«RETURN TO 501 Queen Streetcar

The music of the 501



Jim Rankin Staff Reporter

Before he made a name for himself — before he worked with Céline Dion, Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban and Gladys Knight and came up with an Olympic theme song — Stephan Moccio worked the bars of Yorkville.

Piano man to the wealthy.

The freshly divorced. The freshly drunk. Old problems in need of a fresh ear.

As Billy Joel described in his song "Piano Man," "a lot of people do open up to you at the bars," recalls Moccio. "I saw a lot of Toronto and I worked my ass off as a pianist."

After last call — having on some days worked Centro, the Four Seasons and the Café des Artistes in a single evening — Moccio would grab a book, slip on headphones and hop a subway train to Queen St.

From there, he'd transfer to the Queen 501 streetcar.

"And literally go from the west end to the east end and I would . . . come back and go to bed at some crazy hour in the night," says Moccio. "I was exhausted. I was burnt."

He would people watch at an hour when the people are most interesting to watch. He would gaze out the window at the passing scenes and he would listen to, and feel, the rhythm of the ride.

"I found that just the sound of the streetcar was massaging and just lulling. It was embryonic. I just felt like I could just chill out and relax on it. Sometimes I'd actually fall asleep.

"And those, sometimes, were some of the times you remember the most, because I was still struggling really hard as a songwriter, as a musician. I still hadn't sort of popped that big hit."

The hits, came later, including I Believe, the theme of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. So did two children. Today, at 39, Moccio splits his time among New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, his home base. He's just off the road after travelling Canada on pre-auditions as one of three judges in Canada's Got Talent, set to air on Citytv in March.

He sits in his downtown Toronto studio, where, if you were to listen to raw tracks, you might hear the rumble of a streetcar. And he re-visits Exposure, a piano album of his that was released in 2006 and sold 50,000 copies.

Track 18, in particular, was inspired by his Queen car rides.

Listen to "Neville Park" with headphones and hear the soft puh-shush of dampers on strings, to the rhythm of a streetcar. And the notes that go around and around on a song, as his CD liner notes mention, about a "streetcar that comes and goes, back and forth, never ending, on and on and on and on . . . "

"If you allow yourself to just kind of get lost in that trance, it's quite relaxing in an urban kind of strange way," says Moccio, who studied music at the University of Western Ontario.

"As a musician, I'm very aware of the sounds around me and sometimes you kind of joke and say, ‘The streetcar's humming at a B major, or an A major.' "

An inspiration without a destination.

It's a perspective vastly different from that of most riders — the down and hungry, young students and families with classes and appointments to make, the blue-collar, the middle and the upper class, being ferried to and from work.

That's the Queen car 501 route, quintessential Toronto.

"I think it's a staple," says Moccio. "It represents the heart of the city, the fact that this is actually a world-class city that never sleeps, and that is what the streetcar is to me.

"You think about it, it really goes from one end to the other . . . and it just keeps on going. And it never shuts down. I don't know, how cool is that?"

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Toronto pianist and composer Stephan Moccio was inspired by the 501 streetcar so much that he wrote a song about it called "Neville Park".

JIM RANKIN/TORONTO STAR

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