Artist Erik Slutsky on Montreal’s 60s – 70s music scene
LR: I got that after first moving near downtown from St-Laurent. Both my parents had grown up near downtown and thought I didn’t appreciate what an improvement the suburbs were: “We go and leave the gritty alleys for a nice lawn and everything, and you go back there!”
ES: A lot of parents said that to the kids back then. It was like a grandmother saying to you, “What, you ripped down the plaster to expose the brick wall? I left a shtetl (city, in Hebrew) made out of only bricks and now you want to have just bricks?” Or, “you stripped all the paint off the rocking chair? To expose the wood??” There would be like 70 coats of paint on the rocking chair, they had spent years painting things so they would look new every year. Anyway my dad loved the neighborhood. The people who grew up there had fun there, they liked it. They were poor but they never considered themselves deprived. They were always out on the streets, there were a lot of children about, communal action, a lot of politics, educational and cultural things going on. For the religious people there was all the religious stuff. There was a big mixture of everything. Their family and friends were still around. So my dad, while growing up, he’d bring me down every weekend to St-Laurent Boulevard, to introduce me to all his buddies who may have had stores there still. Cookie’s Main Lunch, on the corner of Marie-Anne and St-Laurent, he’d bring me there in the late 50s and early 60s. Where Bagel etc. is now. Little did he know I’d later take over the entire third floor of that building—my son was born there. Right above where the Playwright’s Workshop later was. I had that place for twelve or thirteen years.
Leonard Cohen was my neighbor, across the street. I used to sit with him in Portuguese park. We’d have our coffee and cigarettes there in the morning. I barely knew who he was. Around 83 or 84, he was writing Hallelujah. We would sit in the park in the morning, he’d be writing in his notebook and we’d be talking and having coffee. We’d actually both make our coffee in our own places and come back and sit in the park together. He would bum cigarettes from me, because he was always quitting smoking, he didn’t want to buy any. Sometimes we’d go into Bagel Etc., after Cookie’s closed, and sit with Gadd and Matina. Sometimes my wife would come down from upstairs in the building. Leonard would hang out, (Juan) Rodriguez was there. There was also a sculptor friend of Leonard’s, Morton Rosengarden, who lived nearby …
Anyhow, we’d talk about music, and Leonard came up to my place one time to see my work and he said, “Eric, you have to go to the head office.” And I said, “What do you mean, the head office?” He said, “The head office!” I said, “What the heck are you talking about,” He said “The head office is New York City, Erik, that’s what I did. I went to the head office and I made it from the head office. You gotta go there, you can’t stick around here.” And that was 84 or a little earlier.
I knew he was a songwriter, but I didn’t really know he was a real famous guy or anything. He was a guy who lived across the street.
LR: He had been going through a bit of a lull at that point. He had quite a burst of fame in the 60s and then again a bit in the mid 70s, but then there was a dry spell there.
ES: Yeah, well we just hung out and talked and nobody bothered him, nobody recognized him. Mind you, Montreal is known to be very much like that. You can be a star here and no one’s going to really go crazy around you. I don’t think Cohen or Rufus still have too much trouble around town.
People did move elsewhere and made more money, but the cost of living was so low in Montreal. I paid $75 a month in rent on St-Urban Street, between St-Viateur and Fairmount in 1975. And I lived with my girlfriend – so who couldn’t afford $75 a month. We didn’t have much money but it was only 37.50 each. That left us with enough money to go to cheap restaurants, shows for a couple bucks…
LR: And even though minimum wage must’ve been around $2 an hour, still…
ES: You were still making at least $75 a week, or a hundred.
LR: So it was barely a week’s work at minimum wage. It’s a lot more work for a month’s rent now, that’s for sure.
ES: Unless you share it with many people. So when we see the huge change in the Mile End in the past few years, a huge bunch of the influx is students. Many of them have their parents paying their rent while they’re in school. Many from France as well, and just about anywhere else you can think of – Winnipeg, Vancouver, Ontario, they all think this is the coolest place to live, but they don’t have an attachment to the place, no sense of history of this neighborhood. And they’re going to take off in two or three years as soon as they graduate and get a job in New York or Toronto.
LR: I presume there was some of that around McGill even back then.
ES: But the McGill Ghetto hasn’t been a community of consistent residents probably for 100 years. At some point before the University got really big there were probably a lot of families there. But Mile-End was always a consistent community of families that lived here. Those families are dying out, moving away, selling their properties for huge amounts of money. Their children have gone away, and who’s able to buy a house for a million dollars or whatever. It’s going to be somebody with a lot of money, who hears that this is the cool area.
LR: Like what happened to Greenwich Village in the 90s.
ES: Maybe. I lived in Greenwich Village in 77, 78. I loved it, it was terrific.
LR: What about the PQ coming to power in 76, a lot of English Montrealers we’ve spoken to said it was a turning point.
ES: I had my friends who took off to Toronto right after Rene Levesque won in 76. My girlfriend and I, at the time, loved the guy– he represented almost like a socialist future for this province. Like a caring, honest government. The night he won, we sat at a bar on St-Laurent near St-Viateur. Next to it was a steamed hot dog joint and a brasserie. We sat there watching election returns come in on TV, we were the only English-speaking people in the bar that night. When the Parti Québecois won, people went crazy, cars were honking down the street. Then all of a sudden, her and I felt a little bit nervous and uncomfortable. I had voted for him – she was American, she couldn’t vote. We just felt a bit uncomfortable – a lot of crazy things were being said, we just thought maybe there would end up being some crazy people out there. So we just went home after that. And later, a lot of my friends moved to Toronto. They’d arrange to continue University there, I forget what month it was, when the election happened. I was already out of their group, living in Mile-End while they were either still living with their parents or further in the suburbs. They all just kind of drifted off to Toronto or Vancouver and places like that. I had no reason to leave, I was happy here. My mother transferred ALL her money to Toronto. Emptied her bank accounts – not that it made any difference. It was just this fear from her past, that something bad might happen.
LR: It does sound like by the mid 70s the era that began with the mid 60s we started with was already ending. In Montreal with the Olympics, the PQ in 76, the disco explosion, it’s like just 7 or 8 years later the 60s must’ve felt like a distant memory.
ES: I think it came in with us, with my generation and went out with my generation. It came in with people my age starting say in the early 60’s, mid-60’s, influenced a lot from the American side and then a little bit later the political side through the European political scene in ’68 and ’69, and then as we gotten into our twenties and had to take on more adult responsibilities, now we are getting into the exact period you said, mid 70’s. We left it all behind: we had to leave the drugs behind because we had to get jobs or graduate from University, or at least do a lot less drugs. We had to earn money to pay our way unless we had very wealthy parents.
The people going to the disco clubs were not my people. I know they had these big clubs on Mountain street, and cocaine became the drug, and we didn’t do cocaine. We had pretty much come to the end of the drug thing because we had already been doing it for 10 years or 15 years. There were those who just went crazy and were dead already, and those who survived like myself. So the people going to the discos was a new kind of consumerism, kind of “let me show you how beautiful I am, see me, look at me, admire me, I want to be seen with this person, let’s do the cocaine and get this kind of super energy that we can dance and make love in the bathroom and not care and spend as much money as we can.” Show the cash, pick up the pretty girl or the handsome guy, it was so anathema to the hippie ideal of just freedom, peace and like, no money. It was completely the opposite — we just couldn’t get into that at all. It turned us off completely so we just went somewhere else.
LR: So all of a sudden, the sixties thing is firmly part of the past, something to be revisited. It’s not alive anymore.
ES: I don’t want to live in the past. I am not one of those guys that listens to radio stations that only plays 60’s music. No, I want to know what people are listening to. I enjoy that era, I am interested in it but I am not a fanatic about it. I just started the Facebook group for people to express themselves and have a little bit of amusement. Some guys are still at the Tam-Tams, you see guys my age who are still hippies, they got hair down to here, they are totally stoned out on acid, they are turning around in circles, I watch these guys and I think: wow, that would be me if I never had stopped doing LSD. That’s not where I want to live. I do totally respect the history, though, I love history and it is a part of history. But so it everything that is going on right now whether we like it or we don’t, and it’s better to know than not to know. Because if you know the history, then things make sense now. So the war in Iraq or Syria, whatever, doesn’t make sense unless you know the history of the Middle East, unless you know about colonialism and how it affected the face of Africa and the Middle East and then, suddenly it makes sense – oh I understand why these people hate each other, they never lived together before, they were in different places. So this is at a different level, but it holds as much importance in history of the city or the culture.
LR: So I guess the 60s are important in part for how we’ve moved on from it, not as a glorious perfect time – I mean some things were awful in the 60s, if we glorified it too much we’d be ignoring things like it maybe wasn’t as easy being gay or a woman in the 60’s, and maybe the whole free love thing wasn’t always the most pleasant thing for young women at the time. Things like pay equity were battles that came later.
ES: Yeah, and those are good advances. I am also very privileged to have been able to live through all of those different things.
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