Canada has always enjoyed a healthy music scene. From the past exploits of Neil Young to the contemporary sounds of Drake, the country behind the sensory delight that is Maple syrup has given us many world-beaters over the years, confirming itself as one of the very best places in the world for culture. Even though in recent years the country has churned out acts such as Mac DeMarco and The Weeknd, it is safe to say that it was during the 1860s when Canada’s musical landscape was at its most fertile.
Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, Rush and Gordon Lightfoot are just some of the names that Canada produced in the ’60s, a time when the counterculture was taking shape amidst a backdrop of folk and when the smell of rebellion was in the air. All these musicians knew each other well, played on the same circuit, and for the most part, thought the same way about music and the wider world.
Whilst there were many venues in the country at the time that served as cultural hubs for these musicians, there was none more eminent than The Riverboat Coffee House, located at 134 Yorkville Avenue in the Yorkville area of Toronto, which was the centre of all countercultural happenings in the country at the time. The venue was a second home to the folk-rock and singer-songwriter genres that were ubiquitous at the time, and from its opening in 1964 to its closure in 1978, it was labelled “the best-known coffee house in Canada”.
The Riverboat was owned by Bernie and Patricia Fielder, with the latter a well-known artist. Located in the basement of the properety, it was modelled after the interior of a boat, with brass porthole windows and intimate red booths lined against pine walls. Perhaps the most well-known story about The Riverboat is that it is claimed that legendary protest songwriter Phil Ochs wrote the track ‘Changes’ on the back porch.
Many iconic Canadian artists such as Young, Mitchell, Lenny Breau and Gordon Lightfoot played at The Riverboat, but it was also a stop on the international circuit. Many famous American artists, such as Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Tim Hardin and of course, Phil Ochs, performed there.
Out of all these acts, the one most closely tied to the venue is Neil Young. Famously, in 1974’s ‘Ambulance Blues’ from On the Beach, Young looks back on the days when he was striving to make it as an artist and sings: “Back in the old folky days / The air was magic when we played / The riverboat was rockin’ in the rain”. Added to this sense that they are inextricably linked is Young’s 2009 release Live at the Riverboat 1969.
However, the relationship Young had with The Riverboat wasn’t always so groovy. In John Einarson’s 1992 biography of Neil Young’s early days as a musician, Don’t be Denied, musician and Young’s friend Geordie McDonald recalled a story where Young played a prank on The Riverboat because the doorman rejected them from watching Jess Colin Young perform.
In revenge, Young and McDonald allegedly convinced the venue that Bob Dylan was going to play an impromptu show there. When the news broke, people couldn’t believe it, and the place was packed to the rafters. They all waited there until six in the morning for Dylan, who never arrived.