Bernie Finkelstein wears the Order of Canada pin in his sweater lapel to dinner last week in Toronto’s Kensington Market; the emblem is a reminder that you can smoke pot, chase women and manage rock acts in the ’60s and ’70s and still be an upstanding adult.
“I’m attached to the idea of original – not only original, but new,” says Finkelstein, founder of True North Records and the music executive responsible for introducing Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Rough Trade and Dan Hill to audiences around the world. “I listen for songs – I’m a song person – and the performers don’t have to be Miles Davis, but if I’m going to work with somebody, they better be able to play.”
Over a bottle of Spanish wine, the 67-year-old reminisces about the early days of the Canadian music scene. The tales, brought to life vividly in True North: A Life Inside the Music Business, his funny and fascinating new memoir, feature origin stories of many of the world’s biggest rock and folk bands; not just groups he managed, but also characters he met on the road, such as Joni Mitchell, Wayne Kramer, Bill Graham, Jackson Browne and Chuck Berry.
“My act Kensington Market was sharing a bill with Steve Miller and Chuck Berry and there was this guy, Brazilian George, who I guess was sort of in the drug business, and we were all getting so stoned,” says Finkelstein, remembering that Brazilian George had actually smoked himself to the point where he thought that Chuck Berry was the waiter. “So George says to Chuck, ‘Grab me a Coke,’ and Chuck does it! If there was a god that night it was Chuck Berry, but anything was possible – everyone was high.”
It’s tempting to reduce the ’60s to a series of hazy memories and drug tales, but without the work of Finkelstein and his cohorts, the Canadian music industry wouldn’t be where it is today. True North was one of the first and most successful independent Canadian record labels, and Finkelstein didn’t stop there. In addition to launching his label, he also was one of the pioneers at MuchFACT, a branch of MuchMusic that devotes funds to emerging Canadian artists. Groups such as Arcade Fire, Sarah McLachlan and Nelly Furtado have been recipients of these grants.
“I quit school, never finished Grade 10, but the thing I had working for me was that I wasn’t afraid,” says Finkelstein, who ventured into the murky waters of artist management before the CanCon laws were enacted to ensure at least some radio airplay for local artists. “I got to champion things I believed in with the hopes of some far off future: Some worked, some didn’t, but I could definitely say that I lived through interesting times.”
Today, Finkelstein lives with his wife in Prince Edward County, Ont., and has completely given up smoking cigarettes. His son works with the rap act Grand Analog and he still listens to music constantly – he favoured jazz while writing his book – but has lost interest in the business of selling and marketing music for a new generation of fans.
“All people want to do now is talk about distribution, I come from a time when we talked about music,” Finkelstein says, draining his wine. “My date had come and gone, but I’m happy with the work we accomplished. I don’t lay claims that I was smarter than anybody or more attuned. I just was around and able to say: ‘These guys are great, let’s give them some money.’ “
By Ben Kaplan, National Post.