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One of the all-time greats in Canadian music recounts his life and times in the business from the 1960s to the present. Whether acting as a producer, record label owner, or manager of great singer/songwriters and bands, Bernie Finkelstein, recipient of the 2006 Juno Special Achievement Award, has played a pivotal role in bringing great Canadian music to the rest of the world. Bernie Finkelstein has been a prominent figure in the Canadian music industry for nearly five decades. Now, a couple years after selling his beloved True North label and only recently stepping down from his role at MuchFACT, which has given out more than $63 million in grants to Grammy-winning acts like Sarah McLachlan, Nelly Furtado and Arcade Fire, Bernie is finally ready to talk. In this wildly entertaining and outspoken memoir, the producer, label owner, and artist manager opens up about his childhood, breaking into the Greenwich Village scene with The Paupers at age 19, discovering Bruce Cockburn, producing the "loudest band in the world," Kensington Market, managing and producing Murray McLauchlan, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, and Rough Trade, winning 38 Junos, and much more.
It was early March 2009 when the ring of the phone shook me from my daydream. I’d been staring out the window of our little library at the farm my wife and I had bought in Prince Edward County a few hours east of Toronto, deep in Ontario’s newest wine district.
I’d been watching the birds hopping around on the ground and eating at the feeders I’d put up. Grosbeaks, blue jays, and the occasional brilliant red cardinal. They were strikingly beautiful against the snow. It was easy to get lost in watching them, and why not? I’d sold True North about eighteen months earlier and had gone from being involved in twenty-one acts to only working hands-on with one, Bruce Cockburn.
Luckily for me, Bruce had decided to take off some time just around the period I had made the sale. So I had time on my hands, and I was spending a whole lot of it looking out this window, and a few others in the County, and I was loving it. I knew it was just a matter of time till things started to happen again, but I also knew it would never be the same.
When I picked up the phone, it was Michael Cohl on the other line. Michael Cohl. If I could be considered successful at all then Michael was Croesus himself.
Was it really forty years ago that we had casually smoked a joint together in Yorkville? Things were different then. We both were getting started in Toronto’s Yorkville district. While I had already been managing two bands, the Paupers and Kensington Market, there was no question that Michael was going to become someone special. And he certainly did. In 1989, he bought the rights to, and produced, the Rolling Stones’ Silver Wheels tour, which went on to become the world’s most successful tour to that date.
Receiving Michael’s call startled me. As much as I’d liked him, we hadn’t stayed in touch. He told me he was going to produce a show at New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday on May 3 and wanted to know if Bruce would like to participate. The only other act he’d booked at the time of the call was the other Bruce – Springsteen – but he was now working on the lineup and it promised to be a good one. After a quick call to Cockburn, who was more than happy to do the show, I called Michael back and confirmed.
Of course we would do the show. It was a no-brainer. What a great way to start things rolling again, and the concert was a natural fit. This would not be the first show we had done to celebrate the great Peter Seeger. Bruce had done a concert in Philadelphia on May15, 2005, to acknowledge Pete’s fifty years of writing the “Appleseeds” column in the venerable folk magazineSing Out!That concert, at the 1,400-seat Keswick Theatre, included Judy Collins, Natalie Merchant, Janis Ian, and Pete himself. But now that Michael had become involved, the event had moved to the 18,000-seat Madison Square Garden. When I mentioned this to Michael his modest response was, “That’s what happens when you have Bruce Springsteen involved.”
The show ended up with more than fifty artists on the bill, including Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Ani DiFranco, just to name a few. PBS signed on to broadcast the concert across the United States and then to release it on DVD. Because of the number of acts on the show, various artist pairings and ensemble numbers were going to be set up.
Everyone was to do one or two Pete Seeger numbers, or at least songs associated with Pete over the years. We had requested that Bruce do “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a song he had recorded on a Pete Seeger tribute album,Where Have All the Flowers Gone, in 1998. But when Roger McGuinn from the Byrds was added to the show, naturally he was given the song that the group had taken all the way to number 1 in 1965.
But all’s well that ends well. Bruce was paired up with his friend Ani DiFranco to do the old union working song, “Which Side Are You On?” His other number would be done with the only other Canadians on the show, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and Kate’s children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright. They chose to perform “Dink’s Song,” which is also known as “Fare Thee Well.” In fact, Fred Neil’s version of “Fare Thee Well” is one of my all-time favourite records. Check it out if you can. Sadly, the performance at Madison Square Garden would be one of Kate’s last public performances before she passed away from a rare form of cancer.
It was an amazing evening. Both of Bruce’s “duets” were remarkable and extremely well received. The tickets had sold out in a matter of minutes and the love and respect for Pete Seeger throughout the backstage area and the entire audience was palpable. At ninety years of age, his performance and energy were enough to give you hope for the aging process.
Every inch of the backstage area was crawling with people I’d met and worked with over the past forty-five years, from Steve Earle to Taj Mahal to Billy Bragg to Joan Baez. The music director for the evening was Torontonian Bob Ezrin, whose production credits included Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and Peter Gabriel. I had worked with Bob back in the eighties on a Murray McLauchlan album. I spent some time talking to Danny Goldberg, former president of Warner Records and currently Steve Earle’s manager. I had first met Danny when he owned Gold Castle Records, the American record company that had released Cockburn’sStealing Firewith the hits “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
It was a bit like an old-fashioned school reunion. The neat thing was that just about every conversation had something to do with music and songs, which was a refreshing change from the current ongoing dialogue that seems to always revolve around bandwidth, piracy, or some other tech issue. Important stuff no doubt, but in my life there was nothing more important than a good song, and it was good to be somewhere where that was the main topic. Everywhere I turned there was an artist whom I had either toured with or presented in concert at one time or another. And with them came their managers, agents, and others, many who’d become my friends over the years. Lots of great – and occasionally not so great – memories.
The show was a signal to me that although I had left the record business, I hadn’t left the music business, and it represented a fine re-entry into the hustle and frenzied world of management, something I had seemed to have a knack for and hadn’t yet lost.