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Sunday 16 Jun 2024

Bernie Finkelstein
David Simmonds

If you have any interest in what happened in the development of Canadian popular music over past 50 years or so, you might as well resolve to read Ameliasburgh resident, Bernie Finkelstein’s, new book.

“Truth North: A life in the music business,” published by McClelland and Stewart, recounts the successes and failures of a high school dropout who ended up managing some of managing some of Canada’s most enduring stars and running Canada’s best known independent record label.

FInkelstein’s story begins with his discovery of the Yorkville music scene in the very early 1960s. He quickly evolved from coffee house dishwasher to manager of such acts as The Paupers and Kensington Market; and eventually Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Dan Hill. By the time he had sold his record company, True North Records, a few years ago it had produced over 500 albums, of which more than 40 had gone gold or platinum.

One fact is obvious from “True North.” If you were an artist, with Bernie behind you, he protected you. Bernie went to the wall for all his acts. He found ways to get the best exposure in Canada and the USA.

One of the most telling incidents in the book took place in 1976. The CBC asked the manager at the Canadian National Exhibition why he hadn’t booked McLauchlan, who had just sold out Massey Hall, to play the CNE. It turns out the man hadn’t heard McLauchlan play, had confused him with someone else, had never heard of Bruce Cockburn; and made the bald statements that “nobody comes up with any sound reasonably good names of Canadian talent that we can put on the grandstand” and “the talent in Canada is not getting any better.”

What was Finkelstein’s reaction? He threatened a libel suit against the CNE. He demanded and received a public apology to MacLauchlan, Finkelstein and the Canadian industry generally, the firing of the manager and his replacement with Canadian legend Sam ‘The Record Man’ Sniderman, legal costs, and an itemized acknowledgment of some of the recent concert triumphs of Canadian musicians.

As Finkelstein says, this did matter: the conventional wisdom that Canadian talent was somehow second rate was “exposed as having no basis in fact”. No wonder Finkelstein eventually received the Order of Canada. No wonder Canadian popular music enjoys so much more exposure today. 

For another read about a Canadian pop musician who also won the Order of Canada -by making it big in the States, look for Paul Shaffer’s “We’ll be here for the rest of our lives.”

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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