One of my favourite moments in the New Testament is when Christ throws the money-changers out of the temple. Two thousand years later, there's a complaint that the money men are not only back in the temple, but they're throwing the folksingers out.
At least that's the way advocates for Fat Albert's Coffee House at Bloor Street United Church see it. The venerable open stage has been locked out for the past two weeks over a money dispute. To those who prefer to catch their live music at the Air Canada Centre, the threatened loss of this dingy church basement might seem a small matter. But to the folkies, poets and comedians who started amazing careers at the mike in the subterranean café during its 36 years of existence, it is an important and vital venue.
Great Canadian singer-songwriters like Neil Young, Jane Siberry, Kyp Harness, Ron Sexsmith and Anhai have all graced Fat Albert's stage. As one of my own faves, Bob Wiseman, puts it: "What better place to forget your lyrics or break a string or tell a joke that doesn't make anyone laugh than in that little room?' Bob Snider, one of its wittiest grads, calls it "a centre for countless talented performers as well as the homeless, the friendless and the penniless.'
But he's just one of the knowns. The importance of open stages like this one lies in the great unknowns - those peculiar geniuses who seem to flourish most under least observation, people like the legendary Sarah Spracklin - who, though she has had an enormous influence on numerous songwriters, remains to this day unrecorded. She's not alone. The music industry these days allows a small number of musicians to get most of the airplay, while the vast majority remain anonymous and virtually unwaged. Venues operating under the model of service rather than profit give a boost to artists who operate outside the club system and the turf of the multinationals.
Fat Albert's two guiding spirits, Ed Matthews and Ray Peak, ran it for over three decades without ever turning anyone away for want of the $1 cover charge, half of which went to pay the featured performer and half to buy cookies and tea.
I know from my own years onstage that the sound of a cash register never disturbed either peace or dissonance. Nor was there ever, to the church's great credit, any interference or attempt at control. No more opprobium met my godless rant and howl than those who warbled Jesus Loves Me. It was a great place to give your rough edges a roll. And, importantly, it was the only place to go when you had no money.
The room at the centre of the current financial dispute was originally rent-free. In fact, Fat Albert's was begun by the church itself as an outreach program for street youth. In appearance it might almost be one of those catacombs under ancient Rome in which the early Christians once worshipped. Overhead heating pipes fleck off insulation in a slow precipitation onto the same rickety chairs and tables made of cable spools with which the club opened in l967.
To be fair, there is no usury going on at Bloor Street United. In fact, the church continues to do good charity and social justice work even though it is in dire need of money itself. The building is over 100 years old, and there are no miracles available to fix its leaking roof and peeling paint. Church attendance is dropping, and with it those necessary revenues for property upkeep. It was in response to this devolving scenario that church leaders began to try to raise some small amount of "cost recovery' from other users of the building, including Fat Albert's, three years ago.
Admittedly, "small amount' is the operative term here. The $50 a week that the church initially asked of Fat Albert's would hardly be an insurmountable obstacle to most organizations. But Fat's is not most organizations. The only way to raise the "rent' would have been to raise the cover.
Easy as this might have been for some, for Fat Albert's it would have been disasterous. The clientele are an eclectic mix of poverty-stricken artistes and street people - and the difference between one buck and two is major. It looked like Fat Albert's would either have to fold or sell its soul. Fortunately, a compromise was worked out with the church's social justice committee, which kindly kicked in half the increase. Last April, though, when they were hit with a another whopping increase, the present standoff became inevitable.
Songwriter Tony Hanik, who helps run Fat's along with Mary Milne, sees it as an issue of fairness. Not only was the increase to $40 a week beyond the means of the club's clientele, but it was also out of whack. "For some reason," he tells me,"the rent on the Fat Albert's room was raised 60 per cent compared to an average of l8 per cent for the other rooms in the church."
There's a lot of emotion in his voice. In the great tradition of the gift economy that so motivated his predecessors at Fat's, he made up for any shortfalls last year out of his own pocket.
Oddly enough, Mark Stoddart, property man on the church's financial committee, is also feeling unfairly treated. He has received rather a lot of protest letters from aghast guitar and song people.
"I do not feel that Bloor Street United Church is being unfair to the people of Fat Albert's," he tells me. "I think rather, that it's the other way around. This protesting by Fat Albert's has put undue stress on the church and its employees and shows a great deal of immaturity. The reason the increase appears so high for this particular room is that the rent had been very low for a very long time."
And so this parable-in-the-making continues. The actual amount of rent now in arrears would seem miniscule to some - perhaps enough to buy a couple of tickets to Mamma Mia! or to pay the GST on finger food for some state-funded arts schmooze - but it's too much for Canada's longest-running open stage. Meanwhile, winter approaches and the dispossessed folksingers gather outside. "People on the street," as Neil Young once sang, "need a place to go."