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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Royalty

Last month I went to The Royal Conservatory of Music to see a concert of 3 very popular artists from my youth, Marc Jordan, Jane Siberry and Dan Hill. I have specific memories of all 3 from back in those times which I will share along the way. 

 I have lived in Toronto for about 35 years now, but there are still very many popular attractions I have never been to. The CN Tower is a world famous attraction and it wasn't until the year 2005, some 27 years after I moved here, that I set foot inside and went to the top. That was for my 40th birthday. Until last night, The Royal Conservatory of Music was another.

Now, it is not my preferred location to visit and it never will be. It is certainly a great venue,  with fabulous acoustics, but it is in one of the most congested areas of the city. You can take the subway to avoid that, but I hate the subway. That is very much my last option, and not one I choose often. 
As mentioned, I have been in Toronto for about 35 years now. Before that, I was born and raised in Montreal. Montreal and Toronto were and will always be very different towns. By far, they are the two biggest cities in Canada. When I grew up there, Montreal was the much bigger city of the two. Since I have moved to Toronto it is now the other way around. Montreal is now a city that time has passed and it has lost its lustre. Toronto is now an international city, bustling to the point of busting at the seams.
Because my mother was from Toronto and my father from Montreal, we lived in Montreal but visited Toronto about twice a year before we moved there in 1978.  
As a young boy, even I understood the very significant differences between the two cities. Montreal had a very large mix of cultures, mostly that there was a huge French presence. That only increased greatly after a threat to separate from Canada in 1976. That drove most of the English speaking only people from the province. My family was one of those. Toronto, on the other hand, was very Anglo and wasp-ish. I remember going to high school and most of the kids had last names like Wilson, Hill, Smith, Middleton, McLean, Stewart,  etc. You didn't see that much of that in Montreal.
 Last night was sort of a reminder of that in many ways. Next to
 The Royal Conservatory of Music is next to the ROM (The Royal Ontario Museum of Art). Further down the road is Royal York Blvd. If you take Royal York Blvd south to the end, it leads you to the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) highway that stretches all the way from Toronto to Niagara Falls. Downtown Toronto has Queens Park, which is the main political area for the government of Ontario. Further down the road are two roads, the Queensway and the South Kingsway. I could go on all day about how just about every part of the city is riddled with references and patronage to the Royal family. Two of the biggest races in Canadian Thoroughbred racing are called The Queens Plate and The Prince of Wales Stakes.
I remember specifically the first time I became aware of Marc Jordan. It was 1978, and we had just moved to Ontario, as I mentioned. I was 13 and we were living in Burlington, Ontario now. An extremely wasp-ish, white city. Borderline racist at times.
 The two biggest high schools in Burlington were (and probably still are) Lord Elgin and Lord Nelson. We didn't live there long enough that I got to attend Lord Elgin, which was the much closer of the two, but I played touch football and little league baseball at their parks. They were massive schools, and a very clear example of the dominance of the British. Anything British had a huge presence, and you knew that. On the other hand, the school I left in Montreal was called Irving Bregman High School, which was named after a famous Jewish man from the area. That school had a large Jewish contingent of students. There was no chance that would happen in Burlington.
Being Jewish, and sort of being used to that in Montreal, I was very surprised to not see one Jewish person in the whole city. (In reality, there were at least 4, as the townhouse complex we lived in there was 5 doors down from my Cousin Debbie and her family, all Jewish). I am sure there were a few, but I never encountered them and there was no evidence at all of the culture. My mother was not a working woman at the time and some of the teenage girls who liked me used to say hi to me when they passed our townhouse. One of them, Suzanne I think her name was, asked me seriously the next day in school if wearing a housecoat was part of the Jewish culture. My mother, for whatever reason had gone outside at exactly the time they passed and was wearing her housecoat. That is how removed from any culture other than their own the people of Burlington were. They didn't even know or were aware how snobbish and elitist they were or were being raised. Needless to say, I was happy when we moved away from that town.
Now, not all of Toronto was that way, but more about that later. Even though we lived in Burlington, I was 13 and it was time for my Bar Mitzvah. A Bar Mitzvah is the rite of passage that transforms a boy into a man. Obviously, that was not going to take place anywhere in Burlington, so we had to travel to Toronto for it. After the Bar Mitzvah, we headed back home for the afternoon, only to return to hall that night for the dinner and dancing, which is customary. On the way from Burlington to Toronto, I only have one memory of the drive. That is of Hurontario Street. In and of itself, that doesn't mean much. However, in most cities, Hurontario Street is know as Queen St. If it isn't, then it intersects a Queen St.
For that matter, just about every city in Canada has a King St., Queen St., Victoria Street and the like.
 In Toronto for instance, the downtown core goes from Wellington, then King, then Adelaide, Richmond, Queen. If you go across, you hit Simcoe and every other British royalty that settled Canada. The biggest hotel for the longest time in Canada, and still one of the biggest, is the Royal York hotel downtown. From the CN Tower, it is the most visible landmark. To this day.

That night of my Bar Mitzvah, on the car ride down, I heard the Marc Jordan song, Survival, for the first time. I loved it then, and I love it now, to this day. Marc Jordan, as a performer would fade fast into oblivion, but became a very famous songwriter for some of the biggest recording artists of our era. As he said last night he "made a shitload of money because of that."

 Not all of Toronto was wasp-ish, and in fact, certain areas were and still are very multicultural. One of those is the Kensington Market area. In fact, they made a TV show based on it, one of the most popular and remembered shows.

The King of Kensington showed the other side of Toronto, the melting pot side. But even still, there was a very big Anglo presence and if you lived outside of Toronto, which I did for most of the shows run in the mid 70s, you got the sense that the city was still very white and ruled by the British. I remember a few episodes where the Queen was coming to the city and it was a very big deal.
The main character, Larry King (played by Al Waxman) was a Jewish man who married a very white woman (Fiona Reed) and ran a variety store. They lived with his mother in the house above the store. Like the mother character in the show, my grandmother and her husband (my grandfather) also ran a variety store, also very close to the Royal York Rd. area, and she was also very taken with the idea of the Queen. If the Queen was in town, my grandmother was going to be one of those who went to see her. Even if it was just a 5 second glimpse on some parade route, she would wait all day for that. The Queen, and the Queen Mother, were royalty. That is all that ever mattered.
As for Kensington, well, it is a very multicultural area, but that name is very British royalty, as is the area that is considered Greek Town in Toronto, which runs along Danforth Avenue, another British name of significance. The Big Italian area in town, is bordered by Christie, Davenport, Dovercourt and Dupont. Again, all British names.
Both Dan Hill and Marc Jordan grew up in Toronto in the area known as Don Mills. This area was almost completely white. However, Dan Hill is half black. His father, a black man, was a very important figure in Ontario politics and human rights. Dan Hill, a born and bred musician, wanted no part of that life and rejected it, in spite of the insistence of his father that he follow it. He pointed that out several times last night during the concert. 
 When I lived that brief time in Burlington, in Grade 7 and 8, which was 1978 and part of 1979, the art teacher would keep us interested in his class by playing full albums during class. One of those was Dan Hill's debut album, which contained his biggest hit to date, and still one of the biggest Canadian singles of all time. In the concert the other night, Hill mentioned that in all of the world, it is one of the most played singles on the radio..ever.

And finally, Jane Siberry was on the bill. Jane Siberry has always been different. She has all the talent and training in the world, but her videos and songs were offbeat, to say the least. That has always been her trademark. She has a very waspy, British look, as she was born Jane Stewart, but changed her name along the way for family reasons. And certainly, she was not the normal, British, Royalty type. She was the bohemian artist type.

 When Jane Siberry came along, around 1984, I was living at home but neither working or going to school. I was at the point in my life where I was completely rejecting the British Royalty type of lifestyle and bumming around day after day. Much of that was spent watching the newest invention of the day, which was the Music Video.
Jane Siberry got noticed because she was a master at presenting interesting and clever videos. 
Toronto is a very different city these days. The Royals still have some cache, but not nearly as much. The majority don't care one bit about them and will not make any effort to see them. That awe died with my grandmothers generation. I don't remember my mother once making any effort to see them. But the remnants are still littered all over the city, and that is something you are always reminded of when you go anywhere. Their time has clearly passed, but their legacy is cemented.
It might have carried on if Princess Diana had lived, but now we will never know that. You still see, and will always see the reminders of that-in the names of the streets and places-but otherwise most don't even notice the significance of them. They are just names of places with no history or presence attached.
In some ways, that is sort of sad, because even though I rejected it I was mindful of what it meant to the history of Canada. 
Meant. It really doesn't mean anything anymore. That rule has long since become irrelevant to most Canadians. Including me. 
But the memories and the artists and the songs still have significance, and that wont ever change as far as I'm concerned.   



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Daily profile about a specific artist,their life, their work and their impact