by Angélique Davies
“stepping in the sunlight
might be blinding if you try it
reality is frightening
to the uninitia-hated”
– Kinetic Ideals (Life in Shadow, 1981)
When Jonathan Davies died in June of 2016, I reflected on my relationship with him, and on all the different things he might have been to others who knew him. Looking at photos and at his belongings triggered many questions. Why did my brother treat me like he did? Who was he outside of my experience of him? I didn’t know him very well at all. Jon was five years my senior and in school, living a life separate from mine by the time I was born. When I started high school Jon already had morphed into the musician I idolized; throughout the 80s and 90s he was the drummer for bands like Kinetic Ideals, Breeding Ground and Groovy Julia.
I think Jon enjoyed and perhaps even needed the spotlight; from 1961 to 1966 he was the centre attention, adored and constantly photographed by our parents. I’m told that he was deeply resentful when I was born and I suspect these feelings were never resolved. Jon seemed to delight in relentlessly tormenting me, yet occasionally he did amazing things that distracted me from all that. Back then it was hard to see beyond what could make me really hate him sometimes. But I loved him too, because he was my brother. Between the rise of his music career and his ultimate descent into addiction and mental illness was a significant part of his story that was almost lost to me. Recollections shared by Jon’s friends have helped me to bridge the gap between what I know and did not know about him, and to bring my brother’s story – as an artist, and a person – out of the shadows and into the light.
Musician in the Making: Jonathan’s Formative Years
If Jonathan was the budding rock star of our family, I suppose I had fallen into the role of ‘groupie’. My brother had tremendous musical aptitude. In elementary school he started a band called Jonathan and the Seagulls. He was given his first drum set, and his own practice space. Apparently drum lessons were recommended to help Jon burn off some of his ‘negative’ energy. I often accompanied him to the Queensway Music Centre where his teacher, Al Blue, taught Jon the techniques of jazz drumming. I wanted drum lessons too, but was denied them because “one drummer in the family was enough.” My parents bought my silence on the matter with a plastic harmonica that cost a quarter, which I learned to play to prove that I could. (Over time I would take up playing guitar, flute, violin, recorder and ukulele, though I was never an extraordinary musician and it didn’t make our parents notice me). That divisiveness did take its toll on us.
Jon made me feel both emulous and envious; despite my own musical inclination, I languished in his shadow, while he got all the support and would sometimes gloat about that. Favouritism sadly took its toll on our relationship. But music also connected our family. Some of the happiest times were summers we spent on our boat, the Raljon II, and singalongs around the campfire with our Georgian Bay friends, the Alberts family. This was when the guitars would come out and we’d share our favourite songs by John Denver, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary and others from the 60s and 70s. My family felt close and peaceful on the water. I have cherished memories that can only be inspired by such magical summers, but once we outgrew those times I went underground with my music making while Jon soared towards his future in music. We began moving along different paths that never really converged again.
By 1976, my brother and I had been uprooted repeatedly from our various schools, our lives a constant cycle of having to make new friends and fit in. Once at Thomas L. Kennedy Secondary School Jon met the people who would influence his musical direction. Paul White, one of Jon’s first friends there, describes how he was blown away by Jon’s practice space in our family’s Mississauga apartment – a walk-in closet that had been converted into the sound proof room that housed his drum kit. (Jon once secretly grew an enormous marijuana plant in this room, and you can imagine my mother’s surprise when she discovered it!). He was amazed by Jon’s drum rolls and rim shots, noting that he had “one hell of a fast and dynamic technique.” The two would spend hours in Paul’s basement, listening to his vinyl collection – Rush, Judas Priest, Bowie, Kiss, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and The Scorpions (Jon liked a track called Speedy’s Coming). While Jon pounded away on the sofa with his drum sticks, Paul could see that those jazz drum lessons he had received gave him the solid technical start that enabled him to “play circles around any typical rock drummer at the time.”
Paul and Jon enjoyed many – sometimes reckless – adventures, like cruising around in a 1967 Chevy van; getting high at the CNE and riding at the front of the Wild Cat rollercoaster; working for a company painting oil tanks together in 1978, the summer that The Cars’ self-titled album made its debut. They went to Rutledge Music Store at Square One shopping mall, followed by Second Cup where Paul would “always order a coffee and cream and Jon would always order an Earl Grey tea.” As their musical tastes changed, their friendship drifted apart. But Paul always admired Jon’s serious, studious nature, and his good counsel. Their paths would not cross again until 1988.
In 1979 Jon embraced the punk scene, playing in a high school band called The Pinheads. Jon’s drumming skills had made him a hot commodity when kids were forming bands, influenced by the new wave and punk tunes that flooded the airwaves at that time. When I started high school in 1980, experimenting with wearing green running shoes, peg leg jeans and sporting a “Flock of Seagulls” hairdo, my brother had already graduated. He was now in a band claiming its place in the music scene that had given misfits like us a place to belong. Jon’s presence at the school allowed me to enjoy the protection of some of his younger friends, who referred to me as “Davies’ little sister,” including me in the new wave minority at a school largely populated by rockers! But in the 80s this all got eclipsed by Jon’s flourishing music career. I fell even further into his shadow, and at this point it’s fair to say we no longer really knew each other.
by Angélique Davies, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Read all 4 instalments of Angélique’s story:
Life in Shadow: (published in 4 parts)
Life in Shadow: A Drummer’s Story Comes to Light (Part 1)
– published July 15, 2017
Life in Shadow: Kinetic Ideals and Breeding Ground – (Part 2)
– published July 16, 2017
Life in Shadow: Finding a New Artistic Direction: Groovy Julia (Part 3) – published July 18, 2017
Life in Shadow: A Eulogy for my Brother (Part 4) – published July 20, 2017