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Who was Fred Gamberg?

Jul 1, 2010

The Fred Gamberg mural on the corner of Duckworth and Prescott Street has fallen into disrepair. The elements have chipped away at the paint; graffiti has blacked out his face. The City of St. John’s is now undertaking a full restoration. Photo by Mark Bennett

 

Words by Paul Ryan.
Interview by Mike Heffernan.

Fifteen years ago this year, on July 10, 1995, Fred Gamberg died tragically while swimming in Flatrock. He was twenty-three. A fixture of the local underground music scene, he was an aspiring musician (Noon Day Gun, Giver) and a tireless show promoter, offering young people opportunities they may not have had otherwise. Danger: Falling Rock, a compilation album he produced with Geoff Younghusband and Jonathon Swyers, was, for many bands, their first experience recording original music.

For fifteen years, visual artist Peter Evans’ mural of Fred on the corner of Duckworth and Prescott Street has meant a lot of things to a lot of people: punk rock, friendship, and the enthusiasm of the early-90s in St. John’s. It was at the LSPU Hall where Fred organized and promoted many shows, and for over a decade, his wry smile reminded us that music is transcendent, and for many it represented hope and community.

Among Fred’s closest friends, there are still plenty of thoughts of what could have been, and for many of them it was still too difficult to be interviewed. For Paul Ryan, admittedly shy and reserved, talking about Fred Gamberg, who he had met in high school, was a painful process…

I remember dreaming of Fred. I don’t remember the details, but I remember dreaming of him. It was kind of nice because it was almost like he was still around, but then I would wake up.

I don’t dream of him anymore, but I remember thinking, only a few years ago, that I’ll never speak to him again—he’s gone. Anything good that happens in my life I can’t tell him. I can’t go to him when I’m feeling down. If I broke up with a girlfriend, I used to call him and we’d just talk, and he would listen for hours. I guess when you’re younger those things can affect you more. Everyone will tell you, Fred was a talker. But he was also a listener. I remember him at a party standing up with a beer and just listening, enjoying the conversation. I don’t know if many people know that.

That’s probably what I miss most, that I don’t have his ear.

The first time I spoke to Fred was at a Halloween show in 1986. It was at the 301 Club at the top of Hamilton Avenue. They used to have shows down in the basement for all the punk rock kids, and upstairs was where the hard cases hung out. Dog Meat BBQ played. Tough Justice and Schizoid played. Fred was being Fred. He had on a trench coat and his hair was all messy. He wore the same Sid Vicious t-shirt as me. We started talking because we recognized one another from school, and we were there, at that show.

We clicked pretty quickly. We were fifteen and in a school with a bunch of jocks. We kind of banded together.

Music was his thing. Music, music, music. That’s why we were drawn to him. We were listening to whatever was on the radio and trying to figure this stuff out and Fred already had records and was listening to Brave New Waves, a late-night CBC Radio show. Have you ever heard of Touch and Go Records? Fred sent them an order for a Butthole Surfers’ tape, Rembrandt ¬Pussyhorse. For them to figure out what it was he wanted, they had to read this long letter he had written them, a full page letter. He showed it to me. He talked about how he loved this band and that band, and he put in his two cents worth on where they took the wrong direction. That’s classic Fred Gamberg for you.

He always wanted to play music and be in a band. He loved music so much that he wanted to make it…

Fred was in the background of the local punk rock scene all the time, even when he was a teenager. There used to be Ploughshares of Youth, a downtown social action group, where young people got together and put off benefits for OXFAM. But it wasn’t until he was twenty that he started to get more involved.

Noon Day Gun was Fred’s first real band. When they broke up he formed Giver with Renee Ruba and Frank Paul Nolan. Fred played drums. I think he started playing drums by just having a snare at home and practicing on that. I don’t know how good he was, but he wholeheartedly adopted a philosophy of do-it-yourself punk rock. He didn’t care if he couldn’t sing—he got up and sang. He didn’t care if he wasn’t the best drummer—he got up and played. That’s how a lot of local bands got started, kids who couldn’t play a note but didn’t care either way.

There was a benefit concert, and Fred was one of the organizers. They needed an extra band to fill a time slot, and he called me up and said, “Paul, do you want to play at this show?”

I had my cousin’s guitar; I never had an amp. I said, “Sure.”

We called ourselves The Shitz. There was Richie Perez, Darryl Grace, Matt Clark, Dave Andrews, me and Fred. We never rehearsed. We got together twenty minutes before we went on. “We kind of know some Ramones. We might be able to play some Dead Kennedys.” I came up with a riff, and Fred wrote some lyrics.

People loved it. They were like, “when are you playing again?”

I think Liz Pickard liked it, too. [laugh] But I don’t think she thought it was good music, just the feeling it gave her.

Fred never thought he was some visionary who was going to change the world. It was nothing like that. He did it for pure enjoyment. Let’s get up on stage and play a few songs. Let’s have a laugh, man—lets jam! Let’s go for it! F**k it!

We started to drift apart when we were in our early-twenties. He was involved in what he was doing, playing music and organizing shows, and I wasn’t. I was going to college and hanging out with a completely different crowd. Fred would meet kids who were in bands, put off a show and make sure they played.

You can ask anyone who was around then, when Fred passed away there was a huge void left downtown. Nobody had the same kind of energy as he did. He wanted to go a step further and get some money together and bring bands here. It would’ve been only indie stuff. Maybe he would have, at some point. Who knows?

A lot of people who were in bands, people who are still playing in bands, respected Fred, and I could see that in the way they spoke to him. I remember going to this restaurant on Duckworth Street, Duckworth Lunch, and Fred sat down with Liz Pickard and Barry Newhook. It was just the way they spoke to him that I could tell they didn’t think of him as some little jackass. I used to judge people by how they treated him.

No one really mentions this anymore, but there used to be people downtown who were snotty and snarky to Fred. Some of them were part of the scene, but they’re not worth mentioning. They’re not around anymore. They didn’t make the scene. They were trying to be cool and punk and, I guess, for them, Fred didn’t suit the image.

But he did, very much.

Back in the early 90s, a lot more bands were playing, more than ever before. Fred, Geoff Younghusband and Jonathon Swyers wanted to document that. That’s when the Danger: Falling Rock compilation was released by Best Dressed Records. The Grunge thing was going on and a lot of people figured that if a little band on an indie label could take off, then so could ours. Fred was the production manager, I think. I went down and he was there making sure the equipment was ready and people were showing up when they were supposed to. They recorded at 333 Duckworth Street, a little place they used to call “Halfway to Hell.” It’s probably a law office now, but back then, it was just a jam space. For a lot of those bands, that was their first experiences recording. It was Fred who encouraged them and got them to get the $100 together to help pay for the whole thing.

That was the only thing they ever released. They printed some shirts with Fred’s face on them, which people now hold onto dearly. Those guys maybe had hopes of putting out more things, but it didn’t work out because Fred passed away.

•••

Photo courtesy Eugene Leger.

 

We were sat at the War Memorial talking and Fred came by. I asked him what he was doing.

He said, “I’m going swimming with a few friends.

Later that evening, his cousin, Dave, called. “Were you talking to Fred today?” His friends were looking for him. His clothes were found by the edge of the swimming hole, but they couldn’t find him. I gave him some names, people I knew Fred was with.

It was a rainy kind of night—misty. I remember looking out my bedroom window and thinking, Jesus, Fred, what are you after doing? Where are you after going?

Seven o’clock the next morning, I got the phone call. Fred had drowned.

I don’t think his parents truly knew what he was doing downtown. I don’t think they thought much of it. They had no idea so many people cared about their son. I mean, the church was full at the funeral. I went outside and people were gathered out there, too.

At the funeral, his father asked me, “Do you know what he was going to do with himself? Did he plan on leaving Newfoundland?”

As far as I knew, he was going to keep doing what he was doing. That’s what I told him.

A lot of bands got together and put off a show at The Loft trying to raise money for a headstone. They started by playing some of his tapes, a recording of his CHMR show, Over the Edge. Everyone just sat around, listening. People were crying, laughing.

Karmella Perez said to me, “You should say something.”

I really didn’t want to—I was just too shy. But I did.

“Everyone knows Fred liked to talk. In his kindergarten picture, he’s on the end, his head is turned and his hand is up covering his mouth, and he’s talking to the kid next to him.” By that time, all of our older friends had moved to the mainland. I was just about the only one left, and I wanted to say something about Fred from when he was younger, and that picture was him.

I think Fred’s parents would have liked to have seen me. They often asked my mother how I was doing. I regret not visiting them. But it was just too difficult for me. I miss Fred very much. A lot of people miss him. I think that’s what I would have said to them. Maybe someone else visited them. I don’t know.

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9 Responses

  1. avatar
    Elling Lien Says:

    I was a high school student when he passed away, but I remember Fred most from his work at CHMR and with Giver. It was a really exciting time to be getting into music — Bung, Darshiva, Potbelly, Lizband, Giver, Potato Bug, Hardship Post.. Man.. So weird, and so fun. The dark, dirty LSPU Hall was the hub of the scene back then. It’s really sad that the all ages scene here now doesn’t seem to have a steady venue like that.

  2. avatar
    Adrian House Says:

    Everything that Elling said. This period in music in St. John’s, much of it organized by Fred, saved me when I was 14.

  3. avatar
    Jessica Says:

    I agree.. all those shows, the best sort, a burst of communal energy, put together and organized by Fred.

  4. avatar
    Niall Brown Says:

    Downtown lost a lot the night Fred died. He could be spotted a mile away and was always trying to convince someone to play a show or making sure anyone he saw knew about them.

    His passion and his love of music were infectious, I can’t say I remember when I first met Fred but he is missed.

  5. avatar
    Dave Sullivan Says:

    At the time of his death I was rehearsing a stage production of The Breakfast Club (I was young). Fred was to be the Janitor. A role he would have nailed. His death was swift, sudden, and unfair. As it always is when young people pass.

    I remember when I directed my first show as a kid, Fred hung out backstage helping out. The guy was a legend… I remember saying to somebody… “Fred Gamberg just got me a drink.” In my mind that was the qualification of having ‘arrived’ in the arts and music scene. If Fred was on your team, you were in.

    His heart was huge, and his impact even larger.

    RIP Fred.

  6. avatar
    Tiffany Martin Says:

    I am not sure if I ever told anyone this, as it was such a long time ago, but I had a wonderful conversation with Fred earlier that day at the War Memorial. He was so happy, within himself and with life. It seemed as if he was in some strange way, at peace with the world. He was smitten with some lovely lady traveling through at the time, whose name I don’t recall. He was digging rocks into my arm to demonstrate what I bee sting felt like, trying to help me with my irrational fear of the little creatures.

    He was a true friend. He spoke his mind honestly. A one-of-a-kind man. I am thrilled that the city is going to take the task of preserving his mural. A friend, and period in our lives, that was so energetic and full of promise. Neither to be forgotten.

  7. avatar
    Joe Denine Says:

    Myself, Fred and Shawn Maloney were hanging out over at Shawn’s not too long before Fred died and got a couple of pics of Fred. I’m sure Shawn would still have them.

  8. avatar
    Diana Daly Says:

    This is a great article guys. Brought me back a million years.

  9. avatar
    Sheilagh O'Leary Says:

    I remember the soooo many rants about sound with (my then boyfriend) Don Ellis.
    He was obsessed with the local sound and offered so much in his very unique way.
    He was a real punk.


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