“I don’t pass myself off as a historian,” Bernie Finkelstein tells me, offhandedly. “I know what I know, and I wrote about it.” Finkelstein is leading me around Toronto’s Yorkville, that one time outta-sight place. He points out where the clubs and hangouts used to be in the 1960s, stopping at 116 Yorkville Ave., in front of the swank One Restaurant for a moment. It used to be the Upper Crust coffeehouse; now it’s just upper crust.
His book is True North: A Life in the Music Business, and no small part of it is dedicated to the part of the world where it all began for him, that shaggy, low-rent area of Victorian walk-ups. Literally it all began, actually, when it came to Finkelstein, now pear-shaped and bright-eyed at age 67. He came into being at the old Mount Sinai Hospital – the façade of the building is still there on Yorkville.
As a teenager, he began working on the same street we were now walking, first in the coffeehouses and then managing psychedelic bands such as the Paupers. His “operation,” was something less than structured. He used a pay phone to conduct his business, and he absolutely had no accountant. “I kept my receivables in one pocket and my payables in the other,” he says, smiling.
He was a cocky guy, and one night he had a bit of a row with his father, Finkelstein recalls, gazing at the Sinai building. “He told me not to get so full of myself, because I hadn’t even gone 100 feet from where I was born.”
Why did the Paupers hire a kid like you, I ask. “I think they liked the way I could make a sandwich,” he jokes. “They thought I had the answers.” (In Dan Hill’s memoir, the sometimes-touching singer-songwriter described Finkelstein as brainy and volatile: “No one worked harder or fought more fiercely on behalf of his artists.”)
By the time Finkelstein had formed the True North record label in 1969, the original Sinai had been converted into an old folks’ home. The residents would stand outside, watching the world grow young and wilder in front of them – some crazy parade. “They had front-row seats to the circus,” says Finkelstein, with a chuckle.
Some seats; some circus. It was a breeding ground – the Canadian counterculture’s ground zero. It’s where Neil Young and Joni Mitchell got their start, only to leave for California’s promises. Others stayed. In many ways, the Canadian music industry began in Yorkville, forged by Finkelstein and the rest. They were the magic people, to paraphrase the Paupers, and none of it would ever be the same.
After our stroll, we settle into an Italian restaurant on nearby Cumberland Avenue, where he bumps into Charlie Moon, whose sister was once married to Gordon Lightfoot. “I just know a lot of people,” Finkelstein says, shrugging. “When you used to do 100 concerts a year, you get very popular, people wanting tickets.”
In 2007, Finkelstein sold True North Records (part of an empire that included interests in booking, management, music rights and record-making, with artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Rough Trade). He made enough money to buy a second home, in Prince Edward County, where he wrote his book on weekends. He won’t say how much he was paid, but he does mention that Cockburn, his lone remaining client, got a better deal for his own forthcoming book. (And yes, Finkelstein got a cut of Cockburn’s publishing deal.)
He was hard-nosed, hustling and burly in the 1970s – Hill paints him as “wildly unkempt,” with a caveman’s beard full of clues as to his previous meals – but he’s always been charming and relaxed with me. And this sunny spring day, as he reminisces and forks his way through a caprese salad, is no exception. His grey beard is groomed, his gruff has mellowed, and he has a likable sparkle to him. What we have here is a content man, secure with his accomplishments. “It feels great,” he admits, referring to his semi-retirement. “It feels like what I started to do back then, but I somehow got busy by mistake.”
Finkelstein’s productivity is likeably chronicled in his book. True North was a seminal Canadian independent label and publishing business, with 40 Junos and 40 gold and platinum records to its credit. A partnership with Bernie Fiedler (who owned the famed Riverboat club) helped the Canadian concert business to bloom. And he spearheaded MUCHFact, the industry-financed fund that put video production within reach of Canadian talent.
In short, he helped monetize Canadian music.
Of course, he made plenty of money himself, a feat for which he does not apologize. “I knew what I was doing,” he says, casually. “I was driven by trying to be as successful as I could, but I didn’t think counting the dollars was how I would judge success. It actually surprised me to wake up one morning and think, ‘you know I think this is worth something.’ ”
Finkelstein was speaking about his own dealings, but the sense of worth could also apply to Canadian music and culture. “Canadian was starting to find itself,” he explains, referring to the turn of the seventies. “Something was happening.”
Younger generations may bristle at the accomplishments of the Yorkville scenesters and the cultural shakers of the age elsewhere. To some degree, Finkelstein understands. “I know how hard people are working today, to make sure this is a better musical generation than before,” he says. “That’s fine by me, that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he continues, pulling out his credit card at the end of the meal. “But who amongst us can say that era wasn’t special?”