Radio birthed a Canadian star

With coke-bottle glasses and a creaky voice, Roy Forbes stands out. He always has. Growing up in Dawson Creek, the kid nicknamed Bim “took a…

With coke-bottle glasses and a creaky voice, Roy Forbes stands out.

He always has.

Growing up in Dawson Creek, the kid nicknamed Bim “took a lot of guff.”

Now, 40 years later, the town is naming a street after him and Northern Lights College is giving Forbes an honorary arts degree.

It was Forbes’ long hair the rock ‘n’ roll that initially stirred things up in the sleepy, country town.

“It was fairly isolated up there,” he said over coffee Thursday morning.

“It was way pre-internet, so my connection with the outside world was radio, like CKLG from Vancouver pulled in late at night.

“You put your hand on the transistor at a certain spot and you’d be the human aerial helping bring in the signal.

“That’s the first time I heard Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Forbes grew up on country music and old blues.

“It’s part of my DNA,” he said.

But picking up guitar as a teen, he began searching for outside influences, gluing himself to the radio and perusing magazines like Rolling Stone.

 “I was trying to find out what was going on out there,” said Forbes.

“I’d have to special order lots of music, and I remember ordering music from Big Pink, and it coming to town and everyone thought it sounded so weird — and it did.”

By the time he was three, Forbes knew he was a musician.

And on his most recent album, Some Tunes for that Mother of Mine, he thanks his mom “for keeping my buggy by the radio.”

“I knew that’s what I was put on Earth to do,” said Forbes.

“And I stubbornly pursued it.”

After graduating, Forbes left Dawson Creek and his rock band The Crystal Ship behind, and headed south to Vancouver.

It was 1971 and he was 18.

Forbes had been writing songs, with “bad lyrics” since Grade 2 and after picking up the guitar at 14, things really took off.

“Every time I learned a new chord, I’d write a song,” he said.

Sunday afternoons, Forbes would hash out whole albums, sometimes in the company of his friend Terry Emslie, who had a tape recorder and a bunch of old pots, pans and buckets that acted as drums.

One of these early collaborations, called Spider, made the new album.

Full of songs reminiscent of his childhood, Forbes originally recorded the CD to send home to his mom as a gift.

It took all of five hours in a friend’s studio.

“The album starts with my earliest musical influences and works its way up to me leaving home,” he said.

Turns out, his producer loved the recording’s simplicity and raw honesty, and convinced Forbes to release it.

Heavily influenced by Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Forbes remembers an early trip to Vancouver when he was 17.

It was Young’s Live at Massey Hall tour and Forbes saw him at the Queen Elizabeth playhouse.

Ten months later, Forbes was playing that same venue and, like Young, he played it sitting down.

“I didn’t know Neil Young had a back brace,” said Forbes with a laugh.

“I thought that’s what performers did, so for years I sat on a chair.”

Forbes made connections with a popular BC band called Spring, before leaving Dawson Creek, and ended up using its manager when he arrived in Vancouver.

That’s how he got the Queen E gig — an 18-year-old opening act who played all originals.

“At that point, I’d only been playing guitar four years,” he said.

“But I always just understood how songs worked and they were catchy.”

Then, Forbes hit a wall.

“I was so young and had this mass of material,” he said.

“But I’d never worked on any of the songs.”

Music was always something Forbes wanted to do, and at 19 he realized, he was going to have to take it a little more seriously.

“I had to sort of come around to thinking, ‘This is my life, I better get at it,’” he said.

“It was no longer just an escape from English class.”

The Kid Full of Dreams put out his first album in ‘75, called just that.

And the next year, he came up to Whitehorse to play Farrago, in Faro.

“That festival burns like a brand in my memory,” said Forbes.

A bunch of musicians from the South converged in Whitehorse and were joined by a group of locals that included Steve Slade and Joe Lutchen.

“That mix of people from here and the South ended up on this bus bumping along, stopping for the biggest cinnamon buns in the world,” he said.

“And when we got to Faro we ended up staying at the Tiltin’ Hilton, where you had to put a chair against the hotel-room door to keep it shut.”

Forbes returned the next year and was flattered to find Slade playing one of his tunes.

Nowadays, Forbes doesn’t tour as much, but the passion to perform remains.

“It’s when I feel most alive,” he said.

“It’s like a high-wire dance.

“And it’s always a new experience, even if I’ve sung a song 100 times.”

A collector of shellac ‘78s, Forbes now spends his time playing tunes on the gadget that first got him started — the radio.

On CKAU’s Roy’s Record Room, Forbes plays an eclectic combination of music he calls “the shellac shack shuffle.”

“A creative person owes it to themselves to listen to music beyond the genre they’re working in,” said Forbes.

“It all rubs off on you and becomes part of the big pot of gumbo.”

Fond of everything — grunge, The Beach Boys, old country, blues and Buck 65 — Forbes had trouble describing his own music.

“It’s sort of acoustic eclectic,” he said.

“I love old country, I grew up on rock n’ roll, and I think it would be so much fun to do a garage album.

“That would really shock people,” he added with a laugh.

“It’s too easy to get pigeon-holed.”

Forbes plays the Yukon Arts Centre on Saturday night at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $20, $15 for youth, students and seniors.

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