Introducing the Spasms

Saskatoon 1981 was a tough place to grow up, relatively speaking of course.  It wasn’t like growing up in El Salvador, violence wasn’t a problem, fitting in was.  When I entered grade nine, Wildwood Collegiate had three main suburban cliques.  There were preppies decked out in Oxford sweaters, converse sneakers and Bryan Ferry hairdos, hockey jocks sporting matching “Wings” jackets and of course the skids with marker-drawn metal band logos tattooed all over their jean jackets.  I didn’t belong to any one of them.  I didn’t know who I wanted to be until I saw Doug Baker, a grade eleven who towered over most of us like we were in kindergarten.  Legends swirled around Baker, that even in grade nine his face was heavily lichened with stubble and that he once threw a thirty-pound Olivetti at the typing teacher, Ms. Dinsmore.  It wasn’t so much Baker’s size that was impressive, it was his image; he was the one true punk in school.  He wore a torn jacket, safety pins and had spikey black hair.  A large “God Save the Queen” patch was splashed across his back and “No Future” was written above a red bandana tied around his thigh.  Baker oozed anarchy: I liked that.

I had a brother who was two years older and this gave me one advantage: he introduced me to punk rock while we were still in grade school.  In the late 1970s it was impossible to hear punk music without a facilitator, someone who was able to find and spread it by distributing tapes.  The mainstream record stores like Sam’s wouldn’t sell punk, you never heard it on the radio and parents carefully monitored access fearing the end of civilization.  My brother snuck Never Mind the Bollocks into our house in 1978 and we listened to it, ears to the speakers, and felt rebellion for the first time.

The other benefit of having an older brother was I could hang out by his locker while appearing to have grade eleven friends.  My brother and I were discussing London Calling at his locker when Stevie Strand overheard the conversation then walked up to me. 

Stevie was bigger than most grade nines and had a menacing presence.

“Are you into punk?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to figure out if I was about to get slammed against the locker.

“Me too.” he said, brightening up.

That was the moment our friendship began.  We started sharing punk tapes and spent many Saturdays at Trash Records, a dive record store in the basement of the Stone Block building, a monolith of concrete that stained Saskatoon’s skyline.  Trash had all the new punk bands, a large selection of bootlegged punk records and punk paraphernalia.

Throughout the winter and into early 1982, Stevie started crafting his punk image.  He bought a jean jacket that he cleverly cut to look tattered, bound it with safety pins and added a large “Anarchy” patch on the back.  He spiked his hair, wore a bike chain around his neck and learned to curl his upper lip.  He practiced this maneuver whenever blue hairs gawked at him on the bus.  I bought cargo pants and adorned my canvass jacket with punk pins I bought at Trash.  I never quite looked the part like Stevie.

During the summer of 1982, our nightly ruse was “going for a bike ride” which started by finding someone to pull us a six pack at Sudsy’s offsale on 8th Street, then ended at the local punk bar on Broadway called HeBGBs.  We saw many of the popular local bands at the time: The Clampdown and Meninblack, but when we arrived for the DOA show, HeBGBs asked for ID.  Busted.  We sat in the parking lot, sipped beer, and listened to the roar of music inside.  It was that night we decided to form a band.

Stevie wanted to play bass because he idolized Sid Vicious and I knew basic chords on the guitar, but we needed a drummer.  That’s when we found Albert Tomkins.  Stevie saw Albert playing drums in the school jazz band when he ran into their rehearsal one day and yelled: “Fuck jazz, punk rules!”  The problem was Albert was a wuss: he wore bunny-hugs in summer and was already programming in BASIC.  

Fear and uncertainty smeared across Albert’s face when we approached him in the hallway, but with a little prodding, he felt it was an opportunity to get respect.  He just had to work on his image.

“Hang out with us and nobody will touch you.”  Stevie said.

This wasn’t entirely true.  Stevie was frequently beaten up by skids, but felt it was a punk’s duty to get “nicked” by rockers.  Emboldened, Albert adopted a punk/new wave hybrid style, to the chagrin of Stevie.  I constantly reminded Stevie that Albert was not a punk, but that he had a drum set, a red-speckled Pearl 7-piece he bought at Woolco. 

Stevie and I rented instruments for our first jam in the Strands’ basement.  His parents were out, luckily, because when Albert counted us in it was a cacophony of arbitrary noise.

“Bodies… I’m not an animal!” Stevie shrieked. “It’s an ABORTION!”

To Stevie’s credit, he was a decent Johnny Rotten impersonator, but the first fissure in our relationship came later that evening.  Stevie and Albert fought over a band name.

“We need something gross.” Stevie said, “Some kind of body part, like the hemorrhoids.”

Albert disagreed vehemently. 

“Hemorrhoids are around assholes.  I don’t want to be in a band about assholes.”

“Fuck you.” Stevie replied. “So what’s a good name?”

“Something dangerous, like the ICBMs.”

“What the fuck is an ICBM?”

“Stevie you’re so dumb: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.” 

The change in Albert’s demeanor was stark; he was suddenly much more confident with his Depeche Mode hairstyle and “I’m so bored with the U.S.A.” t-shirt.

Fearing excess adrenaline would lead Stevie to punch Albert I proposed a compromise.

“How about something a little less ass-holey,” I said, “like ‘The Spasms’.”

“I’m okay with that.” Albert said.

“It’s not Hemorrhoids, but it’s okay.” Stevie agreed, grudgingly.

We practiced all summer and got stickers printed at Trash Records that we randomly slapped on lampposts and mailboxes throughout the neighbourhood.  Under the jagged letters for “The Spasms” was a quivering cartoonish corpse.  We were in grade ten, so the grade nines idolized us and even Doug Baker started speaking to us.  We were the school punks.

Our first official gig was the school talent show, preposterously named “Awaken ’82.”  We vowed to awaken them and have parents running for the doors.  Most teachers were ardently anti-punk, so when we enlisted, we chose the doppelganger “The Sparrows” with the music style of “soft rock.” 

Our idea was to get on stage wearing preppy clothes, doff them to reveal our punk garb then launch into the Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun.”  Stevie was amped to let the obscenities fly, but Albert was less enthusiastic.  His parents, Bob and Mary Tomkins, were in the audience for opening night, proud as peacocks that Albert suddenly had friends and even girls occasionally called his home.

We awaited our turn back stage, listening to the woodwind ensemble before us.  The Spasms had to impress with ferocity, not talent.  We tried to convince Albert of this.

“Trash your kit, Albert, Keith Moon style.” Stevie implored.

“I don’t know.” he muttered, “My parents will KILL me.”

“Can’t you just knock some shit over?” I asked.

“Well, maybe a cymbal.”

“We’ll help.” Stevie nodded and winked at me.

Finally it was time for our introduction.  The emcee was our friend Alex and he was part of the deception.  As we readied our instruments, Alex spoke of The Sparrows following the traditions of bands like Air Supply, creating “heartfelt” ballads.  I peeked through the curtain at the smiling, innocent audience, mumbling with anticipation.

The curtain rose, the lights came on and Stevie started:

“Welcome everyone.  I’m sorry to tell you the Sparrows were unable to attend so they sent the Spasms in their place.  Ready boys?”

On that cue, we ripped off our dress shirts to reveal white tee shirts, each with the slogan “Fuck rock, punk rules!” emblazoned on the front.  Students in the audience stood and roared.

Albert, now beaming, started hammering the snare in a marching beat looking every bit as punk as Paul Cook.  I started into the G power chord while Stevie belched into the microphone: “Cheap holidays and none of those miserrrries.”  Rolling out his R like Rotten himself.

“I don’t want a holiday in the sun, I wanna go to the new Belsen!”

Just as Stevie was about to sing the next verse, the stage went dark and Stevie’s and my instruments fell silent.  Albert’s drumming slowly petered out as students in the audience booed loudly.  Ms. Dinsmore had been tipped off about our performance and stood by the breaker box.  Parents, including Albert’s, looked stunned. 

At that moment Stevie started yelling at the crowd.

“This is bullshit!”

“Fuck you Dinsmore, fuck all of you!”  He screamed while Mr. Herst and Mr. Stieglitz tried pulling him off stage.

In a final act of defiance he sent a projectile of gob into the crowd, smacking Mary Tomkins in the forehead.  She looked like she’d been shot.  Chaos ensued, parents rushed to her aid, students laughed and started flipping chairs.  The “Awaken ’82” banner dislodged and floated to the ground.  I glanced towards Albert; he looked catatonic then slowly mouthed the words “oh shit.”  In that moment I finally understood the meaning of punk: Stevie caused anarchy and it was beautiful.

It was the beginning and the end of the illustrious Spasms, who shone brightly then fizzled out like a birthday sparkler.  Albert and I were suspended for a week and he never spoke to me again.  The last thing I heard was that he became a financial analyst, ripped off some seniors’ pension money and was awaiting trial.  Stevie was expelled, then two weeks later he moved to Vancouver and we lost contact.  By the end of high school I had moved on from punk, graduated with honours and eventually became a teacher, but vowed never to work at Wildwood, especially during Principal Dinsmore’s reign of terror.  Thirty-five years had passed when I received a link to Stevie’s obituary.  The webpage said he died doing what he loved: playing music.  He was in a geezer punk band called STD when he discovered lung cancer.  A few people commented about his kindness and the love he expressed for his two kids.  I added this simple epitaph: “Fuck death, punk lives.”