Handsome Ned is the man that many consider the single reason that Toronto punk rockers discovered country music. Never mind the Mekons, Rank and File or johnny-come-latelies Uncle Tupelo: Canadians have always excelled at giving country music a contemporary context. And on Queen Street in the early 80s, nobody did it better than Handsome Ned.
Listen to the man here.
To celebrate what would have been Ned's 50th birthday, there's a show this Saturday, June 16 at the Horseshoe. Zoilus contributor Erella Ganon has this to say: "Expect to see these fabulous former Ned collaborators: Mary Margaret O'Hara, Steve Koch, John Borra, Cleave Anderson, Teddy Fury, Lori Yates, Johnny Macleod, Jim Masyk, Steve Leckie (of the Viletones), Screamin' Sam, Tony Kenny (of the Razorbacks), Emily Weedon, Heather Morgan, Michael Brennon, Scott B, Joanne Mackell and others performing at the event. It also will feature the re-release of The Name is Ned CD, as well as a preview of the upcoming Handsome Ned documentary film and a limited-edition line of Ned t-shirts."
That's an even better line-up than the original release party six years ago, and I (only slightly) regret that I'll be away camping on a Pennsylvania mountainside this weekend.
To honour the man's memory, here is what I wrote about him in the 2001 book Have Not Been the Same. My co-authors Jason Schneider and Ian A.D. Jack, as always, deserve credit for their editorial eye on this and everything else I contributed to that book.
This is the ballad of Handsome Ned.
On January 9, 1982, an imposing figure in a large cowboy hat took the stage in the back room of Toronto’s Cameron House on Queen Street, one block west of Spadina.
He called himself Handsome Ned, and he was about to start a five-year tradition that galvanized the Toronto music community. Every Saturday, Handsome Ned would put on a matinee performance that would be packed to the rafters with punks, rockers, country fans, new wave refugees and anyone who knew that it was the place to be. Armed with a personality and a towering voice, Handsome Ned turned his audience on to the compelling charms of country, a form that was hardly in vogue at the time. He made no attempt to dumb it down, camp it up or fuse it with modern genres—instead, he tackled it straight on with a fiery passion that was entirely convincing.
Five years to the day, he would be struck down by his heroin addiction, shocking his peers and fans, and leaving behind a legacy that still sounds vital today.
Handsome Ned was born Robin Masyk in 1957 in West Germany, where his father was stationed in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Raised in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Masyk dropped out of high school after Grade 10 to hitchhike across the continent. During a stay in Banff, Alberta he became enamoured with a restaurant called Ned’s, which would later provide him with half of his stage name. In 1978, he moved to Austin, Texas with his brother Jim, where they soaked up the outlaw country music indigenous to the region and talked about forming a band. Upon returning to Toronto the following year, the Masyk brothers started The Velours.
“The Velours used to do a lot of early Elvis, some originals, and Velvet Underground covers,” says Jim Masyk. “It was a mix of influences. We also did ‘Sleepin’ With the TV On’ by the Dictators, and various things that came out of pre-punk: the Velvets, the New York Dolls, all those people. We didn’t play punk per se. When we formed, Ned had a cowboy hat and lambchop sideburns and we were going for rockabilly with a country edge, but targeting the new music audiences at the time. We weren’t going after country music audiences; we were going after the people on Queen Street.”
In early 1981, the Masyk brothers acquired a new punk rock rhythm section consisting of The Next bassist Ronny Azzopardi and the Demics’ drummer JD Weatherstone. They changed their name to the Sidewinders and attracted the attention of Steve Leckie and the Viletones. “Steve Leckie went nuts over us and blessed us, and then we started opening for the Viletones,” says Jim Masyk. “We started taking their audience and pretty soon we started headlining. We were packing Larry’s Hideaway, and it was the Demics’ and the Viletones’ audience that came to see us. We were the new punk in a way. We cranked it up, it was more rockabilly and fun, and less snarling and spitting.”
The Sidewinders would also gig with another rockabilly band, the One-Eyed Jacks, featuring Steve Koch on guitar, who had just finished his stint with the Demics. The band was led by Chris Houston, who had just departed from Hamilton punks the Forgotten Rebels. True to just about everything Houston has done, the One-Eyed Jacks took a light-hearted approach to rockabilly.
“Most of the Toronto rockabilly bands were very purist, and they really took it seriously,” says Koch. “But we didn’t. Most of them did 80 percent covers and 20 percent originals, and we did 80 per cent originals and 20 per cent covers. It was a bit irreverent, because I always looked at rockabilly as a dead art form. That’s why I started to get into country when I met Ned. It was never a traditional part of my musical upbringing. But at that point I was ready to be turned around, because [country] struck me as not being a dead art form. It was happening right now and was really talking to people and wasn’t all smoke and mirrors, wasn’t all form and no content. It was the lyrical content and the dedication.”
Koch had moved from Calgary to Toronto in 1978. “My dream was to get into a punk rock band, if possible the Viletones,” he recalls. After a short-lived band with future Shadowy Men drummer Don Pyle, Crash Kills Nine, Koch’s dream was realized when he was drafted to be one in a series of Viletones guitarists, for one year between 1979 and 1980. “We weren’t learning any new songs, there weren’t that many great gigs and it totally lost direction,” says Koch. “The original Viletones went back to ’76; they’d been doing those songs for a long time. It was time to move on to something else.”
Before he did, however, Koch helped the band with their transition to rockabilly. “At that time,” says Koch, “there was a feeling that doing that old-fashioned punk was dead, which Steve [Leckie] knew as well, so that version of the Viletones went rockabilly for a while. That was okay, because I knew how to do that stuff by getting my chops playing blues at coffeehouses in Calgary. It was not terribly popular at the time. There was a rockabilly influence in Toronto music, because Teenage Head did all those Eddie Cochrane-type songs in a revved up style and everybody loved them. The Viletones started doing rockabilly stuff in 1979, and it was not terribly well-received. We opened up for the Buzzcocks and people threw bottles at us. That was one of the last shows they did with me in the band.”
In 1983, Koch and Ned formed a band called the Running Kind, which focused on Merle Haggard-influenced outlaw country. “I can’t think of anybody else on Queen Street that was doing that at that time,” says Koch. “There was definitely rockabilly, but nobody was doing downtown country music. There were certainly the real professional bands playing country, just like there always was and always will be. But they weren’t downtown, and we brought a different perspective to it, having been through the musical upbringing we had been through.”
That same year, the Sidewinders broke up when Jim Masyk left for the stability of a day job. Before the split, the band recorded nine tracks with ex-Stampeders guitarist Rich Dobson, two of which ended up on a 7” single: “Put the Blame on Me” and “Cryin’ Heartache Misery.” “Put the Blame on Me,” perhaps Ned’s strongest composition, would be used to great effect in Bruce McDonald’s 1989 film Roadkill, where it plays over the opening credit sequence featuring the annual Good Friday parade down College Street – the title phrase amusingly juxtaposed with shots of an actor portraying Jesus carrying his cross. Aside from Ned’s promising songwriting and compelling vocal delivery, the recordings are also notable for not falling into the trap of most ‘80s production. There are no thunderous drum sounds, no processed vocals, no fakery.
By 1984, Ned’s Saturday matinee was the weekly social hub of Queen Street. “There was this whole scene built around Ned,” says Jim Masyk. “You could depend on him being there every Saturday, and you knew the faces. I can’t imagine how many people he knew. Once he met people he remembered them. He was very street level – ‘Hey, you coming out to see me?’ – just a promotional machine.”
“Ned was the king; he was a scenester,” says Greg Keelor. “Because of Ned, [Blue Rodeo] had something to do, that didn’t seem like we were doing something on our own. We did a show with a band from Vancouver, the Rocking Edsels, at the Bathurst St. Theatre. Ned just put it on for something to do. And he was an artist; he was always doing an art show, and we’d play that. A Valentine’s Day show he did was our first or second gig. We didn’t have that facility as a band. We didn’t know how to do that. Every Saturday, at his fantastic matinee, he just played on and on until the band [playing later] that night had to say ‘Get off!’ He was really legit, and committed to amphetamine country. He had a very exciting voice and a great, cool band.”
Ned’s vocals were central to his appeal. In his voice you can detect traces of all the rockabilly greats to come out of Sun Records in the ‘50s: the grit of Johnny Cash, the sweetness of Roy Orbison and the unshakeable swagger of Elvis Presley. In a 1986 Nerve review of his regular Cameron show, critic Tim Powis wrote: “No matter how many times Ned’s done a song, he never seems to fail at grabbing it by the gizzards. His plaintive prairie-dog voice doesn’t just carry a tune, it pushed the doggone thing along like a ranchero herding cattle. Same goes for his hard-attack strumming style … This is a band that could give you the impression the west was won with a saddlebag of bennies.”
Steve Koch would become Ned’s right-hand man for the next three years, first with the Running Kind and the cajun side project Handsome Ned and the Hayseed Hellions, which also featured future Blue Rodeo drummer Cleave Anderson. In 1984, the Handsome Neds were formed, with Koch, upright bassist Rene Fratura, and drummer JD Weatherstone carrying over from the Sidewinders.
Fratura had moved to Toronto from Vancouver, where he had been playing with rockabilly songwriter Herald Nix. Nix’s band arrived in Toronto for the first time in 1983 “with the greatest pre-packaged buzz,” says Koch. The post-punk rockabilly and roots enthusiasts all turned out to see the show, and Koch still claims that Herald Nix had “the greatest band on earth. They had an unbelievable drummer, Russ the Bus, and a crazy man piano player [Mike Van Eyes] who was a musical genius. Herald Nix is a bit of a musical genius himself, and Rene is in a class of his own,” says Koch. “Rene met Ned and was very impressed with him, so he decided to quit Herald Nix, move to Toronto and join Ned’s band. It was like me moving from Calgary to join the Viletones – that was what he wanted to do. When he came along, that added a lot of credibility, a real roots feel to it.” Fratura would also act as a visual counterpoint to Ned, rolling his eyes, contorting his face and attacking his stand-up bass.
The first summer after forming, the Handsome Neds headlined the First Annual Handsome Ned Picnic on Toronto Island, which over the next three years would feature Blue Rodeo, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the Razorbacks and other Ned friends. Although well-attended, the picnics were a private affair out of necessity. “It was word of mouth, because they were illegal,” says Koch. “They were open-air speakeasies, so it was pretty audacious.”
In 1985, the Handsome Neds recorded a 7” featuring “In Spite of the Danger” and “Ain’t No Room For Cheatin’ (In a Song About Love).” It was received well at Toronto campus station CKLN, on the CBC, in certain smaller markets across Canada such as Red Deer and on the two major country stations in Ontario, Hamilton’s CHAM and Toronto’s CFGM. The latter became a big supporter of the Handsome Neds, inviting them to play on their syndicated Opry North program, recorded live at the Birchmount Tavern in Scarborough. “Apparently, we got the first encore that was ever allowed [on the program],” says Steve Koch. “That was a step into the mainstream, but Ned was never really interested in going into the mainstream. He definitely knew what he was doing – and what those people were doing was not where he was going.”
Ned hosted a radio program of his own on CKLN, the Handsome Ned Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor Show, which he started in 1982, the same year his Cameron residency began. The popular program featured studio guests, including Greg Keelor and Murray McLauchlan, and a varied playlist that placed vintage country artists and Ned influences like Lefty Frizzell alongside newer roots-informed music such as R.E.M., Steve Earle and the True Believers. His listenership was so dedicated that 12 years after Ned’s death, a loyal Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor fan brought Jim Masyk a box full of tapes documenting every show Ned ever broadcast.
While everything seemed to be moving forward for the Handsome Neds, the band broke up on the eve of the third picnic in 1986, after two full years together. Ned played his disastrous final picnic as a solo act, abandoned by his band. To make matters worse, Ned’s guitar was stolen and the police busted the event, seized all the money and charged him under the liquor act. “All of us were supposed to go, and we said ‘That’s it, we’re not going,’” recalls Steve Koch. “Nobody likes to say it, but there were dope problems, which leads to ‘not getting paid’ problems. We were losing a bit of focus as to what’s important. Between Ned and the drummer, JD, there was a lot of tension. JD didn’t think that Ned was doing the right things for the band, which could have been true. Tempers flared, but after that, everyone made up. I don’t know about JD, but Rene and I were on speaking terms with him. He knew he had gone too far and was apologetic, and wanted to play with us again.”
In the meantime, he had assembled The New Neds, featuring future Razorback guitarist Tony Kenny, ex-Sidewinder bassist Ronny Azzopardi and ex-Johnny Thunders drummer Billy Rogers. The band recorded one song for a Christmas-themed TV movie starring Loretta Lynn, and were scheduled to record demos for a full-length album in January, 1987.
But that same month, the night before his Cameron matinee was to celebrate its fifth anniversary, Handsome Ned succumbed to a heroin overdose in the back of his beloved Cameron House. “It was a real shocker,” remembers Steve Koch. “We’d pretty much figured that all of that stuff was in the past, that he was headed for new and bigger and better things.”
“His band loved him,” says Greg Keelor, whose Saturday night social circle included Ned, Koch and former Demics frontman Keith Whittaker. “But because of the drugs in that period, there was a certain frustration [for Ned’s band] in maintaining some sort of career momentum – whatever that is. The funny thing about drug deaths is that there’s a period of time before they die when they’ve pissed everybody off. I hear that a lot. Ned and I were barflies together, but we weren’t confidantes in a big way. We played a lot of music together and hung out all the time, but for the people that were closest to him, those were the ones who had been the most hurt for a period leading up to his death. There’s that combination of being pissed off, angry and incredibly sad.”
Once news of Ned’s death broke, his friends and fans congregated at the Cameron. “It was an immediate wake,” recalls Steve Koch. “Everyone knew where to go, right away.” After his funeral, there was a procession of cars down Queen Street, and like the death of a public figure, people lined the streets to pay their respects. “Hundreds of people were standing around who knew him,” says Koch, “and that’s not including the people who actually went to the funeral; there must have been 50 cars.”
“I don’t remember going back to the Cameron,” says Greg Keelor. “The only thing I can remember is that a guy walked in and asked me, ‘Is this where I can get some skag?’ I don’t remember what happened after that. If he had asked [scenester] Mohawk Bob, he would have got the shit kicked out of him. It would have been ugly, because people were just so angry.” Years later, Keelor’s Blue Rodeo bandmate 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’s death was noted in the media with a mixture of drug sensationalism and fond musical memories. “The media needs some kind of sensationalist angle,” rationalizes Steve Koch. “That’s how they sell papers. You can’t deny that he died of an overdose. It’s true, you can’t gloss it over. But a lot of papers also reflected on the importance of the music and what he’d done.”
“The day after he died,” Jim Masyk recalls, “someone from the CBC came to my parents’ house. They interviewed everyone. They came out a few days later with this thing that was just awful, and so painful for us. I wanted to kill the fuckers. We learned a lot from that. Obviously writers need something to write about, and of course, ‘Underground star dies of drug overdose’ is a story. Not having been through anything like that before, I was naïve – shouldn’t have been, but I was. I’d been screwed around enough by the music industry, which was why I wanted to get out of it, but I never expected people would take our words that they recorded and say things before and after it and warp it to whatever message they wanted.”
Musician Kurt Swinghammer was working at the Cameron during that time, busing tables. “The scene at the Cameron was pretty much headquarters for everybody in the arts scene: writers, artists, musicians,” he says. “It was the main watering hole. And when Ned died, the whole tourist thing kicked into gear, because everybody wanted to see where junkies hung out. The Cameron became the most incredibly packed room. The Toronto Star 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. There was a lot of experimentation, a lot of people were goofing off and thought it was hip or something. When Ned died, a lot of people woke up.”
Two years later, a posthumous compilation was issued by Virgin Records Canada, whose president Doug Chappelle had been a Ned fan and had conducted preliminary conversations with Ned about a record deal before his death. The Ballad of Handsome Ned consisted primarily of Sidewinders recordings, as well as the two songs from the Handsome Neds’ single. It was promoted with a video for “Rockabilly Girls” and by the appearance of “Put the Blame On Me” in Roadkill; in 1989, Handsome Ned was posthumously nominated for a Juno award in the Best Country Male Vocalist category.
In 2000, after two and a half year’s work of researching Ned’s audio archives, Jim Masyk compiled a two-CD set titled The Name is Ned, featuring remastered versions of every studio session he ever did, as well as live tapes from his Cameron House shows featuring the Handsome Neds, and live solo radio performances from CKLN. The fact that Masyk convinced EMI Canada to release it is a testament to the fact that Ned did have fans in the industry, who could have helped bring him to larger audiences had he not met an untimely end.
“It’s helpful to reflect back,” says Masyk of the compilation. “Not only for me personally, having grown to understand better and seeing where his music went and listening to the influence. This was for me and his fans. If other people like it, great. This is Ned, this brings him alive. This is what he said and how he was. It was his character that came through not just in his singing or his activities like picnics and radio shows, but on stage—how comfortable he was. To take what he was really like when he was sitting around with friends and a few beers.”