Rock 'n' roll iconoclast Neil Young never fails to acknowledge Winnipeg as the place where he took his first musical steps with several local bands, most notable of those being The Squires. He still holds a great affinity for that band. However, what distinguished Young from his bandmates and contemporaries was his singular focus on making music his life.
"At that point, there really wasn't anything more important in my life than playing music," he muses. "And it's obvious when you look back at my early years, that's what I was like. I was so driven to make it. I had to leave a lot of friends behind to get where I am now, especially in the beginning."
One such friend was drummer Bill Edmondson. Being abandoned by Young haunted him the rest of his life.
In the fall of 2011, I received an email from Adrien Sala, looking for information on the late Bill Edmondson. His friend, Matt Weinstein, had come across an acoustic guitar in a gig bag abandoned in a West End back alley a year earlier.
"It was leaning up against a BFI bin behind a house at 573 Sherbrook St., as if someone had put it out for garbage day pickup," recalls Weinstein.
He took the guitar back to his apartment.
"In the case, along with the guitar, strap, picks and a harmonica was an obituary notice and some letters and photographs," says Weinstein. "I recognized the photo of Neil Young & The Squires, so I knew this guitar somehow related to that."
Indeed, it did.
Born into a well-to-do family (his father was president of Lowney Chocolates) in Montreal, Bill Edmondson moved to Winnipeg in the early '60s with his mother after his parents divorced. The two lived with Edmondson's grandmother, Myrtle Blodgett, in the top floor of a duplex at 1076 Grosvenor Ave. Edmondson was already playing drums when he met a young guitar player living across the street named Neil Young. The two hit it off, with Edmondson sometimes tagging along with Young to Squires gigs.
"Neil would be over at our place quite often having meals, because his mother would seldom be home. He was a good kid. I always liked him," Bill's older brother, Peter, who was already living in Winnipeg, recalls.
By the summer of 1964, The Squires had become a fixture on the thriving community club scene and had even released a single written by Young and recorded at radio station CKRC. But the band's lineup fell apart in August, and Young found himself in need of new players.
"We were really good buddies before I even joined the band," Edmondson later recalled. "The band had folded and Neil was moping around. He came over one day and said, 'I've fired everybody in the band. I need a new drummer, do you want to join?' "
The reconstituted Squires, with Edmondson, bass player Ken Koblun and Jeff Wuckert on piano, made their debut on Aug. 23 at the 4D coffeehouse on Pembina Highway near the University of Manitoba. The following month, Young quit Kelvin High School and with his hearse, Mort, was ready to head out on the road.
"When we went with Edmondson, we were really serious about making music our lives," says Young.
Billed as Neil Young & The Squires, the group, minus Wuckert, travelled to Fort William (Thunder Bay) in October for a two-week engagement at the Flamingo Club. After a brief return to Winnipeg to fulfil commitments, they were back in Fort William at the Flamingo and the 4D there until mid-December.
It was on that extended stay Young composed one of his most endearing and enduring songs, Sugar Mountain, on his 19th birthday. The band recorded several of Young's songs at CJLY radio station (two tracks were later included on his massive Archives Vol. 1 box set in 2009).
However, on returning to Winnipeg, Edmondson was cut loose from the band.
"Bill was in love with a girl from CKRC, whom he eventually married, so he wanted to be with her," according to Young.
That girl was Sharon McRae, who had met Edmondson at a Squires gig. "I was drawn to Bill because he was into music, which I loved, and he was a clean-living guy," says McRae. "He had a great sense of humour."
He also had a wandering eye. "When we were dating, I gave him an ultimatum because I knew he was playing around when he was out with the band. I gave him a choice: me or the band. I told him if he wanted to go, then go."
Edmondson chose to stay, leaving Young with no choice but to dismiss him.
"The hardest thing I learned to do was to fire someone," Young says. "Whereas if I hadn't been so serious about music, I probably wouldn't have had to do that. But knowing what I knew, where I wanted to go, what I had to do, there was no way that I could put up with things that were going to stand in my way. I knew what had to be done to make it and you had to really want to do it and music had to come first."
Edmondson's tenure as a Squire lasted four months.
His life was already spiralling out of control. Married in March 1965, and with Sharon pregnant, the two rented a suite on Dorchester Avenue. But domesticity was hardly Edmondson's forte.
"Bill really got into some kind of drugs when he was still with Neil," says Sharon. "He was huffing glue, sniffing glue from a paper bag. Neil helped me a few times getting Bill up from the basement and getting him into bed. There were already drugs around but Neil never did any. He even had the chance once. I was with him when it was offered to him and he said, 'Nah.' He didn't need that stuff."
By 1966, Sharon had fled to Vancouver with their infant son, Todd. That same year, Young hit the big time in California with folk rock group The Buffalo Springfield and never looked back. The news hit Edmondson hard.
"When the final realization hit, that's, I think, when he cracked up," Sharon says. "His dad brought him back to Montreal and paid handsomely to have him cleaned up, but Bill kept escaping back to Winnipeg. He had a real downhill battle after that."
Edmondson also spent time homeless in Toronto, where he fell deeper into drug abuse.
"Drugs had a major effect on my brother," sighs his brother, Peter. "There were some guys who took drugs and it didn't really hurt them, but others it did, and it hurt Bill."
Over the next three decades, Edmondson lived hand to mouth as a busker or entertaining in pubs and clubs, always playing up his one-time connection to Young. In the early '80s, a drunken Edmondson appeared on Stan Kubicek's Friday night talk show on CKND claiming he had played with Young for two years and had co-written Heart Of Gold with him.
"My son, Todd, saw his dad once in 46 years and came back from Winnipeg and never said one word. Bill was high when they met. Todd then realized why I took off in such a hurry," says Sharon.
Todd Edmondson has gone on to become a very successful entrepreneur and businessman in British Columbia. "He is the one thing Bill ever did right."
When Young returned in 1987 for the Shakin' All Over Bands & Fans Reunion at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, instructions were given to keep Edmondson away. But he did manage to meet up with his old bandmate for a jam session at the Blue Note Café the night before, where The Squires ran through many of their old numbers. But his time in the spotlight was fleeting and Edmondson returned to busking at The Forks under the names Crazy Bill Edmondson and Wild Willi Edmondson. A heavy smoker and drinker, he succumbed to respiratory distress in his Furby Street apartment on Oct. 23, 2009. His body was discovered by his companion, Coral.
"One of the saddest things was that it didn't even mention in the obituary that he played with Neil Young in The Squires," laments Sharon. "He waited all his life to be recognized for that and it wasn't even in his obituary. The only thing that ever mattered to Bill was being in The Squires. He was only in the musical limelight for such a very short time, but he must have treasured it, as he rode that small minute of his life until the day he died. Neil knew at a very young age that's where he wanted to go. And when Neil left Bill behind, it killed him. The rest of his life was a waste."
Adds Peter: "Bill never recovered from leaving Neil." In his later years, Edmondson collected a disability pension. Money bequeathed to him by his grandmother was all gone. "Bill left this world with a total of $3.86 in the bank."
Sharon and Peter instructed Coral to keep what she wished from Bill's meagre possessions. This included his guitar with its ornate strap. Coral lived on Sherbrook Street and it's believed it was she who months later discarded the instrument by the trash bin. Neither Sharon nor Peter were aware Bill's instrument and accessories, including the photo of The Squires, had been tossed out until recently contacted.
"Bill was there and was very much a part of everything that happened, Young says, reflecting on his friend's time in The Squires. "It was just as important to him as it was to me what the band was doing and everything. But he didn't share my determination to keep on going at any cost. He wanted to stay back where he knew things were OK rather than try for more. He was a wonderful person who loved to sing and play. He could have done what I did, but he didn't."
As for the guitar and strap, Peter is arranging to send it to his brother's son, Todd.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.