To look at him you’d think “who is this jerk?” Just a weedy little guy with stringy hair, pimply face, and a potbelly. And his songs were total crap. “I’ll love you in the morning, I’ll love you at night, I’ll love you all wrong, I’ll love you, all right.” I mean, Jesus! But how he did business? Pure genius.
I was there for Hoodoo Voodoo, for instance, where he got twenty five hundred poor bastards to pay good money to come to some dry dusty canyon in the Alberta Badlands in mid August to listen to the worst entertainment in the province. Not much of a draw, you’d think, but he sold it.
First thing he did was hire a few homeless people from Edmonton to camp outside this ticket office he’d set up on Whyte Avenue. Outside was a big sign he got me to paint, and never paid me for. “Five Sleeps Till Hoodoo Voodoo Tickets.” I didn’t even know what it meant. Nobody did.
“Good,” said Jerry. “Get ‘em wondering.”
Next day, I painted another sign saying “Four Sleeps Till Hoodoo Voodoo Tickets” and never got paid for that one either. Meanwhile, to make the line longer, Jerry hired a few more homeless. They were quite happy. He’d found tents for them left over from some abandoned government program, and food from the food bank. Also he shipped in moonshine from a bootlegger in Vegreville. Was this bootlegger ever paid? No.
Citizens were tripping over the lineup on the way to the Safeway and there were complaints, which was fine because that just meant word started to circulate. A news team showed up and Jerry Kelly was there waiting.
“What about the complaint that you have no permits of any kind, Jerry.”
“If Edmonton starts punishing hugely successful events such as Hoodoo Voodoo simply because it is successful, well, what sort of a signal does that send to the business community?”
“How about the impediment that the crowds are creating for pedestrians?”
“The overwhelming response to buy tickets for the most eagerly awaited live event ever to take place on Albertan soil, Hoodoo Voodoo, shows that the city simply has not put in wide enough sidewalks.”
“If you’re so successful, maybe you should pay for those sidewalks, instead of the taxpayers?”
“If Edmonton can’t step up to meet the infrastructure challenges of what is shaping up to be one of the biggest boons to the economy of the province in its history (Hoodoo Voodoo), then what does that say about our elected officials?”
“How about what religious leader Mel Happenstall says about you depleting the food bank to feed this line of so-called “fans”?”
“I have nothing against Mel Heppenstall and in fact have always defended him against rumours that he worships Satan. And I would like to stress that these mutterings of his satanic worship are just that, mere gossip about how he bows down nightly to the Dark Overlord. I have only heard that he indulges in such practices, i.e. Satanic Worship, and as far as I know these stories of the ritualistic obeisance to the Prince of Darkness are unsubstantiated, and that I certainly have never actually seen him in the act of praying to Beelzebub, only heard that he organizes and leads regular nightly Black Masses.”
The day the ticket office opened Jerry himself “bought” the first thousand tickets from himself at the asking price of 150 dollars a piece which meant he could tell the press that they had sold out in a record time of eight minutes flat. He announced that due to unprecedented demand they were moving to a larger venue and he put on sale another fifteen hundred tickets. He didn’t need to fake the lineup to sell this one. There was a boom in oil money just then, and that weekend it was looking like Hoodoo Voodoo was the place to be, wherever that place was. In all the fuss nobody had bothered to ask where the event was actually to occur. When the press finally did ask, Jerry told them that he would announce the location twenty four hours before the event to keep people from swarming the grounds prematurely in anticipation. This announcement gave him time to scout locations and it also diverted people from asking who would be in the lineup.
The place he settled on was perfect for his purpose, a dry canyon off one of the tributaries of the North Saskatchewan River, an almost perfectly round natural amphitheatre, with a narrow entrance, steep canyon walls of loose gravel, and barbwire fencing around the top rim. He had some local farm boys rebuild the fencing higher, as well as construct a gate across the entrance and a stage along the back. Forty eight hours before the festival, he announced the location at a press conference, and someone in the press finally thought of asking who would be on the bill.
““Hoodoo Voodoo” did not become the most anticipated event in Alberta’s history by presenting a bunch of tired has-beens who the only thing going for them is the recognition factor of their names. We have triumphed by presenting to the rockingest audience in the world the best talent no matter what position he or she might hold in the corporate music hierarchy.”
“Great, Jerry, but who?”
“You wouldn’t know them.”
“So you’re bringing in a bunch of total unknowns?”
“Do you know Chandra Samaharma?”
“Barry Kushner? Ahmed Pierce?”
“What’s your point?”
“We are all unknown to somebody.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If what you’re looking for is a predictable evening with people whose name you have been brainwashed to listen to since birth, then don’t come to the most anticipated event in Alberta History, Hoodoo Voodoo. On the other hand, if you are able to make up your own mind, the last few tickets are available here.”
The big day arrived, and Jerry was at the gate of the canyon taking tickets. His farm boys, who had been held over as security, had been practicing their crowd-control skills on the growing village of campers who had showed up beforehand. I went there mainly to see if I could collect the money Jerry owed me. “Come backstage,” he said when he saw me, and let me in free. The only thing I ever got out of him.
And I must say, once inside, it looked okay. The Canyon somewhat resembled a gravel pit, and the coils of barbed wire around the upper rim and across the front of the stage were a bit intimidating, but it was definitely a good spot for a show. The moon was rising in broad daylight over what could be called two hoodoos, where the landwash had eroded sets of ruts in the canyon walls on either side of the stage. A nice effect.
Then the crowd got bigger, it got hot and people started to get irritable. I went back to stand in the shade of the ticket booth. Down the line, someone started baaing like a sheep in protest, and others joined in. Security didn’t help by going drunk with power.
“What do you mean you “booted him out”?” said Jerry.
“He was wearing this, like, beaded cap, and he was just a complete jerk, you could see. Plus, he had one of those small folding chairs.”
“He coulda hurt somebody with it.”
“You can’t just go around kicking people out just ‘cause you don’t like them.”
“Don’t worry. We didn’t give him a refund.”
“Oh. Well. That’s all right then,” and Jerry immediately saw how he could sell those chairs. “From now on, no chairs allowed, clean em out, and if they don’t like it, kick them out.”
And the boys leapt back to their work. There wasn’t a chair to be seen within an hour, and later that day there were chairs for sale at the front gate. But what really started to bring in the cash was when they cornered the market on water.
They filled a tank by the booth from a well about a half mile away. It was alkaline, but they discovered that that actually increased thirst, and hence demand.
“Why can’t we bring our own water?” Somebody asked a security guard.
“You may be using it to smuggle in alcohol or drugs.”
“They could close us down.”
“Suppose I fill it from that tap?”
“That’ll be five bucks.”
Later, people started to wonder when the music would start, and the feeling was beginning to run to very bad indeed, but when anybody tried to leave, nobody was around to open the gate. Murmurings of anger and fear arose and grew. Somebody started to chant about a refund, and everybody started to join in.
“Money Back! Money Back!..”
I was over by the corner of the stage when Jerry went around back. A security guy was guarding the gap in the barbwire and let Jerry in. A scuffle broke out around the front, the guard left to break it up, and I slipped backstage. From behind in the wings, I saw Jerry take to the stage, settle the crowd down and announce that Hoodoo Voodoo had been declared… a free concert! A startled cheer exploded from the crowd. They couldn’t believe it. Good feeling swept through the grounds like a cool breeze.
“So, if everyone turns in their ticket at the gate when you leave, you will be reimbursed with a bonded promissory note signed by each and every member of the Festival Committee.” There was more cheering. He came offstage and saw me waiting for him. Without pause or look of guilt, he said “What they don’t know is, there is no committee.”
His tone, leaning in and saying it right into my ear, like a secret only for me, made me forget what I was there for. Something was up. He didn’t owe me that much anyway. It was intoxicating. Only twenty feet away but out of sight from us on the other side of the wall of amplifiers the crowd’s excitement was like a physical presence, gaining energy from some shared feeling. This is the way things should be. It was not just about the money, but some trust finally fulfilled, and it must be true this time, with so many people around them agreeing so vehemently. It was the most public sound you could imagine, and what he was telling me was the most private thing I’d ever heard. I was not like them. I was special. I felt a joy and dread I’d never felt before. Its tiny hooks caught my flesh.
He stepped behind me over to the corner of the wings, took out his guitar from a case and slung it over his shoulder.
He’d played the bar circuit for ten years, four sets a night, all over the West, but he’d never done very well. He would occasionally try songs that he wrote but nobody ever listened when he did, so he played the standards. Even then, the best he could hope for in a crowded room was a nodding recognition before they went back to talking. He’d crank up the volume and they’d talk louder. Every one of his shows was an exercise in active rejection. I had always thought he took his failure fairly well, but there must have been some well of hatred slowly filling up all this time. As he walked out on stage at Hoodoo Voodoo there was something resolute in his eyes.
He plugged in his guitar, went to the microphone and started right in with “I’ll Love You In the Morning”. The audience was pleased the show had finally started and were still riding the good feeling of getting it, as they thought, for free. They didn’t ask themselves what it was they were going to get.
Jerry’s songs were like junk mail. You pushed them aside as soon as you heard them. But they kept coming, the predictable rhyme, the inevitable chords, until the non-effects were like mosquitoes, too many to swat. So you turned to your neighbour and talked loudly to block it out. At first the songs he sang that afternoon didn’t turn the audience off, exactly, merely deadened their good feeling. Well, he’s just the warm-up, they thought as his first song ended and they applauded politely. He took a step back from the mic, posed and tuned for a while, then launched into another song, which the audience tolerated, but only just, even though it had a grandiose finish designed to milk a huge hand from them. At the end of the third song the applause was only tepid. And now Jerry, who’d been here before, in all those bars in all those towns, launched into The Medley With No End.
The medley was created for acts like Jerry’s. One song runs directly into the next one without a break, the point being that there’s no opportunity for the audience to register any reaction, good or bad. It’s a fallback position for anybody who just wants to get through a night on stage. But Jerry’s medley was worse. It wasn’t made up of songs everybody knew, just his own. And he had hundreds of them, all bad. Around about song number five in an unbroken string the audience was definitely restless. Song ten, they didn’t care. An hour later, he was still on stage with no sign of letting up.
It was at the hour and twenty minute mark when they started to chant. “ You Suck! You Suck!…” which only seemed to drive him to greater efforts. He started to repeat songs from earlier in the medley, shorten them and remix them into even more banal combinations. “YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK!…” the chant got louder, and then, as if by some prearranged agreement sped up and collapsed into itself. And from its ashes rose a long steady “Boooo”, seething and dangerous. They would’ve stormed the stage if it hadn’t been for the barbwire. Through a gap between the amplifiers I watched the back of the crowd swell like some giant amoeba, turn and push down the gate out of the canyon. I could see it swing, then fall, and part of the crowd spill out. The rest started to follow. Some stopped when they were out of the bottleneck in a sort of eddy to the side of the empty ticket booth, looking for someone to ask about their money back, but Security had long since disappeared. When the outflow abated some people came back upstream against the thinning crowd, toward the stage, then saw Jerry.
He was still singing, but his whole face was distorted in pain, anger, and something very close to tears. His voice was choked up with naked contempt as he ground out his horrible songs. The people in the audience who were left shook their heads and started to depart, cursing backwards, muttering threats of lawsuits. Jerry sang on, wretched. Eventually there were maybe a dozen people on the festival grounds, two unconscious, four or five so stoned that they were as good as unconscious, the rest mildly curious, unemotional, or possibly just stoned too. Jerry stopped mid-sentence and walked off stage. He was only barely keeping from weeping.
“Business!” he spat. “It cheapens everything.”
I didn’t even know what he meant. I wondered what I’d been thinking back when everything was going to be free and I was the part of something bigger than myself.
“You owe me for the posters,” I said.