Book review: We Are as the Times Are
By Ken Rockburn
In town: The author will launch his book at Irene’s on Bank Street on Sept. 14.
Ken Rockburn's many nights at Café Le Hibou, the legendary Ottawa coffeehouse that between 1960 and 1975 showcased an extraordinary lineup of musicians and other artists, included one which left him bemused.
The veteran broadcast journalist and author of the newly published We Are as the Times Are: The Story of Café Le Hibou recalls being 16 and squiring an attractive young lady to the coffeehouse for a concert by American blues great John Hammond. After his first set, Hammond made a beeline for the couple's table and started chatting up Rockburn's date.
Says Rockburn: "I'm sitting there thinking, 'Am I pissed because John Hammond is hitting on my date or am I in awe because John Hammond is sitting at my table?' I chose the latter."
Le Hibou was, in other words, a spot where expectations might be rattled, where almost anything could happen thanks to a cavalcade of culture that included not just nervy performers like Hammond and the voodoo-influenced Dr. John the Night Tripper and the up-and-coming Gordon Lightfoot but also poetry readings (by Irving Layton among others), theatre (including Too Many Guys For One Doll, an original musical satire on municipal affairs and then-Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton), film (English and French), and dance (including a lecture and demonstration of modern dance by the now-renowned Elizabeth Langley).
With entertainment options few and far between, "People saw Hibou as this kind of oasis where things were happening outside their (life) in Alta Vista," according to Rockburn who's known for his work with Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC), CBC, and others.
The idea for his comprehensive, highly readable book, which he launches Sept. 14 at Irene's Pub, came from Rockburn's friend Paul Kyba. Realizing that all the former owners of the coffeehouse were still living, Rockburn set out to record the memories before it was too late.
The memories include those of Denis Faulkner. A University of Ottawa student at the time, he co-founded with three others the coffeehouse at its first location above a Rideau Street chiropractor's office just east of Coburg Street. Faulkner says he had no inkling at the time that "a little place for people to meet and talk and have good coffee and listen to folk singers or flamenco would morph into an almost-iconic institution."
Just how iconic is clear from Faulkner's website Café Le Hibou Recollections (lehibou.ca). In addition to a history of the place and a comprehensive list of its 15 years of bookings, the website includes a slew of recollections from fans. Those memories range from a first date at the club that blossomed into marriage to a posting from someone who says hanging around Le Hibou transformed him from a respectable student with good grades to a grungy guy barely eking out a pass but who, in retrospect, "wouldn't trade those days for anything."
Such heartfelt posts, says Faulkner, prove that not just the club with its red checked tablecloths and candle-stuffed Chianti bottles but the entire era was meaningful to many. "It was a remarkable time. It was the 1960s; the future was wide open."
Judging from the performers, it was an inclusive future at Le Hibou. Folk singers Judy Collins and Murray McLauchlan played there as did bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. So did jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. Ditto a nascent Neil Young.
A very young Joni Mitchell landed a three-week gig for $150 a week in 1967. While there, reports Rockburn, she hooked up with musician Bill Stevenson, and the two dropped acid in Strathcona Park.
Rockburn also quite rightly dedicates considerable space to poet/songwriter William (Bill) Hawkins. He was a regular at Le Hibou and a member, along with Bruce Cockburn, Sneezy Waters and others, of the Ottawa band the Children which played the venue. A troubled man from whose poem Gnostic Serenade the title of Rockburn's book - We Are as the Times Are - is taken, Hawkins was, says Rockburn, "an intellectual magnet" in Ottawa's counterculture scene. But substance abuse sapped his creative drive, and Hawkins vanished from the scene in 1974 to drive a cab for years before finally re-emerging with new music and poetry. It's an especially poignant section of the book.
Le Hibou was also a locus of live theatre for several years. Saul Rubinek, Luba Goy and others performed at the club after it moved to Bank Street in 1961 and after its final move to Sussex Drive just over three years later. Productions were eclectic, from original pieces to John Webster's 17th century tragedy The Duchess of Malfi.
None of which made the owners wealthy. "I never intended it to be, but it was non-profit," says music promoter and former Treble Clef music store owner Harvey Glatt. He was a partner in Le Hibou from 1961 to 1968 and booked the music acts.
Glatt also recalls the respect paid to performers. "It was very important that people be quiet; if they weren't, we'd ask them to leave."
Sneezy Waters, whose first gig at Le Hibou was in that show about Charlotte Whitton, recalls the community-building aspect of Le Hibou. "It wasn't a drug den or a bar. For me, it was like a library: you'd go to learn something."
Waters was also there when Le Hibou closed in the spring of 1975. It was the victim, as Rockburn details, of everything from increased competition from licensed clubs (Le Hibou was basically dry) to the coup de grace: a leap in rent at the National Capital Commission-owned Sussex Street address from $450 a month to $2,000.
"I was there on the last day," says Waters. "There was gnashing of teeth and wailing and a pretty heavy sadness. There were people on the street looking through the windows. It was hard to imagine it would be gone.
October, 1960: Café Le Hibou opens at 544 Rideau St. Owners: Denis Faulkner, Andre Jodouin, Jean Carriere and George Gordon-Lennox. It serves coffee and light food, and hosts poetry readings and occasional impromptu concerts.
October, 1961: The club moves to 248 Bank St. and hires its first paid entertainer: local folk singer Tom Kines.
February, 1965: Le Hibou moves to its final home at 521 Sussex Dr., a heritage building with a 15-foot, stamped tin ceiling.
June, 1965: Gordon Lightfoot, who had not yet released his debut album, plays the first of several dates.
November, 1968: John Russow, the coffeehouse's night manager, and his wife Joan buy Le Hibou.
June, 1968: Newly sworn-in prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau pays a late-night visit to Le Hibou accompanied by his chauffeur and a single bodyguard. He misses the show but signs a poster.
October, 1969: Van Morrison and his "jazz rock band" play a multi-night gig.
Spring, 1972: Pierre Paul Lafreniere, the final owner, buys the club.
May 3, 1975: Le Hibou closes.
Sources: Denis Faulkner, Ken Rockburn, lehibou.ca
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