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A Joyride for a Lumber Mill Shut-In

It has been said that pop music is ultimately disposable, but I can think of no group that was utterly rendered irrelevant faster that Boston’s the Cavedogs. The trio released just two full-length records—1990’s Joyrides for Shut-Ins, released first on the indie Enigma Records label before the band’s contract was absorbed into the Capitol Records stable due to the distribution agreement the major label had with the smaller one, and 1992’s Soul Martini—but success seemed to elude them and they called it a day in 1993. Thus, by 1995, the year that Joyrides for Shut-Ins would impact me in ways that would affect my very soul, you simply couldn’t find any Cavedogs product on the shelves. They were already out-of-print, deleted, rendered forgettable, and the only place you could get your hands on their records was through the Internet and by scouring the bins of used CD stores—and that was if you were lucky.


Honestly, I can’t think of a group with lofty power pop ambitions and a knack for a great melody who were forgotten about and swept into the dustbin of pop culture history with such damning swiftness than the Cavedogs. True, there are those who strive to keep the legacy of this, in my mind, important and relevant group alive. The band, for some reason or another, has a MySpace page, despite the fact that they’ve been largely inactive for nearly 20 years, save for the very occasional reunion gig here and there. They also have a website dedicated to their memory called Tayter Country, after one of their songs, but even that has been inactive since 2001, save for a perfunctory post in 2004 to note that the site was on permanent hiatus. (At least, someone is still paying the web hosting bills.)


However, most people who knew about this band have moved on. You can buy a CD of Soul Martini for a measly buck on eBay, and, during a current search of that online auction site, found that only cassette tapes (and not CDs) of Joyrides for Shut-Ins are available for the slightly more pricier $8.39. There are no copies of these long lost albums selling in the $100 range that an out-of-print Dream Syndicate or Tommy Keene album would command. This is a shame, really. The Cavedogs really got the short end of the stick somehow, but I’ll tell you one thing: I care about and love this obscure band. It just may be that I’m the Cavedogs biggest fan, and maybe I’m the only die-hard fan left—particularly in the wilds of Canada, where I’m from, hundreds of miles removed from their home base in Massachusetts.


You see, I care about this band, even to this day, because Joyrides for Shut-Ins was a life preserver for me back in the days where I first discovered it, circa 1995. I particularly consider that album to be just an exemplary distillation of power pop, one that kept me from going off the deep end one particularly long hot summer when I worked, making money to pay my way through university, at a lumber mill.


I actually knew of the Cavedogs well before 1995. A couple of years earlier, a guy I went to high school with named Jake happened to loan me the Soul Martini CD that he’d acquired, which I promptly committed to blank tape as I often did with such loaners. I’d seen a profile of the band on MTV—my parents had a satellite dish, so we were able to, at the time, pull in programming from the States. However, the Cavedogs was a bit of an unusual selection from Jake as he, like most of the academically inclined students of that small-town high school, was listening to some pretty heavy stuff at the time: Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, and on it goes. I’m not sure why I was gifted the album by Jake to listen to and tape, seeing as though that when I was 10 years old, when we were both attending different elementary schools, and we were both playing floor hockey during summer recreation events for youth hosted at the local high school, I got mad at him and managed to smash his head in with my hockey stick—which resulted in an injury where Jake needed to get stitches to his forehead as he’d been bleeding quite profusely. I can say that I’m glad that, in high school, Jake had let bygones be bygones.


I don’t recall my initial recollections of Soul Martini though the second half does boast some glorious pop gems as “Sonny Day”, “I I I”, and “Tarzan and His Arrowheads”. It’s a bit of a dark record, perhaps as a result of the grungy alternative rock climate that Nirvana had ushered in, and perhaps as a result of the conditions and dynamic in the band at the time: I’ve read somewhere online that even though the Cavedogs were on Capitol Records, they were still being forced to sleep on the floor of fan’s houses and apartments after shows on their tours, which had to be a frustrating experience. Soul Martini tends to get a bad rap these days, with Allmusic.com stating in a two-and-a-half star review out of five that “the album is just slightly too glossy to be entirely entertaining, particularly since the Cavedogs’ brand of guitar pop needs a few rough edges to really make an impact. If this album’s flaws were just due to the production, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, the trio’s songwriting isn’t quite up to snuff.”


I honestly think that’s a bit of an unfair review, because even in its glossy sheen the album isn’t quite as mediocre as this critic makes it out to be. Sure, it’s a much more brooding affair than their previous full-length, but, despite not being a perfect album, there’s still a great deal of winning, singable songs on Soul Martini. Even the plodding anthems like “Sorrow (Boots of Pain)” are made tolerable by the mere fact that they are infinitely more listenable to than the sludge of crap of the likes of Candlebox and Collective Soul that followed the Cavedogs in the apparent alt-rock sweepstakes. I liked it enough that when I found the album later on for sale in an Ottawa CD shop for just a couple of bucks, I gladly shelled out for a pristine copy of it.


However, as much as I liked Soul Martini, I more or less forgot about the band. That is, until the spring of 1995. At the time, I was a first-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. Carleton had, at the time, a rep for being “Last Chance U” for letting high school students into its liberal arts programs with a grade as low as 65 percent, but the journalism program was on the other end of the spectrum. It was harsh and cut-throat: basically, only half of the more than 200 students who had made it to the first year of the program would go on to get the necessary (high) grades to make it into second year. Needless to say, the program was hellish. In fact, the final exam in English Lit (one of the courses I was studying) in April 1995 was a particular doozy, as students had to come up with three essay questions of their own and then answer them—and you would be marked on how good your questions were and how well you answered them. I suppose this is just a long way of saying that by the time school ended in the spring of 1995, I was a real mess, a bundle of nerves. I’d just spent the past eight months studying, as opposed to partying my ass off like most of the rest of the student population, and the very last thing I wanted to do with my summer off was work. I just envisioned relaxing at home and paying off whatever debt I had incurred at the end of my studies by getting a plum job at a daily newspaper.


My dad had other ideas.


My father had worked (and still does) in the lumber mill about 20 minutes west of the small town I grew up in since circa 1979. He had attained the position of being a yard foreman, driving around in a beat-up truck and checking on how things were progressing on the yard each day. I suppose that through his connections and his managerial position, he was able to get me a job working in the yard at the mill. The thing was, he never told me—at least until I got back home, about a two hour drive northwest of Ottawa, for the summer. And even then I think he never really came out and told me. I have the distinct memory of wandering through my house on a Sunday evening only to discover a pair of beat-up steel-toed work boots and used gloves sitting a pile by the door. They were not my father’s. I think, just after that, my mother wound up causally asking me if I was going to go to work with my dad the next morning. And that was that. The question wasn’t really a question. It was a demand. So that’s how I wound up being shaken awake at 5 a.m. the very next morning by my old man, and starting a four-month career as a lumbering 19-year-old lumber piler in the mill, five days a week, 10 hours a day, starting each day at 7 a.m. sharp.


It was a pretty brutal existence.


Admittedly, the actual job in and of itself wasn’t really that bad, although it was a dirty job and I did get the occasional wood splinters in my scuffed hands. (Your gloves would have a habit of falling apart every other week or so, and that’s not counting the pine gum you got all over yourself if you happened to be piling softwood that day.) At the very least, I can honestly say that the job built character, if not brute physical strength. I went to work in what was known as the “hardwood shed”, which was an old, wood-build dilapidated building with a tin roof in the middle of the yard. The wood of the building was so old that it was practically a blackish-grey colour, and it came with a small workroom where you could have lunch on a long bench that covered the length of the room’s three walls. I should also say that the term “hardwood shed” was a bit of a misnomer, as we were usually piling softwood that summer, usually pine.


While I did say that the job wasn’t bad in a sort of turn-your-mind-off-and-just-pile sort of way—and it, at least, wasn’t tree planting, which I hear is a much worse, dirtier occupation—it was still very taxing. I recall coming home during the first two weeks of working at the mill to supper prepared by my mother, and having my hands in a vice-grip clamp shape, frozen to the precise same size of the thickness of the lumber that was piled that day. I also had to suppress the urge to take my knife and fork and start arranging them into a sort of pile of their own—no joke, I actually nearly did this. At night, I would dream about piling the previous day’s worth of lumber, only to be awaken at 5 a.m. with the intension of going back and doing it all over again. So it went for four absolutely gruelling months.


What made the job a mere unrelenting hell was, first off, the sheer loneliness of the position, being that the mill was located literally in the middle of nowhere. During lunch break, when the sawing and the sounds of chains moving came to a virtual standstill, you could almost hear a pin drop on that yard. It was the quietest place on the face of the planet, even with a radio blaring in one of the nearby sheds. I was just overcome with the inability to handle that solitude, especially during those first few weeks, considering I had just come from the hustle and bustle of Canada’s capital city. When our shed’s radio was tuned into the fuzzy, static-filled rock station from Ottawa—and that was the merciful exception and not the rule, as there were two country stations that the dial would often get turned to – I would be listening to the station’s advertisements and promises of a better life and just recall feeling a sort of emptiness wash over me. (And let me just say I heard the Rednex’s cross-over country-techno hit “Cotton Eye Joe” so much that summer that I honestly wanted to poke my ears with wood splinters.) I was here, doing a job that I honestly really didn’t want to do, and not there, enjoying what the sights and sounds of the big city had to offer. I have to admit that I was almost, at times, reduced to breaking down into tears as a result.


However, what really made the job unbearable were the people, who were about as redneck and White Trash as they came. That statement might come as a bit of a shock, considering my journalism background and the fact that, in the role of a reporter, you have to talk to people of all stripes and backgrounds on any given day. What you have to understand is that the mill was populated with, essentially, high-school drop-outs. These were people with whom I relished with glee when they did drop out of school because they were the ones whom tormented me growing up. These very people—whom were given the nickname of “grubs” in high school for their mullets, non-ironic use of flannel and backward dispositions—spat on me when I was drinking out of the water fountain at school, called me “city slicker” (or much, much worse) for the fact that I had a brain and no secret disposition towards using it. These were the people in my small town that I thought I was escaping by going away to university, people that I gave a rat’s ass about, and, here I was, working amongst them. And I can tell you that no matter what I did—no matter how fast I piled, no matter how even and flush I made my piles of lumber—I got no compliments for my work.


Perhaps some of that had to do with the fact that my dad was their boss, and they didn’t want to acknowledge that I was merely OK and adept at what I was able to do in order to concede power to my father. However, I think it was more than that. Despite living in that small town for more than 15 years, I was still, in very many ways, an “outsider”. Someone who was merely paying his dues to go on to bigger and better things in the city, not someone earning a keep to feed and raise a young family. Needless to say, that only just added to the loneliness and isolation that I felt.

So, that was pretty much the private misery that I’d been consigned to by my father, a job in which I wound up, sometime in mid-May of that year, looking at the calendar in the lunch room and counted up all the working days until the start of the next school year. (I would learn later that summer that I made the cut into second year, which was one of the few things I would celebrate during that period.) I recall driving home with my dad in his pick-up truck one Friday after work, and exclaiming, “I can’t believe I have another 44 working days of this living awfulness to go through.” To which he replied, “Just be glad that it’s only another 44 days”, which, in retrospect, summed up his attitude about his own job. Anyway, I had no salvation at work, other than to mentally segment the days into manageable quarters to get through and somehow get past the awful New Country crap they were often gleefully listening to there. That salvation ultimately came in the hours when I didn’t have to work in the form of my own music collection.

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, and more.


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