It was an unlikely way station for marquee bands with its grungy, dark and ill-equipped interior, but Carleton’s legendary concert venue, Porter Hall, had its share of glory days and rock ‘n roll nights. How did it all happen? A look at the memories of agents and music makers in scenes that range from ecstatic to unmentionable.
From the Winter 2010 edition of Carleton University Magazine.
Among North American concert venues, it wasn’t exactly renowned for its location, its good looks or its crystalline sound.
For Allan Edwards, BA/90, now Canadian consul in Nagoya, Japan, it was like “watching a talent show in a high school gym.” Anyone who ever stuck their head inside that purely utilitarian assembly space on the second floor of Carleton’s University Centre would likely agree.
“It was a cavern of concrete and brick and parquet floors, so it got pretty reverberant,” says veteran sound engineer Mark Valcour, a radio technician with the School of Journalism, who manned the board at many Porter Hall events.
“It had a semi-industrial look to it,” says current CKCU station manager Matthew Crosier. “It was a weird setting, essentially underneath a loading bay.”
Even the name of the place wasn’t remotely distinctive, sharing a moniker with a profusion of Porter Halls, including an old-time Hollywood character actor from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a Canadian indie band, a building at the Tucson Botanical Gardens and at least a half-dozen buildings on university campuses in the United States.
“Porter Hall didn’t harbour the ghosts of old burlesque stars, like Barrymore’s on Bank Street, nor did it have the whiff of faded grandeur and mystical ceremony from the old Masonic Temple in Toronto,” says Ray Ford, BJ/87, now a writer and farmer near North Bay, Ontario. “It didn’t even display the grimy avarice of Harold Ballard’s Maple Leaf Gardens. What it did have was convenience and a constant parade of stars, or would-be stars, from CanCon and alternative radio playlists.”
Indeed, for the better part of three decades, but especially in the alt-rock salad days of the 1980s and 1990s, Porter Hall was a prominent port of call for touring Canadian and foreign musicians, a mecca for local DIY bands and a provocative part of campus life at Carleton.
“Pretty much everyone would gather at the concerts,” says Edwards, “and the bragging rights as compared to U of Zero were incalculable.”
BAPTISM BY BEER
According to one-time CKCU promotions director Joe Reilly, BA/85, Porter Hall really took off as a concert venue in the early 1980s, with the arrival of a young man from Guelph, Ontario, named Peter Wheatley.
Wheatley, who now runs a comedy club and booking agency in Denmark, served as entertainment programmer for the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) from 1982 to 1986.
“I was very excited,” he says. “I was just a kid, and it was my first real job in the music business. The student union was pretty hip. They were interested in producing top-quality shows for the students, and they allocated large amounts of money.”
Wheatley’s maiden show featured Canadian headliners Downchild, fronted by legendary bluesman Donnie Walsh. When some members of the audience started spritzing the band with beer, Walsh and company walked off the stage.
“I was flipping out,” says Wheatley. “I had to get up on stage and try to convince the kids not to throw beer, and of course, they started throwing beer on me. Then I had to go backstage and plead with Donnie, ‘You gotta go on, or the kids are going to riot.’” In the end, Walsh relented, and a slightly sodden Wheatley survived to book again, bringing in Canadian heavyweights such as Bruce Cockburn, k.d. lang, Burton Cummings, Jeff Healey, Cowboy Junkies and Rough Trade.
Behind the scenes, Wheatley pushed for improvements to Porter Hall, and over the next year or two, a new ceiling and better lighting were installed and a haphazard collection of rolling risers was replaced with a proper, but still temporary, stage. More significantly, Wheatley was able to forge a working relationship with local concert promoters Bass Clef Entertainment. The connection enabled him to book hot American bands like The Bangles and a bevy of buzzworthy British acts: Simple Minds, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Paul Young, Nick Lowe, Billy Bragg and Level 42, among them.
“As the venue developed a name for itself, the bands started coming to us,” says Wheatley. “Even in New York, Porter became a household name for American agents.”
Porter Hall’s capacity, about 550 for a licensed event and 700 for an all-ages show, didn’t hurt either. “There were a lot of really solid, mid-level alternative bands in the mid-1980s,” says Reilly, now an Ottawa public school teacher. “Porter was a good size for that kind of act.”
Adds Wheatley: “It wasn’t so much the venue itself as it was the geographical location of the city in relation to Montreal and Toronto. So it became a great place for these bands to iron out the bugs on their first night in North America without feeling quite so vulnerable.”
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Porter Hall also became an oasis for local alternative bands and their fans, most of whom were too young to attend licensed events.
Former Carleton arts student Tom Stewart, now an Ottawa music-store owner, was one of the prime fomenters of musical rebellion at Porter Hall. He organized a series of bargain-basement all-ages shows under the banner Pogo-a-Go-Go Rock-a-Roo. They featured Stewart’s own band, Furnaceface, plus an array of Ottawa bands with such names as Grave Concern, The Skatterbrains, Mystic Zealots and Neanderthal Sponge.
“For five or six bucks, we totally opened up these kids’ eyes to something they’d never been exposed to before,” Stewart says. “Sometimes we’d get 500 or 600 kids, and it showed you could have a real underground culture.”
“The shows were a big deal for us,” says former Grave Concern bassist Dave Smith, now an Ottawa ad man. “They had an intimate feeling, but they were big enough to feel like a real rock show. And they felt very safe. It wasn’t a what-are-you-lookin’-at kind of place: it was a unifying place. I remember thinking, What a big, cool campus!”
Befitting a big, cool campus, Porter Hall occasionally flirted with controversy and provided a stage in the perpetual struggle to determine the limits of artistic expression.
Former CUSA executive Dan Hayward, BA/85, MA/87, now a United Church minister, remembers the anticipation surrounding the first North American appearance of the notorious flash-in-the-pan British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood in October 1984. Their song Relax, virtually an instruction manual for gay male sex, and their politically satiric video Two Tribes had both been banned by the BBC. Not surprisingly, the notoriety propelled Frankie to the top two spots on the U.K. charts, the first band since the Beatles to hold both positions simultaneously. The concert sold out in a day and 700 Carleton students jammed Porter Hall to see it.
“There was no official reaction from the university,” Wheatley recalls. “It was such a hot ticket, I don’t think the administration would have dared.”
To Hayward, though, the controversy surrounding rock’s bad boys du jour was only part of the excitement. “Never before had Carleton seen an international band of the stature of Frankie Goes to Hollywood,” he says. “I certainly remember the sound and the audience reaction to their huge hits. The darkness of Porter Hall was filled with people dancing.”
For 15 minutes, Carleton was the hippest campus on the planet. Within a couple of weeks of their Porter Hall appearance, Frankie would appear in Vanity Fair, on Saturday Night Live, on Miami Vice and in a sex-club scene in the Brian DePalma movie Body Double.
BANNED IN NEPEAN
In May 1989, Victoria, B.C., shock troopers DayGlo Abortions brought their prosaically titled Canadian Censorship Tour to Porter Hall. The concert was part of a campaign to raise money to defend their label and a Toronto record retailer, both owned by 34-year-old Ben Hoffman, against charges of possessing and distributing obscene material, pretty much the Abortions’ entire musical oeuvre.
L’affaire DayGlo had begun a year earlier when a Nepean police constable discovered his 14-year-old daughter listening to the Abortions’ Here Today, Guano Tomorrow on the hi-fi. The officer precipitated a four-month police investigation, which eventually resulted in the first obscenity charges against a record company or music store in Canadian history.
Also fingered was an earlier Abortions’ album, Feed Us a Fetus, featuring a cover image of a smiling Ron and Nancy Reagan about to tuck into a plate of bloody fetal material and such Bedpan Alley classics as I Killed Mommy, Dogfarts and Proud to Be a Canadian. As for the requisite artistic rationale, band spokesman Jesus Bonehead cobbled this together: “We live in a world where people sell T-shirts at Ted Bundy’s electrocution. All we do with our lyrics is take the crazy stuff going on out there, stir it up into a different soup and write it down. Nothing we write as fiction is any worse than what’s actually happening out there.”
The band would plead guilty only to the use of satire in their songs, although with lyrics like “Holy moly, my shit stinks,” they wisely stopped short of invoking the spirit of Jonathan Swift. If, however, the Abortions had claimed merely an attempt to épater les bourgeois, they could certainly have been judged a success. In terms of publicity and consequent record sales, Bonehead likened the Nepean prosecution to winning the lottery. When 450 expectant fans turned up at Porter Hall, vocalist Cretin kicked off the evening by welcoming “all the undercover police who paid good money to come and see us tonight.” Not a single police officer shed that anonymity, and for both the band and an Ottawa Citizen reviewer, the evening proved less than arresting.
“The DayGlo Abortions offered a wall of thrashing, hardcore white noise of the generic and disposable type,” wrote Roch Parisien in the next day’s newspaper. “In other words, much ado about nothing.” Parisien was particularly dismissive of the band members for having skipped their own anti-censorship protest on Parliament Hill two days previously to go out drinking. The DayGlos, he concluded, “simply don’t display the brains or talent to do effective social commentary. Not to say that stupid people or weak artists shouldn’t have the right of free speech as well, of course.” Ouch.
Undeterred, the Abortions popped up at Porter Hall less than two months later for another fundraiser. Finally, in November 1990, a jury deliberated for eight hours before finding the band’s purveyors not guilty. As Jay Stone astutely noted in the Citizen: “Rock and roll went on trial in Ottawa this week. It won. Rock and roll always wins these things, even though the obscenity trial of the DayGlo Abortions wasn’t exactly Alan Freed pleading with the grown-ups to let Bill Haley and the Comets play at the sock hop.”
JOURNEY TO THE UNICENTRE OF THE MIND
Sometimes, Porter memories are actually about the music.
For Peter Wheatley, the high point in his CUSA tenure was British rocker Nick Lowe’s 1985 concert. For Ray Ford, it was Bruce Cockburn’s 1986 Porter performance in support of his World of Wonders album. For Matthew Crosier, it was a solo performance by Billy Bragg. The band that seems to top most people’s lists of memorable Porter Hall evenings—good or bad—is Queens, N.Y., punkers The Ramones, who twice brought their black leather jackets to Porter Hall.
Ottawa’s Grave Concern opened for them in 1987, an experience that bassist Dave Smith found mildly traumatic. “When we showed up for the sound check, the Ramones were already there,” he recalls. “I really wanted to talk to them, but I just remember how creepy Joey Ramone was, how skinny and scrawny he was, with the hair hanging in his eyes. It was like, Wow, you look even weirder in person. And Johnny Ramone was standing about 20 feet out from a wall, whipping an Indian rubber ball as hard as he could and catching it, like he was doing an anger management thing. He did not look interested in interacting with the locals.”
The audience didn’t seem to mind, though. From Japan, Allan Edwards remembers The Ramones as “definitely the best” show he saw at Porter Hall, a great marriage between act and venue. “The aforementioned high school atmosphere seemed much more appropriate for The Ramones than a nightclub.”
Five years later, The Ramones, with tens of thousands more touring miles on their living-dead bodies, were back at Porter Hall. “Maybe my expectations were a little too high,” says Crosier, who was in the audience that night. “It was really hard to tell what any of the songs were. It was just a wall of noise, and they all looked like cadavers.”
Former Ravens’ footballer Bruce MacGregor, BA/69, whose band of nostalgia rockers Bruce and the Burgers has played several Carleton class reunions, tells of a memorable encounter in the fall of 1994. Hearing that one-time Carleton student Dan Aykroyd was in town, MacGregor sent out an invitation through a mutual friend, asking Aykroyd to drop by Porter Hall for a Burgers’ gig. “We were in the hall getting ready, and I heard all these motorcycles in the back alley, and I went out,” he recalls. “It was kind of dark, but I recognized Aykroyd and introduced myself. He had all these heavy-duty biker buddies with him.” In the middle of their set—filled with musical nods to The Blues Brothers movie—MacGregor invited Aykroyd up on stage to present him with a T-shirt. Aykroyd brought someone with him. “I turned around,” says MacGregor, “and there was Jim Belushi. I hadn’t known he was there. So I dropped to my knees and did a ‘We’re not worthy’ sort of thing. And luckily we had another T-shirt.”
Other Porter Hall memories recall brushes not so much with fame as with potential disaster. Joe Reilly tells of somebody jumping up on stage during a 1986 performance by Vancouver “electro-industrial” pioneers Skinny Puppy and whacking lead singer Nivek Ogre on the head. “There was blood all over the place,” says Reilly, “but we were never sure if it was part of the show or not.”
Matthew Crosier recalls a 1991 Pixies’ concert that was so crowded he heard them but never actually saw them. If he had, he might have seen what Toronto communications consultant Rob Stuart, BJ/87, saw: namely, the stage buckling under the weight of stomping Pixies. “The band left the stage for about 10 minutes while various vexed assistants tried to prop up the stage,” Stuart says. “The road manager came out to address the crowd and was greeted with a loud ‘Fuck you’ chant. So he replied in kind. Eventually, the band returned, [their song] Debaser resumed, and everyone went home happy.”
Perhaps the most unsettling backstage encounter at Porter Hall resides indelibly in the mind of Dave Smith, whose band, Grave Concern, once opened for hardcore Vancouver punkers D.O.A. “I remember there was this commotion going on backstage,” he says, “and they were all huddled around in a circle, and I’m hearing, ‘Oh, no way!’ And I lean in, and I see this roadie with his mouth wide open and this other guy shining a flashlight down his throat. Turns out, they were trying to grab a tapeworm that the guy had. I almost hurled.”
PORTER HALL IN TRANSITION
These days Porter Hall is more apt to host an examination, a job fair or a yoga class than a Ramones show. Long-time Porter Hall watcher Valcour cites a number of reasons for the shift. “Campuses used to be a focal point for bands that wanted to gain a lot of exposure, and the student associations paid pretty good dollars for the bands to come in because they knew they could pack a hall. That’s just not happening as much anymore.”
Another factor was a $17-million facelift the Unicentre received in 2006-07, which resulted in Porter Hall being downsized by about 40 percent to create additional classroom space. An incident during the renovation emphasized how things have changed. In the fall of 2006, with Oliver’s Pub under the hammer, Porter Hall was pressed into service as a venue for a CUSA concert featuring Scarborough, Ontario, hip-hop artist Kardinal Offishall. When an afternoon sound check disrupted classes, as well as Muslim students in a nearby prayer room, CUSA subsequently announced it would hold no more concerts in Porter Hall that semester. Since then, it has been used only sporadically as a music venue.
Even in its diminished state, Porter Hall will doubtless rock again. The old cavern will feature prominently in CKCU’s 35th anniversary celebrations, slated for November 12-13, 2010.
“There’s a fondness for Porter, particularly from alumni who have a lot of great memories of the place,” says station director Crosier. “The emphasis is going to be on food and talking, but we’re going to have full-out bands, as well.”
Almost like old times.
David McDonald, BJ/69, is the co-writer, with Michael Bate, of Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons, which premiered at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage in November 2009. He attended Carleton at a time when on-campus musical entertainment consisted largely of humming to oneself.