Evelyne Benchimol
No Comments

The Apprenticeship of Daniel Richler

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

From the loose cloth of rock commentary to the tight fit of The Journal with undiminished passion

Daniel Richler, confused, peered into the box holding his going-away present: Were the beige corduroy jacket with dark brown elbow patches, the hand-woven tie and the matching brown Wallabees a joke or not? The CITY-TV staff around him at McVeigh’s New Windsor Tavern were cracking up. The gift, of course, was his new CBC uniform.

To hell with the elbow patches: Richler appeared on The Journal’s first “Friday Night” last October 17 in the silver-studded black leather motorcycle jacket he so often wore during his three years as co-host of CITY -TV’s The New Music. When he became a producer, arts correspondent and host for The Journal’s new arts and entertainment package, nobody asked him to change his image. Not really. The aubergine hair had to go (it’s back to its natural brown) and so did the T-shirts. “They make you look so damn scrawny!”

Mark Starowicz, the executive producer, told him. “Occasionally they ask me to flatten my hair down,” Richler says. “They say it’s distracting.” But Starowicz liked the jacket: “I want him to look contemporary and modern.”

Richler’s autumn stroll from CITY to the CBC has left more than just the studded leather intact. At 30, through his work he still attempts to bring the divergent worlds of the teenager and adult into contact. “In both cases, I’m trying to bring everybody closer. Mainly what I’m doing now is trying to communicate what it is that excites young people,” said Richler after opening the first “Friday Night” with a celebration of Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday and rock and roll’s 30th anniversary. In interviews with musicians such as Keith Richard and David Byrne, “I’m saying to adults, ‘Yes, you. You too can have fun with these people.’ So now my job to a degree, as I see it, is softening the impact for them.”

The CBC had Richler in a similar role when he became a biweekly pop commentator on Morningside for one season, starting in September, 1985. Here he often defended rock, especially its altruistic Tears Are Not Enough side: “People forget that easily and prefer to remember all the nasty spike-headed punks and Satan-worshipping heavy-metal bands,” Richler told Peter Gzowski one November morning. “The new trend in music reflects sociopolitical realities.” Gzowski was skeptical: “So this is real politics expressed by these musicians?” The byplay was typical. “He always played one extreme and I’d play the other, so I could educate the audience,” Richler says. Heather Matheson, at the time a Morningside senior producer, liked the effect: “Morningside is like a literary guide to Canada, the audience are not hip swingers. So in walks Daniel to shake them up a bit.”

The Journal’s staff scarcely sees its audience as hip, either, and they too like the iconoclast in Richler. In fact, since his arrival they’ve added a new word to their vocabulary: contemporary. Richler’s “contemporary awareness” is important, says Arts and Entertainment Editor Barbara Kennedy. “The arts and entertainment package has to be zippy and pop-style,” says Starowicz. “We think the arts have been victimized by the most boring journalists around.” His own show was no exception: before “Friday Night,” the arts were reported with the reverence of hushed voices in a cathedral.

The hush may be over but Richler isn’t sure he can push the CBC into being more spontaneous. He misses the eccentricities and individuality that CITY encourages. In one New Music episode Richler and co-host Laurie Brown tore the set apart to make a point about vandalism. “People at the CBC have a tendency to think of that form of television as amateur or immature,” says Richler. “I don’t agree. I think if you do it competently, it makes it more informal and you come to trust the guy on TV.” But there are too many producers at the CBC who police the status quo: “I’ve entered into a situation where there are people who think they are senior to me, both in experience and vision, and that mayor may not be true depending on the person. So it’s difficult. But things that I)earned at The New Music I can do better than anybody and they should just bloody well leave me alone to do it. But they don’t because the interior architecture of the place is such that I’m supposed to genuflect to a degree, and that’s frustrating.”

What’s also frustrating is being told not to have opinions anymore. “The policy at The Journal, or maybe the CBC at large, is that if you’re a reporter you’re not a critic,” says Richler. “Starowicz said to me very sternly, ‘You’re not here to give an opinion.'” So far, Richler has ignored orders: “I’m inserting opinion all the time in the stories I write.” As early as his second show, in fact, Richler delivered a little homily on Halloween: “I used to enjoy dressing up as the Merchant of Venice. But now that the play’s been banned in Ontario I’m afraid of being a bad influence on young people. Boo Bradley was another favorite role of mine, but since To Kill a Mockingbird was nixed in Virginia on account of it uses the word ‘nigger,’ that’s off limits too. I used to enjoy dressing up as a pagan god of fertility, but now that government commissions north and south are expressing disapproval of all things prurient, I’ve had to put that costume back in the closet too. These are decent times, my friends,” he said, shaking his head. “What’s a devil to do?”

Well, here’s one of the things the devil’s up to: “Starowicz, if he gets to read this, might as well find out this way,” says Richler. “Our little conspiracy is to encroach upon the Friday night Journal until we either take it over or get shot into Thursday night, where more people will watch us.” The strategy seems to be working: “Friday Night” has already become a 20-minute segment from its original nine- to 15minute time slot.

It doesn’t do artists justice,” says Richler, disappointed with the pressures he’s under to tailor each story to a few minutes. “Alice Munro worked very hard at a book called Progress of Love and to give her three-and-a-half minutes on TV is almost insulting.”

Sitting in Pimblett’s, a Cabbagetown pub on Gerrard Street East, Richler fits in well with the funky, Victorian decor. He takes a long sip of his Worthington E and extends one skinny arm down the length of the table to stretch in that comfortable, secure way of his. He straightens up and tugs at his hair; it seems to help his thinking process. “After a while you begin to look silly-you don’t realize how old you look to younger people,” he says. The life of a rock journalist is short: “Two or three years, I felt, was enough.” Another tug. “I wanted simply to throw the ball out there and say ‘Your turn. Go for it. Do a rock’n’ roll show that’s even more thoughtful and fun. Bring art in, and computer science and a little politics and something strikes him: no one had ever done that for him before.

As a child born in London or an adolescent living in Montreal, where his famous stepfather moved the family in 1972, Richler never heard one disk jockey associate a news story with a song. “Not one single dumb disk jockey told me that Midnight Rambler by the Rolling Stones is about the Boston Strangler because either they didn’t care to know or the program director said, ‘We’re here to entertain, not to inform.’ I’ve been up against that often enough.”

But not with Peggy Colston-Weir, the program director who hired Richler for his first broadcasting job at Montreal’s CHOM-FM in February, 1977. From the beginning, he decided not to perpetuate the era’s Dick Clark mediocrity. Colston-Weir, now vice-president and director of programming at Toronto’s CHFI, says: “I think if you can inform in an entertaining way like Daniel, you’ve won.” But Terry Nutt, the program director who succeeded Colston- Weir in September of 1977, didn’t agree. “He would stab the palm of his hand with his index finger and yell, ‘It’s gotta be on the money!'” recalls Richler. “He told me once I was improfessional and I said, ‘If anything I’m unprofessional and you’re illiterate.’ So he fired me.”

In 1976, at 19, Richler dropped out of McGill after two months of classical flute and art history (the confinements of formal education were “too much of a drag” for him). He’d been program director of his high school radio station and editor of the school newspaper, and he applied for the CHOM-FM job as Daniel Mann, using the name of his natural father (California screenwriter Stanley Mann), whom his mother divorced when Richler was two. “He never wanted to use his stepfather’s name as a way to open doors,” says Colston-Weir. “I had no idea he was Mordecai’s son.” Program Director David Marsden hired Richler at Toronto’s CFNY for Richler’s last year of radio before joining The New Music in 1984. “If anything,” he says, “Daniel down played his relation to Mordecai. I never once heard him make reference to the fact that his father is who he is. Five months went by while he tried to get located here, but he kept at it and at no time was there any mention of his father. He never personally used it.”

Mordecai Richler helped his stepson by instilling in him a love of reading, a critical faculty and an inner demand to be different and to do different things. He also made him aware of what Daniel’s mother, Florence, calls the “‘You don’t talk about it, you do it’ dictum in our family.”

“‘I think now you should go strike out on your own,'” Richler recalls his step dad telling him once he had his first job. “He said it to all the kids, really [two brothers and two sisters]. Dad is a strong believer in as soon as you have wings, use them. Fly. The only embarrassing thing was that it hadn’t occurred to me that I should leave home.”

Richler’s move in 1977 from the family home in Westmount to a sevenroom apartment in the more modest east side (he could only afford to furnish one room), didn’t diminish the challenge he fel t in being the stepson of a celebrated literary figure. But according to Florence Richler, her husband was sensitive not to exert pressure: “Mordecai wanted the kids to know very little about his work so they could get on via their most secure routes. Mordecai was very, very careful about this. He and Daniel never talked about his work explicitly.”

Maybe they should have. Richler’s struggle to develop his own vocabulary led to a problem: his early verbosity. His baggage of big words accompanied him to Toronto when, in January, 1981, he left Montreal, dissatisfied with the opportunities it offered young anglophones. In his first Toronto job, as music and theatre reviewer for CJCL’s Ain’t We Got Fun?, Richler played with language too much, despite a 35- to 50year-old audience. “He would talk about things like ‘the prurient wasteland’ in a movie review he once did,” says Trevor Smith, who wrote advertising copy at CJCL and shared an office with Richler. “Prurient and solipsistic were his two favorite words. It got to the point where the staff called Daniel’s show ‘Ain’t We Got Adjectives?’ And Daniel’s accent would vary from cockney to Oxford, depending on who he was talking to.”

“They thought I was too complicated,” says Richler. “They were right.” When he went to CKEY in 1982 to review films for Around Town-a show combining entertainment interviews with reviews-Richler worried about sounding pretentious. “But he didn’t,” says CKEY newscaster and commentator Pete McGarvey. “He had a great command of language and the nuances of language.”Later, at CFNY, Marsden had no problem with Richler’s vocabulary. “I believe very much in approaching our listeners as adults and people who have something more than cotton batting between their ears,”saysMarsden.

But at the CBC, Gzowski says he wanted Richler to slow down: the Morningside audience, although mostly older than Richler, just couldn’t follow him. Richler enjoyed metaphorical descriptions. Talking about satanic heavy-metal bands, he said: “There has been a lot of hellfire and brimstone preaching from the pulpit recently. The policy at The Journal, or maybe the CBC at large, is that if you’re a reporter you’re not a critic,” says Richler. So far he has ignored this rule phrasing rich with not-so-common words, evoking a lot of imagery: “What kids are getting in dollops and plopping onto their living-room floor from this electronic cornucopia-we call it television-is trends. Trends come distilled into our televisions.”

“Often didn’t know what he was talking about,” says Gzowski. At The Journal, Richler was warned once again about being too obscure: “Don’t forget, it’s rye-and-ginger country out there,” Starowicz told him. “Well, I’m sorry!” says Richler, laughing. “It’s like being in a class of slow learners.” Nearing the end of an evening at Pimblett’s, he takes one last long sip. “I’m being a bit snobby, but it becomes frustrating after a while.”

According to Mordecai Richler, Daniel is culturally aware without being a snob: “He just knows what he’s talking about. He’s knowledgeable and sympathetic.”

Sitting in his apartment near Toronto’s Allan Gardens on an original Art Deco couch, two guitars, a bass and a disarray of magazines at his feet, Daniel Richler grabs big chunks of hair with both hands and begins to pull. “I think that the teenage years are a very powerful passage of the imagination,” he says, hesitating to discuss a first novel that has been excruciatingly slow in the writing. “A time during which that faculty is exploding in every direction. It doesn’t always have the vocabulary to express itself. The book is an attempt to describe the inner life of a teenager so misunderstood and so at odds with what is perceived.” Not surprisingly, the book is intended for both teenagers and adults. “Its very function, I hope, is to bridge a gap.”

For now, the CBC likes Richler’s knack for building bridges. “He seems to combine all these wonderful elements, from Stravinsky to films to rock and roll,” says Starowicz.” And he can write. You can’t be any good on radio or television without being a good writer first.”

Richler picks up his new guitar.

He’s learning how to play it between Japanese lessons (he’d like to live in Japan for a while) and the time he finds to paint. (An enormous gold Tibetan dragon he painted on his quilt rests on the futon, which is surrounded by bedside reading material a foot high.) “Now that I’m making a little more money, I bought myself a couple of new gizmos that encourage me to play guitar.”

A little more money is a lot more than the $25 a week he earned four years ago at CKEY, but the small apartment predominately furnished with books and shelves is no indication of a great financial leap. What about the rumor of a $75,000 annual income? “Oh, God no! Much less. In this business, to make a hundred grand you have to be an on-air celebrity with a vocabulary of 10 words that you can repeat often enough and convincingly enough.”

And there are things more important than money. For instance: “Not to conform to the status quo and cease to think. I will continue to dress unusually or be scruffy just to remind myself to think in a creative avant-gardest way. Most of us spend our lives looking for standards we can accept. To take a deep breath with satisfaction and say, ‘Finally. I worked life out. Now I can relax.’ Who wants to do that? I’d much rather rebound off the walls with continuing violence for the rest of my life.”

And Richler’s walls, lined with nearly 2,000 record albums in thematic and alphabetical order, will keep him bouncing for along time. Like the teenagers he relates to, Daniel Richler is still caught in that maddening state of flux. “But when you get older you’re more secure about things and you can take the struggle; it’s not quite so awful.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

twenty − 10 =