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Obituary: Tom Harrison, Dean of Vancouver Rock Critics

Harrison has written about the Vancouver music scene for over four decades

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There were many music writers in Vancouver. But there was only one Tom Harrison.

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From the mid-1970s until his retirement in 2017, Harrison was the dean of local rock critics, authoring literally thousands of stories in The Province and the Georgia Straight, giving readers insight into the local and international music scene.

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“Tom has been there from the beginning as a huge supporter of the burgeoning Vancouver music scene,” said Sam Feldman, who co-manages Diana Krall, Elvis Costello and James Taylor. “Totally agnostic about genre. Great taste, opinions and reviews always based on honesty and with a big enough heart that he would never kill anyone even if he thought it was necessary.’

“He was really into music and he was the nicest guy,” said Paul Hyde of Payola$. “The main thing for me was that he was always very fair in his reviews, especially with local actors. Even if they weren’t that good, he’d make the review encouraging (for once) as opposed to bashing them.

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“I think a lot of bands liked him, they appreciated it. They were given some space to grow out of Tom, which was important.”

Harrison suffered a stroke on Christmas Day and died on December 27 in a Burnaby hospital without regaining consciousness. He was 70. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke in 2000, which left him partially paralyzed. But he fought on.

“It hit his right side,” said his wife, Kerry Moore, another former provincial writer. “He had no feeling at all on that side, it killed all the nerves on that side. But he was left-handed, so he just kept going.”

Tom Harrison in 2016.
Tom Harrison in 2016. Photo by Ric Ernst /PNG

Thomas Alan Harrison was born on March 11, 1952 in St. Boniface, Man., which is now part of Winnipeg. As a child, his family bounced from Winnipeg to Edmonton before settling in North Vancouver.

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In a biography on his website, Harrison said: “In the early 1970s I became fascinated with music, collecting records and listening to the radio constantly.

He became music director of the University of BC’s student radio station and devoured music publications such as Canada’s own Beetle magazine. Disgusted by the review, he filed a complaint with Beetle.

“I immediately felt remorse and sent the editor several reviews of my own to show that I was ready to ‘put it up or shut up,'” he wrote.

Beetle ran them and his friends suddenly called him “the international rock critic”.

In 1975 he began writing for the alternative weekly Straight, where he quickly became a fixture. Three years later, he became the first writer to chronicle the emerging local punk scene when he wrote about a Skulls show at White Rock that involved a food fight with the audience.

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“In The Straight the next week (he wrote), ‘The Skulls, arguably the most hated band in Vancouver, caused a riot on stage at White Rock,'” recounts DOA’s Joe Keithley, who was The Skulls’ drummer.

“We all read it and were like, ‘Hey, we’re pretty big!’ It was four lines on the Georgia Straight, but we didn’t know anything. So I called him and said, “This is Joe Shithead from the Skulls.”

“It was the first time I told anyone I was Joey Shithead. He said, “Well, Mr. Shit, tell me what happened.” “

Tom Harrison, provincial rock critic, in 1990.
Tom Harrison, provincial rock critic, in 1990. Photo by province staff. /PNG

Harrison became a big booster of punk/new wave and paid for a studio session where DOA mixed their seminal live EP Triumph of the Ignoroids. It was recorded in a Battle of the Bands organized by Harrison, which featured legendary local acts DOA, Doug and the Slugs and No Fun. But they all lost.

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“Poor old Tom was there announcing the winner and he just got beer, water and crap,” Keithley said. “He came to make another announcement and this time he had an umbrella with him.

In 1979 Harrison moved to The Province where he worked for 38 years. He also hosted the North Van cable show, Soundproof, at various times and had a show called Demolisten on CFOX.

He was incredibly important to the local music scene.

“Tom was one of the very first critics and supporters of my work at The Province when I first started,” Bryan Adams wrote on Twitter.

“He was there when the punk guys were coming in, but he never took the shit out of the commercial rock guys,” said Bruce Allen, Adams and Michael Buble’s manager. “He helped Trooper, he helped Adams, he helped me with Loverboy. He was always there. If you earned it, he would help you. He got a say in a lot of our actions. He was playing in the band God-n, he was so into it.”

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He played in several bands, starting out as a drummer in Straight’s staff band, The Explosions, and peaking as a singer in Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion, which released an album on Warner Brothers in Canada. His brother Don had success as a guitarist in the alt-rock standards Sons of Freedom.

Harrison was inducted into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2009 and wrote the e-book Tom Harrison’s History of Vancouver Rock’N’Roll in 2015.

“He could discuss music endlessly and was a virtual musicologist,” Feldman said. “He didn’t know much about any music that was going on anywhere in the world.

Harrison was pretty much a straight shooter, but he had a knack for taking a quick shot at a band he didn’t like. In 1986, CBS Canada put a lot of money into a big hair band called Cats Can Fly. Harrison’s three-word review: “But turkeys can’t.”

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Tom Harrison in 1991
Tom Harrison in 1991 Photo by Ian Price Province photo. /PNG
Tom Harrison prepares to board the MuchMusic Via Rail train in June 1990.
Tom Harrison prepares to board the MuchMusic Via Rail train in June 1990. Photo: David Clark Province photo. /PNG
Tom Harrison in 1989.
Tom Harrison in 1989. Photo by Staff Photo /PNG
Tom Harrison and his band Bruno Gerussi's Medallion in 1989.
Tom Harrison and his band Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion in 1989. Photo from Provincial Photo Service. /PNG
Tom Harrison in 1988
Tom Harrison in 1988 Photo from the province of Les Bazso photo. /PNG
Tom Harrison in 1988.
Tom Harrison in 1988. Photo by province staff. /PNG
Tom Harrison in 1986.
Tom Harrison in 1986. Photo by province staff /PNG
Tom Harrison in 1982
Tom Harrison in 1982 Photo from the province photo. /PNG

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