Sunday, May 13, 2012

Canadian Music Man: Bernie Finkelstein's autobiography True North

To paraphrase Gordon Lightfoot, “There was a time in this fair land when the music did not run…” It was not “long before the white man and long before the wheel,” but it was long before Bernie Finkelstein, and “the green dark forest was…silent.” Then Bernie heard the music, and decided to do something about it.

He’s one of the Bernies. Alongside Bernie Fiedler and Bernie Solomon, the Bernies were big in Canadian music. Fiedler ran the Riverboat Coffeehouse, Solomon was a lawyer, and Finkelstein managed Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan (among others), and their collaboration put everything under one roof: artist management, concert promotion, a record company, music publishing and a concert venue. It was genius, except, as Bernie Finkelstein says in his book True North: A Life in the Music (McClelland & Stewart, 2012), “things in the music business are never straightforward. It’s not a business for the faint of heart.”

True North is the long-promised memoir of Bernie Finkelstein. It tells the story of how a high school dropout who went from being a toilet seat and floor tile expert at Honest Ed Mirvish's legendary Toronto store, to owning Canada’s longest-lived record label, True North Records. It really is, as the sub-title says, A Life in the Music Business. In 1966, Bernie began managing The Paupers, a talented group of musicians and songwriters which included Adam Mitchell and Skip Prokop. They seemed to have it all. Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, liked them, and brought Finkelstein in for a consult. They partnered, and The Paupers released a couple of albums on the Verve Forecast label. They even appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, and then they broke up. It’s a common story in the music business, and it’s just one of the stories Bernie details in this fascinating book.

He’s not the greatest writer in the world, but he can spin a good yarn. The fact that he lived through the whole thing makes the tale worth telling. There are tales of drug use in Yorkville back in the Sixties and Seventies, and the odd mention of love affairs, but mainly Bernie focuses on the music, and that’s what he’s done for his whole career. Whether managing The Paupers and Kensington Market in the Sixties; or looking after Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Dan Hill in the Seventies and Eighties, Finkelstein had his finger on the pulse of the Canadian music biz.

Bernie Finkelstein
And he is not faint-hearted in the least. He appears to have been unafraid to step in at any level to manage, to produce, and then to distribute his artists. And he had a gift for promotion that carried him through the years. His label, True North Records, continues to release the music of Bruce Cockburn (who has been with Finkelstein throughout his whole career) and many others. Mention the names Murray McLauchlan, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Rough Trade and you get a cross section of the variety of artists Finkelstein has handled. Add to that list Sarah McLachlan, Nelly Furtado and Arcade Fire who benefited from grants from MuchFACT (, a foundation to assist Canadian talent, which Finkelstein chaired for many years) and you get a sense of the impact this music-loving businessman had on the scene.

Bernie sold the True North Records in 2007, although he stayed on as Chairman and consultant, and he continues to manage Bruce Cockburn, but you have to know that we have not heard the last of Bernie Finkelstein. He took some time off to write this book, and Canadians should be glad for that. It documents an era of growth in the Canadian music world when Canadian artists got record contracts, when they were played on the radio, when the people who booked venues like the CNE learned in no uncertain terms just who these talented people were. Bernie recounts the time that Murray McLauchlan was banned from playing the CNE because of claims that he was not family friendly. The booker had confused him with the foul-mouthed comedy folkies McLean & McLean! His stories are classic, and, told in his own voice, they make for a quick, riveting read.

It’s about time some folks from north of 49 started writing about our music. For a long time all we had was Ritchie Yorke’s Axes, Chops & Hot Licks, but now we can add True North, to a much longer list including Jason Schneider’s Whispering Pines, Nicholas Jennings’ Before the Gold Rush and the works of Dave Bidini and John Einarson. As a group, they help to expand our understanding and appreciation for our homegrown artists and the business they call music.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

1 comment:

  1. Bernie Finkelstein's is really an awesome personality. Hope most of the beginner of this industry will get help from these legends to survive in the music industry.