Q&A with Bernie Finkelstein
Q: Most of what you accomplished in the way of helping establish a national identity in music has been forgotten, taken for granted or swept into the corners of history. Why does this memoir matter?
A: There’s an old expression: A country that can’t remember its past has no future. And Margaret Atwood once said Canada suffers from cultural amnesia. I believe that’s true. When I heard someone on radio not too long ago congratulating Leslie Feist for being the first female Canadian artist on an independent label to have a No. 1 record, I was appalled. These people can’t even remember Sarah McLachlan, who achieved the same status just a few years ago, to say nothing of Patsy Gallant back in the 1970s.
That gave me pause. I’m not convinced people need to remember me particularly, but it is important that a version of how we got here, written by someone who was a witness and a participant, is available if anyone wants to check the record sometime in the future. That was my motivation.
Q: Apart from some humorous and surprisingly candid accounts of your own embrace of the Yorkville drug culture in the 1960s and ’70s, you steer clear of the usual scandalous revelations and back-room shenanigans that people have come to expect from a memoir about the music business. Were you tempted to tell tales?
A: I was more interested in the cultural politics of those years . . . When Murray McLauchlan was banned from the CNE in the early 1980s because the organizers had mistaken him for (Nova Scotia’s raunchy musical comedy duo) MacLean & MacLean, the real story was that the people running one of the country’s major concert series didn’t even know who Murray was. Canadians were considered back-of-the-bus acts. That offended me.
I just found that the book was more alive when I was writing about the music I was trying to break, rather than the back-room stuff.
Q: You’re known in the business for your intense allegiance to your artists and your relentlessness on their behalf. But in the book, much of your success seems to have been good fortune rather than cunning and strategy. Aren’t you being too modest?
A: I was serendipitous a lot of times. But I had become smart, working my way up in Yorkville. I may not have been certain about what was going on, but I could sense when something was coming together. I knew how to be there when it did, and I knew how to work hard.
Before True North was even an idea, I went to New York for the first time at age 19 with the single purpose of getting a record deal for the band I was managing, The Paupers.
I did that in the morning, and in the afternoon I was sitting in the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village — the temple of New York’s hip live music scene — turning down an offer for the band to open for Ian and Sylvia, who were huge at the time, and asking instead for a slot opening the first New York show by Jefferson Airplane.
I just knew, from the buzz among the underground network and the drug dealers in Yorkville, that they’d draw the right audience for The Paupers. And I was right. The Paupers rose to the challenge. They blew Jefferson Airplane off the stage.
Twenty-four hours later I was standing in the doorway of (Bob Dylan and The Band manager) Albert Grossman’s Manhattan apartment, staring at his wife, Sally, who was on the cover of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, which I’d listened to maybe 500 times.
Is that strategy? You tell me.
I believe that when magic happens, you shouldn’t claim it’s yours.