Maybe James Gordon shouldn’t have played Schenectady
Already a singer-songwriter, author, musical theatre performer and politician, James Gordon can add one more item to his resume: Roots Music Canada columnist. He’s graciously offered to share some entertaining stories with us from his lengthy career in the arts.
I was sick.
I shouldn’t have set out at all on my three-gig mini-tour of New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but in 30 years I don’t think I’ve ever cancelled a gig due to illness, and I was reluctant to start a trend now.
I was headed to Schenectady, NY, a place I had never played before and will likely never play again!
The potent combo of anti-biotics, pain killers, cough medicine and Fisherman’s Friends was, only an hour into the drive, making Schenectady harder to get to than to spell.
Bracing for the usual hassle at the border in Niagara Falls, I was relieved to find myself waived across into the land of the allegedly free with a cheery smile and a “thumbs up” sign.
To what did I owe this miracle of international goodwill?
For the first time in 1,000 trips across that bridge, I had a large case of beer on the passenger seat of the lovely Miss Sue Baru.
Border guards apparently love this.
The cheery grin of my greeter seemed to say, ”Come on in! You are welcome to drink and drive in our fine country. We can see by your choice of beverage that you are a man much like us: a good ol’ boy who would be right at home here. Your case of beer is such a powerful statement of your good intentions in the U.S. of A that we have no interest in examining your work visa or the contents of your stylish automobile, which contains suitcases full of illegally smuggled CDs.”
All I had left to do was to stay awake for another six hours on the New York Thruway.
Somehow I made it. It seemed only logical that in my condition I should stay at the Daze Inn, and I arrived there in enough time to doze briefly and replenish my drug supply before heading downtown to the Van Dyke club, where I was to give TWO back-to-back concerts.
On the short drive to the club, though, I decided to face reality and admit that I really was too sick to perform. I formulated a plan to drop in and offer my apologies, then go back to sleep and hope that a restful night would give me the strength to press on to Connecticut, or, if I was smarter, go home.
The Van Dyke was in the leafy historic district and looked very inviting.
Besides a giant poster of yours truly in the entrance, there were photos of previous performers, most of whom were more famous and healthier than I.
“Damn!” I thought. “This looks like it would have been good!”
Just as I entered the building, a homeless-looking inebriated man limped across my path and begged for some money. I pulled out my wallet, and I suddenly realized that in my haze I had forgotten to bring American money with me – just the stash for highway tolls that Miss Sue always keeps hidden away.
Having just arrived back in Canada from a tour in Really Great Britain, I had a few pounds sterling, a couple of Canadian loonies, and nothing else.
This excuse didn’t sit too well with the pan-handler, and he muttered something about crazy foreigners as he wobbled down the street.
This encounter made me think of another problem though. I may have to go through with playing the show just to raise enough cash to get out of Schenectady!
The club owner greeted me warmly, though I was running a fever by this point and everything was warm.
He told me how much he was looking forward to the show and mentioned that John Sayles’ brother was planning on coming down. (One of my songs had recently been in Sayles’ film “Silver City”)
“Damn,” I thought again.
I explained the situation, and the host seemed quite sympathetic.
He said that he didn’t have a lot of reservations and suggested that I just do one show. He mentioned that there was a really keen fan who had been doing lots of publicity and talking up the gig, so he was optimistic about getting a respectable turnout. ( I know, I know… you don’t often see the word “respectable” when you are talking about folk singers.)
I agreed to give this a try.
The room was very pleasant, though empty save for a waitress, who seemed to be just as sick as I was.
The keen fan arrived, a really nice fellow who I remembered from a concert near Lake George. He was the reason for the case of Canadian Beer (Sleeman’s, from Guelph, just like me).
My agent had told me how helpful he had been, and that he had convinced her that he’d act as my “man on the street” – putting up flyers, spreading the word, and bringing out a crowd.
He had impressed agent Pat so much that she figured I should reward him for his services with the cross-border booze.
He WAS very enthusiastic; a really nice guy; and he DID arrive with a bit of a mob. He came with his wife and his two tiny daughters, aged 1 and 4.
Showtime approached. It became apparent that these four, plus the wheezy waitress and the bored sound guy, were going to be my entire audience. This was my cue to bail out.
I approached the fanly foursome to give them the news, but they interrupted my speech by chanting the names of all their favourite James Gordon songs, which happened to all be children’s songs from my Songs For Kids CD. The kids were really pumped about hearing the big hits.
I wobbled back on the stage, and under a portrait of jazz great Stanley Clarke, who had played on that stage to probably more than four people), I launched into a command performance of children’s songs in a bar room.
Dinner had arrived for my thrilled throng, but the two little girls were much more enchanted by the cavernous saloon than their meal or me.
They took to exploring their surroundings.
Since 25 percent of my audience had just learned to walk, the remaining 75 per cent were pre-occupied in protecting their little one from the many dangers that the establishment had to offer.
This meant that my one table of ticket-buyers was, for the most part, unoccupied.
Realizing that this was a bit off-putting for their big star, the grownups took turns.
One would eat some food and listen to a song while the other rode herd on their wandering, and occasionally crying, offspring.
The concert kind of lurched to some sort of a conclusion after about 30 minutes, though it felt like one of the longest shows I’d ever done.
My “man on the street” apologized profusely for the poor turnout.
I told him not to worry about it, but that he could maybe help carry some of my gear down to the street. He bought two Cds, with cash!
We headed towards the exit as the owner intercepted me with HIS apology and my share of the winnings. Thirty dollars! American dollars!
One more task to perform before making my getaway.
I had the honour of presenting my audience with their very own case of hard-earned Canadian Beer.
“Don’t drink it all at once kids.”
I retreated to the Days Inn. Though it was a considerable distance from the gig, sitting on the curb in front of the hotel was the same indigent who accosted me at the Van Dyke. He looked worse than I did, but perked up considerably when I walked over and shared some of my new-found wealth with him.
“American dollars,” I said. “ Don’t drink it all at once.”