So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star?
“Mike is in Sick Bay.” Bones, a No. 4 Pencil thin figure who more than lived up to his nickname, pointed an arcuate finger at the single bed where Mike was sitting. “Todd’s in the Captain’s chair.” Bones turned and faced me. His eyes flickered with the fire of a man non compos mentis. “And only because I’m allowing it. I’m the Captain of this vessel!”
All three of us laughed in that uncomfortable way you laugh when you’re not sure if someone is making a joke or about to pull out an axe and chop you into little pieces.
Higher than the seventh summit on Everest, Bones wasn’t joking, he was bleary-eyed serious. His flash of hydrophobia pulled me from my drug-induced haze long enough to realize the slightly bent, greying man had assembled his diminutive room into a likeness of the USS Enterprise from 1960s television classic, Star Trek. It was crude, but it was definitely created in the image of the fictional Starship.
The ragged rocking chair I occupied – that looked like it had spent a few years living in a landfill before finding a new home in outer space – was jammed in one corner of the room. It had calculators of various sizes – none working – glued to the arms. A workstation, directly across from the Captain’s Chair, was made up of a couple dozen plastic milk crates that also had calculators glued to them. This was the “engineering department.”
In 1989, Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada, gas was hovering around 40c a litre, Guns N’ Roses was the biggest band on the planet – the group’s serpentine Appetite For Destruction was blaring out of the roofs of t-top Camaros driven by young punks with long hair and from open windows of chrome-wheeled Lincoln Continentals driven by middle-aged men with no hair – and a single room at The Chieftain Hotel cost $150 a month.
The Chieftain was once a modest palace and a hub of activity according to Sully*, de facto manager of the building. A malodorous combination of whiskey, soiled clothes and cigarettes, Sully lead me on a five-cent tour and gave me a drunkard’s history of The Chieftain. “The hotel was one of the first structures built in the city,” he announced proudly.
It definitely looked and smelled like it was one of the first structures built in the city, perhaps one of the first structures built in Canada.
In its heyday, The Chieftain was sold-out weeks in advance. Occupants of differing backgrounds arrived in the then young city in search of opportunity. Some came to work the land – Alberta was rich in fertile soil, among other things – others to escape umbrageous pasts. In later years, the ones who came to stake their claim in the booming oilfield, also lodged at The Chieftain.
Like the rooms upstairs, the main-floor taproom – which had long ago been gutted and turned into retail space – was once filled with all manner of characters – ramblers, gamblers, conmen and ladies of the night. The air was thick with spirits from bygone eras. Close your eyes and you could picture men of all stripes imbibing and brawling; beautiful and not so beautiful women selling love by the evening or the hour.
If in its prime The Chieftain was a well-turned out grandee in a tailored suit, it was now a senescent tramp bedecked in rags; its halls filled with ghosts too tired to rattle their chains. Anyone who tarried too long at the geriatric auberge risked becoming a ghost themselves.
In the spring of ’89 a friend of my father’s – along with my father – cooked up a scheme that would lead to my eventual residency at The Chieftian. The man’s young daughter was going to school in the city and finding it hard living on her own for the first time. My father, enjoying the sweet-spot of a new romance, wanted his bum, out of work son gone from his house.
The two men came up with a solution that would solve both their problems. Without any say in the matter, I was shipped off to stay with this charming and voluptuous young woman with curves in all the right places. I wasn’t too put out by the idea, although I was certainly unhappy with the underhanded way in which the plan was set in motion.
Roughly a month passed when I received a phone call from back home. My best friend Mike, a fellow longhaired dreamer, musician, music junkie and stoner, was desperate to escape small town life and join me in the big smoke. It was time, he said, for us to continue our quest for rock and roll glory; to return to the work we’d begun back in Nowheresville, Alberta.
The living arrangement with my young female acquaintance was coming to an end around the time Mike arrived in the city. We were brothers-in-arms; troubadours ready to conquer the world. Barely nineteen, I was a terrible singer and mediocre songwriter. Mike was eighteen and learning to play guitar after switching from bass. His talent, unlike mine, was far more apparent.
Ready to take our music to the streets and to the masses, all we needed was a place to live. As it happened, another friend from our home town who was also living in the city had just moved into a new apartment. He tossed us the keys to his old place downtown, there were two weeks left on the lease.
Neither of us spent much time looking for a new place. We had two weeks. In stoner standard time that was like a year. Unfortunately stoner standard time and reality standard time are completely different timezones. The two weeks passed, and we found ourselves on the pavement. So we did what anyone in urgent need of shelter would do, we stored our stuff and spent our first day homeless playing games at an arcade.
Those who say pot doesn’t steal your motivation or cause you to make boneheaded decisions and not think clearly hasn’t smoked enough pot. That night we rented a room at a dumpster hotel across the street from the arcade. The next morning Mike took the want ads and I took the rental listings from the newspaper that came with our complimentary continental breakfast. Off we went on different missions.
Affordable apartment listings were few and far between for two bums posing as rockstars, but I found one. Cheap rooms, shared kitchen, read the ad. I called the number. I was given an address and told to come and fill out some paperwork. After hiking three or four miles to the location, I found myself standing in outside a Chinese Restaurant. I double checked the address. I was in the right place.
Once inside, a kind oriental lady told me I had to “go up stairs for room.” Off I went up a dark stairwell, to an unmarked door. I knocked and was promptly ushered in to a small office by Dilby*, a rotund and bald Chinese man who seemed overly pleased to see me. “Come in. Come in,” he said.
“Where are the rooms?”
“I take you there.”
Even though I wasn’t used to living in overly nice places, The Chieftain was a tatterdemalion building that looked more like an abandoned factory than a rental complex. To say it was a dump would be an insult to all the ramshackle buildings in the world just trying to make an honest living. The place was a hole. Dilby was a slumlord.
Dilby lead me down a long, dank and dark hallway. It took about thirty seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim. Apparently the original lighting installed when The Chieftain was first erected was still in use. Once my eyes focused, the place was even worse inside than out. Dilby stopped at a door, unlocked it and flicked on the light. “Here go.”
The room had no windows, just a frosted skylight with a lengthy crack in it. A Victorian-era steel-frame bed filled half the room. An old refrigerator that looked like it might have been original to the hotel took up a chunk of space in one corner. There was a closet-sized bathroom with a tiny sink and tub.
“What you think?”
Bum central is what I thought.“I’ll take it.” I handed Dilby $150 in cash, and he wrote out a receipt and gave me the keys.
As he was leaving, Dilby said, “Todd. Don’t fuck me.”
“I…um…I…I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Don’t fuck me. Lots of people move in and fuck me. They don’t pay rent on time, if at all.”
After I’d assured Dilby I wasn’t planning on ‘fucking’ him, he left. The room wasn’t much, but it was good enough for two bums standing on the brink of obscurity. Since I was footing the bill for the room, I took the bed. Mike claimed a slab of the warped and washed-out hardwood floor.
Bones was one of the more eccentric characters at The Chieftain, but he definitely wasn’t the strangest. The aforementioned Sully, a short and compact man with a penchant for alcohol, was the first tenant I met at The Chieftain. He’d cornered me in the hall the day I moved in and, drunk off his skull, informed me he was the manager of the complex. Then he invited me to his room for a dink.
While we drank whiskey from plastic cups, Sully gave me the book on The Chieftain and some of its permanent residents, including “Bones,” “The Undertaker,” “Ricky*” and a spooky, nameless fella who came out of his room only to retrieve take out food from down stairs a couple times a month. I saw the latter tenant once. His head was flat and shaped like a flower-shop helium balloon. His face glowed green like he’d been in some kind of nuclear disaster; he was almost transparent.
Like most of the people living at The Chieftain, Sully wasn’t a bad guy. He was just a down on his luck chronic alcoholic who couldn’t function without booze. He spent his days wasting away on skid row and called everyone – male or female – a cunt-eyed slut. I never knew exactly what that meant, but it was his go-to phrase. I knew it wasn’t a racial slur because he called everyone that.
Sully’s room was stacked with old vinyl records. He loved whiskey, cursing and music, in that order. His room had a mountain of records, a turntable, a fridge, a bed and nothing else. He wore the same clothes every day. The entire time I lived at the Chieftain I never saw him sober. He would disappear for days on end, which is actually how I met Bones.
Sully didn’t smoke dope, but he was the ‘man who could get’ anything. One afternoon, out of weed and looking to score, I was banging on Sully’s door when about fifty feet down a secondary hallway, Bones popped his head out of his room. “Sully’s not around, man.” Bones sounded like his voice could use a good shot of WD40. “I’m Bones.” He motioned for me to come down. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Well, I was looking for some smoke.”
“You’ve come to the right place, man,” Bones grinned.
Turned out Bones was Sully’s source. I was paying Sully a little extra to walk fifty feet to Bones’ room to get dope. Bones took my money and told me to wait in his room. About 20 minutes later he returned with a baggie. We got high and became friends. From that day forward Sully was out as the middle man.
While Mike was working – he’d found a job cooking in a restaurant as far away from The Chieftain as you could get without leaving the city – I would sit over in the USS Enterprise with Bones and get high, or hang out in Sully’s room and drink and listen to music.
Since I was on unemployment insurance, I didn’t spend much time worrying about working or money. I was convinced me and Mike were close to our big break and a job would only get in the way of my art. Plus I was a stoner and lazy. I whiled away the hours sleeping, listening to music, writing lyrics and waiting for Mike to finish work so we could jam out our future hit songs.
After walking roughly ten miles to work, cooking for a full shift, and then walking back to the hotel, Mike was often too exhausted to work on music. (Why he never bought a bus pass is a mystery to this day.) Instead we would get high and plot our path to stardom. How hard could it be? We figured we were about a year or two out from getting a record deal. The delusion was strong at The Chieftian.
It wasn’t long before Mike rented his own room. After living in such close quarters for a month, we had a fight. He ate the last orange, which was mine, and I kicked him out. For about a week after our fight, Mike flirted with another guitar player/singer about getting aband. I stuck it out with the ragtag crew of hophead musicians we’d dug up a few weeks earlier.
After a week of duelling fake bands – we rarely practiced, and we never played any actual gigs – we made up. We were brothers after all, destined for the big time. There was no room for egos, although we both had them, and mine was much bigger than Mike’s. Our fake stoner band didn’t last long, it imploded when one of the guys got a job and had to start going to bed early.
It was around this time Tong* moved into The Chieftian. A scraggy Asian teen with a spiked hairdo that made his head looked like it had been formed inside a giant soup can, Tong was around our age. He walked with a limp and had one wilted arm, the hand on that arm shock constantly and was crippled so bad the thumb appeared glued to the palm.
Born in Los Angeles, and raised in the world of the Bloods and Crips, Tong had been shot in the back, near his spine. The bullet passed through his body and left him disabled. Once recovered, and fearing for his safety, he stole money from the gang and headed north to Canada.
With eyes wide, we listened as Tong spun tales of the California underworld; of gang wars, drugs and murder. He was an affable character and funny as hell. One night I woke up at 2 am to rustling outside in the hall. I opened my door and there was Tong, shuffling by, big smile on his face. He was like a broom when he walked. Mike popped his head out of his room. “Where were you, dude?”
“Guy, I found twenty-cent, so I went to 7-11 and bought two pieces of licorice.” That was Tong. We fed him often.
Tong’s tales of Los Angeles and his former life got grander around the time Dillon* entered stage left. Dillon didn’t live in The Chieftain at the time, he worked at Layla’s*, a club downtown. Me, Mike and Tong would go to Layla’s during happy hour to drink and talk about our plans for world domination. One evening, while pounding back cheap drinks and talking big, Dillon came on shift. He was another small town escapee.
It wasn’t long before Dillon was buying us drinks at Layla’s and hanging out at The Chieftain on his days off. One night, after listening to us stumble our way through a new original song – “Too Young Too Die,” written about one of our friends who had committed suicide the year before – Dillon decided we were bound for the big time and he was the one who was going to get us there.
Tong, also in the room that night, and not to be outdone, announced he would soon be heading back to Los Angeles and wanted us to go with him. “Guy,” he said excitedly, “I have connections in L.A. (he pronounced it ‘Al Lay’) who can get your music to the right people.”
We were blown away. Los Angeles? The land of milk and money? The City of Angels, where bands like the Eagles, The Doors, Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen got their start? Where legendary clubs like The Whiskey, The Rainbow and The Troubadour, places we’d only read about in rock magazines and books, were waiting for us to blow their doors off with our music? Hell yeah, we were in. Dillon was in, too.
As excited as we were, there was concern over Tong’s safety. What would happen to him once he went back and faced his gang family? He assured us he would be safe. “Once we get to ‘Al Lay’, Guy,” I will throw myself at the mercy of my old gang and make amends.”
It sounded good. Too good.
When you’re young, you take people at their word until they give you a reason not to. Tong wove a tale that would’ve made Stephen King proud. I wanted to believe him, and I definitely wanted to go to L.A. – or at least I’d convinced myself I wanted to go – but cracks were beginning to form in Tong’s story, San Andreas-sized cracks.
One night while were working on our small repertoire of songs – such cliched masterpieces as “Live Fast, Die Young,” “Modern Day Gypsies” and “All The Aces” – two older guys walked by my open door. They stopped and listened for a few minutes and then introduced themselves and invited us to their room for a beer.
A few cold ones in, I asked, “how long have you two been living here in The Chieftain.” Harlan* – the younger of the two – offered a creepy, black-toothed grin and said, “Not long.”
“Where are you from?”
“We just got out of the Alberta Hospital,” Benny* – the older one – answered this time. His words dropped like cigarette ash, and without the hint of sarcasm. “We killed a man.”
(The Alberta Hospital, which opened in 1923 in Edmonton, was a psychiatric facility that housed mental health patients, including the criminally insane.)
Benny laughed. Not a jovial, haha laugh, but a maniacal, I’m going to slit your throat and drink your blood laugh. Me and Mike got up and excused ourselves. Benny attempted to stop us. “Fellas. Fellas! I was only joking.” We didn’t stick around to find out.
Bones may have been a little strange – mentally damaged from years of dropping LSD – but he was harmless. He was a burned out hippie with an impressive imagination. His natural ability for drawing and storytelling were enviable. He built and hung intricate WWII model airplanes from his ceiling. A few of the planes had grey strips of cotton stretching out the back to resemble smoke. He wrote futuristic stories – one that rivalled the hit ’80s adult fantasy cartoon Heavy Metal –and drew amazing pictures to accompany these stories.
“Why do they call you ‘Bones’,” I asked one afternoon when we were hanging out getting stoned. Bones took a drag off the joint we were sharing, sucked the smoke deep in his lungs and handed it back to me. He paused for about thirty seconds and then exhaled. A look of confusion creased his age-beaten face. This was long after the “Todd’s in the Captain’s Chair” skit. I began to feel a little uncomfortable, and wondered if perhaps the baggie in my pocket would be the last one I ever purchased from Bones.
As I waited for an answer, I took a pull off the joint. Bones continued to stare, more through me than at me, lost in the matrix of his insanity. What if he decides to kill me. Who would ever know? I shook the thought from my mind.
After what felt like an hour, but what was likely only a minute or two in stoner standard time, Bones finally answered. “Doctor Leonard McCoy!” He almost screamed it. He was beaming, his eyes slits, redder than the blood I imagined flowing from my head after he’d struck it with a claw hammer.
“Oh.” I said, passing the joint back to him. “I get it.”
“Yep,” Bones took another toke. Smoke swirled from his mouth and nostrils and floated to the ceiling where it congregated with the other wisps of pot smoke. “Doctor McCoy is my favourite Star Trek character, and don’t ever forget that I’m the Captain of this vessel.”
“Riiiiight,” I nodded, wondering if Bones was aware that McCoy, as far as my dope rotted mind could recall, never captained the Enterprise at any point during Star Trek’s three season run. I figured it best not to mention. Even though he was harmless, I wasn’t sure if Bones had a hunting knife or other defensive tool (maybe an axe?) in the event of an alien attack, and I wasn’t eager to find out.
The planning continued. Dillon – who by this point was living at The Chieftain after his old lady had kicked him out – said he could put the money together in about a month; enough cash to get the four of us to L.A. and sustain us for a while. “Ssssoooodd,” he said – when Dillon spoke he often elongated his words and always changed the T in my name to an S – “I have one word for you. Porsche.” That was all he wanted. That was his dream, to own a Porsche.
I don’t recall Dillon every getting high. He didn’t like dope. He liked to drink, but I don’t ever remember him drunk, either. He would hold a bottle of beer between his thumb and middle and index fingers. Each time he took a swig, he would produce a blue-steel stare and casually look around the room. It was like he was an actor filming a movie. I was always waiting for a director to yell, “Cut!”
Mike’s dad came to the city around this time, intent on talking his boy into coming home. He was a good man, if not a little heavy on the dramatics. Mr. D. loved his son deeply and wanted him to leave the city and go back to school. When he saw where we were living, Mr. D. flipped out. I’m sure he wanted to pack Mike and his stuff up and force him to go back to Nowheresville, but that wasn’t happening.
We argued with Mr. D.; told him we were out in the real world, living our dreams on our own terms. He left, defeated and distressed. I’m sure Mike telling him we were moving to L.A. didn’t ease Mr. D.’s anxiety in the least. He ended up going home and tracking my mother down, who lived not far from Mr. And Mrs. D., and insisted she do something because, as he put it, “our kids are living on skid row for fucksakes!”
Ricky* was a sickly figure with a wet brain, his encephalon damaged beyond repair from decades of alcohol overconsumption. He was tall with stick arms, stick legs and a grotesquely swollen belly. He looked like a snow man with human flesh stretched over it. He was mostly bald, a few stringy patches of hair hung from his overly large head. He was hunched over and disfigured from years of neglect and abuse. He lived in the room behind mine.
There was one kitchen in The Chieftain. It was communal. We cooked in it when money was short; when Mike was waiting for his paycheck or I was waiting for my unemployment check. Mostly we ate Big Bite hot dogs and hamburgers at 7-11. The stove took fuses, it too was an original piece from The Chieftain’s opening day.
Any time we needed to cook, we would have to unscrew fuses from the fuseboxes in our rooms. I had no idea the fuses in my room were connected to Ricky’s room. While unscrewing a fuse one afternoon, I heard Ricky’s tv go off. He became unhinged, banging on the wall and cursing. He had this loud booming voice. I quietly screwed the fuse back in.
For days after the fuse incident, I was leery of this monster who lived behind me. Up until this time we hadn’t yet met Ricky. One afternoon he caught us in the hall and introduced himself. He said nothing about the fuses, and I thought it best not to bring it up. When he spoke it was with a low barely audible whine, almost a whimper. A lot different than the booming, corrosive voice I’d heard while fuse hunting.
Mike wound up over in Ricky’s room that night. Why he was over there has been lost in the haze of time – it has been decades since I quit doing drugs, but parts of the hard-drive are permanently damaged – I’m guessing free beer was involved. Mike liked beer as much as I liked weed. Mike and Ricky became fast friends.
Ricky worked at a local bar a few blocks from The Chieftain. I’m not sure if he was technically employed there, but he worked most nights. He was on a welfare disability, and the bar ‘paid’ him with a twenty-four box of beer at the end of each shift.
We had the opportunity to watch Ricky ‘work’ one night. He walked around the bar, empty beer case cradled in one arm, picking bottles off tables. Once full, he would take the box to the rear of the building, return a few minutes later with another box and continue collecting empties. Before he put the bottles in the boxes, Ricky would drink whatever alcohol was left in them. It was a sad and sobering sight.
Like his speech, Dillon’s mannerisms were over-exaggerated. It was like he was constantly on stage, playing a role. Which in retrospect we all were. Dillon was acting like a manager; me and Mike were acting like rockstars and Tong was acting like a wounded gangster on the lamb. Looking back, we were all lost souls trying to fake it until we made it, gamed by our own insecurities and immaturity.
The tale of Tong finally came unravelled during one of our late night planning sessions. We were only a week or two away from boarding a Greyhound to La La Land. For some reason Tong blurted out, “when we get to ‘Al Lay’, guy, I will get you anything you want.”
Mike lit up. “Anything?”
“Anything!” Tong thundered with the sureness of a politician.
“I want a vintage Gold Top Les Paul.”
“You got it.” Tong was on fire and basking in the glow of his position as provider of unattainable things. “Todd? What do you want when we get to ‘Al Lay’?”
“Where will you get the money?” I asked.
Tong was cock and balls confident. “Guy, I tell you. When we get to ‘Al Lay’, there’s nothing we can’t have.”
“Bullshit. It’s all bullshit.”
Tong fell apart. He broke down crying. It was all a lie. He wasn’t from ‘Al Lay’. He wasn’t hiding from a gang. He’d never been shot. He was born disabled in Vietnam, and had come to Canada as a refugee. He’d made it all up. I wanted to punch him out at first, but softened after he told us a few horror stories of his life before Canada.
The next morning I was awakened by someone banging around on the roof above my room. I saw Sully in the hall later that afternoon. “Were you up on the roof this morning?”
“I heard banging.”
“It was probably the Pigeon Man.”
“The Pigeon Man?”
“The Pigeon Man.”
“Who in the fuck is the Pigeon Man?”
“A reclusive ninja who lives next to the back stairwell.”
“Why do you call him the pigeon man?”
“Because he likes pigeons.” Sully stumbled away, mumbling about ‘cunt-eyed sluts’.
Fair enough. The guy likes pigeons. Nothing wrong with that. No harm in a lonely recluse treating a few wild birds as pets. Whatever gets you through the day.
It was after midnight that same night when – headed to the kitchen with a box of macaroni & cheese (a staple of any struggling artist’s diet) – I met the reclusive ninja who lived by the back stairwell. What I saw when I entered the kitchen is permanently tattooed on my mind. The Pigeon Man, sitting at the communal table; covered in blood and guts. There were pigeon feathers and pigeon innards all over the room, the table, on the floor and the walls. He really did like pigeons.
The diminutive oriental man offered a shy smile, waved hello and kept on eating. The next morning the kitchen was spotless. Besides being a Pigeon conisuerrier, The Pigeon Man was also a clean freak. I don’t recall ever eating in the kitchen after that.
Anyone who knows anything about art, music, writing – any creative outlet – knows you don’t just one day wake up good enough. It takes years and often decades of hard work and sacrifice to become successful. When you’re high all the time, reading Hit Parader and Rolling Stone magazines and living in a fantasy world, that part of the equation gets lost. Talent alone is never enough. Every day at the Chieftain was becoming a reality check.
Click, click, click. Click…click…click, click. I tried to block out the noise by covering my head with a pillow. Then two pillows. Nothing worked. I’d heard the typing from Room 1 almost every day I’d lived at The Chieftain, but it was never this loud before. The sound was coming from ‘The Undertaker’s’ room.
According to Sully, ‘undertaker’ Dan* was writing a book. (Yeah, no shit.) Outside the fact he was once a funeral director, Sully knew little else about the man. He couldn’t have been a very successful mortician, or anything else, if he was living in The Chieftain with the rest of the outcasts, bums and bottom dwellers.
I figured Dan was writing the history of embalming or at the very least his take on the decline of western civilization by the amount of time he spent banging on his typewriter. Thankfully the clicking was only audible when you walked by his room. On this day, though, the sound of his typing was unbearable. I grabbed Mike and we headed off to investigate.
‘The Undertaker’ was perched behind a tv tray facing the hall, his door, which was always closed, was wide open. He was tapping away on a prop from the silent film era. We said hello. Dan stopped typing and looked up from his machine. It was the evil Mister Rogers staring at us, complete with cardigan sweater. It was unsettling. He never said a word, he just nodded and returned to his typing. That was our one and only encounter with ‘The Undertaker’.
With the trip to L.A. on the rocks, it was back to square one. Dillon assured us he could still make us stars, but at some point he found a new woman and faded in the rearview mirror of the engineless vehicle that was our dream. Tong vanished soon after. Eventually we all became ghosts in the decaying halls of the geriatric auberge. Like the spiritually haunted traveller in the Eagles’ 1977 hit “Hotel California,” at The Chieftain, you could “checkout any time you [liked], but you [could] never leave.”
(*Some names and places have been changed out of privacy and respect.)