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Bruce Dowbiggin

RIP Rob Bennett: The Promoter, The Pirate, My Pal

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Robert Bennett: 1952-2023

This is a column I hoped I’d never have to write. But my best friend Rob Bennett has lost his fight with ALS. And my life has a void that can’t be filled. Most people know Rob as one of the country’s top music promoters for more than 35 years. From James Taylor to Robin Williams to Raffi my pal knew them all. One night he even threw snowballs with Bruce Springsteen atop Mount Royal .

My own memories of the man are more personal. We met as U of Toronto students working the 1974 Christmas season at the LCBO on Dupont at Huron. These were the days where patrons filled out a coupon and we runners fetched their order in the back of the store. This gave us lots of time to chat about sports, music, politics and wine. If there’s anyone who was more of a cultural clutter box than me it was Rob.

He told me he was working at the Victoria College coffeehouse Wymilwood, doing gopher work for The Bernies— Fiedler & Finkelstein— who owned True North Records and managed the iconic Riverboat in Yorkville. They also managed, among others, Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan. It all seemed like exciting stuff.

Xmas ended, and we went separate ways. When we next ran into each other I was at the U of T Student Housing service looking for a place for me and my girlfriend at the time. As I pursued the board I saw this guy posting an opening for a place on Albany Avenue. It was Rob. In no time flat I was installed as the third occupant of Mr. Rosen’s walkup rental. It became pizza boxes, newspapers and rotating Dowbiggin roommates for several years.

By this point Rob was getting more and more work from the Bernies. And more releases from the record companies. One day I remember him dashing into the living room, insisting I listen to this hot new record. It was “You Make Me Want To Be” by Dan Hill, who’d been a waiter at The Riverboat. As ever, Rob’s enthusiasm was infectious, and he played the 45 over and over. Another night in 1977 it was Fleetwood Mac’s game-changing Rumors, as we were awed by the new clean, crisp California production sound it represented.

When living in the Albany walkup got to be old, Rob and I took off to his grandmother’s now-vacant bungalow across from Taylor Creek Park in East York. My girlfriend was gone, but Rob was now installed with Lesley, his longstanding girlfriend at the time, and my two cats in our Three’s Company takeoff. For some strange reason he objected to the half-eaten rabbits, birds, snakes and critters my cats brought in each morning.

Having moved from the downtown Rob bought himself a used Renault to get around town. Typically he did zero maintenance on the car as he travelled on tour. One day I heard noises coming from under the hood. I propped it open. Squirrels had moved in. Another time an open basement window allowed a skunk to vaporize our basement for two weeks. It was pure bachelor stuff.

We were also political junkies. I recall us watching the provincial Liberal convention that elected unknown Stuart Smith as (star-crossed) leader in 1976. We saw Smith’s election as transformative. We were wrong. A born and bred Ontarian— Rob never lived outside the GTA— he liked to colour inside the political lines. I was more inclined to contrarian views— which became more pronounced as I settled into Alberta.  His political bent made him conversant with the young student politicians at U of T Student Council (SAC). Rob was a mentor and a friend who gave them a touch of the big time.

I finished my degree, edited the student paper at what was then Erindale U of T campus, and had a play produced at Tarragon Theatre’s writer’s workshop. Then I headed off to travel around the world in 1976-77. Rob, meanwhile was getting more independence from The Bernies. He’d worked a deal with SAC to promote shows at Convocation Hall. I’ll never forget his fledgling show with the late Steve Goodman. We were so excited for him. After the show we were invited to Gordon Lightfoot’s place where I ended up at Gordon’s dining room table examining blueprints for his new yacht with him. It was great to be young and alive, and Rob was bringing us along for the ride.

The unique thing about Rob was his eclectic taste. He loved the music as much as the action of betting on which acts would sell. While CPI did the megastar arena shows at Maple Leaf Gardens, Rob stuck to more intimate venues like Con Hall and Massey Hall. His roster of acts was so diverse. John Prine, Pat Metheny, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, J.J. Cale, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Maria Muldaur, the McGarrigles, Leon Redbone, Levon Helm, Steeleye Span, George Thorogood, Peter Tosh, Jesse Cook, the Gypsy Kings and so many more were on the bill. Fans knew it was more than a payday when Rob presented. It was always a musical event of acts Rob wanted the public to know.

His onstage intros for the acts— the bearded guy in the beret— and his chiding customers about smoking in the bathrooms were vintage Rob. (Once he let me introduce Jay Leno who rode his motorcycle onto the stage!) So was the affection from the young people at SAC who worked with Rob and got the frisson of showbiz in addition to running student government. (I know this sad news will touch a community of SAC hacks who still revere him.)

In 1983 he stood up as best man at my wedding in the backyard of my parents’ home in Burlington. He was the sound recorder, but 30 seconds in the technical demons switched everything off, committing the ceremony to the “oral tradition”. We thought it might convince him to tie the knot himself, but he somehow managed to avoid matrimony till Mary got him to do the deed last year. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised as Mary also got him to ski in his 60s.

Eventually he rose the ladder of concert promoters in the country, taking tours across North America with the superstars. For a time he promoted the big summer shows at Molson Amphitheatre. In the winter, it was the O’Keefe Centre/ whatever-its-name-is-now. He’d bring you backstage to meet Robin Williams, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Mick Jagger, KD Lang, Stephen Page, Lucinda Williams. One Sunday night he called me up late to join him for dinner with a guest— who he couldn’t identify. I protested it was too late, and I was tired after doing two shows a day for CBC Toronto. I passed. Missing dinner with Bruce Springsteen.

After years of rubbing shoulders backstage with the stars Rob’s real joy seemed to come from the fine wines he brought backstage after the concert. Many a night as fans and hangers-on mobbed the act, Rob and I sipped a Mollydooker or a Lewis Cab in the corner of the dressing rooms. We were always comparing notes on our latest purchases. Me with U.S. futures, Rob with the latest LCBO treasures. In his spare time Rob began hosting dinner parties at home in Orangeville where he would lead tastings while his beloved partner Mary produced the food.

We also shared a passion for golf. I joined Weston G&CC while he became a ClubLink member at Grandview near his second home, the cottage on Bigwin Island. Despite his short stature, Rob could smash his driver through the many rocky outcrops  at Grandview. He also became legendary among the members at the club for his explosive laugh that reverberated around the entire course.

They nicknamed him The Pirate for his booming Robert Newton laugh and even created an annual tournament in honour of his signature braying. Players wore eye patches in tribute. We liked to call him the hedgehog after his adventures in the rough during our Florida trips.

After golf we’d retire to the cottage to sip wine and debate politics. Unlike so many people these days, political or cultural differences never interfered with Rob’s friendships. He was the most loyal friend to my family, which designated him the sixth Dowbiggin brother. At my father’s memorial service he brought a vintage Cheateau Beaucastel, because my father and mother had visited the winery. You could tell him anything knowing it would (almost) never be repeated. That’s why the acts respected him. What happened backstage stayed backstage.

In our earlier days it was the girls and women we dated, as he teased me about my first-date playlists of Hall & Oates or Boz Skaggs. After I met Meredith in Montreal, we’d compare golf handicaps. As our careers flourished we’d share our satisfaction over his celebrated sell-out concerts, my Gemini Awards and the compelling people we’d met.

As Meredith and I started our family in 1985 with the arrival of our son Evan, Rob became Uncle Rob to our three kids in a five-year window. Not the most paternal fellow himself, he was a great uncle to the kids. In his Raffi days he was godlike. For Evan, our eldest, the pinnace was a backstage meeting in Calgary with John Prime, who autographed Bruised Orange for him.

We were so pleased how Mary’s children Robin and Will came to accept Rob in their lives. And he (belatedly) adopted a parental streak. He was as proud as anyone when Robin was married beside the Ottawa river in Hudson, Quebec. And he played the annoyed parent whenever Will acted like a teenager. It was precious. Lately he became a doting step-grandfather even as ALS took its hold on him.

One of Rob’s signatures was to arrive just in time for dinner. Since our moving west in 1999, getting together with Rob and Mary was less frequent. He often lamented that we couldn’t drop by each other’s homes on a whim or tee up a weekly golf game at Weston or a ClubLink course. But we made time for winter golf in Florida, where during one round Rob absent-mindedly twice stepped over what he thought were logs on a golf course looking to find some Titleist Pro Vs. The logs turned out to be alligators. He still couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

In spite of the great venues and great acts he staged Rob might have been most at home on Bigwin Island in the rocky cliffside cottage he’d purchased. Riding back and forth to the shore in his pontoon boat he felt himself the quintessential Ontario gentleman as he pointed out Shania Twain’s compound or the home of the GolfTown co-founder or the stately Bigwig resort. For an adopted kid who procrastinated about so much, the cottage was a definitive statement about how far he’d come since Norm and Glenna brought him to their home in Willowdale in 1952.

It’s hard to put value on a friendship, but if I was asked to capture our own bond it would be how it helped us grow as men. I can remember us walking one perfect Florida night near my parents’ winter home and saying in astonishment, “Who ever thought we’d get this far when we met at the LCBO in 1974?”  As we all reflect on his impact, that is how I’ll remember Rob, a vital life force with his big laugh and a corkscrew in hand. And a man we can never replace. Good night, my friend. Take a bow in heaven with John Prine.

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air:”

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Trump Almost Killed by Assassin: Corporate Media Says He Had It Coming

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This was meant to be about the NBA’s new eight-year $76 billion TV contract, but other stuff has intervened. So we will save that for later…

Speaking of media, they had a great day on Saturday. They also had a disastrous day. Donald Trump was the target of an assassination attempt that grazed his head and killed a spectator at a rally in Pennsylvania. (Two others are in critical condition.) The legacy media and the populist press were there to record it. The images will endure for generations.

How did the media have a good day? For an industry hemorrhaging viewers and readers to social media since Trump become president in 2016, the shooting brought back the mainstream audience. In the same way that Joe Biden’s disastrous debate produced 1980s-style ratings, the networks, cable news and Tiffany media saw old customers return to them, if briefly, for authority and instant news gathering. They can now assure their advertisers that old habits die hard, and they should still command M*A*S*H-like ad rates.

The pictures of the shooting on a beautiful summer day were gripping. An image of the dead 20-year-old gunman at the feet of snipers was produced. The networks assembled images and witnesses promptly. (The best live interview was by a blind BBC reporter who found spectators who’d warned in advance of a shooter on the roof.) Within hours alternate videos were broadcast. And footage of diminutive Secret Service agents fumbling Trump’s departure sparked questions about their failure to protect the president.

A series of stunning Iwo-Jima style images of Trump and his Secret Service group beneath Old Glory are breathtaking examples of the craft of news photography. So perfect was the staging in some photos that viewers could not help but wonder if it was all an AI Simulation.

It was not, course. The picture became a lot blurrier when the talking heads inserted themselves to blot the copybook of the story. The first headlines from Trump-loathing media were comical. Despite images instantly showing blood and Trump tackled, CNN bugled, “Secret Service Rushes Trump Offstage After He Falls At Rally”. “Trump Escorted Away After Loud Noises at Pa. Rally”. “Gunman Dies In Attack” was the banner headline in the Denver Post as if he’d shot a gopher.

And so on, as the Seventh Cavalry of Truth rode to the scene. After eight years of Hitler comparisons and invocations of death for Trump they briefly pivoted like Pontius Pilate, washing their hands of the Bobby DeNiros, Kathy Griffins and Rob Reiners who might have gotten their Trump death wish. Starting with Biden himself, whose raving over a Trump 47 presidency (“It’s time Trump was put in a bullseye”) has gone to 11 on the Hysteria Scale. “He’s literally a threat to everything American stands for”. Suddenly, Senile Joe was conciliatory Joe.

Leading to mocking tweets such as “Thank God Hitler is okay and wishing Hitler a speedy recovery.” DEMs stalwart Nancy Pelosi, too, was concern incarnate. “I am horrified by what happened at the Trump rally in Pennsylvania and relieved that former President Trump is safe. Political violence has no place in our country.” This is the same Pelosi who’d urged followers to punch Trump in the face while saying he “must be stopped. He cannot be President.”

Senate Speaker Chuck Schumer— he of “You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions”— was also working the faux-concern speech. You can understand how this reversal of fortune was playing out for the Bette Midler Glee Club after Biden’s self-incineration during the debate with Trump last month.

The conciliatory barely tone lasted into Sunday morning. Confronted with their previous bloviation, the RussiaGate crowd pivoted back to blaming Trump’s rude rhetoric for escalating the tension between Right and Left. Fresh from acid-washing Biden last week, George Stephanopoulos joined fellow ABC pundit Martha Raddatz in a game of “Trump said it first”. “President Trump and his supporters have contributed to this violent rhetoric…etc,.” “And let’s remember January 6th…” etc.

Here was MSNBC stalwart Joy Reid working the “Trump as Hitler” theme last week. And then, despite Trump’s Jan. 6 request to “peacefully and patriotically march to the Capitol”, she again charged him with inciting the riot.  Others were reviving Trump’s use of the term “bloodbath” in the economy as proof he’s a stone-cold killer. They declared Trump’s defiant “Fight! Fight! Fight!” response as unpresidential, raising tensions in a crisis.

Perhaps the realization that this botched takeout has all but guaranteed Trump’s election this November was sinking in. So “It’s all his own fault” again became the default position. Axios wants Trump to announce that “he has been too rough, too loose, too combative with his language — and now realizes words can have consequences, and promises to tone it down.” Sure. Victim asked for it.

Sensing that their crazed hosts might resume their Hate Trump mantra too soon, MSNBC took its Morning Joe off the air Monday. Comedy Central said it would shelve some prepared material for the GOP Convention this week. Late night shows sheathed their blades (briefly) to appear sensitive.

In the “anything you can do we can do worse”, Canadian media were quick to get the blame back on a guy who came within a millimetre of having his brains splashed over the stage. Even as the president was being wheeled away my old CBC pal Paul Hunter was lamenting Trump’s speech for poisoning the dialogue and warning about a violent reaction from the MAGA crowd.

CBC News At Issue panelist Andrew Coyne set a world record for pivoting from decrying an assassination attempt to midwit gripes about how this “is going to embolden/incite his more violent followers. It is going to push some who were not disposed to violence to justify it to themselves… it is going to make Trump even  more bent on revenge  if he gets elected.”

Considering this unhinged bias it’s no surprise that the sewer of Canada’s universities continued to produce fruitcakes like this UBC medical instructor who took time from her day to contact her just-as-unhinged friend with a “Damn, so close. Too Bad.” Her pal responded with “I really wish this person had better aim”.

Don’t feel too bad, Canada, Britain’s media are equally odious, with Sky News asking, “Did Trump play a part in changing the rules of engagement?” This from  the gender police who think a woman dressed lasciviously cannot be blamed for enticement. Meanwhile the far-left Guardian accused Trump— with no evidence— of encouraging revenge.

Calls are now going out in America for peace in the valley, finding unity and brotherly/ sisterly love. Don’t believe it. By week’s end the howler monkeys will be back in full voice, trying to get you to unsee what happened Saturday. Sorry, can’t be undone.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Corked: The Incongruous Affection For Government Liquor Retailing

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First, the nostalgia. In 1974 we worked at the (now departed) Huron and Dupont LCBO site for Xmas. In those days, when people arrived by dog sled, customers were required to consult a book, find the code that corresponded to their choice of wine or booze, and then hand the slip to a clerk (us) who would fetch the evil brew from a deep lair beneath the store.

Okay, it was from shelves beyond the view of customers. We would then return with the bottle, a cashier would process the transaction, and democracy was safe for another day. After we left, the LCBO modernized stores to allow customers to actually see the bottles they were considering (heresy). They hired clerks who actually knew something about the products, Later still they even had sales and tasting bars in fancy stores adorned in chrome and wood accents.

Those who wanted anything different could hoover to Buffalo or Rochester where the stores were often modest but the prices attractive. Different stores carried different inventories. While Ontario customers ordered rationed futures or shivered in parking lots to get a miniscule share of a hot new wine, getting product at the U.S. stores was both immediate and not rationed.

The contrast was stark. Which is where things sit today. The Ontario government (like all provincial governments save Alberta) is still in the retail business. In the day, they had about 8,000 slots for shelf-worthy products. If you wanted to purchase something else you needed a process that made finding the headwaters of the Nile seem like a casual jaunt. It’s less strenuous now, with the Ford government allowing sales in corner outlets and grocery stores.

But the LCBO remains a unionized tribute to Bill Davis’ Ontario. A polite, apologetic concession to pre-Trudeau Canada. Which is why the noisy ruckus being kicked up by the unionized employees is a downer for the Family Compact sensibilities. The people who stock shelves, operate cashes, check IDs and refuse to give you plastic bags are on strike to protect their sinecures with government. Have they no gratitude?

Union leaders are insisting that the loss of their workers will be a death blow to healthcare and education in the province. All sorts of miscreants will be allowed to escape detection in the buying process. For those of us now living in Alberta this eye-rolling claim is amusing. You see, private liquor retailing has been in effect here for decades. Different stores have different choices. Sales are an everyday feature of the experience. While the LCBO brags about its buying power you don’t see it reflected in prices. Bonus: We also can purchase Costco’s Kirkland brand wines which are cheap and delicious.

The predicted increase in crime and diminution of tax income without unionized store clerks has not happened. As Brian Lilley explains in The Sun, “Statistics Canada tracks the annual net income of liquor authorities in Canada and for fiscal year 2022-23, Alberta returned $825,104,000 to the provincial coffers. With a population of 4,645,229 as of April 1, 2023, that means the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission gave the government a per capita return of $177.62.

“That same year, the LCBO’s net income from liquor was $2,457,527,000. With a population of 15,457,075 as of April 1, 2023, the LCBO returned $158.99 per capita. Even using the $2.58 billion the LCBO remits, which includes other earnings, the LCBO’s per capita return to the province would be $166.91, which is still lower than Alberta’s return.” In short, we call bogus on the union’s claim.

But there is in government liquor sales the Canadian quality of worshipful adherence to the state. This is the polite impulse of restricting competition that has driven healthcare into the stratosphere for Canadians. Even as they wait 18 months to see a specialist or sit endlessly in a waiting room, Canadians privately welcome this as a merit badge for not accepting the two-tiered systems of Europe or the insurance-based market in the U.S.

Their suffering gives them gravitas that, as middle-class folk, they can suffer like the poor folks do, the ones whom, pace the NDP, need our empathy. The glossy brochures churned out by LCBO minions allow a frisson of pizazz but without oppressing the folks camped out in Trinity Bellwods park.

For this reason the Ford Conservatives are treading very carefully despite the evident big-foot uselessness of the current model. In the venerable Ontario government tradition of trying to be half-pregnant they don’t want to stir up the class warriors seen recently in ant-Israel demos. It’s similar in the rest of the provinces where bureaucrats have convinced elected officials that, like Jack in Brokeback Mountain, “I wish I knew how to quit you, Ennis.”

Whatever the LCBO strike result it’s a safe assumption that no one in the Canadian bureaucracy will be losing their jobs to the free market. The huge bumps in hiring since Covid show a colossus that has no intention of giving back its power to regulate. From liquor to climate Canadian politicians have ceded responsibility for areas that can be handled more efficiently and cheaply by civil servants and consultants. Kind of like CBC.

It is possible to kick the habit. The recent Chevron SCOTUS decision seeks to unpack the bureaucratic state by de-fanging its armies of in-house experts, pushing regulations and laws back to elected officials and away from the sprawling DEI-infested bureaucracy. You can tell it’s working by the torrents of complaint from redundant officials. Even more drastically, new Argentine president Javier Milei has reduced his cabinet departments from 22 to just nine.

While PM-in-waiting Pierre Poilievre talks a big game about tackling these excesses, he doesn’t stand a chance at rationalizing government services. So it’s likely he’ll have to content himself with a nice glass of beer or wine. That, under the LCBO, will cost him more than it should.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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