Allan Youster. Photo by John Campbell

A beard of a feather: remembering Allan Youster

One music geek celebrates another music geek.

Given that I’ve had a fairly large beard for two decades and I also have a penchant for the grape, many have queried whether any barfly huckster has ever chanced their arm to cut it off of my chin. Well Dorothy, the answer is of-fucking-course. Over the course of the past 20 years, the follicles were indeed partly sheared one fateful night when I was truly shit hammered with one successful snip, and wouldn’t cha know it was by one of the nicest people you could ever meet: Gail Youster.

Now don’t get it twisted as Gail does figure into this little story, but I’m really here to tell you about one of the greatest pillars of the Montreal music scene, Gail’s “old man” Allan Youster. Allan was a barstool and gigging personal friend of mine who sadly passed away on Friday at 5:15 p.m. at the age of 72. I was only one of many, many friends of Allan’s — the man knew how to earn friendship and his boundless energy was impossible not to love. So listen up, street urchins, because if you’re even half as positive, non-judgmental, community-oriented, energetic and just downright kool as Allan was at 72 years of age then you won all the marbles — you fucking won.

Now where was I before I got all weepy? Oh yeah, the beard debacle. It was a crushing hangover like only Boréale Blonde can deliver. My partner at the time woke me up at the crack of noon and gasped, “What the fuck happened to you?” I grunted, checked to see if I had all my appendages and rolled out of bed to brush my teeth. In a robotic state I squeezed the toothpaste on the tube, looked into the mirror on the medicine cabinet and was greeted with a normy staring back at me with a short little beard who looked more like a Wal-Mart greeter than my regular grizzled mug. I had had about half of my beard hair lopped off save for one long defiant strand about two fingers wide. Slowly but surely the memories burst through my hangover fog like puzzle pieces as I remembered Gail and Allan closing the Barfly on their anniversary. I was ribbing Allan for having recently trimmed his majestic beard and he was chiding me over being too precious. In one fell swoop Gail had gotten the scissors out and – snip! After this fateful fashion crime, Gail went about her business as if nothing had happened while Allan struggled to say, “You look 10 years younger” through his chortles and wide smile.

I knew Allan like so many of us did, through going to and playing gigs. It was always a joy to see Allan at a gig, if not to discuss the post show merits of the band we had just watched but also the relief to know I was only the second oldest guy with a beard at the show. Allan could light up and shine with eyes wide when waxing on mid-’60s Montreal garage rock, the Beatles before they exploded on Ed Sulivan, seeing Muddy Waters or the Bad Brains at Rising Sun in 1982 to Montreal punks like My Dog Popper or the Montreal indie explosion of the early oughts. Although Allan was eager to talk about the history of the Montreal music scene it was when he talked about current local bands that were currently flipping his wig that you really saw Allan’s eyes bulge out of their sockets. Admittedly I had seen him get just as passionate for the Habs and apparently football (the soccer kind) but when our paths thankfully collided our blue streak was always about the toonz, past and present.

Allan was probably best known to musicians for his generosity and was only too eager to support a band if not by just showing up to your gig but buying up everything on your merch table. Not to say he was all rainbows and unicorns all the time, because if he didn’t like your band he would feel compelled to let you know. About five years ago, a band I was involved in just played a drone note for 45 minutes at a loft show and directly afterwards, before I could even unplug my guitar, Allan uttered in my ear, “That sucked.” He was right again — it did suck.

My personal favourite memory of Allan was when a previous band I was in played a tribute night to the Kinks at some godforsaken venue at St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine that isn’t there anymore. The week before Allan was talking about a show he recently saw and how he was looking forward to the Kinks tribute night as a lot of his favourite local bands were playing. I said it might be nice if he finally saw the stage perspective from the musician viewpoint and suggested he get on stage with us. He instantly agreed and said he could bang a tambourine, which was so prevalent in the Kinks’ Shel Talmy-produced mono mixes. He really blew my mind when he showed up at my rehearsal space door to work out his tambourine banging. I was in awe over how seriously he took it and the pure passion he put into hitting that fucking thing. It was like Josie and Pussycats on bathtub crank. At the gig, I introduced Allan to the packed house as my father (a shiddy joke I overused at every show Allan turned up to that I was playing at) and he kicked everybody’s ass. No other band on the bill could touch us and it was all because of Allan’s unbridled enthusiasm. For years after that, Allan would always recount that night with a smile and a glint in his eye. It was one of his fondest musical memories.

I wasn’t a crier for most of my life. I’m sure when I was a toddler I would bawl up a storm but into my teens up to the end of my 40s, not a drop. But for some wacky reason, now that I’ve hit my 50s, I well up every now and again and am getting less callous with turning on the waterworks. I’ve probably cried a good three times just writing this thing. I guess I feel I share more with Allan than just a greying beard. Allan has always been a measuring stick that I’ve used when trying to figure out how to age like a true motherfucker while retaining compassion and empathy instead of burying my head up my own ass. About 10 POP Montreals ago, I would see Allan running at full tilt from venue to venue until finally, on the last night, he was hospitalized as he had literally worn himself down trying to squeeze in as many shows as humanly possible. His goal was to show as much support to as many bands as possible. Live music really meant that much to him and it didn’t wane at all, from his high school years to the end of his life. Since his death I’ve been hearing stories about his housing advocacy work, his dutiful work at McGill and even providing the neighbourhood kids with hockey sticks and coaching so they could play in their back alley. For years now, my best friend and I always agreed that if we could all just be a positive light force like Allan in our autumn years then our misspent youth was all worthwhile.

To Gail, friends, colleagues, local musicians and his two children, we are as lucky as they come for having had Allan’s zest for life pouring into our own. ■

A memorial for Allan Youster will be held on Sept. 7 at his favourite watering hole, Barfly (4062A St-Laurent), 6 to 8 p.m. There will be a meeting of friends followed by a night of music. All are welcome.