Road Trip – Toronto Bound – Summer 1966

OK! I have finally been stricken by the muse to continue on with my book – “Road Trip”!  And here is the latest installment!  Some neat history here!

Toronto Bound

A rest area sign appeared as we sped along the highway. Gif had the idea that we stop at each and every one and set up busking any place we could – a picnic table, under a tree – there was always plenty of people at the rest areas and truck stops along the way. We usually succeeded in drawing a small crowd and also succeeded in making a few bucks doing this.  This provided a small cash fund that kept us in cigarettes, beer, munchables and even helped with the gas. We would play for a few hours at each stop – even at night – not a bad deal! By the end of the second day after leaving Montreal, we had made it only about halfway to Toronto.

We also had been sleeping in the car – mostly when we were driving. We took turns at the wheel. I was driving when I pulled into a rest area just a few hours from Toronto. It was mid-afternoon. There was a party going on within a wagon train circle of camper vans and re-designed school buses. I thought, well, this is pretty cool! Looking back, it was a beginning of things to come. This was before flowers got painted on VW buses and the word hippie hadn’t been invented yet. These people were followers of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.

From Jack’s book, On The Road, he said, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.” He had written the book on a 120 ft. scroll of drafting paper threaded into a typewriter – Allen Ginsburg called this new way of writing – “spontaneous bop prosody…”

(from the article written by Joyce Johnson called The Beats – Karouac Unbound – published in Vanity Fair in 8/20/07)

And yes, these people we ran across at this rest area we’re indeed living the book – living ‘on the road’!

We sure came to the right place. Getting out of the car and getting our guitars, we walked toward the large group of people sitting around on the picnic tables and on blankets – and as if on cue, they all started singing “Blowing In The Wind” and laughing at the same time. Gif and I stopped and took our guitars out of the cases and using the cases to sit on, we began to attempt to play along with the singing. There was a guy named Mitch who was playing harmonica and the whole thing blended together like it was meant to be. It was quite inspiring as I recall.  Joints were being passed around, wine was being passed around – yes in the old fashioned leather wine pouches – people read their poetry and we sang our songs. There was a huge magic in it. Mitch was kinda the leader of this tribe. He seemed to be a kind and thoughtful man and he drove the lead bus. He said they were heading for San Francisco.  He told us the place to go in Toronto is Yorkville Village – look for a place called The Purple Onion and also The Myna Bird.

As darkness approached, the mood was broken by the appearance of two police officers coming over to check things out. They were friendly enough and kindly asked us all to disperse. It was time to move on anyway. We all said our goodbyes with hugs and hearty handshakes and much well-wishing. Mac took to the wheel and pointed us into the direction of Toronto. I remember how pretty the lights of the city looked in the early evening sky.

While at the rest area, we were given a copy of Kerouac’s book – On The Road. There was a misconception about the book, in that, people thought it was a about a couple of guys on the road in search of thrills and fun, but in reality, it was about two devout Catholics in search of their true God. On the other hand, they did encounter all sorts of adventures along the way. We passed the book around the car as we traveled and it did provide some intriguing inspiration along the way. It is sad to note that Kerouac passed away in 1969 at the age of 47 from liver problems created by alcohol abuse in St. Petersburg, Florida. His influence most assuredly was responsible for the immergence of the “free love” “hippie” movement that was growing rapidly.

When we approached Yorkville Village in Toronto, we were amazed at all the lights and young people filling the streets. Here is the best description of Yorkville at the time – the center of which was The Riverboat Coffee House, which we ended up playing quite often at their Hoot Night. Never scored a gig there, however. We were in search of the “basket house” venues to make money – and in Yorkville at the time, there were many.

Nicholas Jennings writes:

 “During the 1960s Yorkville was a cultural hotspot, the Canadian equivalent of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury or New York’s Greenwich Village. Full of clubs, coffeehouses, experimental art galleries and bohemian boutiques, Yorkville was far more than just a hippie haven. It was a vibrant artistic community of international renown, contained within several city blocks.

By far the most famous of all Yorkville’s clubs was the Riverboat coffeehouse, at 134 Yorkville. Owned and operated by Bernie Fiedler, the Riverboat opened in October, 1964 and quickly became part of a prestigious North American circuit that included Detroit’s Chess Mate and New York’s Bitter End. Situated below street level, the club seated 120 people in red booths amid pine walls and brass portholes. Every seat was in close proximity to the stage, providing an intimate showcase of the top names in popular music, including Howlin’ Wolf, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Tim Buckley, Ritchie Havens, Junior Wells, John Prine, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Buddy Guy, Kris Kristofferson, John Lee Hooker, Doc Watson, Tim Hardin, Jerry Jeff Walker, Janis Ian, Steve Goodman, Odetta, Seals & Crofts and James Taylor.

The Riverboat is where the protest folk singing star Phil Ochs wrote his popular ballad “Changes.” When Eric Clapton was in Toronto with his band Cream, the Riverboat is where he went, with his hair tied in a bun as a disguise, to hear Tom Rush perform. When actor Jack Nicholson was in town shooting The Last Detail, he snuck in through the Riverboat’s backdoor to catch some late-night music. Everyone played the Riverboat except Bob Dylan, although even Dylan was rumored to have sat, incognito, in one of the back booths one night.

Most significantly, the Riverboat was home to many of the biggest names in Canadian music, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Dan Hill. Many of them got their first taste of performing there and wrote songs in the club’s tiny rehearsal room, with its graffiti-lined walls and lively acoustics. Lightfoot, who played to four full houses a night in 1965, wrote his song “Steel Rail Blues” there. “For me,” Lightfoot once said, “the Riverboat was my first taste of the big time. It indicated that you must be really doing something.”

Mitchell, who first performed at the Riverboat in November 1966, wrote “Night in the City,” her tribute to the bright lights of Yorkville there. And it was at the Riverboat where she first played her most famous song, “Both Sides Now.” Before Neil Young found fame south of the border with Buffalo Springfield, he’d appeared as a fledgling folksinger at one of the Riverboat’s “Hoot nights.” When he returned to Toronto as a solo star in 1969, he performed for a week at the Riverboat—and later paid tribute to the club in his song “Ambulance Blues,” in which he sang “back in those old folkie days, the Riverboat was rockin’ in the rain.”

But the Riverboat will not be forgotten. In 2009, Heritage Toronto recognized its significance with an historic plaque marking the site. All of the stars came out for the unveiling, including Dan Hill, Murray McLauchlan and Gordon Lightfoot. Bernie Fiedler, looking out over the large gathering, could not have been happier. The little club he had opened back in 1964 had grown to iconic status and will now be forever remembered as a major cultural landmark.”

 We drove though Yorkville – the windows down in the car, and the Stones singing – “Time Is On My Side”. We found out that there were over 40 coffee houses in Yorkville Village, and we were on our way to find a niche here.

More coming – so stay tuned!

For fun – Here’s video of my friends The Lost City Band doing one of my favorite songs!

And let’s not forget Tyrone Shulace and his Pals in this classic!

Hope you’re having fun!  By for now!  Bill

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About Bill Madison

Bill Madison – Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist My musical career spans more than 40 years; from the Folk Music venues of Boston, New York City and Montreal during the 1960’s, to the ski resorts and honky tonks of Northern New England from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. In 1973, I released my first album called “Sunday Mornin’ Hayride”. That album has been re-released by Riverman Records and Yoga Records and was voted in the top ten retro re-issues for 2009 by the Acid Archives. In 1974, I formed Them Fargo Brothers which became New England’s Premier Country Rock Band, and I toured with the band until 1990. I am currently writing and recording in my studio and marketing my CD’s through my web site and have downloads available across the web. I am also seeking to license my music to films, etc. And I am a Featured Artist on IMRadio.com.
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