By Susanne Tabata
A man with a plan in the right time and place for politics
VANCOUVER — Gerry Hannah a.k.a. Gerry Useless of The Subhumans has just released Coming Home, an album in the making for more than 30 years. It’s an emotional journey forward but looks back to when the songwriter was one of Canada’s most infamous prisoners and a member of the armed revolutionary group, Direct Action.
On January 20, 1983 Gerry Hannah was arrested on the Squamish highway, along with Brent Taylor, Ann Hansen, Doug Stewart and Juliet Belmas. They were branded The Squamish 5 and indicted for bombing the Cheekye-Dunsmuir BC Hydro substation on Vancouver Island, bombing the Litton Industries plant in Ontario where Cruise Missiles guidance components were being manufactured, fire bombing local Red Hot Video outlets where some of the product featured snuff films and extreme violence against women and conspiring to rob a Brinks guard. The group had been living in New Westminster, off 10th near Kingsway. They all had aliases. Gerry was Steve Sturrock. He was living with, and in love with, Julie at the time.
“We were going out to do target practice just north of Squamish. We encountered a highway road crew and we waited for a few seconds. The highway workers miraculously turned into police with guns, fired a tear gas cannister and everyone was out of the truck. We were arrested.”
The media circus that followed was nightly national news. “We were five human beings that felt very strongly about what was happening to our world. We felt we needed to take extreme direct action in order to change things. We did several acts of sabotage with the ultimate aim of stopping the destruction of the environment and ending the arms race. That isn’t the message the state wanted to give the public.” It most certainly didn’t. In the ensuing 15 months, members of the group were separated from each other with the men going to Oakalla and the women to Kingston, pending sentencing.
“The media and justice system wanted us to be cardboard cutouts…selfish violent psychopaths. The powers that be zeroed in on the weak link and they used Julie to help portray Direct Action as a group of thug-like terrorists. I was incredibly in love with that woman and saw her change in front of my eyes. The authorities zoomed in on her vulnerable side. Julie was brave and enthusiastic on one hand. On the other she was also vulnerable. They used Julie’s pending 20-year sentence against her and manipulated her to confess fear for her own safety within the group. She stated she felt as if she couldn’t leave the group because she wasn’t safe to do so. In true fact, she had left the group once on her own volition with her dog Rex and came back.” The two broke up while in prison and to this day maintain their distance from each other.
Hannah was put into Oakalla while awaiting sentencing. The 1911-built Shawshank-style Burnaby prison was notorious: “That prison sucked. It was an open tier prison. The water in the toilets froze during the winter. And the food had gotten rank since the prison stopped allowing inmates to cook in the kitchen. The coffee came twice a day in a plastic cleaning bucket. Saltpeter was in it to keep guys from getting horny. On occasion I could see through one dirty window to Burnaby mountain where I grew up with Brian (Goble) and Joe (Shithead).”
Through this period he survived the West Wing Prison Riot in November 1983. The prison was made of four wings, with the south wing for high security, east wing for provincial time (two years less a day) and the west wing for low security awaiting trial. “With south wing under renovation, Brent, Doug and I were shipped to the west wing and so were the east wing guards. The east winger guards were more brutal. They beat the prisoners and the south wingers didn’t like that. They fought back. We were locked down and the general prison population was sick of these guards so they started planning a riot. There were plenty of informers in the prison so it was not a surprise. We saw the riot shields in the deputy warden’s office on a trip back from court. I figured if there was going to be a riot, I better have a shower.”
The riot broke out. Broken windows, toilets, sinks: “I worked a first aid cell and starting treating people with wounds from the broken porcelain. The fire trucks were shooting their hoses through the open windows onto us. It was a freezing cold night. The warden of the prison came out onto the catwalk and shouted that we had 30 minutes to get our shit together and line up or we’re gassing you. Everybody lined up on the bottom tier. Stripped down, no shirt, no shoes, running through a gauntlet of clubs where we were beaten. We were run to the cells under the Cow Barns and some of us were thrown immediately into isolation. Thirty guys per cell and one bucket to shit and piss in. No heat. They took the perpetrators and beat the shit out of them. They’d come back bloody and be taken back for more beatings.
“Luckily for me, a conspiracy charge for my role in Direct Action could mount to a joint defense. The next day we were taken into court. Our lawyers made a motion to the judge to have the three of us put back together again. Within two days we were out of the Cow Barns and preparing our defense. I wrote a lot of poetry while in Oakalla.”
Songs From Underground
In May 1984 Gerry Hannah was sentenced to 10 years for his role in Direct Action. He served five, mainly in Matsqui and was released for good behavior. Seven of the 14 songs on Coming Home are also on the cassette Songs From Underground, released on the outside in 1985.
“Matsqui was much cleaner. There was a music program. There were amps, acoustic guitars and a drum kit. We tapped into the recreation program funding and put proposals in for specific pieces of equipment. There were gigs inside the prison. Ten bucks. Three bands. Coffee, tea and juice. The Matsqui Musicians’ Association raised enough money to buy a four-track Fostex tape recorder. I recorded the acoustic guitar tracks in my cell and my vocals in the cafeteria. Another prisoner helped me with harmonica. And another prisoner sang background on a song or two. It was a four-track so we could do overdubs. I did vocals, guitar and bass. I also used a Korg POLY-800 analog synthesizer.”
Hannah gave the master to his mother during a visit and it was distributed and reviewed in the Province. “I told the prison administration I was making the tape. But once the review came out they tore my cell apart, confiscated all my tapes, my guitar, the four-track. I got it back eventually.” There are no plans to re-release the cassette, now selling on eBay for $500.00.
Prison changes a man: “Different people respond differently. Some people turn into psychopaths. Some don’t survive. It made me bitter about certain things. The state, the justice system and the way justice is handed out. I did survive it. It gave me more confidence and an understanding of who I am. It made my politics more developed. I was in communication with so many activists. Unexpectedly it made me stronger for the second time in my life. The first time was when I got onstage with a punk band – Wimpy and the Bloated Cows.”
It’s important to note that Wimpy Roy a.k.a. Brian Goble was a lifelong friend of Gerry and a key figure in Vancouver punk. His recent death on December 6, 2014 has been another shock to the old guard: “We were best friends as young boys. When we got into punk rock we were friends and band mates. Brian got his punk name ‘Wimpy Roy’ from our first band, Wimpy and the Bloated Cows. He was a loyal friend to me in prison. A better bass player than me. Humble and not concerned about the trappings of being a frontman. He wrote great songs. I think ‘Modern Business’ from New Age Dark Parade was a great song for Brian. I will miss him very much.”
Looking back: “I do not regret going to prison. I don’t think there is anything wrong with people going to prison for their political beliefs. I do regret being involved in Direct Action for partly the wrong reasons. I wanted to impress someone and be in a relationship. I also feel regret for the injuries and inconveniences caused by some of the group’s actions.”
Coming Home is vintage Hannah brought to the present. As the liner notes read, “I can’t imagine living in a world where no one ever stood up for truth and justice out of fear.” Is it time to think about your place in the politics of our time?
Coming Home consists of 14 original songs ranging from upbeat country/folk songs reminiscent of the Waterboys or Bob Dylan, to dark alt/rock dirges vaguely similar to the sound of Joy Division or The Velvet Underground. The album is available through your local record stores or gerryhannah.com.BC, Brian Goble, British Columbia, Coming Home, Gerry Hannah, Subhumans, Susanne Tabata