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Rock music memoir could use a few more hooks

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/5/2012 (1925 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

BERNIE Finkelstein brought the sounds of Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Dan Hill to the world and founded one of Canada's most successful independent record labels, True North.

And this is the Toronto music-biz entrepreneur's variably engaging account of how it all came to pass.

There's no challenging Finkelstein's legacy. However, his delivery of it isn't without fault.

Finkelstein is a late 20th-century rock-biz impresario, a guy who had his fingers in every rock 'n' roll pie -- managing artists, promoting tours, producing records, music publishing, running a record label.

He was, and still is, the hardy perennial of the Canadian music business.

In the late 1960s he managed rock bands the Paupers and Kensington Market. In 1969 he founded the Canadian independent record label, True North Records.

In the 1970s and early '80s he managed (in partnership with Bernie Fiedler) Cockburn, McLauchlan and Hill, and later still, Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts.

He was also a pioneer Canadian content (a.k.a. Cancon) advocate.

Finkelstein was one of the principal players in the creation of CRTC regulations that radio must broadcast a percentage (currently 35 per cent for commercial radio stations) of music written, played or produced by Canadians.

While doing much of this, by his own admission, he did a lot of drugs, slept with a lot of women, worked insanely long hours, noisily (and quietly) promoted Canadian culture, and excessively enjoyed himself.

For some of these activities, in 2007, he received the Order of Canada from then governor general Michaëlle Jean.

Because True North was a Canadian indie label, over the decades Finkelstein had to negotiate numerous distribution and marketing deals with big American record labels like Warner Brothers and Columbia in order to get his artists' records into the U.S.

And though he chronicles disputes about everything from album-cover art to licensing fees, he's remarkably sanguine about his dealings with the big labels.

"It's become quite fashionable to slam the large record companies," he writes.

"Those companies get hit with accusations ranging right across the spectrum, everything from blatant thievery to ruining good music to being populated by idiots who can't see where the future lies. If it's true, you wouldn't know it from my experience."

When he started out, Finkelstein was a rebel-with-a-musical-cause wild man. But time tamed him.

By the time he sold True North in 2007, he'd become a pillar and icon, sitting on a raft of private and public boards and committees.

What pervades his story is a sense of his love of the music.

But what's revelatory is how eclectic the old rock 'n' roller's musical tastes are.

It's not surprising he has a deep knowledge of rock's roots in folk, blues and country. But he also repeatedly displays an abiding affection for all musical genres, digging everything from big band jazz to Broadway musicals.

Finkelstein's writing is clear and concise. He delivers his story -- and it's a great story -- in easily digestible short declarative sentences.

The flip side of this style, however, is a dearth of verve and colour in the telling. As a memoirist he frequently fails to convey the joy and excitement of delivering the music.

A book about pop-rock music, not to mention the wild and woolly life Finkelstein led making it, should sing a bit more.


Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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