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Suits and overalls: Folk-rock club pioneer had gift of the gab and ear for superstars

May, 2011

Location, location, location: Whenever I go downtown to the office, I pass three places that gave me much of my musical education during the 1960s. These locales—on Bleury, Stanley and Sherbrooke—housed the coffeehouses started by Gary Eisenkraft, one of Montreal’s quintessential characters during that era when music, and the city, exploded with vibrancy. They never fail to conjure incandescent youthful memories.

Eisenkraft was tall and slim, with lanky hair and a large nose upon which he perched his trademark granny glasses. He had a gift of the gab and owned two custom-made three-piece pinstripe suits (blue and grey) for occasions when he turned on the charm, including a goofy laugh.

Otherwise, he often wore overalls.

He had dropped out of high school at 15, traveling to the U.S. South to join the civil rights movement, eventually playing guitar for folklorist Jean Ritchie and gigging at campuses and clubs. In 1964, at the age of 19, he opened The Fifth Amendment, a second-floor space on Bleury.

With his contacts from the folk circuit, he presented such notables as blind gospel singer Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (the most famous folk-blues duo of the time, who spiced their act with put-downs of each other), the alluring Buffy Ste. Marie, bluegrass fiends the Greenbriar Boys and New Lost City Ramblers, rousing locals the Mountain City Four and Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and handsomely moody John Hammond Jr., son of the legendary Columbia producer who signed up Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan, among others. Eisenkraft was the first anglo entrepreneur in the city of deux solitudes to present rising chansonniers like Claude Gauthier and Tex Lecor.

He also promised poetry readings and “at least one evening of classical music a week,” according to the first Gazette piece to bear the byline of Nick Auf der Maur, before Auf der Maur became a columnist, city councilor and notorious boulevardier. “All this has required a lot of effort, and Gary is optimistic of eventual success. ‘It will all turn out to be worth the sweat,’ he says. ‘Folk music is a great expression of our heritage, and it promotes the fraternity and understanding of different cultures’.”

However, the times they were a-changin’. Folk music was overtaken by rock’n’roll, thanks to the Beatles, Stones, et al, and so Gary opened a small semi-basement club on Stanley called The Penelope. Here the Sidetrack, a rock-blues group from Boston, held court with a sound both boisterous and “authentic” (authenticity being a major buzz-word in those idealistic times).

With fans packed in like sardines, the atmosphere dimly lit and sweaty, we intensely absorbed harmonica bleats, booming bass lines and blues guitar riffs. Other rising stars of folk-rock appeared, including a young Gordon Lightfoot, whose personality was so truculent that even nonchalant Eisenkraft rolled his eyes and bit the bullet. For Gary, “That’s what you get for lovin’ me” had a double meaning.

By this time, 1966, I was well into publishing a little “underground” magazine called Pop-See-Cul. (The counterculture was riddled with such cute names.) Eisenkraft had been an advertiser since the first edition. Gary figured the magazine could dovetail nicely with his club, so he finagled a deal with Pierre Péladeau’s newly formed Quebecor printing company, which needed business other than its nascent tabloid Journal de Montréal.

He promised a run of 4,000 copies (we had rarely produced more than 500, collated by hand), with 64 pages (our top was 32), professional typesetting (!) and distribution throughout the city and the world.

Well, Gary made a lot of promises, and two out of three ain’t bad. The copies lay bound and dormant in the hall of an apartment he shared with his girlfriend, a 19th-century high-ceilinged sunlit place adjoining Holt-Renfrew. Still, the magazine made it, sort of, into the movies, as Gary’s pad was used as a location for Don Owen’s kooky counterculture film The Ernie Game, released by the NFB in 1967, with some music by Leonard Cohen (whom Gary graciously introduced to a thrilled yours truly). There, in a lingering goodbye scene looking down the hall, is the apparently immovable pile of Pop-See-Culs.

Eisenkraft helped Juan Rodriguez get an up close and personal musical education. Photo courtesy of Harriet Eisenkraft

Success on Stanley emboldened Gary to move his club to larger quarters, on Sherbrooke at Bleury, which he called The New Penelope. The club featured moveable bleacher seating concocted by the famous designer François Dallegret, not to mention a real box office by the entrance and spacious dressing rooms. It was here that I became Gary’s “gofer” (running errands, designing handouts).

Back then, acts played one- or two-week stands; we got to know them and they got to know the city. Leonard Cohen would drop by during Joni Mitchell’s stand; she had a dewy blonde freshness and Cohen was obviously enchanted, sometimes leaving the club with her.

Others who performed there in our summer of love included the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with a hurricane sound and great guitar from Elvin Bishop; the James Cotton Blues Band, the real funky deal; Tim Hardin (author of If I Were A Carpenter), who painfully sweated through sets and disappeared between them (probably to search for heroin at the nearby Swiss Hut, a riotous log-cabin-styled joint favoured by separatists, lefties, country music fans, bikers, poets, painters, McGill students, lost and searching souls, freaks, journalists, gadflies and drug dealers); Lightfoot, growing more confident and imperious; and the transfixing Jesse Winchester, a newly arrived draft-evader from the south, armed with brilliant songs and a tremulous stage presence (he called it “treading water”).

The act that made the biggest impression on me was Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, who opened The New Penelope on January 7, 1967, with a two-week stand in the middle of a cold snap. Although Zappa had a reputation for the fearsome put-down, the ice crystals that formed on his mustache seemed to make him merely mortal.

“It was 20 degrees below zero,” he hyperbolized in a 1993 Playboy interview. “We walked from our hotel to the club, and the snot had literally frozen in our noses by the time we got to work. The wind instruments got so cold that if you tried to play them, your lips and fingers would freeze to them.”

Zappa took to me, probably because I was not into drugs and alcohol then. Also, I vouched for him at the Banque National across the street after tellers frightened by his extreme mien—long unruly black hair falling over a raccoon coat—refused to cash his paycheques. He had ferocious dark brown eyes, a laugh that was almost always a sarcastic sneer, and he wore construction boots and marched like a man on a mission (like Groucho Marx).

The Mothers’ degenerate Dada act included throwing stuff—from food to rubber chickens—at each other and the audience, lasciviously pawing an inflatable doll, and getting creative with a can of Cool Whip. All the while Zappa conducted the Mothers with swift, assured arm waving, sudden stabs of a finger, the curl of a pinkie—classicism perversely run amok, free-form absurdities never before seen in rock.

Our jaws dropped, wondering what was next.

He took me to breakfasts at the Swiss Hut, where he lampooned the eggs and bacon as resembling a plastic Warhol artwork, complained of the cold, and longed to go back to warm L.A. (His wife, Gail, was along for the gig, four months away from giving birth to Moon Unit, their first child.) He talked about how Freak Out! was the first “underground” record sold in Los Angeles supermarkets, and about outlasting the Beatles (he did).

“Revolution,” he said, “is a fad.”

When I summoned up the nerve to show Zappa some clippings and copies of Pop-See-Cul, he dutifully said, “Keep up the good work.” Made my day—well, maybe my life.

And I owe this up-close-and-personal musical education to Gary Eisenkraft. He eventually moved to the U.S., setting up a farm in northern California (pot country).

He died in December 2004 of heart disease, at 59. His younger sister Harriett showed me a recent photo of him, still wearing overalls and a goofy smile.



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