Booze bungled the best of them back in the 1980s
You know what they say about drinking and driving. Well, the same goes for the newspaper biz.
While you rarely see hardcore drunks in journalism these days, back in the ’70s when this ink-stained wretch toiled day-to-day for the Gazette, I surrounded myself with a gaggle of scribes who learned the ropes from the school of hard knocks, at least some of which was self-inflicted. That meant vodka-tonic, rum and Coke and, of course, that liquid meal in a mug, beer.
While we boozily believed this was part of the tried-and-true “romance” of newspaper work, I tended to go overboard, leading to pathetic adventures of the gonzo variety.
There was the cold night, in February 1980, when I attended the local premiere of Neil Young’s concert film Rust Never Sleeps, to review the next day. An hour before show time, I slam dunked a few Cuba Libres at Mother Martin’s, then the Gazette hangout, and shot the breeze with Mordecai Richler and his buddy, sports columnist Tim Burke.
Now, folks say I’ve got a thing about Young: His whine has always put me off, not to mention the self-pity that was popular back then (although these days, as we’re both still alive, I have a grudging respect for him). Soon I was revved up: “I’m really gonna slam Neil tonight! You know somethin’? He wrote some of his most self-pitying stuff about his dad (the oh-so upright Toronto sportswriter Scott Young), who wouldn’t give him money to buy a new amp back when he was starting out when the old one blew! Mom had to bail him out! Aw, boo-hoo, too freakin’ bad! Helpless, helpless, helpless! Ah-ha-ha-ha-HAH!” Richler and Burke concurred: “Yeah, hit him with your best shot, the creep deserves it—bartender, another double for the critic!”
I arrived at the screening late, besotted, possessed by the devil. Five minutes of Young’s whine and the audience’s stone zombie gaze at this motionless figure with the straggly hair and the checked lumber shirt on the big screen fuelled an inescapable desire to shake, rattle, and roll. So I proceeded to parade the aisles, doing an Ed Sullivan imitation: “C’mon, let’s reeeally hear it fer him! Isn’t he great!? Let’s give this Canadian a reeeally big hand fer a reeeally great shoe!!!” And so on. Friends tried to calm me down, to no avail.
The next morning while I was sleeping, news of the “incident” was all over CHOM-FM. I stumbled into the office at noon, plagued by a splitting headache, begged not to write the review (“I can’t be fair!”), and was told I had to write it if it was the last thing on Earth I did. It took me three pained hours to peck out five paltry paragraphs – my best shot. After finishing – the last graph opined, “You’d think Young had this film made so he could gaze at himself in his bedroom at night” – I bolted down to the bar for some hair-of-the-dog. Within two months I quit (in an alcoholic huff).
Pension money ran out fast, and soon I was doing occasional sports coverage for the Canadian Press; my nominal boss was Scott Abbott, with whom I sat at many a bar while he raved on about this crazy idea he had for a board game called Trivial Pursuit.
When Wayne Gretzky debuted at the old Forum as an Edmonton Oiler, Scott assigned me to conduct the post-game interviews with the Canadiens while the regular beat reporter handled the Gretzky angle. At five that afternoon, I dropped by a record launch to sip some free wine – a warm-up for the big event. On my arrival at the press gallery, a Gazette columnist cracked, “Hey, Juan, what are you doing here—faking it?” Whoa, that got under my collar (after those wines). Fake? No sirree! So I bolted to the press lounge to assuage my rage with some rum and Coke, returning to my designated seat to dutifully take notes on scores, penalties, shots on goal, and so on. Like a real reporter.
After the first period, I had more rum, returning to take more notes with steely determination. Faking it? No! I’ll get every little stat, every morsel, right!
The second period ended with the score notched at 3-3. In an alcoholic haze, I thought the game was over—the cue for my big moment in the Canadiens’ dressing room. As I approached the door with the imposing “CH” on it, I was stopped by a cop. “You can’t go in there, sir. The game’s not over.”
“Whad’ya mean, the game’s not over? Everybody’s leaving.” Indeed, there was a stream of fans in the corridor. “I’ve got to get in there!” I exclaimed, horrified.
I noticed a couple more cops looking on with little smiles on their mugs. I recognized them from my nights covering rock shows. “Oh, I get it,” I deduced. “You’re playing a joke on me. Cut it out, guys.” I was frantic, pointing to the press pass pinned on my chest. “Listen, this is no joke! I’m on a tight deadline! The other reporters are already in there – they’re gonna scoop me!”
“The game’s not over.”
“OK, take me to see Claude Mouton,” I said expansively, referring to the Habs PR director and public address announcer. “He’ll clear up this problem.”
“You want to see Claude? Okay, we’ll take you to see Claude.” Cops gently grabbed my arms and escorted me to Mouton’s little anteroom near where the Zamboni was parked. Mouton, an imperious bald man with an impressive neck and waistline, who doubtless had little regard for this out-of-place rock critic, emerged. “Rodriguez, what’s da matter?” I gave him the low-down on this joke the cops were playing at my expense.
“Rodriguez, da game’s not over.”
“WHADDAYA MEAN THE GAME’S NOT OVER?! EVERYBODY’S LEAVING!”
He delivered the punch line exquisitely: “Rodriguez, they’re going to take a piss!”
Oh. Reality finally kicked in. I skulked upstairs, drained more rums, took my seat and made notes, and returned to the dressing room door after the game was finally over, the score still tied 3–3. Now there were a handful of cops on sentry, barring me from entering. “Don’t let dat guy in!” warned backup goalie Denis Herron. “He’s cray-zee!”
Back at the catwalk, where the scribes were busy typing their reports, I phoned Scott Abbott at home to explain, blathering away teary-eyed. Red Fisher, the dean of hockey scribes—I’d read him since 1956 (when I was 8) —picked up his little Tandy computer and moved out of earshot, muttering, “Get that drunk out of here!” End of my career in sports.
Years later, Scott was asked, “Whatever happened to that nut who tried to get post-game interviews after the second period?”
Without skipping a beat, he replied, “He’s fine—we hired him to write Trivial Pursuit questions.” Of course, that job entailed copious amounts of drinking with the now-millionaire inventors.
No mas. (Touch wood.)