Tom Harrison interviewed George Harrison, met Bob Marley at his home in Jamaica, and played pickup soccer with the Clash.
Mr. Harrison, who has died at 70, was Vancouver’s pre-eminent music journalist in a city with many good ones. Over more than four decades, he reviewed thousands of singles, albums and concerts by rock superstars, one-hit wonders and up-and-comers who never quite made it.
He chronicled the emergence of punk rock in the late 1970s, serving as a bridge between ragtag musicians and the music industry, while each eyed the other with suspicion.
The news of his death generated an outpouring of tributes on social media, including from such diverse acts as the Irish Rovers, the Pointed Sticks, Paul Hyde of the Payola$, Trooper (“smart, funny, wise & a great guy,” wrote Ra McGuire), and Bif Naked (“a wonderful writer and champion of us littles”), as well as Order of Canada members Bryan Adams (“one of the very first critics and supporters of my work”) and Art Bergmann (“Tom’s support was invaluable; in my darkest homeless hours he was there”).
An astute critic, Mr. Harrison’s approach was to find a nugget of encouragement for bands with flawed execution but admirable intent. Vitriol he saved for lazy acts keen to cash in on predictable formats. In 1986, a Toronto-area synth-pop band was heavily marketed by CBS Records after winning a talent search conducted by Craven A cigarettes. Mr. Harrison assessed the eponymous album by Cats Can Fly with a dismissive, three-word review: “But turkeys can’t.”
If he gave a band the benefit of the doubt, it was because of his own experiences as a musician. He released a dozen albums in his career, while his bands opened for the Talking Heads and the Tragically Hip. He knew how hard it was to create an artistic expression through the physical act of playing.
He was also sympathetic to the rigours of the road. In 1981, he worked as a roadie for the novelty act Doug and the Slugs for a feature headlined, “I was a lug for the Slugs.”
A critic first for the Georgia Straight, an alternative weekly, and later for the daily Province, he was a passionate observer of the local scene. With his long, flowing hair, black leather jacket, and moon-faced grin, he was a ubiquitous presence at clubs, arenas, and record stores. He appeared frequently on Soundproof, an irreverent but informative cable-access television show, and he played demo tapes by local bands on Demolisten, which aired on radio station C-FOX.
A thoughtful, approachable character with few pretensions, Mr. Harrison served as a tastemaker for generations of music fans.
“I came along at the right time,” he told the filmmaker Susanne Tabata for her 2010 punk-rock documentary Bloodied but Unbowed. “The music scene was starting to grow and starting to change. Lo and behold, I was right there with it. As it grew, I grew. As it changed, I changed.”
Even a stroke he suffered in 2000, which left him with some paralysis on the right side, barely slowed the hard-working writer, who did not retire from daily criticism until 2017.
Thomas Alan Harrison was born on March 11, 1952, in Saint Boniface, a francophone, working-class community since absorbed by Winnipeg. He was the eldest of five children (four boys and a girl) born to the former Irene Eleanor Hunter and Robert John (Bob) Harrison.
“My parents constantly were broke,” he once wrote, “which might account for my father’s many different jobs and my mother bucking ‘50s social convention and going to work. We knew hardships, then, but nothing disastrous.”
After a peripatetic childhood, the family settled in suburban North Vancouver in 1968. His father worked in food sales and his mother in accounts payable for the Woodward’s department store.
In high school, he became a music obsessive, listening to AM radio and beginning to amass what would become a remarkable record collection. He wrote songs with neighbours and classmates, including Bruce Baugh, a future philosophy professor. Young Mr. Harrison was a big fan of Vancouver’s own Seeds of Time, whom he regarded as “my West Coast Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground rolled into one.”
Mr. Harrison studied education at the University of British Columbia, where he became music director at CYVR (now CITR), the campus radio station. The position introduced him to record label executives and offered an early lesson in musical tastes and censorship. While the station broadcast to the main student cafeteria, the staff there controlled the volume. “If they didn’t like what we were playing,” he said, “they would just turn us off.”
He avidly consumed music magazines, including Beetle, a Toronto-based publication to which he wrote a scathing letter complaining about one critic. He wrote a review of his own, which to his surprise was printed in the publication.
In 1975, he was hired by the Georgia Straight as a replacement for an Irish-born writer who had returned across the Atlantic to form a band. (Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats has since received an honorary knighthood for his charitable work in addressing poverty and famine in Africa.) The same year, he had an article published by Creem, the second-largest circulation American music magazine after Rolling Stone.
The writer had an epiphany while covering the One Love concert in National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica. Featuring an all-star lineup of Jamaican musicians, the gathering was designed to end sectarian warfare between the island nation’s two major political parties. Mr. Harrison visited Mr. Marley at his home and sat in front of prime minister Michael Manley at the concert, which culminated with Mr. Manley and his rival, Edward Seaga, shaking hands on stage at Mr. Marley’s urging while he sang an improvised version of “Jamming.”
“As a reporter and music critic, there was sociological value to this,” Mr. Harrison later told his own newspaper. “It was a turning point for me.”
Seeing how music could affect politics as well as culture put Mr. Harrison in the right frame of mind to appreciate the meaning behind the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock.
While with the Georgia Straight, he inaugurated a series of Battles of the Bands at which emerging groups of a variety of genres competed to win prizes including studio recording time. D.O.A., the Subhumans, Doug and the Slugs, the Pointed Sticks, and the K-tels (later the Young Canadians, fronted by Mr. Bergmann) all took part, with the latter two winning showdowns in 1978 and 1979 respectively.
It was in January 1979, hours before they performed their North American debut concert at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, that the Clash took part in an impromptu soccer game against local punks. The English band won, by 5-3. A recent recounting of the game by Montecristo Magazine includes a photograph of Mr. Harrison on the field with Mick Jones of the Clash and Nick Jones of the Pointed Sticks.
Mr. Harrison was hired by the Province in the summer of 1979 as the paper emerged from an eight-month strike. In his first month on the job, he was assigned to cover a concert by the Bee Gees, who had three No. 1 hits in the first half of the year.
“Pop wimps, that’s what the Bee Gees are and always have been,” he wrote. “Emotionally pathetic, squeaky clean, primping simps.”
Still, accompanied to the concert by a teenaged relative to gain her perspective, he came to appreciate the show as “a straight, honest evening of entertainment.”
He once described Brazilian singer Morris Albert’s 1975 hit Feelings as being “the biggest irritation since swine flu.”
He interviewed countless singers and musicians over the years, including Yoko Ono, Steve Earle, Tom Petty, Chrissie Hynde, Noel Gallagher of Oasis, and Captain Beefheart. He counted Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten as two of his toughest subjects. He long felt unsatisfied by his interview with George Harrison, the former Beatle, and often expressed a wish to be able to redo it.
In 1980, the critic was live on air with broadcaster Wayne Cox on CKVU-TV’s Vancouver Show discussing the local music scene when they received the breaking news about the assassination of John Lennon.
Known for giving local acts a fair shake, he was also instrumental in his short time at the Georgia Straight in giving breaks to such music writers as Les Wiseman and John Mackie, the latter who went on to become his counterpart as a music critic for the Vancouver Sun and, more recently, his obituarist.
In 2000, four days before his 48th birthday, Mr. Harrison was in the basement of his home when he suffered a stroke. The 911 operator told him to unlock the door.
“I was crawling, very slowly, to the front door,” he later told his newspaper. “I was trying to keep my mind open. I did what I could to keep awake. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I kept talking all the way to the emergency ward.”
Even as he recovered, Mr. Harrison took on duties as a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of B.C. and Yukon.
In 2015, he released Tom Harrison’s History of Vancouver Rock ‘n’ Roll, an e-book published by the Province and HarperCollins Canada.
In 2009, he was inducted into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame, whose members are honored by a star embedded in the sidewalk on Granville Street in Vancouver’s theatre district.
Mr. Harrison died on Dec. 27 after suffering a stroke. He leaves his wife of 39 years, Kerry Moore, who was also a long-time Province writer. He was predeceased by a sister, Betty Gibson, who died of cancer in 2009.
Mr. Harrison belonged to two bands of note. He was drummer for the Explosions, a group in which four of the five members were Georgia Straight staff members. They notably released a six-minute epic, Wilson Lucas & Bruce, about a hostage-taking by prisoners who had endured solitary confinement at the B.C. Penitentiary. The band opened for Talking Heads at the Commodore Ballroom in 1978. The headline act urged the openers to go back out after their set. Earlier in the day, Keith Moon, the manic drummer for the Who, had died, so Mr. Harrison and his bandmates played the Who’s I Can’t Explain as an encore.
He was also singer and frontman for Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion, which was signed by Warner Bros. Canada, released an album titled, In Search of the Fourth Chord, and toured briefly with the Tragically Hip in 1989. The critic turned the table on himself in the pages of his newspaper, as he asked others in the music industry to review the album. They were mostly generous, though songwriter Jim Vallance had a suggestion: “Tom, don’t quit your regular job.”