In 1982 I moved from a town of 20,000 people (Glace Bay, Nova Scotia) to a city of over 2,000,000 (Toronto). As you can probably imagine, it isn’t easy to make a move of such magnitude without there being some fairly significant adjustments to make along the way. One of the biggest adjustments (and fastest) that I had to make had to do with my cultural references. I left home to attend university. Specifically, I left home to enroll in the Radio and Television Arts Programme at Toronto Metropolitan University (Ryerson, back in the day). It didn’t take long for me to realize the truth behind the oft-repeated accusation that those in Toronto feel as though it is the centre of the universe. My broadcasting course was being taught in Toronto by media professionals who had made a name for themselves in Canada’s largest city. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the course would be Toronto-centric in so many ways. But it did.
I grew up on Cape Breton Island in the 1960s and 70s. Because those were pre-internet times, we got much of our news and cultural information from national broadcasters like the CBC or CTV. Thus, I grew up knowing national celebrities such as Anne Murray, Tommy Hunter, Wayne and Shuster and so on. But, I also grew up knowing performers such as Winnie Chafe, Lee Cremo and The Men of the Deeps. Because of how information was disseminated in those days, I felt as though I knew my local celebrities every bit as much as I did my national heroes. So when I arrived in Toronto to begin my broadcasting course, I naively expected that my teachers and classmates would have the same cultural background as me. Instead, their cultural markers were completely different. Not only was their cultural background much different from me because of the wide variety of ethnicity on display, but just as importantly, it was different because everything was so Toronto-oriented. I was completely lost in terms of a shared history. It was almost as if I was a stranger in a foreign land.
Let me give you a couple of quick examples. My very first assignment in a course called History of Broadcasting was to list all of the radio stations in Toronto, describe their music format and provide a brief bit of background such as corporate ownership, how the station was doing as far as “the numbers” went and so on. To those from Toronto, this was probably an easy first assignment because they had grown up listening to these stations all of their lives. For me, it was horrendously difficult because I had never listened to any of them, so I had no idea who did “Talk” and who did “Rock”, which were AM and which were FM, and on and on it went. A second example was from a course that consisted of us listening to guest speakers who worked within the broadcasting industry in Canada. The very first guest speaker was a man named Dick Smyth. My Toronto area classmates were super excited that this man was coming. To me, I hadn’t a clue who he was. That he was a famous columnist and radio personality meant absolutely nothing to me because we never listened to Toronto radio or watched local Toronto television or read Toronto newspapers when I was growing up in Glace Bay. With my classmates’ mocking laughter ringing in my ears, I was determined to stand and fight for my place in the course. To do so, I immersed myself in as much Toronto culture as I could. Luckily for me, I got a big break the very next week as our industry insider guest speaker was a man named Moses Znaimer. He was working hard to change the way broadcasting was being presented to viewers. Because of him, I started to learn about Toronto.
Moses Znaimer once worked for the CBC but left them in the late 1970s to start a new Toronto television station called CITY-TV. At the time, Znaimer’s ideas were deemed as being radical. He believed that democracy was a participatory process and that broadcasting was a fundamental part of healthy democracies. As such, he felt that citizens needed to be invited into the world of broadcasting so that they could see themselves represented properly and hear their stories being told. One of the first symbolic things he did was to install glass windows in the exterior of his studios so that passers-by could watch what was happening live on air such as at news time. Znaimer also created numerous shows that focussed on local issues and on the people making a difference in the city itself. After hearing him speak, I decided to start watching CITY-TV. One of the first shows I started following was called The New Music Magazine. The first episode I saw involved a segment about the emerging underground Arts scene in Toronto. The segment featured a poet/songwriter named Robert Priest and highlighted a song of his called “Congo Toronto”. The political nature of the song/video caught my attention. Because of the fact that I looked to find out more about Robert Priest, I ended up being introduced to someone special named Mendleson Joe. Initially a Toronto-area local celebrity of sorts, Mendelson Joe went on to become one of the most original and noteworthy members of Canada’s Arts scene. He was a musician, songwriter, poet and visual artist over the course of his life and there was truly no one else like him in Canada. The irony for me is that Mendelson Joe was not comfortable in the company of most people, and therefore he lived for the majority of his life in a cabin in the woods. The ironic part is that I found him when I needed someone the most at that moment in my life. I was adrift in a strange new world, but once I found Mendelson Joe and, by extension, Robert Priest, then I found King Cobb Steelie and Rough Trade and through them, I found the beginnings of my own voice. So even though we never met in person, I have always felt as though I owed Mendelson Joe a debt of gratitude for helping to ground me when I was spinning and for being every bit the outsider as I originally felt and waving that flag ever so proudly for all to see.
Mendelson Joe began his career as a singer and songwriter. He released dozens of albums as a solo artist and as part of a band known as McKenna Mendelson Mainline. This band was a Blues-based outfit that had its initial success in England in the 1960s before returning to Toronto in the 1970s. While they had no chart-topping hits, they did manage to score gigs opening for the Jeff Beck Group and filling in for The Jimi Hendrix Experience once in Belgium. As part of the chain of connections that first brought Mendelson Joe to my attention via CITY-TV’s New Music Magazine show, when McKenna Mendelson Mainline returned to Canada after touring in England, they recorded a live Blues album in a burlesque hall. That album was mixed at studios owned by Moses Znaimer before he founded CITY-TV.
But as the years rolled by, what Mendelson Joe became most known for was speaking his mind to those in power. Like Moses Znaimer, he felt that it was a civic duty to participate in the functioning of the democratic process as part of the cost/obligation of living in Canada. He often used his music to make points about how more women should be elevated into positions of authority in our society and about how we all need to care for the earth if we are to survive as a species. He was an ardent follower of the CBC: especially the radio arm of the corporation. He often wrote letters to the editor in local newspapers, as well as to the CBC radio shows that he listened to. In the mid-1970s, he began painting. In time, Mendelson Joe became known for his portraits of famous Canadians that he respected. As well, he became known for his politically charged paintings of politicians of all affiliations, most of whom he dismissed as liars and cheats. His portraits of them reflected his views accordingly. While he was active in making “good trouble” via his music and art right up until recently, he did begin to find it harder to do so because he contracted Parkinson’s disease which, as you may know, causes you to lose control of your gross and fine motor skills, often shaking uncontrollably. The more the Parkinson’s took over his body, the less Mendelson Joe saw in continuing to live. Thus, he made the decision to end his life on his terms with a medically assisted death (or M.A.I.D., as it is legally called in Canada). With those he loved most around him, he ended his life this past week. With that final act, he departed for the next world, leaving a world of goodness in his wake.
Mendelson Joe’s death saddens me a little because the world needs more people like him, not fewer. However, his life serves us all as a reminder that living a life of silence serves no one well in the end. If we have gifts, then we should share them with others so as to brighten their world and perhaps inspire them to develop and share their own bounty with others in a cycle of upwardly flowing positivity. But, the biggest lesson I learned from encountering Mendelson Joe over forty years ago is the importance of having that hoary cliché of a growth mindset. Traveling and living in different parts of the country has broadened my mind and helped to make me a more empathetic person. For the first third of my life, I lived on an island called Cape Breton and thought I knew a lot about Canada. Then I moved to Canada’s biggest city and found out that I knew very little after all. The people I encountered or learned about in those early days in Toronto helped ease my transition into a bigger world and because of that, they helped me grow as a human being. For that I am eternally grateful.
I have tried to give a sense of who Mendelson Joe was, but there are others who have already done so with greater eloquence that I can muster. So, I am going to leave you with three videos and one special website link below. The first is a short song sung by Mendelson Joe called “The Canada Song”. It features a lot of his landscape art. The song is cute but has a good point in the end as well. The second video comes from a segment on the life of Mendelson Joe by famous Canadian comedian Rick Mercer from his former TV show, The Rick Mercer Report. (In this video you will get to see some of the political paintings Joe did of politicians that he felt were liars). The third video is simply one in which Mendelson Joe talks about one of his portraits…Bruce Cockburn, I believe, and how he views those who speak out on behalf of the environment. The final link is not a video at all but, instead, a link to his official website which is curated by his friend and partner Karen Robinson. Pinned to the front page of the website is a farewell letter written by Mendelson Joe himself. I can think of nothing more appropriate than allowing Mendelson Joe to have the final word in this post.
Thank you all for reading about this important Canadian. Peace Be With You, Mendelson Joe. Thank you for living a life filled with Art and creativity and strong personal principles.
The link to the video for the song “The Canada Song” by Mendelson Joe can be found here.
The link to the video about Mendelson Joe that aired on The Rick Mercer Report can be found here.
The link to the official website for Mendleson Joe which contains his farewell letter to the world can be found here.
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