Remembered as one of the true taste-making giants of the Vancouver music scene, Tom Harrison has died following a reported stroke on Christmas day. He is being remembered today as a writer with endlessly good taste who was instrumental in his support of bands that others were often initially afraid to champion.
Buck Cherry of the Modernettes wrote on Facebook: “It’s impossible to describe or credit just how invaluable Tom was to our scene and it’s no stretch to say none of us would have had the careers we’ve had had he not championed us from the very first. And when he went from the Straight to PacPress, I don’t think there was a major city outside London that got the kind of attention in the legit press we all did.”
As noted by Cherry, Harrison first rose to prominence as a writer with the Georgia Straight. While with the paper in the ’70s he gave renegade imports like the Clash and Sex Pistols, and, more importantly, local heroes like the Modernettes, Pointed Sticks, Subhumans, and D.O.A. their first ink at a time when the rest of the world was doing its best to ignore them.
(Read, in Harrison's own words, about his time at the Straight here.)
The acts that initially shaped Vancouver’s underground scene would become part of a hugely important worldwide underground movement, inspiring others to pick up guitars in the years and decades that have followed. Whether you’re talking the New Pornographers, Mother Mother, or Bif Naked, they all in some ways stand on a DIY-music foundation that Harrison was instrumental in building.
While the Straight is where he made his name, it was the Province where Harrison established himself as one of the country’s most relentlessly passionate music writers. While continuing to champion the West Coast's booming underground scene, he was instrumental in turning the spotlight on unknown acts that pushed boundaries, from a then-unknown Sarah McLachlan to crossover kings Death Sentence to quirk-pop faves Bob’s Your Uncle to hip-hop pioneers the Rascalz.
If you were in a band, there was no better indicator that you’d arrived in Vancouver than a full-length Harrison feature in the Friday Province. Ask your favourite local music historian—or Nardwaur—about the now-iconic stories that helped make legitimate local rock stars out of acts like Sons of Freedom, Art Bergmann, and the Scramblers.
Despite a stroke in 2000, Harrison continued to both write for the Province, and to later serve as an invaluable on-camera historian for Vancouver music documentaries like Susanne Tabata essential Bloodied But Unbowed.
He was also a musician, most notably fronting Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion, and an endlessly entertaining on-air contributor on radio and with the influential cable TV music showcase Soundproof.
Upon retiring from the Province after 37 years, Harrison continued to write for his website, as well as publish books like Tom Harrison’s History of Vancouver Rock ’N’ Roll.
He reflected on his storied career with FYI Music News in 2017, self-effacingly noting, “The worst interview was with Michel Pagliaro; the weirdest, Bob Marley; among the toughest were Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten. A few I think fondly of included Yoko Ono, Captain Beefheart and Steve Earle; one I wish I could do again is George Harrison. They all have stories. But, you’re right that I’ve interviewed so many people that I probably will think of others later. Another you might remember, Ted Nugent. I was a day late for some reason - but you met me outside his hotel and told me he was in his room and to go on up. I did and we had a short - but lively - conversation. He was great.”
Vancouver music fans meanwhile are remembering Harrison as unendingly great. Local promoter and DJ David Hawkes wrote on Facebook: “Words can not express how dedicated he was to music, how even-handed he was in his reviews and how encouraging he was to so many artists...and I mean literally thousands and thousands of artists. His words and review could launch your career and even if you or your band maybe wasn’t the greatest, he still gave you the feeling that you had a shot at success.”
The Pointed Sticks remembered him with, “Without him relentlessly championing all of us kids from his position as music writer in the Georgia Straight newspaper, the punk scene in Vancouver may very well have withered and died on the vine before it ever gained any momentum. He covered it all, right from the very first gigs at the Japanese Hall in 1977. For the Pointed Sticks in particular, he’s the one who ensured our entry into the GS Battle of the Bands in October of 1978 when we’d been together for less than 2 months. Although he never admitted it, he may even have factored in us winning said contest over the C-Fox hair farmers that made up most of our competition.”
Billy Hopeless of the Black Halos reflected with, “Just read the sad news of Tom Harrison’s passing . From a kid watching him in Soundproof and reading his journalism to how he supported everything I’ve done musically in the Province he was always a true lover of music and a great guy.”
Remembered as not only an always-informed writer, but also a genuinely decent person, whether he was behind the keyboard or sharing his time with young star-struck scribes, Harrison will be missed mightily by the Vancouver music scene.