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Blog Post: Bill King's Conversation with Nicholas Jennings

Blog Post: Bill King's Conversation with Nicholas Jennings

I’ve had a casual relationship with music journalist Nicholas Jennings through the years; always a fan of his writing and passion for music. We served together on a panel years back for one of those Ontario Arts giveaways and mostly saw eye to eye. We just happen to be sharing duties with a not so generous singer hell bent on not freeing any grant money to other female singers. This is why I’m not a big fan of these practices other than you do meet some lovely folks who you’d likely never spend a solid three to six hour sit down most days. We picked up on what was going down and made sure the deserving was fairly treated. I invited Nick to drop by my radio show last week and just as suspected – he’s someone special. Here’s part of the conversation and you can also catch the whole shot on Podcast.

Bill King: You were born in England and recently home. Family visit?

Nicholas Jennings: Yes, just a quick trip. I was born in London but moved to Toronto when I was still basically in diapers. I’ve been a Toronto boy all of my life.

B.K: You didn’t return to catch The Pretty Things?

N.J: I didn’t go back to see The Pretty Things but am very pleased to have been there in London – 1963 as the Beatles were breaking. It led to my two lifelong passions – music and English football.

B.K: You started as a musician and songwriter.

N.J: I was trying to write songs but never successfully.

B.K: It’s really, really hard.

N.J: To get it to actually work in three minutes – oh my God. I played drums and could actually sing—that was my contribution to the bands I was in. Then I realized at one point – if you can’t write songs but your dad was a journalist and you are told by your teachers you can write, maybe I should just start writing about music. I went to Ryerson and that is what I mostly focused on, music, from the get go.

B.K: What was your dad’s specialty?

N.J: He was a history buff but didn’t actually write about history professionally until later in his career. He was a proper political and current events journalist. He started on Fleet Street in London then got headhunted by Maclean-Hunter here in Toronto. After he got settled he sent for the family as you did in those days, once you got a job in the new country. My sisters and mother all came over and joined him.

He worked for Maclean-Hunter and fast-forward a number of years and there’s his son working in the same journalism empire. My dad went from Maclean-Hunter where he was editor of a number of trade magazines and then became the editor of the Mirror chain in Don Mills, North York, and Scarborough.

B.K: Did you read your dad’s columns?

N.J: Absolutely. He got me writing sports stories for the Don Mills Mirror. He was kind of gently encouraging that.

B.K: What did he say when he read your pieces – was he critical?

N.J: No, he was thrilled I went to Ryerson because one of the journalists he admired, J.D. MacFarlane, was dean of the journalism school so he figured I’d get the proper training there. I think I did. Ryerson journalism was the great education. Even better was starting at Maclean’s as a fact checker back when magazines paid to have articles ruthlessly fact-checked. There isn’t the money for it so much anymore. Your job was to verify every single fact in a news story with three independent facts. You had to take the writer’s facts and find three independent sources to confirm them. You became an instant expert in the subject of that article; in the moment and intense research.

B.K: You had to leave your desk – not so much today.

N.J: No Internet then. You went to the Maclean’s library and went through actual newspapers or reference books. You got on the phone more than not. I’ll never forget one of my assignments was to check Barbara Amiel’s column. Her and Allan Fotheringham were the two prominent columnists for the magazine. People wondered why she got to continue writing for the magazine when she outraged so many people. The simple answer was she generated more letters than the “Foth.”

B.K: Much like Ann Coulter – just upset everybody – draw attention.

N.J: So one day I was asked to fact check Barbara Amiel. She was calling the Salvatore Allende government of Chile the most repressive and fascist in history. I got on the phone and was talking to experts in Washington – the United Nations and there was nothing to bear that out so I went to Barbara Amiel and said, “Barbara I think you are going to have to change this it, just doesn’t hold up factually.” She says, “well change it to one of the most, instead of the most.”

B.K: It was coup director General Pinochet that was dropping opponents from helicopters, torturing and rounding up 10,000 suspects in soccer stadium – murder and disappearance.

N.J: I know! It was Pinochet who killed Victor Jara the great poet.

Maclean’s was a great education, the fact-checking and rigor for making sure everything was accurate and then I got my chance to write about music. The critic at the time had no taste for African American, African Caribbean music – nothing black. I don’t think it was a racist thing.

B.K: Probably no connection.

N.J: The entertainment editor at the time said, “Nick, how’d you like to write about King Sunny Ade?” The thought, oh my God, that’s all I’m listening too right now. Juju Music. One of my very first pieces for Maclean’s was a two column profile of King Sunny Ade. I got to interview him.

I sort of continued what I had experienced a decade earlier working at the Riverboat. I was financing my way through Ryerson and got a part-time job in Bernie Fiedler’s Riverboat basically pulling cappuccinos, washing dishes and heating up really lousy apple strudels.  Whenever I had the opportunity I’d head straight up the stairs with the tape recorder and interview whatever visiting artists were there and then write about those artists for the Ryerson student newspaper. You take your advantage where you see them. You see an open window you leap through it.

B.K: Talk about songwriting – the deeply tragic news Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie is suffering terminal brain cancer. He’s a guy who got people’s attention, especially in this country.

N.J: I do think that Gord Downie belongs in that class of songwriters with Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young, he tapped into this country and feelings about what it is to be Canadian. Very few have successfully done this. The achievement there, he’s done it poetically and done it in a way that inspires people from all walks. That’s the beauty of the Tragically Hip. They appeal cerebrally to the more literate minded and they appeal as just a great rock band to those who just want to pump their fists. I think Gord Downie has written some remarkable songs.  When I was with Maclean’s I was lucky to go on the road with them in B.C., toured with them for over a week – hung out backstage and on the bus just trying to soak up as much of what it was that made the Tragically Hip tick and Gord Downie tick. He’s an enigmatic figure, not an easy one to decipher. I certainly got his dedication to his craft.

B.K: First big writing gig?

N.J: Probably in The Eyeopener, the Ryerson student newspaper – Steve Goodman or it could have been Mendelson Joe.

B.K: There’s one you could easily tackle.

N.J: Speaking of being ahead by a century...Mendelson Joe would be one of the people in the 1970s who would not perform if anyone smoked while he was playing. He wouldn’t tolerate conversation during his sets. He would stop in mid song and stare at you these hate stares. I found myself completely drawn to him because he was so out there. I consider myself lucky he didn’t eat me up during the interview.

B.K: Rolling Stone was the bible of music writing. Were you a big fan?

N.J: Oh yeah. I was reading Creem, I was reading Rolling Stone and whenever I saw it I would be reading the English magazines as well; NME, Melody Maker and so on.

B.K: There was some great writing.

N.J: There was great writing. Writers were given space not only physical but stylistically. You were allowed to sort of “wax on” as they used to say, lyrically and take a sort of a left field view of a subject. Lester Bangs was the most iconoclastic, the most singular stylist. I loved all of that stuff.

I think initially I was really drawn to singer/songwriters. For me it was always about the poetry. It was later - something about the rhythms that hooked me – that’s what led me into reggae and hardcore African music.

B.K: It got really “burned-out” writing record reviews.

N.J: I still write record reviews but you don’t get the physical space to go at it. I figure if I can zero in on one or two tracks I think people should hear – I guess it’s the frustrated DJ in me that makes me want to turn people on to a great song. If nothing else, however short the reviews are today I can trigger interest in a particular song.

B.K: The books.

N.J: I wrote Before the Gold Rush because I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been half a dozen books written on the Toronto music scene. You just have to look at New York, Los Angeles, Liverpool or London. All of the other great music cities in the world have had countless historical accounts of what those cities have given the world. I’ve always thought Toronto had a music history second to none. That wasn’t just “boosterism” on my part, I truly believe. 

B.K: We had to come to terms with it.

N.J: It’s that insecurity – that Canadian/Toronto insecurity – are we really good enough?

B.K: We had to make an international statement and we did that with the Alanis Morissettes, the Celine Dions, now Drake and The Weeknd.

N.J: It’s been a battle getting Canadians to celebrate their own music. I wrote Before the Gold Rush then the documentary Shakin’ All Over, although in the doc we branched out and covered other scenes in Canada. Toronto for me was kind of the epicentre, not out any kind of “Torontoist” bias, just by sheer size. Toronto is the largest city and it had the biggest music scene. When I wrote Gold Rush I told the story how Denny Doherty made his way from Halifax to Toronto, Ian Tyson made his way from Vancouver to Toronto. There was a natural migration here because this is where the opportunities were.

There was the bar scene on Yonge Street, the coffee house scene in Yorkville, and sometimes they’d overlap but they were almost like two worlds. There was a point at which they crossed over. The songwriting that was born in Yorkville with Ian and Sylvia “Four Strong Winds” and Gordon Lightfoot with “Early Morning Rain” – Joni Mitchell “Night in the City” which was actually a song about the night life in Yorkville. Those songwriters inspired the musicians who were in the bars down on Yonge Street. So you have Robbie Robertson coming up to Yorkville and checking out the singer/songwriters. You had David Clayton-Thomas coming up to Yorkville to hear the singer/songwriters and that led them into song writing.

I do walking tours of both Yonge Street and Yorkville, I’ve been doing that a number years. My really not so secret hidden agenda is drawing attention to this in order to get these heritage plaques up.

B.K: Years ago I was there as part of the plaque unveiling for the Colonial Tavern – then the plaque disappeared.

N.J: I think that was vandalism.

There is already a plaque in Yorkville for the Riverboat although some truck on delivery backed into it at the Hazelton Hotel and knocked it over. It was quickly restored and re-erected. We just had a ceremony to unveil the next three Yorkville plaques which will be for the Purple Onion, the Penny Farthing, and a general Yorkville music scene plaque which will have a map showing where all of the clubs and coffeehouses were. That was a great event. Five hundred plus people turned out at the former Rockpile – the Masonic Temple - to see the plaques unveiled and to hear Gordon Lightfoot talk and hear Luke & the Apostles, the resident band at Purple Onion, give a great set.

This summer we are going to unveil the first two Yonge Street plaques for the Town Tavern and Club Bluenote, to be followed by Le Coq d’Or and Friar’s Tavern and others.

B.K: We all have a magazine, something we latch onto as kids that feeds this passion. Mine was Downbeat. As much as I enjoyed reading the record reviews what really got me a buzz was reading the club listings and Toronto’s always stood out. Moe Koffman was always at George’s Spaghetti House.

N.J: Lenny Breau too.

B.K: You’d seen the Town Tavern and Colonial and recognize names like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk.

N.J: Artists like Cannonball Adderley.

B.J: This made me think this was a very hip city – the ability to pay for this talent.

N.J: This is what I tell people on these tours of Yonge Street and I get these wide-eyed looks. The fact of the matter, Toronto starting in the 1950s was a far more welcoming home for black musicians.

I tell the story Archie Alleyne told me about when Cy McLean and the Rhythm Rompers from the Maritimes came to Toronto and the owner of the Colonial decided to book them. At that point there weren’t any black bands playing on Yonge Street – that would be the late 1940s. If they were playing in Toronto they were playing in less high profile spots in Toronto. The day the Colonial booked Cy McLean it broke the color barrier and the floodgates literally opened. All of the hotels along Yonge Street started booking black artists. Then a lot of African/American artists started coming up here, hearing it was welcoming, hospitable, you got treated fairly.  You could stay anywhere and didn’t have to go and sneak in the back door. By the mid 60s it was the black artists from the Caribbean that started making their way to Toronto. All for these artists who eventually made their home here deeply enriched the cultural landscape – Jackie Mittoo, Leroy Sibbles, Lord Tanamo.

B.K: Update us on the Sam sign.

N.J: It’s been a long process but we saved it. We did get Ryerson and the city commit to remounting it. It’s going to be restored and hopefully by the end of summer – it had to go through all kinds of tests, wind tests, engineering studies and what else but it will go on top of a city owned building in Dundas Square and will be prominently visible and light up again, both spinning discs. It will serve as a great reminder of the neon glory and role music, record stores and clubs played in the lives of people in this city.

B.K: Let me point this out – all of this caring work you are doing is all volunteer.

N.J: It’s something that needs to be done. That’s all I can say. My wife calls it a hobby I call it a good hobby.

Originally appeared in FYIMusic May 30, 2016. Used with permission.

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