Monday, November 16, 2009

Young DJ's music rocked the boat, and Britain, in the Sixties

Gord Cruse takes a break behind the microphone in 1966 while wearing a skulls-and-crossbones T-shirt at Radio Caroline, the legendary pirate radio station. (Below) Cruse, now 67, wears a knit beanie made by a fan while holding 45-rpm records in his Victoria yard. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 16, 2009


Gord Cruse left the Canadian prairies and pre-med studies to enjoy London in the Swingin’ Sixties.

He financed his adventure by working as a labourer packing crates of garden furniture.

One day a workmate asked if he listened to Radio Caroline.

“What’s Radio Caroline?” he replied.

The only radio he had heard since arriving in England was the BBC, a staid broadcast in which music so puerile as pop was aired rarely, if at all. No Beatles and no Rolling Stones, no Merseybeat and no rock ‘n’ roll.

Even the name struck him as odd, as he was more familiar with the alphabet-soup call letters of North American stations.

So, Mr. Cruse tuned in to Radio Caroline, broadcasting from a ship off the coast of England, thus skirting British radio regulations.

He liked what he heard. At 24, he had already been behind the microphone, working at station CFQC in Saskatoon while studying at the University of Saskatchewan.

He asked for an audition.

He was midway through reading a practice newscast when the door to the studio slammed open.

He did not take this as a good sign.

“When they burst in on you,” he said, “they’ve usually heard enough and bring it to an end.”

Instead, he heard five words he’ll never forget.

“Can you start on Monday?”

Turns out the mid-Atlantic accent of Canadians was precisely the sound being sought for a station whose symbol was a skull and crossbones.

He joined a wild bunch of rogue disc jockeys whose adventures are the subject of the comedy Pirate Radio, a movie that opened on the weekend.

Mr. Cruse’s career as a broadcast buccaneer began as a newsreader for Radio Caroline South, spending two weeks of every three aboard a ship anchored in the Thames estuary, just outside of British territorial waters. He later moved to another rust bucket vessel in the Irish Sea.

A nervous debut before a microphone screwed into a desktop — a necessity to avoid movement in rolling seas — included the unhappy sound of water sloshing as he took a breath between news items.

He earned a starting salary of 25-pounds per week with free food and laundry, as well as a supply of beer and cigarettes.

“It was,” he said, “a pretty nice deal, a luxurious lifestyle.”

Life aboard ship was madcap. Keith Hampshire, a London-born but Canadian-raised jock, hosted Keefers’ Uprising in the morning and Keefers’ Commotion in the afternoon, ending each day with the invitation to “join me tomorrow for three solid hours of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, knee-knocking, thigh-slapping, knuckle-cracking, finger-popping, leg-pulling, wrist-twisting, tongue-tangling, foot-stomping rock ‘n’ roll music.”

(After returning to Canada, he scored a chart-topping hit in 1973 with the Cat Stevens’ song “The First Cut is the Deepest,” later earning a gold record for the ballpark favourite “OK Blue Jays.”)

Another swashbuckling pirate was Michael Pasternak, the son of a Hollywood producer who was known on-air as Emperor Rosko (aka Kaiser Rosko, El Presidente, the Happy Gringo, Senor Loco), the “mayor of mayhem,” a “lean, mean record machine,” a jive-talker with plenty of patter.

Even the newsreader earned a following among the British youth. Mr. Cruse received a knit beanie from a fan hailing the Big Crooser. He befriended The Bachelors and other music groups, took in the Rolling Stones from a front-row seat (“I could hardly hear the guys singing because of the girls screaming”), and received a wild reception when introduced to a crowd at The Phonograph in Manchester.

“Imagine this Canadian stubblejumper being introduced at a nightclub in England,” he said. “It just blew me away.”

The pirate ships were scuttled by the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in the summer of 1967.

A few months earlier, Mr. Cruse left to see the world, winding up at CFAX in Victoria in 1969. Seven years later, he abandoned radio to become a youth supervisor at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.

Accustomed to earning his living by talking, he had to develop a different skill.

“Listen, listen, listen,” he said.

“I guess what’s common to both (jobs) is communication.”

He retired in 2002 after 26 years on a job in which he wound up admitting into custody the children of offenders who were locked up when he began. On a happier note, two of the youth with whom he worked named sons after him.

A few years ago, he wrote a touching book about his time with adolescent criminals.

He once had to take a 16-year-old offender to his mother’s funeral.

“Handcuffed to my wrist,” Mr. Cruse writes in “Juvie: Inside Canada’s Youth Jails,” “he stood quietly over the open casket with no tears, no expression and no words. We stood in heavy silence for about a minute, and then not able to voice a feeling, he tugged at the cuffs and we moved away.”

Mr. Cruse, now 67, took in his fifth showing of Pirate Radio on a weekend in which he was also remembering the second chapter of his working life.

A 14-year-old schoolgirl was beaten and drowned by bullying classmates on a chill November day 12 years ago. Mr. Cruse supervised the offenders and befriended the late girl’s parents.

He now sponsors an academic prize in criminology at Camosun College, providing financial assistance to a student intending to work with juvenile offenders. He has named it the Reena Virk Youth Justice Award.

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