Kerrisdale might be the last place one thinks of a crucible of counterculture in the city, but the record of Vancouver cultural history perhaps tells a different story.
In the early 1980s, the quaint confines of Kerrisdale found itself as ground zero of some of the most fondly remembered alternative music concerts in the city’s history.
When local concert promoters found venues such as the Orpheum and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre unwelcoming of the “new music” rock concerts they wanted to book, they found an unlikely home at the East Boulevard skating rink — the Kerrisdale Arena.
On April 13, 1980, some 2,500 people descended on Kerrisdale dressed in boiler suits and flowerpot hats to attend a concert by American new wave band Devo.
On Aug. 29, 1981, residents close to the arena might have walked out to their verandas to smell an unfamiliar scent wafting through their flower gardens when Jamaican reggae stars Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff performed there.
The Jam played their last ever North American gig at the arena on June 5, 1982, and the concert series reached a height later that month on June 26 when a legion of mohawked punks stormed 41st Avenue for The Clash, who performed to an audience of 4,000 people.
Of course, the arena had already cemented its place in Vancouver music history for being the site of the city’s first ever rock concert on June 27, 1956 by Bill Haley and The Comets. In the 1960s, Kerrisdale Arena also staged concerts by The Yardbirds and Frank Zappa.
It was only a May 1982 performance by the notoriously loud heavy metal band Motorhead that marked the beginning of the end for the arena concerts when the city and police were deluged with noise and public disorder complaints by some of the more conservative residents.
Unlike Brooklyn or Hollywood, Kerrisdale is not the place one would expect name-checked in song. But one exception might be by Vancouver singer/songwriter and accordion slinger Geoff Berner, who grew up within earshot of those concerts as a child to become a musician himself. In “Fortress Kerrisdale,” a song written with his 1990s alt-rock band Terror of Tiny Town, Kerrisdale is regarded as an protected and isolated enclave in the lyrics “I never knelt down to give thanks, among the chocolate stores and banks” and “Was I spoiled or was I spared, in Fortress Kerrisdale.”
“It’s never felt like a suburb because you could get downtown so quickly,” recalls Berner today. “But it was an odd place to grow up because it felt so totally protected, though there was lots of stuff bubbling beneath the surface. The big front yard hedges hid some of the quirks and weirdness of what people were up to.”
Indeed, it wasn’t just at the nearby arena that some major Vancouver cultural events are remembered, but in the homes of Kerrisdale themselves.
In 1963, visiting poet Allen Ginsberg, while conducting a summer poetry lecture at the University of British Columbia, was a regular visitor to the home of Warren and Ellen Tallman at their Kerrisdale home at 2527 West 37th Ave. A professor and writer respectively, the Tallmans hosted Ginsberg as well as other visiting poets like Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Philip Whalen and Robert Duncan at smoke-filled parties, which featured readings and lectures by the writers that went into the night in the summer of ’63.
George Bowering, at the time a UBC student who would eventually go on to become Canada’s first poet laureate, also was a guest of the Tallmans. “They had famous poets hanging out there even before 1963, and us young guys from all over the province went there to get educated.” Bowering would become a longtime Kerrisdale resident in the 1970s in a home just a few houses down the street from the Tallman house.
That the Tallman home was a Mecca of influential poetry, attended by guests who would later become prominent in Vancouver literature and counterculture, moved writer Tom Hawthorne to remark in a 2011 story in the Globe and Mail that with its anchor in Kerrisdale, that summer of poetry can be regarded as the “beginning of the 1960s in Vancouver.”
Amidst all the chocolate stores and banks, there’s perhaps always been more underneath the surface of Kerrisdale than at first glance.