Norm Hacking was an independent music artist long before it was considered
cool or a canny career move (thanks to web sites, online sales, illegal
Ive always written songs for people, not markets,
the bear-sized singer-songwriter once observed.
That resolute commitment relegated him to a 30-year career on the margins
of the mainstream music industry where, of course, some of the
best music is made. This reviewers first encounter with Hacking
came at the Rivoli in the early Eighties, where the offer was made to
buy him a beer. Wouldnt mind, he grinned. I
must have about 25 cents on me.
His first record, Norm Hacking Live came out in 1977,
right when the Punk revolution of the Sex Pistols and The Clash was
turning the music business on its ear. In that headbanging atmosphere,
eking out a living as an acoustic bard was about as alternative as you
My own introduction to his music came with Hackings second offering,
Cut Roses (1980), whose poetic title, early Dylanesque
black-and-white graphics and train yard portrait of the artist led me
correctly to presume this was an artist who had something
to say. Here was your archetypical lovesick rounder wending his way
through the bars, racetracks and broken hotels. Lines like
brought enough junk that we might stay a year seemed even
more romantic than the ballads.
Anyone who knew Norm could tell you there was little or no gap between
the music and the man. He had a sweet tooth for life in all its
forms and his sharp-eyed one-liners and big belly laugh will be missed
as surely as his music.
Released in 1988, Stubborn Ghost was a fully realized
folk/rock record addressing the bigger issues in life. It met with rave
reviews from some critics, but made nary a ripple on the popular music
It hardly mattered. Through much of the Eighties, Hacking had ceased
touring to care for his son Ben as a single dad. And by the time he
got back out there, the Ontario folk circuit had all but dried up completely.
He ploughed on playing festivals and clubs and hosting innumerable acoustic
open nights around Toronto.
1997s Skysongs was basically a Best Of collection.
From there his recording results were checkered.
But the big man finally got his due with the 2001 release of One
Voice, A Tribute To Norm Hacking, featuring a Whos Who
of the Toronto folk community, and beyond.
While maybe not as productive as the true greats, in the final accounting
Hacking was a first-rate songwriter and interpreter of his own music
who shared more in common with American artists like John Prine and
Steve Goodman than the Canadian icons of the genre. His best characters
the heartbroken painter John Dale, Sammy,
the old man who cleans out the kitchen at the hotel, or,
for that matter, the incorrigible Rodney L.T. Coombs and Fat Phil from
his irreplaceable Racetrack Hack column in Taxinews were
almost Steinbeckian in colour and scope.
In a live setting to the day he died Hacking had that
ability to capture hearts and minds (with ballads like Love At
The Free Times Café, or Christine), or make
you crack up with the humorous Video Love, or Syd
& The Flea (which spawned an unanticipated sideline in cat
albums and kids books).
In the so-called New Millennium, folk music was considered by many
to be hopelessly out of fashion. But by then Hacking had weathered countless
musical trends punk, New Wave, alternative rock, New Country,
rap, emo, etc. For those who appreciated honest, heartfelt music, Norm
Hacking stood out as the genuine article in an often shallow and glitzy
industry. Ray, the long-time organizer of Fat Alberts Folk House
once observed, The people of Toronto dont know what they
have with Norm.
Maybe not, but there were plenty of us who did.