Monday, November 28, 2011

Remembering Handsome Ned

I first met Handsome Ned in June of 1986. I was in a room with about a 100 other drunks … and Ned, who was headlining, was drunker than all of us. I was in Toronto for a tourism promotion and had heard a lot of talk about Handsome Ned … a cowboy singer and punk rocker … 'cow puck' one guy told me .. and a favorite at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street and a regular at the Cameron House, a seedy bar, a few doors west .

He rocked the place. I can still recall some of the lyrics of his songs: Wrong Side Of The Tracks, In Spite Of The Danger, Great Shakin’ Fever ,Sea Of Heartbreak, Bad Bad Boy and of course Put the Blame On Me

Ned .. his real name was Robin Masyk ...was known as the King of Queen Street. Son of a former air force man, Ned left school early and began hitchhiking across Canada. A true romantic he loved the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, O'Hara and Bukowski. Apparently he spend a while in Art School but quickly decided that music would be is life .. for better or for worse. Country music has a great appeal to him . He said it had a ''good lyrics, nice twangy guitar licks and good harmonies. Told stories that people could relate to …. a layman's form of music...”

It was said that he would not begin his performance unless there were at least 10 people in the room … something that he rarely has to worry about. After 5 years as a regular performer at the Cameron House he could easily fill the room … legally able to seat 90 …. with 150.

Someone wrote that like Ned, the Cameron had great character. They were made for each other and both gained from their association.

Jim Cuddy once told a reporter: “Ned really helped to give focus to a lot of people who were looking to put bands together, or looking for some kind of direction. And he did it pretty singlehandedly, I think.”

Ned could have been a big deal … but there is a price to pay for living life that has an edge....and of course there is always the alcohol and drugs …

The Toronto Star once did a full-page story called ‘Mean Street West,’ and it was all about heroin at the Cameron. There were needles in the john, and people were getting dragged outside because they passed out.

Blue Rodeo 's Bob Wiseman would write a song borrowing a title from Ned, “In Spite of the Danger,” that pointed fingers in the circumstances of his death. The lyrics went: “I know who killed you/ and everyone else knows who killed you too/ They found the murder weapon behind your bedroom door/ found an empty syringe next to your arm on the floor.”

Ned died of an overdose of heroin on January 10, 1987. He was 29. While he was alive, Handsome Ned only released two singles. He was about to record his first full-length album in the same week that he died.

Almost 1,000 people crowded around Ned's grave for the funeral, including Murray McLachlan, who'd tried to help Ned make the next step but retreated as the troubled singer became increasingly erratic.

Cuddy says, “Everything we did, Ned would have loved to do, and he would have been really good at it. It would have happened for Ned – he was absolutely that good.”

I spent time the other day at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery visiting Handsome Ned's grave …

Ned moved at his own speed and on his own terms and like a cultural, whirling dervish he touched down on Queen Street West in 1979, a Handsome stranger who, it seemed, had been everywhere.

He made a big splash, turning heads and changing people’s lives, then lifted off again seven years later.