Tom Harrison, In His Own Words
Tom Harrison, longstanding Vancouver Province music critic, is the latest scribe to ease into retirement.
Here he talks to White Rock Sun Publisher/Editor Dave Chesney and reflects on 37 years of overseeing the music beat and some of his more memorable moments.
Dave Chesney : When and where did you begin reviewing music?
Tom Harrison: I think I was 22, which would be 1974. I've sometimes felt that at 22, I already was too old. The first published piece was a record review in Creem. It was really silly but, I guess, irreverent enough for the Creem editor. The Mystic Crystal Apocalyptic Band. The name of the band is almost as long as the review.
A few months later, I sent a letter of complaint to a Toronto monthly, Beetle. It had a reviewer I didn't like. Immediately, I felt I shouldn't criticize him if I wasn't prepared to write reviews myself. So, I sent a few reviews promptly after. The editor said they were good and was I in a position to do interviews? As a matter of fact, I was. I was music director at UBD's campus radio station, then called CYVR, and in regular contact with record reps. So began my "career." I have a hard time calling it a career. When I talked about this to Richard Thompson, he didn't like it either. He said, calling what he does a career sounds like he planned it. I knew what he meant.
DC: You are leaving The Vancouver Province after 37 years of helming the music entertainment section of the paper. How did you come to work there? Did you always just do the music beat?
TH: I'd just been fired from The Georgia Straight around the same time The Province was coming to the end of an eight-month strike. The music reviewer was (the late) Jeani Read, who wanted to implement a new column. As we'd become friends and had attended a lot of shows, she knew about me and recommended me while she prepared her new column. I was hired as a music writer and seldom have written about anything else.
DC: A number of years ago you hosted a popular radio show on CFOX called “Demolisten.” What prompted you to take to the airwaves to promote local indie artists?
TH: "Demolisten" was an opportunity to do several things at once. I'd always thought Canadian acts had been given a raw deal - the Beaver pile nonsense. So, I could address that. Also, I sensed a tremendous amount of activity within the music community, but it had nowhere to go and rarely got any feedback.
DC: CFOX’S incredibly successful Vancouver Seeds (compilation CDs of local indie artists) was born out of “Demolisten." Over the years, many bands that went on to national and international fame came out of this project. What are your memories of those early days?
TH: I've got a lot of memories, most of them jumbled and probably irrelevant. A few became successful - Matthew Good, Bif Naked, Moist; some had potential - Mae Moore, French Letters, L. Kabong; and at least one, Raymond May, alienated everybody almost immediately. They were all good and worthy of support, but Vancouver wasn't ready.
DC: Over the years, you championed local and national independent artists. In addition to your editorial duties you, were actually well known across this great country for your musical creations through your band Bruno Gerussi's Medallion. Where did the band name come from? Warner Music Canada signed you. How many albums did you release?
TH: The name came from bassist Grenville Newton. He was having a fight with his girlfriend and as they walked along Lonsdale in North Vancouver they passed Soundcraft TV. In the store window was a bunch of TVs all tuned to Celebrity Chefs, hosted by Bruno Gerussi. His shirt was unbuttoned and he was wearing a huge medallion. Bruno Gerussi's Medallion, Grenville blurted, knowing our just-formed band had a gig but no name. His girlfriend stopped walking and said, 'That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.' 'Right,' thought Grenville and, to spite her, told us that from now on we were Bruno Gerussi's Medallion.
Over time, Grenville dropped out and we amassed enough demos to make an album. Warner's liked our story enough to release In Search Of The Fourth Chord but not enough to keep us. We had a second album ready to go when we were dropped. Ultimately, that was released independently as Guitar Damage by Little Games. We promoted it poorly and now no one remembers Little Games. You can hear that album on my personal website - www.tomharrisonmusic.com.
DC: What were some of your most vivid memories of the BRUNO GERUSSI MEDALLION days? Did you record solely in Vancouver and what are a couple of your touring stories?
TH: Again, several memories, but I don't know how relevant they are. The most money we ever made was appearing for seconds in a commercial for Club beer, which was available only in Manitoba.
I met Bruno years later and he sort of condoned the name and us -"At least you're not shooting needles up your nose," he said. Apparently, he appeared on The Tonight Show and the guest host subbing for Johnny Carson asked how well known he was in Canada. Bruno told him that there was a band named after him.
We did a tour of Alberta with Tragically Hip that was very good. In central Canada, all the clubs loved us, but we were playing college towns mainly and this was late August. If you'd come two weeks later, said all the soundmen, you'd do well. As it were, the attendances were really poor. And, yes, what little recording we did was solely in Vancouver.
DC: Speaking of your website, can we expect that you will continue to share your musical overview with us in the future?
TH: Oh yes, I fully plan on continuing writing. I think I will be able to speak more freely than I could writing forThe Province. It was a full-service newspaper, so I always had to keep that in mind. I envisioned the average person that read my reviews in large part was a person/reader who might only see a couple of shows a year and to that extent, I had to keep it relatively generic, so to speak.
DC: You have literally interviewed everyone on the local, national and international music scenes. Any memories?
TH: The worst interview was with Michel Pagliaro; the weirdest, Bob Marley; among the toughest were Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten. A few I think fondly of included Yoko Ono, Captain Beefheart and Steve Earle; one I wish I could do again is George Harrison. They all have stories. But, you're right that I've interviewed so many people that I probably will think of others later. Another you might remember, Ted Nugent. I was a day late for some reason - but you met me outside his hotel and told me he was in his room and to go on up. I did and we had a short - but lively - conversation. He was great.
DC: What were the Top 5 concerts you saw and reviewed?
TH: Bob Marley in Kingston; Bruce Springsteen at the Queen E; the early DOA shows... It gets hazy after that. Steve Earle at 86 Street; the first time I saw the Dave Matthews Band. I don't like Matthews now, but his first time in Vancouver, at the Town Pump, was amazing. Iggy Pop with David Bowie on keyboards. REM at the Commodore. Pagliaro at the Body Shop. Elvis Costello in Blaine.
DC: If you could only take five albums with you to a desert island, what would they be?
TH: I get asked this often and I warn that the list can change drastically each time. The one constant is Love's Forever Changes, my favourite album.
Most of my choices are old and, shockingly, short. The Kinks Are The Village Preservation Society; The Beatles' Revolver; The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet; Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde. Also, Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run; The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; The Beau Brummels' Triangle and Bradley's Barn; The Byrds' Notorious Byrd Brothers; REM's Reckoning, and Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights. It goes on.
DC: The top five Canadian acts you have seen develop over the years?
TH: If you're asking about bands that are still developing, I have to think about it. No band comes readily to mind...perhaps Arcade Fire; maybe New Pornographers. And these bands are no longer new. There are so many bands now, but the ways of promoting bands have changed. Three of the top acts in music - Drake, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd - aren't bands and aren't rock. In the coulda-shoulda category are a few that were either their own worst enemy or the Canadian music industry wasn't ready for them: Michel Pagliaro, Sons Of Freedom, Art Bergmann, Crowbar, Payolas.
DC: Your career spans an age that saw the natural progression from vinyl to CD to downloads to streaming. As you leave the building and look back over your shoulder, how do you feel about the music industry?
TH: The music industry when I came into it doesn't exist anymore. This isn't a bad thing, but for me, the adjustment has been difficult. Music critics became arrogant and complacent because we had so much power (some of which was abused) and practically everything had to come through us. So, possibly by default, we were on top because we were necessary to the process.
Over time, the way music is marketed, promoted or heard has changed dramatically. This is a long, involved subject, but it has made the mainstream media redundant. We aren't necessary to the process anymore.
My way of being relevant was to start the Garage column. That helped, though it was flawed and I soon learned that many bands preferred to promote themselves through Facebook. Blogs provided another alternative to the mainstream. And we aren't even talking about downloads, streaming, publicists, YouTube or online radio. There are people such as Ra McGuire, who are really good at uncovering new acts and albums. That's probably because they've spread the net wide and have developed favourite places to look. I might be able to do that now that I'm a music fan again, not a music critic. This also is a long subject
DC: In closing, will there be another book?
TH: As you know, there is one book: Tom Harrison's History Of Vancouver Rock And Roll. What you probably don't know is that the book has been unavailable for months. It was published as an eBook by Harper Collins which had a distribution deal with Amazon, Kobo and two others. For some reason, HC dissolved the deal and the book immediately was removed. There's the irony here that a major theme is the growing pains of a Vancouver music industry and the disappearance of the book is almost exactly what I'm writing about. So Carey Bermingham, the editor, and I are trying to relaunch the book through some interested publisher. There are a few. Maybe, now that I'm "retired," I can devote myself full time to this.