Photo by Kris Krug
Vancouver is always on some “best of” something list extolling luxurious skiing or exotic bistros, but it’s rarely mentioned amongst North American art culture capitals. San Francisco gets credits for its psychedelic pioneers and New York is known for its art school punkers, with beat poets traipsing in-between. Even Montreal is known for jazz, comedy and underage drinking, and Ontario holds claim to the Group of Seven artists.
When it comes to art culture, I’m not talking about big dollar art conversation like “Oh, where shall we move the gallery?” Rather, I’m referring to the creative forces that bubble up from the underground, as evidenced in my wily ’80s adolescence at the York and Buddha and dingy warehouses in what’s now the yuppie enclave of Yaletown. (Of course, the cops were always there to shut the fun down —some things don’t change.)
You have to scratch a little bit to find this Vancouver where explorers found a cheap place to figure themselves out—back before shiny towers and grinning faces of realtors permeated the landscape, back before the teal-hued Expo daze, and even before the immortalized Gastown riots (we didn’t exactly miss out because the ghosts are still out there to inspire your renegade activities). So put on your boots and get on the bus for a tour of Vancouver’s renegade past: I traveled several splendid seasons on Grateful Dead tours and never once heard about Jerry and the lads (in town for a festival) stirring up interest for a show at the Pender Auditorium with free shows at Second and Kits beaches on August 5, 1966—naturally, each was shut down by the excessively diligent law enforcement. But, of course, any decent ‘head will tell you about the legendary free show at Golden Gate Park, which happened a year later with throngs of civic and fan support.
Before breaking in L.A., Tommy Chong toiled as a guitar player and as a promoter at colourfully-named Chinatown clubs like New Delhi Cafe, T-Cabaret, Elegant Parlour and Shanghai Junk, plus bringing in future Motown artists to blow the roof off the The Blues Palace at (the now sedate) Broadway and Alma. After continual shutdowns (despite re-employing strippers as comediennes), he split town with the only Hispanic kid in town who he’d hired away from carpet laying biz.
Meanwhile, around the corner a left-handed whiz-kid named Jimi from Seattle killed the hours while visiting his Granny wailing on his guitar in a chicken restaurant before heading to England so someone would listen and give a shit about what he was up.
Blocks away in West End cabarets, my great Uncle Lorne entertained town luminaries and miscreants alike as a lounge singer—as a kid oblivious to the violent underworld, I always wondered why he couldn’t bend the knuckles on one hand and covered them with rings.
Further out of town, the founding fathers of creative housing recently arrived from Finland in the 1890s stuck poles in the swampy land which no one wanted near the wild cannery town of Steveston and said, “This is where we live.” Generations lived on in net sheds, boats and ramshackle huts, creating their community until port authorities and other land-grabbers tried to reclaim Finn Slough. The hardy descendants live on—partially prisoners of charm and confusion over land claims—far from ideal, but somehow faring better than residents north shore’s intertidal Mud Flats and even the recently thwarted land lease holders of Hollyburn.
My Vancouver isn’t the city of glass and resto-lounges; it’s stumbling upon the site of the Victoria Argyle Club—run by my ol’ dead Gramps who made sandwiches for pool sharks and olden slackers who never needed a job.
My Vancouver’s the motorcycle shop on site of Bumper’s—a short lived all-ages club in Whalley where metal heads sneaking mickeys hung on one side and the grab-bag of punk/goth/new wave kids smoking cloves stayed on the other. No one much ventured to the floor except the seminal night when DOA, The Spores and my friends Abortions on Toast opened the whole world to the 13-year-old version of me.
Up King George a bit by the infamous bus loop was Stardust (apparently re-opened?) where 6th graders somehow were allowed to stay out all night copping feels and rollerskating circles to REO Speedwagon.
Just across the river where the ALRT used to end, I’d save paper route money for the requisite punk camo jackets from the dingy surplus stores on the waterfront behind the Army and Navy store, where my Mom bought clunky Chinese boots each year for the first day of school.
Now my boots haul me along the trail named for G7 artist (and WW1 battlefield painter) Fredrick Varley, who frolicked in the ‘20s and ’30s between Lynn Valley and Jericho Beach. The fiery Scot finally split town 18 months, behind on rent after sparking the Vancouver art scene with the first schools and exhibitions in this industrial outpost.
I showed up at school most every day, hung out at libraries and even won the school science fair, before traveling to 20-plus countries learning the secrets of pilgrims and Templars. But never once did I hear about these Vancouver legends and connections. Discounted perhaps? Ignored by vain-modesty? Who cares?
My Vancouver isn’t the one where it’s harder to get a beer than Utah, where clubs of hooligans thrive while a low-end live house can’t get a license. Mine is the same one eagerly celebrated by foreign draft dodgers skipping the border with Kerouac in their pocket, and even the chain smoking ESL students who pick here expecting some sense of intrigue and history beyond the glossy brochures.
And this is your Vancouver, too, whether you know it or want it. Get your boots on and find it.
Dave Thorvald Olson is a Vancouver-based writer, producer and podcaster. Online, he’s better known as Uncle Weed and can be found at UncleWeed.