My 54-40 Story – their 50th Commodore Ballroom show, and a life traced and tattooed

Neil Osborne, 54-40, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.comHow do you trace a life? In parts, around the edges of the tattoo on your upper left arm.

The tattoo is of a hand, that also looks like a dove, inside a partial ragged circle. It was a symbol that can be found inside the 1987 album Show Me, by a band from Vancouver, Canada called 54-4o. The band said that the symbol was from a North American First Nations’ group – they don’t remember which one, sadly – and it was meant to represent new life, new growth, the harvest, peace. It was embossed in gold in the album.

You had it done in Toronto by a guy who collected airline puke bags, but did excellent black line work. You brought him back a puke bag from IcelandAir.  You loved Canadian bands back then. You adored Vancouver bands the most, which was weird for a Toronto girl. You even were courted by a few Vancouver musicians (not in 54-40, you add) and you were a tease in return. Now, looking back, you kind of wish you had slept with them, but instead, 20 years later, you appreciate your restraint and you are still friends with them all. That is your reward for being awkward.

You got the tattoo a year after your dad died. New life plus new music  – and you threw a Viking rune  (Beorc/Berkana) that meant much the same, underneath it -and the stamp went on your arm.

You first met 54-40 when you were about 14. You made your own band shirt, and painted on it the symbol you now have on your arm. They posed with you for many pictures. You saw many, many shows. You loved that they were inspired by Gang of Four and the post-punk bands, even though at the beginning you really didn’t know who Gang of Four were  (but you do now, and last year you had brunch with one of them in Portland).

You loved their alt-rock songs, their indie-acousticky stuff. “Baby Ran”, “One Day In Your Life”, “Lost My Hand”, “One Gun”, “Miss You.” “Alcohol Heart” used to make you cry.

Neil Osborne, 54-40, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.comThen time happened.  You became older, and suddenly you were backstage with the band instead of at the side door. You were drinking with them. You found out that Nella, the “fan club girl” who used to write you, was really just Allen, their manager. They were becoming popular in Canada as their music became less indie and more radio-friendly. “Nice To Luv You” “Radio Luv Song”, “Ocean Pearl”, “She La”, “Assoholic” and so on. It got a bit too mainstream rock for you, the goth/indie-kid, but you still loved those songs. You loved the band.

One day you were at a concert of theirs and you had an idea: you were going to write and share The 54-40 Story. To apply your skills as a budding young journalist, interview as many people as you could who were involved in the band’s rise, and put together something that could be used as a tour book. Something for their 20th Anniversary. You pitched the idea to the band, you tried to be all professional; they agreed!

You flew out to Vancouver on your own dime and spent hours upon hours upon hours with papers and archival material that 54-40 let you sift through. You had many conversations with them, and you hung out with their guitarist Phil. Phil  struggled with demons and eventually had to leave the band in 2005. You now think about him when you’re in East Vancouver, because that is where you once went, to his house, to sit and have a beer with him, his wife and teach him the “Internet” while his son sat on your lap. The cherry blossoms had fallen all over his truck and you took a picture of him, grinning wide, holding a beer on the bonnet. You haven’t seen him since. You hope he’s better.

You did the project, interviewed Canadian bands, producers, friends, even tried to get an interview with Hootie & the Blowfish who’d covered “One Gun” for the Friends TV show soundtrack, but they didn’t reply. You typed it all up.
Brad Merritt, 54-40, pic by Mikala Taylor/
Months of research and effort, a passion project. You sent it over to their manager, but maybe it wasn’t as organized or good enough. You were young, maybe it wasn’t polished,  maybe it wasn’t what they wanted. You don’t know. You offered to do rewrites but the project fizzled. One day in your life, you’ll find a way back to that project. You never wanted to disappoint the band. You worried. You even took the discs with you when you moved to England, in case you were given a chance to work on it again. But you eventually got on with your life.

You saw them in London, England with the man who would become your husband, then your ex-husband, and 54-40 had a new guitarist. He’s been in the band now 8 years but he’s still the new guy to you. He deserves to not be the new guy, he’s a good guy. But the stamp on your arm reminds you of a time when he was.

Then you were away from Canada for a long time and you lost track of Canadian music. You are still not as good at it as you used to be.

Then time happened again and you moved from London to Vancouver. In large parts, because of all the music and musicians you loved were from there. They disparaged the city but you loved it because they were in it. Because it was beautiful. To most people, Vancouver means mountains and yoga – to you, it meant music. It still does. Everywhere you’ve lived has meant music.

Two years ago, you saw 54-40 at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, with the drummer of a band from Vancouver who became your friend decades ago. One of the first people you reached out to when you moved here. One of the good ones. Chris Hooper from the Grapes of Wrath was at the gig there to support the fact that his own brother, Tom Hooper from the Grapes of Wrath, was now also playing keyboard and singing with 54-40. The world grows smaller every day.

You went backstage. They remembered you, of course. Bassist Brad – a giant with a polite and generous spirit –  always remembers your name. And you were  less nervous around singer Neil. Neil always made you nervous when you were a kid even though he’s just a hippie. You hugged drummer Matt, who was always a laugh, and you smile shyly at Dave, the new guy. Sorry, the guitarist.

Dave Genn, 54-40, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.comYou look around and realize you’re seeing 54-40 at a venue you used to hear so much about when you were in Toronto, a venerable venue called the Commodore where there’s horsehair under the floorboards. The floor bounces when you do. It is a venue they’d played so many times. You don’t realize how many times.

Until last week…

…when you thought it could be fun to go see 54-40 again, even though they are, you know, mainstreamy and so much a part of your history, not your current. You prepare your camera. And then you realize: you have a 54-40 tattoo and you’re going to see 54-40. You’d almost forgotten about the tattoo, it’s part of your body.  You think about your new life, new growth, the harvest, peace. But you’re tired. You just got back from Australia. You wander down to the Commodore Ballroom.

You tweet cynical jokes about the aging crowd, who all seem to be getting drunk or high on their one night away from their teenage kids. You’re aging and in the crowd too, but you’re looking ok these days. Probably because you don’t have teenage kids. You wander aimlessly. It’s another night, another show.

Or so you think. Tonight is 54-40’s 50th show the Commodore Ballroom, the venue you’re standing in. The venue you were at last night for Austra. 5-0. Fifty. Part of their name. You think about that. That achievement. What that means. The history of that. You swell a bit because you’ve been galloping and stumbling alongside them for many years.

The first bands Neil says they ever played with at the Commodore were Moev and Images in Vogue. When you were 13, you were clinically obsessed with Dale Martindale of Images in Vogue, another Vancouver band who you used to stalk in Toronto. That part of your life is suddenly brought into jetlagged focus. The time when you drew pictures, their dark part made entirely out of the words “Dale” and “Martindale.”

Neil also mentions playing shows back then with the Sons of Freedom. Another Vancouver band. In fact, you just went out with the drummer; he’s one of your old friends. A drunken fun part of your life in Toronto, hanging out
Matt Johnson/Tom Hooper, pic by Mikala Taylor/
with the Sons of Freedom grinds into view. You LOVED the Sons of Freedom. You still do. Their band had three Dons in it. How can you not love a band with three guys named Don in it? And oh, the drums. You remember that time you were drunk at the Bovine Sex Club (a bar in Toronto) and you were wearing a sequined shirt with a zipper and the zipper got too low,  and the Son’s bass guitarist, a Don, just politely zipped you up.

And straight ahead of you for the 50th show, here in the present, is the curly, smiling head of Tom Hooper of the Grapes of Wrath, the only other band you used to love as much as 54-40. Tom beams and raises his beer at you. You always did like those Hooper boys. And there are too many things to remember with the Grapes of Wrath. More history.

But back in real life, Neil walks on stage and stares you and your camera down, assessing. He smiles. He is alone, with an acoustic, and plays “One Gun”, the song from the album with the symbol that is on your arm. The moment is a quiet celebration, though the 45-year olds in the crowd are cheering loudly. Then it’s all the big radio-friendly hits. You haven’t listened to the albums in ages, and you know all the words. “Nice To Luv You” is next, “Crossing a Canyon”, Neil Osborne, 54-40, pic by Mikala Taylor/“Assoholic” is in there, of course, and then partway through, “Baby Ran” – and a lifetime  rushes into your head. You realize your shirt sleeve is riding up under your camera bag and there’s the tattoo. And there’s “Radio Luv Song” and “One Day In Your Life” and “She La” too and and more of the mainstreamy and fewer of the post-punky, but that’s okay. In the final song, “Love You All”, the band detours into a solo by Grapes’ Tom, and he’s playing Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” and it’s just sort of ….great.

Afterwards, Matt gives you a bear hug, and you meet Brad’s son and wife – his son Sam now plays with Tom’s son Owen in a band called Lombok – and we all talk about Nardwuar. You remember around the time when Sam was born. He’s now drinking a beer in front of you.

Tom leaps up from a sofa to offer a hug as well. You high-five over the news that Keith Morris’ Flag won out over Greg Ginn’s Black Flag in court, because Tom and Chris from the Grapes of Wrath used to be in a punk band called Gentlemen of Horror and you love that they used to love hardcore. You smile shyly and say hi to new guy Dave. Sorry, the guitarist Dave. The good guitarist, Dave. And you stand in the hall with Neil – you hug him, he doesn’t make you nervous at all any more – and hoist up your sleeve and show him your tattoo again. And he says he wants to get the same tattoo done, but bigger and on his back! He seemed serious and says it a few times. But he’s also a bit drunk. “Definitely not okay to drive” he says, smiling. Still, he likes the tattoo. And he’s happy. After all, the band had just played its astounding 50th show at the Commodore Ballroom.

We can be tattoo buddies, you say to him, and he smiles. And by then you’ve traced your life and your 54-40 story with your fingers, so you pull down your sleeve, and head home. It’s Thanksgiving. New life, new growth, the harvest, peace. Love you all. \m/

7 responses to “My 54-40 Story – their 50th Commodore Ballroom show, and a life traced and tattooed”

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. The band and their music has been dear (dear) to me for most of my life as well. The thing that always gets me is that their songs… no matter how many hundreds of times I’ve heard them… still can give me that rush, and I’m grateful for that. Maybe I should get that tattoo too!

  2. Phil is living on Vancouver Island nowadays and doing ok. I know this because he’s a good friend and the God father of my youngest 🙂

  3. Wonderful Vicki, thanks for sharing (sorry, I missed this comment!). Please send him my love x

  4. Thx. Vicki for update on our brother Phil!! Thx. God!! I tried to Help Phil but time & distance were the enemy!! Glad to Hear he’s doing Ok!! Would like to hear it from him tho!! Love Phil the Man & his guitar playing!! Used to Love watching him perform cause he looked like the happiest guy on earth & definiately in his element!! I’ll said it again, I Love Phil & Glad to jear he survived the downward spiral of drug & alcohol addiction!! Good Job mate!! What a Hero & Mentor u’ve always been to me!! Hope we can meet & hug again man cause you are my Rock Guitar Hero!! I think You & 5440 & Matt Good band saved alot of lives thru ur Music & i thank You all!! Greg Hunt

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