From rock 'n' roll to home renovation, she always
found an audience in Vancouver
Gentle in person but a ferocious interviewer, she
drove certain readers mad with her 'hard-left feminist
By TOM HAWTHORN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, January 24, 2008 - Print Edition, Page S8
VICTORIA -- Rod Stewart once greeted her at the door
to his hotel room clad only in underwear and a sexy,
Rod the Mod may have had amour in mind, but Jeani Read
arrived armed with pen and notepad in search of nothing more
thrilling than bons mots.
Stylish in dress and energetic in style, Ms. Read
herself could have been mistaken for a star. As a freelance
critic, her eager approach and prolific coverage managed to
create a rock music beat where none had existed in the pages
of The Province, a morning broadsheet in Vancouver not
previously known for being attuned to popular music.
She was a rare woman in any city to be covering rock
in those days, perhaps excusing Mr. Stewart's mistaken
impression as to the reason for her appearance at his room.
Kind and gentle in person, she could be a ferocious
interviewer. Her successor as rock critic, Tom Harrison,
described an incident in which Billy Joel waited to be
interviewed by Ms. Read backstage: "She came flying in,
wearing a fur coat, boa scarf, floppy hat and carrying an
oversized handbag that contained her interview notes," Mr.
Harrison wrote. "Behind her large-framed glasses, she seemed
flustered. Right, thought Joel, as he observed this
apparently ditzy female, piece of cake.
"Jeani's first question to him, once her nervous
energy had been relatively contained, was, 'Why do you hate
women?' " Mr. Joel would later pronounce it the most
difficult interview of his life.
In 1971, the Georgia Straight described her arriving
at a cocktail party for Elton John in "buckskin hot pants
and a matching midicoat." She immediately nabbed the star
for a quick, exclusive interview.
When she reviewed George Harrison's first North
American solo tour after the breakup of the Beatles, her
opinion was reprinted in a feature article by Rolling Stone
"All I could think about was Dylan a few months ago,"
she wrote in 1974, "singing all his songs wrong for all the
people who wanted to hear them the way they were used to
hearing them. Because Harrison sang most of his songs wrong,
too. Except the painful difference was that Dylan was in
complete control of what he was doing. It was an
extraordinary experience in image breaking, of personal
integrity. And George - well, George didn't seem as if he
knew what he was doing at all."
Her enthusiasm waned as she tired of rock's banality
in the late 1970s. Finding little in punk to rekindle her
interest, she abandoned music to write a lifestyles column.
It was called "Stayin' Alive," which, incidentally, was the
title of a contemporary Bee Gees hit. She brought an
unpredictability and a certain freewheeling sensibility
owing much to her own coming of age in the 1960s. The column
made her one of Vancouver's best-known journalists.
In a city where newspaper columnists succeeded by
writing about exotic nightlife or the even more bizarre
world of B.C. politics, Ms. Read found a readership by
exploring the topics of morality and behaviour that in an
earlier age would have been dismissed as women's issues.
B.C. Bookworld magazine described her style as
"cryptic and often witty." Her prose was idiosyncratic to be
sure, yet it was eminently readable. She drove certain
readers mad - usually men.
Rafe Mair, the radio hotline host who had been a
Social Credit cabinet minister, dismissed her in The
Financial Post as a "columnist of the hard-left feminist
One of her critical correspondents was a young male
university student to whom she responded with a letter that
left an impression. Many years later, the student wound up
as her boss. Making the effort to respond "was a lesson in
decency and professionalism," Province editor-in-chief Wayne
Moriarty told his newspaper after her death.
A short newspaper blurb or overheard snippet of
conversation could give birth to a column. "She just kept
her ear to the ground," said her husband, Michael Mercer, a
playwright and writer for television. "It was very much as
A 1992 column about the Ontario court battle over
women's right to walk topless in public made several piquant
observations. Ms. Read agreed with the women's position, yet
teased them for not campaigning for, say, universal breast
screening. She also offered her support to topless dancers -
"exploited by the patriarchy on one hand and treated with
contempt by their sisters on the other."
She finished the column by noting that she would be
attending the Vancouver Folk Festival ("a pioneer
breast-rights venue"), but not an upcoming protest march in
Ontario, preferring instead to "wait for the next
inalienable-rights demonstration, when men across the
country participate in a Winkie Walk."
A collection of her more provocative columns, titled
Endless Summers and Other Shared Hallucinations, was
published by Flight Press in 1985.
Jeananne Patricia Read was born in Shanghai in 1947 to
George Read, a British accountant, and the former Elfreida
Ennock, an exotic beauty of German-Estonian ancestry. Ms.
Ennock was born in 1920 in Vladivostok, the Siberian city
that became an outpost of opposition to the Bolshevik
revolutionists. Her family fled to Shanghai. She met her
husband from among the expatriates living in the Chinese
city's International Settlement. They married in 1940,
spending four years in Japanese internment. After the family
emigrated to Canada, Elfreida Read spent time in a
sanatorium for treatment of tuberculosis. At this time, a
female relative helped care for Jeani, who spoke some
Russian as a child. Her mother recovered to enjoy a career
as a poet, memoirist and children's author.
Jeani graduated from the University of British
Columbia with an English degree. Her career at the Province
spanned a transition from broadsheet to tabloid, as well as
countless editorial regime changes.
The Georgia Straight saw the loss of her column some
years ago as a reflection of the newspaper's adoption of a
more monotonous political tone, as liberal voices
disappeared and those of a conservative bent became
In recent months, Ms. Read's considerable talents were
called upon to explore the intricacies of home renovations.
She also handled such lifestyles features as "Girl Talk" and
"Bachelor of the Week." If the assignments seemed somewhat
lesser than the person assigned to them, Ms. Read remained
as diligent as ever in crafting readable vignettes.
It must also be said she was a welcome presence in the
newsroom, where female colleagues enjoyed her friendship and
male colleagues quietly nursed their crushes. She was known
for her teasing office debates with Jim Taylor, a sports
columnist who held an antipathy to feminism and baseball,
both of which she ably defended.
She once dated Bruce Allen, the crusty rock promoter
whose first great success was Bachman-Turner Overdrive. They
had met at school in 1963, where Mr. Allen remembers a
brilliant, award-winning student. It was Ms. Read who
suggested to her boyfriend that he name his fledgling
booking agency and management company after himself, and it
is still known as Bruce Allen Talent.
The couple befriended Jack Wasserman, The Vancouver
Sun's legendary chronicler of saloon life, for whom Ms. Read
did research. The columnist provided entree to the city's
thriving club scene, as well as to the raucous newspaper
Ms. Read later met the man who would be her husband at
a reception held for poet Leonard Cohen.
Ms. Read wrote scripts with her husband, one of which,
an episode of The Beachcombers titled "Computer Error," was
nominated for a 1988 Gemini Award.
The couple once collaborated on a letter to the editor
of The Globe, suggesting the phenomenon known as the "brain
drain" instead should become known as the "greed bleed."
In 1999, her husband suffered kidney failure. In
searching for a donor, it was discovered that Ms. Read was a
match. She immediately volunteered to donate her kidney,
which Mr. Mercer still carries.
The failure of her health came with stunning speed.
Cancer of the esophagus was diagnosed only a few weeks
before her death. Her passing was so unexpected - and her
writing so consistently good - that another newspaper in the
CanWest chain reprinted one of her articles postmortem
without noting her passing.
Her untimely death means she did not have the chance
to begin a project she had long contemplated - a Canadian
version of William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, a
nostalgic travelogue of rural roads.
JEANANNE PATRICIA READ
Jeani Read was born Feb. 12, 1947, in Shanghai, China.
She died of cancer at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver on
Dec. 21, 2007. She was 60. She leaves her husband, Michael
Mercer, whom she married in 1983 after a lengthy courtship;
brother Philip Read and father George Read.
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