Monday, November 28, 2011

Remembering Handsome Ned

I first met Handsome Ned in June of 1986. I was in a room with about a 100 other drunks … and Ned, who was headlining, was drunker than all of us. I was in Toronto for a tourism promotion and had heard a lot of talk about Handsome Ned … a cowboy singer and punk rocker … 'cow puck' one guy told me .. and a favorite at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street and a regular at the Cameron House, a seedy bar, a few doors west .

He rocked the place. I can still recall some of the lyrics of his songs: Wrong Side Of The Tracks, In Spite Of The Danger, Great Shakin’ Fever ,Sea Of Heartbreak, Bad Bad Boy and of course Put the Blame On Me

Ned .. his real name was Robin Masyk ...was known as the King of Queen Street. Son of a former air force man, Ned left school early and began hitchhiking across Canada. A true romantic he loved the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, O'Hara and Bukowski. Apparently he spend a while in Art School but quickly decided that music would be is life .. for better or for worse. Country music has a great appeal to him . He said it had a ''good lyrics, nice twangy guitar licks and good harmonies. Told stories that people could relate to …. a layman's form of music...”

It was said that he would not begin his performance unless there were at least 10 people in the room … something that he rarely has to worry about. After 5 years as a regular performer at the Cameron House he could easily fill the room … legally able to seat 90 …. with 150.

Someone wrote that like Ned, the Cameron had great character. They were made for each other and both gained from their association.

Jim Cuddy once told a reporter: “Ned really helped to give focus to a lot of people who were looking to put bands together, or looking for some kind of direction. And he did it pretty singlehandedly, I think.”

Ned could have been a big deal … but there is a price to pay for living life that has an edge....and of course there is always the alcohol and drugs …

The Toronto Star once did a full-page story called ‘Mean Street West,’ and it was all about heroin at the Cameron. There were needles in the john, and people were getting dragged outside because they passed out.

Blue Rodeo 's Bob Wiseman would write a song borrowing a title from Ned, “In Spite of the Danger,” that pointed fingers in the circumstances of his death. The lyrics went: “I know who killed you/ and everyone else knows who killed you too/ They found the murder weapon behind your bedroom door/ found an empty syringe next to your arm on the floor.”

Ned died of an overdose of heroin on January 10, 1987. He was 29. While he was alive, Handsome Ned only released two singles. He was about to record his first full-length album in the same week that he died.

Almost 1,000 people crowded around Ned's grave for the funeral, including Murray McLachlan, who'd tried to help Ned make the next step but retreated as the troubled singer became increasingly erratic.

Cuddy says, “Everything we did, Ned would have loved to do, and he would have been really good at it. It would have happened for Ned – he was absolutely that good.”

I spent time the other day at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery visiting Handsome Ned's grave …

Ned moved at his own speed and on his own terms and like a cultural, whirling dervish he touched down on Queen Street West in 1979, a Handsome stranger who, it seemed, had been everywhere.

He made a big splash, turning heads and changing people’s lives, then lifted off again seven years later.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Tribute To A Friend

A Eulogy

I have known Phil Penfield for 46 years. We have been workmates, best buddies, confidants and brothers-in-law. He is my best friend.

How do you go about summing up a man's life. Particularly a man like Phil Penfield who's life touched so many people - in such a wonderful way. Certainly my words will fall short.

All of us who knew and loved Phil probably have a mental image of Phil right now. .... and I am willing to bet that it includes that big beaming smile of his. He was a gentleman who loved to laugh.

That smile is the first memory I have of the first day we met in 1965.

We worked at the Globe and Mail newspaper on King Street. Being raised in a small layed back community in northern Ontario, I found the city exciting ..... but a bit overwhelming. I found the newspaper office to be a bit austere. Not much laughter or even smiling for that matter. A lot of hustle and bustle.

But there was Phil. Sitting on the top of his desk ---- he never seemed to be sitting on a chair ---- smiling, his hand out to welcome me.

I told him that I was pretty new to the city and not familiar with city life ..... he laughed and then proceded to make sure that I became familiar. Shortly after we made acquaintance our Friday night ritual began. About 10 o'clock at night as our shift was about to end Phil would begin suggesting that we head off to Buffalo for the weekend. They were crazy times. Some stories I dare not repeat in case there be any outstanding warrants !!!

But I do recall one night in Buffalo as we were leaving a bar .... Phil left ahead of me while I was straightening things out with the bartender. Phil was always slow in offering to pay the bill. When I got outside I saw Phil dangling in the air between two large Buffalo policemen. He had made some sort of joke - not meaning any offense - but Buffalo was a very tense town at that time.

I panicked and couldn't think of anything to say except , "I promised his mother that I would look after him !!!!" The cops took one look at me and dropped Phil. He didn't talk to me until we got near to the outskirts of Toronto.

Phil's Mother ran a boarding house. Mrs. Penfield was a lovely woman. Whenever I would visit she'd be scurrying around making sure I had a plate in front of me and plenty of food to eat. She always thought that I was too skinny. I would be about to tell her that I wasn't hungry but I would catch Phil winking at me .. so I would say nothing.

Phil's Dad passed away, I believe, in 1961. And with Phil being the only child of the marriage, he and his mother were very protective of each other. He was always very cautious of who she might be renting rooms to. In fact, on a couple of occasions I helped Phil physically evict the odd troublesome tenant.

But Phil also had a lot of heart. I remember on one occasion Phil evicted one of his mother's tenants after he failed to pay his rent for a couple of months. Phil packed the man's suitcases in his own car, drove the man safely to a relative and before he left gave him an envelope with some money in it to tide him over for a while.

I recall one afternoon while visiting Mrs. Penfield with Phil, she took me aside and in her wonderful Jewish accent, asked that ... “I should look after her Philip” .. I didn't have the heart to tell her that her darling son was the ringleader.

I know that when Mrs. Penfield passed away, it affected Phil deeply.

Phil had such a great love and respect for people. Phil would never have a bad word to say about anyone. As a cab driver Phil knew that he ran a constant risk of being robbed and perhaps beaten. I remember one time seeing him sporting a black eye after being robbed for a few bucks in the inner city. Instead of being all bent out of shape about being mugged he was more incensed that some people were so hard up that they were forced to rob.

He was truly a gentle man. There were people who would climb into his cab for the first time and 5 years later see him again and say, "Your Phil .. aren't you?"

During the last few days of his life Phil and I spoke about the times we had spent together, the good times and the not so good times. He said that his fondest wish was that after he had gone, his family and extended family be there for each other and to support each other.

Phil loved music. While I was staying with Hilda and Phil in Richmond Hill last year, Phil would have the radio turned up high on the classic rock radio station. The volume would drive Hilda to distraction.

I recall a time a number of years ago where Phil and I were at a party that was droning on and on. In the corner was an old piano. Phil got up walked over to the piano sat down on the bench and began playing really lovely music. I was not the only one with their jaw dropped. He told me later that a tenant of his mother was a musician and taught him piano.

Ron Petaja is a friend of the family and an accomplished musician. It seemed that Phil had never heard him play so Ron was asked if he would give a short concert in Phil's hospital room.

Just before he started playing Ron said, "I've missed a few gigs but I would never have wanted to miss this one...". Phil was thrilled. Despite his frail condition, I noticed that Phil was moving his fingers in time with the music. When Ron played a Dire Strait number a lovely smile crossed Phil's face.

Recently Hilda told me how proud she was of her 20 year marriage to Phil. He was a loving and supportive man who encouraged her in everything she did.

Hilda told me that on the third of every month he would call from work to say , "Happy anniversary .. I love you so much'.

He loved to travel and loved live theater - thought the world of Stratford - and was such a doting grandfather. I will always remember that afternoon near the end of his life, struggling with the pains in his stomach, Phil had his grand- daughter Krissy lifted up and set close to him in his hospital bed. For those few minutes he looked so calm and content.

Phil was especially proud of his sons. Albert and Donny, we talked about you guys many times on our walks with Missy. He once told me that a father can be proud if his son's become better men than he is. Your Dad was a very wise man.

A few years ago I happened upon a poem that touched me so much that I wrote it down in one of my notebooks. Thinking of Phil I looked it up the other day.

You can shed tears when I am gone,

or you can smile because I have lived.

You can close your eyes and pray that I'll come back,

or you can open your eyes and see all that I've left.

Your heart can be empty because you cannot see me,

or you can be full of the love that we shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,

or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.

You can remember me only that I have gone,

or cherish my memory and let it live on.

You can cry and close your mind,

be empty and turn your back,

Or you can do what I want :

Smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

In the Hebrew tradition - the tradition of his Mother Dinah ....... and something that Phil was very proud to be part of ...... there is this wonderful phrase .. ALAV HA SHALOM ... a sign of respect for loved ones who has passed away. It has various translations. But the translation that I like says ... "the calmness is upon him". ...

I will miss you my gentle friend .... ALAV HA SHALOM

Phil with his mother Dinah and his wife Hilda

In better times Phil and I enjoy a laugh.

Happy times with son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. These were the moments that Phil enjoyed the most.

Ron Petaja a talented musican and family friend  put on a concert in Phil's room at the York Central Hospital in Richmond Hill

Phil and his son Albert

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Visit To Sudbury and Elliot Lake

My two daughters-in-law Sue and Celine.
The family at my son's restaurant in Elliot Lake.
Myself and  my sons Chris and Jody.
The Big Nickle Sudbury

Lyn and my granddaughter Emily

My son Jody and myself
Emily and Jody
Myself, the grandkids and Lyn

Celine and Logan

My son's restaurant is promoted on the sides of the Elliot Lake Transit buses.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Gay Pride Parade Toronto July 3, 2011

Lyn and her new Trojan friend

My Lyn ... Making friends where ever she goes ....

The Flower man

Some folks took the high ground!!!

Getting above the crowd