Nick of Montreal

Inside a smoke-filled Ziggy’s Pub on Montreal’s Crescent Street, a man with a mustache and borsalino hat sits cross-legged at the bar with a vodka cranberry in front of him, in his hand a newspaper folded down three times, so only one article is visible. He looks up toward the door as another man enters and shouts:

“Nick, there you are, I read your column this week, how’s Melissa?” he asks.

“She’s great. But do you know where I can find her a guitar?” Nick replies.

“Every teenager wants a guitar, don’t get overexcited,” the man says.

“No, no, but I want to buy her a good one,” Nick responds.

Many years later, in 1998, when Nick Auf der Maur died his daughter Melissa was at his bedside. Not only did she get that guitar, but she became one of rock music’s most sought-after bass guitarists, playing for Courtney Love’s band Hole, then going out on her own as a successful solo musician. Nick adored his little girl and nurtured her talents more than anything else, says Nick’s long-time friend Stephen Phizicky.

“Nick was very devoted to Melissa, as well as her mother Linda, all his life. Linda and her new husband were in the front row at Nick’s funeral. One which drew nearly 3,000 people to St. Patrick’s Basilica,” Phizicky said.

Bill Brownstein, a colleague of Nick’s at the Montreal Gazette newspaper, remembers him fondly and never forgets the laughter they shared.

“I knew Nick for many years. We frequented the same places and knew the same people,” Brownstein said.

“You couldn’t help but emerge with a smile when you were in his presence, he’d be trying to pinch everybody’s butt. He had a charm there’s no denying it.”

During Nick Auf der Maur’s storied career, which spanned from being a city hall politician to becoming a Montreal Gazette columnist, he really knew the beat that was Montreal during the 1970s and 1980s. And he was also a constant part of the city’s changing political landscape.

In the lead-up to the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games, Nick was raising the public’s attention about then-Mayor Jean Drapeau’s cost overruns and the looming debt the city would have to face for the next 30 years. He wrote a book about it called “The Billion-Dollar Game” and rightly-so, Montreal didn’t end up paying off the debt caused by the Olympics until just a few years ago.

“He basically guessed that the Olympics would have a billion dollar deficit. And on the basis of this, Nick was then invited to every city that ever held the Olympics after Montreal. He went to L.A. and told them to be careful, because everyone was appalled at how much the Montreal Olympics had gone over budget,” Phizicky said.

As a journalist, Nick brought his passion for politics and people into his writing. Not only did he cover anglophone culture, but he was also able to break down the two solitudes and understand the francophone sentiment in Montreal. At the time of the 1970 October Crisis, he was put in jail under the War Measures Act because of his left-wing political views and his friendships with many high-profile Quebec sovereignists.

“As a younger man he felt that the French had a legitimate complaint, that they couldn’t get jobs because of the financial structure and the English weren’t more conciliatory about their language,” Phizicky said. “Nick knew everybody in the left-wing circles in the ’70s and at the time the Gazette didn’t have many people who spoke French, believe it or not.”

Nick confided in Phizicky after he was released from custody and the War Measures Act was repealed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, commenting to his friend: “They did the right thing. Trudeau broke the back of a situation that would have gotten out of control. It took us off the streets at a critical moment. Strategically, even though I was a victim and I’m opposed from a human rights point of view, it was the right thing to do.”

Brownstein recalls this turning point in Canadian history. It was a period no one could forget. And he shares how Nick was always involved with everything interesting going on in Montreal during his time with the Gazette.

“His best quality is that he was part of the city, he not only wrote about it, he was part of it. That’s what made him an interesting character. There are less and less of those characters today,” Brownstein said.

The fact is when Nick Auf der Maur died, so did a part of Montreal. Nick was Montreal. And friends of his, like Brownstein and Phizicky, who reflect on their time spent in his presence, always smile. To this day, Nick’s legend as Montreal’s ‘boulevardier’ because he frequented many of Montreal’s anglophone, west-end, downtown, drinking establishments, stands.

And Brownstein believes Nick brought a certain style and flair to drinking that couldn’t be matched by today’s standards, mostly because of his ability to stay out all day and night socializing. That was research to Nick. It’s what gave him something to write about.

“He was legendary in his capacity to have a good time. Nick went place to place and still made deadlines to his city column,” Brownstein said. “He was a real city fixture.Those types of folks don’t exist in today’s journalists, who tend to be of a more staid nature, live in the suburbs and don’t really know the city.”

Twelve years after his passing, Nick Auf der Maur’s legend lives on.

“He was one of the great anglo characters in Montreal. He spread his wing into politics and to culture but he was just a person who wanted more than to just look at the city from a far,” Brownstein said. “He was just a good time guy who unfortunately passed away too young, but I think the lesson to be learned from his life, or for other journalists, is that he became part of this city rather than looking at it from a distance.

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Posted in Blogroll, Uncategorized

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