to fill the dance-floor from the first tune. Take no prisoners, that’s what he said. My head hurt and I wanted to puke, but I didn’t. There was no place to hide.

We walked out on-stage without an introduction – which was ok since we didn’t even have a name yet. I could feel the party atmosphere in the air. The crowd, all decked out in leather and those Mohawk hairdos were loud and boisterous and clearly out for a party.

There was no turning back. The pounding in my head disappeared as I hoisted my big 35 pound accordion onto my shoulders and plugged in. Maggie and Ndidi faced one another and tuned. Maggie’s Strat was cranked right up, crackling at the edge of feedback. I turned to the drums and nodded. Boom Boom broke into an extended, intense roll then stopped it hard. I held out my arms, taking in the silence, counting to myself, seven, eight, nine, ten. Whoops and hollers from the crowd. Wait. Wait. Another second, the tension unbearable. I leaned into the mic.

One and two and….

 

 

Wildcat

Doug Donagal drove his forklift off the high dock at the Bottle & Can at 9:43 PM Thursday May 20, 1982. He died instantly. Three hours later, the union announced the first wildcat strike in the company’s history. It never should have happened.

The first thing you have to understand is that contract negotiations were heating up. The company planned to introduce more mechanization and that meant fewer jobs and the union was fighting it like John Henry and the steam drill. We all figured a strike was inevitable later that summer, but Doug Donagal changed everything.

I didn’t know Dougie all that well. He mostly kept to himself, did his job. Outside of work the only interaction we had was when he asked me to look at an old accordion he was thinking of buying for his kid. It turned out the thing was a tank, barely playable. I made a few calls and found him a pretty good student model. It was an old box, but it was in tune, the waxes were solid, the bellows hardly leaked, and it was pretty responsive. The best thing was I got it for him at half the price of the junker he was looking at. Now, I have to tell you there was a bit of a downside to that story. His ex was all pissed off because Dougie bought the kid an accordion. Said it was too noisy, too this, too that, she didn’t have time to take him for lessons, and so on. She wanted him to take it back, but he wanted his son to play accordion. I respected him for that.

Have you ever worked in a place that was close to a strike? I can tell you there was a serious lot of tension in the air all spring at the Bottle & Can. The union and the company were trading propaganda back and forth, the usual crap. I was pretty sure neither side was being up front with us. Then on the Monday of that week – on the midnight shift – a conveyor collapsed, stopping production for hours. By some kind of miracle nobody was hurt. Management investigated and told the union they suspected sabotage. Jerzy was indignant and accused The Boss of shoddy safety practices. Every time I saw Jerzy, he was red-faced and shouting. It was getting ugly.

I’d taken break on my own that night, trying to work out some arrangements for the band, and I got back to my station on the line a couple minutes early. That’s how I know it happened at 9:43. The sound of the forklift surprised me because the drivers never, ever came back early from break. I looked up and there was Dougie on the fork, running full speed toward the docks. He was waving his ball cap with one hand, steering with the other.

It all happened in a blink of an eye. When Dougie didn’t slow down I realized he was going to drive right off the dock, and that’s just what he did. There was chaos after the crash. Everyone running to the docks. Several of us tried to move the machine but it was too heavy. The ambulance was on its way but would be of no help to Dougie Donagal.

Walt Martin – he was the blow-hard plant manager – showed up and started barking orders. I tried to tell him Dougie did it deliberately but he brushed me off, didn’t have time for me. Listen, he said, we’re going to do a thorough investigation. We’ll talk to all the witnesses. Fine. I saw Jerzy and tried to get his attention.

Listen Lazy, we can talk later. We gotta get some mechanics in to look at this fork. Looks like the brakes failed.

Fine, fine, fine. We were being herded away from the scene by the security people. I left the plant and walked over to Ruby’s, leaving the whole mess for people who didn’t see a damned thing to sort out.

By the time Jerzy walked into the bar, I was half in the bag. He went right over to Ruby and said something to her, and she stopped what she was doing and shut off the music.

OK listen up everybody. We’re on strike as of now. We have evidence the company missed two preventive maintenance checks on Dougie’s forklift. If it wasn’t for that, he’d be alive right now. Picket schedules will be posted on the union hotline. Everybody is expected to get out there and picket. There will be no strike pay unless you log your hours on the line. That’s it.

He waved at Ruby, turned around and walked out of the bar.

Hey Lazy.

Hi Stash.

You seen Sabina?

No, she hasn’t been here. Maybe she’s down at the union hall.

Yeah, I wish she’d back away from all that union stuff.

You mean Jerzy?

I guess that’s exactly what I mean.

Hey you know Dougie drove off that dock on purpose?

What?

I shit you not. He was waving his hat and I swear to God he was smiling. He looked like goddamned Slim Pickens riding the bomb to Hell in Dr. Strangelove.

Well, fuck. You told Walt Martin that?

I tried to. He wasn’t interested in hearing about what happened. Same with Jerzy. They’re too caught up in this strike crap, they don’t want to know what happened. This poor guy killed himself and both sides are using it to make hay. Bastards.

Hey you figure out those arrangements we talked about?

Oh yeah, no problem. Ready to go for next rehearsal.

Thanks Lazy. You want another?

One more, Staashu. Thanks.