Thursday, June 7, 2012

Talking to Bernie

This week on Literary Landscape I got to talk to Bernie Finkelstein - a life-long insider in the Canadian music scene and the founder of True North Records. He was Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan's manager; he produced records by Rough Trade, Kensington Market and Dan Hill. Basically, his life has followed the track of the Canadian music business from "Business? What business?" through the 60s Yorkville boom and the slow but sure building of the profile of Canadian artists. He's been influential in the creation of a lot of the support systems that have allowed new Canadian musicians to flourish, like FACTOR, MuchFACT, and a bunch of other initiatives that help new Canadian artists hold their own against the tidal wave of the American industry. I loved what he had to say about how being Canadian doesn't necessarily make you 'indie' in any trendy, hipster way, but it does in that it makes you think, a lot of the time, about the giant you're lying cheek by jowl with.

I read the book in a matter of about two days - partly because it was sent to me on Tuesday, and I had to interview Bernie on Thursday. But it wasn't a trial to read it in that time. It felt like a chat, in part because of his writing style, which was very conversational, but also because all he was doing with the book was talking about what happened to him. And without laying it on thick about the points he was making, he let incidents illustrate the point. Like the moment with the CNE, when he ran into a director who refused to have Murray McLauchlan perform, saying he wouldn't put "that kind of stuff" on the stage at a family show.

Murray McLauchlan. This guy:

Apparently the problem was the director didn't know the difference between Murray McLauchlan and Maclean and Maclean. These guys.

Clearly, people didn't know anything about their own music scene, the incident seemed to say. Clearly, Canadian talent had a long fight ahead of it to be recognized by its own national institutions... Anyway, I read the book and felt like I had an idea of the guy I was going to be talking to, but I was still a little nervous talking to someone who's talked to everyone else. What am I going to be able to say that's remotely intelligent about the music industry? I thought.

Turned out, as it usually does, that I didn't have to. Bernie was a great interview: of course, he's had decades of experience. But he also managed to lead me nicely from one of the questions I'd meant to ask to the next.  The whole thing went smoothly: I had time to get to the major points I wanted to nudge him into talking about, like the uneasy relationship with the American industry, his reasons for staying in Canada, not moving to New York like everyone else did in the early 60s, and talking about the 'bleep' that sold Rough Trade's single 'High School Confidential.' What I didn't get to, and wish I had, was his take on the disappearance of the 'single.' Wish I knew what he had to say about that. Maybe I'll ask him if I can make it to his reading at the Elmdale on Sunday (7:00: check it out at

The interview is posted here! Click to listen: about 30 minutes.

Some songs we talked about during the interview, for your infotainment:

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