Music, Photography, and Connection

A split banjo head, an almost-forgotten photograph, and serendipity
Amazing connections can start with bad news…

A few days ago, Barb announced that she had bad news for me: she had been cleaning a “bonus room” (guest room, meditation room, music practising room) in our house, and saw that my precious Jason Romero banjo had suffered a split head.

Facing the bad news with action…

I got in touch with Jason, who very kindly and quickly put me in touch with Rick Van Krugel as “the” person who could be trusted to replace the head on my banjo.

Establishing the Connection…

Rick and I started exchanging messages, and I learned that he had been active in the Vancouver/Gastown music scene in the early 1970s. I casually mentioned to him that I lived near Vancouver back then, and that I had a picture of some musicians in Gastown, from 1971. I sent Rick a copy of that photograph. This is the photo:


My connection to the photograph…

That picture was one of a few I took that day. It has been important to me, for a few reasons: first, it turned out; secondly, it was expressive; and thirdly, it reminded me of my shy life on the periphery of the culture of the sixties and seventies: even though I didn’t really participate in all the excitement of those times, I did watch and enjoy what was happening. Then, as now, my photography gave me a vicarious enjoyment of what that era meant.

Rick’s response…

My message to Rick had about as much hope as the “I have a friend in Montreal, and you’re from Montreal, so maybe you know him” comment in a conversation. I was therefore very pleased and surprised when I received this reply from Rick:

So the guy on the old Harmony Sovereign guitar is Ross Armstrong, one of my oldest musical friends in Vancouver. He descended into some kind of schizophrenic mental illness around 1973 and recovered physically after cutting his wrists and jumping off one of the bridges in Vancouver in 1973, after which he was heavily medicated to a near catatonic state until the eighties. We had a band reunion around 1981 and he was on a different biweekly injection that dumbed him down but enabled him to function and play music again. There was nothing fancy in his playing style, yet he remains as the all-time best straight up old time string band rhythm guitar player I’ve ever had the privilege to play with. He never really got his life together, and every once in a while he’d call me for a chat, always had the same quirky brilliance no matter what the circumstances, and he eventually passed several years ago. I think my last conversation with Ross, he’d stolen a cellphone...kind of a tragic bad guy with a lot of soul and a big heart for music. Around the time of this photo we were jamming in a friend’s big upstairs studio on Water St., back when you could get a space like that for $100/month. The good old daze, eh? The other two people may be a couple known as ????????????. He was around and on the scene for years, pretty good old time players the both of them, not sure what became of her. They were pretty textbook grungy hippies in 1971! I’m sharing this with another friend, who was a teacher at the art school that later became Emily Carr. He was part of the scene and a beautiful bluegrass singer, also Ross Armstrong’s oldest friend, fellow art school kids. Lots of stories from that time!

My musings…

We talk about how a photograph can capture a moment in time. Sometimes we can forget that that moment can extend into time - both past and future. I had no idea that the picture would be a basis for Rick’s story. I still don’t know who the other musicians are, but perhaps they have their own stories. We all do, in one way or another. The nerdy “outsider” picture-taker listening to their performance has changed a lot since 1971, but he is still taking pictures of performers, and he is still fascinated with connections and people and their stories.

I’m waiting for a new banjo head to arrive from Jason, and I’m waiting to meet Rick in person when I bring my banjo to him to be repaired.
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