Passion and profitability.

Canaligator Of the dozen musical ensembles I performed with in my twenties—the "artistic period" of my life—the most interesting one was a street-singing band, Uncle Crusty and the Venice Canaligators.

The group was named after the scenic canals of Venice, California and the scenic Uncle Crusty. His real name was Hook McGuire, a lovable, grizzly, one-armed harmonica player (he lost his hook in prison) who sang like Howlin' Wolf.

There were several very notable features of this band.

We had a minimalist, no-frills, down-home approach to performance, preferring to play outdoors on urban sidewalks without electric amplification. (Years later we "went electric" and played indoors.)

We performed songs at twice their normal speed, which enabled us to efficiently complete a dozen songs in twenty minutes.

And we attracted the most colorful street scene in the LA area, including motorcycle gangs, runaway teenage girls, ex-cons, street urchins, and drug peddlers. (The band also attracted a few undesirables, but they were the exception.)

But what was most distinct about the band was how much we simply enjoyed playing. Yes, we made good tips from passing the hat, but it was the love for what we were doing that kept us going.

We lived modestly, with several band members even electing to go homeless, which of course reduced overhead. (This is a Success Habit of Highly Effective People that is often overlooked in business literature.) Two of the fellows were quite content to sleep under the Venice pier. (I'm not making this up.) Exposing my middle-class upbringing, I slept in an actual bed in an actual house on the Venice canals. (I had paid my dues sleeping on park benches in New York's East Village years earlier.)

It was a good life and we never went to sleep hungry. We traveled simply, stuffing band members and instruments into my 1956 Volkswagen bug, which I paid a few hundred dollars for. (I was not the first member of a band whose membership was based on capital assets rather than musical talent.)

To keep us on budget, we seldom put more than a dollar's worth of gas in the tank. When the car ran out of gas—as it did almost every night (the fuel gauge was broken)—we simply pushed it home, on the flat seaside roads. This form of daily exercise may have also reduced our long-term health care costs.

Overall it was satisfying work based on a simple model: income from tips. At the beginning our long-term financial goal was to make enough money to take a day off each week. Our short-term financial goal was to make enough money for lunch. (Eventually we made enough money to save some.)

Not having to work for anyone maximized our freedom and allowed us to work anywhere we chose. If we weren't happy where we were playing we simply packed up our equipment and moved to a different location, or called it a night—and walked the car back to Venice Beach.

Our street-singing charm eventually earned us enough of a reputation to merit two appearances on NBC's famous Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack.

The take-away lesson from this is a simple one: it helps to enjoy what you do. If you can make your job fun and exciting, if your team can be inspired about the work you're doing, you'll more likely achieve what you want.

But here's another thought: what would be the cost-saving benefits of your team working outdoors, without electrical power? Or better yet: what might be the team-building benefits of your team sleeping under the local pier?

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  1. Your question on the value of your team sleeping under a local pier reminded me of my days as a Survival Trainer in the Air Force. The benefits of this type of "team building" are indeed tangible and profitable. You shared common goals, sacrificed to make sure everyone had water, a meal and shelter, and got to know each other incredibly well(what the hell else was there to do in the 115 degree warmth of desert but talk and make fun of each other?) It transcended rank and position and definitely got folks working together!

    It wasn't shared suffering, it was shared experience! In retropect, a terrific one at that!

  2. I'm guessing there weren't any piers in the desert, but the experience was probably comparable. Glad to hear you benefited from it.

  3. Come to think of it, Art, I guess I got the better part of that deal. But I also had a house that the band could rehearse in so that may have figured into the equation.

  4. Oddly enough although there were no piers, the shelter of choice was a twenty person life raft. Beneficial it was indeed!

  5. Not having to work for anyone is the key here. It's much easier to enjoy your work when you're not a worker drone and don't have an obnoxious boss micromanaging you all day.

  6. Nice memories and notion of what it means to be passionate about what you're doing and loving it so that you do whatever necessary. It matters a little less if family members do not understand when there are others with whom you can create and face challenges together.

  7. Dave, a life raft in a desert? There's a song in there somewhere.
    Anonymous, when you're an employee serf the grass looks greener on the other side of the wall. Personally, I'll always take freedom over security, but I don't have other mouths to feed. Judith, the nice thing about a rock & roll life is having a team of interesting characters around you. That was always the case for me anyway.

  8. Contradictions? Military intelligence? Happily married? Words and things that really shouldn't collide in the same sentence?

  9. Yeah, reminds me of George Carlin's classic riff on oxymoronic phrases. Hadn't heard "happily married" before. So far I've been happily unmarried, but I'm still a kid.

  10. I see a pattern here of one or two posts a month. Do you think you could stretch yourself to increase your productivity a wee bit? ;-)

  11. My focus, Harry, is always on quality rather than quantity. Now if you don't accept that (and I'm not sure I do either) consider this: what other blogger do you know who rewrites his posts AFTER they go up? In effect you're seeing a different post every time you check in, given my editing compulsions. For instance, I changed the title of this post after a friend told me how dumb the original one was. Is that customer service or WHAT? But, alas, I get no respect...

  12. Harry, doing talks on business lessons from rock & roll bands will be a prime focus for me once I finish my book, but I have already begun doing some of these talks. And occasionally I may include members of some of the great rock bands, in order to back up the points I'm making. For instance, if I can synch up my schedule with Pete Best's this summer (who's doing several US tours) I might interview Pete as part of a talk. Hearing Pete talk about how the Beatles came together as a "business team" in their formative years is pretty enlightening stuff (and entertaining for folks in my generation at least).

  13. John - C'mon. Somehow I don't buy the whole editing perfection thing. Convince me. The request was for just a "wee bit" more. Yes? Anyway, I come back even if its just to read the older posts. I really like your blog.

    Generations, by the way, have little to do with relevance. Writing from ancient times interest me and I am not a part of that generation. I find humor and profundity in the writings; some things are timeless. I have read a piece or two here as such.

  14. Thanks, Judith. I guess I like to bleed every ounce of commentary out of each thread before I move on. But OK, I'll come up with something soon.

    The "ancient times" you refer to no doubt refers to my childhood. :-) I do believe in studying the classics of any art form. I tell any kid learning to play guitar or piano to start by studying the old masters. (That would be Chuck Berry and Little Richard.)

  15. High john, been enjoying your site and was wondering if there is any way to download any uncle crusty and canaligaters music? I used to go see them in the 70s.can't remember the name of the place but it was as diff as uncle was in the area of the comeback in. Thank you . Terrie

    1. Hi Terrie — Just caught this. There are a few old Canaligator tapes floating around that old members have, but because the songs aren't original I'm not sure we can offer them to the public, given the publishing rights. But if I come across some live tapes of original songs that's a possibility.

      The places we played the most in the 70s (at least when I was gigging with the band) were all in Venice: the Sweet Pea Cabaret on Washington Blvd (by the Venice Pier) or Honkie Hoagie's Handy Hangout which was closer to the Come Back Inn (where we also played on Sunday mornings).

      I just added a photo of the 3 original members.

  16. I remember the Canaligators from their gigs at the Redondo Pier, Henessey's Tavern and The Front Page (Torrance).. they had a harp player named Jay for a while who I was sweet on.. my brother, it turns out, was friends with the Hook too. Small world.. this was back at the end of the 70's.. good times til Jay broke my little ol' heart!

    1. Hi Rose, I just caught this. I should check in more often. :-)

      Jay must have been before or after my time with the band. The only place I remember from the Redondo Pier that we played was Houlahan's (or something like that). An earlier band I played with, The Band of Angels, burned down the biggest rock club in Redondo Beach, The Flying Jib. (A fire started overnight and wiped out the place.)

      Hook, alas, passed to his reward in the 1990s. I keep in touch with Butch (the slide guitar player) and Bob (the other dobro player). The Canaligators—George Carlin's favorite band—was a one-of-a-kind group, which people still remember from Southern California to New Orleans to Drake's Island, Maine. Thanks for remembering!

  17. Mom was a roommate of Windance ... we lived in venice from '72-'77ish (until I was 9-10)... Used to live on Paloma and then Clubhouse... lots of the band lived in the front clubhouse house (I think)... was just looking for some videos of any gigs... but I do not think they exist online :( cant even find the Midnight special ones.... still looking though! Just saw Mike passed last year... anyway ... like your posts...

    1. Hey Robbie, I haven't been able to find any Midnight Special videos either. Let me know if you find any! Yes, RIP, "Little Mike" Kirshner.

  18. Knew hook in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Had a head shop called Mescalito’s in Manhattan Beach and played bass for Hook at a bar in San Pedro. We also had a recording date at A&M records thanks to the generosity of George Carlin. Definitely miss Hook! He was too cool to fool!

  19. Hi everyone,

    New them all very well, especially Thom Mooney. Miss their music very much and everyone that was always there.

    1. Carrie, I miss their music as well. On occasion, I perform on the street myself in Boston, just like I did with them, between 1973 and 1975 in California and elsewhere. I do some of their old repertoire, including "You Bring Out the Boogie in Me."

  20. John G. O'Leary. I have a DVD of the Hook and the canaligators at houlahan's 1973 ,1974 ? Transfered from 16mm sound film. I will send it to you. Contact me and I can tell you the story.

  21. Just found this site - great memories from about 77 or 78 seeing the gators on the Venice boardwalk, then many times at the Blue Lagune Saloon. It was the second floor of a sailboat showroom and the floor would visibly rise and fall from dancing to 30 days and such. Saw them one night at the Whisky. Last time I saw them at the Blue Lagune they had a couple of studio sidemen, I think, who had their amps set up just right and they sounded like the damn Rolling Stones that night. And that bar right near the beach in Venice was a great place to see them. Great times seeing them and the Bus Boys and the Naughty Sweeties etc. around that era. Thanks. A lot.

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