I first met Mendelson Joe when he and his then-girlfriend, Georgia Watterson, came over to our place for dinner. Must have been mid-’80s or so. Joe wasn’t a big socializer and Georgia taught with me at Centennial. She always wanted to know how I felt about something.
They were an unusual couple, both interested in painting and sculpture, and in Big Ideas. My next memory is that Joe sent me a memoir called A Man and His Penis. I read it, with interest and curiosity, and told him I very much liked his story, but his writing was shit. Turns out Joe loved that I was honest with him, and he complimented me for 30+ years because of my candour. Always with a chuckle.
I didn’t publish his memoir but I did ask Nadia Halim to write his bio, Alien: The Strange Life and Times of Mendelson Joe. That book plus one of his painting books, maybe Joe’s Politicians, will be a good start for your investigation. Many people recommend Stink, from McKenna Mendelson Mainline, as a music starter.
Promoting Joe’s books was problematic because of his skepticism about journalists. The one big launch we had was held at University College, U of T, where the only drink allowed was bottled water which we relabeled Not Walkerton Water. Or something like that.
Most of our interactions were on the phone. A typical phone call would begin with Joe asking about my health. Not out of politeness but concern. Maybe he just wanted to make sure I’d be around to publish his next book, but I think it was genuine. For Joe, honesty was all. Small talk was disdained.
At some point in the phone call, I’d tell Joe a joke (often with a Jewish theme) and he’d laugh, mostly because I’d crack myself up, even before the punchline. It became a tradition that I had to open with a joke. On Monday last week, in what was my last phone call with Joe, I told him this one.
A man dies and goes to heaven. Once there, he meets God. He tells God a Holocaust joke. God thinks for a second, and says, I don’t get it. The man says, “Guess you had to be there.”
Maybe I wouldn’t tell a lot of people that joke the day before they planned to die. But Joe? Got a big laugh. He wasn’t depressed or sad; he was merely unhappy that the Parkinson’s prevented him from playing his guitar or painting or writing. Well, he still could write but his handwriting was getting difficult to decipher.
He had a wide range of friends and supporters. Moses Znaimer and Neil Peart collected his paintings. Robert Priest wrote songs with him. Joe pointed me to Bob Wiseman’s online music writing, and we did publish that book, Music Lessons.
Most remembrances of Joe call him unique. He was. And he made it to 78.6. On his own terms. He always signed off his phone calls the same way: 10-4.
So 10-4, Joe.
Self-portrait by Mendelson Joe.