A&E » Music

Bill Henderson's history of rock

Canadian music legend plays BAG this Saturday



Bill Henderson gave up on rock and roll.

The year was 1964 specifically, and he had been working for a few years as a Vancouver lounge musician, covering the Great American Songbook. He'd played in a few rock bands during the early '60s with assorted other high-schoolers, farting around with the rabble-rousing sounds of the day. But at that time rock and roll in North America was deemed a flash in the pan. Henderson, like one of many, dropped it in favour of music penned by the Tin Pan Alley writers.

"I thought rock was dead, basically. It had lost a lot of energy at the time," Henderson says. "It was all boppy this and boppy that. There was no more Buddy Holly, there was no more Everly Brothers and there was none of that original Southern U.S., kick-yer-ass blues-rock. It had been brillcreamed out of existence."

He assume that rock music was, as he'd sing much later, gone, gone, gone... that is, until he saw a poster for A Hard Day's Night outside a downtown Vancouver movie theatre. Clearly the Beatles had something different to offer. He watched the film and when he walked out of the theatre, he says, he was "converted."

That night, he says, he picked up his electric guitar and started writing songs. By 1966, he was writing extended psychedelic jams for The Collectors. By 1970, the band morphed into Chilliwack, who over the next decade would morph into one of rock's reigning heavyweights.

Now, 40 years later, Henderson has been instrumental in shaping the course for Canadian music, both artistically and professionally. He served as president of the Songwriters Association of Canada (SOCAN) and director of the Canadian Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), helping to establish a mandatory minimum amount of music that Canadian content providers had to play. He served as the musical director for the Canadian edition of Sesame Street during Chilliwack's decade-long hiatus. He's been a producer, he's won Junos and he's had best-selling singles.

And now, at 67, he spends a little over a month on the road with Chilliwack, UHF — his folk-rock project alongside Shari Ulrich and Roy Forbes — or, far less frequently, a solo Bill Henderson set, one of which he'll play at the Brackendale Art Gallery on Saturday.

"I don't think of myself as a star. I don't think of myself as someone in the limelight. I think of myself as a musician. I'll always play music," he says.

But whether or not he considers himself a star, he admits there was a time when he came mighty close to losing himself in the fame and glory that he'd found with Chilliwack's success. Of course, it was never really his thing.

"I was never really comfortable with it. On the one hand, the star thing is telling you that you're fucking fantastic. That's what it's saying all the time and everyone refers to you in that way, because that's what stars require," he says.

"It's a very mechanical process. There's star machinery that you get plugged into. You can't go out unless you're in your satin jacket. You have to be in the right car and the whole thing. It has nothing to do with life. It's just fantasy."

In 1997, Chilliwack re-grouped after a lengthy hiatus, playing shows to legions of fans that've remained hungry for tried and true classic rock and roll. Henderson says they have no plans to write new material — "I'm almost always writing new stuff, but not for Chilliwack," he says — but are content kicking out the classic jams that everyone's used to.

And that, he says, is the magic of rock and roll...well, maybe the magic of music in general: That 40 or 30 or 20 years down the pike, there's a group of instruments ringing out the right sequence of chords mixed with the right lyrics and a relatable kind of energy, and the noise created takes on a life of its own.

"You read all the time in interviews with songwriters where people talk about their big hit songs," he says. "The songwriter will say, 'I really don't know. It doesn't even feel like it's mine and it sort of came through my pencil, you know?' I've heard that said many times. That song is a gift that emerges."

Henderson has written somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 songs. He's not really sure but maybe 20 of them have emerged as gifts from the gods of rock and roll above to the devoted below. Henderson only plays those songs onstage and, understandably, the crowds are wildly in favour.

Of course, all of this is a roundabout way of saying that we're happy Bill Henderson gave rock and roll another chance.