Author Tags: Fiction, Literary Landmarks
LITERARY LOCATION: 222 East Broadway, Vancouver
This was the location of The Cellar, founded in 1956, as Vancouver’s foremost jazz venue, where be-bop legend Al Neil fronted the house band, meeting and playing with some of North America’s top jazz musicians. His best-known book, Changes (1975), recalls four years as a musician, artist and junkie on the mean streets of town from 1958 to 1962. Venerated as “one of Vancouver’s bona fide underground warriors, a man with a following and a hermit’s mystique,” Vancouver-born Al Neil has been the subject of a documentary film by David Rimmer, a book by music critic Alex Varty and a one-man show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1972.
“Al Neil gets more pleasure out of walking down the road than other people get from buying a car or skiing down a mountain.” -- Brian Fawcett
"New York has William Burroughs, Los Angeles has Charles Bukowski and Vancouver has Al Neil." -- John Armstrong
Musician Al Neil grew up near Main & Broadway in Vancouver and never got over his horrific WW II memories of landing on Normandy Beach at age twenty. Although “the ceaseless nagging of invisible ghosts,” led him to drug addiction, he endured, giving infrequent but memorable performances at the Western Front.
Be-bop legend Al Neil's best book, Changes (1975), recalls four of 15 years spent in Vancouver as a junkie and a be-bop musician, from 1958 to 1962. With its many references to sexual experiences, pill-taking, heroin, cheap wine drinking and a graphic description of a visit to the VD clinic, Changes appeals with its scatter-brained but highly lucid frankness. It celebrates life a la Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, little concerned with literary conventions. Neil approaches writing as a musician improvises a solo. “This book is a farrago of funk and feeling,” he writes, “butterflies rising from the ashes, thus indicating that further alarming adventures of our hero are about to begin as he plans to measure the circumference of God.”
Changes is easily one of the most interesting underground books of fiction from Vancouver. “Suddenly,” he writes, near the outset of the autobiographical work, “I think without transition ‘The Saga of Sunset Beach’ and another memory comes crashing out of the skull and is writ down with glee.” Neil proceeds to recall his drug-crazed ravings and violent, irrational gestures on Sunset Beach before a gathering of fellow musicians. His friends tolerate his excessive behaviour after an all-night party as Neil flails in the surf and flashes back to WW II memories of Normandy beach. The narrator then reflects, “I shall one day be free of the ceaseless nagging of invisible ghosts.”
Al Neil has long been Vancouver's elder of the avant-garde. He was born in Vancouver in 1924 at Vancouver General Hospital and first lived at 4245 Sophia Street, one block east of Main Street. In 1930, his family moved to 1933 Quebec Street, just east of Main and 12th Avenue, near the future site of both The Cellar jazz club and the Western Front. At age nine he began classical piano lessons under Glenn Nelson at Quebec Street and 12th Avenue. He also took some pride in being a self-taught gymnast at the Belvedere Hall, just off Main and 11th.
Al Neil graduated from King Edward High School and took a job on a survey crew for the Department of Transport at age 17 at Hardy Bay, near Fort Rupert, a remote Kwakiutl village near the northern end of Vancouver Island. He was part of an initiative to build the first military runway on the island's north end.
This work led him to work as surveyor when joining the war effort at age 18. “What’s a guy gonna do? You’re naïve and there are signs all over the place that say you’ve got to fight the Huns.” Her served in Canada, England and Normandy. In 1944, at 20, he landed on the Normandy beachhead. While he was overseas, his mother sent him copies of Downbeat, the New York-based jazz publication that apprised him of the growth of a new style of jazz dubbed be-bop.
Returning to Vancouver very much scathed, Al Neil resumed studying music with Glenn Nelson, Jan Coulthard and others but he soon veered into jazz lessons with Wilf Wylie, inspired by the 78s made by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Around 1947 he helped establish a coterie of musicians who eventually generated the opening of The Cellar at 2514 Watson Street, around the corner from Main & Broadway, in 1956. It quickly became Vancouver's foremost jazz venue.
Al Neil led the house band at The Cellar, meeting and playing with some of America’s most distinguished progressive jazz artists. In the early 1950s he was still working for the post office and living with a wife and two children in Lynn Valley. “But I gave it up,” he told one journalist. A second marriage also disbanded. Addicted to heroin, he read extensively and was impressed by writers Rimbaud, Artaud, Breton and Jarry. He also began making collages influenced the Dadaists and the surrealists.
Al Neil's brilliantly inspired or else sadly drunken concerts at the Western Front would later become semi-legendary but he was not initially a flamboyant performance artist. In 1972 the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted a one-man exhibit of Neil’s art. His first book, West Coast Lokas, was Neil’s written accompaniment to the show. In that book is a transcript of an interview with Bill Smith. Al Neil recalls, "There was a point about 1947 when some of us got tired and frustrated with not having a place to play. So we got together and formed a little society. In British Columbia you can get a charter that doesn't necessitate getting things like expensive yellow urinals and commissaries of various descriptions. You can just set up and go to work. We rented an old piano and for at least ten years I played there. The prime motivating factor in the whole thing was the same for anyone of us who had any kind of experience (Canadian players like P.J. Perry, Glen McDonald, Dale Hillary). There were a lot of Eastern players as well as Westerners. We got people like Herman Green, Richard "Notes" Williams and Freddy Redd, a very good pianist who played a gig with us. I acted mostly as a house rhythm section and did at least two orthree gigs with Art Pepper. One of these, which was absolutely astonishing, was for ten days."
Al Neil never gravitated to the New York jazz scene, as he was advised to do. He built the jazz scene in Vancouver instead. “If you play at the Creator, you don’t need an audience,” he later told Interface magazine. “That’s the way I’ve conducted my life. I’ve never expected anything.” In 1959, with altoist Dale Hillary, he recorded his first lp with the Beat poet Kenneth Patchen. He has also released two other records.
Sometimes glorified in the local print, Al Neil assumed residency in a tumble-down waterfront shack without running water in Dollarton (near where Malcom Lowry lived and drank) and wrestled for several years with a heroin addiction. Music critic and friend Alex Varty has described his long-time home and hangout as "a beached floathouse two hundred tree-draped feet off the Dollarton Highway, wedged between the western boundary of Cates Park and the rusting hulks of an old shipyard, with the deep waters of Burrard Inlet lapping at his front door." His reputation as a mystic and recluse grew and yet in his performances he was from withdrawn.
“I don’t mind exposing myself,” Neil told Marke Andrews of the Vancouver Sun. “I’m completely uninhibited in that respect. A lot of people put that down. They write in the third person. I guess they’re afraid to expose themselves.” He continued to give infrequent concerts, infrequent and highly quotable interviews and to sell and exhibit his art. He exhibited at the Coburg Gallery with his longtime partner Carole Itter in 1985 and his photographs and prints appeared in an exhibition called Origins: Celtic Series at the Western Front, accompanied by a book-length catalogue Al Neil: Origins (Vancouver: Western Front, 1989). Al Neil: New and Selected was a show at the Atelier Gallery in 1999.
Pulp Press published a book of Neil’s short stories, Slammer, in 1982. Vancouver filmmaker David Rimmer made an appreciative documentary titled Al Neil: A Portrait. Eventually endowed with a war pension, Neil continued to live without a telephone on the Dollarton waterfront for many years, commuting to the city to visit friends and to perform. The Al Neil Trio, Retrospective 1965-1968, Blue Minor Records 121 2001 (2 CDs) is a musical tribute to his heydays in jazz.
Neil has been variously dubbed “one of Vancouver’s bona fide underground warriors, a man with a cult following and a hermit’s mystique,” “keeper of the avant-garde flame” and “a Charlie Parkerish sort of 1960 version of Charles Ives with Schoenberg overtones.”
Al Neil lives in the Strathcona neighborhood of Vancouver and he remains close to his longtime companion Carole Itter.
West Coast Lokas (1972)
Slammer (Pulp Press, 1982)
Origins (Vancouver: Western Front, 1989)
Changes (re-released with a missing last chapter restored, Nightwood Editions, 1989, $12.95) 0-88971-065-1
ABOUT AL NEIL
The Music of Al Neil. by Alex Varty (Nightwood 1999)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "Jazz" "Fiction" "Classic"
Al Neil, Musician
FROM JAZZ STREET VANCOUVER
Pianist, improviser, composer, multi-media artist, author, and one of the founders of the Cellar, Vancouver's first jazz club in the 1950s, Al Neil is a gem of Vancouver history. Neil originally made a name for himself as a self-taught bebop pianist. He later embraced a convention-shattering, experimental style that may arguably have preceded that of Cecil Taylor. His artistic vocation, which spans over 50 years, had already begun during his service in World War II in the trenches of Normandy where Neil read about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in copies of Downbeat Magazine mailed to him by his mother.
Returning home to Vancouver in the late 1940s, Al Neil frequented Kelly's, a record store on Seymour Street, where he ordered bebop records (which were nearly impossible to find in those days, he says) and met fellow budding musicians including Billy Boyle, Jimmy Johnson, and John Dawe who were doing the same. In 1956, Neil along with Dave Quarin, Jim Kilburn, Ken Hole and other local musicians opened up a jazz club in a basement at Main Street and Broadway Avenue and called it The Cellar. Within a few years, The Cellar brought in many of today's world-renowned jazz legends including Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, and Ornette Coleman. In 1958, the Al Neil Quartet and American poet Kenneth Patchen performed to a packed house in what Neil describes as "our one and only jazz poetry gig" at The Cellar. The LP recording, Kenneth Patchen reads with JAZZ IN CANADA (1959) has been recently re-released by Locust Music.
By the time the Cellar closed down around 1964, Al Neil was no longer interested in playing bebop. Instead, he began experimenting with what he calls "playing inside-outside" with bassist Rick Anstey and young drummer Gregg Simpson. It was Simpson's idea to use a turntable (as well as many other 'toys') that would be used generate new and interesting sounds in the trio's improvised pieces, thus creating an innovative yet unclassifiable genre of sound-collage-music that most critics would call "avant garde." Neil explains, "We looked to getting sounds coming from anywhere of any kind of type." The Al Neil Trio: Retrospective (1965-1968), a 2-disc set re-released in 2002, offers a sampling of this music.
"Whatever I'm doing belongs right here in Vancouver, B.C.."
- Al Neil
"I thought there would be a way to collage music."
- Al Neil
"He was a wild man. He was a wild piano player."
- Ricci Quarin