When I was sixteen I started going to an open stage called Fat Albert’s. It was held every Wednesday night in the basement of the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto. It was started in 1967 and had seen the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Snider and Bob Wiseman. It ran there in the church for 36 years, when their rent was increased so dramatically that they had to relocate. Up to the very end, the stage, backdrop, sound system, tables and chairs never changed. It’s one of the few things I miss about Toronto, and wish I had gone more often in the 90’s.
One of the singers that I particularly enjoyed was Sam Larkin. He’s written beautiful songs and deserves to be heard more widely. His “Sally On” was briefly heard in Highway 61, and a few people have recorded covers of his “Mirabeau Bridge”. Sam’s a very funny guy, and his website gives you an idea of his humour.
For the most part, people sang and played guitar. There was a piano to the side of the stage, and I remember Bob Wiseman when he was still with Blue Rodeo playing with his fists and elbows and even with his hand in a roll of masking tape.
Sometimes people got up and read poetry, which was invariably bad. It was a fashion at the time, I think, to repeat entire lines in a poem for no apparent reason. I remember one woman reading something that could be likened to the experience of going from one radio station to another, and her reciting at one point the following line two or three times:
I’ll give you two kittens if you tape if you tape Lou Reed.
Although it may have been three kittens. I don’t know.
One singer I always thought would be heard more widely was Caitlin Jenkins, but if Google is anything to go by, she no longer sings. She was the younger sister of the singer and actress Rebecca Jenkins, who was a regular before I showed up, and who complimented me on my set the one and only time I saw her there.
I loved listening to Bob Snider. His songs were either hilarious or beautifully touching. One of the best ones I recall was “What An Idiot He Is”:
He hasn’t bothered thinkin’
Since he was ten
He’ll tell you he already knew
What he had to know by then
Anyone who disagrees with him
Should be in prison
All he wants is what is his
Even if it isn’t
You can talk until you’re blue
But you’ll never make him listen
To what an idiot he is.
Bob must have been in his forties. He was tall and thin, with a kind, weathered face. I believe he told me that he had come from Nova Scotia and had worked in construction. He had a beard and was missing a few upper front teeth. This gave him a distinctive way of pronouncing things, which added to his charm. I liked Bob a lot and thought him very talented, but due to his image and his age, I never even considered him becoming successful or famous. About a year or two ago I was stunned to hear a couple of his songs on the radio here in Athens. (In my seven years here so far, I have heard Joni Mitchell and Neil Young on the radio, but not Gordon Lightfoot.)
Pat Harper was, I believe, an actor or a comedian. He would improvise. I only saw him perform two or three times, unfortunately. I have one of his performances on tape. One night he got up and said a few mediocre jokes and then suddenly burst into a rendition of Mark Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar with such wide-eyed earnestness that my gut was sore and tears were streaming down my face. I remember that only Sam Larkin and I were laughing. Most people didn’t know what was going on.
Another time he held a piece of paper and did a television news anchorman reading a report about the Toronto Maple Leafs (then in their 1980s doldrums) making it to the Stanley Cup finals because they’d had a sack of potatoes playing defence. In the last game, the sack tears open, the potatoes spill out, and the Leafs lose. Up until this, it was average, mediocre comedic fare. But then he added:
“General Manager Cliff Fletcher had this to say about the near future.”
Here he put the paper down and looked around the room with the same earnest expression and droned this poem by Baudelaire:
When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid
Upon the groaning spirit, prey to long monotonies,
And embracing all the horizon’s compass
Pours us a black day, sadder than our nights.
When the earth is changed into a dank cell
Where Hope flees bat-like
Beating the walls with timid wings
Striking its head against the rotten roof;
When the rain spreads out its endless trains
Like the bars of a vast prison
And a silent race of loathsome spiders
Come spread their nets deep in our brains.
Suddenly the bells ring out in fury
And hurl against the sky a fearful scream
Like homeless wandering spirits
That stubbornly begin to groan.
And long hearses, without drum or note
Parade slowly through my soul; Hope beaten
Weeps, and dreadful Anguish, despotic
Upon my bowed skull plants its banner black.
I was in even greater hysterics than when he did Mark Antony.
Pat lived with Bob Snider in a house whose previous tenants had been a punk band called Bunchofuckingoofs. Pat invited some of the regulars at Fat Albert’s to a Christmas party at his house one year. Some of us sat in the kitchen while he told us that the Bunchofuckingoofs had had a dog which shit in the house because they’d never take it out. They would hoover up the dogshit with a heavy duty industrial vacuum cleaner. When someone expressed disbelief at this story, Pat went down to the basement and brought the vacuum cleaner up and turned it on for us. Within seconds the whole kitchen stank. He said there was no way to get rid of that smell.
Pat eventually moved to Washington with his girlfriend.
There was another guy who came by every once in a while. He wore a black fisherman’s cap and carried around a black hardcover notebook. He lived in my neighbourhood, and I often saw him at the bus-stop in the morning with the same hat and notebook. I was in university at the time, and he looked younger than me. I figured he was a high school student, filling up his notebook with poetry he’d someday inflict on us at Fat Albert’s. But I never saw him get up on stage. He knew Sam, and would stand around and talk to him whenever I saw him there. He must have performed, but never on a night that I’d happened to come by.
* * * * *
Around 1992 or 1993, I noticed that Sam Larkin had stopped coming to Fat Albert’s. I tried calling him, but his number was out of service. I couldn’t find him in the phone book. I had been losing interest in Fat Albert’s and in the idea of myself as a singer or songwriter. The two guys who had been running the place since 1967, Ray and Ed, retired and passed it on to someone else, but by that time it had already started to decline. I don’t know if Fat Albert’s is still running. Wherever it moved to in 2003, I’m sure it had very little to do with the Fat Albert’s we had known.
For me, when Sam stopped going regularly ten years before that, it had already begun to fade away.
Even the kid with the cap and notebook went away. I no longer saw him on the bus every morning.
* * * * *
I graduated from university in 1995. I knew that soon I’d be moving to Greece, although I didn’t leave till January of 1997. It was a strange time for me. I felt I’d already left Toronto behind, but hadn’t moved on to anywhere. I felt like a ghost haunting the city. I’d look around me at things as though they were all in the past, as if I’d already left and this was nothing more than a memory. I lost touch with people I’d known in high school and university, and I often found myself thinking about Sam, even though I’d never really known him that well.
One day I found a copy of Now Magazine on the subway. On the front cover was the kid with black fisherman’s cap. I picked it up and read the article about him. It turned out he wasn’t a writer, but a singer. His name was Ron Sexsmith. He had moved to Tennessee. In 1994 he had released his first album, but it hadn’t done well at all till Elvis Costello plugged it in an interview and appeared on the cover of a magazine holding the CD. That turned the tide for Sexsmith. In the article, he talked about a friend bringing Paul McCartney to his house for a pancake breakfast one day, and how they got out the guitars and jammed.
I was stunned. I’d thought he was just a high school kid. I used to ride the bus with him every morning, and we’d had a mutual acquaintance. What a wasted opportunity that was! I could have got to know him. Now it was all too late.
I went to a record shop a couple of days later and looked for the album. The CD had sold out. I was in such a hurry to hear it that I bought the cassette. I loved it right away. My favourite song on it is “Wasting Time”:
The day is long, many hours to kill
It’s all right if we let a few minutes spill
Where’s the crime in wasting time with you?
I would listen to the album all the time on my walkman. Many of the songs spoke to the nostalgia I was already feeling for the place I hadn’t left yet.
Some months later, either in the autumn of 1995 or the spring of 1996, I was sitting in a cafe on Queen Street called the Roastery. This was across the street from Kew Gardens, which led down to the beach. I was sitting inside, drinking out of a paper cup, listening to the Sexsmith tape. Whenever I see a famous person in the street, I never talk to them unless I have something interesting to say. There’s no point being the thousandth person to say, “I liked your film” or “I like your music”. As I sat there, I thought that if I ever saw Ron Sexsmith again, I’d definitely speak to him. I started to consider what I’d say to him if he should ever find himself back in Toronto again, in his old neighbourhood, and we should happen to cross paths. I would probably ask him if he knew what had ever happened to Sam Larkin.
And then, just as I was thinking this very thought, Ron Sexsmith passed by the cafe and crossed Queen Street into Kew Gardens.
I froze. I felt both amazed and also as though I had actually summoned him. I put the walkman into the bag I had with me, put the lid on my paper cup, and went after him.
Catching up to him was quite difficult. He walked much faster than I did, and I didn’t want to run up behind him. At one point he bent to pick up a stick, and I thought he looked back and saw me. I followed him for about ten minutes, trying to catch up without running. Later on, in another part of the neighbourhood, he dropped the stick he’d been carrying, and when he picked it up he looked back again. I thought that if he had noticed me both times he’d think I was stalking him, so I put my coffee down and ran up to him.
I called out to him and explained that I’d been listening to his music when he walked past the cafe. He was surprised at the coincidence, even though I had decided not to mention that I’d been thinking about what I’d do if I ever saw him. We walked for a bit.
“You’re a fast walker,” I said. “I’ve been trying to catch up to you since you went into the park.”
“I guess all those years of working as a courier paid off,” he said.
I told him I remembered him from the bus and Fat Albert’s and he said I looked familiar to him too. I asked him about Sam, and he told me he’d lost touch with him too, and all he knew was that Sam had moved to some part of north Ontario. I asked him if he was playing anywhere in town, and I think he said he was opening for Sarah McLachlan. He was going to visit some friends of his that lived in the neighbourhood, and we said goodbye. I turned on my walkman again and watched him walk away.
* * * * *
Last year, Ron Sexsmith became the fourth Fat Albert’s alumnus that I’ve heard on the radio here in Athens. So far, he has released eight albums.
* * * * *
Postscript: I was very sad to learn that on Monday 28 October, 2013, Sam Larkin passed away.