Montréal Underground Origins Blog

John Heward


This is a transcript of a conversation with John Heward and Louis Rastelli in the summer of 2016 at Café Résonance on Park Avenue in Montreal.
RIP John Heward, 1934-2018, Montreal.

JH: I’m from here, from the so-called Golden Mile, Redpath Street. They were row houses built in the 1920’s, and when we were there in the beginning, there were still a lot of large houses, just around Sherbrooke. It was a closed street in those days, a culvert. [Doctor] Penfield had been pushed through and it was a quiet street.
LR: That’s an interesting neighbourhood to grow up in, seeing as you’re literally a step away from downtown and all the nightclubs…
JH: …and all that.
LR: Was the jazz scene still swinging by the time you were of age?
JH: Yeah! I used to go out late at night, often to jazz clubs, and societies that would meet in the afternoons. Musicians would have gigs and, you know, in the afternoons they would play a little more.
LR: Did you ever get to see any of the jazz shows at legendary venues like Rockhead’s?
JH: Yes. I used to hang out at Rockhead’s a bit, and I was very young—15 or 16—in the days when they had the Rockettes, three dancers, a comedian and a show. The band was Louis Metcalfe, who was a trumpet player with Ellington. There used to be sessions after the last show, and I would stay down for that… It was just the band and people sitting.
LR: They didn’t have a problem with a young one—getting in that late?
JH: Not in those days.
LR: I heard that later on in the 1970s, some of the musicians who were active then said, unfortunately, Rufus Rockhead wasn’t the most tolerant fellow. One story related to me about a white kind of funk band that wanted to play at his place and they were just told: “No whiteys!”
JH: Of course, also the black community were coming out to the bar, a beautiful long bar below…
LR: Wasn’t there also a sunken dance floor or something?
JH: Well, the ground floor was just a long room with a very long bar, where they used to have trios and so on. Then you went up the stairs to the second floor, which was the club with the dance floor and a stage, and then there was the third floor which was kinda like the balcony, running all the way around. There weren’t that many tables up there because it was fairly narrow, but there was this big kind of well …I guess I had a sort of relationship with Rockhead’s and I didn’t really go across the street—but maybe one or twice—to the Café [ST-MICHEL], which was kinda like a rougher version of Rockhead’s… I was never hassled.
LR: You didn’t really play music yourself until much later…
JH: No, that was much later. I had a few records and I did start playing drums around 16 or so, but only in a very informal way.
LR: You were a jazz aficionado?
JH: I listened to jazz.
LR: How did you keep track or find out about who was coming to town?
JH: I tried to keep up, but I missed lots of people in the ‘60s, because I was away in England, in London for a number of years, in publishing… and people like Albert Ayler came [1967] and I missed him. I knew the London [JAZZ] scene fairly well.
LR: What brought you to publishing? Is that what you studied in Montreal?
JH: Well, Bishop’s University and a degree in English, and I didn’t quite know what to do.
LR: So you were there in London during the swinging times?
JH: No, pre-swinging—late ‘50s and very early ‘60s—It was very interesting because it was coming out of the war and there was still that sense of the war… lots of rubble. I decided I was gonna try to get into publishing. It sounds like a pleasant life, reading and saying “yes” and saying “no.” London and New York were sort of equal, but it was before corporate publishing.
LR: Before Penguin & Random House?
JH: Well, I worked for Penguin and this was before they were big and were bad. I knew Alan Laing.
LR: How did that work out as far as getting a livelihood and a resume to bring back? Or was it your goal to stay there forever?
JH: I didn’t know. I almost did stay, but something was kind of gnawing at me… that publishing is fun, I was enjoying it to a certain extent, but it seemed literally second-hand, it wasn’t right and I knew I wasn’t going to be a writer.
LR: Were you an editor, a proofreader?
JH: I was kind of a journeyman. I had some say in things. I could push books I wanted. In fact, the official Penguin history doesn’t say it, but I was the guy that brought Under The Volcano to them! The Malcolm Lowery book, it had been published, oh about 10 or 15 years before—the end of the ‘40s, 1949—Hamish Hamilton… it had attracted some notice among some people and was kind of an underground book… Lowery died in ’59 and Penguin was just coming out of the Lady Chatterley business, they had won the [COURT] case to publish that and it opened up a lot of doors. The whole English sex-life is a fascinating thing to follow, love in a cold climate. Writing and publishing is a funny business. I came back here to visit in ’62, and I decided that I didn’t really want to stick in publishing and with something gnawing at me, so I did some other jobs, working in architecture for a couple of years, and then I was hired to do the thematic material for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo, so I did that.
LR: Where you working with a team of people?
JH: Yeah, developing the ideas and how they could be exhibited and how they could be made real, three-dimensional. I did that quite early, something like ’63 to ’67.
LR: You must have been at the opening?
JH: I was at the opening of the Canadian Pavilion, yeah. It wasn’t as if I was doing the theme for the whole shebang. The Canadian Pavilion was reasonably successful.
LR: I recall that it was one of the only pavilions left when they kept it going as Man And His World…
JH: Yeah. One of the thing I had to do was write-up the very short, little biographies of the people that featured in the Katimavik, you know—the upside down pyramid, and there were these little placards with people like Norman Bethune, Norman McLaren… interesting people. While I was there I met somebody named David Newman, who was an early computer expert who was hired to do the computering, such as it was, for the pavilion. This was how to use the computer in the exhibits and being aware of what was about to happen in the whole computer world.
LR: So by then, had you moved back to Montreal?
JH: I moved back in ’67 in an apartment with Dave Newman and spent a few years in a consultancy dealing in communications and futurology… taking institutions and companies and suggesting to them how computers and internal communications were developing, making them aware of what was coming out. It was a great irony because I don’t use a computer now (laughs).
LR: From what I read now, I don’t know how correct your futurology ended up being, but it seems like the general sense was that there wouldn’t be individual computers like this everywhere, but on big one and people would have a data terminal to tap it.

JH: Yeah, to tap into… we have some clouds now.
LR: Do you remember if you had properly predicted some things like maybe a mouse or monitor and keyboard interface?
JH: To be honest, I don’t remember. We met [MARSHALL] McLuhan a few times.
LR: He must have been at the height of his fame?
JH: He was, yeah… at conferences and stuff. As he called his conferences: The leisure of the theory class! (laughs)
LR: Back to Expo, I have to ask you whether you got to see a lot of performers there?
JH: I didn’t see as many as I might have, because my wife was pregnant and gave birth in January of ’68. So we couldn’t go to too many things, but my favourite was go to the American pavilion and listen to the pianists who played there all summer… Sunnyland Slim was one. They didn’t have that much jazz per se, but there was a kinda little journey through American social history. People sat there and played, and that was the essence of it.
LR: Do you remember any of the other pianists? I don’t suppose Cecil Taylor might have been there?
JH: Well that’s what I often wonder, whether Cecil played there or not. I don’t think he did and I wasn’t too aware of free jazz at that point, which I was a little sorry to have been there when it was inventing itself. I was there but I wasn’t aware of it.
LR: What you have in this publication (Da Vinci) is a fairly abstract visual art piece. When did you start that?
JH: Well that was when I was working on Expo. I found more and more that I was thinking visually, because I was translating some people’s thoughts into not exactly images, but situations that communicate these sort of things in the exhibit. I forgot to mention earlier my work at the National Museum and various jobs doing kinesiology, making dioramas, physically making them. There was a guy there named Andre Steimann, he was a very good painter, Dutch guy, and we hung out and were great friends. I was sitting with him one day in a tavern after work, and I sort of muttered, literally in my ear: “I think in the next life I’d like to try painting.” He stared at me, said: “Finish your beer!” So I finished my beer and he said: “Come with me” and he led me—almost by the nose—to his studio, gave me some material and said: “Do it!” And that’s what pushed me over the edge! That first painting exists and is in the collection of the Musée de Quebec.
LR: Really—your first painting? How did that come about?
JH: Well, I had been selected to… they had bought a number of my works and also I had donated a number of my works, I guess I have 130-140 of my works in a kind of study archive in Quebec. And there actually is an archive of some papers that I kept.
LR: Do you still paint today?
JH: I still do.
LR: What’s your preferred medium?
JH: I happen to be doing sculpture recently. Conceiving about having it fabricated.
LR: I’m assuming that painting is what brought you to explore the—back then new—artists-run centres?
JH: Absolutely, yeah. I sort of leapt into abstraction straight off. Certainly, I had done quite a lot of life drawing in one way or another, but not as a basis for going somewhere else, just as a way of thinking in another mode. In those days, abstraction was easy enough to get shown, and still is in some ways.
LR: What was your sense that—having been there in the beginning—that the gallery scene that didn’t necessarily include young, experimental artists… I presume that along Sherbrooke Street the art dealers back then didn’t much care for the new art or experimental art …
JH: There was an undercurrent of feminism at the artist-run centres—women weren’t in (the establishment scene). Ironically enough, some of the best Canadian artists happen to have been women. I started painting around ’68 and around 70 – 71 there was a little hub around Véhicule.
LR: In ’66, the only one that had already started, I think, was Studio Graff
JH: Studio Graff yes, was a co-operative. At that point I wasn’t thinking about showing. In ’69, I think, or early ’70 I did a show at the Gallery Agnes Le Fort, which was one of the Sherbrooke Street galleries. It was a very good gallery. It wasn’t a full-scale solo show, but I had a wall or two there. That was my debut.
LR: What was the medium of your work at that point?
JH: They were spray-paintings. Silver & black spray painting, some landscaping. I was doing horizontals.
LR: Was spraypaint something you went to hardware store for at the time?
JH: Yes, exactly. I gave it up after a while—It’s not very healthy!
LR: You never went around graffiti-ing or anything, did you?
JH: No! (laughs)
LR: It must have been not long after this first show of yours that you decided to join one of these artist-run centres? When did you first hear about Véhicule? Were they the first one you heard about?
JH: Well Véhicule, I was sort of around from their discussing making it. They had been talking for a bit, and I was invited to some of these meetings. There was a group of—13 I think it was—the original team. So they were expanding the group, and I thought that the idea was interesting, and the artists were people I was sort of, or had become aware of, making art. It seemed to me a very valid way of getting art out of the studio and into the world.
LR: I guess there is also the aspect of having a fairly close set of colleagues that you could…
JH: In some ways we were like the association of clubs—not necessarily even clubs—just a gathering of artists at the time just to talk. This became a little more formalized from talk to action and space to demonstrate into action.
LR: Do you remember Guy Lavoie? Was he one of the early ones?
JH: Yes, he and Sy Dardick heard of it and said: “Is there any chance that we can start a press?” and people said: “Yeah, well, that’s another medium.” They weren’t actually members of Véhicule per se, but I think had some say in the running of it.
LR: That definitely one of things that set them apart from others, the presence of this press—a real resource to have on the premises for whatever reason—not just for books, but printed art, multiples…
JH: Yes, and they were also—in one sense—a commercial printer.
LR: The space wasn’t just the clubhouse for the members …
JH: There was quite a lot of music, more sort of curated by Véhicule. I remember going to one concert by Dave Turner, who used to play there quite a bit. But they also brought people in, Philip Glass’ saxophone player, Dickie Landry, who did a couple of concerts there. Will Viola came up and did a show before he was famous.
LR: Do you keep in touch with anyone that was around in those days?
JH: Well I see Sy Dardick on occasion. People like Suzy Lake, I haven’t really seen for a while, but I could be in touch with. A couple of the members died.
LR: Do you remember when this (his pages in Da Vinci magazine – ADD LINK to MUO Image Blog page) came out? It appears to be hand prints with notes.
JH: Hand prints with script, but the script doesn’t necessarily say anything… just a notion on language and a kind of mindscape.
LR: Do you recall how this came about? Did they say: “Would you like to do something, we got another issue coming out…”
JH: Yeah, that was it, word of mouth. We were reading at Véhicule… people hung out there, it wasn’t a clubhouse, but it was a nice space to be in. They’d ask the people to contribute, instead of just wait for them to come.
LR: I’m assuming no one was promised any payment or expected any?
JH: None whatsoever.
LR: So you would have handed them just sheets with the originals I guess? And do you recall if there was a launch party when it was released?
JH: Very likely.
LR: I presume you expected to get 1 or 2 copies and that was it. That was your reward …
JH: Yeah, right. It’s an old, old tradition with literary magazines
LR: We have a lot of magazines, ‘zines and periodicals in our archives but I haven’t seen anything else of yours like that. Do you recall being published elsewhere?
JH: I was in the first issue of Parachute, it is fairly rare but I think that you could find it in the library. I think it’s about 1975 when the first issue came out. Don’t try to buy it though—it’s quite valuable! (laughs) I had a show at the Musée Contemporain in 1976, and there’s a catalogue of that.
LR: I’m trying to get a sense from everybody we interview, just the feeling of the era, early ‘70s Montreal. It was a bit of a different time, smaller. It feels from researching this that it was a bit more intimate, confined, particularly in the Anglophone side of town.
JH: Véhicule was in touch with Quebec artists… but it was largely English-speaking. There would be the odd contact, you know, some friendship.
LR: What about other centers like Le Conventum, the concert space and artist centre. Do you remember going there?
JH: I never went, no, but I remember that… down on Sanguinet. I didn’t go much to music shows.
LR: Did you see the Quatuor de Jazz-Libre du Quebec in those days?
JH: The record I did with Yves Bouliane, who was the bass player. That was in ’87 or so, I only started playing in ’84, re-playing! That was a connection.
LR: In 1975, you lived close to Véhicule, right?
JH: I wasn’t that far, because I got divorced that year and I had been living up Sherbrooke Street, and moved down to Clark Street near de Maisonneuve. There was a building there—it’s now been torn down—a very nice building, 8000 square feet, and the rent was $185 a month. It was a nice space.
LR: Did you go to some of the nearbyt cafes like Prag or the New Penelope?
JH: I went to the New Penelope a few times to hear the blues bands, Muddy Waters. I saw Howlin’ Wolf at The Esquire, where Chez Paree is now.
LR: The Swiss Hut was next to the Penelope…
JH: The Swiss Hut was a bar where the Quebecois… and there was this bar on St-Denis where the Quebecois artists went. There was this notional connection to Quebecois artists, there wasn’t any rivalry then. I mean, there were strong political feelings…
LR: I guess that between St-Denis & St-Laurent, there was this zone…
JH: One of the theatres there for a while brought in people like [THELONIOUS] Monk and so on.
LR: Any other memorable shows at The Esquire?
JH: Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
LR: Were you formally a part of the Véhicule Art collective?
JH: I was a member, yeah. I can’t remember if there were membership fees.
LR: You moved on to a different artist-run centre at one point didn’t you?
JH: I was involved with Optica for a few years. It was more of a photographic gallery, but was switching over to an all-purpose gallery. In those days, it was in the Centaur Theatre.
LR: Did you go to any of the hangouts in Old Montreal like at the Hotel Nelson?
JH: Maybe a few times. There was the Black Bottom on St-Paul, and there was another one on a side street near St-Laurent, a lot of people ended up there… Sonny Rollins played there.
LR: Were you making a living just by painting? Did you still have to work odd jobs?
JH: Working jobs, yeah. I was at a consultancy for a while, and then I started investing a bit. With painting, I’d say that the habit supports itself. It was a useful income. I would sell a certain amount every year.
LR: You didn’t have an agent or a gallery representative in that era?
JH: Well yes, I did. I have a gallery which still represents me, Roger Bellemare, but he took some time off in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s and re-opened again at the beginning of this century.
LR: But he was representing you in the 1970s?
JH: Yeah. I’ve known him a long time—Very loyal—It’s nice, very supportive.

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