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?"
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
This is the letter where I explain
how you are a unit of composition.
In a dream, we are riding the Queen
car. It feels like Friday night, passengers
sealed in the foggy promise of potential parties.
You watch a woman wearing red legs
who holds a record crate and a bag with a message.
It reads: I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry Good-bye
For your farewell you filled eight notebooks
with the names of interesting animals.
Humming an old song:
you need me; you're gone.
If you forgive me for changing seats.
If you forgive me for swearing at the driver.
If you forgive me for carrying my brain
in my head like a glass of black water.
A Siberian Husky slips away from his owner
to sit with me as the drunk man calls out
commands from the front. I can't believe
But the wolf doesn't love us. He leaves.
In our sleep, I hear you repeat:
I don't want to get off
at the same stop
Damian Rogers is the author of the book Paper Radio. She works in Toronto as the creative director of Poetry In Voice, a recitation contest for high school students.
Author Damian Rogers is seen riding the Queen streetcar westbound from Spadina.
RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
hot humid rush hour
summer streetcar sound clash
doors open, enter
ghetto blaster on shoulder
"all hail the queen"
in cassette deck
radio dial tuned to flow
she is neo-vintage
collar popped high
like the king of prussia
she nods at conductor
metal strikes metal
she steps low high
s l o w
61 sit 183 stand cram
press damp flesh
pores open, sweat spices
smell everybody's kitchen
"next stop, bay street"
steam drips from windows
and ceiling-mounted cameras
"this the king one?"
"no ma'am, the 5-oh-1"
kipling and lakeshore. articulated light rail vehicle number four thousand two hundred and thirty-three. mechanical parts rumble, whistle, creak. seated at very back centre amidst debris of newspapers and messages in black marker: "i'm watching you" "d.g. was here." about to write "so was nkm" but get distracted, glimpse glistening water between buildings, humber bay park bridge backlit by rising sun, and passengers on fall runway display. sway walk sway walk sway. boots scarf clutch, pumps trench attaché, kicks t-shirt guitar, gladiators sweater suitcase. woman in double-seater fishes purse for mirror. applies chapstick, mascara, blush. cuts fingernails. "next stop, river street." willows weep concrete iron asphalt maple leaves. earbuds leak muted bass lines and snippets of conversations: "donc, t'achèteras les billets?" "chuh, is weh him a chat bout?" "i think she's in denial" "claro que si amigo"
three bus posts
Naila Keleta-Mae is an artist-scholar and an assistant professor in the department of drama and speech communication at the University of Waterloo. www.nailakeletamae.com
Author Naila Keleta-Mae is seen heading westbound on the 501 Queen streetcar.
RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
Author Robert Priest waits for the Queen streetcar while trying to keep out of the rain.
RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
Standing round a ringed red pole
Spending quantity time
With people we don't know.
We are in wait training
Me, Godot, the ferryman, the messiah — the whole crowd
Is in a holding pattern.
Feel the waiting, people
Waiting is good for the economy
So says the mayor
The waiting skills we acquire now will serve us later
When we wait for jobs, for operations, for painkillers
Few of us step out repeatedly
Into the middle of the road
To stare along the chock-a-block car tops
For some distant curve of coach at the event horizon
But look! What bus, its hour come at last, slouches toward us to be —
The words "Out of service," become legible
The driver creeps by beaming
But absolutely no one curses out loud
No one is pounding their fist in rage
Our breath mists may mingle in the darkening night air
But if our eyes meet
It is only to shake our heads and shrug that
We didn't walk home when we had the chance
We could have been in the warm and dry right now
But we are still here at the all-you-can-wait
Absorbing stasis and delay and frost
Sucking up the longing, miles and miles of deeply embodied longing
And we are not alone
All across the city taut elastic tightens in the chest
A protracted hope stretched thin
That one day like a kind of lateral rapture
Our car will come
And we will herd on into the herd
Squeeze in among the squeezed
And it will at last lurch forward
At least half a block . . . before . . .
It hits gridlock . . .
And jerks forward again
And hits gridlock and stops
And a new and even more terrible
Robert Priest's latest book of poems, Reading the Bible Backwards, can be purchased online at www.ecwpress.com/book/reading-bible-backwards