I’d known for some time that Kelly Jay was a bit of a pack rat. He told me about his collecting passion back in September 1989, when I interviewed him for a magazine story about his experiences as a rock ‘n’ roll musician during the 1970s. But I didn’t realize his passion had become an obsession until I watched him the other night on an American reality TV show, Hoarding: Buried Alive. What had started out as a hobby, as a personal exercise in musical heritage preservation, had progressed to the point where Kelly clearly needed help.
In 1989, the 47-year-old semi-retired rocker was living in Canmore, operating a three-table eatery that he grandly named the Hilton Café. He welcomed the opportunity to talk about his years with Crowbar. In its day, this Hamilton-based group had been the hottest, the fastest, the wickedest, the tightest, the baddest rock ‘n’ roll band in the whole world. Not just in Canada – in the entire universe. Everybody said so. Rolling Stone magazine, Creem, Fusion, the Toronto Star – everybody. “The best bet for international stardom of a lasting nature since the Guess Who,” gushed a Star writer, Earl McRae. “Mama, get your dancing shoes on,” urged Creem. “Then steady yourself for the jivingest rock ‘n’ boogie band in the land.”
The reason for all this adulation was a song, Oh What a Feeling, Oh What a Rush, that Kelly and fellow Crowbar member Roly Greenway had written in 1969 to celebrate the birth of Kelly’s daughter, Tiffany Rain Fordham. (Kelly’s real name is Henry Fordham. His stage name had its genesis in something that happened to him in high school. His pals nicknamed him Machine Gun Kelly because of his red beard and formidable build.)
Oh What a Feeling was the hit single that launched Crowbar as a major force on the Canadian pop music scene. The single quickly went gold in Canada and the accompanying album, Bad Manors, was hailed by critics on both sides of the border as the best recording since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.
But the hoped-for breakthrough in the States never happened. The Nixon administration alleged that Oh What a Feeling contained drug lyrics, and the record was banned from the U.S. airwaves. Crowbar had to settle for concert touring in the States. For a while it was fun. The band opened for the likes of Van Morrison, Alice Cooper and Bob Dylan, and made friends with such pop luminaries as Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
But every time Crowbar went to the States there was potential for trouble. “We went to Hollywood, and ended up drunk in James Mason’s swimming pool,” Kelly told me. “We got drunk with the Rolling Stones at Sunset Recorders. We could have done a John Belushi real quick if left to our own devices.”
So they opted for Canada, where mostly they could stay out of trouble and be a big fish in a little pond. But even here there were problems. The conservative Canadian music industry wasn’t ready for an unconventional rock band that featured strippers jumping out of giant birthday cakes and volunteers dressed in Mountie uniforms who gave away kilos of free pot to the delighted fans. How the band managed to avoid getting busted, I’ll never know.
By the early 1980s, the music and the partying had run their course. Crowbar entered into a state of suspended animation while the ever-changing cast of band members busied themselves with other musical projects. They still got together occasionally for reunion gigs but mostly moved on to other things.
Kelly moved to Alberta because the air pollution in Hamilton was affecting his breathing. “I thought, ‘I gotta get out of here if I’m going to survive.’” He filled two school buses with the souvenirs of his rock ‘n’ rolling life and hauled them out to Canmore, where he and a female friend named Janet settled in a small cabin he described as “one step up from camping.”
He showed me the collection. It included suitcases filled with autographed band pictures and newspaper clippings. The gold record Crowbar received for Oh What a Feeling. Another gold record, received from Alice Cooper, crediting Kelly with writing a couple of songs for the Billion Dollar Babies album. A black-and-white photograph of Kelly and Paul McCartney with silver crowbars – the official Crowbar insignia – around their necks. A photograph of a fur-hatted Kelly presenting Pierre Trudeau with a plaque recognizing the former prime minister’s efforts to “make it possible for Canadians to be heard in their own country.” A more recent photo, of Kelly in biker regalia, taken when he made a guest appearance on the long-running CBC TV show, The Beachcombers.
Aside from the pop music memorabilia there were artifacts of 20th century pop history. Photographs of the Rockies by Byron Harmon and Bruno Engler. Coca Cola posters from the 1940s (“the year-round answer to thirst”). The ultimate in 1950s’ kitsch: an embossed map of the North American continent with a Neilson Jersey Milk chocolate bar located where Greenland should be.
“We’re the generation who must collect the treasures of the past two generations,” Kelly said. “Because the stuff they’re making now just won’t be worth collecting in the future.” He had two Aylmer ketchup bottles from the 1930s with the labels still intact and the 15-cent price rubber-stamped on the caps. “You’ll never see another pair of bottles like that.” He also had such prized contemporary junk artifacts as a Max Headroom puppet, an R2-D2 robot arm, and a set list scribbled by John Lennon when he worked with the White Elephant band. “A good photograph of Elvis, to this day, I can’t pass up,” said Kelly. “I have to add it to the collection.”
Kelly left Canmore in the 1990s and moved into Calgary, where his growing collection of stuff eventually took over his entire house. Some of the items, stashed in suitcases and plastic bags, had a deeply personal and often tragic connection for him. They included plush toys that had belonged to his daughter Tiffany, who went missing without trace while teaching and modelling in Japan in the late 1990s. He also kept bags and bags of clothing that had belonged to his wife, Tami Jean, who died suddenly of a heart attack in their home last summer.
Some of the rock ‘n’ roll items, had they been in better shape, might have found their way into museums and archives. However, a representative for Calgary’s nascent National Music Centre, interviewed on the TLC Hoarding program, said he found nothing worth salvaging. Weather and neglect had destroyed all items of possible value.
The TV cleanup program came about, with Kelly’s reluctant co-operation, at the instigation of his daughters, Shawna and Bella. They feared for their 71-year-old father’s safety and wellbeing. EMS paramedics had been unable to get a stretcher through the clutter when Tami Jean had her fatal collapse. His daughters worried that the home had now become a fire hazard.
The TV cleanup crew worked with the daughters and some of Kelly’s friends to turn the junk-filled house into a more liveable place. They asked him to decide what should be kept, what should be trashed, and what might be donated to a worthy cause. It was clearly a difficult process for him, but he went along with it.
To help him through the process, a therapist hired by the cable channel talked to Kelly on camera about his hoarding habit. I don’t know how much good this did, or how much it will ultimately do. I tend to be deeply suspicious of TV programs that purport to find short-term solutions to long-term problems. But if having his home decluttered has made life easier for Kelly Jay, and brought solace to his family, then he and the family have taken an important step in the right direction.