Bernie Finkelstein dropped out of high school in 1964 to move to Yorkville and dedicate his life to music.
It's 1964 and I'm stoned walking around Yorkville. What do I see?
Transformation before your eyes. Places moving from coffee shops where people played chess to rock n' roll clubs. I got a job working at a place called El Patio.
What was it like?
There were at least 30 clubs in an area no bigger than four miles. And playing in those clubs were some of the world's most amazing bands. Not only Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and David Clayton Thomas, the singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears, but other people who didn't make it, but maybe were just as good.
Just as good as Joni Mitchell?
The Canadian was is to acknowledge Joni Mitchell and forget about Bonnie Dobson. Is one better than the other? I wouldn't know, but we can only chew so much gum while we're walking—there was a tremendous amount of local talent in the streets, say that.
Talk about the streets in those days.
I was just living there. It wasn't like, "holy shit, that's Joni Mitchell." She worked at a club that my partner owned, the Riverboat, and she did everything from washing dishes to making coffee. Everyone was young.
What were the big influences around town?
The Beatles on one hand, Bob Dylan on the other, and of course, permeating all of that, was the proliferation of marijuana.
Sounds like heaven on earth.
There was a lot of psychedelic drugs around. Everybody did it. Like, everybody. There was no question a feeling of revolution was in the air, but it was very positive. After all, it was the Summer of Love.
Are you telling me all these young rock n' rollers on acid were having sex?
If you're in a band and you're good looking, there's sex. Nothing's changed.
The drugs have changed. Certainly the cannabis we smoke today is now federally licensed, which is good.
The big drug in the Yorkville period was MDA, which was kind of invented in Toronto and known as "the love drug." It was a form of speed and later it turned into a lot of terrible things, like speed, meth, and amphetamines, but during this period, the marijuana period, I remember MDA quite fondly.
It must have been incredible to be alive at a time when the Beatles are releasing albums, and Bob Dylan. It must have felt like a magical time to be in the industry.
People would line up at record stores to get new Rolling Stones, the new Beatles album, Dylan records. Music was so important, but Yorkville was more than just music—there were poets, artists, June Callwood was down there, and it felt like it was a moment when everything was possible. Things were changing: women's rights, equal rights. It didn't start in Yorkville, but we were certainly the tip of the spear.
And people were also working in the area. Tell me about True North Records.
I opened my first office for True North on Scollard Street and there were also two big major recording studios: Eastern Sound and Thunder Sound. Neil Young opened Thunder Sound, but by the time it opened, he was no longer there.
Can we talk about Neil Young for a moment? He seems like a persnickety dude.
I promoted Neil's shows fora. while when he became big, Joni and Neil, and we also did Harry Chapin and James Taylor—they were all just really nice talented people (with the idiosyncrasies, perhaps, that all talented people have).
Tell me again about the marijuana.
The marijuana was really strong. i got a place a little north of Yorkville after a while and used to keep my marijuana in a pot and in my stove. I used to roll a few joints, put them in my pocket and walk down to Yorkville every day. I would smoke a join all the way on my walk and I don't know if people were looking at me, I was stoned.
Seems like in the 60's...
Everybody was stoned. it was just part of the culture. But there was definitely an "us vs. them" kind of feeling. There were us—who smoked pot and thought something important was happening and wanted to change the world—and them, who didn't.
Something like that.
Was Yorkville recognized internationally?
There was a communal feeling with Greenwich Village, Haight-Ashbury, for sure. Bill Graham used to bring his bands in, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. I was slowly getting a reputation in the music business, but I would say Greenwich Village definitely knew about Yorkville. Zal Yanofsky, before he joined The Lovin' Spoonful, he was here and yeah, Neil Young, Joni, Steppenwolf, certainly before they did "Born to be Wild," they were here, performing. All of this music was being created that 50 years later people still listen to. that doesn't happen every decade. Though it does sort of remind me of right now.
What with Drake and the Weeknd, and even Justin Bieber, Carly Rae, Shawn Mendes, certainly a lot of international talent is being recognized around the world that comes from Canada right now. But we have to rewind for a minute because we can't talk about Yorkville without mentioning Gordon Lightfoot.
How good is Gordon Lightfoot? How big were his shoes?
Gordon? There's no comparison. One of the world's greatest singer-songwriters of all time. Yorkville was such an important place for singer-songwriters: James Taylor, Gordon, Buffy St. Marie, everyone played the Riverboat. Kris Kristofferson. I promoted most of their shows. They'd come to Toronto and they'd play our club, then Massey Hall.
I also know there wasn't liquor allowed in your clubs back in the day. Which would have been hard for Kris Kristofferson and his friends.
Before my career in music became more significant, I was working in a club on a laneway that connected Yorkville and Cumberland, the Kiki Rouge, which was an early disco. What people used to do was tip the waitress and the waitress would come back into the kitchen and hand me, let's say, a mickey of rum. So when she would ask me for a coffee, I'd spike it. It was really kind of fun and one waitress I worked with ended up being married to John Kay, who ended up having hits like "Magic Carpet Ride" and "Born to be Wild."
They were in a band called Sparrow in Yorkville then moved to L.A. and came back to Yorkville a year later as Steppenwolf—only now they were big stars.
One thing we haven't discussed yet is the cops. I know before weed was made legal, it was a serious criminal offence.
The police were around and smoking marijuana was a serious criminal offence. Lots of people I know ended up in jail for months or sometimes eve worse for marijuana, so it was no joke, but, on the other hand, I never felt threatened one way or the other.
So could you smoke in the streets?
I used to smoke joints and hash from a hash pipe quite openly, and, sure, if I saw a policeman coming I'd throw it away, but the police never really bothered me.
Maybe they were fans of your groups.
Well, sir. You lived the times and have greatly contributed to the Canadian music scene and helped shape our culture and launch lots of great bands.
It was really very cool and let me tell you, sincerely: I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Bernie Finkelstein is the founder of True North Records, a label that's earned more than 40 gold and platinum albums and 40 separate JUNO Awards, awarded The Order of Canada and a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Finkelstein released his memoir True North (A Life In The Music Business) in 2012.
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