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Toronto Rock & Roll Revival took the sting out of missing Woodstock for Newfoundland man

Don Nichol.
Don Nichol with his favourite Beatles album and a John and Yoko calendar. - Contributed

A vivid recollection of the ‘illustrious musical geniuses’ who performed hot on the heels of Woodstock


By Don Nichol
Special to The Telegram

One of the oft-quoted paradoxes in rock history: if you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t there. Perhaps because the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival was a one-day festival with less drug-trafficking and I was too straight-edge not to blow my one chance of experiencing some of my greatest musical influences, there’s still a fair bit about Sept. 13, 1969 that I haven’t forgotten.

The summer of ’69 was one for the record books — in more ways than one. In the afterglow of ’67’s Expo, Monterey and Summer of Love, 1969 marked a high point for music festivals. Blind Faith played a free concert to 150,000 in Hyde Park on June 7. Same place, on July 5, the Rolling Stones attracted between a quarter and a half a million fans. Then, on an out-of-the-way farm far from Woodstock, N.Y., over Aug. 15-18, the biggest peace-love-and-rock-’n’-roll gathering of them all. In the words of John (Speedy) Keen as sung by Thunderclap Newman, there was “something in the air.”


Don Nichol, during what he calls his “James Taylor phase,” circa 1969. - Contributed
Don Nichol, during what he calls his “James Taylor phase,” circa 1969. - Contributed

I was a lifeguard at Sherkston Beach on Lake Erie that summer, and couldn’t get time off work to hitchhike to Woodstock. A gawky 17-year-old who was struggling to learn guitar, I was disappointed over missing the world’s greatest rock festival. Little did I or anyone else suspect that the world’s second-greatest rock festival would offer extreme consolation in less than a month.

Born in Newfoundland, but taken by forces beyond my control (my parents) to what’s now Mississauga, I was raised as a second-generation rock-’n’-roller. Seven crucial years separated my older brother and me. His first records were Chuck Berry, James Brown and Elvis; my first single was “Surfin’ USA” and first album, “A Hard Day’s Night.” By then, 78’s were yielding to 45s and 33 1/3 LP’s. Because Chuck Berry played a cherry-red Gibson ES-335, my brother hauled the family down to Long & McQuade to get the exact same model. Before playing in a few bands around Toronto, he locked himself in his bedroom learning the licks from Chuck Berry and Junior Walker & the All Stars’ hit, “Shotgun.”

Just as I started Grade 12, the grapevine was buzzing about an all-day festival at Varsity Stadium. The lineup, with the Doors headlining, seemed too good to be true. For a while it was. Organizers John Brower and Kenny Walker were devastated when their financial backers pulled out because of low ticket sales. Kim Fowley, who was in Toronto that week to promote the festival, suggested that Brower call Apple Records in London and invite John Lennon and Yoko Ono as emcees. He was gobsmacked when Lennon said, instead of presiding over the event, he would perform. Brower instantly accepted the offer and arranged plane tickets for John and Yoko, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann on bass and Alan White on drums.

One reason why Lennon may have brought the newly formed Plastic Ono Band across the Atlantic with only a few days’ notice: Woodstock organizers had tried to lure the Beatles over, but when Lennon offered to bring his new band instead, they declined. What Woodstock passed on, Toronto embraced. Lennon must have had a soft spot for Canada. During their bed-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, he, Yoko and a chorus of celebs (including Petula Clark, Timothy Leary and Tommy Smothers) recorded “Give Peace a Chance” on June 1.

Even so, promoters still had something of a PR problem until CHUM radio broadcast a tape-recording of the promoter booking airline tickets for Lennon and his entourage. Buffalo and Detroit caught wind of this, and there was a last-minute rush to Varsity Stadium. The Toronto Rock & Roll Revival was back on.

The Toronto Rock & Roll Revival delivered early innovators and the latest hits. Guitar maestro Chuck Berry, good-gollying Little Richard, piano-stomping Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene (Be-Bop-A-Lula) Vincent started the rock rolling in the afternoon. Bo Diddley played a ripping version of his self-titled hit from 1955, the first recording to introduce African rhythms into rock ’n’ roll. No Band, no Guess Who, but representing Canadian content: Toronto’s own Whiskey Howl.

If the King of Rock ’n’ Roll couldn’t be there, his acolytes were heard. Jerry Lee Lewis and later Little Richard played the Lieber/Stoller hit, “Hound Dog,” first recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952 (selling an astounding half-million 78s before Elvis Presley’s 1956 version shot the record out of the park).

Chuck Berry reminded us of who first put the phrase “rock ’n’ roll” into song.    Dripping with sweat, pushing 43, he did his famous duck walk during a wild guitar solo midway through “Johnny B. Goode.” He got the crowd up, jumping and responding to his invitation to chant. Ever the showman, Berry ended with a ripping solo and a leg spread that might have split his pants, his guitar kissing the stage floor.


John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in Montreal for a bed in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel a couple of months before Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band headlined at the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in Montreal for a bed in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel a couple of months before Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band headlined at the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival.

It was a day of extremes, from groundbreaking classics to pre-punk anarchy. One new band I was particularly excited to see was then known as Chicago Transit Authority who had dazzled my ears with their debut double album. Which had been released just a few months. Later, when the real CTA threatened to sue, the band shortened its name to Chicago (thankfully the city didn’t seem to mind).

While Chicago, with its jazz infusion, demonstrated how tight a band could be, Alice Cooper, with its return to ape-hood in costume glitter, showed how loose rock had become. Dress-wise, there was a broad spectrum. Jerry Lee Lewis might have just walked off a golf course in his short-sleeve summer shirt, while you could see the progression from Little Richard, in an outfit that would have inspired the nascent Elton John, who belted out “Lucille” to Alice Cooper’s mix of glam and garish.

In the best tradition of rock ’n’ roll, a lot of stuff was done on the fly. Gene Vincent was backed by The Alice Cooper Band (who later became embroiled in the chicken-tossing controversy). Alice Cooper kicked a football into the audience, threw drum-sticks and feathers about, and quoted “I am not a number… I am a free man” from Patrick McGoohan’s “The Prisoner,” before discovering unfortunately that chickens don’t fly.

Before the Beatles discovered they could write their own material, they were a cover band with a keen ear for American singles the BBC wouldn’t play. Chuck Berry was particularly influential on George Harrison, who nailed the master’s guitar licks on “Roll Over Beethoven.” John Lennon cut his teeth on Berry songs like “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Too Much Monkey Business.”

In Toronto, Lennon belted out some old favourites he’d recorded with the Beatles: Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Money” written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, and recorded by Barrett Strong, which became the first Motown hit in 1960, and “You Make Me Dizzy, Miss Lizzy,” written by Larry Williams in 1958.

Rock documentarian D.A. Pennebaker recorded much of the concert on video. At one point during Yoko’s number, the camera captures a look on Clapton’s face like he’s hungover with his head caught inside a bag of cats in heat. Even Lennon doesn’t always look 100 per cent enamoured of Yoko’s skull-piercing shrills during “Yer Blues.”

In Old Testament beard and white suit, Lennon handed the microphone over to Yoko who throat-sang her way through “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow).” Applause was stinting, the stadium went quiet, then to the feedback from Lennon’s Gibson, she wailed pretty much in one note for what seemed an eternity of birth-giving screams. The male members of the band went offstage to have a smoke. When Yoko followed, they all left the stage as John’s guitar, leant against a speaker, carried on its nuclear hum. I remember thinking, what the hell was that? A re-enactment of an excruciating labour? But the Toronto audience was, if not receptive to Yoko’s experimental performance, at least polite.


Poster promoting the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival.
Poster promoting the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival.

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band were literally on the fly, forming just a few days before the concert, deciding what to play and rehearsing on the flight from London to Toronto, and fine-tuning their playlist backstage. John Lennon was said to be nervous about performing, but he led the band with a firm grip. It was the first time Lennon performed “Cold Turkey” in public. (The only other song I can think of that comes close to nailing the agonies of detoxification is Ron Hynes’ “Dry”.) According to Philip Norman’s biography of Lennon, it was during the trip to Toronto that Lennon finally announced to friends his determination to leave the Beatles.

Surprisingly (and perhaps just as well), John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band didn’t end the night. That privilege went to the Doors. Jim Morrison, rock’s defiant Wild Child, delivered a mind-blowing set. Led to the stage through a crush of fans, Morrison spoke of the liberating force rock ’n’ roll had on him in Grade 7 which “burst open whole new strange catacombs of wisdom.” In the wake of his Miami arrest, he seemed genuine in saying it was “a great honour to perform on the same stage with so many illustrious musical geniuses.”

The Doors electrified the audience with an extended “Light My Fire,” “Break On Through,” and “When the Music’s Over.” The Doors wound up the 14-hour festival at 1:45 a.m. with (as you’d expect) “The End.” At the peak of his Bacchanalian form, Morrison leapt a good four feet in the air to bring his Oedipal saga to its tragic fulfilment.

Less than two weeks after the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival, I lined up at Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street to buy the Beatles’ last recorded album, “Abbey Road,” released on Sept. 26. “Let It Be,” recorded earlier, but released later, brought their “Long and Winding Road” to a close. Towards the end of that school year, I wrote my first serious essay on the influence of William Blake on the Doors, which may have had something to do with my becoming an English prof and a songwriter.

That December at Altamont, where a fan was killed a few feet from the stage, darkened the peace-loving festival idyll. Woodstock performers Janis Joplin (died Oct. 4, 1970) and Jimi Hendrix (died Sept. 18, 1970) preceded Morrison, who passed on July 3, 1971. All 27, all too young, all deserved more time. Sad to think that the guy who expressed his ideals in “Give Peace a Chance” would be gunned down on a street in New York by a demented fan a little over 10 years later on Dec. 8, 1980.

Canada’s answer to Woodstock, less than a month after that massive gathering at Max Yasgur’s farm, the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival was a triumphant moment in rock history. It may have paled somewhat by comparison — a 14-hour affair, not three days, man — but it had better bathroom facilities — and lived up to its promise. 20,000 people could gather on one hot day, joined by a love of music, and all come out alive and enlightened.

Born in Twillingate, Don Nichol was raised in Port Credit, Ont., and taught English at Memorial University off and on for 40 years. He wrote a TV column for The Telegram in the mid 1980s.

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