Archive for March, 2011

The Greatest North American City You Have Never Heard Of

- March 27th, 2011

It’s called Cahokia now.

But that’s not its real name.

We just don’t know what the inhabitants of Cahokia called their city when it was the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere north of Mexico — a city as large as London, on the other side of the Atlantic, was at the same time.

So modern historians, anthropologists and archeologists named it for a later nomadic North American tribe that moved into the same middle Mississippi region hundreds of years after the great, unknown native city reached its peak, died — and became lost to human memory.

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That was a millennium ago, centuries before Christopher Columbus came sniffing around the eastern edges of this very big and very mysterious continent.

A thousand years ago, Cahokia was as vast and complex an urban setting as anything the Aztecs, Mayans or Incas built further south, with thousands of homes, hundreds of public buildings and pyramids rising 10 stories above huge ceremonial plazas and Stonehenge-like astronomical structures.

And then there was the little matter of human sacrifice, but we’ll get into that later.

So why do we know so much about the Aztecs’ golden cities, the Mayans’ pyramids and the Incas’ mountain fortresses while we know so little about a contemporary civilization much closer to us?

Building materials, baby.

The Aztecs, Maya and Incas built in stone (and some metal), so the ruins of their cities and temples remained fairly much intact (apart from the plundered gold artwork) long after their empires died.

Cahokia, on the other hand, was built with the materials at hand on the Mississippi floodplain: Earth and wood.

The constructions were just as gigantic and just as sophisticated as anything built further south, but when Cahokia died, nature took its course: Instead of ruins of carved stone, Cahokia’s edifices were slowly reduced to rounded hills and rotted post holes.

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For whatever reason — war, disease, famine, societal breakdown, natural catastrophe, climate change, maybe a combination of several — Cahokia’s centuries-long golden period came to a rather abrupt end before 1400 and its people dispersed to the winds. Much the way small, functional groups of survivors will abandon the shells of non-working 21st or 22nd Century disaster cities to find spaces more suitable for the protection and feeding of small survival clans.

It would be two hundred years before a new native people, the nomadic Cahokia (from whence the site has derived its current name) of the Illinois confederacy, resettled the land where the great city had stood. And it would be another century after that before Europeans began popping up.

By that time, Cahokia’s pyramids had subsided into rounded, scrub-covered hillocks, the wooden temples and lodge houses had rotted and crumbled and the huge, painted poles of “Woodhenge” calendar circles were just ochre-coloured depressions in the earth.

So I guess it’s no wonder that early European and American settlers and their descendants didn’t recognize the remains of a lost civilization as they ploughed fields through giant public ceremonial squares and levelled enormous earthen pyramids for landfill.

New cities grew up nearby — St. Louis, across the river in Missouri, and (pretty much on top of Cahokia) East St. Louis and Collinsville in  Illinois.

Although some astute local amateur scientists and historians began to suspect there was something very special about the area in the 19th Century, they didn’t have the clout to stand in the way of progress.

The biggest block to understanding Cahokia was the built-in ethnocentric bias that 19th Century Americans and Canadians had (and which we still carry to a large extent in the 21st Century) that pre-Columbian native North Americans were rootless nomads, living off the fickle bounty of the earth in relatively small migratory groups usually numbering no more than hundreds unless brought together in their thousands for war or celebration — and then for very short periods of time.

The idea that those simple-living, wandering natives would — or even could — build huge, permanent urban communities with complex, sophisticated social, cultural and trade patterns that survived and flourished in one place over hundreds and hundreds of years was beyond the comprehension of most people 100 years ago.

The biggest of the pyramid mounds, known as Monks Mound, was protected as a small state park in 1925 and very haphazard excavations were dug on about 20 surrounding mounds, but still no one really understood the extent and the grandeur of the history buried beneath their feet and in the hillsides surrounding them.

That protected mound was not called Monks because it was the centre of Cahokia’s prehistoric religious and ceremonial life, but because a group of proselytizing Catholic missionaries set up a monastery on top of it in the 1700s. That’s history for you.

So as late as 1931, Cahokia’s second-largest mound was levelled. Through the 1940s and ’50s, farm fields gave way to suburbs, an airport was built, streets and highways ran hither and yon across the 4,000-acre (1,600-hectar) hidden cityscape. Even as late as the 1970s, a soft-core porn drive-in theatre was occupying land where once stood the greatest urban civilization north of Mexico City.

Cahokia’s big break came as the result of a massive 20th Century building project — the construction of the U.S. Interstate highway system ordered by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s (in large part a Cold War defence plan to enable the rapid movement of large numbers of troops and weapons and to supply nuclear bombers with ready-made runways anywhere in the continental United States).

Tied in to the funding for construction of the highway system was a tidy little add-on that covered the cost of archeological study of any interesting historical areas unearthed in the construction process.

This was especially fortuitous in the case of Cahokia, the exact spot where East-West Interstate 70 (from Maryland to Utah) and North-South Interstate 55 (from Chicago to New Orleans) were about to crash into each other.

The initial construction ground prep in the area turned up so much interesting, sophisticated pre-Columbian evidence that archeologists flocked to the area to find the metaphorical gold buried in them thar hillocks.

As a result, the small Monks Mound State Park was expanded to become Cahokia Mounds State Park in 1964 and the area was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark. In 1982, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site.

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Interstate 55 and Interstate 70 now follow the same patch of asphalt through that area, but if you look at a map you’ll see US 255 — the original route of Interstate 55 — suddenly takes a big swing to the east around the present state park, saved just before it became a highway interchange.

More and more of the original city site was acquired for the park, bungalows and strip malls were removed, proper excavations revealed more and more of the form and outline of the ancient city, and slowly the lost city of Cahokia was found again.

Cahokia Mounds State Park now covers about 2,200 acres (8.9 square km), about half the original settlement area but including all of the important central district where the state, religious, cultural, social, sport, manufacturing and commercial life of the metropolis was carried on.

Of the roughly 120 mounds built there by humans, 80 still survive, although — as I said before — 20 of them were badly butchered by hack explorers in the 1920s, destroying much of their archeological value. But there is still much to find: A rough estimate is that only about 1% of Cahokia has been archeologically processed so far.

So who lived there, how did this fabulous city explode into existence, how did it function and why, and how and why did it fall apart just as rapidly as it rose?

Scientists and historians have some concrete information, but much of what they believe happened is a swirl of conflicting theories based on how individual archeologists, anthropologists and academics interpret the evidence left in and on the ground.

Here’s a quick outline of what we know for sure:

Cahokia existed as an occupied, functioning centre of human activity from about 800 AD to about 1400 AD — roughly the period we call the Middle Ages in European history.

After a solid but relatively modest start, Cahokia’s population started burgeoning between 900 and 1000 AD. For the next 200 years after that — roughly the time period in which the European and the Muslim worlds were preoccupied with the Crusades — Cahokia was the centre of a North American trading empire that stretched from the Great Lakes in the north down the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana and Florida, and from North Carolina in the east to Oklahoma and the Dakotas in the west.

Then there was a period of rapid decline about 1300 AD and the once-great city-state was completely abandoned by about 1400 — a century before Columbus supposedly “discovered” America.

There is debate among scholars about just how many people lived in Cahokia but we know it was in the tens of thousands. Estimates run from as low as 10,000 to as high as 40,000. But the most reliable, sensible analyses put the population at around 20,000 to 25,000 people in the main city during its peak period.

That would make it equivalent in population at the same time to London, England, when London got its first Lord Mayor, Henry Fitz-Ailwyn, in 1189.

There were thousands and thousands more people living in satellite mound cities around the central metropolis and in hundreds of small farming villages that provided the bulk of the food that supplied the urban centres.

We are fairly certain that the big population boom in the 900-1000 AD period coincides with the arrival of corn seed and related farming techniques and technology from the other highly developed native empires then flourishing in Mexico and Central America.

Suddenly there was a vast, basic, reliable food supply to allow population growth and concentration and enough surplus to fuel the large trade network that flowed outward from Cahokia along the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers.

Archeologists have found metal-working shops in Cahokia with copper from near Lake Superior, while other artisans worked with top-grade flint from Oklahoma, mica from North Carolina and seashells from the Gulf of Mexico.

The other materials had many utilitarian uses, but the carved and patterned shells — often strung together as beads —  were almost exclusively decorative and symbolic — in many ways becoming the financial currency of Cahokia.

As Cahokia’s trade expanded, so too did its cultural, social and political reach. There are more than 50 known mound-city sites scattered around the central and south-eastern U.S. today, outposts of trade and culture linked like nerve endings to the mother city, the brains of the operation.

We also know that — like the Aztecs, Maya and Incas — Cahokian society was very strict and stratified, with a top layer of intermingled nobility and religious leaders supported by military, administrative and religious castes, then traders and artisans, followed by farmers and self-employed workers. At the bottom of the pile was the vast pool of nobodies who did all the drudge work that built the great city and made it run.

What we don’t know for sure is if there was one dominant overlord — a king — and if that civic, religious and military lordship was hereditary, power passed down from one generation to the next (unless usurped).

Most historians simply refer to Cahokia as “a complex chiefdom society” because we know there was generally a big kahuna of some kind running the show — we just don’t know how he was chosen (or chose himself) and whether there was a well-defined, institutionalized code for how that chief applied and/or delegated power.

The best insight into this “chiefdom” society comes from Mound 72, a royal burial mound with some very notable finds from the 950-1000 AD period, just about the time Cahokia was hitting its robust, expansionist stride.

About 280 skeletons have found in Mound 72 but the key discovery there is the burial site of a most noble figure — perhaps the charismatic leader who was responsible for Cahokia’s sudden explosion into greatness.

The noble — probably royal — skeleton is of a man in his 40s laid on a bed of 20,000 of the valuable decorative shell discs designed in the shape of a falcon, so the man’s head is beside and on top of the bird’s head and the wings protrude from beneath his arms while the tail feathers  show between his legs. The icon of the birdman or falcon warrior is apparently a very strong and evocative religious image from ancient Mississippian culture. It is pretty much around the world, for that matter, so who knows where the idea originated and how it spread. Maybe it’s just an image so powerfully and deeply embedded in the human psyche that it’s there within us everywhere we have existed.

Nearby is a cache of 800 sharply chiselled arrowheads, divided into four separate groups identifiable as coming from the eastern, northern, western and southern portions of Cahokia’s trading empire.

Ah, money and weapons, like always. So what about the servants unto death and the sacrificial maidens? Yep, they’re there too.

Adjacent to the dead chief/noble/king are the skeletons of four young men — minus their heads and hands. I’m not sure what they could do for their master in the great beyond without heads and hands but maybe they were his funary attendants: If the corpse was carried on their shoulders while they walked into eternity, they wouldn’t need heads or hands. Who knows, but it’s something along those lines, I imagine.

And then the sacrificial maidens.

In an adjoining grave, neatly stacked in rows and layers, are the skeletons of 53 young women, in their late teens and early 20s. By the evident crushing of neck vertebrae, they all appear to have been strangled in a ritualized mass execution before being placed as companions, I suppose, with the dead falcon king.

One more mass grave was found nearby — and from approximately the same time period — which may or may not be directly linked to the burial of the birdman.

This mass grave contains the tangled skeletons of about 40 men and women who seem to have died violently and been roughly cast into a pit. The positioning of some corpses — the final paralyzed activities of their heads, hands and legs — indicates at least some of these people were still alive when buried.

So is this more ritual sacrifice for the birdman chief/king/transitional god figure? Or is this evidence of a separate brutally suppressed rebellion or opposition liquidation from around the same time? Is this perhaps the extended family of the birdman unwillingly forced to go with him or is it a revenge slaying of the kith and kin of a rival responsible for the noble birdman’s death? Your guess is as good as — or probably better — than mine.

So let’s take a look at the civilized city where these barbaric acts took place.

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Cahokia was big, roughly a diamond shape in layout, about 8 km deep and 2 km at its widest point, so I’m told: It just looks like a big blob to me.

The city was divided into different zones for different functions: living quarters, specialized activities like workshops and storage facilities, and public ceremonial areas.

The centre of this beehive of human activity and ambition was a palisaded central court area that included the Monks Mound and a huge plaza the size of about 45 NFL football fields spreading out before it.  Ringing that ceremonial plaza inside the wooden palisade walls were about a dozen smaller mounds and scores of buildings, all of which would be related to the ceremonial, religious and administrative life of the city and its elite.

Cahokia MoundsSS 14

The Monks Mound is enormous, larger at its base than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. It would have taken thousands of workers decades to build that mound, carrying the earth in woven baskets. Better minds than mine have estimated it would have taken about 14 million basket-loads of earth to build that mound 10 storeys high.

Then, sitting on top of the mound, was a 5,000-square foot building rising the equivalent of another five storeys. This was the very heart of Cahokia. This was where absolute religious, political and military power resided in the empire.

The temple/palace atop the mound was positioned in such a way facing west that, at the solstice and equinox when the sun rose due east, it would appear to rise directly out of the top of Monks Mound itself.

Spreading out in front of Monks Mound, the grand plaza had ceremonial sites (for ritual human sacrifice?), sporting fields and some of the many astronomical pole configurations — “Woodhenges” as they are called now — with which human activities could be correlated with the activities of the heavens.

There were other Woodhenges and public spaces elsewhere in the city, but this central complex was the nexus of the Cahokia empire. And from the top of Monks Mound the Cahokian elite could survey their vast domain up and down the Mississippi.

It has been suggested that the complex, ongoing programme of public construction that occupied much of the time and effort of Cahokia residents was a self-perpetuating cycle with no real purpose except to make the elite designers-overseers seem important and necessary and to accustom the seething masses to obeying orders blindly on the assumption that they simply did not understand the “big picture” their betters were implementing. Maybe yes, maybe no. The rebel in me says yes, the realist says no.

Like all good — and some bad — things, this fabulous, busy empire on the Mississippi came to an end.

In 1200, Cahokia was still the centre of a vast, complex, vibrant trading and cultural empire. By 1300, the decline had begun in a serious way and by 1400 Cahokia was a ghost city, given back to the natural elements from which it had been built. The humans were gone.

As I said before, it is uncertain what caused the demise of this great North American city. It was probably the culmination of a number of factors with a few crisis tipping points.

One thing we know for certain is the “Little Ice Age” — a very cold period lasting several hundred years which also had major effects on Europe — began about the time of Cahokia’s initial decline. If corn production was disrupted by those climatic changes, then the massive food supply a large, complex centre like Cahokia required would no longer be reliable. Shortages, then starvation, then factional fighting, then disintegration and dispersal would likely follow.

There also seemed to be increasing threat and/or conflict hanging over Cahokia during the century of decline. Archeologists have found the remnants of a number of protective stockades built and rebuilt in the 1175-1275 period, which means Cahokia was under attack — either by external enemies or the ruling elite was under attack by internal opposition. No one knows for sure, although there’s a theory for every taste out there now.

But the bottom line is that, not unlike Camelot, once there was a Cahokia.

Even if we don’t know its real name, this grand, triumphant metropolis was a city of riches, culture and knowledge existing on the banks of the Mississippi River for centuries before Christopher Columbus, in his tiny, leaking bobble-boats, drifted into the Caribbean and proclaimed it Asia (a belief Chris firmly held until his death).

Hail Cahokia. Goodbye Columbus.

Stephen Harper Is A Druid

- March 25th, 2011

Of course he isn’t (he’s not, is he?) and that’s the point I’m trying to make.

I don’t know Steve’s religious affiliation (although I’m going to take a wild flyer and guess some Protestant denomination, maybe with a whiff of evangelism, maybe not). I doubt most Canadians know — or really care — what religious hook Harper hangs his hat on either.

Same goes for Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe and Elizabeth May.

Unlike the United States, politics and religion are not irrevocably intertwined in Canada.

A U.S. politician could never be elected president without espousing a deep and abiding belief in (some form of) a Christian God, although a surprising number of Americans seem to believe Barack Obama´s Christian church-going is just a beard for his inner Muslim.

I can’t place my hands on it at the moment, but I know a survey was done in the past decade that determined a majority of Canadians would vote for a proclaimed atheist as prime minister if they supported his or her socio-political agenda. Would not, could not happen in the U.S.

Here´s where this whole thing is going:

A study presented this week to a meeting of the scientific body American Physical Society looked at a century´s worth of census data from nine countries — including Canada — that have been collecting information on residents´religious affiliation during that time frame.

Along with Canada, the other countries examined in the study by researchers from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University are: Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

The point of the study was to use a mathematical model to determine the role religion played/plays/will play in the social dynamic of those countries´past, present and future.

The conclusion: God may not be dead, but organized religion is certainly dying in all those nine countries.

I think we all sensed that, to one degree or another, but this APS study draws an even more dramatic conclusion, mathematically speaking:

“The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction,” the study said.

The driving force in all this is, apparently, “What´s in it for me?”

The more important role religion plays in society (the broader and deeper its reach into the daily practices of society), the more people see a real personal benefit in belonging to that religion and publicly identifying with it.

Historically, political, social and religious power have always intermingled.

The Egyptian pharaohs found it useful to declare themselves gods on earth; medieval European nobility saw  little difference in being princes of the church or of the court (and both left just as many children behind them); rulers have always said that God made them kings or told them to kill the kings; and 100 years ago you couldn´t do business on Bay Street, Main Street or in the mayor’s office unless you were also doing your business, so to speak, in the church presbytery, synod, Knights of Columbus or Masons. Let´s not even get into Iran´s current theocracy.

As the temporal benefit of religious affiliation has declined over the past century, so too have the numbers of people declaring a religious affiliation on their census forms in the nine countries studied. And as the overall numbers — and influence — decline, there is increasingly less inclination among the unaffiliated to join the crowd. Or more inclination to join the unaffiliated crowd: “No, no, I´m hip, really. Religion? Wot dat?”

That’s the thesis, anyway, and it seems to be borne out in the study.

“We tried to quantify . . . that the perceived utility of non-affiliation is greater than the perceived utility of belonging to a religion,” said Richard Weiner, one of the chief authors of the study. “That effect is enough to start driving people to the group that’s non-affiliated, and then as more people become non-affiliated, that makes the (non-affiliated) group more attractive … People no longer see the slate of benefits as being as great as they probably did 100 years ago. It’s become less socially useful.”

So religion is dying on its feet — at least in the nine European and Western countries examined in the census study.

I like the comment posted by one reader of the BBC’s online coverage of this story:

“I don’t see the decline of religion to be a particularly bad thing. And I say this as a Born-Again follower of Jesus. To me, relationship with God is so much more.

“Religion implies strict rules and rituals which must be followed in order to gain some kind of benefit or reward at the end. This may appear a good thing but history has proven all too often that religion is an excuse to fight.”

Personally, I don’t  think religion is so much dying as it is diffusing and defusing (despite the incindiary nature of fundamentalism, which ebbs and flows in different religions at different times).

Human beings need — and enjoy — ritual and, within bounds, rules. Whether it’s a Santa Claus parade, a royal wedding, a new dance move or texting etiquette, we like to have some formalized structure in our lives, something bigger than ourselves but still a part of us, something expansive that we can understand, practice (and practise) and can share with others.

For my part, I think it matters far more that God — if there is one — believes I exist than it matters whether I believe He/She/They/It/Thou exists.

God bless and good luck, earthlings.

Top Arms Dealers In The World And Where Canada Fits In

- March 24th, 2011

The Economist, my favourite news magazine, has just published an interesting graphic showing the world´s top five national arms dealers and who their principal clients are.

The usual suspects turn up on both lists, pretty much, although the order of ranking was a bit of a surprise to me.

Here´s  a link to the online chart at economist.com.

The chart is based on data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (I don´t know the organization but I trust The Economist to use reliable sources).

It shows that, for the period 2006-2010, five countries supplied 75% of the world´s weaponry:

1. United States (30%)

2. Russia (23%)

3. Germany (11%)

4. France (7%)

5. Britain (4%)

Rest of the world: 25 %

 Positions 3, 4 and 5 surprised me a bit: Did you know that Germany is selling as many weapons and machines of war to the world as France and Britain combined? And I thought China was a bigger arms manufacturer than it appears to be.

What may surprise you more is what is not shown on that chart.

And that surprise is that Canada is No. 6 on the list of the world´s top arms dealers. Yes, we´re bigger than China when it comes to exporting things that help kill people our clients don´t like.

So, as far as the Economist chart is concerned, Canada is just part of the anonymous crush of “other” countries like Israel, Iran, Brazil and Poland that make up the other 25% of world weapons production and sales.

In actual fact, we are next in line after the big boys and well ahead of all those other “also-ran” merchants of death. We´re in the killer elite.

That No. 6 ranking comes from a very reputable source, the U.S. Congressional Research Service, which keeps better (public) track of these things than the Canadian government does.

The Canadian government (should I be saying “Harper government” here? I don´t think so, since both Liberal and Conservative administrations were in office during the time period we´re covering), is supposed to release an annual report on Exports Of Military Goods From Canada. It doesn´t. Under pressure, it comes up with irregular reports.

The most recent, released earlier this month, covered the 2007-09 period. The previous report, released in 2007, covered 2000-06.

According to those two reports, Canadian manufacturers exported about $5 billion worth of military arms, equipment and technology to other countries in that 2000-09 decade.

Except that´s not an accurate figure: By bilateral agreement, Canada does not include its arms sales to the United States in that export total. And the U.S. is BY FAR Canada´s biggest market for military exports.

I have not been able to nail down the exact numbers, but what I´m seeing in the U.S. Congressional Research Service data would lead me to believe that, in the past decade, Canada has shipped to the U.S. about $7.7 billion worth of military hardware and software — everything from our much-maligned armoured vehicles to aircraft guidance systems and, yes, ammo and missiles.

We, of course, buy a lot of military equipment from other countries — mainly the U.S., but also Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Israel,  Mexico, Norway and on and on– so there´s outgo as well as that (maybe) $12.7 billion income. But we still have a very healthy military trade surplus.

We are seeing a shift in what other countries are buying from us. Back around 2000 it used to be mainly land vehicles and aircraft. Nowadays, we´re selling the world far more component parts and high-tech military software. But we still do a pretty fair trade in the stuff that goes boom and bang.

Our principal clients in recent years (apart from the U.S. main market) have been Britain, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

But other buyers of Canadian military goods over the past decade also include:

Libya (surprise, surprise), Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Pakistan, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia (among others). I don´t think we´ve sold anything dangerous to Iran or North Korea — at least not in any documented form.

It´s a big, bad, dangerous world out there. And, if Canada is not really making it a better and safer place to live (the jury´s still out on our efforts in that regard), at least our economy is sharing in the gazillions of dollars spent annually to slaughter, maim, brutalize and suppress each other.

Are the Action Plan TV ads taking credit for that too?

Take A Walk Down 1960s Yonge Street

- March 20th, 2011

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I am outrageously happy that Bravo! TV will air Bruce McDonald´s new three-part series on the glory days of the Yonge Street music scene this week.

Called Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories, the three one-hour documentaries run Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights (March 21-23) at 10 p.m. Part 1 covers 1955-1960, Part 2 covers 1960-65 and Part 3 covers (you guessed it) 1965-70.

Rock music has always played a big part in director McDonald´s films (from Roadkill through Highway 61, Hard Core Logic 1 and 2, Pontypool and Trigger) and he´s been getting into rock in a more documentary way recently (with This Movie Is Broken and The Rawside of Die Mannequin), so he is the perfect guy to take a look at the rock musical roots of his home town.

Part 1 will look at the emergence of rock´n´roll in Toronto (and the gratefully awaited death of Toronto the Good) with Elvis Presley´s 1957 Maple Leaf Gardens concert  and the 1958 arrival of Arkansas rockabilly wildman Ronnie Hawkins and sidekick Levon Helm in Toronto, where Hawkins became king of the Yonge Street strip for the next decade. At the same time, other American R&B and rock performers were  moving through — and sometimes sticking in –Toronto to make the city a fertile base of imported talent and mentor pool for homegrown acolytes.

That half-mile strip from Queen Street in the south to just north of Gould made music history — and magic — with some of the greatest rock, rockabilly,  jazz, blues, R&B, soul, country and even folk performers in the world playing the strip´s bars nightly, checking out each others´work and jamming together until the sun came up over the Scarborough horizon.

Later on the Yorkville scene exploded further up Yonge north of Bloor (Yorkville figures in Parts 2 and 3 of the series) and new music strips grew up along Spadina and Queen West, but that Yonge Street strip was crazyland from the late ´50s into the early ´70s. It started with the jazz and blues temples Town Tavern and Colonial Tavern down near Queen, rumbled up through the Friar´s Tavern (where Bob Dylan heard the Hawks/Band play for the first time) and Brown Derby around Dundas to Le Coq D´Or (Ronnie Hawkins´early court) and the Edison at Gould to the Zanzibar (yes, it was a music club before it was a strip club — with a transitional music&strip phase) just north of Gould.

As Ronnie Hawkins says, “For 10 years, it was lined up on Monday night, boys.”

Along the way, there were stops at Sam the Record Man and A&A Books and Records, Frank´s Hamburgers, the Biltmore Theatre, the Olympia Recreation Club, Steeles Tavern and Dinty Moore´s deli.

Also along the way, the folkies up in Yorkville went psychedelic while the bars along the Yonge Street strip slowly turned into strip joints or just closed up doors in the face of disco.

The three-part series tells the Yonge Street story through archival film, photos and recordings and great new interviews with the likes of Hawkins, Robbie Robertson, John Kay (of The Sparrow, later Steppenwolf), David Clayton-Thomas (Blood Sweat & Tears), Skip Prokop (the Paupers, Lighthouse) and many more.

Here´s director Bruce McDonald:

“I didn´t know much about Toronto music pre-Yorkville days and so it was a revelation to discover the gold mine of dirty rhythm and blues, rock and roll and soul music … And of course hanging out with the grand ring master Ronnie Hawkins was its own hilarious trip.”

So take a walk down the old Yonge Street strip on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights this week on Bravo!

Will The Real Snidely Whiplash Please Stand Up?

- March 18th, 2011

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By now you’ve probably seen the Working Families TV attack ad which portrays Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak as a servile stooge taking cut-cut-cut (ha-ha-ha) orders from a cabal of big-business CEOs (two of whom have goatees, one a moustache — a cartoon characterization of evil intent I find especially, personally hurtful — see blog logo photo).

It’s weird. And offensive.

And disappointing.

I think Working Families is responsible for the clever ad campaign showing Canadians gladly giving up their wheelchairs and children’s education to support the cost of corporate tax cuts. It’s a smart, funny, bitterly biting campaign — and it works.

I know for sure Working Families kicked the shit out of Premier Ernie Eves’ slick (and extrapolationly sleazy) image in the 2003 Ontario election and led the charge in 2007 against then-Ontario PC Leader John Tory’s seriously wonky promise to extend public funding to faith-based schools.

So gold stars there for being smart and effective politician partisans.

But now they do this really dumb and … what’s another word for dumber? … attack ad against current PC Leader Hudak.

I really don’t care that it’s unfair to Hudak. He’s a big boy and can take care of himself.

I do care that these Working Families knobs think so little of me that they believe — obviously, or they wouldn’t be spending so much money on these TV ads — that this cartoon smear will affect my vote in the provincial election on Oct. 6.

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Snidely Whiplash and Tim Hudak: Can you tell who’s who?

Don’t get me wrong.

Attack ads do work.

Case in point: Michael Ignatieff.

The federal Conservatives’ string of TV assaults on Ignatieff’s “Canadian-ness” have played a real role in the Tories’ rise — and Liberals’ fall — in the polls.

I sort of like Ignatieff but every time I watch him speak now, I view his performance through the lense of those very effective ads. And Ignatieff is just not doing enough to bust that lense. He seems squirmy and unfocused, no matter how much hairy, baritone macho he tries to add to his intellectual dressage.

But back to Ontario.

At first, I thought the anti-Hudak ad was produced by the provincial Liberals.

I thought “Now I know why Liberals are so down on attack ads — they can’t do them.”

Then I found out Working Families was behind the expensively, ineffectively goofy campaign. My opinion of Working Families suddenly dropped down to the level of my opinion of the expensively, ineffectively goofy McGuinty provincial Liberals.

So who is/are Working Families?

Well, it’s a coalition of Ontario unions with deep pockets.

Here’s a list of some (but not necessarily all — Working Families just won’t say) of the unions picking up the tab:

(WARNING: I’ve picked this list up directly from the Working Families website, so I decline all responsibility if you click on one of these links and suddenly turn into a Dalton McGuinty clone. Actually, I think I sort of like Dalton McGuinty as a person — so it pisses me off even more that he’s such a total, complete, absolute failure as premier.)

If you’re a member of one of those above-listed unions, you’ll be pleased to know that your union dues have gone a long way to making me seriously think of changing my vote next fall from NDP to Progressive Conservative.

Now I was not — and am still not — committed to voting one way or another. All I know is that Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals have so screwed things up in the past (better-part-of-a) decade that I will be voting for ABD — Anybody But Dalton.

And since I’m a fan of democracy, I was thinking vaguely of voting NDP just to help keep that important  third voice alive in a polarized Liberal-Conservative showdown. (The fact that my grandfather was a founding member of the CCF is beside the point.)

Besides, I’ve finally forgiven the NDP for doing such a bad job as government in the 1990s (a sunspot anomaly attributable to Liberal Premier David Peterson’s arrogance that cannot mathematically ever happen again in Ontario).

And I’m really starting to like NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. She’s real, smart, sensible, approachable and sort of like a chocolate chip cookie (please don’t ask me to explain that — just savour the evocativeness).

But now Working Families has me seriously thinking about voting PC.

If Tim Hudak’s enemies are this stupid and offensive and think I’m so dumb, then the enemies of my enemies are my friends. I love you, Tim Hudak.

I don’t care if you boil babies in oil or practise satanic rites in the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition of Ontario or plan to do whatever else the attack ad says you do.

Actually, I do care — and I’m going to check out what they’re saying about your positions. But I know already that the fact that you want to downsize McGuinty’s wasteful, incompetent, out-of-control government is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s how you want to do it that I will be checking out.

And I know — for sure — that the Working Families attack ad has already made me much, much more sympathetic to whatever message you’re putting out.

So even if the Working Families ad is a veiled Liberal political campaign ad in intent, its actual effect — for me, at least — is a net benefit to the Tim Hudak Progressive Conservatives and might change my vote.

Congratulations, Working Families. You idiots.