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Mordecai, Grumpy, Hank and Me

June 10, 2011

Mordecai Richler

Mordecai Richler

Sitting in the restaurant above Grumpy’s Bar eating a lobster and greasy fries last night, I looked out the window onto Bishop Street and wondered how it was that Mordecai Richler, one of the great Canadian writer of last century who died on 3 July 2001, had created the world he did in his novels. I kept thinking of Richler, and of the last novel of his that I read, Barney’s Version.

I would only learn at the end of the evening when I spoke to the guy who ran the bluegrass jam session in Grumpy’s bar, beneath, that Grumpy’s was one of Richler’s favorite hangouts, and that in the making of the film of Barney’s Version they had filmed scenes in Grumpy’s. I am trying to dig into my memory, thinking maybe he had – in fact, he must have – written about Grumpy’s in the novel.

In any case, I still wondered and kept thinking all dinner time – before descending to the bar to listen and play music – how it was that Richler had created this fantastic and credible fictional world out of Montreal. I liked Montreal yesterday, I liked Grumpy’s and I liked the restaurant above. But since I am a Canadian myself, I always see it differently to how a foreigner might see it. And for me, the Montreal that most people like for its European-ness, is anything but. I abhor the pretentious Canadian efforts to imitate Europe, in fact. But Montreal doesn’t have to, there is enough originality in this city to make many other North American cities jealous.

On the other hand, the jam session at Grumpy’s last night was anything but “Montreal” or French Canadian or even old world English and European. I was amazed to find a bluegrass jam in downtown Montreal, where the organizers were very adamant that it had to be about bluegrass and what they called “old-time” music. When I asked if my old English, Irish, Scottish, music would be considered old-time, I received a curt: “No, this is not a Celtic jam. There are other places that have Celtic jams.”

Hmmm. All right. So I was even more surprised when I found that the banjo player in the jam was on a three month visit over from England, and he originated from Manchester. Still, “Shady Groves” was played twice last night, and as many fans of that song know, it is simply an American version of the English folk song, Matty Groves. So it all comes down to names.

But this is certain: I loved the jam session last night, and there were some fine musicians, including the leader, the MC, Mike. He had a bona fide authentic voice – reminded me a little of that of my friend Texas in Paris – and he played some mean guitar. Bobby, the girl singer, also had a voice that just grabbed me and demanded my attention every time she sang.

One guy came in with a cowboy hat and a resonator guitar, and I could see he was in a little the same position as I was. “I mosly play the blues,” he said. But he played along with the bluegrass and managed to get the closest thing to acceptable in his repertoire to slip in to the theme. It went down well.

I searched through my whole repertoire to see what could possibly work, as I do not play any bluegrass and my traditional English stuff had been ruled out. I came up with Hank Williams, and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” This hit the soft spot with no problem at all, and everyone played and sang along too. Unfortunately, I had built up such a layer of nervousness and I had been wrestling so much within myself to figure out what I could contribute, that I made a massacre of the song, with my timing being thrown way, way, way off.

I also had a hard time with the format, as there is a central microphone and everyone sits around in a circle and joins in or leaves the circle as they wish. But I had no idea of how my voice carried, and I could not hear my voice, and so I got really close to the mic – which is in fact mostly made to pick up everyone, not just the singer. So it was a little bit of a fiasco.

But I also played along with a few of the other songs they did, adding my three chords and messy lead here and there as I could. I desperately wanted to take part and say that I played in a bluegrass jam in Montreal. Mike told me that it turns out bluegrass if popular in Montreal, and there is even a bluegrass open mic on Sunday nights that attracts some of the best bluegrass players in the city, at Barfly, on St. Laurent And I did. And on top of it, it turned out to be at a favorite haunt of one of my favorite writers.


  1. Thanks for this, Brad. Glad to know you enjoyed the session. It really is something else. One of the things I like best about Thursdays at Grumpy’s is how you never know what you’re gonna get. There’s no telling for sure who’ll show up, or with what instruments. Best part about it all is that no matter what, it always winds up being a night of good fun, good music and good people. It’s become a bit of an institution over the years and runs entirely on word-of-mouth as far as getting people out goes. (Amazing how many people we get wandering in who, like yourself, wind up there after just hearing about it while visiting in town. That was the case for me, btw. Heard about it from some guy busking in the metro…) So, thanks again. Hope we’ll be seeing you again next year. Cheers! –One other thing: I think Grumpy’s is “Jumbo’s” in Barney’s Version, if I recall correctly.

  2. On the contrary, thanks to you! Not just for the acknowledgement and the great night, but also that bit of history. And if I could find my copy of Barney’s Version – hidden behind another row of books on my two-row thick shelves all over the apartment – I would try to confirm that. I’ll check it out later. Would love to see how Richler wrote about the place….

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