HANDSOME NED HAS AN UPCOMING MOVIE, A U.S. CD RELEASE AND NEW YOUNG FANS – BUT HE WON’T BE TOURING.
Handsome Ned is the last one into a blood-red Dodge van already stuffed with band members, girlfriends and gear. His ever-present Stetson isn’t dislodged in the scramble out of the Cameron House, and neither is his grin as he and his rockabilly punks head uptown to play Larry’s Hideaway. It’ll be the second of at least three full gigs across a handful of Toronto blocks on a night that won’t end until lunchtime tomorrow.
As guitar-playing driver Tony Kenny grinds the rusting ride into gear, Ned gathers his terrible teeth in a spectacular smile and beams out the van’s tiny side window like a Beatle looking out of a BOAC jet as it taxis toward the terminal across the JFK tarmac.
For almost five years in the early 80s, Handsome Ned was the King of Queen West. The smooth-voiced scenester used his hillbilly hokiness to hide an ambitious energy that was supposed to take his amazing talent to the top. A subtle but effective self-promoter and the man all local musicians wanted to impress, Ned had a plan – only he wasn’t supposed to die before it all worked out.
Handsome Ned inhabits that lonely, windblown place visited by Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Gram Parsons and Kurt Cobain. He didn’t invent dying young and foolish, but he did help invent the Queen West arts and music scene out of a crumbling neighbourhood that was a thousand watts away from the chain-store-crammed promenade of today.
His heroin overdose 21 years ago tonight (January 10) did more to change forever the emerging artistry on that strip than any national-brand bivouac ever could.
Alt-country is now a brand itself, as well as a career for plenty of Toronto performers (see sidebar), but when Handsome Ned rolled into town like a piece of tumleweed after stops in Austin, Texas, and Banff, ostensibly to pursue a career in visual arts, the Stoney Creek runaway was flogging a sound so unfashionable he could easily have been confused with a novelty act.
I initially made that mistake. I was among the many who were searching for new music as punk collapsed in on itself – perhaps as it had intended – and the bloated excess of disco seemed as silly as the overly patriotic mom-and-pop platitudes being pushed in country music. My first cover story in NOW in 1981 – NOW’s first ever – was an almost anthropological look at the “dying” country dives on Queen Street, the avenue that was about to become ours.
But listen today to his stunning posthumous double disc The Name Is Ned, being released for the first time in the U.S. this week, and the timeless quality of his songs and singing will give you shivers. When Ned whispers and wails his way through Ghost Riders In The Sky, you’re not sure who’s dead, him or you, but it’s clear you’re both closer to paradise.
Handsome Ned’s reconstituted corn-pone country was punk. It came from the same DIY smash-it-up-and-who-gives-a-shit-if-anybody-likes-it place as the purest punk. Only instead of leathers and lacerations, he came outfitted in cowboy boots, a cool silk shirt, a 10-gallon hat and a brightly coloured bandana.
It was no coincidence that Ned’s early bands, including the Velours and the Sidewinders with big brother Jim Masyk, and then the Handsome Neds, featured re-purposed punk players. Ned may have been recycling long-lost country gems as well as playing a handful of beautiful self-penned songs, but a dangerous punk energy drove his hillbilly howls.
Local rockabilly reinventor Slim Twig hasn’t been alive as long as Ned has been dead, but he discovered the Toronto singing legend through family and the Internet. (There’s a decent Handsome Ned MySpace page.)
“The cool thing about Ned is, even if he wasn’t playing punk, it took a punk mentality to do what he was doing. He was doing a traditional take on music that wasn’t cool and recontextualizing it. People like the Gun Club and the Cramps were doing a rockabilly hybrid with punk at the time, but Ned was braver to do it in a more traditional way.
“Ned’s music holds up the same way Johnny Cash’s holds up. It doesn’t sound dated, and Ned’s song Put The Blame On Me sounds like a lost classic. I used to think it was a cover because it has that feel to it.”
Twig performs Saturday (January 12) with a group of young Toronto rockabilly players in a Sons Of Handsome Ned show, in the matinee slot at the Cameron that was once Ned’s. The gig began as a 4-to-6 pm show and gradually seeped into the later hours; evening performers sometimes had to wait because his audience was in no hurry to see him go. Ned played that slot every week for almost five years – except when he was on his annual retreat to Austin, Texas, spending his way through his income tax refund, getting new ideas and always a new hat.
The night Ned died, he was slated to play the fifth-anniversary show of his solo gigs.
Film stills courtesy of Ross Edmunds and Chris Terry
The Cameron House on Queen West was Handsome Ned’s home base. From left: Ned in his upstairs room, at the bar and performing onstage, all stills from the upcoming film The Name Is Ned.
The story of Handsome Ned reminds us that Kevin Drew, Feist and the rest of the Broken Social Scene didn’t invent the sprawling music collective concept in this town. He played with anybody and everybody, just as most performers on Queen did at the time.
But Ned built his legend with his Cameron solo shows. He’d roll downstairs from the tiny room he lived in over the bar, first holding court in the Cameron’s front room and then sliding to the back for his shows. The upper three floors housed an impossible artists’ community in the 18 or so rooms that were “rented,” actually traded, to visual artists and musicians whose artwork or songs filled the dilapidated public house below.
Molly Johnson, Holly Cole, Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson, visual artist Tim Jocelyn, playwrights Deanne Taylor and Michael Hollingsworth were just some who benefited from the creative landlording of Cameron owners Herb Tookey, Paul Sannella and Anne-Marie Ferraro, who also lived in the rooms among their tenants.
Molly Johnson performed her own reisdency-for-rent, the Blue Mondays shows, which launched the then art-rocker into her jazz career, at Tookey’s suggestion.
“We all shared one bathroom, and the bath tub was up over the back room stage,” says Johnson. “I’d have my bubble bath while Ned did his matinees, and I could just see him through a hole in the floor for the drain pipe.”
Unlike at the recent reincarnations of the Drake and the Gladstone further along Queen, the old-time drinkers who inhabited the Cameron before the artists arrived weren’t booted out. Crusty types like Cameron regular Carl Johnson just became part of the mix, and when Ned sang classic Hank Williams or Tex Ritter songs in the back, what was new to the young crowd was familiar fare to the bar’s senior citizens, who were often Ned’s biggest fans and harshest critics.
Onstage, Ned clenched his guitar the way a desperate soldier might hang onto his gun, slapping at it and driving his often eerie vocals with a chugga-chugga rhythm that delivered more beat than most bands. In addition to his tiny but terrific collection of original material, Ned reinvented obscure classics by forgotten country greats and searched the Lost Highway catalogue of outlaw country created by Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings and Gram Parsons.
He put his cowboy hat on even before he brushed his teeth in the morning, and the only time he ever took it off was to slip on his headphones to host his weekly Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor Show on CKLN, a must-hear for a Queen crowd who weren’t hearing their music – or their local musicians – anywhere else.
On-air visits to the three-hour show on Tuesday afternoons became obligatory for touring performers like Alejandro Escovedo and the True Believers, Freddy Fender and Ronnie Hawkins, and it was a great place for up-and-coming Toronto and Canadian artists to jam with the host.
The playlist was even more diverse than Ned’s live shows, mixing “hot new bands” like R.E.M. with John Prine, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Snow and the Lovin’ Spoonful. There was an outlaw quality even on his radio show, from its limited broadcast signal – you couldn’t hear him in Mississauga – to his format-busting approach, that left listeners wondering if they’d time-travelled to the 30s and were picking up a pirate signal from some renegade station just south of the U.S. border.
Photos By Paul Till
NOW photographer Paul Till captured Handsome Ned in his prime: Ned belts it out (centre) while fan Andrew Payne dances.
Handsome Ned roamed Queen as soon as he woke, while office workers returned to work from midday meals, with his guitar or an armload of posters swinging at his side . Initially alone in his cowboy persona, he was eventually joined by hot young girls and guys sporting the boots, pearl-button shirts and colourful scarves their honky-tonk honcho had turned them on to.
“Ned never stopped being Ned,” says former Cameron co-owner Tookey. “And that was a tough role to play 24/7.”
Like other club owners on Queen at the time, Tookey encouraged pub crawling. Since most bands on the strip played three sets a night starting at 9 pm, fans could see favourite acts at a bunch of bars that were packed every night.
Last call at 1 am just meant that the street that didn’t sleep didn’t have to, since a pile of busy illegal, anything-goes after-hours spots operated in the area. Ned often played at least three times a night in regular bars, then logged some performance and party time in the local speaks.
On a weekday afternoon almost 25 years ago, Ned is working the Cameron’s front room, pushing patrons for an upcoming gig at the Rivoli, promising an extravaganza. The stage will be stacked with bales of hay and there will be a quick-draw gun demonstration, rope tricks and lassoing displays. And square dancing.
“You can take square dance lessons at Parkdale Collegiate,” Ned insists as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. “Only a dollar a person, two dollars a couple. Make sure you try it.”
The opening act that Friday night at the Rivoli is Blue Rodeo, a new band of returning Torontonians who’ve just given up on New York City. As the Rodeos play their second gig ever, Ned twirls a square dancer with a mad alchemist’s smile, confidant his crazy plan is working.
“When we left Toronto for New York in 81, there was no life on the street,” says Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy. He talks of the closing of iconic club the Edge on Church and the floundering days of the Horseshoe, briefly renamed Stagger Lee’s and without an artistic core.
“When we came back, there was a defined sound, and Handsome Ned had defined it. Coincidentally, it was our sound, too. At its roots, the music had all the urgency and excitement of punk music – those guys were total rebels – but there was something more interesting about the music Ned brought forward, because it required more skill.
“And it was romantic music. It was okay to have a heart now. In punk it wasn’t okay to have a heart. The crowd was all girls up front. There was dancing – guys, too – and people were dressing up. The scene had everything, even fashion.”
When people describe Queen Street at the time, words like “community,” “village” and even “oasis” come up. There was a freedom in being so off the radar, and bands weren’t competitive with each other. They were all striving, but not fighting, for a piece of the pie, because there was no pie on offer. Nobody expected to be signed out of Queen Street, except maybe Ned.
“We were realists,” says Cuddy. “We thought none of us was going to get record contracts. Those were the days of the big hair bands, and we figured if you want to play an original form of music, then you’re going to exist outside of the mainstream.
“But how could you complain about this oasis where there were beautiful, interesting people, there was freedom and free beer? It was easy to make your world work.”
Photo By Chris Buck
The Handsome Neds – Rene Fratura (left), J.D. Weatherstone, Steve Koch and Handsome Ned
If anyone was looking for bigger things it was Ned, who made the phone calls and tried to persuade record label guys to come to his shows, sometimes with success but never with a record deal on the other side.
But while Blue Rodeo’s career gathered momentum, sometimes even in spite of themselves, Ned’s stalled. His postering, playing, phone calls and pressure weren’t delivering that juicy label advance. No one was making albums on PCs yet, and recording a disc meant tens of thousands of dollars for studio time and other expenses. Ned needed a financial patron.
No one knows when he started, but by mid-1986 the effects of Ned’s dabbling in heroin were starting to show. The Handsome Neds broke up, in part because their now erratic leader’s behaviour was infuriating the band and his sloppiness at paying his players was proving intolerable.
“We went into the studio to record Outskirts on January 8, 1987, and two days later Ned died,” says Cuddy who describes his passing as “mythic,” almost Shakespearian.
“I wonder if Ned’s death was like a release, that the covenant was released and we were all to go on and do what we were supposed to do. In order to move away from a scene, you need to cut the ties somehow. Ned’s death gave enormous closure to the scene.”
Of the success that followed, Cuddy says, “Everything we did, Ned would have loved to do, and he would have been really good at it. He could have taken on a Townes Van Zandt legendary troubadour thing. It would have happened for Ned – he was absolutely that good.”
Photo By Joanne Hovey
Rastabilly buddies Mojah (left)and Handsome Ned, 1982
Toronto reggae ambassador Mojah lived next door to Ned at the Cameron and often played with him, sometimes in each other’s rooms, sometimes in front of delighted audiences. Their attempts at “Rastabilly” resulted in some mind-blowing sets, and their joint take on Johnny Too Bad is one of the highlights of The Name Is Ned disc. A towering presence, both physically and musically, Mojah played with Truths and Rights, V, early incarnations of the Parachute Club and eventually with Gordie Johnson’s Big Sugar.
“That time was so beautiful, because from every room you could hear sounds coming out,” says Mojah of life upstairs at the Cameron. “It really was a musicians’ paradise. We were figures, man – the Dread and the Cowboy. Ned had a passion, he had an energy in him, and when he stood at the front of the stage and sang, it was so damn convincing.”
Even with his cowboy hat on, Ned was dwarfed by his 6-foot-plus reggae pal, and the two of them strode Queen with gunslingers’ confidence.
While some say they didn’t see heroin’s arrival on Queen, Mojah claims you couldn’t miss it.
“I knew what was going on – I lived in the heart of it. But at the time, you don’t think anybody is going to die, and that’s the problem. We think we are superhuman, burning it at all ends, and then somebody drops out and your heart starts pumping because you know you could be next.
Photos By Ross Taylor
Ned fronts the Sidewinders, with his brother Jim Masyk on guitar, about 1983.
“So it was a wake-up call for a lot of people on Queen Street.” The arrival of AIDS and heroin introduced death to the street and caused a few other tragic passings on the heels of the cowboy’s departure.
When I tell Mojah I’m off to visit Ned’s mother, Bee Masyk, he has a message for her.
“Tell her I loved Ned. Tell her the Dread loved her son.”
Mrs. Masyk’s petite Parkdale apartment is a shrine to her dead son, but it’s a living museum, not a mausoleum. His smiling face is everywhere, the photographers ably catching a fantastic smile in spite of his troubled teeth. His shining blue eyes look like they could live forever.
She proudly pores through four scrapbooks of Ned’s career with me, three of which have been created since his death. And she’s clear she has no regrets that her son chose a career in music – just with how it all turned out.
She and her husband regularly crowded into the Cameron’s back room to catch Ned’s solo shows, and she’s still friends with some of the hipsters she met then, a mother’s pride giving her the courage to introduce herself to fans of her son.
“We just loved it, loved his friends, and his followers were great, too. It was just a wonderful time.
“Music was always in our family – my brothers were musicians – and I wanted to keep it there.”
Her husband, Nick, was in the Canadian Armed Forces, and as the Masyks moved from base to base across Canada and Europe in the late 50s and early 60s, she fed her sons a steady stream of 45s and LPs and bought them an Elvis disc before they’d even heard of him.
“Both my husband and I were just sorry that we didn’t have the money to get him going in records. It was very frustrating to know that he probably would have been quite big if we’d gotten something out for him....”
Her voice trails off as she contemplates what might have been, but she remains mostly upbeat, dwelling on the achievement of her son’s sound. Sometimes she listens to tapes of Ned’s CKLN shows but has to stop herself because “I start imagining he’s here.”
When I meet big brother Jim Masyk at Ned’s grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, he’s finishing off a shoot with a film crew, the same crew that shot amazing footage of Ned back in the Cameron days. They’re trying to complete a feature documentary in time to premiere at this year’s NXNE music and film festival in June.
I hope they use the breathtaking live footage to make a performance film rather than a talking-heads doc, and that after all this time a new generation gets to experience Ned’s amazing talent in theatres and on DVD.
Photo By Ross Taylor
Ned with the Velours at the Horseshoe in the early 80s.
“The night Ned died, I was waiting for him at the Cameron front bar to loan him some money to pay for a new guitar,” says Jim Masyk as we discuss the tough times that were catching up with his little brother at the end. “He never missed one of his solo shows. Sometimes he came down late, but he never missed one, so we were all worried. Then a cop came in at midnight looking for me.”
After hearing the awful news, the Cameron became the scene of an instant wake that didn’t stop till 7 am. Then Masyk drove to Stoney Creek to share the tragic news with his folks.
Almost 1,000 people crowded around Ned’s grave for the funeral, including Murray McLachlan, who’d tried to help Ned make the next step but retreated as the troubled singer became increasingly erratic.
An impromptu parade followed as dozens of cars rolled along Queen Street and mourners paid their respects from the side of the road.
Photo By Michael Hollett
Bee Masyk with a photo of son Handsome Ned.
“Had the heroin not happened,” says Masyk, “I think he would have been a huge star today. I tried to tell him, ‘What will happen to the folks if you die?’ But it all got hard without any money coming in.
“On the outside, he never wavered. He always put on a smiling face, but there were times when I saw him down. It’s very hard to live on what you make playing a few gigs a week. And drugs cost money. So did the drink. That’s what gave him the courage to go out there every night, but it all cost money.
“He was his own worst enemy at the end, but you listen to his voice and his songwriting – the two of them were world-class. There’s no question that if he’d stayed with it he could have been a Steve Earle.”
Or maybe, if the story had been written differently, we’d be describing Van Zandt and Earle as “Handsome Ned” types.
When Ned steps up to the mic on forgotten mid-80s Ottawa TV show, Capital City Hayride, he seduces the camera singing his touching tune That’ll Be The Love
. While bored young girls sit on hay bales distractedly failing to keep time, Ned beams, his long hair peeking out from under his cowboy hat. He swings his guitar confidently like it’s some gingham-swathed square dance partner, and the smile on his face says he’s playing the Grand Ole Opry, not a community cable channel. He had star power without the stardom, but his music and his influence can live forever.
Photo By Ross Taylor
“There’s something sad and lonely about a freight train slipping on wet steel, rolling back to places I’ve been.
An old steam whistle keeps calling my name again and again.”
Photo By Michael Hollett
Ned’s gravestone in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Those words, sung by Handsome Ned in his song Steel Rail Blue, are engraved on his tombstone.
View another Handsome Ned Video (requires Real Video)
More Ned Photos
Shots from the CD
The Sidewinders at the Isabella
The Sidewinders at the El Mocombo
The Sidewinders at Ballangers
The Sidewinders at the Cloverleaf
Ned on his CKLN Radio show
Michael Hollett's Handsome Ned Podcast
Put The Blame On Me
Johnny Too Bad
That'll Be The Love
Steel Rail Blue
The Ballad of Handsome Ned (Virgin Records Canada, 1987)
The Name is Ned (EMI Canada, 2000)
Other Web links