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
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
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
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"
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.