At 69 years old, Steve Cartmell is starting over.
This is remarkable for someone who dropped out of the Vancouver music scene in the early 70s. Nearly 50 years later, Cartmell is confronting the same challenges that a musician in their 20s would face. The opportunities and obstacles afforded by ongoing new technology, the domination of hip hop, the dictates of streaming, the effect of the economy on live music.
It’s also personal. In that regard, none of this matters. Cartmell wants to play music again. He wants to be – knows he can be -an artist. An artist on his own terms, despite age or economy. In a field fixated on youth that’s going to be tough. The odds are against him.
However, a few months ago, the odds would have been impossible.
“I was a basket case,” he says. He was living in a government subsidized apartment in New Westminster, drowning in soiled clothes and dirty dishes. Anxiety and various other disorders prevented him from tidying, To pay the rent and earn his keep he was sane enough to drive a cab for Black Top from 1977 to 1999 . He now exists on pensions. Cartmell was a mess he admits. Dysfunctional, dyslexic, and down.
Then Cartmell turned a corner, starting by cleaning his apartment . He belatedly took that as a sign.
“In the last two months, I’ve started to feel good again. ” Cartmell allows. “I decided I was going to be a musician again. So I did that. I know I’m on the right track. I’ve never been so happy.”
Steve Cartmell played keyboards in The Trials Of Jayson Hoover. Hoover had had a hit as leader of Jayson Hoover And The Epics, the Wilson Pickett-like Kingsize. The change of band name was meant to reflect a change in direction to something more progressive and harder. Cartmell’s brightest accomplishment was his arrangement of a medley of Sly And The Family Stone Hits. The band’s moment of glory came at the beginning of 1968 when it opened for Led Zeppelin, which opened for Vanilla Fudge. Being better known locally and Led Zeppelin not known at all, The Trials Of Jayson got more attention.
Hoover kept moving, changing the name yet again to the Anvil Chorus, but not with Cartmell. He’d been fired, just as Vancouver music was growing up and coming of age. There still was plenty of clubs then and a musician could get work easily and be paid well.
He’d heard music in church and told his Oakridge parents he wanted to play church organ. This led to a two year stint with his first serious group, The Incentives. In turn, before Hoover, he was approached by another soul singer, Kentish Steele.
“We were very fortunate to grow up when music was important,” Cartmell reflects. “I was playing steady. It was never a conscious decision. I worked steady from 1960 . I made good money. I was 16 years old and I didn’t know how lucky I was. I was earning $250 a week in 1966.”
On the sidelines in the early 1970s, Cartmell converted to Scientology, a decision he now regrets. Leader L Ron Hubbard appointed him keyboard player in a house band on a cruise ship that sailed globally on an endless recruiting mission. He made his escape in 1976 when his first wife, Virginia, became pregnant. The two left the church to give birth and never went back. Despite being married twice and having three grown children, he’s faced his problems alone and watched the Vancouver “scene” as he calls it develop…or deteriorate.
“In the scene you’ve got musicians who will work for free, Cartmell says. “I won’t work for less than $100 a gig. I’m not going to play the game. I don’t have a big ego or anything. I still can be an artist.
“I still have something to say. Over the years Ive developed my own style.
“I think the challenge was coming to grips with the scene. When I started to come to grips with the scene, it was far more important to concentrate on my health than a dysfunctional music scene. That’s been my biggest accomplishment, to become sane”
To that end, he’s gigging again and aims to release an album of his songs.
“I always knew I was a creative person,” Cartmell believes. “Music can help people get better. That’s the whole reason I’m doing it.”
And what makes him think he can do it.
“Delusions of grandeur.”