I always thought that music was a form of magic and people who could make it must have been born with a gift. I didn’t figure I was in that group. A song always made me stop and listen. I used to think if only I could create something like that…
I could pretend, just make up stuff. If I stayed away from lessons and critics I could make up whatever songs I wanted. And that was easy enough. When I heard a song on the radio I could add a few verses of my own. Rhyming came easy even if I made up stupid stuff.
But the real people, the people who really did make up the real songs, they always fascinated me. I read the labels on records to see who wrote those songs. I wanted to hear them all and make up my own versions. I didn’t collect records but I’d listen to other people’s all the time. Radio was my thing, with new songs every day. I liked the way songs kept changing, always some new sensation. The stories they told me filled my imagination.
I was born a few years after the war with a million other kids, all those sixties kids that went on about love and peace. I did too. I hammered bongos to accompany my songs until the hootenannies came around and people would have guitar-playing parties. I bought a cheap guitar. I didn’t take lessons, barely learned to tune it, but made up a lot of songs with it.
My songs to me were where I went to get away through those adolescent years, like Brian Wilson in his room – just let me be alone in my room with my songs for a few hours.
I went to Woodstock where I learned about peace and mud, lived in a downtown big city commune, played at coffee houses. That’s what my generaton did instead of going to war. Then I got married, bought a house, had kids, grew old. Didn’t we all?
I didn’t think of my interest in song writing as a hobby. It was something I had to do. When an idea struck me for a song I had to make it into one. When I heard something new from a songwriter I had to learn more about them.
I grew up in a little village less than an hour’s drive from downtown Toronto and when I had a motorbike in the 60’s I’d head downtown to Yorkville every weekend to hear all the great songwriters at The Riverboat. I’d have my buddy Bo on the back.
Bo Leishman was my foil and later my business partner. We were both engrossed in songs and songwriters and would debate opposite sides of critical questions like what was more authentic, acoustic or electric? I would bring my own songs out of my bedroom just to bounce them off him. He wasn’t flattering but at least he listened.
Years later when Bo was living on an ashram in India I had become swept up in playing with and promoting musicians and I’d send him accounts by mail of my adventures along with cassettes of my latest songs. He still wasn’t flattering but he was interested. And it was years after that when Bo returned from India in time to help me lug a PA to set up for an open stage I was hosting at Sneaky Dee’s and work the door for a Songwriters Series I was promoting at Stratengers, both Toronto pubs.
He had inherited a bunch of money and we started a record label, then spent five years spending his maiden aunt’s accumulated fortune promoting songwriters we admired who were well outside the commercial mainstream.
I’d become involved in the Toronto music scene much more than I’d ever expected to be, promoting shows and managing bands, pestering talent buyers and journalists, and then writing for a local indie music magazine. I even served a term on the board of the Mariposa Folk Festival during its last disastrous year in Toronto and sold out The Horseshoe one night with a big benefit for Leonard Peltier. It was an adventure all right but it never turned into a living. Bo’s money ran out and I had already taken out a second mortgage so it was time to call it quits. I was feeling a little bruised and music wasn’t magic any more.
Three people in particular, Ken Layton, Yvonne Matsell and Chris Scerri stand out as pivotal characters in my story, even if they don’t know it. Individually spaced out in my life by geography and time, each opened doors for me to discover great new musical worlds and meet dozens of talented musicians. That’s the kind of people they are. Musicians of every stripe have walked through doors they opened with their enthusiasm and energy.
When our kids were still babies Judy and I moved to Box Grove, a quiet hamlet on the outskirts of Markham. It’s gone now but it was a pretty special place. Live music seemed to come out of every other window there. Ken Layton was the spark that made it all happen.
I met him when I was cutting the lawn and he walked across the street from his house. “My mom tells me you’re looking for a drummer,” he said. She’d misunderstood, I didn’t think I was worthy of a drummer but I said sure. Ken recruited his friends, great players, and we formed the Box Grove Dance Band, and played fifties rock songs at parties for a few years. What great fun!
Ken was the wellspring of everything musical in Box Grove and because of him the little country corner had a sizzling music scene with talent all out of proportion to its size.
When I started hosting an open jam in my front room once a week, it was Ken who made sure people knew about it. Because of him I met a lot of musicians who taught me a lot and became friends. In the years after that I kept creating different bands to try different styles and every one of them included enthusiastic input from Ken. Among the people he brought to my jams was Kim Brown, a talented young songwriter and her brother Kevin, an amazing guitarist. When he helped her form a band to support her original tunes I signed on as manager and that led to a decade of escalating involvement in the music business that took me to MIDEM, the international music conference in France, and led to the indie label that I ran with Bo. It was all an outgrowth of the scene that Ken created, a scene that culminated in a long-running annual rock festival called Iggstock, documented in the Tracy German film of the same name. Although it took place way out in the Ottawa Valley, the real musical core of Iggstock was in Box Grove.
Kim Brown’s band was called Rant & Rave. They worked up a pretty energetic live show and my plan as their neophyte manager was to try to get gigs for them in every Toronto club so that I could use that as a reason to pester journalists. I wouldn’t have bothered with the Brunswick House because it was Toronto’s blues showplace but Donna McCallum put a notice in NOW magazine that she was starting an indie series so I went to see her. She passed me on to her new assistant, Yvonne Matsell. What a lucky break for me!
Yvonne was just starting to get involved in live music in Toronto, just like me, and she was about my age. She would very quickly grow to become the most important music promoter in Toronto.
Eventually she ran North By Northeast, the showcase of talent that brought music industry professionals from across the continent to see local showcases. She started her series at the Brunswick with Rant & Rave. She took the press kit I’d given her and managed to get every music journalist in town, along with label reps to come out to see the band. She introduced me to them individually opening up future channels of communication, and also set me up with a representative from The Agency, Canada’s biggest tour booker at the time.
Yvonne was so impressive that the guys who owned The Horseshoe Tavern created a special showroom upstairs for her above their other bar X-Rays, calling it Ultrasound and designing it to her exacting specifications. For years after that, as I moved on from Rant and Rave and began to showcase other songwriters, she always found a place for me at Ultrasound.
She helped me arrange a launch party there for our first label release and later when I was writing for a local music paper she made sure to let me know when someone really worthy of attention was coming to her stage.
I was never a big deal in the music business but I wouldn’t have got anywhere at all without her help.
The music business was a long time in the past when I moved to Meaford. I instantly felt at home and grateful to be in a place of such beauty but musically it didn’t seem like there was anything comparable here with what had been happening in Box Grove. But then I met Chris Scerri.
Chris had a vision for Meaford of creating a lively music scene in this year-round vacation area. He promoted a series of shows at Meaford Hall combining the best of local with imported talent. They were high quality productions that sold out and played to thunderous applause. He quickly expanded Chris Scerri Productions to include a number of events at Blue Mountain Resort and other venues in the area.
He had moved to town from Port Credit where he had developed a group of musical friends, occasionally joining them on stage to perform vocals. I was intrigued by his plans to create a local music scene and suggested I could help with a local music magazine. Once they were on paper but now the digital blog gets the word out. I revelled in the opportunity to write longform stories about musicians with MeafordLiveMusic.com.
With Chris creating events for me to write about, I began to learn more about local talent and found that there is plenty of It in our area. The website blog caught on and it allowed me to interview not only local heroes but musicians who came to town to play at Meaford Hall. I was particularly interested in how musicians make a living these days and my favourite interviews were with veteran artists who had one time soared on major label contracts but now were forced by the times to carry on in do-it-yourself mode. I developed a real understanding of how the business had changed, an understanding I might not have gained otherwise.
I had thought I was getting along fine without music but something woke up in me when I moved to Meaford. It’s a small friendly town with people who are supportive of their neighbours. They like to hear live music here and I was lured by the prospect of playing my songs in the fresh breeze blowing off the harbour. It’s a long way in space and time from the bad taste music had left in me.
Back in the day I had learned a lot about how the music business works and that means I learned mostly about the hurdles and the gatekeepers. Things are different now.
People don’t wait to be told what to like anymore – they go out and find what they want. We used to do that upstairs at Sam The Record Man. Now you can do it on the Internet. I can release my own songs now without asking for anyone’s permission or investment. If it’s anything like what you are looking for you’ll be able to find it and you might like it.
I’ve learned more respect for my own songs. Some of the old ones seem to have improved with age, like a wine I’d cellared and forgotten. Some of the newer ones show that I learned something about the craft through all those years. I still don’t think they’d impress a record executive but maybe if I put them out there on the web somebody will hear a song some day and start to dream the way I used to.
I think there’s a chance somebody might find then and like them.