Thursday, December 15, 2016

One Every Two Weeks: A 2016 Reading List

Tis the season to be jolly. Or at least it's the season to compile lists of one sort or another. Just lately the papers here in Hogtown have selected what they call the top 100 books of the year. Last Sunday I read through the New York Times's list of the most highly regarded 100. No doubt many of the books on those and other lists are worth your time and money. Some, it's equally certain, are a waste of both. Of course, that grave, infallible judge - time - will determine if the books thought to have merit today will still be considered worthy ten or twenty or fifty years from now.

I have no idea what history will do to these books, but here's a list of those I read or reread in 2016. Some I raced through and didn't want to put down; some I put down almost as soon as I picked them up. Which is which doesn't matter because our responses to books, like music or art or film or architecture and the rest are so personal, so wholly subjective that asserting Book A is better than Book B is fatuous.  

Here they are, in no particular order, listed by title and author:

The Scheme for Full Employment, Magnus Mills; Guided Tours of Hell, Francine Prose; Henry & June, Anaïs Nin; The Chalk Circle Man, Fred Vargas; The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process, Meredith Anne Skura; Stranglehold, Robert Rotenberg; Mount Pleasant, Don Gillmor; Davy the Punk, Bob Bossin; Shoot the Dog, Brad Smith; A Moment on the Edge 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women, Elizabeth George, editor; Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad; To Have and Have Another A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, Philip Greene; The White Hotel, D. M. Thomas; Terminal, Rosemary Aubert; Golden Earrings, Yolanda Foldes; The Massey Murder, Charlotte Gray; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Strange Loyalties, William McIlvanney; The Secret History of MI6, Keith Jeffery; This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin; Kinky Friedman, Road Kill; Murder in Memoriam, Didier Daeninckx; Seeking Whom He May Devour, Fred Vargas; The High Window, Raymond Chandler; The Vanished Landscape A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries, Paul Johnson; Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster.

That's 26 listed - those that I remember, of course -- or a book every other week, on average. Not bad considering I also spent time reading the novel-length manuscripts of some Hogtown writer friends. Let's see how 2017 turns out.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Q the End v.2.0

When the CBC does something right it ranks with the best broadcasters in the world. When it does something wrong my, my does it screw up sensationally. Not long ago the host of Q, whose name escapes me, was invited to vacate his chair at CBC Radio. He did and Shad a rapper with no previous broadcasting experience got the gig. I wished him luck, but cautioned that the Hogtown culturati would be listening. It was, but too few ordinary folks - myself among them - were not and Shad just got his marching orders accompanied by some corporate claptrap about the guy from London, Ont. staying in the "CBC family." Uh, huh.  Tom Power, a musician and broadcaster from Newfoundland is now in the Q hot seat. I wish him well, but like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, the Q bird is dead.

I said as much way back in November, 2014. Q and its ex-host were and are inextricably linked. I suggested then, and I haven't changed my mind, that the music and cultural affairs program needed a complete retooling: a new name, a new host, new producers, writers, the whole nine yards. Go on hiatus. Wait till the air has cleared once and for all. Then come back all clean and lemon-fresh and start building an audience again. Uphill, sure, but much better than this latest 'do. By the time another heatwave is upon us next year it's better than 50-50 that Q will have gone to that great broadcast archive in the sky.  

But down here there'll still be a Q. That would be the Mighty Q, Q-107, where every Sunday, usually without fail, I get my much needed dose of '60s rock 'n' roll with Psychedelic Sunday until about 7:00pm, when I flip the dial to Jazz FM and Glen Woodcock's excellent Big Band show.  

Saturday, April 2, 2016

CBC Says Goodbye to the Brunswick

What do you remember about the Brunswick House, the CBC asked on its website. So I told them, never expecting that a lot of what I said about the shenanigans from the 1970s would show up today at

I recalled the downstairs lineup of the talentless, the brazen and the dead drunk who (dis)graced the famous dive's stage during the years Rockin Irene was MC. Upstairs at Albert's Hall it was a different story. Some wonderful entertainers played the venue - see this blog Dec. 5, 2015 for their names - and others I'd forgotten such as Jeff Healy and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Now the Brunswick is no more. Shuttered for the time being as it begins a transition from Hogtown institution to Hogtown history, it would be too easy, too simple, to be downcast about the grand old girl's fate. The better thing to do is to reflect on her long, long run, stretching back to 1876, and remember the great times she provided, - if, of course, you can recall any of the nights out you had there.

Monday, February 15, 2016

No Bull: The Matador's Back

The Matador is just about back among us. The former booze can at Dovercourt and College in Hogtown's West End now has a liquor licence - a piece of paper it didn't have when Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and Stompin' Tom Connors and lots of lesser lights showed up to play and perform way after closing time - and the new owner hopes to open as the Matador Ballroom this year.

I used to mosey along to the Matador after a night out in Hogtown, which back then - this was the 1970s - was chock-a-block with live music. Some favourites: Albert's Hall upstairs at the Brunswick House, The Edge, The Horseshoe, El Mocambo, the Jarvis House, the Gasworks, the Chimney, the Colonial, the Nickelodeon...I saw Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Domino, Dave van Ronk and David Bromberg, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Rough Trade, Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins and the Downchild Blues Band (as it was called). Some of these places are now memories, so any back-from-the-dead venue is cause for celebration, and the Matador, given its history, is mighty welcome.

What sort of act will be booked into the Matador when it opens anew I can't say. I just hope they are the heirs, talent-wise, to the Cohens and the Mitchells and the Connors; that they reflect Hogtown's admirable history of giving a stage to genuine ability. I don't have a say in the matter, but were I miraculously to be offered one, I'd hold out for a strong jazz-blues influence. Still, whatever the music policy real fans can only applaud the return of a venue that has earned the right to be called "legendary".      

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sinatra Comes to Town but Piaf Ignored

Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago this month. He was a bona fide musical superstar - and a very good actor. Whether he was driving the bobby soxers nuts singing with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James or assuring us that he did it his way, no popular American singer came close to Sinatra for style, phrasing, longevity and the ability to switch from swing to jazz to pop.

The tough kid from Hoboken, N.J. played here at least a large handful of times, the last performance at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1991, seven years before he died. Sinatra had had a Hogtown connection for a long time thanks to Ruth Lowe. The hometown songwriter penned his hits I'll Never Smile Again and Put Your Dreams Away. And last month and this there have been Sinatra tribute performances galore in Hogtown - at Koerner Hall, at the Old Mill, at Roy Thompson Hall with the TSO.  Actor-singer Albert Schultz, artistic director at Soulpepper Theatre, has his own show that he's taking on the road: Frankly, Sinatra.

An ocean away, also in December, 1915, another musical legend was born in a hospital in the Belleville district of Paris. Her name was Édith Giovanna Gassion, and that tough kid became known around the world as Édith Piaf. I don't know if she performed in Toronto. If she did it was a long time ago since the French singer died in 1963. I am definitely not a Piaf fan. (I much prefer Juliette Greco, who sang here in June.) Nevertheless, I can't help but remark on the contrast between the noisy celebrations of Sinatra's centenary and the absolute silence hereabouts over Piaf's. She too was a bona fide musical superstar, ranking with Charles Aznavour and Greco as France's best - the brilliant Jacques Brel was a Belgian and is excluded on a technicality. And as recently as 2007, a film of Piaf's life, La vie en Rose, won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, a British Bafta and a French César for Marion Cotillard, the actress who played the singer. I wonder why the big difference.    

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Upstairs, Downstairs at the Brunswick

If the news is true about Ye Olde Brunswick House becoming a pizza emporium, then the Bloor Street West perennial is soon to be a memory, nestled among other memories of Hogtown musical dives like the Matador. The Brunswick a musical dive? Yes. Downstairs, back in the day, there was Rockin' Irene (who died this year) and her pianist indifferently pounding out show tunes, pop songs and World War I ditties to a usually drunk - or getting there - audience of students, working stiffs, scoundrels, pensioners and others too, ah, unusual to categorize.

And no Friday or Saturday night was complete without Donnie Sinclair, the small man (he was a dwarf, but that's now a pejorative) who lived at the bar, ran the shoeshine stand and did a wildly funny but wildly inept Elvis impression about 11pm. There were amateur performers too who, just drunk enough or just brazen enough, got up on stage and sang and pranced for all they were worth. There was the elderly woman who came in from Niagara Falls? and opened her two or three-song act with the greeting, "Hello, suckers." There was another elderly woman who sang a show tune or two and was called - behind her back - Juanita. Why Juanita? She only had one tooth in her whole mouth. Or Mr. Bones, drunk out of his mind, and clacking away with handheld wooden sticks (idiophones). How about Carlos the Portuguese? He always sang Mammy, the Al Jolson song, assuring us that instead of walking a million miles for one of her smiles he'd "walk a million blocks for a smell of her socks." 

So, yes, downstairs at the Brunswick - never the Brunny in my day - was inexpressibly vulgar, but vastly entertaining. Upstairs, at Albert's Hall, the musical scene was something else again. Peter Appleyard the vibes player and his band were regulars and filmed a TV series there, bringing in the likes of Blossom Dearie and Cab Calloway. The Climax Jazz Band was there frequently, and so was Downchild. The incomparable Etta James played Albert's Hall a week at a time. And no hard workin', travellin' bluesman - or woman - would pass up a gig at the room if offered one. Neither did K.D. Lang. This was back in her 'cow punk" days, when she was fresh out of Alberta and wearing castoff wedding dresses and Dame Edna-style glasses.

I haven't been in the Brunswick in years. I got older, the ownership changed, the vibe changed. But if the building does become a pizza joint, why not leave the folks and their pies downstairs and keep the upstairs as a musical venue for local talent? The pizza people would rack up a big PR score for one thing. Or how about music and pizza in the former Albert's Hall? I'd pay to hear a good local performer and tuck into what my friend Bill calls the perfect food. At the very least the new owners, whoever they are, should have an all-week Brunswick farewell. Round up the old timers still with us, offer customers cheap beer, get some local blues and jazz talent busting it up, warn the neighbours there's going to be a party. The Brunswick, if it's going, has to go out covered in glory.   


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Black Cloud Hovers Over Nuit Blanche

 I don't claim prescience, but about this time in 2012 and again in 2013 I thought Nuit Blanche was heading for, if not trouble, then certainly a turn for the worse. The reason was as obvious as some of the installations I've seen while traipsing around Hogtown during the overnight outdoor festival.

Here's what I posted in 2012:  Also standing out were the Yahoos, or should that be yahoos? They were smoking dope, drinking, I dunno, vodka coolers? and generally behaving like jerks. Party hearty, boys and girls. But do it on your own patch. 

The doper-vodka cooler crowd I saw on Yonge Street near Gould Street. I wish I hadn't. 

Here's what I posted in 2013:  I have nothing against fun, levity, high spirits, street theatre, drinking, and a general good time. Nor do I want the night to become just for the arty and the earnest, because the transformational power of art, even for those who don't "get it" there and then is enormous. But I get the distinct impression that Nuit Blanche is becoming a pretext for a certain stratum of cementhead to wander among the crowds being obnoxious simply because they can.

I'm not the only observer to wonder about where Nuit Blanche is going: drunks, pools of vomit, loud, exaggerated bonhomie that can seem threatening to some, and so on were all on display this year. As well, two young men were stabbed and one of them died, although it's not at all clear if these crimes were somehow related to the festival. So, what to do? Nuit Blanche needs a White Knight to come in and clean things up without becoming a killjoy. Because if a hero on a white charger doesn't show up soon to save Nuit Blanche then the police and city authorities will start bearing down, and that means the end of a brilliant art night in Hogtown. 

I saw examples of this cementheadedness along King Street West, and again at the corner of King  and Spadina Avenue. I wish I hadn't. 

Now we know that a group or groups of the stupid and obnoxious (and criminal) attacked the police at Yonge Dundas Square this Nuit Blanche. From what I've seen on YouTube these losers look remarkably similar in age and appearance - almost exclusively male, not long out of high school, and dressed in the banal uniform of the street lout - to those I saw a few years ago. And we also know that Scotiabank has yanked its sponsorship of Nuit Blanche. I don't blame the bank at all. I'm not a fan of corporate arts sponsorship (it's just marketing otherwise writ), but without Scotiabank's cash - or some other sponsor to step in - it's hard to see how the festival can continue, at least at it's current size and scope. Hogtown and the province won't stump up, that much seems certain.

This city is a major arts venue, only bested by a few other places - New York, London, Paris - that have been in the game a lot longer. The drunken and the doped up can't be allowed to spoil it.