As requests go, it would eventually prove more important than a young Grant Lawrence might ever have imagined. And it came once the Smugglers singer, future CBC personality, and author of the new rock ’n’ roll memoir Dirty Windshields made it clear to his parents that university wasn’t in his plans after high school.
Lawrence’s father wasn’t exactly thrilled at that news in the late ’80s, but he was well aware that it’s crucial to follow one’s dreams. And, showing some foresight, he figured that his son might end up with a story or two to tell as he got ready to focus on touring the world with the Smugglers, a scrappy garage band that would eventually become one of Vancouver’s best-loved acts.
“My dad thought that it was the most dead-end, stupid thing for me to do,” Lawrence says bluntly of his decision to choose music over a more stable path. “But he was the one who said to me, ‘Look, if you’re going to go off and fuck up your life, at least write it all down.’ ”
It’s a sunny weekday afternoon and the 45-year-old is hanging with the Straight at Library Square, just steps from his day job at the CBC. As the interview progresses, covering everything from the pure thrill of playing live to brushes with genuine rock stars like Dave Grohl and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, Lawrence admits that his dad might have thought devoting one’s life to a garage band was idiotic, but he was nonetheless supportive. The journals he pushed for would eventually become Dirty Windshields: The Best and Worst of the Smugglers Tour Diaries.
“I don’t know if he saw something that I didn’t, but he’s always been a great lover of road stories,” Lawrence notes. “He loves [John] Steinbeck and old Hollywood movies. So he implored me to write it all down, and I guess that stuck with me, because I did always write it down. From the Smugglers’ first gig—at Chicago Pizza Works, which was right down the street from here at Homer and Nelson—to the last gig in San Diego, I kept a diary. Now, some of them I lost—about two tours’ worth—but the rest I have. And thank god he urged me to do that, because even though I sat on them for about 13 years, those diaries provided me with the spine of the book.”
Dirty Windshields isn’t Lawrence’s first published work; he wrote 2010’s award-winning Adventures in Solitude (which chronicles his time spent on British Columbia’s gorgeous and wild Desolation Sound) and 2013’s The Lonely End of the Rink (about playing beer-league goal, and the personal challenges that led him to the net). There’s a valid argument to be made, however, that Dirty Windshields is the book that’s closest to his heart, seeing as how almost everything he’s achieved today—including becoming one of the CBC’s most recognizable personalities—can be traced back to the notoriety that came from fronting the Smugglers.
Formed in 1988, the band released eight full-lengths as well as numerous EPs and singles over a 16-year run, toured the world, and found major boosters in luminaries ranging from local legend Nardwuar the Human Serviette to garage superstars the Hives. Dirty Windshields starts at the beginning and then follows the Smugglers through major highs (becoming key players in a Pacific Northwest DIY movement spearheaded by K Records founder Calvin Johnson) and serious lows (you don’t know miserable until you’ve toured Australia in a Canadian garage-rock band).
Lawrence is not only a gifted storyteller, but also a funny one. Consider an early show gone horribly wrong in Bellingham, where he’s forced to perform from the sidewalk of a club he’s too young to legally enter: “They attached several microphone cords,” he writes, “then ran them from the stage, across the dance floor, behind the bar, down the hallway, out the front door of the club and onto the street.…The soundman handed me the microphone: ‘Fucking… start singin’, little dude!’ ”
Along the way, Dirty Windshields acts as a snapshot of the underground music industry in pre-Internet times, a cautionary tale about what to do and what to avoid doing while embarking on a career in rock ’n’ roll. (Hint: the free drinks on your rider aren’t always free.) It will also inspire anyone who’s ever dreamed of piling into a filthy van and hitting the road to play even filthier clubs, as Lawrence’s joy at playing music with his closest friends bleeds through every page.
“The secret that I’ve discovered through writing books is that the only ones that really work are the ones that people can relate to,” the singer says. “That can be whether it’s having a wanderlust and wanting to drive across Canada, or being in a band and going through all the shit that you go through.”
The Smugglers knew when it was time to unplug the amps and walk away, a moment also detailed poignantly in Dirty Windshields. The group was always at its best when headlining packed small clubs. But at a time when garage rawk was king thanks to the stratospheric rise of acts like the Hives and White Stripes, the Smugglers ended up unable to sell out Vancouver’s now-defunct Brickyard for a record-release party for 2004’s Mutiny in Stereo. As Lawrence recounts in the book, he knew the band (mainstays of which included guitarists Nick Thomas and David Carswell and bassist Kevin “Beez” Beesley) had to end when he received a call from Carswell saying he was done.
“The Smugglers didn’t continue because the front four were always the front four—me, Dave, Beez, and Nick,” Lawrence says. “When Dave pulled the plug on it in 2004, I just wanted to respect that, rather than plugging a hole, which so many other bands do.”
Walking away wasn’t nearly as hard as he thought it would be.
“The band ended in 2004 and I was burned-out on clubs that were painted black and smelled like urine,” Lawrence recounts. “I needed some separation. I sat down to write the book in 2005, but I couldn’t get anywhere. I thought the diaries sucked and were embarrassing. So I needed the separation of time, where you can look back at something 15 years later and go, ‘Well, that’s kind of got a charm to it, as opposed to just purely sucking.’ So I ended up writing about Desolation Sound first, and that was kind of soul-cleansing in a way—to get all of that rock ’n’ roll out of my system.”
To his surprise, he discovered that totally flushing the Smugglers from his life would eventually be mission impossible. After he finished Dirty Windshields, but before the book was published, Lawrence received a call from what he describes as a kid—and fan—asking if the band would be willing to reunite for a show at San Francisco’s famed punk club 924 Gilman Street. He notes that offers to get back together have come periodically over the years, for gigs in faraway locales like Spain and Norway. Lawrence always declined.
But because that kid reminded him of himself when he was younger—phoning up his favourite bands out of the blue to ask if they’d be willing to play shows—Lawrence decided to run the idea of a reunion by his former bandmates. Even though they hadn’t played together in over a decade, they said yes, and the gig—which took place this past January—proved more fun than any of them might have imagined.
That’s opened the door for more shows, including an upcoming performance at the Commodore that’s doubling as a Dirty Windshields book launch. It’s not lost on Lawrence that none of this would have happened if not for his dad pushing him to document everything back when he was a teen. Almost no one gets rich making music, especially in this century. But, as Dirty Windshields proves brilliantly, sometimes a lifetime of experiences is worth more than money.
“If I’d got my real-estate licence or gone to university for whatever, I’d probably be a lot more well-off,” Lawrence muses with a smile. “But I’ve always thought that you’ve got to follow your artistic muse. That artistic muse led me to the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, and I love it. And I have all the stories to show for it.”
The Smugglers play the Commodore Ballroom as part of a Dirty Windshields book launch on Saturday (May 13).