Study Hall

The author at the board on his first gig. (Just kidding!)

My First Gig, Part One: The Audition, A.K.A., An “Interesting” Journey

The tale of heading out of town with a rather dubious character for an "audition" on a truly unique first sound job adventure more than 40 years ago. (An audio version of this article is also available for download.)

In May of 1979, I left my family home in Prince Edward Island, Canada and flew to Toronto to start my career as a live sound engineer. I was fortunate in that my older brother, a musician, had a complete, unused basement apartment included in his rental of the ground floor of a house in Toronto’s west end (a fact that may seem more far fetched today than any other event related in this tale) so I had a place to stay, and someone who knew the local music scene to help me make connections.

My search for work had included the bulletin boards at the main local music stores, which happened to be either downtown or in the west end, but after a couple of weeks with no job, it was decided that I needed to make the trek to the far east of the city, alternately known as Scarborough, or “Scarberia” depending on where you lived, to see what prospects might be found there.

The Quest Begins

My targets for the day were a small PA rental house with a storefront operation and a larger sound company with a warehouse space about a mile and a half further east. The first place was called “Power Supply Sound” and was looked after by a piratical looking fellow who went by the name of “Marg.” I walked in to a large, sparsely filled space with the odd loudspeaker stack or amp rack here-and-there and found Marg sitting on a bar stool behind the counter.

I explained my mission to him. He asked me a few questions about my experience, which at that point was about six months of mixing a band that typically did a high school dance or two each weekend, and he told me that he just might have something for me… shortly before I had walked in, he’d gotten a call from a friend who was looking for a monitor engineer for that night. This was for a band called “Moxy,” who were a pretty big deal in Canada at the time, for a gig at a bar called “The Knob Hill” that was a few miles even further east.

I forget what it was, but there was some reason why there wasn’t going to be an answer as to whether they had someone lined up or not for a few hours, so I set off for my other objective and promised to come back and check in with Marg later in the day.

My next call was at the sound company, which according to my map was walkable from where I was. And it was a walk, especially since I missed a turn somewhere along the line and ended up going on a parallel but longer route. On a super hot day, in June.

However, I was literally “just off the farm” so a big old walk on a hot day was something I just took in stride. I ended up being at the sound company for not much more than five minutes, just long enough to fill out an application and beg a drink of water…little knowing that I would end up managing the place a dozen years later.

Having figured out the transit system on my epic walk, I took a bus back to Power Supply to check in with Marg about the Moxy gig. When I walked back into the shop, there was a small group of folks standing in front of one of the display loudspeaker stacks, bickering about something. Still holding court behind the counter, Marg barked over at them, “Hey, you guys looking for your soundman? Well, here he is!” jerking his head in my direction.

I had a brief talk with them, in which it came out that they were looking for a new sound person, the last one having not been around when a last-minute gig came up. That ended in disaster when their two lighting techs tried to put the PA together and ended up blowing most of the loudspeakers.

But, they said they were not the ones to make that decision, the band leader, their drummer was. We exchanged phone numbers, and after finding out from Marg that the Moxy gig had gone away, I headed home. Side note: I’ve often wondered how I would have fared doing my first ever monitor gig, for a super-loud band, in a super-rough bar, and I’m always relieved when I think back on not getting that one.

Getting Traction

I spoke to the drummer that evening. The “normal” part of the call involved us agreeing that I should come out and audition for the band by mixing a set. The “weird” part was that at some point, both of us thought the other had said “just a minute,” so we stopped talking and waited for the other person to come back on the line… while we both sat there listening, with neither of us wanting to be the first one to speak. This went on for so long that my brother and his girlfriend were both yelling at me from the other room to just hang up already and come back to dinner…

After that impasse was broken, we arranged the following: that week, the band was playing at a club in cottage country, an hour-and-a-half north of the city, with a rented PA and a “soundman” (as we were all known at the time) who came with the rental. The soundman would pick me up around noon the next day in the band’s van, and we would drive up for the audition.

The next day was another hot one. The soundman, who we will call “Scrubby” (not his real nickname, but close…) a, wiry, turkey-necked fellow of indeterminate age and a big head of Brillo-Pad hair, showed up on time, with a load of newly re-coned loudspeakers in the back of the van. Scrubby promptly announced that we had some time to kill as he had no intention of arriving at the band’s headquarters in Newmarket (about 40 minutes north of town) before it was time to leave for the gig.

Why? Because the deal was that he was also expected to put their blown-up PA back together and he didn’t feel like doing that on such a hot day.

In fact, it was so hot that Scrubby soon decided that we needed some beer and pulled into the nearest beer store, emerging with a six pack. He promptly opened one for himself and handed me one too. So, here I was at mid-day, on my way to my first audition, with an open bottle of beer clamped between my legs. Having come of age in a rural community, I was not unfamiliar with this activity, but it had always happened at night.

Now here I was, in broad daylight, in a big city, in a van, a window van, trying to figure out when it was a good time to take a swig of beer without anybody seeing me. This caught Scrubby’s attention, and he chided me a couple of times for taking so long to finish my beer.

However, this situation resolved itself a few minutes later when he pulled in to what turned out to be my first ever visit to a strip club to “see a friend.” I don’t recall meeting or interacting with anyone when we went into the club, don’t remember much really except the “Oh, I guess this is happening now…” feeling.

We were there long enough that I must have had another beer and then got back in the van and headed north again. This time we stopped in a small town and went to visit another friend of Scrubby’s who was living in a run-down old house with plenty of “men’s magazines” littering the floor. The two of them passed a joint around and talked about some things that made me blush until Scrubby decided it was time to go and pick up the band and head for the gig.

Living The Dream

While all of these “new experiences” were unfolding, I was beginning to feel the onset of what I called a “sinus headache” coming on, something that often affected me on hot, muggy days. In the counter-culture days of the 1960s and 70s, my family was very anti-medical establishment, so my usual treatment for these headaches was… nothing, not even aspirin.

So, by the time I actually met the whole band, I wasn’t feeling my best. However, no one seemed to notice anything amiss as we headed off to the gig – a club in an old hotel called the Atherley Arms that was known to all and sundry in the biz as “The Armpit.”

The plan for the audition was that Scrubby would mix the first set, I would mix the second, and he would do the last set as well. The club was pretty sparsely attended that night, with most of the patrons being family and friends of the band. I must have sat with them for the first set, though I have no recollection of any of conversations that took place.

When it was my turn to mix, I walked up to the console and realized that I didn’t know who anyone was or what instrument they played, what songs they were playing (the second set was typically the “originals” set while the first and third had more covers) and a long list of other unknowns. I was also mixing on Scrubby’s sounds, without any sort of sound check to see if they worked for me. And, there was only one FX unit, a Roland Space Echo… which wasn’t working.

So, the challenge was, how to distinguish myself, and without making any drastic changes and/or straight up mistakes. The only thing I could think to do was something that I’d read in a Yamaha manual a few months earlier while hanging out in one of the two music stores in Charlottetown: Use the tone controls to take out frequencies that weren’t needed for a particular input. The most obvious (and least likely to get you in trouble) example of this was to roll-off all of the low end in the hi-hat channel, but I’m pretty sure that I rolled off the high end in the kick drum channel too, something that I certainly wouldn’t do today.

That was my set… standing behind the console, making a few EQ changes and otherwise feeling pretty useless… while the throbbing behind my eyes kept getting worse and worse.

For the third set, it was decided that I should do lights while Scrubby mixed (neither of the lighting guys who’d blown up the PA were in evidence that night). I did so, Flash! Flash! Flash! And stole a glance over at the console to see that Scrubby had undone my minor (and to me basically inaudible) EQ changes.

The show ended at around 1 am, we all piled in the van, dropped the band off in Newmarket, and Scrubby drove us back to the city. This was mostly a silent drive, as by that time my headache was so bad that I felt like I could reach up and pull the two lobes of my brain apart with my hands, which would, I imagined, make the sound of a coconut being pried open. (Some 40 some years later I was describing this to a friend and he said, “That’s a migraine!”).

The next day, I got a call from the band to tell me that the family and friends had thought the second set had sounded the best, so the gig was mine, starting the following Monday. I got the gig!

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