A Conversation With ... Bernie Finkelstein
Book stores are flooded with rock bios, tall-tale remembrances, addresses of past injection sites, laundered phone numbers of discarded groupies – hapless six-string adventurers and last call confessionals before kidney failure. Living the rock life isn’t necessarily the path to good health and sound mind.
When you come across a sober, generous read like Bernie Finkelstein’s True North – A Life in the Music Business and clear the mind long enough to turn a few pages you instantly find a book of higher purpose and rich in content – and well written to boot.
The book has been around a good year or so and is now available in paperback and from this vantage is a solid take on the Canadian music scene and the soul of Toronto’s pop beginnings in the Yorkville Avenue area.
I was a four-eyed kid from Indiana turned loose the summer ’63 in Toronto - a scholarship student for six weeks to study with famed jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Freedom – being seventeen – pocket change, music, music, music and all those pretty young girls I discover riding the streetcar from Currie Avenue in the East End downtown to Yonge and Bloor messed my head up – in a profound - surreal way.
Park Road, where the school was situated was near where the Hudson Bay stands today – once a parking lot with a jazz club positioned at one end – the First Floor Club. Those warm summer nights I’d walk the civilized streets of Yorkville occasionally squeezing $.40 for a lemonade and folk music and more pretty girls. Back at home – my head was totally screwed. The next couple of years all I could visualize were those sweet memories of Toronto, that young teenaged Greek beauty who served me chocolate shakes next to the Yonge/Bloor subway upstairs from where they played billiards and nine ball.
I invited Bernie to drop in for my radio show at CIUT 89.5 and just talk. It’s a long invigorating chat which can be heard in its entirety from podcast at end of interview. During conversation I discover this was also Finkelstein’s playground. So was Greenwich Village, a patch of earth we both shared. I was there to witness Bernie’s first big triumph – the Paupers take New York – the night was electric and I was in the audience. Enjoy!
Bill King: How long have you been living in Prince Edward County?
Bernie Finkelstein: We moved out there in 2008 but kept the house in Toronto then sold it about a year ago. I’ll tell you, I’m beginning to miss Toronto a whole lot so we are thinking of getting an apartment downtown.
B.K: Living too far from the edge?
B.F: We are not going to give up our place in Prince Edward County unless we have reasons I hope don’t cross our path – it’s beautiful and I love it and love all the wine.
B.K: Let’s hear it for more wine. …
B.F: Apparently, there is more wine out there than I can drink. I’m not sure – we’ll see.
I love Toronto, I was born here. When you go away for a few years, not that I didn’t come back occasionally, it is booming and has changed amazingly – buzzy and busy.
B.K: I hear in the tone of your voice - you miss that – you must have been out every night.
B.F: I was ready to retire but never quite retired. I thought at first it was the greatest thing and I’m still happy I did what I did and don’t regret it but I do miss the simple things in Toronto. My son lives downtown and he’s in the music business and I visit him right at Spadina and King and it’s changed down there – I think for the best.
B.K: Look around the world – the complications cities face and we have the least of any huge metropolitan area. Currently, it’s transit.
B.F: We blew that. I was around when we built the subway and there was always talk from day one – we’ve got to make this bigger, got to make this bigger, we’ve got to do more and they never could bite the bullet to do it. Now it’s so expensive and I don’t know how they are going to get around to do it. What’s Toronto – the fourth largest city in North America now – there are Mexico City, New York, L.A. then Toronto – we’re bigger than Chicago and Philadelphia. The way they count the GTA its almost close to 6,000,000.
B.K: Bernie, reading your book and going back to those early days – it was what - $.14 to ride the streetcar?
B.F: I don’t remember exactly but I know it didn’t seem to be very expensive. Before I even got into music I was living in Downsview and used to have a job at Honest Ed’s and would take a bus, then streetcar from Downsview up at Sheppard and Keele downtown. My mother used to pack me a brown paper bag with lunch in it and I remember waiting in line on hot days and thinking, you know I’m going to figure out how to never have to do this again and that’s what I did.
B.K: Family reminded you – don’t be a dishwasher, don’t stick with those kinds of jobs. …
B.F: I got very lucky. I moved to Yorkville in ’64 – quit school – never did finish grade ten.
B.K: Ever think of going back?
B.F: It crossed my mind – I thought in later life it might have been nice to go to university. I read a lot and got educated. I moved into Yorkville and got a job in a coffee house called the Cafe El Patio. I had three or four jobs there – I was a janitor, I learned how to run the espresso machine – they had these huge machines with handles – it was like running a steam engine. I was also a bouncer.
B.K: You didn’t have to deal with anything too serious. …
B.F: No – all the clubs in Yorkville had no liquor licenses so all of the bands were young and under twenty and the audiences were all under twenty. It was kids playing for kids. The oldest were the people who owned the clubs and they weren’t around – they’d get guys like me do all of the work. That was a great vibe for music.
B.K: I want to go back a bit – the book – True North: A Life in the Music Business – well-written and you’ve done a superb job documenting the history of your music – the evolution of Toronto and the music scene as a whole. I really enjoy the chapters about your parents – traveling the world in the military.
B.F: That’s right – my dad was in the Air Force - a career air force man in the Canadian Air Force.
B.K: The temperature of this read is not of a child unsettled, but of one going along with change – easily adaptable.
B.F: I’m one of the lucky ones – an army brat – I was really an army brat with wings. A lot of people don’t do well with that. I went to thirteen schools before I finally left school. Sometimes we’d move two or three times in two years. I think it set me up very well for the music business. If you are going to succeed you are always going to be meeting lots of new people – that’s how you are going to get ahead. By the time I had to meet people for a living I already had a lot of practice. I already knew how to stand up in front of a class and go –“My name is!
B.K: There’s so much optimism - let’s get out and participate - in the book.
B.F: I had been loving records since I was ten years old. I was living in England when Elvis first hit with the early Sun recordings. I paid so much attention to those labels; Sun, Chess, Okeh Records and started to know who these people were. Later on, I so much wanted to emulate the greats – the Chess brothers, Sam Phillips and other people – Ahmet Ertegun. I wanted so much have that quality of a label. I don’t know if we succeeded or not but I’m happy with what we ended up doing. I was taken with R&B, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry. …
B.K: You were also sucked into that Skiffle movement.
B.F: It’s the only time I ever played music. I played Tea chest bass. They were made from wood – what they used to pack tea and send on ships in India and England. You put a broom handle on it and attach a string and temper in certain ways and played a single string – “doomph, doomph, doomph, doomph.” You’d play “Rock Island Line”, all of that Skiffle music and I loved it and the big proponent of that who went over the top in England – Lonnie Donegan. You’ll be interested Bill, Lonnie Donegan started with the Chris Barber Jazz band. It was quite a marriage between jazz and Skiffle.
I kind of joke in the book – it’s like 1956, maybe ’57 and they used to have big contests – hundreds of Skiffle bands would go and try to win. It was right at the same time the Quarrymen (The Beatles) were a Skiffle group – I know we didn’t win but they may have won. We were all listening to Radio Luxemburg which was a pirate station before that famous pirate station, all the great stuff – Johnnie and Joe “Over the Mountain” – that’s how I heard my music, then you’d go to a record store in England and you had to line up and go into a booth and they’d let you hear the singles and then you’d buy them. There was no commercial radio or rock ‘n’ roll being played in the UK in that period. There was BBC but it banned a lot of rock records.
B.K: The thrill of pulling a single, walking into a booth, playing, then buying – take home and play for days on end is gone. It’s all immediate now. We are missing the process – the love affair.
B.F: I don’t know how I got to figure this all out, I guess I should attribute my son Noah – I got Shazam on to my iPhone a couple months ago and watch all of these crazy TV shows like Vinyl – which sucks – and you hear a song and you hit Shazam – it instantly tells you the title of the song and then I’ve got Apple Tunes of which I subscribe to the streaming – I didn’t pick it because I like it more than Spotify – I picked it because it was already on my computer. That’s good – I don’t want to learn anything anymore. Don’t teach me anything else. I just don’t know how anyone gets traction this way because the early music business of which I was familiar with was all about figuring out traction. I think people are doing better in the current music business than we are being told.
B.K: The figures on vinyl are better than digital.
B. F: I’ve got to laugh – can’t tell you how many vinyl records we threw away. We used to care about those vinyl records. I think today you take what you can get when it comes to vinyl since there are so few factories.
At True North we would go in and get ten or eleven test pressings done and change things until we got the one we wanted. Everything we put out on vinyl was the best it could be. If you got hold of an old True North record – not going to say you are going to love the record, hopefully you do – I’ll tell you what; the sound quality, the technical quality was the very best – we had some of the world’s great engineers that lived here in Toronto.
B.K: How did you connect with New York City? You had ambition and sensed you had to cross the border?
B.F: The first act I ever worked with was a band called The Paupers. For those who don’t know The Paupers – Skip Prokop the leader of that band – after that he formed Lighthouse. The Paupers did pretty well, especially for their time and they had a big influence on people. They were a fantastic band – a Yorkville band. I started realizing – this would be 1965, no matter how we were doing in the Yorkville, Toronto, Ontario area. we really had to get out of the country. We didn’t have to move, but started moving our music.
I was set up in a coffee shop and used the payphone on the corner and in one pocket had my receivables and the back pocket, my payables. I didn’t have a real office until I started True North in 1969. From ’65 – ’69 the period I had The Paupers, then Kensington Market – I didn’t have anything.
B.K: Contracts – where did your understanding come from?
B.F: It certainly didn’t the day I got started but I was a quick study and I learned and found a lawyer – Buzz Chertkoff and made him spend a lot of time explaining it to me. I never avoided the opportunity of asking people questions.
Saturday Night Magazine used to be the biggest magazine in Canada and they put me on the cover. In the magazine I have a quote – “I discovered it’s cheaper to buy an airplane ticket to New York than it is to fly to Timmins and after me everything is going to change.” The arrogance of youth is lovely.
I worked very close with The Paupers and put together a demo – Doug Riley produced it and Ben McPeek arranged for us and recorded at Hallmark Studios. A four track studio which was truly a three track studio and you always kept the fourth track open to bounce. Listen to what George Martin did with the Beatles.
I got a record contract right away for The Paupers and with a tremendous record label owned by MGM, a subset called Verve Forecast. They also helped me set up a gig at the Café au Go Go In Greenwich Village.
I go down to the Café meet with Howard Solomon the guy that owns the club and Howard says the head of MGM just called and said, you should get an opening engagement. I asked him if he wanted to hear the tape. He declined and said if the head of MGM says it - I’ll just take his word. So he says, you are from Canada, why don’t you play with Ian & Sylvia who had that number one “Four Strong Winds.” I said The Paupers are a psychedelic pop rock band – it may not be the best billing for us.
He kept an open calendar on his desk – I had learned how to read backwards and knew of the Jefferson Airplane before they were really big. I asked for that date and it was to be the Airplane’s debut in New York. Between the period I booked that show and when it started, the Airplane changed their lead singer and got Gracie Slick – made their first album and released “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” and were on the cover of Time Magazine – the whole beginning of the San Francisco sound.
The show in New York over four nights became the most important show of that time period – everybody wanted to see “flower power” – it was like Beatlemania from the West Coast of America.
The Paupers literally blew the place apart – we had the opening slot. The next day there were incredible articles in the New York Times, The Village Voice, later Esquire magazine and all of the great music writers of the time. Albert Grossman was there, Bob Dylan’s manager and dying to get into rock.
He convinced me to make him my partner in the management of The Paupers. From that point on, I’ve certainly had my ups and downs, yet I was connected into the New York music scene. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love New York. I lived there for awhile but I missed Toronto too. People were always good to me in New York and still are!
Bill chats with Bernie in this podcast: