A Buzz from the past
The crazy tale of the Mad Manure Bomber plays city stage
There’s no denying the sheer wackiness of the Cal Cavendish story.
It’s the ridiculous, rebellious, decidedly Albertan tale of the Mad Manure Bomber, as he was dubbed in this very newspaper. The hotheaded country artist who, on April 11, 1975, decided to get back at the mean old city which rejected his music by packing up his single engine aircraft with 45 kilograms of manure and 100 of his unsold records and dumping the load in Calgary’s downtown core as he swooped between buildings.
The ornery cuss even buzzed the Calgary Tower, circling the tower top restaurant as patrons were rushed from the building by police.
It’s a knee-slapper of a tale that’s been told time and time again over the years — weird footnote in Calgary history that it is — but, because of its bizarre, funny nature, the sad side of the Cavendish story has been entirely overlooked.
Playwright David van Belle and singer-songwriter Kris Demeanor have come to know this more poignant aspect of Cavendish’s saga and they plan to capture that when they bring their new play Buzz Job! The True Story of Cal Cavendish to the Ironwood stage next week (Feb. 5-10, 12 and 13th).
The truth is that Cavendish, for all his jovial bluster, was, and is to this day, an extremely sensitive individual.
That’s clear when I sit down with the eccentric singersongwriter, now 68, along with Demeanor and van Belle for an interview at the Ironwood.
As we chat over coffee a young female artist strums away on stage, singing her heart out before a largely indifferent crowd. Cavendish is genuinely troubled by the scene.
“I say this with all humility,” he says, his voice lowering to a whisper and very nearly trembling. “This gal ... she’s singing her songs and she’s trying to make a living and we’re here visiting. . . . She isn’t really being noticed and that bothers me right now. It’s a heartbreaker . . . because sometimes the nights don’t go well and it can tear you right up.”
Torn up Cavendish was on that day nearly 34 years ago when he lodged his controversial protest.
There had been moments in his music career where he thought he was getting somewhere. He had released four self-financed albums and a few of his singles even cracked the charts. He had written the theme song for CBC Radio’s Wild Rose Country and he was the subject of a 1973 National Film Board documentary.
But despite all of that, as Cavendish watched his fellow Calgarians get rich during the city’s oil boom, he became increasingly dejected, struggling as a musician and working as a security guard at K-Mart to make ends meet.
To top it all off, his prized pilot’s licence had been yanked away from him the previous year when Cavendish was undergoing psychiatric treatment.
That’s right, he was flying without a license when he pulled his infamous stunt.
“Once you have a medical issue, they decide what to do with you and they decided the best thing for me, and society, was to write me off as a pilot,” Cavendish says. “That was really devastating.”
But the big issue was frustration over his faltering music career. “I had put all my eggs in the musical basket and the way I looked at things was that I wasn’t making it and I probably never would,” Cavendish says. “I was pretty desperate.”
Cavendish stresses that his act was a peaceful protest and insists there was never any danger the stunt could have gone array. He says he was a skilled flyer with about 10 years of aviation experience under his belt.
Still, even he concedes: “This may not have been the choice road to take. I’m not sure I’d want to do it again.”
In any case, as Cavendish tells it, his “rebellion came at a high price.”
What could have been the ultimate publicity stunt backfired and even though the law was lenient — he was fined $3,000 but didn’t serve any jail time — the singer found himself blackballed in the music industry. “Agents stayed away from me,” he says. “Because I was unstable, I think.”
That’s when Cavendish left the music business, instead hitting the road as a trucker. “I threw my hat on the ground and quit,” he says. “And I made money for the first time in my life, too!”
Kris Demeanor, who’s playing the young Cavendish in Buzz Job, says he leaped at the opportunity because he felt a special kinship with the eccentric folk hero.
“I’ve seen a lot of casualties of the music industry,” Demeanor says. “I’ve seen so many strong performers and writers that have said this is a shark tank this business. People treat you like garbage a lot of the time on all levels, from the bookers to the press to the audience, and you think, ‘What the hell am I doing this for?’ I’ve felt like that. That’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to Cal’s story.”
To playwright, David van Belle Cavendish’s tale is an important one that needed to be retold.
“This isn’t just about Cal Cavendish,” van Belle stresses. “It’s also a love song for Calgary in my view. Sometimes a love song is about broken hearts and dreams that get shattered. . . .
“This can be a tough town and when the money pours in, as it did in the ’70s, sometimes that can add a bit of a mean edge to the place. . . .
“I think (Cal’s story) has a rightful place in the city’s mythology.”
Cavendish himself couldn’t agree more.
When I suggest that there was something quintessentially Albertan about the Buzz Job he exclaims: “You better believe it was Albertan! It’s the freedom to make an ass out of yourself. It was straight out of the wild and woolly west!”
Ultimately, Cavendish is most excited about the play because it features his music prominently and he hopes a large audience will at last discover his songs.
As far as the attention it will bring to the Buzz Job, on that the old cowboy still has mixed feelings.
“Some people thought it was funny and some people thought it was nuts and they were both right,” Cavendish says. “But it really was the defining moment of my life. Here I am over 30 years later still talking about something that my grandkids have to live down. Or up to, depending on how you wanna look at it.”
Buzz Job, a musical about Cal Cavendish, above right, features singer songwriter Kris Demeanor, left, who plays Cavendish.
Kris Demeanor, right, can relate to the story of Cal Cavendish, left, who became a folk legend in 1975 when he flew a plane over the Calgary Tower and dropped 45 kilograms of manure and his records into the city’s downtown. TELEVISION •