A special memoir of Zon from our stage manager and monitor man, Lorne (Sluggo) Brown.
Zon Live!!!!- The View From The Stage Left
Written and remembered by Lorne (Sluggo) Brown
Toronto, May 2017
The year was 1981. For a baby boomer like me life was good. Introduced to The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show 17 years prior, this 9 year old’s dream of working in the music industry and seeing the inside of a recording studio was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to racking up personal firsts. Not only had I seen the inside, but had sang on two albums, travelled extensively throughout Canada (and survived a truck roll-over), got to play with expensive musical instruments that weren’t mine, was privileged to listen to some of the finest live musicians in Canada night after night and getting paid to do it!
I first saw live music in a bar in Toronto in 1974. I couldn’t get over the concept of watching live music and being able to drink! The band was called ACT III. I went with a good friend and schoolmate whose older brother was the drummer in the band, as well as another gentleman from our high school who played guitar. That older brother was one Denton Young. The band performed a variety of styles, very progressive covers and an original song that stuck with me called Blinding Light Show. As an aside to this memory, the co-writer was Denton’s best friend from high school Rick, a guitar player with long flowing golden locks and bona-fide Rock God looks. He would soon go on to fame and fortune in a little 3-piece combo named Triumph (Roadie Note: And forever have his named mis-spelled. But that’s another story).
Unfortunately ACT III was far too short lived but out of the ashes Denton formed ZON. The original 5 piece band included Howard Helm on keyboards and while hanging around after the show one night I asked Denton if I could help with anything. “Sure, see those mic cords over there? Wrap them up for us.” His simple act of kindness to a kid who knew nothing about the business would lead me down a road to long nights, exhausting work and more wine, women and song than one could handle if one was so inclined (I was more of a beer, TV and Coca-Cola kind of guy though, and I already had the songs!).
I learned my craft on the job, absorbing everything I could from the guys and my fellow roadies. Not having any practical knowledge of what plugged in where, I devised little cheats that would help me learn. (Roadie note: they call them “techs” now, many considering the term roadie to be a substandard, almost pedestrian term for the many things that were asked of us. I always considered it a badge of honour myself). There was never a dull moment and always situations that demanded quick thinking, where a trial by fire solution was the norm. Much of this stuff couldn’t be taught in a classroom or from a book. Consider these situations.
Our first show of a Western Canada tour was at the historic Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on one of the hottest days on record. Operating since the 1930’s, the old wooden dance hall was baking and there was no air conditioning. The crew had built a brand new drum stage for the occasion. Pretty proud little DIY-ers, we were. The boys were only a few songs into the first set when I notice a panicked look and weird gestures coming from our drummer Kim mid-song. Already hot and tired from the load in (easily 100 stairs straight up to the hall) I cannot immediately spot the problem but it soon became clear. The stage was collapsing in the middle, right where his stool was! What to do? Dive under the stage, get on my hands and knees and raise the stage with my back, of course. True story. Also true, I stayed under there with the weight of the stage, drums and Kim for about 10-15 minutes. Lost a good deal of weight that day.
And then there was the time a rather large, hairy biker (one of many in the crowd) decided he wanted to come up on stage and play one of Brian’s guitars. Good thing he liked the band and somehow I talked him out of it and managed to escort him off the stage without sustaining any injuries.
Speaking of bikers, one time we were contracted to play a hockey arena in rural Quebec. What we didn’t know was that it was an invitation only birthday party; for a very high ranking member of a notorious“motorcycle club.” Talk about friendly guys, I went to grab a beer for myself before assuming my usual position stage left. The stage was elevated and there was no room for my usual perch. The guy serving me was of course in his leather colours and spoke very little English. I managed to get the point across and he noticed I was wearing a ZON t-shirt. Once he realized I was with the band, he handed me a 6-pack. And then began to visit with me beside the stage for the rest of the night, always with a 6-pack in tow. Looking back, I am so glad nothing broke that night, because out of respect, and perhaps a tiny bit of fear, I did my very best not to disappoint or disrespect my new friend. And, ahem, those six packs really messed me up…
Oh, and fiercely protective of my band and their image, I also had the vice-president of CBS Records thrown off the stage once. He was gyrating like an ass at the side of the stage in full view of the crowd. So, All-Access Pass or not, this constituted a contravention of my “no one shall distract the audience from the performance” rule and so off he went! You can’t make this stuff up.
The live recording of Zon that you are hopefully listening to, transported me back to those heady days. Positioned as I was generally stage left on the monitor board, within easy reach of guitarist Brian Miller, I bore witness to music played for all the right reasons. With hints of mastery at their individual crafts, collectively the sheer joy of performing continuously shone through to the audience in a tight onslaught of sound. And perform they did. The boys were constantly on the road, with as many as 300 shows per year. Be it stadiums, open air festivals, banquet halls, small local hockey arenas (Roadie Note: Northern Ontario in the winter, with the stage on top of the ice, is stinkin’ cold. Particularly challenging keeping the guitars in tune.), high school gyms or clubs, it seemed almost their mission statement to make sure the audience was entertained.
The songs on the live CD were recorded in Western Canada in the summer of 1981 on what would become the last dates to be played by the classic line-up (Roadie note: .Came across a small notebook in my piles of memorabilia where I had scribbled at the top of the page of tour dates, “The Last Hurrah.”). It came at a time in the band’s life that was a bit fractured. Relationships had become a bit strained. Not to a “when Hell freezes over” point, the band-mates were all still friends. It was just a feeling that the band dynamic had shifted slightly off its axis. Living and travelling on the road with 5 musicians and 3 crew guys is often likened to a marriage, complete with its ups and downs. ZON was no different. But at any given time when you got those 5 musicians on stage and they were back in their honeymoon phase.
Almost two hours of music was recorded that night but for the purpose of this release the songs have been pared down to one CD, complete with selections from all 3 albums, an unreleased song destined for a fourth album and a cover version of one of the weirdest songs in the history of rock that was always a crowd favourite and a staple of their live shows.
ZON sets always started off with a few songs that, looking back, reminds me now of the Classic Albums Live catch-phrase, “Note for note, cut for cut.” The familiar opening song from Astral Projector that introduced ZON to the world is an unapologetic reproduction of the album cut, except with slightly more punch than the producer was able to provide. Put On The Show segues right into High School from the 3rd album and away we go.
As you listen to the rest of the songs unfold you will no doubt see the musicianship of the boys start to develop into a looseness with the arrangements that makes live shows so enjoyable. All the band members had an intuitive bond with each other that effortlessly and seamlessly morphed into a cohesive sonic blast of sound. Front and centre was Denton Young’s often operatic vocals as they soar throughout. An accomplished drummer and indeed, ZON’s first drummer, Denton’s intrinsic thespian side emerges as he infuses the lyrics with a soul that makes you believe in them. His sense of humour (utilizing various accents and even Donald Duck appears for a second) peaks out from time to time as he interacts with his band-mates and acts both as their resident cheerleader and Circus Ringmaster. From a live vocal standpoint, Denton was always on his game. The ZON back-up harmonies could never be mistaken for the Bee Gees or Styx. But Denton’s control, range and healthy injections of his heart and soul into the music could stand him against many of the top singers of the day. And he is at the peak of his craft in this performance. From the raspy growls in Gettin’ Off to the plaintive, sorrowful strains of Hollywood he is the embodiment of ZON’s vocal dynamics. And hey, who else do you know can yodel in a song and get away with?
The ZON sound has never been completely dominated by either keyboards or guitars. In this fanboy’s humble opinion the ZON sound is a wall of both. Often playing off each other, Howard Helm, ZON’s witchdoctor of the keys did everything imaginable to hold court and serve notice of his innate abilities on his side of the stage. Confined as he was by his stationary array of hundreds of little white and black keys didn’t deter the hot-blooded ivory tinkler from making his presence anything but anonymous. Ho’s workplace cubicle was a treasure trove of equipment encompassing keyboards bordering on the traditional (Yamaha CP-70 electric grand piano), Howard’s reverential nod to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord (Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speakers), the innovative (the incredible for the day Mini-Moog) and some eclectic synthesizers like the tiny Italian made Davolisant and the only polyphonic synth in his arsenal, the Elka String Machine. Not quite the Mellotron that Howard would have preferred but functional nonetheless. (Roadie note: Lugging his stuff around was already back breaking. Adding the 400 lb Mellotron? I would have asked for a raise). Howard’s ear for what a tune needed from him was impressive. Lead fills on the Mini-Moog would give way to the dirtiest, sleaziest, raunchiest background growls from his Hammond organ. Often the next tune would require him to be seated at the grand piano playing concerto like strains, adding further depth to Denton’s vocals. And clearly the boy could play any style he wanted! My personal favourite from Howard was at sound check. Occasionally he would break into the Charlie Brown Theme that Schroeder would play on his toy piano. Vocal harmonies were always heartfelt, if not pitch perfect. Combined with Brian’s vocal, they added what needed to be there, giving them an unbridled life. But his tour de force vocal performance? Jump straight to Hocus Pocus and you get to experience his personality in all its zany complexities.
The rhythm section always got it done. Best of friends on and off-stage, Kim Hunt (drums) and Jim Samson (bass) were joined at the hip in everything they did. And clearly it showed in the music. Always locked, loaded and in the pocket, Kim & Jim kept the musical train from coming off the tracks. The contributions of the rhythm section in any rock band can never be discounted, at least not the good bands. Kim’s thundering “pink Champagne” Ludwig kit was the band’s metronome, his “Ringo” tuned snare drum its conductor. Where it would go, the boys would follow. Not a show boater or drum solo kind of guy, his drumming never disappointed nonetheless. Just enough flash and flourish to enrich the song, punctuating them or laying back wherever needed. An accomplished songwriter as well, Kim’s contributions of pop-inspired tunes is peppered throughout the 3 albums, always popular in the live shows. As ZON’s early “progressive rock” inspired tunes of Astral Projector gave way to more mainstream, straight ahead tunes, Kim’s offerings became more prominent.
If there ever was a rock star stage pose that Jim couldn’t assume, then I haven’t seen it. Jim’s long flowing hair always seemed to look like he had a permanent fan attached to his Spectre bass. And the young ladies in the crowd didn’t miss this fact. Team up that genuine smile to his sinewy body assuming the positions and yet another dimension was added to the ZON stage presence. And the pleasure of playing would just be so transparent on his face. At times prancing, other times more like slinking around the stage, his long, lean bass guitar assuming positions to excite, Jim would anchor the back beat like it was meant to be heard. Much like Kim, Jim’s playing added the underlying depth to the ZON songs. Mostly a finger plucker, his bass lines added a background on the songs’ canvas, allowing the band’s front line artistes to add the subjects in the foreground. Were it not for the rhythm section, certainly the musical tableau would not be as complete a picture.
Rock bands are often defined by their guitar players (Think Van Halen without Eddie, Guns and Roses without Slash). Often likened to Gods, they stand apart in most line-ups, elevated by their playing style, charisma and of course talent. More often than not, said guitar God would start to believe the hype with the potential of becoming obnoxious boors behind the scenes. Not so our reluctant virtuoso Brian Miller. Talented beyond his years, Brian was always the one with the goofy smile or smirk when he should have been assuming a Circus Magazine pose. Terribly unassuming, he loved his craft and let his playing, not the poses, speak for him. As mentioned before, guitar and keyboards provided the wall of sound that characterized the ZON sound. At times playing off each other or falling back into a supporting role to augment the song, Brian knew his role and was always on his game. Although more comfortable wielding a soldering gun backstage, Brian would take centre stage for a solo sporting a bemused smile and come across to the fans as the audience wanted to see their hero.
Did Brian have a playing style? Hard to say, because he could play literally any style you wanted. Check out his guitar solo if you’re not convinced. He could make that BC Rich Eagle with those heavy gauge six steel strings talk. He could make them scream, mutter, whisper or sound like there was someone else playing with him. And all of this without benefit of any kind of pedals. All done through technique and switching the pick-up positions. His penchant of adding harmonics wherever and whenever he wanted was almost legendary. So much so that one producer asked if he could just “play” without the added dimension. Brian just laughed. You want classical? During Brian’s solo section, where the rest of the band would go backstage for a beer, Brie had worked out a finger-picking version of the popular Canadian children’s program theme music for The Friendly Giant. You want dirty sounds? Brian could spew filth from his unique Marshall double stack with the Hiwatt amplifier head. Almost sacrilegious at the time, mixing those two brands. But that was Brian. He knew what he wanted and just went for it without asking. And as the fans know, it worked. Vocally our man Brian wasn’t going to be confused with Freddie Mercury. His was a sideman kind of voice, asked to sing back up parts to fill out the arrangement. It was a raspy yet confidant sound punctuated with bits of vibrato. He knew his limitations but it didn’t bother him to exceed them. He felt the vocal, rather than heard it. That was Brian. And it worked. That, was Brian.
This CD is as live as it can get. Recorded straight off the mixing board into a cassette player, what you hear beyond a modern day clean-up of the extraneous noise is sound man extraordinaire Neil McDermott’s live mix. No overdubs, no do-overs, and certainly not a single auto tuned vocal. This is raw, unbridled ZON, warts and all. Having said that, I defy anyone who listens to be anything but gobsmacked at the musicianship and pure passion coming out of the speakers. Despite what was going on behind the scenes, this isn’t five sidemen going through the paces to get to a paycheck. This is a group. An ensemble of talents pooled together for a single common purpose; music at its best. Fans will come away from this with memories and smiles on their faces. And it’s funny how the memory works. My first listen (first time hearing live ZON in well over 30 years) came with a few of my roadie cues so ingrained in my brain that I flipped the imaginary bomb switch in the middle of Hollywood and imagined running around behind the drum kit with a spare bulb just in case Denton broke the one he swung around during the guitar solo in Talkin’ About. And then there was placement of the masks, the sword, the fake blood… Those were fun times.
And finally we come to, in large part, the reason this CD is finally being released for all to hear; our friend Brian Miller. I first met Brie, as he would come to be known, in the band’s 2nd incarnation. Original drummer, bass player and guitar player were gone and the revitalized line-up was starting to gel. At this point I was still an unpaid friend of the band making it out to as many local gigs as I could and lending a hand. A good work ethic, friends in the band and a good word from the sound man (who would shortly thereafter leave with my girlfriend) landed me a permanent spot.
I don’t remember how or why but I ended up being Brian’s room-mate for the rest of my tenure with ZON. Familiarity soon became friendship and we remained good friends until his last days. On the road we shared very similar penchants for late night food and old movies. We only went to parties because we would be shamed into it (and for the free beer). But shortly after arriving we invariably would do something considered “odd” and would be excused quite quickly from the proceedings. One time it was crawling around on the ground and biting ankles for instance. We would then head off to our hotel room, order pizza and we would be happier than pigs in shit! After we both left ZON we kept in touch for a while but life being what it is, the calls became less frequent. I would drop by Brian’s mom’s house from time to time (she loved me!) to keep up with news of my friend. Then Brian’s wife Marion (whom he met on the road with ZON) opened up her own flower shop literally around the corner from where I still live and the reconnection was complete.
Brian’s generosity with his time, expertise and occasionally his influence knew no bounds. Over for dinner at Brie’s place with my wife and (then) two daughters, Brian took us up to his recording studio and asked my 7 year old Haley if she knew any songs? She replied yes and began to sing it for him. He grabs a guitar and asks her to sing it again. He starts working out an accompaniment and before you know it, he has recorded this for posterity. Still have the cassette somewhere.
Working as I did with his guitars on and off stage, and of course my love of the Beatles, made my interest in that instrument intense. Never had the time or enough commitment to learn properly but this didn’t dull my interest. So I bought an Ovation Viper, a solid body electric in the shape of a Telecaster. Brian was horrified. He snatched it from me and began to set it up properly (“if it is even possible,” he snorted). Tried to persuade him to play it on stage but he wouldn’t have any of it. Several years after we were off the road, Brian was now firmly entrenched in his newest endeavour, being a luthier at Toronto’s specialty guitar shop, The Twelfth Fret. He calls me up and says, “Have you still got that piece of shit Ovation?” I sadly replied it had been stolen right out of my apartment. “Good. I’ve got a real guitar for you.” He had found a 1968 US made Fender Telecaster that he snatched up before anyone else could get to it and sold it to me at a ridiculous price. Loved that guitar. Looked just like the Springsteen model on the Born To Run album cover. Decades later I had fallen on hard times and went to him again to see if I could sell it. He took it from me back to his workbench at the Fret, tore it apart to authenticate it (all for nothing), redressed it and put it up on their website. As a favour to me he asked for (and received) the employee commission rate from the owners (who knew me from the ZON days) so as to maximize my payout and literally saved Christmas for us. That was Brian.
From time to time I would ask Brie for favours in helping me find stringed instruments not necessarily in the guitar family. Because of his contacts, Brie was able to secure both a fine viola and a terrific ukulele, significant birthday presents for my eldest daughter, she of the funny song. Loved emailing him because his answers to simple questions could go on for pages. And always put a smile on my face. About a year before his passing, he found out about my adventures with a canoe and camping, something I was not expecting to like. He was thrilled. He and Marion were accomplished canoe enthusiasts and he started to make plans for himself and me to hit his favourite river, the great Madawaska the following summer. That was the summer that we found out he was sick. And not just sick, but rumoured to be terminal. We were all devastated. It had happened so quickly there was barely time to react. As the prognosis got worse Denton, Kim and Jim went to see him in the hospital on a Tuesday and I went on the Wednesday. Marion asked me to read a letter from Howard, who was living in Seattle and couldn’t get away at that point. Choked up a few times but mostly held it together for what would be my only visit. He told me he still had the recording of my daughter’s song and he would get someone to transfer it to CD for posterity. Almost twenty years had passed but he still remembered how important it was to me. The previous evening he told the guys his death bed wish was for them to release the live tapes to show the skeptics out there just how good ZON really was. (Roadie note: the previous summer the boys, minus Howard who was living in Florida at the time, got together in Brian’s tiny basement and rehearsed the old material. They were giving it a go to see if felt good. And it did). The last thing I said to my friend was my time with him and ZON was the most important of my life. In his weakened state he gave me shit. “Don’t forget your family!!” I smiled sheepishly and said something like, “Well of course that goes without saying. But that doesn’t change my mind any.” I waved a final goodbye, walked to the car and bawled my eyes out all the way home. He was gone inside of a week and our visit was one of the last where he was able to speak coherently.
This CD is the result of one of his final wishes. He wanted you, the listener, the fan, the mildly curious and even the critics to be able to experience the music ZON and Brian lived. And no better way than live. So sit back, relax, crank the speakers or headphones to 11 and enjoy.
This is the magic it really was each night.