JUNE 30, 2004

Still hangin' on to their day jobs

Rockin' and rolling with five Ontario docs -- and their accountant

One fateful night in 1978, a down and dirty gang of doctors and hospital staffers in black leather, cut-off t-shirts, fake tattoos and hair grease took to the stage at a talent show/fundraiser at the Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa. They called themselves Animalaena and the Tar Stools -- a bit of black medical humour they figured would go down well with the clinical crowd.

They were half-kidding when they entered the contest, with a grand total of three songs in their repertoire, so it came as a big surprise when they won first prize. Flush with their success, they decided to keep it up. They got themselves an accountant (Gary Landry, on rhythm guitar), switched a couple letters in their name to the more G-rated Star Tools, and have been rocking the Ontario benefit scene ever since.

Not surprisingly, with more than 25 years of gigging under their studded belts, the lineup of the Star Tools reads a little like the Rolling Stones -- only three of the six of them have been there since the beginning. Luckily, the Ottawa medical community has proved a fertile source of new talent. Today, the band consists of four family physicians, Drs Barry Bruce, Raymond Dawes, John Shier and Bill Hogg, a surgeon, Dr Doug Mirsky, and Gary Landry, the rock-steady accountant.

Apart from a few grey hairs, their rough and ready look hasn't changed much in three decades, nor has their musical taste: edgy rock of the 50s, 60s and 70s. But they've expanded their set list to about 90 songs, the crowds at their shows have grown to the hundreds, and their grosses have shot through the roof. They pulled in $165,000 with three gigs last month alone -- all for charity, of course. What's the secret to the Tools' longevity? "We aren't trying to make a living with it," offers founding member and lead vocalist Dr Bruce.

The Tools live by just one rule: they play strictly for pleasure. To keep the band from becoming a chore they keep their gig dates down to a moderate 12 to 14 per year and almost never rehearse. And once they've swapped their white coats for their leather stage gear, they refrain from talking shop. "We're all pretty intense people, with our hands in a lot of things," says Dr Dawes, a rural family doctor in Barry's Bay, Ontario, and chair of the Ontario Physicians' Human Resource Committee, a negotiator for the Ontario Medical Association. "The band gives us all a chance to let our hair down," adds the Tools' bassist since 1989.

On occasion, however, duty has interfered with a show. In 1980, Dr Barry Pritchett, the Tools' keyboardist at the time, was paged off stage to deliver a baby. Dr Dawes has had a similar close call -- he had to race back to the Barry's Bay Hospital right after a dance, arriving just in time to tend to a birth. In his hurry to get to the delivery room, he didn't manage to remove all traces of his rocker guise, to the alarm of the parents -- and amusement of his colleagues. "Temporary tattoos with magic marker don't come off very easily," he explains.

A few years ago, the group had their first shot at immortality with the recording of their first album. The 'making of' story reads like perfect fodder for a CBC docudrama: in the late 90s, Dr Bruce began a non-profit organization, dedicated to preserving the 'Diefenbunker,' an underground shelter built in the 1950s just outside Ottawa by the Diefenbaker administration to serve as an emergency retreat for the Canadian government in the event of nuclear war.

Fortunately, the bunker proved unnecessary, and in the mid-90s it was decommissioned by the Canadian Armed Forces and slated to be closed off with a cement plug. Cue history buff Dr Bruce and his rescue campaign. He and his cohorts succeeded in preserving the site; the bunker is now a Canadian Cold War museum that attracts roughly 22,000 visitors a year.

But the project's success required funds. In 1998, the Star Tools came up with an eccentric plan to raise some money for the museum: they would record a Cold War-themed album -- and record it down in the Diefenbunker. They rigged up the original recording system installed in the bunker for emergency broadcasts and ran wires for speakers and microphones down a 120 metre shaft and through a 1,500 metre tunnel into the bunker's Bank of Canada vaults, to capture an eerie background echo effect.

The band recorded tunes they felt suggested Cold War themes, such as "Eve of Destruction," "Secret Agent Man," and (admittedly, a bit of a stretch) "Great Balls of Fire." Dr Bruce got hold of some newly declassified White House tapes made during the Cuban missile crisis, and wove excerpts into some of the songs. The result was their CD Blastorama, which quickly sold out on its first run at the Diefenbunker museum store.

The Tools may still be rocking like it was 1969, but the years have taken a toll on some of their long time fans. "Some of our groupies are getting rather aged," says Dr Dawes, who still manages the two hour drive between every Ottawa show and his home in Barry's Bay, often returning at 3am. "They've developed back problems that limit their ability to dance."

Dr Dawes admits that some of the band's doctor jokes are also starting to get a little long in the tooth. Audience members have even been caught rolling their eyes when band members refer to surgeon Dr Mirsky as "a real cut up" or introduce their rendition of "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" as a cover of a "Urethra Franklin" classic.

But the best doc joke so far was on them. In the early 80s, American tabloid the National Enquirer ran a photo of a greased-up Dr Bruce wailing into his microphone with the caption, "Would you let this man take out your appendix?" Dr Bruce was a little thrown, but the incident hasn't exactly ruined his career. "The story was actually pretty flattering," he says. The media coverage continued with a couple of articles in the Ottawa Citizen and a piece in MacLean's magazine. Rolling Stone has yet to call for an interview, but at 26 years and counting, the Star Tools are in no hurry.



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