Book Reviews

Bernie Finkelstein – True North: A Life In The Music Business

Bernie Finkelstein True North A Life In The Music BusinessBernie Finkelstein was the Canadian army brat who initially opposed the move to Nottingham, England he and his family took when his father got relocated. Without soda and grilled cheese, Finkelstein saw it as the end of the rope. But he was living in Nottingham, home of Robin Hood, and it didn’t take long for Finkelstein to get caught up in the folklore and adhere to Hood’s policy of taking from the rich and giving to the poor—something he carried through his life. On his 13th birthday, he gets picked up by police officers after escaping Boy Scout camp just so he can play “Young Blood” by the Coasters on the jukebox at a neighboring park. The first record he buys includes “Diggin’ My Potatoes,” by Lonnie Donegan, because BBC radio has banned it. He returns to Toronto, never finishes high school and spends his time shooting pool and making loot. What may have appeared to his parents as wasted youth, turned out to be the very experiences he would need for a position in the music industry.

In the foreword, musician Murray McLauchlan compares Finkelstein to Ahmet Ertegun and Sam Phillips, “If this was the United States, Bernie would be revered in the same way…But this is Canada, after all, and we don’t do that.” Underappreciated may be true, but never warranted. He begins as manager of Canadian rockers the Paupers, getting them an MGM record deal in NYC, and an opening slot for Jefferson Airplane, the band’s first-ever NY appearance. At just 22, Finkelstein was launching the careers of Canadian musicians, but after several years in the rock scene, Finkelstein needed change, perhaps a result of constant moves with a military family. So off he went to retreat near a commune in Canada where he fell in love with folk music and the rest of his career would revolve around this genre.

A gifted writer, Finkelstein pulls the reader in by foreshadowing the relationships he forms with industry tycoons, and it’s exciting to see how such are formed.  “I’ll never forget the first time I heard Dylan on the radio…Little did I know that within four years I would be in New York, forming a partnership with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman.” Likewise, his wit compellingly colors the pages, evident as early as the author’s note where he anticipates the naysayers: “In the music game nothing ever happens on its own. There is always a team of people involved…I’m sure they all have stories to tell but this isn’t their book…get out there and write your own books.” Yet, what stands out most is his tone. Here’s a man completely, and utterly passionate about music and the artists behind it, an individual who seemed to always have taken the higher road, and because of his good-intentions, ended up on top. After CNE had both publically and ignorantly condemned one of his clients, Murray McLauchlan, Finkelstein had the chance to collect a hefty settlement in the lawsuit that was riding on CNE for defamation of character—yet opted for a public apology. When he was pushing Bruce Cockburn’s politically charged “Call It Democracy” to MTV, executives requested the Coke bottle in the video be removed because it was considered product endorsement. “Anyone who thinks putting Central American into a meat grinder and having it come out the other end as a Coke bottle is a product endorsement has some serious perception problems,” he scoffs. So, Finkelstein and Cockburn agreed, if it meant broadcasting a powerful message across the States. Many U.S. radio stations banned the song, yet Cockburn’s support continued to grow, perhaps because of the opposition he faced. As Cockburn’s manager, Finkelstein could not have been more diplomatic or fearless and these characteristics carried through in every job he took on.

No matter which hat he wears, be it owner of True North records, producer, manager, or chairman of MuchFACT (providing music videos for Canadian talent), Finkelstein seems as though the jobs were tailor-made for him – not the other way around, pretty incredible for someone who was making the rules up as he went along. His list of accolades are endless: 40 gold and platinum records, 40 Juno Awards, the Order of Canada, the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award,  the Estelle Klein Award for Lifetime Achievement, and was elected into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. With him, there lies an exemplary individual who has found success not so much in the circumstances surrounding him, but through his system of beliefs. Later in life when he needed a quadruple bypass and heart valve replacement, the surgeon warned him of his odds to which Finkelstein confidently replied, “In my world 85 percent odds were better than anything.” In the following paragraph, where he tells you that he has booked a 10-city tour for Bruce Cockburn—from his hospital bed on a morphine drip nonetheless—you’re not stunned, for this is his true character, a man driven by passion. By the time the conclusion rolls around it’s as though you’ve known him all along. He has never lost sight of the important things in life and for that, True North offers universal themes. Perhaps if more people like Bernie Finkelstein existed in the music industry, it wouldn’t be as cut-throat as it is, but we can only hope. Until then, thank you for True North, Finkelstein. Now someone get this man a beer.

-Melissa Caruso

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