I met a man when I was 21 who was to become a good friend; a roommate; and a mentor. It was the year 1977. I had hitchhiked to a little town called Val David which is in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal and around 18 km from my home in St. Sauveur-des-Monts. I had gone there to buy some hashish from a shady acquaintance that my friend Stu had introduced me to. After our transaction, I chanced upon some music wafting through an open door in a rustic ramshackle building called “Le Bistro d’la Butte” in Val David, Quebec. La Butte à Mathieu was a famous “Boite à Chansons” where many of the largest acts in Quebecois music performed. Le Bistro was an adjunct building much smaller. I guesstimate it could probably hold 50-60 patrons.
I peeked in the door and there was Nelson Symonds (guitar) and Charlie Biddle (upright bass) playing their hearts out even though there was no one in the audience. I knew almost immediately that the passion and authenticity of expression in this kind of music was for me, and that I had to find out more about it. Charlie gestured to me to come in and I entered, but embarassedly explained that I didn’t have any money (I left out the part that I had just spent it on dope). He said come in anyways and his wife Connie offered me some fried chicken…. Thus started my friendship with Charlie.
I was a bedroom guitar player at the time. I learned songs by Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; Paul Simon; Cat Stevens; etc. but this jazz music was something new. I recognized the tune they were playing from my dad’s record collection. Pretty sure it was “Night And Day” by Cole Porter. I was fascinated. It had (seemingly) a zillion chords and was way beyond my skill set. My casual conversation with Nelson and Charlie during the “break” was the start of my upward climb into music that I have embraced with religious fervor.
I was working my summer job with a landscaper company and several of the guys were jazz buffs. I started to tag along with them on excursions to “The Rising Sun” in Montreal to see the cream of international Jazz stars pretty well every week-end. I saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie (the guitarist was Al Gafa), Dexter Gordon, Kenny Burrell, etc. I started to read Downbeat from cover to cover and buy albums based on the information there. Weather Report, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass. Joe Pass’ music in particular made an impact on me and I bought a music book of transcriptions that I couldn’t yet read, but I learned some of the chord shapes and started to introduce them into my playing. I also purchased a book from “International Music Store” on Ste. Catherine Street by Mickey Baker called Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar Book one). The hours I struggled with that one…
I went to see Charlie and Nelson as often as I could that summer and continued to absorb their music and jovial friendship. On July 26th,1977 Charlie turned 51 and I was 21. At his birthday gig I jokingly told him he was “one short of a full deck”. He howled with laughter and the habit of our male put downs for each other was established.
Over the course of the summer I decided to return to school. I had been studying Philosophy in the Maritimes but wanted to be in Montreal. I started night courses at Concordia University and found part-time employment as a Parking lot attendant. My favourite time at that job was after the main attendant left and I changed the music in the booth to Radio-Canada which is the french radio station of the CBC where there was a very good Jazz show. The host was very relaxed and soothing and my music education and my French improved immensely. Paycheques were spent mostly on records.
After a few months of almost daily commuting via Voyageur bus from St. Sauveur to Montreal for classes and my job, I was getting pretty tired. If the walkman had been invented, it would have been an easier commute. During that winter Charlie started to commute as well. He was playing a bar on Crescent Street around the corner from the Hall building of Concordia and we started to sometimes commute together. After my night class I’d wait until his last set was over and I’d drive him in his huge boat of a station wagon as far as St. Sauveur and he would continue on to his home and family. After a bit of this grind, he asked me if I’d like to share an apartment on Bishop Street that he had found. It was near the Annex, Cheap Thrills and Concordia and was very cheap, so I agreed. I had bought a VW hatchback from my brother to help me manage my time better between work and school and my home up north..
Living with Charlie was an education. We hung out a lot! We were only on Bishop Street for a short time before Charlie told me we were going to move. He had found a “loft” in Old Montreal that was a block West of a famous Jazz club on St. Paul St. There was no rent!!!!!! The idea was to stay there until the bottom two floors were to be converted into a flagship Jazz club. We had the whole place to ourselves, but lived on the top floor. I learned how to mop! A few drawbacks to the place…. hot water tank needed fixing, so showers were not hot…. the shower stall was one floor down. The heating system was shared by several office buildings and was minimal on weekends and holidays….. other than that it was great! My record collection was expanding and I had a good sound system, so when I was home and not practicing, I would listen to great Jazz. Charlie and I hung out a lot. He was a great story teller. One day I will try and recall some of his better ones and the outrageous exaggerations that never seemed to change. I can still conjure up his voice and facial expressions in my mind’s eye and ear.
Quite often during this time we would both be between paycheques or I’d be out of work and we had not much between us. On more than one occasion I’d be broke and Charlie might have 5 bucks and would say “Let’s go get breakfast”. There was a Deli on Ste. Catherine that had a breakfast special. We’d come out of there and be stuffed. He said there was no point to not eat like a king even when things were tight. He also introduced me to a place that he called “Sausageville” which was a Delicatessen on the Main where you could get a sausage sandwich and a drink (Cott Black Cherry) and sometimes splurge the extra dime for a pickle. I am pretty sure that it was either just under or just over a dollar for the drink and sandwich.
I continued to go there for decades and introduced my friends and my younger brother to “Sausageville”. As an adult, my brother actually bought sausage sandwiches and drinks for himself and his girlfriend and drove up to the top of Mount Royal and proposed to her over their picnic. When Hoffner’s closed, I went down the street to the competition “Slovenia Deli”, but it wasn’t quite the same. I went without for years, but by chance found another Slovenia sausage place on the North Main…. near Beaubien Street. I would often detour there just to have a hot sausage.
Now I live in a suburb about twenty Kilometres away and one day I was craving a sausage. I noticed that in my neighbourhood was a Deli called La Bernoise that I had always meant to try. I went in and they had the sausages that I was used to, but didn’t make sandwiches. I said to the lady behind the case that I usually go to Slovenia for my hot sausage sandwiches. She told me that Slovenia had just gone out of business, but that La Bernoise was their supplier. I bought a dozen. They have a butcher’s dozen: 13 for 12. I keep a supply on hand in the freezer at all times. I am mostly vegetarian, but in denial about sausages.
Enough about food, though. Charlie taught me how to live royally without very much money. Cheap restos, shopping at the Sally Ann, where to find the free parking spots. He taught me through his example that sometimes bills have to wait. He always paid them, but not always “on time”. Sometimes needed a prompt. The Hussier (bailiff) called…..I’d better get on it. He also showed me through his generosity, to be kind. If you have, share, if you don’t have, ask. As he grew more successful in the city, he moved his four kids and Connie down to the city part-time. Sometimes I’d get home to the loft and it would be teeming with the youthful exuberance that children bring. I loved those kids and Connie, but usually their arrival dovetailed into my going up north to my parents house. Biddle’s golden rule was NO NOISE DURING DADDY’S NAP. Charlie took a nap every day in the late afternoon. He played music til the wee hours and got up with the kids, but all was OK if the nap was undisturbed. I acquired the same habit which I try to do every day.
One night, I was all alone at the loft. Practicing and/or reading and/or listening to music. I fell asleep in my bedroom which was a cordoned off area of a huge space. Charlie had the other room away from the Big Space and near the bathroom and kitchenette. He was on a gig. I fell asleep with my guitar in my hands. I was awoken by the sound of boots on the floor on the other side of my bed. I sat up to see two guys with hand guns drawn who said “Who the fuck are you?” I said I lived there. They were looking for the owner who had lent us this space and they looked like they were “collecting”. I said he wasn’t there and I hardly ever saw him at all. The men stomped out and when Charlie got home I told him what had transpired. He replied… “OK we’re moving!”.
The next day he found a multi level rental on Rue Notre Dame above a specialized hardware store. The area was the eastern fringes of the traditionally predominately black neighbourhood housing railway porters called Little Burgundy. At that time we moved in, rue Notre Dame looked on to what had been the Turcot Yards which used to be the railway yards for both Windsor station and Central station. It was a vast expanse of weeds and old asphalt and detritus from having served the city for a century. It is now built up into condos and is a very different neighbourhood.
On Notre Dame St. I had my own apartment on the left side of the stairs and Charlie had two floors on the right side. we had an adjoining back “deck” palettes strung together on the roof of a neighbouring workshop/garage. Seeing as I had to now pay rent again, I walked down the street and I asked at the various businesses if they needed any part-time help? One actually did. It was a start-up courrier company that needed an evening person to sort and record the manifest. The secretary liked my spirit and the fact that I was literate and I got hired. It fit in well with my schooling, so after the owner interviewed me, I was hired.
With the change of address, my new job and Charlie’s family there all the time now, the dynamic shifted, but I used to love hanging out and watching tv with them and was often over there for dinner. We would get into huge loud and funny disagreements about all sorts of stuff…. I miss that. One of us would say something outrageous just to get the other one going. Thinking back fondly of those times.
It was around this time that Charlie partnered up with a successful businessman (George D.) and opened up a jazz club on Aylmer Street. Named Biddles Jazz and Ribs. This venture became very successful and attracted a wealthier crowd than I was used to hanging out with. Most Jazz clubs in the city could service students and marginalized people. Nelson Symonds’ cousin Ivan Symonds had Le Mixeur before he opened up Le Jazz Bar. Very different. Sort of like the difference between uptown clubs in New York and Greenwich Village clubs back in the day. Nowadays it all costs a fortune.
I saw Charlie less, mostly it was if I went out to catch him play at the club where he was “on”. I went over to his place less as we both got busier, but every time we did see each other it was a lovely homecoming. Charlie and Oliver Jones also played a cocktail gig at The Queen Elizabeth Hotel. I sometimes went there to see him and my dad went there after his work and kill time before catching a suburban train.
We saw each other less as my studies and work and girlfriends took over and Charlie got more opportunity to be in films and better gigs etc.
My four years in Winnipeg really put time and distance between us. I came back to Montreal to get married and Charlie was a guest. He pulled me aside as was walking down the aisle and whispered “so long, sucker!” in my ear. We would see each other only sparingly as my kids became focal points and I had many weekend gigs out of town and I didn’t get out much to listen to Jazz during the week. I took my girls to see Charlie a few times, but the dynamic had shifted.
My next encounter with him was a shock. My brother-in-law had been working at Biddles as a waiter and he was visiting his sister and me and just casually asked if I had heard that Charlie was in the hospital? All the blood rushed out of my face as I tried to absorb this news that my friend, tower of strength and hero was suffering. I sped over to St. Mary’s hospital and found the ward where outside the door a nurse informed me that “only family is allowed to visit”. Constance heard my voice through the door and emerged and said “It’s OK, Ian is family!” A wave of pride and shame came over me. Proud to be considered family, but ashamed at how absent a son I had been.
I entered the room and Connie said “Look Charlie, you have a visitor!” “Hey Eee” said Charlie from his hospital bed. Charlie is one of only four people I have known who shortened my name to “Eee”. They are all dear to me (My “Aunt” Hemmy, my sister, my present wife Sharon and Charlie).
Connie took some time for herself and Charlie and I had a lovely visit albeit a sad one. We tried to keep each other laughing like usual, but Charlie grew tired and I knew I should go. Judging from his diminished frame and weakness I sensed it might be the last time I’d see Charlie. I said “I’m going to give you a hug, so don’t play with my tits!” I hugged him and he pinched my “tits”.
He died a few months later at home. The same address on Notre Dame street where we had shared so much time together.
Loving him will never come to an end.