17 Apr Ronnie Hawkins
It s a typical Toronto Friday night. Hoods with greasy ducktail haircuts are dragging up and down Yonge Street, the city’s main thoroughfare and girl-watching area. Where Yonge Street crosses Dundas is Toronto’s equivalent of Times Square — a sprawling, ugly mass of neon signs, puke on the sidewalk, 8-year-old boys with dirty faces shining shoes for a dime a time, a few husky hookers waiting to be hassled by customer or cop.
Inside Le Coq D’Or restaurant-bar-tavern, Ronnie Hawkins is getting set to venture onto the stage where a red neon booms out LE GO GO. Hawkins has been standing on that stage three or four times a year for the past two years, but tonight is different. Ronnie keeps saying, tonight is his second to last night. Tomorrow, Saturday, is his last night. Then he’s off to Quebec for a further ten weeks of appearances at various clubs, then he sits down to decide his future. He’s had offers, one from Grossman. Ronnie, now 34 and looking it too, may be about to get back into those winning ways of the late Fifties when he notched up several hits both here and in the U.S., on the Roulette label.
Ronnie is sitting around with a group of friends, hangers-on. A couple of broads are there, prize fighter named Charlie Chase, a record company lawyer trying to get Hawkins bombed so he’ll sign a contract, a stock market voyeur who keeps ordering tubs of ice and champagne. “Fine people,” says Ronnie, looking around at the packed house—guys in white socks, white shirts, black ties; blonde chicks in orange dresses and stocking tops showing where they meet long-legged corsets, these same blonde chicks furtively lighting up 100 mm cigarettes waiting for the action to start; Greek waiters hustling around. It doesn’t really look like a crowd that will be notable for its musical appreciation.
“What’re ya drinkin?” Inquires Ronnie, catching a waiter going past, the catch being a grasp in the vicinity of the groin. Rum and coke. It comes, a double with just under an inch of space in the small glass for the coke. The chicks giggle. Ronnie looks at them strangely, then sees a couple he knows moving this way.
He jumps up, shakes the guy’s hand, then kisses the girl on the lips. Then he goes down on knees, in full view of the white shirts and orange dresses, and makes like he has another kiss coming. The girl is embarrassed.
A fat, balding guy comes over and asks Ronnie where Levon is. Levon is Levon Helm of the Band, a group which once backed Hawkins, and was put together by him. Ronnie laughs. Turns back to the table. Someone mentions a well known fag. Ronnie retaliates, “I don’t care what he does. Nobody’s perfect, man. He can go out and make it with a goat. I don’t mind as long as I can watch.
“People say to me, they say Ronnie, do you go down on girls and I say, well, I kiss ’em down to the belly button and then I develop amnesia.”
Hawkins is a native of Arkansas, as you may have gathered from his diabolical dialect. He came to Canada 11 years ago, and he’s now as much a part of the Maple Music Scene as Prairie Wheatfields. His jokes are famous, and deservedly so. Ronnie knows it. Nothing pisses him off more than a joke that backfires. He’s telling us about one that bombed just this morning.
“We was talkin’ about this chick, man, up in my gym upstairs. I got the only gym in the world where you can come in feelin’ OK and leave a complete physical wreck. Anyway, we was up there, me and a few of the boys, and we was talkin’ about a chick. I said to ’em, I said, ‘Boys, that girl is so dumb that if her brains were cotton, she couldn’t make a Tampon for an amoeba.’ They all wanted to know what an amoeba was. Shit, man.”
When Ronnie’s not telling jokes, he’s talking about the band, his band—‘ma boys,’ as he loves to call them. And he’s got reason to. Nothing delights him more than telling how it all happened, and what happened in minute detail.
“Man, we played every little honky tonk between here and Mexico,” he says. “Those places were so tough you had to show your razor and puke twice before they’d let you in. Dress for the occasion was brass nuts and combat boots, switch blades and green jockstraps.
“We used to have to carry the Arkansas credit card —a syphon hose and a five-gallon can. I was the only rock and roll singer that performed every night with chafed lips.
“But boy it was fun. Chriiist you wouldn’t believe it. We had parties that Nero would have been ashamed to attend. In all the time I been on the road I must have laid a million girls, a few boys, and an odd goat. The goats were alright too, only you had to go round to the other end to kiss ’em.
“We had so many gang bangs and freaky orgies that I lost count. In every town, there was a dozen. Levon was always the best fucker. I remember this place in Arkansas—West Helena it was called—there was this colored hooker we called Odessa—wrote a song about her too. Levon and I would give her two bucks for the night. She’d give us a big meal, then bog us, and blow jobs too. Levon’d go first and then I’d go in and Odessa would say, ‘Mr. Ronnie, you can go ahead, but I think that Mr. Levon has gone and taken it all.
“ ‘That Mr. Levon has a strip of meat on him like a horse,’ she would say. Yes sir, Levon was well hung. He was a big boy that one. Never knew when to stop either. He had more meat than the Toronto abattoirs. Odessa was a good gal, and boy she could cook up a storm.”
Actually, Levon Helm came up to Canada with Hawkins in 1958. “We did our first Canadian gig together,” Ronnie recalls. “It was in Hamilton at the Golden Rail. Harold Jenkins, a country-rock sort of singer, was also in town, and we all stayed at the same hotel, the Fisher.
“I remember one night Harold wrote a song aad he brought it in to try on us. Asked us what we thought and I said I didn’t see it goin’ anywhere. When he went back to the States he recorded it and changed his name. Turned out to be “It’s Only Make Believe” by Conway Twitly, one of the biggest hits of the year.
“Back then Canada was just another place to play. We called it the Eskimo tour, though I gotta tell I ain’t never seen an Eskimo, or a Mountie in red either. Not once. The group then was mainly Arkansas boys. But they were called the Hawks, as has been the case with all of my groups, then or since. We bumped into Robbie Robertson up in Canada, and he became our road manager. Later I worked him into the Hawks, first on bass, then rhythm and finally lead guitar.
“Richard Manuel came from Stratford [an Ontario town now justly famous for its annual Shakespearean Festival, which this year features Procul Harum in a concert of J. S. Bach with the Stratford Festival Orchestra]. He had a little group and I managed them for a while. Then it broke up and I brought Richard into my own group playing piano. It must have been seven or eight years ago, I don’t remember the time too well now…I’m into my seventeenth year of rock and roll so I’m gettin’ a little punchy, I can’t remember the times and dates anymore.
“Anyway, we named Richard The Gobbler.’ [laughs]. He’s a homewrecker man, a working girl’s favorite and a housewive’s companion, or whatever that damn dumb sayin’ is. If you’re a hip guy, you’ll understand why we called him that.
“Rick Danko was an apprentice butcher in Simcoe [a small lakeside town, 50 miles north of Toronto] and we picked him up from a poker band. He was a good looking boy with plenty of po-tential. He’d been playin’ lead with this little band, but we put him on bass because Robbie was handlin’ lead.
“The boys musta worked for me for four or five years. And they were hard years. By God, I made ’em rehearse every day [Hawkins is renowned for the merciless way he makes his groups rehearse day after day],
“We played some real tough places; the people didn’t come to hear you, they came to mess with you. They’d flick cigarette butts, throw coins, steal your gear, and if you still kept on playin’, well, they’d sit right down and listen to you.
“Shit, man, I remember one time in West Helena. Arkansas, we had to stop playin’ when a brawl started. Three rednecks started tuggin’ this young guy—nicely dressed he was too—and he up and took after ’em with a plugged-in chain saw. Wow, he damn near sawed the whole place down before the fuzz arrived.
“He sawed the bar in half, a few chairs and even got at the redneck’s car. Folks never did things halfheartedly at the places we played. If something had to be done, well, it was done good and proper.
“Yessir, they were rough times, but they were good times too. Musicians nowadays don’t know what it’s like to have rough times. There they are with their $20,000 worth of equipment, a car, a truck, every darn thing. Back in the Fifties, rough times were when you didn’t have a dam thing to put in your mouth but a woman’s tit. Man, you didn’t eat until after you got up there and played. That’s what I call payin’ them real dues, and the band paid ’em, man, they sure did pay ’em.
“They were boys when they started, but they were men when they finished. They’d seen damn near everythin’ there is to see. They practiced, played and fucked in every town you care to name. Real dudes, man.”
With such a carefree, careless life going for them, it’s strange that the Band ever wanted to leave Ronnie.
“After a while,” Hawkins explained, “they wanted to play more blues than I could let ’em.. John Hammond came to Toronto and he really impressed the boys. This Hammond feller knew Dylan and he told ’em Dylan was gettin’ ready to get into a blues thing. He told them to go and see Bobbie. So the boys went down and played a gig in New Jersey without me, and met up with Bob, and they went to live with him. Then later, when Dylan decided to quit the road and recordin’, they had to break up, come back with me or go out by themselves.
“I was talking to Levon on the phone the other night and he said they been turnin’ down $20,000 a night. Fuck, I remember when they worked for two bucks a night and were glad to do it. Times sure do change.” But Ronnie’s pleased about it. The last thing he would do is bear a grudge. He digs what Dylan did to them.
“There’s two or three cuts on that album of theirs that I really like. But I’m not really a good enough musician to understand all that stuff. I do understand the lyrics though, and better than most people. That one about Caledonia Mission and being surrounded by Mounties, that was one time they got busted at the border. They’re writin’ about true things, the things that happened to us all along the way.
“I been thinkin’ about visitin’ them when I’m on vacation, just to see what they’re up to now.”
The manager of the club comes up to ask when Ronnie is doing his next set. Right now. He mounts the stage, sees someone he knows and comes thundering down across the front tables. He’s a big man.
These days Ronnie fronts a six piece group—King Biscuit Boy on harp. Jay Smith on tamborinc, John Till on lead guitar, Larry Ataminak on drums, Ricky Benn on piano, and Wayne Cardinal on bass. The King Biscuit Boy and Jay Smith also sing, both remarkably well. In fact, in an eight song set Ronnie only does three numbers, leaving the other five to the Boy and Jay. For the rest, he just stands up there, fingers clicking and jokes flying.
About this time of night, with a couple of double rums wandering around inside an empty gut, even Nancy Sinatra would sound like funk. Hawkins and his band are heavy. You shake your head and listen, Ronnie would say. Nice hard country blues, the bridging is unreal. But you can rely on Ronnie to front a hot band.
“You know how to tell a liar,” he’s saying. “I mean the difference between two 14-year-old liars. It’s not the 14-year-old boy who said he never did, but the 14-year-old guy who says he did but gave it up.
“My scoutmaster told me if you do that you’ll go blind. I said go fetch me a pair of glasses, daddy, ‘cos I ain’t givin’ this up for nobody. Woooow.
“Here’s a little ditty we always dedicate to the pretty pregnant little girls in the house.”
And into Gordon Lightfoot’s “(That’s What You Get) For Loving Me.” Nice.
Requests pour in, at approximately the same rate as the booze is poured out.
“Right about here, we wanna do a song about a man who came…”
“Into Home From the Forest.” On and on it goes. The music gets harder all the time. The two chicks at the table, caught up in the music, are letting themselves be messed with under the tables. All the time, Ronnie stands up there cracking jokes, singing, sending up anything and anyone.
Someone yells out to Ronnie that he’ll get jailed for cannibalism, and he puts his hand over the mike, and hisses, “Man, I’d suck her left kidney right out of her.”
Ronnie was caught in a quandary. He’s been living in Canada for 11 years, with occasional forays into the U.S. for tours and vacations, and he’s eked out a cool, groovy living here. He has a wife (“she’s alright, still lookin’ for me”), he turns on (my metabolism must be different ‘cos I don’t get a buzz out of grass or . hash. I just can’t get the sort of buzz I got from booze, birds and speed”), and he has some loot stashed.
Most people think he’s rich. He claims he’s not. Says his bank manager reckons he has more notes on him than a Hammond organ. Nevertheless, be drives a custom-made Rolls Royce Phantom Five limousine, half-owns the Hawk’s Nest teen club in Toronto, another club in London, Ontario, and lots of real estate. He draws large crowds on his regular 10-city Ontario circuit. And he rehearses his group every day.
But he’s getting messed up. “Albert Grossman said, ‘How would you like to make $3,500 a night?’ I said, ‘Is a fifteen pound robin heavy?” He hasn’t made any decision, and won’t until mid-way through June, but he’s making another grab for the big time. He awaits offers.
The big question that remains is whether Hawkins was just damn lucky to put together the Band, and whether they’d have even happened without his help. Most observers are inclined to give Hawkins much of the credit. He knows a good musician when he hears one. Two of his other guitar players have gone on to become session men in Nashville. Fred Carter, for example, is making $150,000 a year there.
For Hawkins, the Band is something of a nostalgic trip. He remembers the good times, when he listens to those simple Canadian Country riffs which they learned with him. And the Arkansas blues feel he always had that he taught them.
“Everything’s gonna be real fine for the boys,” concludes Ronnie, making a grab for a half-exposed tit. “Real fine.’