From Soo Lookout parties, the golden days of Buffalo Bill’s, to outdoor raves, the spirit of rock ’n’ roll continues to survive in Whistler
CUTLINE: The Beat Farmers’ Country Dick Montana, described as "a truly alternative rock ’n’ roll rebel, a throwback to the original spirit of the town," died on stage at the Longhorn in November, 1995.
By David Branigan
Picture this: It’s a beautiful summer’s day on the east shore of Green Lake. The last spike has been hammered into the staging and Fast Eddie is firing up the generator so the band can patch in some amplification. All around you, interrupted only by a handful of logging cabins, is beauty, bliss and raw nature.
A fabulously freaky, long-haired foursome tears into a ragged version of the Stones’ Brown Sugar to an unkempt collection of 40 of your closest friends. For the next two days different players turnover on the stage, often rehashing attempts at the same numbers, on occasion taking off on Grateful Dead-style jam tangents only with enthusiasm replacing virtuosity. As the band turns so does the crowd, filled with sun-baked squatters living on the margins of the western world.
The music blazes, bonfire-driven, cranked up like a flag, burning for the tribe through the night. Tabs of acid are passed around like vitamin supplements to facilitate consciousness because you are having way too much fun to sleep. A little bud mellows the lysergic edge to get you over the hump. Piquing midmorning, you join a small crew stealing away from the mainstage to share their bodies in an unfettered exchange of sexual experimentalism. As Skynyrd’s Free Bird washes ashore against your psyche in sync with the lap of Emerald waves, you climax and drift off naked under the pink hue of the sun dawning over Blackcomb Mountain.
As you drift, blissed out one thought caresses you in the psychedelic afterglow. FREEDOM!
This is the genesis of Whistler’s counterculture. Your friends are a new breed of hippie-jocks in touch with all that is natural, alive in the alpine wilderness. The time is 1972 and this slice of life is a random and unattributed bit of quasi-history from Whistler’s archival entertainment ancestry; the Soo Lookout parties, captured here on mental celluloid.
Nowadays the Soo Lookout is a non-entity, barricaded off by No Trespassing signs. In fact, the current Whistler heirs bear little resemblance to their ancestry. However it is amusing to think that some of the town fathers, who now zealously cater to commercial interests, may well have been part of that wild scene nearly 30 years ago, upside down and naked in front of Toad Hall.
The constant tug of war between the establishment and the alpine counterculture defines Whistler. It always has. Despite Disneyland spin doctoring and market manipulators we never have been mainstream locally, and despite catering to ever increasing numbers of global tourists — God willing — we never will be.
So how was it during the original era of the counterculture ski bums? Well the snapshot of the Soo parties represent one reality from the early ’70s; another is offered by a man who truly represents Whistler culture in the pre-expansion era. That man is Charlie Doyle. When Doyle hit town in 1972 there were about 1,000 alternative souls in the valley. The village was a garbage dump and Whistler was a magnet for counterculture hippies wanting to get away from the post-Woodstock urban vibe and crash to the free communal union of spirit and nature. Whistler Mountain’s majesty reigned supreme.
Pique: Mr. Doyle, the evidence against you is that you’re still a fairly young and vital man who pre-dates 90 per cent of our current population. You founded an original print publication, the Whistler Answer, and you have a well used guitar amp tucked underneath your I-Mac. Your sentence is to paint a picture for the folks of what was happening in Whistler entertainment wise back in 1972.
Charlie Doyle: Well back then there were still a number of licenses operating. There was L’Apres, which became Dusty’s, at the base of Creekside; the Cheakamus Inn up where the Whistler Vale is now behind the Rim Rock; the Whistler Lodge up off Alta Lake; and the Christiana.
Pique: Where was the Whistler Lodge?
CD: You know where Lakeside Park is? Just past Lakeside Park there is a road that takes you up to a big, undeveloped property there with a gate, that is where the Whistler Lodge was. It was one of the first ones built after the original licenses on the other side of the lake, like the Rainbow Lodge. When I got here it was already getting pretty old but they had a bar in there and they used to have bands once a week. It was one of those deals where the license itself seemed to hold the place together, but it rocked pretty good some weekends.
It had ceased to be a lodge at that point, it was more like a hall, but it was a good size. They used to have movie nights in there on Tuesdays when somebody would bring the big reels in and loop them up. I think it was burned down as a fire practice drill eventually.
Then there was the Alta Lake Inn down on the water in Alta Vista on the bay where the Whistler On The Lake condos are now. It went through a few different incarnations but it was a hotel with a full bar. Later in the ’70s on the Southside, where Hoz’s is now, there was a resort with a license called JB’s which was named after the owner, Jack Bright.
Pique: Back then it literally predates commercialism.
CD: It was commercial. These weren’t people hanging out in someone’s kitchen to play. The owners were still trying to make a buck.
Pique: So what was the entertainment. Did they hire bands out of Vancouver to come up and play?
CD: There were bands that came up. The first band I remember was a trio called Sparkling Apple. They were one of the perennial Hair bands of that era. At that point there was no band up here so JB’s, the Cheakamus or Dusty’s would import acoustic singers or duos to play the patio during apres or for a night time gig. They were the Guitar Doug’s of their day.
Pique: What was the deal with the Keg? I understand it was down in Tapley’s Farm. How did the licensing work with that?
CD: It was actually in Adventures West and they had to be licensed through the BC Liquor Corporation. Just because you were in the boonies you still had to have your licensing together. But they did have some entertainment there in the later ’70s before they moved up to their current location in the village. In fact that’s where Doug Bennett formed his band Doug and The Slugs.
Pique: What were the highlights of that era?
CD: Well there was a time when the Alta Lake Inn, after they had changed over from the Christiana, made an attempt at drawing crowds from the city using bigger names than we had seen before. Sandy Martin was running it. I remember they brought in Dominic Troiano, the former Guess Who guitarist who had some solo hits at the time, and also John Hiatt. I remember seeing John Hiatt in front of less than 40 people at the Alta Lake Inn. It was a nice little bar set, absolutely terrific but I’m not sure people fully appreciated the leap that represented at the time in talent playing this town.
Pique: Who were some of the other players at the time? Any of the current operators?
CD: Jack Bright, Sandy Martin…. and John Reynolds was a colourful character who opened Tapley’s. That was the next stage, the development of the Whistler Village which started construction in the late ’70s. Tapley’s was amongst that first wave, and Dick Gibbons was in early with the Carleton Lodge and the Longhorn around ’81. There was an apres lounge off of Umberto’s and then Salt and Peppers and the Brass Rail both of which later evolved into the first Savage Beagle. Those licenses were the first I remember of the next wave of development that also came to include the Mountain House.
The Mountain House was Whistler’s first live rock joint in the space where Tommy Africa’s now operates, but with its limited size in the early ’80s they couldn’t make it work. Between those two operations there were many attempts at nightclubs that failed before Tommy’s tapped into their niche, when the DJ’s started taking over.
Pique: At that point the village development must have seemed somewhat surreal and futuristic from your vantagepoint.
CD: Well you have to realize where Whistler came from. When I arrived it was a hippie ski town. Squatters probably made up 15 per cent of the population. If there was 1,000 people, 150 lived on squats. Entertainment was a guitar and a microphone. Actually, often just a guitar and vocals projected.
I was involved in one of the first local musical collectives back in the ’70s that emerged simply from friends jamming at parties in front of a bonfire. It was called the Skunk Cabbage Review and the players were always changing. We started at the Christiana because I used to live near there. I remember the first time I played, the set was maybe four songs long. I’d go over and play for dinner and a beer. From that point constant jamming tightened us up until we evolved into Whistler’s first local rock band, A Foot In The Door. We were a full on four-piece complete with a big rock pic and graphics. A Foot In The Door would play the usual classic rock suspects: some Eagles, Stones and Skynyrd covers with punky versions of folk music thrown in, plus the occasional original.
AFITD were the first band to ever play Stumps at the Delta. We jammed at L’Apres, the Mountain House and in Mountain Square when it was brand new. From there we eventually became Chequered Past with Mark Schnaidt alongside Lonnie Powell, Tom McCoy and Jordan White. Of course that’s when you and I met, when Chequered Past hosted the jam sessions at the Longhorn in the late ’80s. The funny thing is that a lot of the players in town now first played on stage at jam night at the Longhorn. That’s when I first remember meeting Mike Volmer. That’s when I first heard The Vogler Boys, the Beers were there and of course Mushroom Mark with his trumpet.
Pique: Indeed full circle. I used to wince at times.
The golden era of Whistler’s entertainment, as far as being rooted to the original spirit of the counterculture, was when the Labourers Pension Fund opened Buffalo Bill’s in the Timberline Lodge in 1987. The man they chose to book and manage Whistler’s first full-on live room now splits his time between tending bar at Joel’s Restaurant, the Whistler Entertainment Agency and White Rock. Larry LaPorte was in the heart of the action during the wild halcyon days of Bill’s.
Pique: When did you come to town and what comes to mind when thinking about your earliest entertainment experience here?
Larry LaPorte: I came to town in ’82 as a manager at the Longhorn from the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. We were live about three days a week then, as nobody else was really doing anything outside of the Mountain House and occasionally Dusty’s . I remember we were bringing in acts like Trooper, Chilliwack, Doug and the Slugs and a good ska style dance band called the B-Sides. After ’83 I moved over to Club 10, which became the original Garfinkel’s and is now Maxx Fish. It was basically a disco that went head to head with the Beagle. There wasn’t a lot of live music around until Bill’s opened in March of ’87.
We opened with the Powder Blues and it was sold out, which really seemed to puzzle some of the locals who had never heard those words before in relation to live music in Whistler.
Pique: What were some of the highlights of the era?
LL: They came fast and furious. One of the good ones was when Whistler used to host the Celebrity Weekend. I remember one year they had Stephen Stills and Boz Scaggs up playing with Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Platinum Blonde and the R&B Allstars. Even the reggae band One joined in at one point. That was pretty memorable. One used to drive the kids into a frenzy every time they played. Reggae has always been popular in Whistler.
When David Lindley played in the fall of ’88 the place went crazy. That brought out the real old locals crowd from the 70s. That was one of those seasons when it had snowed early in November and then rained for three straight weeks. It was a Sunday night and just as Lindley hit the stage it started dumping outside and the band couldn’t figure out what all the excitement was about. They had never had such a response so they put on a completely over the top show that had everybody in the room dancing in the aisles.
Eric Burdon was great. Bill’s had a real mix of established international acts and new Canadian bands. I remember paying the Barenaked Ladies $500 to play one night, and of course the Tragically Hip played during the first album to a small crowd. They came back on the Up To Here Tour and the band’s manager, Jake Gold, was working them so hard as they were also breaking in the States, that he offered me three nights for the price of one just so he could give them some rest. I believe the price was $1,500. Those nights in ’89 were so packed out you couldn’t move.
Chicago at Lost Lake was pretty cool. On the other extreme, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow certainly blew a few minds. Jim Rose was the emcee/ringmaster who presided over a motley assortment of Circus Sideshow Freaks. They featured Mr Lifto, who lifted heavy weights attached to various piercings including the pierced Prince Albert in his penis. Matt "The Tube" Clark put a tube down through his nose into his stomach and regurgitated various liquids before mixing them all up in with his stomach bile. He then offered a regurgitated, steaming freak cocktail to anyone brave enough — and sure enough there were a few in the crowd that joined Jim, The Tube and Mr Lifto for a Toast to the Freaks of Whistler.
I remember one year, I think it was ’92, they had the Juno Awards in Vancouver and something like nine of the bands that won Juno’s had played Bill’s that year, including Spirit of the West, Barney Bentall, Sue Medley, Blue Rodeo and Colin James. Colin used to warm up for American tours with a week of performances at Bill’s.
Linda Ronstadt on the Mountain in ’91 was a bit of a fiasco as they had a freak snowstorm in July while she was playing a traditional Mexican set with a Mariachi band in the high alpine, which didn’t work too well.
Pique: I’m thinking in particular of one...
LL: Ah yes the Beat Farmers. Well the Beat Farmers were no doubt the best bar band you could ever see. Their shows were beer soaked and profanity laden roots punk. They first played in ’88 and nobody particularly knew who they were, but that was the beauty of Bill’s back then. You didn’t have to know who was playing because we were live seven nights a week and the bands were of a consistently high level so people would come regardless, knowing that they’d have a good time.
Now there are so many people up here that licenses have a captive audience. If you can charge a cover and pack out with a DJ and pocket the cover then that’s simply good business. Bars here are in the bar business not the live entertainment business.
But what you miss with that is the sense of event that came with shows like the Beat Farmers, once they established a trust and rapport with Whistler locals. Country Dick Montana did that more than any other musician in Whistler history with his amped up Oakridge Boys bass vocal versions of Kenny Rogers’ Lucille and Big Rock Candy Mountain which was a tribute to his drug of choice. When he died on stage at your show at the Longhorn in ’95 that was the end of an era. His death really affected the locals because he was a truly alternative rock ’n’ roll rebel, a throwback to the original spirit of the town.
Pique: What was different in Bill’s prime time?
LL: Consistency and economics. The dollar was stronger back then. I think it cost $1.10 to buy a Yankee buck. We had infrastructure with a PA and a band house. Those two factors kept our costs down spread over 30 shows a month. Plus we had access to an international talent pool that played the circuit with stops in Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria. Whistler was a natural stop on what was then a healthy live circuit in the Pacific Northwest.
Now the circuit is spotty and the costs have skyrocketed. With the current exchange and the border crossing fees that came down from NAFTA you are limited to either cheaper Canadian bands that may not draw or a $30, high risk ticket with the bigger names. Not many people can afford to bet with those odds. Now you need a room the size of AlpenRock to make it work, but we all know about the licensing issues there.
Indeed there has been a rich and varied entertainment history in Whistler over the years, including the Whistler Summit Series, the World Ski and Snowboard Festival and the Kokanee Rock ’n’ Ride parties. But since the original Bill’s closed in ’93 the live music has been on a revolving room, special event, throw-the-locals-a-bone basis, outside of the Boot and the recent AlpenRock experiment. But the hospitality money here is huge, so nobody really seems to care too much that for the killer live rock experience one has to take a road trip to Vancouver’s Commodore.
Picture this: You are at Cal-Cheak. Fast Freddie has fired up the generator and the turntables at the same moment as the ecstasy tab has started to surge into your newly-opened consciousness. All around you, outside of the stage and throbbing dancers, all you can see is bliss, beauty and raw nature. As you start to lose yourself in the primal rhythm of the drum beat you notice some nubile young ladies slipping off towards a tent on the fringe of the gathering.
Exhibit A is Whistler Counterculture 2000, full circle. The rave/snowboarder/slacker crew currently being cannibalized by the mainstream is the marketing man’s hot image of youth freedom. With it bottled, Whistler Inc. sells the last vestiges of our counterculture ancestry to the world.