#214 At home on the road
Dirty Windshields: The Best and the Worst of the Smugglers Tour Diaries
by Grant Lawrence
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2017
$26.95 / 9781771621489
Reviewed by Dustin Cole
First published Dec. 6, 2017
Grant Lawrence’s memoir Dirty Windshields recalls his days and nights as lead singer in the garage rock band Smugglers, Canada’s self-proclaimed Rock and Roll Ambassadors. The band was formed by Lawrence and two other sixteen year-olds, Nick Thomas and David Carswell, at Hillside Secondary School in West Vancouver in 1988. Lawrence’s story spans some sixteen years before the band stopped performing in 2004.
The book’s first section, Clam Chowder and Ice, details Lawrence’s early experiences in Vancouver as an aspiring musician, chronicles the Smugglers’ first regional tours, and recalls his attempts at show promotion and event organizing alongside his D.J. friend from high school, Nardwuar the Human Serviette (John Ruskin).
The second part, Big Macs and Bombers, follows the Smugglers on their first extended US tours, tells of their signing to Lookout! Records, and revels in their YTV Achievement Award in 1992.
The final section of Dirty Windshields, Sushi and Squats, accompanies Lawrence and his bandmates to more exotic locales, such as Nagoya, Adelaide, Aukland, and the obscure town of Izny in Germany. These tours marked the zenith of the band’s career, as enthusiastic fans danced themselves into delirium and sang along to the lyrics of songs from their album Selling the Sizzle (1996).
There is a predictable arc to Lawrence’s book. But this overarching pattern is filled with finer threads and distinctive themes. Each chapter functions as a vignette within a wider tableau. There is, of course, the Smugglers’ thread, entwined with our narrator’s own journey and struggles, namely Lawrence’s brazen ambition and his need to be always in control.
A diverse troupe of characters enter and exit the frame. Lawrence renders with economy his sketches and portraits, not the least of which is his own remembered self, drawn as an old road warrior pal you may have met, pint in hand, sitting on the other side of a scarred table in a dark club, just back from yet another continent-wide stint.
Lawrence’s stories and candour set the prose clipping right along, as did many stretches of roadside phone poles for him and his bandmates during their sixteen itinerant years.
Dirty Windshields’ text is enriched by an eclectic visual dimension. Always the band diarist and documentarian, Lawrence’s recollections of this period are interposed with reproductions of his own gig reports, artifacts such as hand-drawn gig posters, and photographs, many taken by Smugglers guitarist Nick Thomas.
These curated vestiges of Lawrence’s past, and the distance he has found after more than a decade away from the band, makes his story both casual and detailed. He avoids a remote, detached voice, but sometimes I wondered what was embellished and what was bald truth.
On other occasions I was curious about what happened in the interstices between gigs, tours, and albums. I craved more nuanced examples of, say, those fleeting moments in theatre green rooms night after night. Someone lacking performance experience might have a hard time imagining the cigarette stench mingled with fermenting beer, stained carpets, buckled springs in old chesterfields, and fist and boot holes in the drywall.
There were also times when reading this entertaining book that I was left wanting some gesture towards the minute intimacy five men might encounter after months cooped up in a smallish van. I wanted the ephemeral, not just the visceral. Rather than a writerly shortcoming, this limit of detail is, I think, an issue of memory — the very material of Lawrence’s stories.
We know memory to be imperfect and unreliable, but what does it succeed in doing? It organizes the past into something useful. This use-value of memory is personal. Our memory selects and reassembles what is otherwise overwhelming, formless and chaotic, and combines these formerly disconnected parts into something meaningful and instructive, something we can draw on in the present and the future.
In this way Dirty Windshields reorders the past into something meaningful for Grant Lawrence — and maybe for you too.
Lawrence’s memoir combines themes of home, transiency, transportation, community, and aesthetics. These subtler contours give the text its structure and direction. A defining moment was the band’s YTV Achievement Award, engineered by Nardwuar the Human Serviette, who, unbeknownst to the Smugglers, nominated the band for this nation-wide youth prize.
Chosen by a jury comprising members of Canadian rock band, Pursuit of Happiness, most of the Smugglers had since come of age, and their bassist Beez (Kevin Beesley) was already 27 in 1992. This did not stop them from flying to Ottawa to receive the award from Ray Hnatyshyn, the Governor General of Canada, and brunching with him at Rideau Hall. Actor Alan Thicke hosted the event. Right Said Fred shared the musical bill, performing their international smash, “I’m Too Sexy.”
With $3,000 in prize money, the Smugglers purchased their van L&P’s Getaway, a second-hand 1979 raised-roof GMC Vandura, which propelled them from Saskatoon to Moncton, Hoboken to Atlanta, Chattanooga to Denver, Olympia to Calgary and served as home on the road for the next dozen years.
Lawrence provides a loving description of the Vandura’s interior customization process that reminded me of tenants sprucing up their new apartment suite or astronauts preparing for interplanetary travel. They installed two double beds, a plywood box at the rear of the van for equipment and merchandise, a luggage rack over the driver and shotgun seats, shelves along the inner sides of the vehicle for books, cassettes and VHS tapes, a steel security bar along the back doors to thwart break-ins, and finally, every available interior surface was clad in salvaged red shag carpet.
Transportation technology and notions of home, from transient to transitory, unexpectedly reinforce one another in Lawrence’s book. These categories also uncover additional sub-themes: binaries such as visitor and host, tourist and tourist attraction, geographical disparity and community.
While on the road, the Smugglers constantly stayed with strangers at their bizarre homes. An arms-dealer put them up in Bellingham and passed around automatic pistols as the band hunkered down after their gig. In Green Bay they lodged at a rancher-style house with halls decked out for Christmas all year long, including a towering evergreen encircled with perpetual presents in a corner of the sunken den.
In Nagoya, the old proprietor of a shoebox hotel yelled out, in Japanese, the arcane footwear regulations of his establishment as the band passed from paper wall room to paper wall room.
Vulnerable to these odd incidental experiences, and despite them, the band showed a willingness to see new things. This curiosity, this willingness to explore, contrasts with the uncertain existence of five nautical chaps from West Vancouver untethered and plying the oceanic contingencies of road life.
In Dirty Windshields the Smugglers are road worn and weary touring musicians but also unabashed tourists and sometimes even rock and roll pilgrims. In Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, they played a laundromat before visiting the town’s Buddy Holly statue.
In Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly played his last show and met an early, tragic, end, the Smugglers visited the site of Holly’s last concert. This meticulously preserved edifice, called the Surf Ballroom, exuded a kind of sacred aura for Lawrence and his mates who were awed to a hushed solemnity at the hardwood dance floor, vaulted ceiling, art deco mouldings, and the payphone where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their last phone calls.
After being asked to leave by a Surf Ballroom employee, the band decided to find the crash site where Holly, Valens, the Big Bopper, and their twenty one year-old pilot fell out of the sky to untimely deaths. The same employee marked out directions in the dust on the side of the band’s versatile L&P’s Getaway.
In a cornfield, at what they thought was the site, the band found a marijuana grow-op, which they duly pilfered. Down the road at a gas station the local attendant claimed there was indeed a gigantic horn-rimmed glasses monument next to the actual crash site, which they had not seen.
There are many memorable scenes like this in Dirty Windshields. Lawrence renders character after fleeting character with brevity. People and places constantly flit through the action of his stories. A good many would never be seen or heard from again, but some stronger and more lasting bonds were also forged.
The band plugged into communities far and wide. What I find interesting about this connectivity is the aesthetic basis for friendships and business contacts. Whether in Spain, Japan, Germany, or the United States, the band secured ties with other like-minded people across large geographical expanses. Through these networks the Smugglers travelled and performed their art. This suggests the universal appeal of rock and roll music, a form with its own signifiers and language that are rooted more in abstract sound and fashion and confrontational attitude than researched exposition, and that rely more on audio-visual angst than discursive intellectualism.
Misadventures in Nagoya while touring with their Japanese friends Supersnazz testify to this global garage rock community. Lookout! rep Chris Appelgren and guitarist Dave Carswell set off into the radial entanglement of Nagoya’s dense streetscape and went missing, confounded by an unfamiliar urban design and transportation infrastructure.
After ten hours of disoriented wandering they stumbled upon an international telephone provided more as a public courtesy for tourists than as a commonplace service. The payphone displayed a panel of different little national flags. They selected the Canadian flag and out of desperation called the Mint Records office in Vancouver.
It was the middle of the night in Vancouver, but Randy Iwata, burning the midnight oil, picked up the landline. After accessing the band’s tour files, he called the Japanese tour manager in Nagoya on his cell phone. The manager then went out in search of the missing band members. To guide him, Chris and Dave described to Randy the city landmarks they had passed as they got lost twenty miles from their hotel. Randy then relayed these audiovisual cues to the tour manager and guided him as he drove through Nagoya to connect with Chris and Dave.
Vital to the rescue was Nagoya’s rail system. The city’s network of train stations superseded its primary mobility function and the remembered stations became mnemonics and spatial co-ordinates for the tour manager to recognize from an overseas cellphone call from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. In this way the Nagoya manager located the two lost Smugglers.
I found the Nagoya episode one of Lawrence’s most titillating. It was like turning a small, serious, exotic artifact over and over, and with each turn finding a new aspect of its form. Both comic and complex, the scene is too weird to invent.
In it, Dirty Windshield’s themes of musical (rock and roll) community, tourism, transiency, transportation, and communications intersect in unexpected and suspenseful ways.
Grant Lawrence’s book feels like a straight telling. His narrative suggests a psychological richness while his levity and wry sense of humour give the book a necessary momentum. The impetus gained from the Smugglers’ twelve-year road trip in L&P’s Getaway continues in Dirty Windshields. I could have used less simile and pop culture referencing, though. At times the image was already clear in my mind without the added window dressing.
As for the Smugglers, as the years wore on, one member after another tired of rock and roll circuit touring and quit the band, frustrated at their slowly rising success and tempted by other opportunities on the Vancouver music scene. Guitarists David Carswell and John Collins went on to start JC/ DC, a recording studio in Vancouver, and Kevin Beesley is now co-owner of Mint Records, also in Vancouver.
Grant Lawrence’s Dirty Windshields should appeal to a diverse audience from rock and roll fanatics, historians of popular culture, local fans and music buffs, to devout Canadianists – and even human and transportation geographers. All will find much of interest in this volume.
Dustin Cole was born in Hinton, near Jasper, and raised in the town of High Level, an isolated community in northwestern Alberta. He received his B.A. in history from Simon Fraser University. Dustin has authored one book, the collection of oneiric poetry Dream Peripheries, released by the small press General Delivery. He lives in Vancouver.
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