Last call at Massey Hall: fans and musicians share their stories

As the legendary concert hall darkens for renovations, we gathered memories from throughout the venue's 124 years


In a lot of ways, the history of Massey Hall is the history of Toronto itself. 

Over the last century and a quarter, the concert hall has been more than just a stage for Canadiana legends like Neil Young, Feist and the Tragically Hip, as well as local acts like July Talk graduating to the next stage of their careers: it’s hosted graduations, weddings, mega-church services, school choir contests and everyone from Winston Churchill to the Kids in the Hall to the musical Cats. People have come of age there, gotten old on its stage, and went on to haunt it as ghosts.

There aren’t many other local buildings that have been continuously used for their original purpose for 124 years – certainly not music venues. Now, for the first time (aside from one brief renovation between classical seasons in 1948), Massey Hall’s continuity is about to be interrupted. After a trio of concerts by Gordon Lightfoot between June 29 and July 1 – Canada Day, fittingly – the Grand Ol’ Lady of Shuter Street will go dark for the final two years of a massive $142-million renovation.

Massey’s owners promise not to condo-fy it or turn it into some futuristic digi-hall. They want to preserve its character while improving accessibility and versatility [see What’s changing at Massey Hall?]. It badly needs it. 

Before that happens, we reached out to notable people who’ve played at Massey, worked there or been swept up in its orbit to memorialize this old version of the hall. We also asked readers to share their Massey Hall memories and heard about first concerts, coming-of-age stories, love affairs, security skirmishes, even a visit from the Dalai Lama. 

Here are the highlights.

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Jag Gundu / Massey Hall

Everyone has to start somewhere, even if it’s Massey Hall

Prolific Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn has recorded a live album at Massey Hall, 1977’s Circles In The Stream, and is on the record as having played there 25 times – first in November 1972 opening for Pentangle and most recently this past May – but his manager and one-time Massey booker Bernie Finkelstein suggests that’s a conservative estimate. 

Bruce Cockburn: Massey has always been one of those places that just seems like a milestone every time you play there. But my intro was not a positive one. I was in a short-lived band called the Flying Circus in 1968 that couldn’t decide whether it was the Band or Frank Zappa. We opened for Wilson Pickett at Massey Hall, and we were really just cannon fodder. The audience was there to hear Mustang Sally and In The Midnight Hour. They weren’t even slightly interested in our psychedelia. And then Wilson Pickett got held up at the border.

The PA wasn’t set up yet when we got pushed out on stage by the promoter, who said, “If you want to get paid, get out there.” So we started playing while they were still setting up our vocal mics and then the B3 organ blew up. There was a loud crack and a puff of smoke wafted out. The organist had to play the whole set on a clavinet. The audience was shaking their fists at us and screaming, “Come on, let’s hear some music!”

I went back four years later as myself and it was a lovely experience. 

The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever… sort of

The 2007 release of Neil Young’s breathtaking archival Live At Massey Hall 1971 solo acoustic record made the hall one of the most sought-after venues for live albums and specials. NOW reader Debbie Campbell was there that January night and remembers “for $3.50 we got to soak up that beautiful space, spellbound with Young’s soaring vocals and mesmerizing guitar work.” 

But the most legendary recording actually happened close to two decades earlier, on May 15, 1953 – a night that saw the dream jazz lineup of Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Bud Powell, billed as the Quintet. Crime writer Jack Batten was there, and actually helped make it happen.

Jack Batten: The New Jazz Society of Toronto had about a dozen members, of which I was one of the latecomers. After putting on a successful concert at a union hall in the west end of New York, the plan was to go big time with a concert at Massey Hall with the greats of bebop. All seemed to be going smoothly until the big night arrived and the hall was little more than half full. Word about the concert hadn’t spread. Clearly promotion wasn’t our strong suit.

All five of the musicians had connections with Toronto. Mingus had played three years earlier at the Colonial Tavern on Yonge just around the corner. But the five of them playing together was unprecedented, and I’m certain they all never played together again.

In addition, a big band of Toronto musicians led by a trumpet player named Graham Topping played a set. This was a union mandate whenever an American band played in a Toronto concert hall, the local musicians’ union required that a Canadian band also be featured. This band, most of them modernists, were not bad. But we were not there for the Canadian guys, and the guys we did come for, Bird and Diz et al., were fabulous. 

The concert was recorded by, I think, the regular Massey Hall sound guy who got a not-exactly-crystal-clear sound. The person who somehow left town with the tapes was Mingus. He had his own record label called Debut, and he released three 10-inch LPs of the whole concert (except for the Canadian guys). Later, when the Fantasy label got the tapes and issued a single 12-inch LP of the evening, some unknown fellow in the production department put a title on the album: “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.”

It wasn’t quite that, but it was pretty wonderful.

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Neil Muscott

Kiersten Tough and Tom McHale get married at Massey Hall, July 2016

In the spotlight and behind the scenes 

As many legends made their names on the stage, so did many others behind it (figuratively speaking – the backstage area is about 3 feet wide). We got stories from ushers, sound and light technicians and bartenders, some of whom went on to play the venue themselves.

“Massey was the perfect place to work if you were in the arts because the schedule was flexible and you were surrounded by other creative minds who were in the same boat: musicians, writers, students, artists and comedians, all have worn the gold vest and ripped tickets,” says actor and writer Katie Crown (Kroll Show, Bob’s Burgers) who worked there as an usher in the 2000s.

“At the time I was working there I was getting more involved in the Toronto comedy scene, ‘honing’ whatever it was I was trying to hone. So getting the chance to see big, comedic names was always a thrill. The ones that really stuck out for me were Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart. I couldn’t believe how comfortable these performers were on stage, how effortless it was for them to speak and be funny.”

Clearly there’s something in the air between the aisles, too, because no less than four readers wrote in with stories about meeting their mate while working at the venue. One couple was practically introduced by Gordon Lightfoot himself. But one story about two front-of-house ushers stands out.

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Kiersten Tough and Tom McHale: We met in 2011 during a pre-show staff briefing in Centuries Lounge [the basement bar]. The Grand Ol’ Lady of Shuter Street worked its magic, and over time we became friends and then fell in love. We got engaged and had a wild thought that we should get married at Centuries Lounge, where we met. With much support from the management and staff, and of course our friends and families, our wild idea of getting married at Massey happened on July 30, 2016. We even had some Massey Hall ticket stock printed as invites. We called it the Gettin’ Hitched Tour!

A venue to make even the most subversive performer choke up

There have been many literal graduations at Massey Hall, but also lots of figurative ones. There’s no better signpost for a next step in a local musician’s career than headlining the venue for the first time.

For electronic artist Peaches, her raunchy, performance-art-inspired set in 2016 had an extra-celebratory layer. While the hall has a reputation for being somewhat staid and intimidating, this was surely the first concert with dancers in full-body labia costumes, and just as likely the first utterance of the word “bukkake.” But it was a graduation nonetheless.

Peaches: I’ve played a lot of legendary halls. I’ve played the Royal Festival Hall in London, important music halls in Portugal and places all over the world. But playing Massey Hall was emotional because that was mine. I saw Diamanda Galás there [in the 90s] filling the room with her incredible voice. I saw Leonard Cohen there [in the 80s] and rushed the door to have him sign a copy of Beautiful Losers. I saw Tom Waits during the seminal Rain Dogs era.

People who were afraid to go to a Peaches show – when they heard I was playing Massey Hall – they came out of the woodwork. I saw people I hadn’t seen in 30 years. The words “Massey Hall” to them meant they could go to a Peaches show.

At one point as I was singing I went down into the audience and walked through on top of the armrests. My parents were there, and I went to where they were sitting. I started to feel tears coming to my eyes and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m getting out of here before I start crying.” You know that quiver in your voice? It’s your show, and there are your parents, and you’re in your hometown. It’s emotional.

There’s some pleasure in subverting [the reputation of the venue], but also it’s nice to come back and be accepted the way you want to be. I didn’t want to water myself down just because it’s Massey Hall.

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Malcolm Cook / Massey Hall

Maestro Fresh Wes, September 2013

The Massey Hall Massacre

When Massey Hall was built in 1894, it was designed to sound pristine without amplification, and its legendary acoustics are both a feature and a bug. Gentle folk, classical, jazz and country sound immaculate, but it’s not as friendly to heavy guitars or bassy low end. (Punk promoter Gary Topp recalls his ears literally bleeding at a Hawkwind show there in the 70s.) So the venue has only hosted a handful of hip-hop – a Shad concert here, a J. Cole and Wale show there. The first time veteran Toronto rapper Maestro Fresh Wes heard the words “Massey Hall” was when LL Cool J played there in 1987. Maestro got a chance to play there in 2013 as part of a 25th anniversary concert for his Symphony In Effect album put on by Canada’s Walk of Fame. 

Maestro Fresh Wes: That might be my favourite concert I’ve ever done. I mean, look who came out to perform with me: Lights, the Trews, Kardinal Offishall, King Reign (R.I.P.) Divine Brown, Shad K., k-os, Saukrates, Saidah Baba Talibah. We called it the Massey Hall Massacre because we murdered the stage.

I went hard the first half. I actually pulled the muscles in my legs. During intermission, my violinist, Souska – she’s a yoga instructor – showed me how to stretch out. The second half I came out like the rap Prime Minister and my b-boys were the RCMP, which stands for Revolution Could Move People. In the end one of my violinists, Andrew Forde, decided to play the national anthem while those guys were doing head spins in mountie gear. 

My moms was there and I asked her after the show, “How did I do?” She said it was superlative. I’ve never heard her use that word before, man. Superlative.

A stage for legends-in-the-making

Massey Hall is an intimidating venue. It’s hard to take the stage without measuring yourself against all the icons who’ve been there before. But for the past four years, the venue has been making itself more accessible to younger musicians with the Live At Massey Hall series – a team-up of two Canadian acts typically graduating to the venue together, produced and filmed as a mini-concert film. While the most cited legends of the venue tend to fit an old, white conception of Canadiana, the series has given a number of up-and-coming local women musicians a chance to shine – and they have. Here’s what a few have said in the interview portion of their videos.

Cold Specks: I didn’t really get into music until I was a teenager, and even then I didn’t become aware of Massey Hall until I was in university. That was through live records like the Charles Mingus record, and Neil Young did a live record here. A lot of wonderful old heads. There’s a lot of history that’s sort of been dissolved into the walls. You can feel the age and the history when you’re in there.

Zaki Ibrahim: I remember moving to Toronto in 2001 from Vancouver and driving by Massey Hall and saying, “I’m going to be performing there.” It’s a bit rough around the edges, like the thick walls, the decor in the foyer and the tiling – and then there’s the sound that comes with it. Maybe it’s a bit of an artist thing – we operate a lot on energy. The room speaks, the room has so much energy. 

Jennifer Castle: Toronto has incredible, beautiful old buildings and Massey Hall’s one of them. Inside, it’s kind of lit up for it to be the other member of the band and for it to be a part of the show. There’s just something about the room that participates with the music. 

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Lorne Bridgman / Massey Hall

Gordon Lightfoot, 2009

The House of Gord(s)

While collecting stories, two names kept coming up – and in true Canadian fashion they were both Gord. 

Nicholas Jennings, author of the bestselling biography Lightfoot, says Massey is called “The House of Gord” because Lightfoot has played there 165 times (and counting), first as a pre-teen at the Kiwanis festival in 1951. He later became such a draw, says Jennings, that after a seven-night engagement in 1977, “the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (then resident at Massey) was forced to book its vacation around Lightfoot’s annual appearances.” He’s recorded two live albums there, and tells Jennings, “Playing Massey Hall is like Christmas to me.”

It’s fitting that Lightfoot will close out this version of the venue, but it’s arguably just as notable for another Gord: the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie.

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Jag Gundu / Massey Hall

Gord Downie at Hayden’s Dream Serenade, October 2016

Hayden, who throws his annual Dream Serenade benefit concert for the Beverley School at Massey, remembers Downie’s unannounced performance in 2016 as “electric, emotional, extremely powerful.” He recalls seeing him in the crowd years earlier, which is a common experience shared by our readers, who’ve spotted him at concerts by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the National. (Lightfoot, similarly, was spotted at Leonard Cohen in 1985 and later Rush.) 

Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, who himself has played there “around 40 times,” was there for Downie’s final – and unplanned – performance on the stage, eight months before he died. 

Jim Cuddy: The Hip were a big part of bringing rock ’n’ roll there. Not that there wasn’t tons of it before, but they perfected it. That’s not easy, because sonically it’s not an easy place to play loud. It just flattens out. But they would create mayhem, get their fans on their feet and just pounding the seats.

The second-last Blue Rodeo show there [in February 2017], we brought up the Sadies to sing Lost Together and Travis Good brought Gord [Downie] out. He didn’t really know the song, so he just vibed through it and did this incantation instead of singing. He was so beautiful, and people were just agog that he was there.

The funny thing is Gordon Lightfoot, Gord Downie and Gordon Pinsent were all there, so we had three incredible, unique and interesting Gordons backstage. 

Security skirmishes

The intimidation of Massey Hall hasn’t always come from its history – sometimes it’s the people guarding it. Opening for the Sheepdogs earlier this year, Toronto rock band Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs crossed the venue off their bucket list and were then served an immediate dose of humility when Coffey lost his all-access pass and couldn’t get into the after-party in Centuries Lounge. “The security there mean business!” says Coffey.

He’s not alone. September 12, 1997, goes down as the day Morrissey got kicked out of his own concert. Mike McCann worked for Mercury/Polydor, Morrissey’s Canadian label at the time, but was there as a fan, and he had a perfect view of the debacle.

Mike McCann: There’s a long-held tradition at Morrissey shows of fans rushing the stage, sometimes with flowers and sometimes just to deliver a hug and then exit peacefully. Massey’s security didn’t seem to have been briefed on this and were quite taken aback and heavy-handed with the fans. People were being scooped up and carried off by the staff, disappearing backstage instead of being led back to the audience, as was the custom. In a flash, the guards were whisking kids away when one of them picked Morrissey up and vanished stage right at top speed. 

Did security mistake him for a fan? Did they suddenly fear for his safety? I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation, but I was told by colleagues at the label [Mercury/Polydor, his Canadian label at the time] that he was unceremoniously deposited on Victoria Street via the stage door for a brief spell. He was eventually re-admitted but did not return to the stage and the show was over. 

You can actually hear the moment when Moz gets picked up and rushed offstage in this bootleg recording, right around the 1 hour, 7 minute mark.

Some fan websites reported that he was spotted pacing at the side of the stage, looking very distraught. There was a good 15 minutes of cheering and booing from the audience to no avail.

Morrissey’s next appearance in the region was in 2000, and he played… Hamilton. Coincidence? It wasn’t until 2004 that he returned to Toronto.

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Viliam Hrubovcak

Public Image Ltd at Massey Hall, 1987

Massey Hall’s 80s punk peak

Along with Gary Cormier (his partner in The Garys), Gary Topp was one of the most influential punk promoters of the 70s and 80s in Toronto, and so he was 50 per cent responsible for bringing some of the most revered punk and New Wave bands of the era to the hallowed hall: XTC, the B-52s, Public Image Ltd., Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Eurythmics, R.E.M. In just half an hour he also runs through a list of shows he saw there: Pete Seeger’s early group The Weavers, The Wailers with Bob Marley in 1975 (“front row centre”), a 13-year-old Little Stevie Wonder twice on the same night in 1964. But Topp’s most proud memories are of two bands he booked: The Police in 1980 and Tom Waits in 87. And it’s about bragging rights.

Gary Topp: Gary and I hold the record for the most tickets sales for an individual concert there. It’s like 2,750 capacity and you make your money in the last 250 tickets, so we would sell every ticket that was available and didn’t give away any comps. So if we did Tom Waits three nights, that’s 2,700 times three. We had to. We were independent. We couldn’t afford any of that music-industry bullshit.

For the Police, we had put them on at the Horseshoe for 30 people a night, then we did them at the Edge, then at the Music Hall, and then the next stop was Massey Hall. They were breaking out big time by that point. From there, we did three Police Picnics [a yearly one-day festival in Oakville, also featuring acts like Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, Peter Tosh and Killing Joke] for between 35,000 and 50,000 people. 

Sightline disasters

The venue looks majestic from almost anywhere you sit… almost. Though the venue tries to warn fans who are buying obstructed seats, resellers don’t always live by the same code. And sometimes a public radio personality fails to notice the room’s idiosyncrasies. Kiera Toffelmire remembers seeing This American Life creator Ira Glass deliver a lecture there in May 2017.

Kiera Toffelmire: Glass begins speaking, his distinctly gentle and familiar voice echoing through the iconic hall. I don’t see him yet, and for a moment I think he must be speaking from off stage. Then I realize his podium has been placed in our blind spot on stage right, shielded beneath the balcony and behind the beams.

There are over 100 fellow upper-east-side audience members who come to this realization alongside me, and people begin grumbling to one another. “I listen to his voice every week. I came here to see him,” my neighbour says. Despite the upset, nobody says anything. It’s as if we’ve taken a collective vow to accept this misfortune and listen in a polite, resentful silence. And so we do.

When the end of the lecture approaches, Glass opens the floor to questions. Eventually, a restrained upper-east audience member finally breaks our silence, “Move to the centre of the stage! Nobody up here can see you!”

Glass looks up at us. “Do you mean this entire show, none of you could see me?”

All of us, like a crowd of school kids, respond in unison, “Noooooo.”

Glass laughs a little. “And nobody said anything until now?”

“Nooooo,” we yell again.

“I’m sorry, but that is so Canadian of you.” 

Though the acknowledgment would have been enough for many of us, Glass invites everyone sitting in the upper-east balcony to stay behind after the show, and then spends close to an hour chatting, taking photos and answering questions. A Massey Hall representative interrupts to announce that we will all receive gift cards for the value of the tickets we bought.

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Samuel Engelking

Buffy Sainte-Marie with Whitehorse, June 2018

A place to pay your (union) dues

Massey Hall’s history bookends the careers of many Canadian folk and rock legends – the Band, Feist, Joni Mitchell. Many musicians with decades in the business can measure themselves against the venue.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: I can’t remember when I played Massey Hall for the first time, but my early success made my name bigger than my experience, and I remember being scared and broken-hearted when a sound check was cut short because the union guys had to leave. 

I’d started my Toronto visits in Yorkville in 1963. I identified with the young, naive, raggedy student beatnik/hippie audiences and the Native Friendship Centre on Spadina. Massey Hall seemed like Carnegie Hall, a place for grown-ups and musicians who could actually read music – way above my pay grade.

Over the years I’m guessing I played there maybe four times, solo or with my band or with other artists, and the most fun was just the other night for the bye-for-a-while renovation concert when Whitehorse played as the backup band… fabulous! And the union guys were all helpful and hip and brilliant.

Don’t miss: a photo guide to the future of Massey Hall

richardt@nowtoronto.com | @trapunski

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