A wise oracle once declared “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.”
Those words were true when one Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott first uttered them 40 years ago and they’re still true now. Especially if you’re a hard-touring act who criss-crosses the Canadian Shield each year to rock the stages and, occasionally, burrito restaurants across this country.
Like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away from him, though, sometimes those shows feel so far from the top that they border on hopeless, a soul-searching wallow in depths so low they can be characterized only as… pathetic.
AUX spoke to seven Canadian musicians about their most pathetic live show performances. If there’s any commonality to the pathetic musical experience, it usually involves some combination of a) long travel, b) an untraditional venue, c) poor to no pay, and/or, d) a shitty to non-existent PA system.
Here are their pathetic stories:
This working man solo act had an ugly experience at a place called the Wash ‘n’ Slosh in Saskatoon, SK.
“It was my first tour I ever did,” Johnston says. “I was in Saskatoon at a place that doesn’t exist anymore called the Wash ‘n’ Slosh and I was really excited because it was the biggest guarantee I had ever got, they promised me $150. Also, they promised me and another guy Mayor McCa, who was the headliner, hotel rooms. I was really excited because I never got money or hotel rooms ever.”
“I had to actually bus back to Ontario after this night. I get to the venue and the PA either isn’t hooked up or doesn’t work, so they have to call the owner to come and he’s so drunk that he falls down a flight of stairs trying to get to this the basement bar. It turned out to be the highlight of the evening because he turned out to be a huge asshole. It took him until about 1 a.m. to get the PA working. By that time there was about eight people there, they were all sketchy, and I didn’t even put out merch because I thought they would steal it.”
“Mayor McCa, the guy I was with, was the most positive guy, saying ‘Well this is still going to be great…’ while he set up his giant merch spread. And of course nobody cares or was watching us. We played the show and the owner left and we’re like, ‘Hey, could you pay us?’ ‘Oh no, the owner can pay you. Can you come back tomorrow?’ And I basically was like, ‘No, we’re leaving town and we’re not going to be back.'”
“They seemed like they weren’t going to pay us so I started stealing everything I could get — cables, mics, DI boxes — in a bag to rob these guys. So finally a manager shows up and doesn’t want to pay us, he goes, ‘Well, nobody showed up…’ I’m like, ‘I know, but you said you didn’t have to tell us you were going to pay us but you did.’ So they finally paid us at about three in the morning.”
“And then as far as the hotel? They say ‘OK you’re going to this place called the Diplomat downtown. So there’s your hotel, the Diplomat.’ We go down and get there at four a.m. and it turns out they didn’t actually pay for the rooms, they just made the reservations. And my bus didn’t leave til four p.m. the next day so I had to stay in Saskatoon waiting to leave.”
The Pack A.D.
According to Maya Miller, drummer for Vancouver stomp rockers The Pack A.D., the band’s first attempt to play a show outside of their hometown didn’t go well.
“It was in Kamloops, in a bar that I can’t remember the name of now, but it was attached to a bowling alley and a Best Buy. I don’t think they ever had shows there, but for some reason we booked a show there.”
“We showed up and there was no PA system. They were like, ‘You should pull out a PA?’
“We were like, ‘Why would we bring a PA?’ They go, ‘Cause that’s what bands do.’
“We go, ‘Well we don’t have a PA’ and they were like, ‘OK, well play anyway.’
“So we did and Becky (Black, singer/guitarist) went up to people’s tables and tried to sing, while playing guitar, without a microphone. There were two people at their tables. We lasted about three songs and then we stopped playing. And then this guy comes up to us and he’s like, ‘I want you to know that I thought it was unacceptable that there was no PA and I demanded my money back. So I got a refund.’
“He was really proud of himself. I told him that was the only way we were getting paid, so I made him buy a CD. And then we stole a glass from them and I smashed it outside out of anger because they stiffed us with a $30 food bill and we didn’t get paid anything. That’s my pathetic story.”
Punk accordionist Geoff Berner had to decide how much free booze was worth to him at a show in Belgium in the early 2000s.
“I’ve done a bunch of pathetic shows. Especially in the early years. Pitching ‘solo singer-songwriter with accordion’ was a tough sell. Before I found my audience I would be put in front of a group of people and out of 40, like three or four would be, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ The rest would be horrified by the whole notion. It took me awhile to build up an audience where everybody was into it by playing to those three or four people in each town, each time.”
But there was, I remember, one particular gig in Antwerp where they booked me and I got there to this small cafe/bar and they’re like, ‘Where’s your PA?” Like I traveled solo with an accordion AND a public address system. I’m like, ‘Ah, I don’t have a PA.'”
“Well, you could play without one, I guess.”
[pullquote]”I’ll buy you three beers if you’ll just stop.”[/pullquote]
So I was playing without one and I wasn’t getting much of a reaction so I stood up on a table, which was one of my techniques back then. I played and got some people engaged and some people backing away. I couldn’t stay on the table the whole show, so when I got down after the next song this red-faced, chubby Belgian guy in his 50s came up to me and said, ‘Listen, I’ll buy you three beers if you’ll just stop.'”
“That choice… it was a pathetic moment, but the choice to keep playing anyway despite the remarkable quality of Belgian beer was a turning point in my career. Though it didn’t feel like one at the time.”
“For all the youngsters out there, when they tell you to stop — no matter how many beers they offer you and how good the beers are — don’t stop.”
The Toronto band‘s guitarist/vocalist Shehzaad Jiwani explains their two-day planes, trains, and automobiles misadventure to play a show in Portland, Oregon in 2013.
“We were on tour with our friends in Shahman. We had a Toronto show so we split up in the midwest somewhere and we gave them all of our gear and they continued west from Michigan. The plan was to fly out and meet them in Portland and continue the tour from there. So we went to Toronto, then drove to Buffalo to fly out from that airport. Just as we were checking in the desk person says, ‘Oh, the flight’s been cancelled. The next flight is at five in the morning so you can sleep in the airport.'”
“We’re like, ‘We don’t really want to do that. It’s not our fault, so is there some sort of accommodation in the form of a hotel room?’ They said no.”
“So we’re already starting the tour off on a bad foot, and we’re like, we can either sleep in the hotel or maybe get our own hotel and get wasted or something.”
“We decided on the later and ended up walking for quite awhile to get to the hotel room. Long story short, we had this ridiculous time just trying to get to bed and get to sleep, wake up at about four in the morning still drunk, drag ourselves to the airport, get on the plane, and we fly. Then we find out we’re flying to Seattle, not Portland. This is at least 36 hours after our original departure and now we have to take a bus from Seattle to Portland.”
“We get off in Portland and it just starts pouring rain, the hardest rain I’ve ever felt, freezing cold. We’re walking around holding our guitars. We walk into a Whole Foods just waiting for our friends to show up from, like, Boise, Idaho to pick us up. This is at least 40 hours in transit and we’re pretty hung over and just feeling like shit, totally delirious.”
“We get to the show, we unload, and as soon as the local band is done playing they decide to take off and leave, taking with them all of the people that were there at the show.”
“So there’s basically nobody at the show after like 40 hours of travel time. We’re all standing there going, ‘Well, we might as well practice the set or something.’ Because you can’t give up, you can’t not play the set. That’s the coward’s move. You should always try to play the set and power through it because maybe the bartender will buy your merch or something.”
“We go on up there and we start to play the first song and my fucking guitar string breaks. So I just picked up my guitar, threw it on the stage and walked off. It was too much for me.”
“So we pack up our shit, and we don’t have a place to stay. Nobody was at the show in Portland so we went to this hotel on the way to Olympia which was where the next show was. We got to the first hotel and the guy for some reason just decides that he doesn’t want us to stay there and literally throws my credit card back at my face. We’re literally just staring at him totally aghast, like, ‘Is that what he just did?’
“So we just take the credit card and defeatedly walk back to the van. It’s still pouring rain. We go to another hotel, and keep in mind there’s like six of us. We try to lie to the concierge and say there’s just two of us and we just need two double beds… and he’s suspicious the whole time, this fucking night concierge in the middle of nowhere Ramada Inn Oregon who takes his job really seriously. It took us 45 minutes to get everybody into the hotel because the whole time we’re trying to Metal Gear Solid our way into the hotel without being spotted on the cameras. We finally get to sleep around three, four in the morning after a drive, a flight, a bus ride, and a van ride to this ridiculous event.”
“It was the most defeating moment of my whole life, the most pathetic show we’ve ever played.”
“Also, we made zero dollars. Nobody bought a single thing.”
The Dirty Nil
As Luke Bentham, guitarist/vocalist for Hamilton rockers The Dirty Nil, found out, Burritoville isn’t like Margaritaville.
“In 2011 we played at a vegan burrito bar called Burritoville. We played to literally no one and were asked to pay the bar $40. We said fuck that and split town. Burn in hell, Burritoville.”
The rapper‘s show at London, Ontario’s Western University in 2012 took place in a food court, while students were eating.
“I’ve always been loyal to two life philosophies: ‘Have low expectations’ and Vince Lombardi’s ‘act like you’ve been there before.’ Both were tossed out the window when the president of my then-booking agency told me they’d ‘have me headlining Massey Hall in three years.’ The struggle was finally over.”
“My agent booked me a show at Western University in London, Ontario. Artists always speak highly of campus shows. They pay a lot and are always rowdy. I didn’t expect much rowdiness since 80% of my catalogue is anthems for the depressed. But one can always hope.
“The student rep met my DJ Techtwelve and I in the parking lot, then brought us to a dressing room with a deli meat and cheese spread. On our way, we walked past a loud and packed auditorium. This could be good.”
“He told us he’d grab us 10 minutes before the set. We devoured the cold cut platter while discussing the potential awesomeness of the show.”
“Showtime. Something felt weird.”
“We followed the rep in a direction that took us farther from the auditorium. I almost barfed genoa salami when we turned a corner and saw our mic/turntable set-up on a stage in the middle of the fucking cafeteria/food court. My audience was 40 students scattered around the court, eating lunch, studying, gossiping and NOT wanting to watch me rap. My soul actually bled as I saw a few students laugh.”
“A handful watched with interest, but not many. I powered through a painful 40 minutes, thinking, ‘I have four Juno nominations.’ That set was hands down my most humiliating, and solidified me as the Rodney Fucking Dangerfield of Canadian Rap.”
“Stay in school, kids. You might get to see me perform. Right next to an Extreme Pita.”
Current guitar hero with Public Animal and former member of Change Of Heart had an awkward near-death experience when his band opened for the ever-popular Tragically Hip in Seattle in the early 1990s.
“Change Of Heart was opening for The Tragically Hip. I think it was the Road Apples tour in the U.S. We played Spokane, Washington and had the best show we ever played. The next night we were playing the Moore Theatre in Seattle and everyone was like, ‘This show is going to be the best ever. You guys are going to go over like gangbusters.'”
“We get to the show and the Odds go on first. One of the worst things a band can experience is being the band right before the Hip, ’cause you get ‘Hipped.’ So we started getting Hipped and we were having a terrible show and it just went from awesome to ‘Oh god, what the hell?’ The audience started turning against us and the ‘Hip! Hip!’ chants started, then turned into a ‘Fuck you’ chant. When 2,000 people are chanting that at you, you’re just like, ‘Oh my god, this is horrible.'”
“So after the last song I whip my guitar from the front of the stage to the back, and as I do it I realize it’s too high up and it’s going to fly over my amps and right into the Hip’s backline. I’m just standing at the front of the stage going, ‘Oh god, this sucks sooo bad.’ Luckily at the last second it dipped and hit my amp. But in my mind it had already happened. Like, I had already hit the Hip’s gear and I ran off the stage.”
“There’s a huge curtain at the back of the Moore Theatre and as I ran to the back of the stage I got caught in the fuckin’ curtain. So I can’t get out, I don’t where I’m going, and when I finally get out (Tragically Hip lead singer) Gord Downie’s standing there and just looking at me.”
“I’m completely freaked out.”
“We tear our shit off the stage. Then I go, ‘I have to go for a walk. I gotta chill out.’ I go out the back door of the Moore and the 18-wheelers are lined up for the show that carry the equipment. They’re not moving and the way they’re parked I can’t get down the alleyway. So I decide that I’ll just crawl under one of the 18-wheelers, no problem. I get about halfway in and it starts to move. So I have to crawl along with it and as soon as I can get out roll out the side, all the time thinking, ‘Worst show.'”
“And I almost got killed by a truck that was transporting the equipment.”