By David McPherson
SOCAN Words & Music regular contributor David McPherson has just released his second book, Massey Hall (Dundurn Press, 2021), which tells the story of the legendary 127-year-old Toronto venue – where a debut performance on its iconic stage has always served as a cherished dream of musicians across the country. The book is out, and within weeks of this writing, after a massive series of renovations, the hall will re-open for business. So we’re marking the occasion with a few of David’s own memories of seeing unforgettable shows at Massey Hall. The book is available here, and you can follow David on Twitter and Instagram, at @mcphersoncomm and @masseyhallbook on both platforms.
I’ll never forget my first time stepping off the Shuter Street sidewalk in Toronto and entering those three red doors. The magic inside the walls of Massey Hall was palpable. It hit me immediately and has never left. I felt the spirits of the artists and entertainers that had passed through that entrance before and stood on that storied stage over the past century. Little did I know that night that one day, I would write a book about this iconic and culturally significant venue. I’m humbled to have had the support and confidence of the Massey Hall team and my publisher (Dundurn Press) to tell this tale. Just like Hart Massey gave this living landmark to the City of Toronto as a gift in 1894, being given the privilege to tell the building’s story was an incredible honour – one I didn’t take lightly.
From that first concert I saw at Massey Hall (The Pretenders, March 1, 2000), I’ve made sure to take communion at this church of music regularly in the ensuing years. I’ve seen countless shows there, and each remains ingrained in my brain for different reasons. All I need to do is look at the ticket stub and my mind reels – flashes of that night return, a smile creeps onto my face, and for a brief moment I’m lost in the music of another Massey-Hall memory.
For some reason, I’d never seen a show at Massey Hall until I moved to Toronto in the late 1990s. In high school, I lived more than an hour away, in Kitchener-Waterloo. Many of the concerts I attended – in what for me was then considered the “big city” – were at venues like Maple Leaf Gardens, Exhibition Place at the CNE, The Forum at Ontario Place, and Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland. What strikes me is that all these venues where I saw some of my earliest concerts (The Who, The Rolling Stones, Steve Miller Band, Tragically Hip, to name just a few) are now gone, but Massey remains. That in itself makes the Grand Dame of Shuter Street that much more unique.
In high school, concerts were experiences that allowed me to escape my thoughts, share musical moments with best friends, and do what teenagers do. For example, I remember getting beers while underage at the Golden Griddle before an Iron Maiden show at Maple Leaf Gardens. While my dad and I saw many Maple Leafs games at the Gardens during my formative years, seeing a concert with my father wasn’t something I’d even consider. I learned to love Jimmy Buffett, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joni Mitchell by sifting through his vinyl collection, but that was where the musical relationship between me and my dad ended.
Following my graduation from University, the gap between our musical tastes – once as wide as a forest – narrowed. We found common ground; the logical next step was to attend shows together. And attend concerts we did: The Guess Who, The Chicks, The Eagles, CSNY, and so many more. Since then, I’ve seen more concerts with my dad than anyone else – many at Massey Hall. It’s no surprise I dedicated my newly published Massey Hall book to him. We saw Lightfoot. We saw Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris. Jackson Browne solo, and later Bruce Cockburn. One of my favourite all-time shows I’ve seen anywhere was at Massey with my dad: Neil Young during his Chrome Dreams II tour in 2007.
This past summer, on my birthday, I received one of the most special – and unexpected – gifts from dad: a seat dedication at the revitalized Massey Hall, with the following inscription: “David W. McPherson. Author (Massey Hall, Dundurn Press 2021). Music is the elixir of life.” What made this gift even more meaningful is that my dad also bought a seat right next to mine for himself with the following dedication: “Barry D. McPherson. Concerts Together, Forever.” It was hard to not get emotional when I first opened this gift. I can’t wait to return to Massey Hall this Fall to see those seats, soak in the magic of the rejuvenated venue, and share another night of music with my dad.
As a music journalist/reviewer, I’ve covered many other shows at Massey over the years, including Lucinda Williams, Barenaked Ladies, Loretta Lynn, Steve Earle, and John Hiatt with Lyle Lovett. Seeing my favourite songwriter John Prine for the first time (September 16, 2006) was yet another magical night.
Other shows I witnessed before the Hall closed for three years of a multi-million-dollar revitalization: Jason Isbell (Aug. 29, 2017), and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony (Sept. 23, 2017), that saw Bruce Cockburn and Neil Young inducted on the same night, with Whitehorse, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, William Prince, Randy Bachman, Ruth B, and others paying tribute to these legends.
And then there were my last two pairs of shows before the temporary closure, both in 2018. The first was a 124th Birthday bash for the hall in June, where Whitehorse was the house band, and guests included Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sarah Harmer, Sam Roberts, and Jim Cuddy. The last time I walked through those three red doors for a show was on Canada Day 2018, when I watched Gordon Lightfoot play in his home-away-from-home, where he’s performed more than 165 times.
As I write this blog, the re-opening of Massey Hall is just a few weeks away. It’s no surprise that Gord is set christen the newly-renovated hall with three shows. I can’t wait to see Lightfoot play in his hometown venue, with 2,800-odd like-minded souls. Maybe I’ll see you there, or at another upcoming show. Until then, long live live music… and Massey Hall Forever!