Searching For A Younger Man

I grew up in Toronto in the 60’s.  I loved folk music, especially the songs that told stories.  And the place to hear singers was Yorkville, home to maybe ten coffeehouses.  I was too young to drink but just the perfect age for consuming gallons of caffeine.

I always went to the same place on Yorkville Avenue.  On the street there was a door rounded at the top with a semi-circular awning above, then stairs down to a cramped space that held a tiny stage at one end.  So many folksingers passed before my eyes and ears.

Yesterday I was walking along Bloor Street in Toronto, one of the city’s main drags.  Along the way, I had spent time in two libraries, reading my book and joying in no agenda.  I kept heading east, watching the flow of humanity on the sidewalk.  I tried to make contact with many of them – psychically that is.  No calls of greeting or stares.  I saw they all had lives just as rich as mine.  I wished them well.  And perhaps none of them noticed me.

As I strolled, a word flashed in my mind … “Yorkville”.  I was just a few blocks away.  As I turned onto Yorkville Avenue, classy restaurants and elegant shops showed their huge windows to me.  The days of underground hippie hangouts were long gone.  Along the street, I saw three historical plaques, honouring three classic folk clubs which were no more: The Penny Farthing, The Purple Onion and The Riverboat.  I hadn’t been in any of them but I was still sad.

And then there was 90 Yorkville Avenue.  I recognized the door and the tattered awning.  But I couldn’t remember the name of the club.  A woman stood smoking on the step.  I asked if she knew the history of the building.  She didn’t.  She told me the door was locked and the space below had been used for storage for a long time.  Smiling, she suggested I Google it.  A few minutes later, I was sitting on a bench, doing just that.  I learned that Yorkville had morphed into an area boasting condos with a price tag of up to $28 million.  I became reacquainted with the names of several coffeehouses, including, at #90, The Flick.  In the 60’s it had been the refuge of folk fans but later switched to the more popular rock and roll.  Trouble was, the name rang no bells whatsoever.

I decided to find someone who knew the history of Yorkville.  Right beside the rounded door, I entered a fabric repair shop.  (That’s the only term I can come up with.  For the life of me, I can’t remember what to call such a place.  Oh well.)  The young man didn’t know history but he referred me on to someone named Emil, a real estate broker.  “He’d know.  He’s old.  His office is in the next building.”  Securely deposited in the next building, I saw no sign of Emil.  I walked into a clothier store.  “Oh, Emil.  Go back to the street, turn left, nip into the alley, and climb the steps.  His office is up there.”

Following instructions, I could find no such stairs.  (Sigh)  Into a dress shop.  “I don’t know him.”  Into a record store.  The young man behind the desk knew neither local history nor Emil.  “But you could try Fred.  He works at the back.”  I approached Fred and was pleased to see that his hair was grey (like someone else I know).  Fred smiled but noted that he was a recent transplant from London, Ontario and wasn’t up on what Yorkville was like decades ago.

I stood in front of Fred.  Another dead end, it seemed.  And then an old fellow buried in a vinyl display case raised his head.  “It was called The Flick.  I went there a lot.”

“Me too!”

We talked for a few minutes about the good old days.  I thanked him and returned to the rounded door.  I stared.  I remembered the 18-year-old kid who opened that door on many a Friday evening.  He was a good person.  He yearned to play guitar and write his own songs.  He wanted to go to festivals.  He wanted to be good to people.

***

Thank you, teenage Bruce
For planting the seeds that blossomed into sixties Bruce
It’s nice knowing both of you

Australian Folk

I’m sitting in the main room of the London Music Club with about 40 other folkies, awaiting the songs of Daniel Champagne.  He’s from Australia, and clearly well thought of:

“Daniel Champagne exudes a natural ease onstage, as he sings poignant lyrics and beautifully crafted melodies that invariably whisk the heart up with grand romanticism.  Coupled with an exhilarating guitar talent that transcends mere acoustic playing to replicate a whole band, Champagne is just magical.”

Wow.  I want to meet this guy.  And now five folks have joined me at our table for six.  I don’t know them.  They’re all friends.  Plus they’re all friendly.  The way life should be.

Daniel smiles his way to the microphone and starts hitting his guitar with a whirl of hands – one sound on the wooden back, another on the neck, and an atonal strumming of strings way up by the tuning pegs.  And it’s all amplified!  Almost like gunshots.  I’ve never heard anything like it.

Often Daniel jumps up and down as he plays, and stomps his feet.  Then he’ll hoist the guitar skyward, the strings vertical.  He’ll look way up and still crank out the melodies.  My jaw dropped, again and again.

Daniel wrote a song called Nightingale.  One time he was playing it at a venue in Australia.  A woman who was at the concert wrote him later that the chorus of that song inspired her to go home and tell her boyfriend for the first time that she loved him.  Years later, Daniel sang the song as she walked up the aisle on her wedding day.  Lovely.

Sometimes when he played for us, Daniel would twist a tuning peg to gradually change the note of a string, and then start singing in that new key.  Often I couldn’t hear the words but his whole body seemed to exude joy – the voice forced itself into my mind while his head and body jerked here and there.  Getting the lyrics wasn’t important.

Daniel’s grandmother liked drinking and partying.  His friends loved partying with her.  And she loved Don McLean, the American songwriter who penned American Pie.  Daniel sang us another of Don’s songs – Vincent, an ode to the painter Vincent van Gogh.  When he sang “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you,” I melted.  Lost in the moment.

Mr. Champagne was just so darned alive, and all six of us felt it.  As did the rest of the audience, judging by the standing ovation that he received.  Often the music was quirky, the guitar playing outrageous, and the words unknown, but Daniel truly entertained us.  We were in the presence of a full human being.