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God Help Thee: a night out in Toronto

in Arts & Culture/Featured by

On the thinly etched borderline between Little Italy and Little Portugal, there stands a bar in Toronto’s West End. Outside, the Brass Taps appears yet another non-descript pizza bar, with a small patio out front and beer logos beckoning the public inside. It’s only once you enter that the glossy prints of the Narrows, the signed posters from Woody Point, and the framed portrait of Danny Williams above the bar signal to the knowing that this isn’t your average pizza pub.

Within, it’s a broiling stew of Newfoundlanders, with pints flowing amid the booths and backyard patio that make for a soundman’s nightmare.

“Fuuuck,” says Dave Picco, an established artist in his own right, wrought with the task of figuring out how to adjust sound for a pizza pub that stretches far longer than it does wide. He paces the length of the bar, then runs up to adjust his gear, fully absorbed in the task of making the performer sound 110%.

That performer is his buddy Blair Harvey, St. John’s bluesy-loungy-dark-horse extraordinaire.

“It’s all Newfoundland dirty fuckin’ scum sorta things going down here tonight!” Harvey proclaims with a jaunty grin, and the bar cheers as one.

But the night belongs to Joel Thomas Hynes, dark knight to Harvey’s dark horse, who’s hosting a Toronto launch of his most recent opus (he prefers ‘manifesto’) – God Help Thee – at the most Newfoundland bar this side of the Narrows.

Hynes first performed his ‘manifesto’ as part of a fundraiser for the Resource Centre for the Arts back in 2006. It was subsequently printed in local arts journal Riddle Fence as well as Maisonneuve Magazine, and an audio version can be downloaded from local audio book publisher Rattling Books (with proceeds supporting the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council’s Culture Assistance Plan for Emergencies, a sort of emergency health plan for local artists). The piece seems to have taken on a life of its own: its latest incarnation is a hand-sewn ‘chapbook’ (a pocket-sized fold-out booklet) published by Running the Goat Press. This version also features illustrations by Massuchusetts-based wood engraver Abigail Rorer.

In the postscript to God Help Thee, Hynes explains that his “…anger and frustration with Newfoundland in the new millennium wasn’t all that unique. Because I also think that what cripples the vast majority of our culture and society here is the fact that we don’t quite know what to be angry about.”

Be that as it may, being angry has served Hynes well. An award-winning author, he’s the recipient of the Percy Janes First Novel Award, the Cuffer Prize for short fiction, and has had work short-listed for a range of prestigious national and international awards. He’s also a prolific film, television and stage actor, and in 2008 was named Artist of the Year by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council.

Meanwhile, back on stage…

But the array of awards hasn’t blunted his style. As Harvey sound-checks, Hynes steps up on the stage.

“I don’t know how you all thought this was gonna go down tonight,” he pronounces, fixing the audience with his trademark gritty glare. “So I’m gonna tell ya how it’s gonna fucking go.”

By the time Harvey finishes his set, the bar is positively packing with Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Pints are flowing faster than the bar can pour them, embraces at every second table as old buddies find each other or make friends anew. Ahead of me, there’s a booth full of angry-looking fellows in suits shaking a copy of John Crosbie’s No Holds Barred at each other. I’m not sure what’s being said, but I pause as though to ask them, and their fierce glares drive me off. I’d like to order a pint, but the bar is blocked by a newly arrived Newfoundlander who’s being introduced to other transplanted islanders in a flurry of handshakes. I return to my seat and wind up chatting with a Marystown native who’s now a filmmaker based here in The Big Smoke.

After Harvey’s set, Danila Botha takes to the stage. The South African writer and journalist (who’s now based in Halifax) reads excerpts from her debut Got No Secrets: a gritty and soul-baring collection of short stories that pull no punches and fit in well with the dark and urban theme of the night.

And then comes the moment the swelling crowd has been waiting expectantly for.

If there’s a quality that could define Joel Thomas Hynes, it’s unpredictable. Early on in the night, shortly after myself and my friends arrived, he strolls into the bar, clad in a black suit that verges on the Edwardian, tattoos creeping up from out of the collar along the side of his neck. He sees us and slinks down into our booth.

“What are ye at?” he demands, friendly enough.

Then, with a sidelong glance at the two of us:

“So are you two hooked up now in Toronto or wha?”

My companion shakes her head; I’m not quite sure how to respond. He fixes us both with a skeptical glare. The waitress interrupts by pounding a glass of water on the table.

Hynes isn’t one to mince words.

He’s one to craft them, as fine as you ever did hear.

So here. Take a listen for yourself.

Warning: explicit language, as they might say.

I know what Joel fuckin Hynes would say about that.

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