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Before the Gold Rush: Peace, Love and the Dawn of the Canadian Sound

by Nicholas Jennings

There may be only one thing missing from Nicholas Jennings’ Before the Gold Rush: an account of how an almost incoherent Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins got involved in the recording of the 1970s Canadian album Xaviera! On one of the rare record’s tracks, the infamous Happy Hooker, an apparently smashed “Hawk,” and a prodigiously endowed barman Hawkins dubs “Skipper Son” get into a freaky spoken-word three-way after hours at the top of the just-opened CN Tower. The result might be a masterwork of collaborative creativity.

Apart from this (perhaps prudent) omission, however, Jennings’ wonderful study of the formative years of a Canadian folk, pop, and rock sound is an invaluable addition to our understanding of our musical heritage, popular culture, and political history. Like 1996’s highly successful Mondo Canuck, Before the Gold Rush is both comprehensive and engagingly irreverent. Jennings has a relatively modest, but daunting, goal – to detail how in the 1960s and early 1970s, a few city blocks in Toronto along Yonge Street and in Yorkville Village became the centre of the Canadian musical universe. But his exhaustive research, brilliant arrangement of anecdotal reports, and fluid narrative style eventually transcend municipal, provincial, and even national borders to create an essential and timely representation of Canada’s place in contemporary global cultural history.

The work of a respected music journalist and contributing editor to Maclean’s, Jennings’ book features an eye-catching design that mixes just the right amount of visual nostalgia with significant photo documentation. More importantly, Before the Gold Rush is a captivating, fast-paced read that pulls off something truly remarkable: it entertains and provokes as it instructs.

Grounded in a real sense of wonder and respect for homegrown talent, and a subtle appreciation for the ironic humour with which his subjects seem to almost universally understand their place in our history, Jennings creates a book that may one day contribute to a working definition of Canadianness. The reader is energized by the simple understatement of this history and an appreciation of how healthy diversity contributes to a viable creative community. Whether discussing the music of iconoclast Mendelson Joe and Mainline; or Joni Mitchell’s affair with Leonard Cohen; or detailing how Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, and the rest of The Band first apprenticed with Ronnie Hawkins and later helped create the legend that Bob Dylan has become; or teasing out the odd, intimate stories housed in Toronto’s geography (like the unlikely pairing of Rick “Superfreak” James with Neil Young in the forgotten band The Mynah Birds), Jennings brings this world to life. And in this life, when Lighthouse’s Skip Prokop, for example, appears before the CRTC to make an impassioned plea for CanCon, or Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau accepts a few homegrown joints as a backstage gift from his favourite band, Crowbar, Before the Gold Rush tells us something about who we, as a nation, are. “Oh what a feeling…what a rush,” indeed.