The last time I saw Canadian music television pioneer and MuchMusic founder John Martin, who passed away last week, we were both crossing the Danforth in opposite directions outside NOW's old offices - and he was yelling at me.
Martin was heading toward the Old Nick, one of his favourite bars and he had a lot of them in his Riverdale neighbourhood, and I was on my way into NOW when he gave me a faceful of friendly fury.
He was demanding a cover story about his eventually acclaimed documentary on under-known Canadian jazz superstar Lenny Breau. I tried to explain that, at that time, we had almost no TV coverage in the magazine, but he wasn't buying.
Martin was always passionate about whatever he was pushing, and as we both dodged traffic and I dodged his request, I was left smiling at the characteristic energy he'd brought to his latest project.
Martin invented music TV journalism in Canada (not the celebrity gossip of today) with his New Music show on Citytv back in 1979, and we met shortly after Alice Klein and I started NOW in 1981.
As NOW's main music writer for the first 10 years, I crossed paths with Martin and the impressive talent he gathered around him on a regular basis. While daily newspapers and other broadcasters ignored or didn't know about the emerging Canadian music scene, Martin and his staff were bird-dogging in the same greasy bars and speakeasies I was to tap into the rich lode of local talent.
He and his team may have been part of a growing corporation, but the operation felt outlaw, not uptown. And when he launched MuchMusic in 1984, the new channel seemed like it might make a difference, not just dollars.
When NOW and Much started, most local musicians had day jobs, and Toronto seemed so far off the map that artists weren't distracted by chasing commercial success; they just made music they liked. And since Martin was inventing a medium, he wasn't chasing a demographic, he was just trying to find an audience by making TV he could believe in.
Much's home was on Queen East, just south across a parking lot from NOW's current Church Street offices, and the dusty, black-painted brick building was always full of energy, excitement and music, with demographers and focus-group followers nowhere to be found.
There always seemed to be a party at 99 Queen East, on and off the air, and Martin was the happy host. The early playlists at Much were unbelievably broad, partly because the programmers were desperate for content and partly because their taste was just as broad.
It felt dangerous and daring, and Martin was never too distressed when they inevitably fucked up. They weren't afraid to air videos that didn't come from mainstream labels or labels at all and the taco chip and blemish cream marketers had yet to discover this new medium.
While teenagers make up most of Much's audience today, the early viewers ranged across a wide spectrum from bad boys to boppers, and world music clips would be followed by ones by performers from further west on Queen, like Blue Rodeo and Jane Siberry.
Martin was a start-up kind of guy, and his lifestyle and restlessness eventually proved incompatible with the increasing corporatization at the station. Much's very success made it too important for the money men to leave it in the hands of guys like Martin.
His passing seems sadly under-noted. Make no mistake: without him, Much would never have happened and many key musicians in this country would have had very different careers, if any at all.
Martin often stopped the videos for special programming, and once he had me guest on a free speech panel with host Denise Donlon, Daniel Richler, a Catholic Church PR flak and Quebec pop tart Mitsou. We were going live, nationwide at midnight for two hours, and I was nervous. Martin ran into me as I paced furiously on Queen Street, and of course he was smiling in his conspiratorial way.
"What's up, Michael?" he wanted to know, clearly excited about his latest upcoming TV adventure.
"Honestly, I'm a little nervous."
"Listen, Michael, don't worry about that. Everyone's nervous on this kind of thing. It's natural. Even Mitsou's nervous. I just saw her and told her to go get a drink before we go on. You should, too. She's just over there," he said, pointing to a pub. "Grab a beer, catch your breath, and I'll see you on the show."
Yes, John was right. Everyone was nervous - everyone except him. He was having too much fun playing with this TV thing.
And now he's left us too soon and will be sadly missed.