<< A SOUNDDAY EXCLUSIVE>>
PART 1 OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH THE NORTHERN PIKES SINGER-SONGWRITER.
Thirty years ago today the laid-back “Kiss Me You Fool” by the Northern Pikes was starting to drop down the Canadian singles chart after a solid 13-week run that saw it rise to #12. It was the third hit off the Prairie band’s third major album Snow In June. The song was written by guitarist Merl Bryck and Jay Semko, the bassist and primary songwriter in the band. Not only did the song get good airplay on radio, but if you were in Canada in 1991 and turned on Much Music, you were sure to see the video for it. And if you looked at the video closely, you might have noticed something about the street scenes… doesn’t that busker out on the street look a little like Garth Hudson of The Band?
In fact it was Garth Hudson, and with him was John Sebastian (of “Welcome Back” and Lovin’ Spoonful fame), as Jay told me recently. I had the great privilege and pleasure of talking to Semko at length recently…and it was a pleasure. Semko is warm and chatty and shared a lot of great stories to tell about his life in the Pikes.
“After Secrets of the Alibi, we wanted to change, so we went down to Bearsville Studios (in upstate New York.) Todd Rundgren had something to with the design, but he had his own studio there as well. When we were recording there, The Pursuit of Happiness, who were good friends of ours were recording with Todd Rundgren in Woodstock as well and around the same time there was a third place…and the Grapes of Wrath did a record there. It was kind of a hotbed.”
So one night the band wanted to go out. “We tried to get into the local pub there,” he told me, but it was so crowded “we watched through the window and Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and John Sebastian (were on stage.) A number of other well-known musicians lived in the area, and there they were on a Saturday night playing in a little pub.
Eventually the Northern Pikes did get to talk to Hudson and asked him if he’d do a bit or two for their album. He agreed. “When Garth came to play, he had a truck bring all of the gear. We thought he was going to maybe bring an accordion. He kind of moved in for a number of days and hung out. “ You might also notice Hudson plugging away at the organ on the single “Girl with a Problem” and the video for it as well.
“It was great!” Semko recalled. “He’s such a cool guy. He’s one of my favorite musicians. He’s always so laid-back. One day (Semko imitates Garth’s slow drawl) ‘Well, I gotta go for a show, so I’ll be gone a few days. When I come back, we’ll finish up some stuff here.’ He comes back a few days later and we’re shooting the breeze, and I ask him ‘how’d it go with your show?’ And he’s like ‘I couldn’t hear the monitors. The monitors were kinda tough to hear.’ So I ask where it was. ‘ Well, there’s this guy who was in Pink Floyd – Roger Waters – and he’s got this thing, The Wall…’ It was one of the biggest concerts of all-time and tons of great bands and artists were a part of it. I say ‘Garth, you just played The Wall concert?’ and he’s ‘yeah. It was kind of tough to hear the monitors.’ He’s a humble guy. Garth’s all over (Snow In June). He plays on half the songs. I relish that experience, recording with Garth. Such a great musician and a really good guy.”
Another old-time rock pioneer Hudson got to know was Ronnie Hawkins, the early rockabilly star whose backup band more or less went on to be The Band.
During the second-half of the ’90s, the Northern Pikes broke up for a few years and Semko got a job doing the music for a TV show which like Hawkins was a mixed Canadian-American product, Due South.
“Ronnie was such a pioneer in the early days of rock & roll,” Semko notes, “On Due South, one of the episodes had Michelle Wright as a special guest.” Wright is a successful Canadian country singer. “They wanted ‘special skills’ extras, musicians” to play her on-screen band. Semko was one of them. “Ronnie Hawkins was an extra too. He got a speaking part. I was just kind of in the background, a guitar player for Michelle Wright. So we hung out a couple of days. He had such great stories. And the guy could tell a dirty joke.” Not that all of his stories were humorous, mind you.
“He had a scar,” Semko recalled, and when asked about it ‘The Hawk’ responded “’That’s where I got hit by a bottle, somewhere down south.’ He said it was a challenging time back then. His first band was multi-racial and the flak people would give him because of that was a nightmare. Yes, racism exists, we know that, but to talk to someone who’s experienced it, hear the stories, it’s like ‘Holy Smokes man!’ It blows my mind.”
I asked the Pike if John Lennon didn’t live at Hawkins farm near Toronto briefly around the time of the ex-Beatle’s Bed-in in Montreal. He did. “Ron talked about that and here’s what most people in a million years would never think – John Lennon loved snowmobiles! He loved to go out on a Skidoo. (Lennon) stayed at his place a number of weeks. After they left, he got his phone bill.” Turns out when John was out on the snow, his wife stayed indoors. “Yoko was phoning world leaders. Often she was calling someone like the White House, and they’d leave her on hold for an hour. The phone bill was for about $20 000…an outrageous amount! But he spoke very fondly about John. Just a cool guy, a regular kind of guy.” Clearly Semko loved the moments with other musicians almost as much as his fans loved seeing him and his band. “Super experiences you have like that along the way are kind of fun, you know?”
We’ll look at Jay’s thoughts on the being a Canadian musician, success in the U.S., listening to World War II stories from Robert Palmer’s dad, life in the time of Covid and future plans for the Northern Pikes in the next segment.