'Ronnie! Ronnie! Tell us how you're feelin'!"
A wall of reporters encircles a table in the corner of Sai Woo, a small, second-floor restaurant on the edge of Toronto's Chinatown. Lights from television cameras illuminate the scene. Photographers jockey for position. Questions fill the air.
Ronnie Hawkins, the rock 'n' roll legend and Canadian institution, is back from the almost-dead and eating a plateful of spicy ginger beef.
"I'm cleaner than an angel's drawer!" he hollers as he shovels another mouthful in and unleashes his trademark, smoky chuckle.
Seated around the table are some of his friends, along for the media ride.
There's Cathy Young, all bosom, blond ponytail and big red lips. "I have one dusty Juno," she coos, turning her face to a camera for a smile, when reporters ask who she is. There's Amy Sky, understated in a black outfit, her handsome face unmade-up and gazing at Hawkins with obvious affection. "Ronnie gave me my start 20 years ago in his band," she says. "He invited me to sing for Bill Clinton in Arkansas back in 1983." There's Tailor James, Playboy magazine's Miss Playmate for June, seated beside Hawkins, demurely picking at her plate of saucy noodles. She says nothing and sports a look of confidence that suggests she knows her youthful beauty and her filmy blouse, unbuttoned just so, are all that's required. There's Mark Stenabaugh, a mountain of a man in a faded purple jumpsuit and spiky blond hairdo. "I'm a performer. I'm Canada's Liberace," he declares as identification, his pretty baby-blues twinkling under long, dark lashes.
Hovering in the background, his pale face and signature pompadour rising over the shoulders of those seated, stands Gino Empry, a publicist of local fame, known for his show-biz clients and the long-held secret of his true age. Wearing a bright pink shirt with a gold fish dangling at his neck, he surveys the crowd, having convened it, and licks his fingers clean of sauce, one after the other, deliciously, as he finishes off a chicken wing.
It's a scene, baby, it's a scene, and Empry has masterminded it, a two-for-one event. Hawkins is here to communicate two things. He's alive and cancer-free, just as Chinatown is SARS-free and ready (not to mention hopeful) for business.
The outbreak in here is communicable Ronniemania. And it has all the buzz of an Elvis sighting.
"Oh, baby, I like it when it's nice and tight!" roars Hawkins as he squeezes between Sky on one side and James on the other for a photo-opportunity hug.
An attractive young reporter crouches down beside The Legend, holding out her CTV mike like an offer of whisky. "You could eat anywhere, baby. Why are you here today?" she asks the 68-year-old. Dressed in a black T-shirt with the Hawk emblazoned across it in white lettering, a cap cocked on his head of longish silver hair, and his trademark sunglasses that he never removes, Hawkins turns to address her. He is a Santa Claus of big, bad living, of curvy women and dope and booze and bar brawls, his stories like children he bounces on his knee for a little fun.
He tosses off a few riffs, about Canada being the greatest country on Earth, baby! That he came here in 1958 after rockin' in Arkansas, where he was born on a farm with no toilets, no runnin' water. The years in Nashville and Memphis, when he witnessed the birth of rock 'n' roll, first called "hot country" and later "rockabilly." As soon as he crossed the border from Detroit to Windsor, he knew he had reached the Promised Land. He wants to help the city's Chinatown restaurants that have suffered as people stay away for fear of SARS infection. He ate here at Sai Woo for years when he was known as the Ambassador of Yonge Street, home strip to all the taverns he played in and ran. He says he's well, and oh yeah, don't forget, baby, he's planning a tour this summer.
Last July, Hawkins was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. Dr. Bryce Taylor, chief surgeon at Toronto General, operated on him, even held the hard tumour in his hand, legend has it, and then sewed him up again, unable to remove it because it was entwined around an artery. They prescribed painkillers and predicted he'd be dead by Christmas.
Hawkins refused to take any medication. "I'd smoke a stick of pot. It's the greatest healer in the world," he says. "Put that chemical shit [painkillers]in your veins, that's what will get ya in trouble." He knew he was "90-per-cent dying" so he took the advice of some friends, who told him about alternative medicines. He says he tried them all. Robbie Robertson, the famous musician who played in Hawkins's group, The Hawks, and went on to found The Band, put him on to some Indian healers. Lonnie Mack, another legendary guitarist, told him to contact a monk he knew who brewed up some concoction with bark from a white oak tree. A Canadian/Polish doctor he calls Dr. Dorothy prescribed other herbal remedies.
Then, a month before a blow-out tribute to Hawkins in October, when death seemed imminent and friends, including David Foster, famous Canadian music producer, and former U.S. president and fellow Arkansas boy, Bill Clinton (via video), showered him with adulation, his manager and daughter-in-law, Mary McGillis, received an e-mail with a header that read "Help for You." Her office had been getting thousands of e-mails, up to 38,000 in a period of four months, Hawkins says later in a one-on-one interview. She read the letter which seemed "bizarre but honest," she says, and told Hawkins about it. The sender was Adam, a 16-year-old who lives somewhere undisclosed and apparently surname-less in British Columbia.
"He explained that everything is made up of the same matter," says Hawkins, in a moment of calm bemusement during our interview. "His parents told me that from the time he was 5, they knew he had special gifts."
Hawkins was willing to do anything for a possible cure. Adam apparently cleansed him a half-dozen times or so, Hawkins recalls. "Now here's the scary part," he says, suddenly sober, his eyes like big saucers behind the tinted shades. A month ago, Adam's family phoned to say that "he had flushed it completely out and that I should go back and tell those doctors to do another scan." Hawkins did. "We told them that Ronnie was feeling well but that no one would hire him if they thought he was dying," explains McGillis. Hawkins is broke. He has had to sell his cars from the sixties and artifacts from his home near Peterborough, Ont., where he lives with Wanda, his wife of 42 years. He needs a few gigs.
A CAT scan and a later MRI showed no sign of a tumour. "Baby, it was gone," exclaims Hawkins. Neither Dr. Taylor, nor Dr. William Hughes -- a cardiologist who looked after Hawkins when he suffered heart problems two years ago and had to undergo a quadruple bypass ("I told everyone I was going in for a penis reduction," Hawkins chortles) -- were available for comment.
Hawkins doesn't like to say it was Adam who cured him. He prefers to list the alternate therapies he tried and suggests that maybe one or a combination of them cleared his tumour. "The way I feel is that there is only one healer, the Big Rocker up there," he says pointing to the sky.
Besides, he has seen the number of people who approach him about his miracle and it can spook a guy, even a rocker like him who has seen more than his share of living. At Sai Woo, a small and intense bearded man, named Norman Evans, director of Hope for Health, Foundation for Cancer Research, parked himself at Hawkins's table, trying to bend The Legend's ear. "Multiply him by a hundred, and add a hundred, and you sure got shit on your hands," says Hawkins, shaking his head.
The point he wants to make is that he's here, still rockin', still making people laugh. "I've been the luckiest guy in the world," he says. "I've been shot at," he says, recounting a tale of driving in Oklahoma. "I had hits put on me," he says, spinning a yarn about sleeping with beautiful girls in Memphis who "belonged" to members of the mafia. "And this?" he says, pawing a deep, permanent bruise on his jaw that peeks above his beard. "Baby, it's them brawls in the bars. Got a bottle shoved in my face more than once. Came close to dying a few times."
His miraculous cure? Think of it as just another part of the legend, another tale to tell in the vaudeville act that is his life. Just like that story that lingers still about the time he bought his first Rolls-Royce. That was back in the sixties. A car salesman rebuffed him, thinking that such a rough-looking character couldn't afford such a car, then worth about $18,000. So Hawkins went to the bank and got the cash, stuffing it in a paper bag. He returned to the car lot and counted out the money to the dumb-founded salesman.
It's a story, just like this most recent one, and life is made up of them.
"Write this up and give me a big spread," laughs the Hawk. "Could help me get that Order of Canada," he says as he pushes his cap to the back of his head and waves a hand over his head as he turns to go. ... See interview with Adam in Focus. F7