Remembering Paul Humphrey

photo credit: Liam Sharp

I had a dream about Paul Humphrey the other night. Mostly in the past, when I’ve seen Paul in a dream, it has always been in a bartending context. Those kinds of dreams where you’ve forgotten a water you were supposed to bring to a table back ten or fifteen minutes ago, and the next order up bell in the kitchen keeps ringing, and the CD player is skipping, and the bar is somehow now a labyrinth that was never this big before, there’s a new room or something. I don’t even write those dreams down anymore. For a long time I was pretty diligent about writing down my dreams. Dreams were the kind of thing Paul and I enjoyed chatting about. In this new dream from the other night, Paul was a volunteer camp counsellor for a kids theatre camp that my son was in. The three of us were all sitting together among a larger group of counsellors, parents and kids in this carpeted open room, with big floor to ceiling windows. It was the first day and everyone was figuring out how this camp thing was going to go. We are all going to learn how to sing and dance and have a good time. “How do you learn how to dance?” somebody asks. Paul stands up and does this kind of body wave motion, shooting his hands up to one side. “Like this,” he says.

My friend Paul Humphrey died on April 4th, 2021, 61 years young. Paul was a bit of a rock star, so there was some fanfare regarding his death. It certainly was a treat to see him perform. He had the kind of presence that lights up a room or a stage. That light was cut short by Multiple System Atrophy. “Parkinson’s on steroids,” Paul called it, when he told me. He also said I probably didn’t want to look it up and he was right. It was heartbreaking watching Paul’s body turn against him, as he slowly lost mobility and muscle control, and his sweet singing voice became strained and labored, and everything he still wanted to do became a greater effort and strain. I am glad his suffering is over, but it is not the way anyone would choose to go, and all kinds of endlessly unfair. Just one of those random, rotten luck cards life sometimes deals people for no reason. Since he died, I have been thinking a great deal about all the things Paul said to me over the years, what he meant to me as a friend and a co-worker, and what he went through. I felt like I needed to write something down to reflect who Paul was to me, because I didn’t really recognize him, or know him as his public persona. It is impossible to summarize a person, in any one person’s recollection of them, of course, but I really do believe people live on in our memories of them. It was so beautiful seeing him again in my dream.

I met Paul in the summer of 2001, when I first moved to Toronto, and I worked with him at the Free Times Café. He had some kind of a status as a manager there, as he would later at the Victory Café, where I again worked with him as a server from 2005 until about 2009, as I worked less and less in bars, and more and more in basements.

That Free Times community was a great way to be introduced to the culture of Toronto: the folk scene regulars, amateur and gigging musicians who crowded into the tiny back room, and all the Kensington lefties who were regulars there. Paul seemed to know everyone, and that was a big part of his mystique and charm. Paul knew it was important to remember names in the bar business. So when I think of Paul, my thoughts of him are also of Judy, Roger, Julie, Jenn, Alex, and the two Sues, and Raphael, Ashook, Ravi and Sandran. And the many others I worked with over the years I was there: my first working family in Toronto. Also the entire vast and amazing Victory Café crew, many of whom posted lovely reminiscences and thoughts about Paul on his memorial page and on social media. I won’t list them here, but you know who you are, my brothers and sisters all, bonded by trials too numerous and tedious to mention, but also by much laughter and celebration. Some important milestones and sorrows too.

You meet a lot of people tending bar, and Paul was a great bartender. When people found out I worked at the Victory, almost always the first question was if I knew that tall dashing guy. People knew he was someone special, even if they didn’t know that he was in a semi-iconic new wave Canadian band from the early 80s. A lot of people knew him as the best bartender in the city. It’s not something that gets a lot of recognition, but as people in the business know, it isn’t for everyone.

There was a kind of sanctuary in bar work. Paul rescued me from a dark spell of aimless unemployment, by hiring me to work at the Victory, after I flunked out of grad school, and before I embarked on my next academic career in archives. Bartending has its ups and downs: it is usually hard work, precarious, but better paying than retail, sometimes let you pay the bills and maintain a side-line, and you get to meet all kinds of people. Some people are really good at it, and it can be a means to an end. That’s the nature of bars. They’re places people go when they aren’t really doing anything, or where people work in order to be able to do the things they would otherwise be doing. People on their way through to something better or something worse. As such, they attract a lot of creative people, and they can be incubators for cool cultural activities. And of course that atmosphere fosters both creativity and substance abuse. Paul was a maestro of the bar scene, that place where the kinds of things happen that can happen when you’re just hanging out. And who you know is often what makes those things happen. Paul managed to pay the bills by working in these spaces for a long time. He also funded a life of rich creative output in theatre and music, most of which didn’t pay the bills.

I recall hunching over to do the cash out with him in the Hobbit-hole basement of the Free Times (always hard on us over six footers) and learning some valuable lessons about the service industry. Paul often didn’t count his tips table by table, and so he didn’t equate his service performance with the generosity of specific patrons. Judy Perly, the owner of the Free Times, was a big proponent of the direct sell: Don’t say, ‘Can I get you anything?’ say ‘Would you like a piece of our freshly baked apple pie?’ Paul showed me a way out of the bind of having to pitch people for a living, without selling your soul. The truth was people were never just buying food and drink. You were selling atmosphere, space and culture. Paul genuinely liked people and made them feel comfortable, and if a place was comfortable to hang out in, people tended to buy another round and were generally less stingy on the percentages. In Paul’s accounting of the business, things had a way of working out. Anyway, you were always moving and dancing in and out of conversations and the animation of charged up chatter and being on the go. Another thing Judy Perly used to say about restaurant work is that it keeps you thin. It also wrecks your knees and causes insomnia. I don’t miss it much at all.

I worked a lot of long shifts with Paul over the years—dead nights shooting the shit, and also decompressing after busy nights of running the marathon around the temple of Dionysus. We talked about all the important things: love, death, art. He read widely and loved to talk about new scientific discoveries and the ethereal and the esoteric. We spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about aliens, but also our dreams and schemes, and all kinds of plans, big and small, most of which inevitably never come to pass.

We talked a lot about music and exchanged musicological opinions through mixed CDs we’d play and critique and exchange, in order to achieve the right kind of working equilibrium: the underlying groove of a shift was an important lifeline, and we mostly worked together in a pre-playlist era. It is amazing how fast that has changed too. I made mixes for different times of the shift and Paul would give me tips for improvement: more Nick Lowe, less Elvis Costello. We weighed the general public’s tolerance for John Lee Hooker and Captain Beefheart and everything in between. Occasionally we would send each other songs by email as a way of staying in touch after I started working as an archivist. He helped me develop a more refined appreciation for Roxy Music, and get over my aversion to Frank Sinatra. Paul loved discovering or rediscovering music through what other people were into. He didn’t really reminisce that often about the good old days. He seemed kind of bored by what he’d already done, always pushing forward to the next thing.

He was proud of making A Rumour of Angels, an album that was a personal labour of love. I remember his enthusiasm for the project and the challenges of the collaboration with strings and orchestral arrangements, the back and forth to Vancouver and the pressure of getting all those sessions the way he wanted. Paul put so much into the making of that record, to make the album his way, and probably lost money on it, but it was the album he wanted to make. On one level you could look at Paul’s career in music and say it didn’t have a broad impact. But Paul made deliberate art and Paul had depth: the bartender who didn’t drink and the rock star who didn’t like to talk about himself. Music and art were a serious business, not to be confused with fame and commerce.

Probably half of our co-workers were in bands or performers, and Paul was an enthusiastic supporter of all the youth trying to bust in on the Toronto music scene. It was such a huge lift when Paul told you he liked something you did musically. He thought about what he had to say and his reserve lent gravitas to his opinions. He also very gently steered the ongoing careers of a lot of working musicians in the city and helped connect people. I see his influence all around me, especially in a new generation of artists on Bandcamp and people who dress up in costumes and present theatrical, fun, deep, political, emotional and passionate art on stages and small venues (heck in the absence of venues). People have written that Blue Peter were ahead of their time, but I don’t think it’s because they were superstars before the Canadian market was ready for them, so much as that they were stuck in a major label fueled bubble economy before the advent of a more robust indie music industry. Paul had good advice about recording on the cheap and promotion. He was a savvy and pragmatic veteran.

My friendship with Paul was like a currency in a number of different communities that have been important in my life: a sure fire way of engaging in conversation with theatre and film people, musicians of all genres, and bartenders and restauranteurs. In the midst of COVID we’re realizing how special these spaces are, as community has become a kind of virtual exchange of memes, and as brick and mortar venues and favourite hangouts are closing up at an alarming rate. The human toll of these closures is felt well beyond the bar scene. It has become easier to see how things like booze and music are connected, and how fragile our cultural economies are. I am eager to see what our venues will look like in this post-COVID era. What, if anything, will we have learned, and what better will look like?

Paul was an early contributor to my various schemes to build a TINI Music Co-op, a co-operative for musicians and archivists. He introduced me to some movers and shakers, and in his gentle way, improved my thinking and guided the project before he had to bow out for health reasons. If I wasn’t so stubborn in my own way, the project would no doubt be further along its very slow (or deliberate) trajectory to existence. Paul’s projects, his solo work and his bands like Monkey Tree and Broken Arrow, are the kinds of work we want to document: maybe not commercially successful, but reflective of the kind of art that requires a village to make; thoughtfully and meaningfully made; worth preserving and knowing about, regardless of how many units were sold.

I’m sad that Paul didn’t get to live longer on his own terms. He was such a courageous fighter. I think I would have caved at the first set back. Paul didn’t get to live out his retirement from bartending. He didn’t get his just desserts. I think the Blue Peter revival was fun, and he liked the second go round recognition, but it would have been nice if it bought him some time to work on his own projects, to do more theatre scores, maybe follow up on A Rumour of Angels. When the Victory ownership changed hands, it looked like an opportunity for Paul to move into an elder statesman role in his own creative projects, but getting sick cleaned him out financially and hampered his ability to continue working, though he continued to do composition work, while he was physically able. Paul had a lot more to give, as much as he lived in the time he had.  For many people, Paul will be forever enshrined in their minds as a twenty something popstar, but for me he will always be the forty and fifty year old gentleman of the arts—a mentor and teacher—a wry and generous friend and a fearless arts worker. He was a creative soul, who knew the grind of blue collar work. He made a big impact in the lives of his fellow travelers, lending his encouragement to the projects of his younger colleagues. As I reflect on my time with Paul, there are a lot of things I am still trying to learn from his example: that the process of doing things matters; how to measure success in incremental gains against overwhelming odds; not to put off things that are important to you; tell the people you love they matter to you; and, live in the moment. He was a brave, beautiful person and I am so lucky to have known him.

by Simon Patrick Rogers

One thought on “Remembering Paul Humphrey

  1. Wow. Such a beautiful homage to such a beautiful heart. The man named Pauly. You had me in tears reading this. Thank you for this.


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