Remembering the king of Queen West cool
Handsome Ned: New album, same incredible legacy
L–R: Ronny Azzopardi, Jimmy Weatherstone and Handsome Ned
Thirty years ago, Queen West institution the Cameron House was a dive bar serving up draft beer to older fellas who perched on stools for hours at a time. Then, a tall drink of water in a cowboy hat changed it all. He went by the name Handsome Ned, and although he died far too young in 1987, Queen West has never been the same.
Recently, a batch of songs from a live recording of Handsome Ned‘s band was uncovered thanks to a chance meeting in Roncesvalles between Jim Masyk (Ned’s brother) and X-Ray Macrae, the former manager at the Horseshoe. A concert was held and the recordings released as a Cameron House Records album.
When the Ferraro family took over the Cameron in 1981, they put the call out for local musicians, many of whom would actually live upstairs and pay off their rent by playing in the bar downstairs.
One of the first was Bazil Donovan, bass player for Blue Rodeo, who was playing in a reggae band called Strike One at the time.
“We went down, and they listened to our tape and said we were exactly what they were looking for,” he says. “A few months later, the bar really caught on, then Handsome Ned … showed up, maybe from Alberta?”
Donovan mentions that Jim Cuddy had actually recognized Robin Masyk, a.k.a. Handsome Ned, from his time working at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta.
It’s this interconnectedness that makes this era in Toronto music history so fascinating.
“He said he wanted to do country music matinees, and at first we scratched our heads and told him they play country music down the road in Parkdale,” Donovan says. “He was like, ‘No, no I’m doing cow punk.’ ”
Robin Masyk moved to Toronto from small-town Ontario with his brother Jim and formed a band called the Velours. After Ronny Azzopardi, of the Next, and J. D. Weatherstone, of the Demics, joined the crew and it was renamed the Sidewinders.
The band played rockabilly, one of the first, alongside the Bopcats, which was led by Teddy Fury and Sonny Baker. Together, the bands mashed up punk and country to create a unique high-energy sound emulated by bands such as the Razorbacks.
Fury loved Queen West so much he never left — he can still be found behind the bar at the Horseshoe, and he’s still way cooler than you.
When the Cameron House changed ownership and focused on live music, Robin Masyk started playing Saturday matinees solo under the name Handsome Ned.
One evening, relates Jim Masyk, Handsome Ned was playing at a bar at Queen and Niagara owned by Marcus O’Hara — the brother of Toronto music legend Mary Margaret O’Hara.
In attendance was Steve Leckie, singer of notorious punk band the Viletones. He and Robin Masyk hit it off. “Ned and Steven became pals, and even moved in together,” Jim Masyk says.
Handsome Ned started opening shows for the Viletones at clubs such as the Edge, at Church and Gerrard, and before long the punk crowd started digging what Handsome Ned was doing.
“The Viletones crowd came over to us and our audience expanded almost immediately,” says Masyk.
But it all ended rather abruptly. Handsome Ned was in his prime, not yet 30 years old, when he died of a heroin overdose.
His death was tragic, but his influence and his music have continued to contribute to the Queen West legacy. Archival recordings were released in 1989, and he received a posthumous Juno Award nomination.
The new album was actually recorded on a night Handsome Ned opened for Donovan and his Blue Rodeo bandmates at the Horseshoe. It was during this period that the alt-country sound, adopted by bands such as Blue Rodeo and the Cowboy Junkies, was starting to take hold.
And musicians continue to make a home at the Cameron, from the residency of the Strumbellas, when they first started, to Justin Rutledge’s Monday night shows that ran for a year while he found an audience for his music. Today, Jim Cuddy’s son Devin can still be found tending bar and playing piano there.
“Ever since Handsome Ned kind of left his mark, his ghost has remained at the Cameron,” says Donovan. “It’s still there. He’s definitely had a huge effect on the Queen West scene.”
Like many other musicians who found a home at the Cameron and on Queen West, Donovan hasn’t really left. These days, when he’s not touring with Blue Rodeo, he returns to his regular Wednesday night slot in the Golden Country Classics alongside Doug Paisley, the Sadies’ Mike Belitsky on drums, Chuck Erlichman and Don Rooke.
“It’s really been a home for me, God, for 37 years now,” he says.