I didn’t think anyone in the industry was real. Not all the time. So I asked Bernie once, “Are you telling me this as yourself, or as your Universal self?”
He was a record rep for the area promoting new releases to local music shops, handing out review copies to the press, and coordinating with venues before, during, and after shows. We became friends when I was a review junkie, writing up bits on the latest collections, good and bad. Most fell somewhere in between. Our relationship grew as my involvement in the industry grew. By the time I was managing a local indie band, Bernie and I had known one another for years and I came to know him as a real person. Not just a representative for something else, someone else.
“There’s only one me,” he said. “There’s only one you.”
Not everyone was this easy to like. Most times, it seemed just about everyone had an agenda. I suppose they did. It’s a business after all. They, like me, had goals. Mine was to work on the promotion end of things while occasionally pecking away at my writing. Bernie was great at connecting me with others, giving me side jobs for shows, sharing his know-how. He didn’t have an agenda. He loved the job and wanted to keep it.
He didn’t. If there’s one constant in the music biz, it’s shuffling and restructuring. Universal wasn’t the only one to restructure. In 2000, I had been doing a bit of casual work with BMG Music Canada. I was helping promote an unknown, rising artist, Pink, and her LaFarce recording, Can’t Take Me Home. LaFarce started out as a joint venture between Arista Records and a few artists, such as Babyface. When Babyface focused more on his own career, Arista and BMG picked up the bulk of LaFarce’s catalog. But by 2004, BMG underwent a major restructuring of its own, merging with Sony and keeping the pendulum of the business in constant flux. With the merger came downsizing, layoffs, and “we don’t need you anymore” letters. But it was Universal’s reformulation that sent Bernie to the unemployment line.
“You’ll be okay,” I said. I worried for him. This was his life. His livelihood. He didn’t have to worry about paying his medical bills so much, thanks to Ontario health care, but he had a life to support just the same. Music kept him from thinking too much about his illness.
“Yeah. Maybe I’ll get back into radio. Or DJing.”
It meant a move for him, but he did both. He donned his signature hat and returned to mix beats at a local club that long ago gave him a foot in the door. He hosted a weekly radio show. And, because he needed to pay the bills, he took a third job as a regional sales rep for a music store. I was grateful for this job as it brought him back to my town once a week or so and would give us an excuse to catch up.
Eventually, I grew out of the biz. Or it outgrew me. I knew it when concerts stopped being fun. I had always been addicted to live shows but after a few years behind the scenes, shaking sticky hands—and seeing too much drug abuse for my taste—I knew I outgrew it. Or, maybe it had been years earlier.
Bernie and I leaned against the cracked wooden bar of one of the local watering holes. It was going to be a good show. Mike O’Neill, formerly of The Inbreds, was touring for his 2000 release, What Happens Now? and I had been looking forward to the Halifax-tinged set for weeks. Mike and I had met previously, bonding over beer and the Beatles while setting up a gig at the local college pub—well after I interviewed him for the local zines. Well after seeing him on and off stage throughout Ontario.
When Bernie went to tend to Universal duties with the club promoter, Mike and I got down to business. Real life business. He was concerned about rumors with his record label merging, dumping acts, the usual stress of earning out one’s advance. I was tired of dark clubs and listlessness. I wanted to spend more time writing, and not just music reviews.
“Do it. Get out,” Mike said. “You’re never going to find a better time to do what you want than now.”
We talked about how art is a pain in the ass. How making music can make you joyous one minute, miserable the next. How writing anything can empower you, then knock you down.
“It’s writing you love,” Mike said. As a songwriter, he understood.
“I used to love music.”
I love music again. Maybe not like I used to. I used to spend hours just listening to the crackle of vinyl circling or switching speaker channels to hear the layered tracks of “Strawberry Fields” freak me out, time and time again. But now that I’m away from it, I love it again.
I miss Bernie. Those last few years, before diabetes took him for good, we didn’t spend as much time together as we used to, but it was quality time. It was time with the real B. Time with the friend I came to know. Time with the friend who didn’t have an agenda, who just wanted to work in music and be a part of the sound.
He was. He still is. I hear his voice sometimes, layered into the sounds of songs we shared, tracks that continue to play on the radio.