Interview: David McPherson, “Massey Hall”

Massey Hall

Following his wonderfully informative exploration into the history of The Horseshoe Tavern back in 2017, longtime author and music fan David McPherson once again delves deep into the history of another iconic music venue for his latest book.  If covering the 70-year history of the Shoe sounds like a pretty challenging enterprise, for this Waterloo, ON based author, the project opened the doors to a much larger sequel: Toronto’s highly revered Massey Hall, and her 127 years of magical, musical history.

For many of us outside of Canada, please be forgiven if not intimately familiar with this iconic venue.  Ask me, as a British ex-pat, to name an iconic music hall and you’ll obviously hear the words Royal Albert Hall roll off my tongue.  Americans, I’m sure, would do the same, but substitute for Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall.  Ask the almighty know-it-all that is Google, and these choices appear prominently in the search engine results – while venues from Canada yield very little attention.  Ask a Canadian, however, and there’s a strong likelihood that many will utter Massey Hall without a second thought.  For many of our northern neighbors, Massey Hall is much more than just a live music venue – it is instead an important, ingrained part of their national culture and heritage.  Massey Hall is part of Canada’s unique identity – much like baseball and apple pie are to that of the US.

David McPherson demonstrates a passion for the cultural significance for Massey Hall, offering 257 pages that bring the venue to life – through both his well-documented research and the selection of illustrations and tales that capture many historic moments experienced over those 127 years.  “Hart Massey gifted Massey Hall to the City of Toronto as a place ‘for the people.’ This story shows how, more than a century after it opened, the hall remains true to Massey’s mandate,” David writes. “It is a place where anyone with the wherewithal, desire, and determination can spend one night on that storied stage.” 

There is naturally a strong emphasis on the post-war era, documenting the transition of Massey Hall from a classical and jazz venue, to a top-tier destination for mainstream artists.  McPherson takes time to focus on the perspectives of both artist and audience in their experiences – sharing many interesting tales from music fans, Massey Hall personnel, and a who’s who of artists, including Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, and Joni Mitchell.  I have yet to make my pilgrimage to this musical Mecca, so cannot share such experiences, but shall confess to listening to Blue Rodeo’s “Live at Massey Hall” album as I compose my thoughts here, sensing some of that magic that many have encountered in this historic room.

McPherson also devotes an entire chapter to the legendary folk artist Gordon Lightfoot, who was given the honor of playing the final show on the Massey Hall stage for Canada Day, 2018.  Those three sets of bright red double doors would close permanently following this show, as the venue underwent extensive and necessary renovations.  Music finally returns to Massey Hall this week, and Lightfoot once again has the privilege of launching the next generation of performances from this hallowed stage on Shuter Street.  “Massey Hall stands tall. Rejuvenated. Ready to welcome a new generation of listeners and old friend to its congregation to celebrate with song and musical communion at the alter of this music temple,” David writes in his closing paragraph. “A new version of the Canadian landmark shines. Hart Massey would approve. Long live live music. Massey Hall forever.”

We are incredibly grateful to David McPherson for taking some time to chat with us about this fabulous new book. A little birdie tells us that David shall be in attendance at Massey Hall tonight to enjoy Gordon Lightfoot’s return to the great stage.

Massey Hall follows, of course, from your historical discovery of The Horseshoe Tavern. I’m sure that much of the research and writing process you learned from that project carried over into this one – what do you feel were the most important lessons learned from the behind-the-scenes work on that book that carried over to this latest venture? 

What I learned first and foremost is there is never enough time for research when digging into stories with such rich histories. But, at some point, you need to put pen to paper, get your fingers stretched, and just write. With my first book (The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History) I was dealing with 70 years of stories, memories, and newspaper archives to sift through. That felt like a lot to cover – and to uncover. Then, I took on Massey Hall. Not only did the venue open 53 years before The Shoe, it is also known for much more than just music. From suffragette speeches and religious revivals to boxing and wrestling matches; comedy to ballet; and even political rallies – just imagine a type of event and it most likely happened on Massey’s storied stage. Concurrent with that thought is this lesson: research is the bones of any non-fiction book. I learned that while at some point you have to stop, it is the foundation and it’s also not a place to cut corners. The biggest lesson I learned from my last book that helped me in writing this one was the importance of structure and mapping out where I thought the narrative was going before I started to write. This really helped me focus this latest venture. I also was fortunate to work with a pair of amazing editors and a great team at my publisher (Dundurn Press) who helped in this regard – making valuable suggestions throughout the three-year writing and rewriting process that made the finished book that much better. 

Both books are excellently researched and written – yet there is a distinct difference in their presentation and overall physical finish.  The first was a book likely to be shelved amongst others once read, where this latest has more of a coffee-table feel, with it’s larger size, quality color print, and overall appeal.  Taking out factors such as production costs and distribution costs, what were your primary motives to go large this time around with the finished copy (and, may I add that I’m in no way playing down the Horseshoe book)?

First, as referenced in your previous question, Massey is that much grander a topic and much more revered —not just in Toronto—but also around the world by both artists that have played there and patrons who have taken in a show in this space that is more than just bricks and mortar at the corner of Victoria and Shuter streets in Ontario’s capital. Second, Massey Hall, the publishers, and me, felt from the outset of this project that the look and feel of the book needed to match the subject matter. I was blessed to have access to Massey Hall’s archives and through thorough research I discovered many incredible photos from each decade of the hall’s existence in these historical records and by reaching out to photographers who had documented history there at various shows from the 1960s to the present. To help tell the venue’s story and illustrate its cultural importance to the fabric of Toronto and the broader musical ecosystem, images that matched the words were essential to fully understand this narrative. 

Our frequent visits to Ontario have given us an insight to many of the iconic music rooms and venues across Toronto, and an understanding of the relevance of Massey Hall to the live music community. Yet when I think of iconic music rooms, I’m drawn to the Royal Albert Hall – dates back to 1871 (expect anything less from an Englishman?), or New York’s Radio City Music Hall – founded in 1932, if pressed to name a North American counterpart.  Both are found consistently in Internet search engine results when looking for ‘iconic global music halls,’ while any acknowledgment of Massey Hall is practically non-existent.  If you were tasked with influencing those who overlooked Toronto’s famous hall in these lists, how would you summarize your sales pitch?

This is surprising. Most touring musicians are aware of Massey Hall and its cultural importance as one of the world’s more iconic concert halls. While it is often referred to as Canada’s Carnegie Hall because of the many similarities, the Toronto venue also differs in several key areas. Massey Hall opened in 1894 —just a few years after its counterpart in New York City, making it one of the oldest halls in North America. Massey, like Carnegie, was also a gift to its city by an industrialist and philanthropist (Hart Massey). The venue’s architecture, inspired by churches, is one way it is unique. The horseshoe shape of its interior design and seating lends itself to an intimate experience unparalleled for a venue of its size. Despite a capacity of 2,500 people, artists and audience connect as if the venue was a small club. The acoustics are also unmatched. It’s no surprise to learn dozens of live albums have been recorded at Massey Hall.

Frequent references are made in the book about the lure of Massey Hall to artists from across Canada.  I particularly enjoyed the passages about Spirit of the West, Japandroids, and the Maritimes-based artists and their first Massey Hall performance experiences.  During your research and interviews, what was the most consistent message you were hearing from artists from beyond Toronto, beyond Ontario, when recalling the magic of that Massey Hall stage.

The most consistent message from Canadian artists – whether they were born or raised in Toronto, the Maritimes, or on the West Coast, is this: Massey Hall was the pinnacle. It’s an aspirational venue. Massey is a place that artists all told me they dreamed of playing one day and for many of them this dream came true. For some, they only played it once, and that was enough. For others, they returned year after year or every couple of years and Massey Hall became the place they looked forward to ending their tours at. Regardless, from the moment these artists started their careers and played their first gigs in some bar, just like the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto or the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver were measures of a certain success, Massey Hall represented a whole other level of success. You had made it if you got to stand on that storied stage. And, it’s interesting to note, that while many Canadian artists stardom grew to the point where they could sell out hockey arenas, many of them preferred to do several nights at Massey Hall instead. The other consistent message I heard relates to your previous question. Every single artist when asked what makes Massey Hall so magical, they said the acoustics and the venue’s intimacy. 

David McPherson

Returning briefly to your Horseshoe book, an entire chapter was devoted to Stompin’ Tom Connors and his ties to the venue.  This time around, you opt to focus on Gordon Lightfoot – fitting given that Gord performed the last show at Massey Hall prior to the closure for renovations, and will be the first to grace the stage when the venue opens its doors this month. How influential has Gord’s music been to you, and how magical do you expect his opening night show to be, back on that hallowed stage?

Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian songwriting legend. I was introduced to his music as a teenager when I sifted through my dad’s vinyl collection and discovered Sundown. I remember sitting on the shag carpet in my parent’s den, putting on a pair of headphones, and immediately being drawn to Gord’s poetic lyrics, especially the catchy chorus that warns, “Sundown, you better take care if I find you been creeping ’round my back stairs.” As a writer, I’ve always loved artists that have a way with words. Lyrics often mean more to me than melody when I’m evaluating a piece of music. That is why many of my favorite musicians are songwriters like Lightfoot, John Prine, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. At 83-years-old, Lightfoot’s voice has weakened, but his desire to perform and his passion for the people and performing has not waned. My chapter devoted to Lightfoot is called “The House of Gord,” and for good reason. He started playing the venue in the late 1960s and has played there every decade since. At 166 shows and counting, Lightfoot holds a record that will never be broken. The magic of Lightfoot stepping onto that stage on the reopening night is hard to imagine and put into words. It will be special for so many reasons. It is not just the return of Lightfoot to the stage he knows better than any other, and to his home away from home, but it’s also the return of live music and concerts to the revitalized hall and for fans their first time back in the building in more than three years.  

Sticking with Canadian artists in particular, you reference some of the icons who have played many nights at Massey Hall over the years – Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Blue Rodeo, and Jann Arden.  With the revitalization complete, and many more decades ahead for live music at this prestigious hall, to whom shall the baton be passed to keep such traditions alive?  If you could name 3 artists that represent the next generation of Massey Hall history, who would they be, and why (Canadian music is so rife with talent right now)?

I touch on this in the latter chapters of the book, which looks at the role of Massey Hall (the Corporation) to develop and nurture our artists. Massey Hall have worked with artists like Whitehorse, Shakura S’Aida, Royal Wood, and many others by presenting them first in smaller venues and helping them build their audience to the point where they could one day headline Massey Hall. I agree with you that Canada is rife with so much talent right now, so picking three Canadian artists that will represent the next generation of Massey Hall history is hard, but I’ll rely on Massey’s ears here by picking three artists they’ve hand-picked to play the hall in the upcoming reopening season: rock ‘n’ roll rising stars The Glorious Sons, singer-songwriter and poet Mustafa, and William Prince, who put out one of my favorite records of 2020 (Reliever). 

You devote the final chapters of the book to the revitalization and renovations of Massey Hall, and many of the people behind the scenes who have made it happen.  What does this new lease of life for Massey Hall mean to you, as a proud Canadian, author, and music fan?  How much of these changes have you had the good fortune to see in person during the time taken to research?

The new lease this multi-year, multi-million dollar revitalization allows Massey Hall to not just survive for another 100 years, but to thrive. Hart Massey wanted his gift to Toronto to be a place “for the people.” And, 127 years on, that is what it remains. That makes me happy that there is a place where like-minded music lovers can gather, take communion, and create magical experiences together, and where hopefully one day my children’s grandchildren will see a show and discover and feel the same magic I felt the first time I walked through those three red doors. As far as the changes to the building, I was fortunate early on in the revitalization work (mainly in late 2018 and 2019) to visit the construction site and get a guided tour from the Vice-President of Operations Grant Troop. Once Covid-19 and the pandemic arrived, my visits to Toronto were less frequent, so I have not seen the changes other than from images posted by the Corporation. I am beyond excited to finally see all of these enhancements in person—especially the original stained glass windows that have been refurbished and put back into place—when I attend the Gordon Lightfoot show on November 26.

You have included many personal tales and quotes from artists of all generations throughout the book – all indicating the shows in which the artists left a mark on the Massey Hall faithful, or the artists themselves feeling as being a part of a much bigger entity during and following that experience.  Favorites aside, which artist provided you the most entertaining accounts, who left you craving much more with their tales, and who would you have loved to have devoted more space to if word count were not an issue?   Conversely, did you have to sacrifice some great personal tales due to such space constraints, maybe even against your personal preference and/or judgment?

Great questions. As far as artists with the most entertaining accounts, that would definitely be Blue Rodeo’s bassist Bazil Donovan. While many who go to see a Blue Rodeo concert see Bazil as the quiet one in the background keeping the beat on the bass, get him talking and the stories he has are endless. He could easily write a book about his life in music. He not only attended shows there throughout the 1970s, but has played on that stage now more than most as a member of Blue Rodeo. The other one who is a natural born storyteller, and no surprise, as he is also now an acclaimed author and friend, is Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond, and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings). As far as having to sacrifice some great stories, there were some that definitely were left on the cutting room floor to use the old film figure of speech used in the film industry, but it was more about achieving balanced coverage of the various decades, various musical genres and entertainment, and making sure there was enough diversity in the stories that made the cut. That is where I was fortunate to have really great editors who helped me see where a story, as good as it was, did not fit into the overall narrative.  

Final question: the Massey Hall management offer their gratitude to you for the book by giving you one opportunity to curate a show at the venue – they offer you the chance to choose your own opening artist (a current emerging artist) and a headline caliber artist (with a stipulation that both must be Canadian).  Who’s on the bill for your show?

Wow. That is a really tough question. Talk about an honor! No pressure at all. I’ll go with William Prince as the opener and Neil Young as the headliner.

Pick up your copy of Massey Hall here:

Photo Credit: Holly Schnider

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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