The house was black except for a few flickering candles and the scattered headlamp. Beach rocks were warming on the propane fireplace and a dozen children ranging in age from six-20 were playing Masterpiece at the kitchen table.
I was in the bedroom listening to my new handy dandy Sony AM/FM radio/cassette player that Santa had brought me for Christmas. I must have been a good girl. After listening to enough CBC and VOCM to know that no new news was forthcoming, I decided to dig out my old cassette tapes which had narrowly missed the junk heap when we moved home from B.C. I jammed them in a box while Chris had his back turned.
Of the three dozen cassettes in the little grey suitcase, one caught my eye. Alongside Van Morrison, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong was a black tape with no identifying features except a tiny black TDK up in the right-hand corner. The cassette was so well-used only one small bit of glue remained from the sticky labels that had evidently once exhibited hand-written titles. The fact it was so worn out was a sure sign it was good, so I popped it in.
You know when you hear a song and it transports you back to a time and place better than any dream or drug could do? Well, that cassette, a bootleg of Denis Parker and Roger Howse singing the blues, transported me back to the 1980s. I was right there sitting in thick smoke at a Sunday Night Coffee House in the dining room at Duckworth Lunch, and Denis had just welcomed the audience to an evening of the blues.
If you weren’t around here in the 80s, Duckworth Lunch was an
artsy-fartsy coffee shop first next to the War Memorial where Fixed is now and later across the street in the building now occupied by Get Stuffed. Duckworth Lunch hosted the Newfoundland Writers’ Alliance once a month for readings, and performers like Ron Hynes, Jean Hewson and Christina Smith were regulars at the Sunday Night Coffee Houses.
They served bagels and bean burritos all made in-house. I think the first time I tasted a jalapeño was there.
My brother Brian was their best customer, according to red-haired Peggy Barney (now Pope) who baked and served tables at Duckworth Lunch for the better part of three years.
Peggy says the place became popular from the get-go, not only because of the food but because the original owner, Louis Bernstein from Montreal, was a kind-hearted soul who allowed people to run up tabs and was innovative in hiring immigrants like Mario Escobar from El Salvador who went on to teach linguistics at a university in Oman — and Cham Tat from Vietnam, who later started Kim Le
When Peggy wasn’t serving tables, she was upstairs baking bagels with a Chinese lady in her late 60s who spoke little English. Because of Bernstein’s kindness, that lady was able to bring her son over to Canada to live.
When Bernstein left, Pat Barron took over, but by the time I was hanging out there, Keith Morrison and Wynne Anne Trahey, who is now a judge in Labrador, co-owned the place. Keith and another employee cooked up the tuna melts and thick soups that kept the Codco crowd and the civil servants from the Sir Humphrey Gilbert Building (“decent people who paid their bills,” is how Peggy describes them) coming back for more. Wynne Anne and her husband Toby Leon, although working full-time elsewhere, were kept extra busy making sure the restaurant was well stocked and running tickety-boo.
Lisa Moore, Sheilagh O’Leary and Rick Mercer served tables alongside my boyfriend at the time. I assume it was he who acquired the Parker/Howse bootleg for me, but I have no idea who recorded it.
But back to the blackout.
Good things happen when the lights go out. I’ve been listening to Roger and Denis belt out old Howlin’ Wolf and Tampa Red songs every day since.
I have even started using the bootleg as a sleeping aid. If I’m overtired, I pop it in the Sony and I’m in La La Land before Roger has a chance to sing “I’ve got 99 women and I only need one more.”
After Denis welcomes the small crowd, the duo opens with a couple of songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins and then on to “Let me Play Your Vendor” by Washboard Sam. They then perform a Parker and Howse original called “Don’t You Run Me Ragged.”
Listening to the tape was like getting swallowed by a time machine. What a find. I can see the old etched-glass Duckworth Lunch sign hanging in the window. I can smell the filtered cigarettes. I can hear Denis closing a set with “Cheers.”
The sound emanating from my Sony boom box is so clean that if I closed my eyes I could’ve sworn Denis and Roger were right there in the room, strumming away to “St. James Infirmary.”
I know both Denis Parker and Roger Howse have superb solo albums available on CD at Fred’s (“Snowman Blues” and “Long Time Comin’,” respectively), but after my bootleg blackout experience I needed more of the two singing together. I wanted to be transported back to an evening of the blues at Duckworth Lunch.
Back to the ’80s when the greatest stressors in life were studying for university exams.
I could not be satisfied in life until I got my hands on copies of the two albums Roger and Denis put out back in the day.
I went to Fred’s. Nada. But my luck changed after an email exchange sent me a few doors east of both Fred’s and the old Duckworth Lunch to MusicNL, where Denis works as executive director.
I brought in my battery-powered boom box so I could play him the bootleg masterpiece.
He was impressed with the quality of the recording but seemed less than enthusiastic about hearing himself sing.
“I have a couple of copies of both ‘Eagle Ridin’ Papas’ and ‘Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’,” he told me, his London accent dulled after years on this side of the pond.
I was so excited I bought both.
And guess what?
They’re cassette tapes.
Susan Flanagan is a blues fan who was devastated to learn she missed Parker and Howse performing two nights last July at the Fat Cat as part of the Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ruth Knee writes: “Many years ago I drove an old standard Jeep purchased on auction from the Department of Transportation. Two seats up front, no seatbelts back then. As a Cub leader, I often was relegated to transporting little Cubs to and from various campsites. Every time we met for those outings, I would face half the pack standing, pushing and pulling to ride with me in that old Jeep. Oh, the memories.”
Glenn Sullivan writes: “Enjoyed your column today — sounds familiar. I got rid of our van of three years in favour of a truck a year ago and it was only yesterday that my four-year-old told me she missed it because it was full of junk and smelly.”
Susan’s Note: I ended up downtown several times this week and have been having a challenging time with the new parking meters. Most refused to recognize my new card and I’d end up walking to other vacant meters until I find one that accepts it and then I’d race back to the van and hope no one gets to
the loaded meter before me.
I was also surprised that the new cards immediately add the maximum number of hours available on the meters whereas the old ones used to click up in time increments.
I think city hall will have to start distributing explanatory notes with the new cards along with sticky notes to put on an incompatible meter.