Who needs ten fingers when you sound this good?
Photo by Morgan Kolish / courtesy of J2F's Facebook
John Dale describes himself as a short, hairy man who was raised in the midst of the vast Canadian prairies—”a byproduct of modern medical science and loving parents,” as he notes via email. He also just happened to be born with what his bio casually calls “a hideous physical mutation that science could never explain.” A childhood spent watching B-movies and wrestling imbued young John with a healthy sense of the surreal and the hyperbolic, but his self-description is pretty apt (aside from the “hideous” part—he’s quite handsome). Thanks to an inherited condition called proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), Dale is shorter than the average resident of his Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan hometown, and was also born short a few fingers (as he told me, “technically I should be called Johnny 2-and-a-Half Fingers, but it just doesn't have the same ring to it”).
His origins remain a medical mystery—“There's really no explanation for it. It's not hereditary, it wasn't because of my mom taking any drugs. The doctor told my mom that ‘John is just a black rose in a field of red ones, there's no explaining it.’ His original prognosis was that I was never supposed to walk, however my father refused to believe that and he rallied my family to believe that I'd do it. Probably the nicest thing that old bugger did for me!”
His love of wrestling started young, and is something he still shares with his band—his 300-pound drummer “Cannonball” Kelly wrestles in an independent Saskatechewan wrestling league— though his own physical limitations put the kibosh on his dream of becoming a pro wrestler. Instead, he chose another path. Dale is currently the guitarist and vocalist in a gritty rock’n’roll band called Johnny 2 Fingers & The Deformities, citing AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix, and the blues as early inspirations on his sound; throw in a few missing digits, and his decade-plus commitment to the riff becomes even more impressive. I was surprised to hear that the sight of Dale strumming away onstage elicits a negligible amount of Django Reinhardt references, because that’s the name people always wave at me when I explain my own eight-fingered reluctance to pick up a guitar. “People bring up Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath more often to me; he cut off a couple tips of his fingers on his fretting hand and had to make leather tips for him to play. I didn't know that until after I loved the band, it was just another reason be inspired by them,” he shares.
When I ask him if he worries his decision to go with such an out-there name will peg Johnny 2 Fingers as a novelty band, he’s frank. “It's not often when one can truly live the gimmick. I've always tried hard to be good at the music and songwriting side of things so people wouldn't look at me as some sympathy case. "Look at the crippled boy playing guitar, isn't that cute?" That type of thing... I want them to say "That dude can play some mean guitar!" he states firmly. “When my bandmates first suggested the name, I didn't like it—I thought nobody would take me seriously—but as i thought about it and realized rock’n’roll is all kind of a joke anyway, I just decided to get over myself and have some fun. I don't think I'll ever change the name now; it feels as much as me a part of me as anything else in my life.”
He had a rough time of it growing up, and in a way, it prepared him for the experience of stepping out onstage. “I'm used to being stared at,” he explains. "In malls, banks, grocery stores. Kids would always ask me what was wrong with me, and I'd tell them things like I lost my fingers playing with knives or in a combine accident. Frankly, I hated the attention because I'd hear them talk about me as if I wasn't even there— "Look at the midget"—and then they'd laugh. Even when I was older, I'd never shake hands with people. I was so ashamed of my hand and basically everything about my physical appearance.”
It’s hard to imagine the sheer amount of balls it takes for someone with that kind of poisonous early social experience to start a band and play in front of strangers, but Dale says that his missing digits aren’t really that big of a deal anymore. He’s a well of good humor and zen attitude about the whole thing, from his lonesome boyhood to his teenage discovery of the guitar to the drug-fueled party that finally brought him out of his shell (though as he says, “I hope this didn't come across as an endorsement for doing drugs, I don't recommend making those things a habit. Seen too many lives ruined from booze, coke and pills... I'll stick with the marijuana and the coffee bean, please!”).
He reckons he was a late bloomer, though his mother’s love of rock music and his own creative curiosity left an impact early on. “I used to go to a summer camp for disabled children called Camp Easter Seal in Manitou, SK. When I was 12 years old, they had a band to play for all us campers. The guy who played guitar was just a lot younger than me, like 12 or something, but man, he could play,” he remembers. “They did a lot of classic rock covers, and I remember headbanging to that stuff before I even knew what headbanging was. I looked at that boy and I thought in my 16-year old head, "If that little kid can do that, I could do that too. It's just like memorizing numbers; how hard could it be?"
“The first thing I went to was the library to get Guitar Playing for Dummies or something of the sort. Remember, it was 1999—I can still remember the sounds of dial up modems—and I started to read online tablature. My first electric was some crappy red Strat rip-off that I bought from a friend for $100, I was so excited to play it—finally I could get those riffs that I was learning electrified! I played bass in a band called Brain Sauce for six years and learned so much from old my bandmate, Brodie Mohninger. Now my bass player Brett McKay (who's an excellent guitarist) continues to give me unofficial lessons. Sometimes I give lessons to people, and I find I learn from teaching too. Guitar's wonderful, there's always something more to learn.”
His band’s latest album, McMillan’s Monster, is named after Dan McMillan, a friend of Dale’s who came up with a canny little device that completely changed the way Dale plays guitar: a prosthetic pick-holder.
“The first one he made was a big hook-like structure made from a milk jug that connected to my wrist via a velcro strap and hung between my fingers. He gave me all the supplies and ideas that I needed to make a smaller version that strapped onto my single finger, too. I glued and sewed a Dunlop Jazz III guitar pick onto it and used that unpredictable thing for nearly a year and a half until I visited the prosthetics department in Wascana Rehab in Regina, SK. The doctor, Ken Zech, took an actual cast of my finger and the pick, and now it works like a dream! Early on, I experimented with duct taping a pick to my finger, but it would always fall off, so I would just play with nothing. My finger nails were starting to wear out, I'd have really painful blisters on my finger stubs, sometimes I'd bleed. Also there was no way to get those amazing sounds like all my guitars I was listening to. Now I can play for hours without any worries, it's so reliable. I never thought about developing them for other people, however I'd be more than happy to share with anyone how to make their own!”
That pick has served him well on McMillan’s Monster, which sees him and the boys nail a swaggering classic-meets-modern blues rock sound. Songs like “King of the Underground” and “Colt .45” add a little outlaw twang in there, too, and the end result is a delight. Dale agrees, beaming “I feel like it's so much more real and organic than the last album, and it also really captures the sound that I hear in my head. There's all of us in that album; it's what I dreamed about what a band should be like.”
Despite the accomplishments under his belt, Dale is still a kid at heart; his own sometimes difficult childhood left him with a gentle manner and a lifelong love of Weird Al, reptiles, cartoons, and oddball music. “Growing up, I always liked the bad guys in the cartoons—they always looked cooler than the good guys. I could relate to the "icky" monsters as a funny looking little boy, and I always thought Skeletor was cooler than He-Man,” he remembers. “If it was a little gross or bizarre I'd grow fond of it. I love Primus, Reverend Horton Heat, Jimi Hendrix, Pantera, even stuff like the Beetlejuice soundtrack or the Ren and Stimpy album. I love old blues too, and classic outlaws like Steve Earle, Johnny Cash... shit, as long as it's real, sounds organic, and makes me feel something, that's what I like. I like rock’n’roll because of the aspect of being true to yourself. I love the energy, the rebellion, the sound—the fact that it's not perfect, and can be sorta gross.”
McMillan's Monster is now available on Johnny 2 Fingers & The Deformities' Bandcamp page.
Kim Kelly thinks all you ten-fingered people are weird. She's on Twitter - @grimkim