For author and Western graduate David McPherson, BA’96, MA’98, there’s nothing like seeing live music.
“Ever since I saw The Who back in grade ten, at the CNE, I was hooked,” he said. “I love music, it’s my passion.”
As strong, is McPherson’s knack for storytelling, a skill honed at Western, where he served as entertainment editor for the university’s student newspaper, The Gazette. His fervor also extends to the venues supporting the acts and artists he’s followed over the years.
His first book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History was published in 2017. Next month, his new book, Massey Hall, will be released as the hall reopens after a three-year revitalization, and as the province cautiously lifts capacity limits in indoor settings.
“It’s been a labour of love to tell these stories,” said McPherson, a communications consultant and freelance writer living in Waterloo, Ont. “I hope this book helps future generations learn about Massey and celebrate it.”
Part of the family
McPherson didn’t want to proceed with the book without first receiving buy-in from the close-knit “family” of Massey Hall operators and staff. He received their blessing, and more.
“The folks at Massey Hall and their past president Deane Cameron, who unfortunately passed away in 2019, were fantastic in helping me access photos, set up interviews and giving me tours throughout the revitalization. Having their support for this project has been incredible.”
It’s a generosity in keeping with the familial spirit that inspired the hall more than 100 years ago.
Gift to the people
Massey Hall was envisioned by philanthropist, industrialist and Methodist, Hart Massey, who wanted to create a gathering space where people from all walks of life could access entertainment and education.
“He gave this incredible hall as a gift to the city of Toronto and really, to the people of Canada,” McPherson said. “He wanted it to be a place for the people and that mandate has really carried on.”
The hall opened its iconic red doors with a performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1894, and has since hosted legends in jazz, blues, folk and rock.
“In its 127-year history, Massey Hall has witnessed its share of magical musical moments,” McPherson said. Among them, a sold-out performance by Pavarotti in 1973, a concert by The Police at the peak of their career, and a U2 show deemed the last of its kind, before the band became musical superstars.
McPherson notes other events, too – political speeches by Winston Churchill and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a boxing match featuring Sugar Ray Leonard, and a stream of children’s performances by Raffi, Fred Penner, and Sharon, Lois & Bram.
The book is organized into decades, resplendent with quotes from national and international artists sharing their love for one of Toronto’s – and Canada’s – most treasured venues. From Jann Arden to Royal Wood, McPherson found artists were happy to pay homage to the hall.
“There’s a genuine love for this building,” McPherson said. “There was no hesitation. They want to tell their stories and offer their memories about this place.”
Geddy Lee, lead singer and bassist for Rush, recalls attending a Cream concert at Massey in 1968, years before his band took the stage. Kevin Hearn, of the Barenaked Ladies, first played there with his high school band, crediting the hall as an important part of his musical education.
What fans and artists appreciate most about the hall is its acoustics, an aspect painstakingly preserved in the recent renovations. Gordon Lightfoot, who first performed in the hall in 1967 and played three sold-out performances before it closed in 2018 for revitalization, said Massey “has got a sound like no other hall in all of North America.” Keith Richards agreed. “Massey Hall anytime,” Richards said, in a 1993 interview with Maclean’s.
The hall, for many, is home; a place they return to, time and again.
Arden organized her tours deliberately to wrap there, and Jim Cuddy found the hall’s intimate configuration conducive to creating a “big hug” vibe from the audience.
“Neil Young is one of those artists who could fill Scotiabank Arena, but in 2007, he chose instead to play three nights at Massey Hall,” McPherson said.
Restoration, revitalization and reopening
The best part of the story for McPherson is the hall’s slated reopening in November.
“It’s been completely revitalized to its original glory with elements people have never seen or did not know about before,” McPherson said.
A major upgrade includes the restoration and repair of the hall’s original stain-glassed windows, which have been covered in wood since the horse-drawn carriage era. The building’s landmark fire escape has been removed to reveal the hall’s name, engraved in the brickwork, a tribute to its legacy and history.
“These venues are such an important part of the ecosystem of cities,” McPherson said. “People have to support them, or they won’t survive.”
And as the world faces a future beyond the pandemic, McPherson said musicians merit appreciation as well.
“All these artists helped us get through COVID-19 from a mental health standpoint with their music and virtual concerts. It’s time to recognize how important they are and pay that back a bit,” McPherson said. “Pick up a ticket to a show, wherever it may be, and go support them.”