Tag Archives: vancouver

Rock of Legend, Legend of Rock: Bob Gruen in Vancouver


I was lucky that Sharon Steele, a photographer friend of mine, invited to me a show in Vancouver by the legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen. She’s a music photographer herself so she had the insider knowledge about the show.

Bob Gruen is very important to me. I grew up in a very boring suburb. And when I say boring I really mean it. It was surrounded on one side by farms, on 2 sides by a big thick forest with bears, and on the 4th side by a canyon known for cougars and other wildlife. It was great in many ways but for obvious reasons parents didn’t really want us to play in the forest on our own. And there wasn’t anything else around!  Not even a movie theatre. Absolutely zip. We had to “make our own fun” which for me meant getting up in the night doing downstairs and secretly watching late night movies. I saw all the Cormans, all the Hammer Horrors, all the groovy biker movies, all the hardboiled film noir…

I guess I got used to hanging out with my imagination, which was pretty good.

Anyway, one time I was heading out on vacation with my parents and I went into a store to buy a comic book. It was a long car journey so I needed something meaty to kill the time in between fighting with my brother. But the selection was lame. Suddenly my eyes slid past Archie and Jughead, and Spiderman (yawn) to something that wasn’t exactly a comic book. It was called Creem; I picked it up. It had a lot of photos in it of people who looked frankly – by the standards of the time and place I was in – outrageous. There were other magazines on the stand – Hit Parader, and one or two others. Yes,  I blew ALL the  allowance I’d saved up for the trip and bought 3 magazines. I read and reread those zines  all the way from suburban Vancouver to Peachland to Lake Shushwap to Merritt and all the campsites in between. When I got home I took the photos I liked best and put them on my bedroom wall (mother = horrified).  Did I actually understand those articles by Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau? No, not at all. I was in elementary school! But I read a lot in general and it wasn’t any more bizarre than Brave New World, or Treasure Island which was my favourite book (and still is!).

But it wasn’t the words that made an impression. It was the photos. They showed me hard evidence of a world where you didn’t have to be lame and boring. You could in fact be edgy and fabulous. And wear whatever you liked even if it was a gender-bending freakshow. And you could have your hair any-which-way. And you could be in places like New York or London or Hollywood, and not the suburbs! And you could go there and not have to visit relatives!

And the name that appeared beside the best of the photos, the ones I was so impressed by, was almost always the name “Bob Gruen.” How could I ever forget that name? He did the mindblowing (at the time! my brother and I bowed down before it!) cover of Kiss Dressed to Kill! His pics of the Clash are the greatest ever taken of that magnificent band.

So, back to the show; I had a little chat with Gruen, who is lovely, a perfect gent (which is obvs why so many artists gave him the time to do his great shots!) , and bought myself a copy of his superb book New York Dolls. Now that’s another thing. By the time I found out about the New York Dolls they’d long been split up, but oh my god their music! And their style! I just fell for them, and am still totally fallen. I listen to them all the time (and saw them finally, many years later when they reformed, in London).  What a great, GREAT band. Glam fashion style and proper Chuck Berry rock music. Smart lyrics, killer licks.  And Gruen, again, took the best photos of the Dolls that exist.

And I still just love rock photography. Influenced by these mags, which I read right through my teens, I also took quite a lot of music photos, never as good as Bob’s or Sharon’s but good enough for my portfolio to get me into film school.

So thank you again Bob, for all the great pictures! Long make you snap that shutter!



  1. according to Wikipedia there’s going to be documentary about the history of Creem. Hope this happens.



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WHEN I was growing up in Vancouver the city had a remarkable amount of neon signs. These highly colourful signs advertised everything from diners to dry cleaners. Driving through the city at night in the back of my parents’ car was like vising fairyland. It was amazing.

As I got older I noticed the neon slowly being removed and being replaced with ordinary backlit plastic signage. Much more boring.

I was surprised to find, on a  visit the Vancouver Museum this summer, that some of the old neon has been saved and here it is, a glorious display in the museum – which is well worth visiting in any case. I tok these pics at the museum, but it’s better to see it for yourself, if you can. http://www.museumofvancouver.ca/
Vancouver neon

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The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was a well known jazz club in the 50’s and I heard rumours that Hendrix jammed there in his youth (he lived in Vancouver for a while) but I have no idea if it’s true. It was a legendary punk club in the late 70s.

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The Blue Eagle cafe was on Hastings St. I ate there quite often – stuff like French toast.

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The Owl drugstore at 41st, I used to pass it every day going to high school and university.

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This auto repair sign is just too good.

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The museum display. I spent ages in here, sucking it up. I LOVE neon. Real neon not the crap that “contemporary artists” put out.

AND here’s two more that are still in situ:

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You can see more on this great site: http://www.vancouverneon.com/index.htm

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Goodbye Zellers (Hometown Blues #4)

This summer I had to say farewell to an institution that figured large in childhood memory: the department store Zellers. It is going the way of many of the Canadian department stores of my childhood. Back then, shopping meant going to The Bay, Sears, Woodwards or Eatons and kitting out everything from homewares to school clothes and supplies to new outfits for my parents. With two kids in town and limited time it made sense to shop in a department store: much easier than hauling around lots of different shops in a mall or busy street. And there was a toy department to end up in, as a reward for being well behaved (sometimes).

goodbye zellers

But Zellers was a bit different. For one thing, it was really near to where I lived, unlike the other stores which meant a trip downtown to Pacific Centre or to a plush suburban  super-mall like Richmond Centre. Zellers is a 5 minute drive or a 20 minute walk way. So it has always been the default place to stop and pick up the basic and unavoidable necessaries: an audio cable, some suntan lotion, a T shirt, floor cleaner, a deck of cards. This list comes from the receipt from my last ever visit. Zellers is closing down by the end of this year.

Zellers was the first place I ever bought something of my own to wear, for myself with my own money. I was in Grade 7 and not really into fashion (never have been and never will be). My black KISS t-shirt was to me the highest level fashion could go. However I can’t remember why I was in Zellers – probably buying bubblegum from the machine – when I saw The Jacket. It was a blazer, and it was the most gorgeous shade of violent, poison green. This is the shade:green

It went for the princely sum of $25.00, a lot of money to me. I put a five dollar down payment on it and then went home and got the rest of my money, and a $3 loan from my mother. It looked great with the KISS T-shirt. I wore it to school the next day.

Over the years Zellers has always been there and I am used to its brands, its service, the people who work there. Even long after I moved away I normally pop into Zellers on a regular basis when I go home for my visits. This summer I made a point of picking up a few pairs of the excellent Alfred Sung jeans to keep in storage, cos I have no idea when I’ll be able to get anything fitting as good as those again, for a price that does not leave me terrified to wear them.

Yes, Zellers is going the way of Eatons and Woodwards: it’s closing. Not because we don’t use it or want it, but because another company has bought it out and decided to replace it with their own stores. The other company is US retail giant Target. I haven’t been to Target and I have no idea what they offer. I don’t know if they are any good. I don’t know what they stock. I don’t know what their customer service or employee relations are like.

So far, their stance on unions does not appear to be good – I found this on YouTube:


Now, I’m of the belief that the employee has a right to join or form a union, and the employer has no right to pressure them either way. so, hmmmm.

And the Huffington Post’s story on how the current Zellers employees are being treated as a result of the takeover does not sound promising:


The Toronto Star has documented the story http://www.thestar.com/business/article/1243434–target-doesn-t-want-anything-to-do-with-depressed-zellers

And here  It’s definitely worth following this story though, to monitor that “competitiveness” in the sector does not mean creating poverty and systemic unemployment.

I don’t want to come across as a knee-jerk Canadian nationalist, decrying the takeover of a Canadian store by an American one. In any case everything from Target will be, as with Zellers, made in China. Nor do I want to rail against change. And yet, Zellers going leaves a hole, alters the landscape of memory. We’ll see. Next summer Target will be there, and I’ll make my own decisions.

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A Good Place to get Granny’s Tofu (Home Town Blues #3)

Here’s a shot of one of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver, the Gain Wah. It’s on Keefer Street in the part of Chinatown that still looks and feels the same as ever. The food here is delicious and homey,  the atmosphere is a traditional Chinatown diner: friendly, unpretentious and comforting in its lack of trendiness. (and that there  is my friend, the artist Vanessa Lowe, who accompanied me on my last visit).

above, a building on Gore Ave.

Chinatown was always one of my favourite parts of my home town. Initially, as a suburban kid, the folks would take up there once a month or so to eat Chinese food (so exotic!) and buy toys. When I got older and went to town by myself I loved the curious architecture, the tasty inexpensive food and the essential, refreshing “differentness” of the place. Later still, Chinatown was on the edge of the urban underground scene of gigs and parties and late night joints where all kinds of mayhem could go down.  Now, well traveled and somewhat worldweary, I feel less Chinatown’s “differentness,” and more its familiarity: the  old buildings juxtaposed with new, the mix of people and cultures – it’s inextricably Chinese AND Canadian both –  the traces of history, the beauty.

sun yat sen park vancouver

Above, Dr.  Sun Yat Sen Park

It’s funny, since I was a kid the image I’ve always had of Chinese Vancouver is of very hardworking, determined people fiercely fighting to retain their culture while contributing hugely to, and being an integral part of, what makes British Columbia so unique. I’ve had no reason to change that view, though for sure I get the impression – mainly from the press — that more recently the Chinese community is viewed as a route into the all-important  ‘China Market’, that famed El Dorado that has been a promise since the days of Marco Polo.  If so, I can’t help but feel that is unfair.  Chinese Vancouver – and by this I don’t just mean Chinatown but the whole Asian element of the city – is part of what makes the city what it is, and it’s there for everyone to enjoy, and to respect.

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A Beach Full of Severed Body Parts (Hometown Blues #2)

I had a wonderful walk around the Seawall to English Bay, one of the most beautiful and lively parts of Vancouver. It was a very hot and sunny day, and the idea was to grab some sushi and catch the sunset while sitting on the beach. We did that, and after dinner were joined by a friend who lives nearby and often pops down in the evening to enjoy the sunset.

English Bay, Inuskhuk monument, Vancouver

The beach echoed with laughter; people played volleyball, picnicked or just watched the sea. A happier, more peaceful and friendly environment cannot be imagined. My friend looked around nervously, then lit a cigarette, surreptitiously. “Keep a look out for the police,” she said. “Why? “ I asked, surprised.

“Because it’s illegal to smoke on the beach or in any public place,” was the astounding reply. I was amazed.

“Do they really arrest people for smoking?!” I asked.

My friend said it had not happened to her but police did patrol the beach and in theory they could do so.

Now I’m a non smoker, have never smoked and find the habit “yuck” – nasty to me, though obviously not to those who do it. However I have not really got a problem with people smoking, except in restaurants. Yes, I’d prefer it if people didn’t smoke at all, but I have always preferred a live and let live policy. (What do I find more offensive in public than smoking? A lot. Cars and buses idling and emitting fumes, litter, ill-behaved children, people spitting on the pavement, people who push past shouting “Scuse me” in the tone you know they mean “f*** outta my way” etc. etc.) Smoking sucks, but as offensiveness it’s just not a big deal.

Later that night I went home and watched the late news. There came a report of yet another manifestation of “the Canadian Tendency” – this time in Mississauga, Ontario. What is the Canadian Tendency? Well in the Anglo speaking world there are certain observable tendencies in homicide. In the USA it’s all about grabbing a pile of guns and running out blowing people away. The British Tendency is to plot and do clever, creepy and crafty murders. The Canadian Tendency is to cut people into very small pieces and strew the pieces around – in the forest, in parks, and in the sea. That day, some limbs and head were found in a park in Mississauga.

Now it might be a stretch to connect the story of the police being charged with the idiotic task of arresting smokers, to the idea of murderers sowing the country with body parts, but I can’t get the connection out of my mind. And then the next day I saw in the local “newspaper” a shrill Letter to the Editor complaining about “appalling behaviour” and that that there are not enough police on English Bay, that they are failing in their duty to arrest smokers and people drinking alcohol (the letter also mentions swearing, which so far as I know is not yet an offence). Even assuming that the letter writer is not some kind of nut, who might well be living in the wrong part of the world (North Korea might suit), one might be tempted to point out that the most inner-city beach in a city of 2.5 million might get a bit crowded and over-lively on a hot summer’s day and evening?

So I’m thinking, what’s really “appalling behaviour” in a public park in Canada? Not really someone having a quick fag. I’d have that any day over the prospect of surprising someone in the act of chopping a body into pieces, or of finding a severed head. THAT is vile. And I’d kind of prefer if the police would focus on things like catching the kind of people who chop other people up into tiny parts and strew them around the parks and beaches.

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Portal to the lost city (home town blues)

above, Vancouver port – seen from the Seabus

I was raised in the west coast port city of Vancouver. Quite a few years ago I left to go traveling and I ended up in London UK, to become one of the many millions of the world’s flotsam and jetsam that have turned up here to create an amazing polyglot city that bursts with energy and intensity 24/7.  London’s home now, but every year I go back to Vancouver and rekindle my love for the city, a love that flourishes during the city’s splendid green and blue summers, but surely wanes a bit when the darker days kick in. I havent lived in Van since 2002 and every summer i think “why don’t I move back here” but so far I haven’t.

This year I thought I’d write some reflective blog posts about my trip and my perspective on the city.

This palimpsest sums up the state of the city today: the city’s historic core, for decades left to rot and malinger due to a combination of corruption, dodgy landlordism and local culture, has been “regenerated” – to some extent – largely of course by the usual process of “development” that is, putting homes and services  for rich people where previous poor people eked out a marginal existence.I’m not really sure how this qualifies as “development” but in these days our definitions have got out of whack:  a “friend” is someone you don’t know and don’t want to meet in real life, and to “like” something means to absentminded click on a  link in a desultory manner, I guess facilitating the good life for the rich at the expense of the poor qualifies as development. I digress.

It has never been a rich part of town:  adjacent to the port it was a transient district of sailors and port workers, many living in rooming houses and hanging out in the bars and pubs. I used to go to punk shows there back in the 80s/ early 90s, it was edgy and fun but it never felt unsafe (or I was naive in the way only kids are). From the mid 90s  it got really run down.

I won’t lie: the Downtown East Side is much more pleasant to visit now than it was in the 90s or early 2000s, when it was a seething horror of a place, so vile that a monstrous serial killer  operated. Yes, in those dreadful days a pig farmer used to wander the streets of the Downtown East side and pick up poor, often drug addicted  women and take them back to his pig farm where he killed them and fed them to the pigs. What is so horrible is that he did it with impunity for years and years and nobody  – least of all the police – noticed because everyone in Vancouver had simply decided that if they ignored the Downtown East Side and its people, they could live happily ever after. I dunno maybe Pickton dd the city a favour, it forced everyone to confront the reality of what was happening. Or maybe not.

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Vancouver murals by Arthur Shu Ren Cheng

about this time last year I posted photos of this mural in Vancouver’s Chinatown being painted by local artist Arthur Shu Ren Cheng. Well here it is one year on, an integral part of the cityscape. It’s a wonderful evocation of the city’s history. In the case of this work I think it’s very exciting that it’s painted from photographs taken in the city’s early history. In terms of murals, normally I’d be a bit iffy about paintings done from photographs, but in this case it’s entirely appropriate, and brilliantly done.

I found a Youtube video of the mural: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1olXsGm5vqw

And a really interesting article http://www.woodwardsmile.com/2010/07/24/off-the-wall-vancouver-chinatowns-new-murals-come-to-life/

I’ve always been interested in murals in any case. I remember the time I spent in Guadalajara (fantastic city) and saw the amazing murals of Jose Orozco. Now I’m married to a mural painter and I’m much more aware what mural painting involves:

above, Nazir Tanbouli painting a mural on Whiston Road,London E2

below, Jose Orozco, photographed by me 35mm slide, scanned.

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