Sunday, August 30, 2015

Where is that Town in North Ontario?

The music scene in Canada has long been a sweating, seething,
passionate hotbed of controversy and debate and the rise of the
internet has turned it all up to eleven.

Virtually daily, issues are discussed ad infinitum by musicians
and the fans who love them. New questions arise while old ones
are still under debate, and one of the ones that people still disagree
about is "Where is that town in north Ontario?"

"That town" is the one Neil was singing about in "Helpless",
one of his most enduring songs:

"There is a town in north Ontario,
 With dream comfort memory to spare,
 And in my mind
 I still need a place to go,
 All my changes were there

How could the name of "that town" come to mean so much to so many?
There's many reasons, including personal identity issues, tourist dollars,
geeky bragging rights, civic pride and an abiding feeling for one of the few
musicians from a magical era who didn't (a) die or (b) turn into a guilty pleasure.

The answer is out there, somewhere and will be revealed, but first
we'll need to map the terrain, look at the facts and see where they lead.

Fasten your seat-belts - it's going to be a bumpy ride.


If you're like many musicians, and your agent called to say
you had a gig in Fort William at the Flamingo Club,
your first reaction might be "Where the hell is that?"

This would be a very reasonable question, because in 1970,
the towns of Fort William and Port Arthur amalgamated
and have been known ever since as Thunder Bay.

In many cases, though, this might just leave you wondering
"Where the hell is Thunder Bay?"

Fort William aka Thunder Bay is in northern Ontario.
It is a 7 hour and 36 minute drive of some 704 kilometers
from Winnipeg (7 hours 8 minutes without traffic).

It is 7 hour and 53 minute drive of about 432 miles
from Fargo, ND (7 hours 33 minutes without traffic
((and not counting possible delays at the border
)) ).

For those coming from the other way, it's 5 hours 16 minutes
and some 478 kilometers from Wawa, Ontario (4 hours
50 minutes without traffic

Wawa was notorious among young people hitch-hiking
to and fro across the True North years ago as a place
you might find yourself stranded in, sometimes for days.

It is also home to the world's biggest Canada Goose.

It* was made (in)famous by a band from Hamilton
called Crowbar, in a song called "Tits Up on the Pavement
(in Wawa, Ontario)", but that is not the song under discussion today.

* the town, not the goose


People in the know remember Fort William's Flamingo Dine & Dance
as quite a classy place back in the 60s. In addition to weddings, parties
and banquets, it also presented live original music.

One of the bands they presented was fronted by a local kid
with a head full of dreams from Winnipeg who drove
around town in an old hearse he called Mortimer Hearseburg
or “Mort*” for short.

(*Morte, of course, being French for "death").

His name was Neil Young.
The band was called The Squires.

Neil and two Squires "backstage" at The Flamingo

It was not the only place presenting live music.
There was also the 4D (The Fourth Dimension)
the areas first folk club, which had opened in 1962,
and was formerly known as "The Club Seaway".

Then as now, living on your musical skills wasn't easy.
Neil and his fellow squires ate mucho Spam and many,
many Ritz Crackers.

Dinty's Motor Inn

They did live free for a while at Dinty's Motor Inn, in exchange
for playing weekends at the Fourth Dimension.

One night at the 4D, Neil met a kindred spirit passing through
in a band from California. His name was Stephen Stills.

The Squires were neither the first nor the last thing to put
Fort William on the musical map. It had unleashed teen sensation
Bobby Curtola on the world some years earlier and in 1962
he'd topped the charts with "Fortune Teller".

Another native son who walked those cold streets was a guy
named Paul Allen Wood Shaffer who, among other things,
would go on to play with many of the world's most famous
musicians during his thirty-plus years with David Letterman.


Clearly, Neil has some heavy history with Fort William/Thunder Bay...
but does that mean Fort William is (was?) that town in north Ontario?

The answer, my friends, is here:
Where is that Town in North Ontario? (2)

If you really want the lowdown about Fort William back in those days,
you want to go to Hot Rods and Jalopies , where some of this history and
images came from.

It's one of those blogs that makes you glad there's an internet. Seriously!
I wish someone had done on like it on the town I grew up in.


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