When Ken Rockburn's book, We Are As the Times Are, was launched at Irene's a couple of weeks ago, the tables were full of old-timers, some of them the very performers who had filled Le Hibou, the legendary coffeehouse that is the subject of the book.
(The title is from a song by William Hawkins, one of those performers, and he was there.)
The book is fascinating even for someone like me who arrived in the city after the Le Hibou's day had passed. In its various locations, from Rideau Street to Bank Street to Sussex Drive, the club was host to some of the most celebrated and influential artists of the day - from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, to Gordon Lightfoot, to Joni Mitchell, to John Hammond, Jr., to Judy Collins, to Neil Young.
Poets like Irving Layton were there. Even jazz musicians, such as Lenny Breau played there.
Perhaps more important, Le Hibou was a showcase and a testing ground for local musicians and poets. Hawkins, David Wiffen, Sneezy Waters, Neville Wells, Bruce Cockburn, bands like the Children and Heaven's Radio - they were all there.
Reading the book, which is full of anecdotes and good gossip, you get a clear sense of a scene that was distinctly Ottawa. And it makes me wonder if there is such a scene now.
Both Rockburn and I are probably far too old to know. But I asked him anyway. He was quick to point out the differences between now and Le Hibou's era, 1960-1975.
"Back then your options were severely limited," he said. "A few dark corners on radio, one or two record counters downtown, and, around the start of the Sixties, virtually no music venues that were there for kids in high school or university. So a place like Le Hibou, latching onto the burgeoning folk music scene, very easily became the focal point, making it appear as if it was distinctive."
That's true. Lovers of music that was not in the mainstream, not Top 40 radio, were starved for their sounds. Today, they can find them on YouTube. They can join Facebook groups devoted to their music. They can find Internet radio stations that play nothing but.
But is it possible that this abundance of riches, rather than cutting into the appetite for live music, has stimulated it? Says Rockburn: "I don't pretend to be a part of it any longer but, from a distance, it sure seems to me that Ottawa has a vibrant and thriving pop culture scene. You only have to look at the music clubs, the smaller art galleries, and events like Nuit Blanche to see that."
Those are encouraging words for those who think we shouldn't be getting all our culture from looking at screens. There have been some discouraging events on the local folk and jazz scenes in recent years, even though festivals more or less devoted to them have got bigger and bigger.
Rasputin's is gone. Irene's survives. Could Le Hibou, or something like it, succeed today?
Probably not as a coffee house. It would have to have a liquor licence. And it probably wouldn't be able to afford to showcase international artists.
Still, it would be nice. Despite the abundance of clubs, it feels like there's a gap.
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