Murray McLauchlan: city kid, artist, metaphor
People don’t stand still; they move. For instance, they moved from Europe to North America. The children of those people moved from east to west, and their children moved from country to city and made money. But for the children of those people, there was no place, physically, left to go; and they began to move in other, spiritual, ways.
The time was marked by the appearance of a lot of new musicians. Music was important. It asserted feelings. People had always believed that if what they felt inside did not correspond to what they were told outside, it was their fault, not the fault of what was being imposed on them. Music was a way around that. It was a release of honest feelings, a response to what was going on inside.
Bob Dylan, a young American poet, was the first to sing about his own reactions to what he saw going on. If you were 23 in 1963 when you first heard Bob Dylan, as I was, you mightn’t have even been able to understand what he was saying. You had to work to identify with it, since you were already well on the way to becoming one thing, and this was absolutely another. But if you were 15 in 1963 when you first heard Dylan, as Murray McLauchlan was, you had none of your life to reverse or undo; you could plunge in on Dylan’s terms and make them your own.
A world generation of kids became poets.
It’s a long way from the Dylan of 1963 to Murray McLauchlan today. This is a sort of story of how he got from there to here, some of the changes he went through along the way, and the kind of man he is now, 10 years later.
Going to see where Murray lives.
Cabbagetown used to be mainly working-class Toronto, but lately middle-class radicals and artists have decided to live there. On a building near the corner is a yellow sign with the name of a garage displayed in speedy lettering. The windows above the garage are covered with flags, indicating somebody is making his home up there; kids often put up big old flags instead of curtains. There’s a whole story in that alone.
An obscure door opens onto a twostory flight of warehouse stairs; light floods down. At the top of the stairs, except for a new green washbasin and a toilet with a yellow seat there’s just a lot of undeveloped open space.
There is another closed-looking door with a sliding bolt; from behind it comes the tinkle of music, an encouraging sign. It’s the only door in sight, and there’s no choice but to open it.
The domesticity is unexpected. It’s a huge, brightly lit, warm open space, divided into living areas by furniture. Around the walls are an upright piano, and a collection of objects — antiquey things, their qualities as motley as the qualities of human beings. A couple of still lifes painted by Murray; all kinds of things connected to Murray and Patti Sockwell, his wife, by the times in their lives they represent, and by the people they’ve touched.
On a low table in the angle the couches make is a small red TV set with an aerial on it that looks like a big paper clip and in the TV set is Carol Burnett. Murray comes over carrying a plate of dinner and a big mug of milk. He is 24, lean, zany, with a pale face and a scraggly beard and curly brown hair. His jaw juts out, his upper lip goes in, and between them his mouth cracks open in a wavy line. He is wearing a white shirt with blue flowers on it, jeans, a handtooled leather belt with a knife in a small sheath, and Indian moccasins, the kind with the beads on the toes and black fur around. He makes a face at Carol and Vincent Price doing the Transylvania Trot in the TV set.
Tonight he’s not working. But at last he is on the point of making it. He has played some clubs in the States, he’s had two albums released to good reviews and good sales, and is due to go out west in Canada. Between times he’s doing a television show for Toronto’s Channel 19, the educational channel, called Careless Love, about venereal disease.
“Ian Tyson turned it down, Anne Murray turned it down, so I . . .” Patti comes over and curls up on the couch beside him; she is small and rounded, her hair is short and curly, and she watches Murray closely through huge tinted glasses.
He makes Patti laugh, he makes me laugh, pouncing on words and images, shuffling them into dumps in his mind, and presenting us with them. He uses reality as a sounding board for his wit; anything I say or Patti says is fair game for a twist of meaning. He’ll use every detail in a story:
“We drove down to Chicago in a ’62 Fleetwood Cadillac.” (Danny, a black friend, was driving, and Murray and Patti and bass-player Dennis Pendrith were in the backseat.) “The border guard was a Georgia cracker who’d seen too many Dodge commercials. When he saw Danny and asked Patti where she was born — ‘I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and I’m a landed immigrant in Canada, and I’m just in the middle of applying for my Canadian citizenship, and . . .’ — he slapped a card on the windshield and said, ‘Give ’em da woiks.’ ”
He didn’t react to it as a disaster. He took it instead as just another in a series of life’s absurdities. Murray’s humor can be pretty black:
Jesus, please don’t save me till I die
I’ll be too old to do anythin’ that’s bad, by and by
I’ve got no wish to cool it while I still can fly
Jesus, please don’t save me till I die.. .*
Murray was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, home of Robertson’s jams, in 1948. He came to Canada with his family when he was five, first to Montreal, then to Toronto. When he was 12 or 13, he got a guitar and started to play. He listened to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie on a nightly radio show. He got thrown out of grade 10 for writing a book report on The Catcher In The Rye. That’s the sort of thing that could start a kid thinking.
Murray wanted to be some kind of artist. He went to art school at Central Tech, a school in downtown Toronto, but art didn’t offer the opportunity for the ultimate risk. Something was missing. He was drawn down to Yorkville where there were others like him.
Yorkville Avenue, a string of old houses and stores on a downtown Toronto street, was a convergence of young musicians. There were musicians everywhere in the early Sixties, and so there were convergences of musicians everywhere.
In Montreal, it was Stanley Street. In Vancouver, it was Fourth Avenue. In Ottawa, Le Hibou on Sussex Drive, where Bruce Cockburn played; in Winnipeg, the Java Shoppe and The Fourth Dimension; in New York (folk musician headquarters), Greenwich Village — the Café Wha? The Night Owl, where the Lovin’ Spoonful played, the Gaslight, bars like the Kettle of Fish, the Dugout, and the basket houses, called that because kid poets who dragged their guitars in off the road could play a guest set and pass around a basket for money.
At that time, in the early Sixties, there were about eight folk clubs in Yorkville, doing good business. Murray learned to fingerpick from Jim McCarthy, a Yorkville original. At home, he was stymied, hollering, “You don’t care what I want, you don’t care what I want” — that kind of kid. Finally, in the guise of an educational sojourn, with his friend Nick Ipanovich, two packsacks, a guitar, and 35 cents in his pocket, he hit the road.
The road was the entrance to folk culture; Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road and the songs of migrant workers like Big Bill Broonzy had set thousands of artistic trippers thumbing their way across continents, digging the landscape, the people, the grit and roar of the road itself. To have been on the road was to have paid your way into kid poet culture; you’d cut your ties, taken your chances, proved you were authentic.
Murray put on the dream like a jacket. He and Nick did everything in the textbook, working in sawmills and logging camps, picking fruit, riding freights, living the Woody Guthrie-Kerouac-Dylan experience. “It was much rosier at the time than it actually was,” says Murray. “Because I was living in a dream all the time I was doing it. Like, ‘Wow, am I really riding a freight train? Wow, am I really working in a sawmill?’ ” Nick built Murray a wooden guitar case. Murray shaved Nick’s head bald. In Banff, he and Nick tried to climb a mountain, only to find that halfway up there was a sign saying you can’t climb unless you’re registered. (THEY have their rules, even in nature.) He wrote his first song: Murray’s Mountain.
°Lyrics copyright © Oyster Music, all rights reserved.
Finally, Murray had dropped enough weight that home looked good again. (There is that tension between freedom and security.) But when he got there, he had a terminal fight with his father, he left for good, and rolled into the Village Corner Club to start living.
He was young; there were many ahead of him. The kid poets were changing. By 1966, LSD had arrived, heralded by Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, and Dylan had fused rock and folk. Rising in the west were the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, out of San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, which everybody knew about from the Fillmore’s psychedelic posters. Ian and Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot were launched, handled by Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and behind Ian and Sylvia played a guitarist from Akron, Ohio, called David Rea, who was growing impatient. There were the Paupers, with drummer Skip Prokop (the beginnings of Lighthouse), managed by Bernie Finkelstein, who took them to New York and signed them over to Grossman, who later dropped them.
In 1967, Murray married Patti Sockwell, an intelligent, unpretentious girl who came down to the Village Corner Club to watch him play. In 1968, they lived in one of a series of tiny apartments behind a booking agency. Murray wasn’t making any money, but neither did he take other jobs; a musician had to live what he preached to be trusted, had to be totally committed. Murray sat in his cold apartment, learning riffs from records and writing songs.
New musicians were surfacing all the time. While Murray hung around Toronto, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, David Clayton-Thomas and Neil Young went to the States to become superstars. In the late Sixties, the music business didn’t recognize the existence of a border. If you were any good, you automatically went to the States. There was an urgéncy about getting what you had to give out into the world; timing was important, this was the time, the climate might never be as receptive again. If it wasn’t happening to you then, it might never happen at all.
The Toronto musicians who didn’t go to the States probably hadn’t been asked, or weren’t ready. But the Canadian reception for Canadians was discouraging. Murray played guest sets at the Riverboat, Yorkville’s sole surviving folk club; but there was a recession coming on, the music movement was working itself out, and nobody out there had ever heard of him yet.
Downer time. The streets were full of dope. The musicians were growing older. The coffeehouse quarters were filled with 15-year-old runaway speed freaks. The U.S. was a bad scene, but it was still the only one, the main one, the headquarters.
There was one bright spot in this time for Murray; Tom Rush, an important American singer, had recorded Child’s Song and Old Man’s Song. Murray and Patti moved twice more, first into a communal house on Hazelton Avenue, just up from Yorkville, then into a house on downtown Queen Street with Bruce and Kitty Cockburn. Cockburn, a gentle singer from Ottawa, was at about the same point in his career. Murray was very depressed. “The scene had just croaked,” he says. Bernie Finkelstein got together with Cockburn and suggested Murray go away and take a holiday. So Murray bought two bus tickets to Connecticut, to start a band with Tom Rush’s guitar player, Trevor Veitch. He and Patti got to Connecticut, but the band didn’t work out.
Finally, Tom Rush drove Murray and Patti into New York and dropped them off in front of Albert Grossman’s office. They had $11 between them, Patti was sick, and Murray wasn’t feeling too good himself. Murray went up alone to see the one man who could bring his dream to life. Through a veil of smoke he talked to Grossman, the grey-haired bespectacled godfather of the music business, and discovered in the course of conversation that Grossman was by this time more interested in his budding eggplant farm than in budding young musicians who saw themselves as successors to Dylan. Nevertheless, when Murray came away that afternoon, he had a fat advance of a few thousand dollars in cheque form, which didn’t change the fact that they still had only $11 cash.
They stayed at the Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village, a hair shirt lined with cockroaches and musicians’ folklore, for four months. He played some concerts, and hit it off with audiences. But then “I’d had pneumonia, and it was spring cornin’ on, and I remembered how the area around Spadina and College was opening up, and I decided New York wasn’t a very healthy place to live, so we bought two bus tickets and came back to Toronto.”
Back to Toronto! And not only that, but back voluntarily. Making it wasn’t everything, of course; you had to be alive to make it, anyway, and staying alive is, after all, something to consider. Other than roots and friends, there wasn’t much to come home to in 1970 except the beginnings of a feeling that you’d better stay in Canada, things were so bad in the States. Toronto was full of draft dodgers telling incredible tales of flight, nobody had any money, and the place where draft dodgers waited out their exile drinking beer and listening to blues was Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina, the start of a whole new scene.
The U.S. was weird and savage, eating itself alive with its war, but in Canada something new was happening. Many people who might formerly have chosen to live near Yorkville had moved around Spadina and College, where the outdoor Kensington Market is located. Murray and Patti found a spot on Augusta Street in the heart of the Market, and Murray reestablished contact with Bernie Finkelstein.
Grossman’s Tavern was just around the corner, roiling with bikers, artists, dropouts, blacks, students and American exiles. Murray drank ale with Moses, a brother under the skin, a Vagabond biker and a much admired individual who bridged artists, working-class bikers and middle-class hippies. Moses had somehow managed to come to grips with most of the contradictions in his own life, putting himself firmly on the side of revolution. He didn’t work because he preferred a clear conscience to money. He got into fights, read books and watched Hockey Night In Canada, in Triumph T-shirts, decaying Levi’s and work boots. He pioneered expressions like “young purty,” “rock on,” and “lunched” (from “out to lunch”) from which came “go out and lunch your mind” and “lunchpail.”
The Canadian and American scenes were coming farther apart. Janis Joplin died and then Jimi Hendrix died, and the Beatles were breaking up; all the musicians who were going to surface, it seemed, had done so, and the best ones had established themselves in the places they had earned. There was beginning in Canada a growing anxiety about resources, and the fact that Richard Nixon was drinking Canada dry. Canadians and draft dodgers congratulated each other on how lucky they were to be “up here,” because it was horrible “down there.” Suddenly it began to be okay, almost heroic, to be Canadian. We were an underdog, and that suited the times.
Murray and Patti would drop around to Moses’ house, the house on Hazelton Avenue, Murray in his black leather jacket carrying the wooden guitar case Nick had built him, the mouth harp holder hooked over the neck. Patti would fall asleep under her fur coat halfway through the evening while Murray played through the night in the kitchen. Moses would be laid back, having drained about 17 bottles of red Hungarian Szekszardi, which he called 1146B after the number on the Ontario Liquor Control Board list. Since Moses had given up on Casal Mendes, the 33-ounce bargain wine, because Portugal was a dictatorship, 1146B, a good Commie wine, had become his favorite.
In May, 1971, Moses split for Amsterdam, and another part of Toronto gave up the ghost. Murray was at last working on his first album with Bernie Finkelstein, who had founded True North Records with a distribution hookup with Columbia Records. Bruce Cockburn’s album was already out. Murray’s had been a long time coming, but he didn't seem to be in any rush: he might once have cared with all his heart and soul about being heard as fast as possible, but now the process could take its own sweet time.
At last, in the fall of 1971, Murray’s first album, Song From The Street, came out. The album was a quiet success. Murray and Patti moved again, into a house, and then again, into their loft. Murray got a piano and learned to play it. People said he was getting awfully good. By this time, hard rock had given way to a quiet, gentler type of music — in the States, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, Carole King. Murray’s tough street music didn’t fit that wave either, but he didn't care much about fitting anyway. In Canada, the Canadian Radio-Television Commission legislation (requiring that 30% of all music played on radio have some Canadian content), which had been initiated in January 1971, was beginning to have an effect; it was becoming possible to make a living as a professional musician in Canada. The collaboration among Bruce Cockburn, Murray, Burnie Fiedler and Bernie Finkelstein, was coming together; it looked like True North Records would at least survive. Bruce Cockburn became identified in the minds of young Canadians with the country scene; Murray with the big bad dirty city.
The offices of True North are located in Burnie Fiedler’s apartment on one of the top floors of a downtown highrise. In contrast to Murray’s loft, it’s salesmanship, business. The music business.
The apartment is Playboy opulence — dark walls, shag rug, deep blue; Spanish furniture, dark red velvet couch, a bar in one corner with stools around it. It is a very feely sort of room, all texture. Early Total Environment. A stereo and record albums take up half of one wall. In daylight, things look a little worn, but somehow that old night-life, slick show biz type life is upstaged by lighter, newer touches; a miniature rose bush, a basket of fresh fruit, a Canadian flag pasted on the lampshade, a bright colored mobile dancing in the air.
Bernie Finkelstein is where all good managers should be — on the phone. He puts down the receiver. How can one convey Finkelstein in words? Partly like a rock promoter, dark, a little greasy; partly like a smiling Inca sun god. Natural, friendly, comfortable old Bernie, gentle and easygoing, in a yellow shirt, a sleeveless sweater pulled over his girth. He sends Julie-Anne, a platinum blond English girl with green eyelids, into another room to get Murray’s file. She comes back with a folder of clippings.
Strips of newspaper from Chicago, New York, all over the States and Canada. Boston, Mass.; Boulder, Colo.; Seattle, Washington; Montreal, Quebec.
The red phone rings, buttons flash, and Bernie answers. Somebody with the right kind of name for Bernie to swing into his promoter routine: “Listen, Morty, I told you Morty . . .” The door buzzer buzzes, and in bounds Murray, Mr. Entertainment, in his favorite straw hat, with the brim flattened down, a white sports jacket over the blue flowered shirt, jeans, stage right, doing a little soft shoe. Suddenly, Julie-Anne is smiling, Bernie perks up, and so do I: things seem funny that weren’t funny a moment ago. Murray hops over to the fridge and takes out a beer. Bernie puts the phone down. Murray, a little embarrassed by this foray into the business side of his music, sits down on a hassock with his beer, studying the cover of Touch magazine, upon which he appears, looking very pop starrish. “Handsome lad,” he comments. “Fine dental work.” The picture shows him with his mouth closed.
Another day. The Morrissey is a peculiarly Murray McLauchlan kind of tavern on Yonge Street. On Friday nights, the deaf mutes drop in for a beer. Except for fingers moving, the roomful of people is silent.
This time the tavern is empty, except for two men and a bartender listening to the hockey game on a red transistor. Murray comes in in a beige duffle coat, hopping like a cricket. He sits down, at the table where I’m sitting with a beer, my paper lying on the table, he swipes my paper and pen and draws Donald Duck, saying, “Let’s see, you’re from Montreal, you got messed around by a dissolute hippie ...” I take my paper back, determined, a bit afraid he’s going to make fun of me. I start asking him all the obvious questions, like how does he see his role now? But he doesn’t make fun at all.
“I don’t really think about it that much. It’s up to people who analyze it. My philosophy is somewhat passive in that respect. Otherwise I’d be in London wearing face makeup. I’m not particularly interested in anybody else’s trip, where somebody is on the charts, all that.
“A lot of people have a tendency to put you into a bag. People assumed after the publicity for my first album that I was some kind of dirty-mouthed street punk. They don’t allow for some kind of growth. On the second album, they’re the same kind of songs, but with a different approach. They’re all recent, with the exception of The Old Man’s Song, they all sort of deal with human trips. Love songs of independent viewpoint, like No Time Together Today, which has a sort of backhanded bitterness about it. They seemed to mature a little bit. I’m a lot more careful about what I do now, I’ll take time to refine an awkward phrase.
“People have a unique capacity for deluding themselves. I know . .. because I do it myself. People who’ve swallowed a whole line, people who try and live up to images that have nothing to do with them and what they really are. These casualties of the drug culture handing out literature on street corners, wearing right-side-up or upside-down crosses . . . ‘Excuse me, but have you tried sneakers with nails in them?’... people are trying to imagine the last 10 years didn’t exist. It’s like the Greek word nostos, remembered love for things you can never return to. People are into Fifties culture. On the outside, it’s a return to old values. There was a broadening, but now there’s a tightening to a safe road. People are sick of the exploration trip. A lot of people had their minds blown, and they’re scared. They haven’t had their minds blown so much since the Middle Ages, maybe.”
The Hyatt Regency Hotel, at the corner of Yorkville and Avenue Road, overshadows Yorkville Avenue now; across from the Riverboat is a concrete parking building. The colorful tickytacky houses, full of hippies, head shops, coffee houses, outdoor cafés, kids and music are empty, their windows blank with new plate glass, their new facades a trim grey-pink, waiting to be filled with expensive objects to attract the hotel’s clientele, nothing special to go there for any more. Nothing happening. Except the music at the Riverboat. Its neon marquee still offers the greats of folk and blues, its warm wooden walls and green portholes are the same as they were 10 years ago. And Burnie Fiedler’s voice cooing over the P.A. “Murray McLauchlan, ladies and gentlemen, Murray McLauchlan.”
The Riverboat survives. Murray survives. His life has followed the music evolution, through all the changes, the Sixties, drugs, the road, rock, freak-outs, poverty, cities. And now, in the early Seventies, what we have at the end of the folk poet route is Murray McLauchlan. Individual. ■