vern's verbal vibe


Thoughts from Toronto singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vern Nicholson. I pontificate mostly on music (of course), with a smattering of sports, language and other fun miscellany.

Play Ball! 

Well, not here, not yet. But soon enough: opening day is March 28. Anyway, down in Florida and Arizona, all 30 MLB teams are playing ball in what's rather oddly called spring training. I say that because the first game took place on February 21. That's winter on any calendar, no? Regardless, I relish the arrival of spring training every year because it signifies the beginning of the end of winter.

Now, up here in Toronto, we've had more snow than we know what to do with, it's bitterly cold, and winter can hang around till mid-April. That's why I said beginning of the end. But the mere fact that baseball, that quintessential summertime sport, is being played somewhere means Old Man Blizzard and his good buddies Ice Storm and Wind Chill are on their way out. Good riddance, I say.

Baseball and radio go together like peanut butter and jam, and every year at this time I celebrate the return of my favourite broadcast teams: Jon Miller and Duane Kuiper (Giants); Dan Dickerson and Jim Price (Tigers); Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson (White Sox). As for the hometown Blue Jays crew, I miss Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth, but Ben Wagner and Mike Wilner do a decent job and their chemistry is good.

One pet peeve, and this is not confined to Blue Jay broadcasts, is the incessant use of player-specific adjectives. Examples:

  • "Three outs, all on fly balls. Now, that's an un-Marcus-Stroman-like inning."
  • "He just flailed at it. What an un-Miguel-Cabrera-like swing that was!"
  • "He's already issued five walks, which is so un-Sam-Gaviglio-like."

I've never understood this. Why invent new words when you've got old ones that work fine? It's as though they feel they must conjure up fresh adjectives for each player, because of course un-Marcus-Stroman-like is completely different than un-Sam-Gaviglio-like.

Newsflash, boys: there's an elegant, simple word that encompasses un-Marcus-Stroman-like, un-Miguel-Cabrera-like, un-Sam-Gaviglio-like and un-Insert-Player-Here-like. That word is "uncharacteristic." If it seems unwieldy, try "unusual." And you can even use "unlike" sans player name in the middle, like so: "He's already issued five walks, which is so unlike Sam Gaviglio."

I'm happy to report that things are looking up, though. Why, on a broadcast last week Wilner said of some pitcher, "He's just not himself today." Yeah! Beautiful. See? Pithiness is next to godliness.

But whatever your quirks, all you broadcasters out there, I thank you profusely for bringing the old ball game to us season after season, 162 games a year. Baseball is the sound of summer, even in these un-baseball-like frigid temperatures.

Autumn Micro-Tour 2018 

In the fall of 2018 I embarked on my second micro-tour, a venture cut short by my cat's illness—from which, I'm happy to say, he's largely and miraculously recovered. Nonetheless, I played enough shows to produce a few audio highlights, which I've posted on my music page. Before we get into the meat of it, I give you the stats:

  • Duration: 6 weeks, plus the final show a month later
  • Shows played: 9
  • Unique venues: 7
  • Songs played: 30 (15 originals, 15 covers)
  • Songs repeated: 1
  • Songs debuted: 5
Micro-touring at Free Times Café, November 17, 2018. Photo by Brian Gladstone.

"This Magnificent Dare" (Stop 2—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, October 13, 2018)

It took over an hour to get here by transit, and due to my late arrival I was lucky to grab a spot (10th). I'd hoped to go on first, as always, but a few performers were far more eager—the sign-up sheet had a 0 and -1 as write-ins. Anyway, that 10th spot, which was really 12th, came after the feature's opening half-hour slot, so it was a long wait. Said feature (an accordion/sax duo) played impeccably, but I'm afraid I was born far too late to appreciate what sounded like a pared-down Lawrence Welk. I did, though, enjoy the host's singalong version of The Beatles' "All Together Now." Still schmaltz, I guess, but at least of my era.

I brought the dulcimer along to accompany myself on "This Magnificent Dare," which I've also performed on guitar. I really wanted to play the dulcimer at an open stage before the outdoor humidity dropped too low. Flubbed part of a verse but recovered quite well. It's taken a while, but over the years I've learned to shrug off the mistakes and carry on.

"Let Love Strum You"/"On the Bus" (Stop 3—The Tilted Dog, Toronto ON, October 18, 2018)

I didn't feel like playing tonight, but TTD is walking distance from home and I promised the host I'd show up, so no excuses. This, by the way, is almost always the right decision. In 30 years of live performances, I can count on one hand the shows I wish I hadn't played.

The cover I cannot shake—and will never attempt, as I can't stand it—appeared in the midst of an otherwise pleasant set by a mid-twenties singer/songwriter. Yes, folks, it's Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," one more time. On the plus side, the crowd was treated to two Dylan covers tonight. A charming old hippie played a truncated "Desolation Row" with wildly varying tempo, while a nylon-string guitarist did a nice job on "Tangled up in Blue."

As for me, well, is one of your old band's originals not penned by you a cover? I say yes. That band was Sour Landslide, and way back in the 1990s I accompanied my brother's killer tunes on bass and harmony vocals. I've always wanted to try one of, um, their songs, and this one seemed the quickest way in ... after I changed the key. See, I often joke that my voice didn't change till I turned 50. Not only were my high harmonies on the 1994 recording unreachable; I couldn't even sing Vince's lead vocal in the original key! So, my version is lower and slower, as befits an aging indie musician. I also did a little tinkering to make it my own. I managed to up the tempo a bit for my original this evening, "Let Love Strum You," the chorus of which was shamelessly lifted from a radio commercial.

"Groping to Victory"/"Skyway" (Stop 4—Hirut, Toronto ON, October 21, 2018)

This small, intimate open mic, hosted by the friendly, funny and talented Nicola Vaughan, is a little far-flung but right on the subway line (Woodbine, for you Torontonians). Unfortunately I have other commitments in the Sunday 3-6 time slot, so can rarely make it out. I feel a few pangs of guilt because this open stage needs support that I can't really give, but I enjoy coming when I can.

After Nicola regaled us with a few obscure Monkees songs, up came a parade of talented folk, blues and jazz players ... and me. Sometimes I envy the technically proficient, but I try not to compare. They do what they do, I do what I do, and it's all good. How dull these open stages would be if we all sounded the same, right? Now, I was quite taken by the jazzer's gear: an Ibanez electric with F-holes and a Bigsby vibrato, a tasty digital delay and a looper pedal. I was dying to hear him give the Bigsby a workout, but he barely touched it. Why, if I had a Bigsby, I'd be John Cipollina! (That's my delusion and I'm sticking to it.)

Delusions of guitar-hero grandeur aside, "Groping to Victory" went down well this afternoon, as did Paul Westerberg's delicate "Skyway," long a favourite of mine.

"Have I Been Expecting You"/"A Glimpse of Heaven" (Stop 5—Legends Sports Lounge, Toronto ON, November 1, 2018)

Tonight was supposed to be an out-of-town jaunt to Markham, but 25 mm of rain put a damper on those plans, you could say. I settled instead on this place, a block or so from Pape Station. Acoustics were a bit dodgy, as you hear on the recording, but I'd say overall this was my best show of the tour. As often happens at open stages, I was playing to two distinct (and small) audiences: fellow musicians waiting to play, attentive listeners all, and oblivious regulars chatting away, the latter faithfully captured by my Zoom H1.

I navigated my way through "Expecting," my somewhat tricky new song, then launched into this Strawbs cover that I do every now and then. For posterity I've preserved my exchange with a fellow musician at the end, who not only knew the tune but first heard it the same way I did, on an eight-track "best of" purchased at Woolco, circa 1981. Man, no one ever recognizes my obscure covers. I'm slipping.

"Mon Vrai Destin" (Stop 6—The Birch Bistro & Lounge, Bowmanville ON, November 8, 2018)

I took the 4:30 express train (no stops till Pickering), which was jammed. First time I've had to stand on a GO train. Even travelling express to Oshawa, it took the better part of two hours to reach Bowmanville. After a nice dinner at the local Mr. Sub, I head to the venue, early for once, and sign up to play first so I can get home at a reasonable hour. Unfortunately, the place started to fill up after I'd finished playing. So it goes.

The Birch has a pleasant, warm, almost-elegant ambience—far from the rough-and-tumble bars I associate with small towns. I'm allotted five songs, which is quite generous, and the stage sound is pretty good once the host turns down the guitar amp midway through my first number. I play reasonably well, though not at my blinding best. Halfway through "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," my new Beatles cover, I realize I should sing it an octave higher or change the key. Too late. This one, a Peter, Paul & Mary chanson, comes off much better.

Speaking of obscure covers, Sam, the young guy who follows me, tells the crowd that he traffics in them. I practically wet my pants when he announces "Broken," but no, it's not The Guess Who B-side from 1971. This is another "Broken," by ... Jared Somebody? Beats me. Then he says, "Here's a Catfish and the Bottlemen tune." Right. Uh, so, you know any Juff Gleento? Rufus and the Juts? The Ked?

"Liza Radley" (Stop 8—Dr. B's Acoustic Medicine Show, Free Times Café, Toronto ON, November 17, 2018)

Boy, that 1:00 start time is tough for me. I arrive late and sign up 13th, which is fitting. This has not been a good day. My front bicycle tire went flat around St. George, and I had to walk the bike from there. As I sip on the obligatory decaf coffee—at the Free Times you must order at least one drink, "no exceptions" as the sign says—I'm preoccupied not with my set but how I'll get home. It's possible to lug a guitar on the Carlton streetcar. Transporting a bicycle is more awkward, but I've done it. A guitar and a bike? No way.

Maybe I'll take the guitar home first, then come back for the bike. Or maybe not. That's four fares and besides, I'd like to get the bike in to my local shop before it closes. The other option? A 45-minute walk home, and the shop will be closed by the time I get there anyway. Unless I luck out with an empty streetcar that stays empty? Keep dreaming, pal. Not likely on a Saturday afternoon on College Street.

It's a good crowd, mostly performers, and Dr. B's is one of the city's higher-profile open stages. Hey, no pressure on a day that I'm feeling lousy. A grizzled poet named Dark Cloud takes the stage. I'm momentarily distracted from my dark cloud by his natty suit, walrus moustache, pork pie hat and ... seven-string guitar? I chat with him afterwards and yes, it's the G that's doubled with an octave string. He says it's a Martin, made specially for Roger McGuinn, king of the 12-string guitar. Roger must have tired of tuning the other five strings.

By now, I'm resigned to walking home. Wish I'd stayed in bed. When my turn comes, the host is genial, the sound fantastic—as the recording proves—and I play reasonably well. My stage patter is minimal, and I wisely decide not to whine about my flat tire. Inflicting a bad mood on innocent bar patrons is never a good idea.

What goes around comes around, I suppose, and this story has a happy ending. I unlock my bicycle and am maybe one minute into my long, dreary trek when I gaze up at a storefront and see the sign: Urbane Cyclist. A bike shop!

"We Howl" (Stop 9—The Tilted Dog, Toronto ON, December 20, 2018)

This was the gig I didn't expect to play, as a few days after the Free Times gig I cancelled the rest of the tour due to Muswell's worsening condition. About a month later, he'd made such a stunning recovery that I was able to make this, the scheduled final date. Kudos are due my veterinarian, clinic staff and the various medicines my cat has been on since late November, to be sure; but I'd also like to offer my thanks and gratitude to God for answering my prayers. I'm not a preacher, so I'll leave you with the words of James 5:16, should you feel so inclined. But I will say that in my experience prayer really works, often when nothing else does.

As seems to have been my custom this tour, I arrive just after everyone else has signed up. I'll be on seventh, which is a long way down the line because everyone gets four songs. It's a small crowd gathered here this Thursday evening, mostly performers. Host Robert Labell kindly dedicates "Embryonic Journey" to me, and continuing the Jorma Kaukonen theme, finishes his set with a couple of songs off the first Hot Tuna album. I really must offer to accompany him on bass sometime. Way back when, I learned how to play by copping licks off that record, among others, and I'd love to revisit it and get back into playing bass. I miss it.

Among my four numbers this evening is "We Howl," one of my older songs and probably the first thing I wrote that I actually liked. Some songwriters are innately gifted; the rest of us have to write a slew of bad songs before we start writing good ones. This was my first good one, and I'd never played it live till tonight.

And there you have it: my latest adventures in micro-touring. Look for my next micro-tour this spring, which will be upon us all soon enough.

Another Imaginary Box Set 

This time we set our sights on the quiet Beatle, George Harrison, an artist who's for the most part been ill-served by compilations. Isn't it a pity, too, as of the Fab Four, George's solo career is arguably the most consistent.

Of those compilations, the first, The Best of George Harrison (1976), was assembled by former label Capitol without his approval. The song selection, as far as it goes, is excellent; but only half the record (roughly 24 minutes' worth) covers George's solo career to that point. The entire first side consists of Harrison-penned Beatles material. Great stuff, of course, but misplaced on what is nominally a solo artist's greatest hits album.

We'd have to wait until 1989 for the second collection, Best of Dark Horse 1976–1989. As the title suggests, this isn't a comprehensive career overview; it covers only George's work on his Dark Horse label. George was involved in this one, and it shows: in the quality of material chosen, the fact that all period albums are represented, and the two new songs specifically recorded for this project. That said, I'd quibble with a few of his choices, and have duly replaced the questionable songs with better ones on my homemade compilation.

Which brings us to Let It Roll (2009), touted as George's first true career-spanning compilation. According to the album's Wikipedia entry, "the track list was selected by George's widow Olivia with some assistance from close friends and family." Finally, the man has been given his proper due, right? Wrong. Sure, Let It Roll spans Harrison's entire career, but with gaping holes—three consecutive mid-'70s releases (Dark Horse, Extra Texture and Thirty Three & 1/3) aren't represented at all. Neither is 1982's Gone Troppo or the 1992 Live in Japan album. As a result, key singles are missing, like "Bangla Desh," "Dark Horse," "You" and "Crackerbox Palace." Worse, the compilers have managed to sneak The Beatles in again, through the back door this time (the three tracks from The Concert for Bangladesh are all Beatles songs).

So, this brings us to the compilation-that-should-be, namely mine. (I'm telling you, some record label really ought to hire me.) It's not that hard. Take all the artist's albums, cherry-pick the best three songs from each, add the odd soundtrack contribution and non-album single and put it all in chronological order. Oh, and toss in a couple of Beatles numbers when you have no other choice (Live in Japan). And here you have it: a truly representative, career-spanning compilation that easily fits on three CDs.

Disc 1 (69:44): Apple Years—1970-1975

  1. My Sweet Lord
  2. Isn't It a Pity
  3. What Is Life
  4. Bangla Desh
  5. Wah-Wah (live)
  6. Awaiting on You All (live)
  7. Beware of Darkness (live)
  8. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
  9. Don't Let Me Wait Too Long
  10. Living in the Material World
  11. Dark Horse
  12. So Sad
  13. Far East Man
  14. You
  15. This Guitar (Can't Keep from Crying)
  16. Tired of Midnight Blue

Disc 2 (61:35): Middle Years—1976-1987

  1. This Song
  2. Crackerbox Palace
  3. Beautiful Girl
  4. Blow Away
  5. Love Comes to Everyone
  6. Here Comes the Moon
  7. All Those Years Ago
  8. Writing's on the Wall
  9. Life Itself
  10. That's the Way It Goes
  11. Mystical One
  12. Circles
  13. I Don't Want to Do It
  14. Got My Mind Set on You
  15. This Is Love
  16. When We Was Fab

Disc 3 (43:20): Final Years—1988-2002

  1. Heading for the Light
  2. Cheer Down
  3. Poor Little Girl
  4. Cockamamie Business
  5. I Want to Tell You (live)
  6. Here Comes the Sun (live)
  7. Devil's Radio (live)
  8. Any Road
  9. Rising Sun
  10. Stuck Inside a Cloud

If you'd like to try on this box set ("playlist," as the kids would say) for yourselves, all the material is available on YouTube and probably various streaming services, too. Enjoy the soulful, melodic sounds of George Harrison.

Miles of Miles 

Before I start: thanks to those of you asking about Muswell. He's doing quite well! I'm still having to give him various pills, powders and potions, but they're working.

Several years ago now, a friend of mine initiated me into jazz via the iconic, visionary trumpeter Miles Davis. And though I can't say I'm a jazz buff yet, I really dig Miles a lot, if I may use some dated hipster lingo.

As a pop-rock person, my entrée into the world of Miles was his fusion period. When I first heard In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the language spoken there was roughly akin to some of the music I grew up with. What he's most celebrated for—and my friend's preferred iteration of Davis—is his 1950s work, culminating in the legendary Kind of Blue. For me this material has been a challenge to appreciate, and I'm still trying. In fact, the first time I heard Kind of Blue, which is universally acclaimed as the greatest jazz album of all time, I cheekily renamed it Kind of Boring. It's still not my favourite Miles album, but I'm slowly coming around.

Anyway, it's not just the longevity of Miles Davis' career that astounds but its dizzying breadth. From a Rolling Stone article: "Miles was once seated next to a senator's wife at a felicitation of various artists at the White House. The lady, obviously not familiar with jazz, asked Miles what he had done. 'I changed music six times, ma'am,' was the quick response."

Wanting to broaden my horizons, I went shopping for a career-spanning box set. Surely an artist of Miles' stature, active for 45 years, has been given the comprehensive overview treatment, right? Nope. Not unless you count the 70-CD Complete Columbia Album Collection. Comprehensive, yes; overview, no. So, I decided to make my own.

I took as my starting point The Essential Miles Davis, a double-CD collection that barely skims the surface and, in my opinion, glosses over some major works entirely. After a lot of research and digging through YouTube, I arrived at my version, which I'm calling ...


Even though mine is strictly an mp3 playlist, I curated it as if Columbia had hired me to create that career-spanning box. I've divided his work into six CDs, each representing one of the "six times" alluded to by the man himself.

A few ground rules I used:

  • The material is to be ordered chronologically, by recording date.
  • Each CD should be as close to full (80 minutes) as possible.
  • Every major album is represented by one song, whether that song is three minutes or thirty minutes.
  • Seminal, ground-breaking albums are allowed two songs.

Given those parameters, I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out. Inevitably, some works are underrepresented and arguably, some are given more space than is warranted, depending on your tastes. Example: were my friend still alive, he'd probably split the periods much differently than I did. I can envision my Discs 3-6 crammed onto Disc 6 in his version, with the '50s/early '60s material taking up Discs 1-5.

Disc 1 (79:03): Hard Bop and Beyond—1945-1959

  1. Now's the Time
  2. Jeru
  3. Rocker
  4. Compulsion
  5. Tempus Fugit
  6. Walkin'
  7. It Never Entered My Mind
  8. 'Round Midnight
  9. Miles Ahead
  10. Générique
  11. Milestones
  12. Stella by Starlight
  13. Summertime
  14. So What
  15. Blue in Green

Disc 2 (76:36): Post-Bop—1960-1967

  1. The Pan Piper
  2. Someday My Prince Will Come
  3. Once upon a Summertime
  4. Seven Steps to Heaven
  5. My Funny Valentine (live)
  6. E.S.P.
  7. Circle
  8. Masquelaro
  9. Nefertiti
  10. I Fall in Love too Easily (live)

Disc 3 (76:35): Electric Cathedral—1968-1969

  1. Stuff
  2. Tout de suite
  3. Petits machins
  4. Ascent
  5. Shhh/Peaceful
  6. In a Silent Way

Disc 4 (78:23): Full-On Fusion—1970-1972

  1. Pharaoh's Dance
  2. Miles Runs the Voodoo Down
  3. Right Off
  4. Little Church
  5. Directions (live)
  6. Black Satin

Disc 5 (74:34): This Is Jazz?—1973-1975

  1. Calypso Frelimo (excerpt)
  2. He Loved Him Madly
  3. Prelude (live)

Disc 6 (76:55): The Man with the Horn—1981-1991

  1. The Man with the Horn
  2. Jean Pierre (live)
  3. Star People
  4. What It Is
  5. Human Nature
  6. Time After Time
  7. Orange
  8. Portia
  9. Mr. Pastorius
  10. Chocolate Chip
  11. Boplicity (live)
  12. Blues for Pablo (live)

And there you have it: the Miles Davis box that should exist but doesn't. If you'd like to re-create it, all the material is available on YouTube. Happy exploring!

Announcement: Remainder of Micro-Tour Cancelled 

My beloved cat Muswell is seriously ill with advanced kidney disease, among other things. I'm adapting to a treatment regimen that's time-consuming and constantly changing and also making frequent trips to the vet, at times in near-emergency situations. 

As a result, the rest of the autumn micro-tour is cancelled. I'm hoping to play the occasional show here and there, but cannot at this time make firm commitments. Though the tour has been cut short, all shows were recorded and I still (at some point) intend to post the highlights on the music section of my website. Look for those in December or January. 

If you'd like to send prayers and healing Muswell's way, here are a couple of photos of my beautiful boy. Heartfelt thanks, dear readers, for your kindness and concern, and blessings to you and your families.



Real Chords #5: Jefferson Airplane, "Today" 

It's with a heavy heart that I present this one, having learned of the passing of Jefferson Airplane founder and singer Marty Balin last night. I'll have more to say about Marty in a moment, but to pay tribute I've worked up this gem from Surrealistic Pillow that I'll debut during my upcoming micro-tour. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, "'Today' stands as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written," and I can't disagree. Haunting and ethereal, it's a timeless ballad revolving around a simple but effective chord sequence.

Before I get to those chords, a few words on Marty Balin and his legacy. Without him, there would be no Jefferson Airplane, period. The band was his idea and vision, and after recruiting its members one by one he created a venue, The Matrix, in which they could hone their craft. It's not an overstatement to suggest, as former band manager Bill Thompson did, that “Marty was the one who started the San Francisco scene."

The first two Airplane albums were largely a product of that vision—love-fuelled folk/rock about to bust out into the wilder frontiers of psychedelia—and Marty's sweet-as-honey tenor led the charge. But by the third album, After Bathing at Baxter's, Marty had retreated somewhat (as a songwriter and lead vocalist; his harmonies permeate all their best work, Baxter's included). Jefferson Airplane was a group of strong, disparate personalities, each beginning to assert themselves, and in the chaotic ferment of the late 1960s no singular vision could dominate for long.

As the '60s careened into the '70s, drugs, egos and musical differences led Marty to leave the band he founded. And tellingly, the Airplane crashed without him. Marty's romantic, soulful musings, often the source of his bandmates' ridicule, were a necessary balance to Paul Kantner's sci-fi polemics, Grace Slick's icy sarcasm, and Jorma Kaukonen's blues-based excursions. And indeed, that corrective is what enabled spinoff band Jefferson Starship to scale the heights it did in the '70s. Red Octopus, their 1975 release, once again saw Marty at the helm; his "Miracles" topped the charts that summer. Simply put, he had a radio-friendly touch that for the most part eluded his compatriots. In Paul Kantner's words, "Marty has the ability to express really simple emotions that most people might be embarrassed expressing. He's able to get away with singing 'Ooh, baby,' and meaning 'Ooh, baby.'"

Here's an excerpt from Jorma's moving tribute: "I always felt that he was somewhat guarded … the quiet one. His commitment to his visions never flagged. Times come and go but his passion for his music and his art was never diminished. He was the most consummate of artists in a most renaissance way. I always felt that he perceived that each day was a blank canvas waiting to be filled."

Rest in piece, Marty Balin, and thank you for your life, your music and your vision. And with that, here are the real chords to Jefferson Airplane's "Today," written by Marty Balin and Paul Kantner:

  • Intro: D5 C (grace notes: BCD) A5
  • Verse*: D5 Am7 C D5
  • Chorus: (Cmaj7 F Em C D C D) x2
  • End: Dm Am Bb Am Dm Am Bb Gm7 (grace notes: EFEC) D

The online tabs for the song had, well, some of it right, but missed two key chords which were dead obvious to my ears: the Cmaj7 in the chorus and Gm7 at the very end. Nobody heard the Am7 in the verse, either, which I admit is more implied than played on the recording. Tip: for a lovely variation, substitute an A7sus chord in the intro in place of the A5. That's not how they play it, but I quite like it. The fingering for A7sus, low to high, is x02030.

* Note: On the live version from Monterey Pop, the band plays a slightly different arrangement. Grace plays the rhythm on harpsichord, and her verse chords are F Am C D5. I'm sticking with the studio version for my transcription, but either will work.

    Music Lessons? Moi? 

    Like most rock-based musicians, I'm self-taught. I've been blessed with a good ear, and in my early days I found it easier and more natural to learn what I needed to by copying chords and riffs directly from my favourite records. Formal music training seemed like the long way around. Mum taught piano, so I picked up bits and pieces of music theory just the same—enough to get me by.

    So, I kind of surprised myself a month ago when I signed up for a group harmony and composition class that starts tonight. It's four sessions, with the possibility of continuing on if I can afford it and am getting something out of it. I don't feel I need lessons, necessarily; it's more of an experiment. I suppose after all these years, I've become open to the possibility that a bit of formal training might steer my songwriting in new and interesting directions.

    I'm glad, too, that I took the plunge before the confirmation e-mail cheerily told me that "the prerequisite for this group is knowledge of all key signatures and 12 major, harmonic, and melodic minor scales." Gulp! I cobbled together a cheat sheet containing the circle of fifths and those helpful mnemonic devices telling the story of Father Charles and the battle he ended (or the battle that ended him). I can't yet claim "knowledge" of key signatures, scales and their attendant chords, but I am hoping the cheat sheet will help. For now, I'm concentrating on those keys with three or fewer sharps or flats. I mean, who willingly plays or composes in, I don't know, Db?

    To counter the heaviness I associate with formal music study, I've added some levity by springing for a kiddie keyboard, the Casio SA-46. With 32 mini-keys and 100 sounds, it's fun, it's portable (I can fit it in my backpack and bring it to class), and I can practise my scales on goofy voices like Bandoneon, Synth Brass 1 and Space Choir. I say this only half in jest; some of the SA-46's voices are astoundingly good. It also contains 50 rhythm patterns if you want to play your scales and chords to a trance, salsa or bhangra beat, among others. For only $50 it packs quite a punch, as useful for songwriters working on the fly as children taking their first foray into the world of music.

    So, my kiddie keyboard and I are off to our first class tonight. I'm cautiously optimistic, while at the same time hoping I won't be in over my head. Regardless, I think Mum is smiling down from above, and I thank her for my very early introduction to the gift of music.

    Seeing Rabbits (Further Adventures in Songwriting) 

    Songs can come from the strangest places. Last week I was biking to work, stopped at a red light at King and Spadina. All the while there's a busker on the corner, strumming what sounds like the opening riff to The Who's So Sad About Us. Just your basic folk-rock riff in A; nothing terribly special, right?

    Green. I proceed through the intersection and suddenly, an original melody pops into my head over that riff, complete with nonsense words: "Saw a rabbit just the other day, uh-huh." We call these "dummy lyrics" in the music biz: something to hang the tune on until the real words are written at a later date. A famous example: "Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs" ... which became "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away."

    Anyway, I ride along Wellington Street, singing continuously about the rabbit I didn't actually see so I wouldn't forget it. A short time later, I pull into my workplace and park the bike. I'm 15 minutes early and have my portable voice recorder with me, so I can hang out in the parking lot and start turning this doggerel into a song now.

    In situations like this where I have no access to an instrument, I'll hum riffs and melodies and give myself instructions where necessary, like "now change to D." Following where the melody leads, I might be lucky enough to write a complete part. In this case, I got a full verse and about a quarter of a chorus, and my 48-second work tape ends with me humming an F# and saying, "minor chord here." And really, all I knew about my new composition at this point is it wouldn't be about rabbits.

    Six days later, I've finished a song called "Making Rainbows from the Sun." My original melody and chords, as far as they went, have remained intact. The key is now E, not A—actually, my work tape was in Bb because the busker's guitar was out of tune—and what do you know, I ditched the rabbit but kept the "uh-huh." I do, however, thank the mysterious hare for transporting me from here to there. Props to the busker and Pete Townshend, too! And that's but one wacky example of how a song can come out of nowhere.

    Violet's Giving Flowers Away 

    Last Sunday's mass shooting on the Danforth left me shaken, perhaps more so because I live in the neighbourhood next door. I heard about it half an hour after it happened, and for the rest of the night I was riveted to live news feeds as the horrific details trickled in. On Monday afternoon I had an errand to run near there, and I walked along Danforth Avenue in a daze, just trying to process my feelings.

    By then, the focus of the coverage had shifted to how the survivors comforted and assisted the victims until the paramedics arrived. Human stories of raw love and compassion began to emerge from the mayhem. I was especially touched by the tale of nine-year-old Violet Thomson, an area resident who'd hand-picked flowers from her garden and was handing them out along the Danforth. When asked why, she simply replied, "because of what happened last night." Here's Violet getting ready to perform her good work (photos by Albert Leung/CBC) ...

    ... and giving flowers to a police officer on the scene.



    Now, it so happens that in the few days preceding the shooting, I'd been working on a new song. As is my usual process, I worked out the chord sequence, strung the individual parts together and overlaid a wordless melody line. As for the lyrics, I hadn't planned on writing about the tragedy; that is, until I read about Violet and saw these touching images. So, with heartfelt gratitude to Violet Thomson, Md Ashaduzamman, Linda Falagario and those whose names didn't make the news, here's a song inspired by their love, courage and compassion, "Violet's Giving Flowers Away."


    Took a walk along the city’s spine
    Trying to reclaim what’s yours and mine
    Shaken as we are, waiting on that morning star to heal this scar

    I’m not saying I know there’s enough to go around
    But on this blackest night, here’s where compassion was found
    She cried and sutured his wound, as ammo polluted the room
    And Violet’s giving flowers away on the Danforth today

    Saw this sign that’s louder than the gun
    “Love for all and hatred for none”
    I pray with heavy heart when innocents get torn apart before they start
    I'm not saying I know there's enough to go around
    But on this blackest night, here's where compassion was found
    He held her, begging, "stay with me," but angels fly too easily
    And Violet's giving flowers away on the Danforth today
    When it all shakes down
    Let's remember our dear Greektown
    Where love went down
    I'm not saying I know there's enough to go around
    But on this blackest night, here's where compassion was found
    She held her and said, "you're not alone," but angels have to go home
    And Violet's giving out flowers on the Danforth today
    Violet's giving flowers away from her garden today

    © 2018 Vern Nicholson (SOCAN)

    Notes from the "Road" (Part 2) 

      Well, I did it! My inaugural micro-tour is complete. Let's begin with the final statistics:

    • Duration: 5 weeks
    • Shows played: 17
    • Unique venues: 13
    • Songs played: 47 (17 originals, 30 covers)
    • Songs repeated: 0
    • Songs debuted: 16
    • Song most frequently covered by other performers (Ben E. King, "Stand by Me"): 3

    The audio highlights are now up on my music page, and using those as a roadmap seems as good a way as any to delve into the people, places and experiences encountered along the way. So, off we go. Fasten your seat belts and welcome to the tour!

    "Days of Secret Seeing" (Stop 3—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, May 12, 2018)

    Don Heights is a fabulous, welcoming venue that's well off the beaten path—a first-floor suite in a faceless office building that doubles as a Unitarian Church. When I got off the Don Mills bus at Wynford Drive, I muttered, "Wow. Welcome to Nowhere. Now entering The Middle." But location is the only downside. For $5, you get coffee, tea, cookies and two solid hours' worth of entertainment. Despite the family-friendly environs it's an older crowd, mostly church people I suspect, and the feature performer gets a half-hour set at the beginning and end of the evening.

    I was first on the list, and hey, I didn't have a hard act to follow at all, as pianist Mark Lams opened the evening with jaw-dropping renditions of Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. (He later closed the show with a Joe Zawinul tune, which left me even more impressed.) So: Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart ... and Nicholson. Gulp! Adding to my nervousness was the fact that I was debuting this tricky number (for me ... easy-peasy for Mozart), but I pulled it off to warm, supportive applause. I was happy to exit after one successful song and relax for the rest of the night.

    "Box of Rain" (Stop 5—Free Times Café, Toronto ON, May 14, 2018)

    The venerable Free Times is one of Toronto's most well-established open stages, and this was my second visit. That wasn't the original plan. My sources told me Lola in Kensington Market had an open stage on Mondays, but when I got there I was informed no, it's on Wednesdays. Had a terrible time hunting for a place to lock my bike, and the Market is one of the most bicycle-friendly areas in the city. Finding no bike parking in Kensington Market is like finding no hay on a farm. That was almost enough to send me home, but I thought, hey, the Free Times is just three blocks away, so I scooted up there in time for sign-up.

    I was frankly intimidated by the sheer talent on display this evening. We opened with Charles, a brilliant flamenco guitarist; Lexi, who riveted my eyes to the stage with her great songs, razor-sharp riffs and confident, bellowing voice; Yoko (no, not that one) whose vocal technique was so staggering I wanted to ask, "What are you doing here? Massey Hall is that way"; and finally, a spiky-haired guy in blazing red suit, tie and shoes who walked onstage with a ukulele and stomp box and said, "It's snazzy time." Here's to you, Mr. Snazzy. Great job! What I'd give for a tiny bit of your showmanship. Perhaps inspired by the competition, I rose to the occasion with this sped-up Grateful Dead chestnut that I announced had been "put through my power-pop blender." Kudos and thanks to host Glen Hornblast for the pristine sound you hear on this recording.

    "Lost Villages Wail" (Stop 7The Cavern, Toronto ON, May 20, 2018)

    Yes, it really is a cavern in the basement of a hostel, and when I walked in a friendly young chap introduced himself, shook my hand, and asked if I knew of any good metal bars. Meanwhile, a keyboard-heavy post-punk band was setting up. One of them might have been the host/sound man; I'm not sure. By now, Grandpa here was feeling just a tad out of place, though I was hip enough to pick up on the Franz Ferdinand influence as they played their opening set. Each open stage has its own unique culture, and despite the fact that this wasn't a fit for me I'm all in favour of venues that cater to the youngsters. There are enough places for old fogies playing Eric Clapton songs.

    Anyway, I closed my four-song set with this new tune, was received politely, stuck around for a couple more performers and made my way into the good night. Lest you think that was a hasty exit, the solo blues harpist who followed me must have felt more discombobulated: the applause had barely begun when he hopped offstage, up the stairs and out the door all in one motion. Lightnin' Hopkins!

    "I Need Your Company" (Stop 9Fat Albert's Coffee House, Toronto ON, May 23, 2018)

    Say no more: this is the one. Fat Albert's is Toronto's longest-running open stage, having operated continuously since 1969, though it's moved around a few times. Now well-ensconced in the United Steelworkers' building, Fat's offers a friendly stage, an older crowd of mostly musicians, and a decidedly folk and singer/songwriter bent. You know it's your kind of place when you can sing along to all the covers people play. Fat's charges $2, I think, to offset the rent, coffee and cookies.

    Saw a few performers here that I first met at Don Heights, which isn't surprising; it's a similar vibe. One guy came up and did a solo instrumental on the tambourine, which I found a bit odd. I played this obscure Guess Who song and to my delight, a fellow guitarist named Dave came up afterwards and said he recognized it—in fact, he bought the original vinyl in '68. (See what I mean? My kind of place.) This song has more jazz chords than I'll play in a lifetime. For a couple of years in the late '60s, Randy Bachman had a serious love affair going with major sevenths.

    "Late Night" (Stop 10Steve's Music Lounge, Toronto ON, May 24, 2018)

    "Cozy, comfy space, fabulous sound, awesome host, friendly staff, great musicians. And it's all live-streamed if you can't be there in person. One of the best open stages in Toronto." Yes, I liked this place so much that I gave it the glowing Facebook review you just read. A purpose-built room on the second floor of Steve's Music at Queen and Spadina, this gem's only drawback is that not enough people know about it yet.

    As usual, I signed up to play first. Whenever possible, I like to get my performance over with so as not to allow the nerves to escalate. Thankfully the camera is quite unobtrusive, so it's easy to forget that your performance is being live-streamed. Jessica, the aforementioned awesome host, is not only a kick-ass songwriter and performer but a fellow Steely Dan fan, and on this night she played a killer version of "Peg." I was given a generous four songs, one of which was this moody Syd Barrett tune that I think came off rather well.

    "I Welcome You (But Do You Welcome Me)" (Stop 11McThirsty's Pint, Peterborough ON, May 27, 2018)

    This show marked the only time during the proceedings that I felt like I was on tour. Not surprising given that it was my first out-of-town gig. Sour Landslide played Peterborough in the early '90s, but I hadn't been back since. I biked down to Union Station, took the GO train to Oshawa, then a connecting bus to Peterborough and a two-block walk to the venue. Travel time door-to-door was 3:11—again, very tour-ish.

    I'd forgotten how dead these small towns are on Sundays. The convenience store adjacent to the bus terminal closed at 6:00, the Mr. Sub where I ate dinner at 7:30. I'd also forgotten how seedy the city cores of these places can be. After encountering a couple of aggressive panhandlers, I headed straight to the venue. I'm not terribly comfortable hanging out in a bar, but loitering outside wasn't a viable option on this night. While I'm at it, downtown bars in small towns can be horror shows in and of themselves. But McThirsty's, though I wouldn't call it upscale, felt reasonably safe. And the pop was cheap, too ($2.50).

    Ryan, the host, ambled in around 7:30 and told me the show would start at 9:00—an hour later than I'd expected. The last GO bus back left at 10:16, and after I explained my predicament he graciously agreed to let me go on first. (At this point, I have to say that without exception, all the hosts I've met have been kind, helpful and congenial, going out of their way to make me and the other performers feel comfortable. Thank you all for your service!) Ryan generously gave me five songs, and I responded by playing my best overall set of the micro-tour; ironic given how jittery I'd felt since I stepped off the bus. This is one of my newer songs. Working title: "Theme for an Imaginary Spaghetti Western," with apologies to Jack Bruce.

    "Street Choir" (Stop 12La Rev, Toronto ON, June 2, 2018)

    Though I'd had nearly a week between shows to recuperate, recharge and rehearse, I arrived at this Saturday show in The Junction tired, grumpy and out of sorts. The venue is way out in the west end, start time 2:00, traffic on Keele Street backed up due to construction. Don't they know most musicians are just finishing breakfast at 2:00? The smallish crowd at this Mexican restaurant seemed like they were just getting going, too. Nevertheless, I was able to summon forth a spirited rendition of one of my favourite Van Morrison songs, even deftly navigating the always-tricky F#m in the chorus.

    La Rev was, I'd say, the most laid-back, loosey-goosey venue of the tour. When I walked in, a guitarist was playing Merle Haggard songs accompanied by a guy on a ragged-but-right out-of-tune piano. Not my cup of tea, but well done. Later, a singer-guitarist named David regaled us with a shambolic thing he called "The Like Medley," featuring brief snippets of such classics as "Like Me Do," "Crazy Little Thing Called Like," "Like Me Two Times," "That's What You Get for Liking Me," "All You Need Is Like" ... you get the idea. It sounded funnier than it reads.

    "Lady Air" (Stop 13Grinder Coffee, Toronto ON, June 3, 2018)

    We now come to the most pleasant surprise of the micro-tour, and a literal surprise it was, too: I'd planned to play the Supermarket on this Sunday night. A couple of hours before showtime, I was in the midst of firming that up when I stumbled on a listing for this Leslieville café. As we say in football, I called an audible at the line of scrimmage and, in a teeming rainstorm, made my way here by bus instead.

    You may have noticed by now that coffee shops and coffeehouses are my favourite places to play. Not that I'm a coffee drinker, but I'm even less of a drinker drinker, as in not at all. I prefer the cafés and community venues because people aren't there to drink but to listen, and I find them safer, more welcoming environments. Even when things go slightly askew, as when a neighbourhood gal stepped up to perform a hilarious song of hers called "My Special Hedgehog Friend."

    This was Grinder's first-ever open stage, and I sure hope they'll do it again because it was a terrific atmosphere. The place was packed and the crowd quite enthusiastic, as you'll hear when the last notes of "Lady Air" ring out. I also, in homage to the coffeehouses of the '60s, played a rendition of the folk standard "If I Had a Hammer" and invited the (youngish) crowd to sing along. No one did because nobody knew the song. The times they are a-changin', Gramps!

    "Groping to Victory" (Stop 15Steve's Music Lounge, Toronto ON, June 7, 2018)

    By this point, I'd noticed that one of the micro-tour's main objectives had indeed been accomplished: namely, curtailing my stage fright. Repeated exposure really does help, as does performing to small crowds in friendly, low-pressure environments. Also by now, I was running out of new venues to try and returning to cozy, familiar places. That helped, too. Had my second "grandpa" moment in a week when some youngster told me he was having a heck of a time booking shows for his dubcore band. Sure. I can see how that would be a real challenge. Oh, and what's dubcore?

    Steve's was very sparsely attended this evening. Not sure if this was due to the provincial election or not; the sound man blamed the designer chocolatier that had recently opened a few doors down. I managed a fairly energetic version of this number despite having to sit on a stool. For some reason, your standard issue folk-singer stool puts my guitar at an awkward angle. If I ever get to the point where I can draw up a rider, it'll have two items on it: chair and music stand.

    "Away from the Numbers" (Stop 16—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, June 9, 2018)

    In addition to the usual coffee and cookies, cake was served tonight and it was yummy. This evening also brought the latest instalment in what for me is a worrying trend: people doing karaoke at open stages. What's my beef? Well, one, it takes them forever to call up their backing tracks on their laptops, phones or what have you; two, it feels like cheating, like it's not a real performance; three, in my experience most of these folks cannot carry a tune. At least one host agrees, laying down the law like so at one of my earlier stops: "No singing to YouTube on your phone. This isn't karaoke night. You want to perform a cappella, fine, but this is an open stage. It's for musicians." Amen, brother.

    Don Heights is easily the most eclectic open stage I've encountered. On this night, in addition to the aforementioned karaoke, there were poets, ranting politicos, a blues guy who played with his guitar flat on his lap, a torch singer and an opera singer. At the night's end, a guy came on who was a real live wire, a crazed beatnik poet spinning free verse over furious, almost violent strumming and banging. (Do not lend this man your guitar!) I loved his intensity, and though my material isn't quite as unhinged I like to keep things pretty peppy myself, as you can see from my song choice tonight. We are the mods! I'd rather have performed this on a Rickenbacker guitar through a Vox amp with Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler backing me, but I made it work solo acoustic. In the last chorus, I managed to do the lead and backing vocals and somehow sound like two people—but there's no trickery, honest. It's all me, in real time.

    And that concludes our tour. Hope you've enjoyed this little snapshot, and hey, maybe you can join me in person next time. As an ambivalent performer, I'm really proud that I saw my commitment through. Next time, I think I'll take it a bit easier and build in more off-days. Once again, highlights are posted on my music page, and I'm already pencilling in dates for the autumn micro-tour on my shows page. Thanks for listening!

    Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
    Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
    Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
    All pages and contents © 2017-2019 Vern Nicholson.