The Broke and the Beautiful

High Friends in Low Places

A review of High Friends in Low Places by Alan Lord

Published on October 31, 2022

Montreal in the early and mid-eighties was nothing short of Valhalla if you were more than willing to starve for your art. You could pay your entire rent from returning empty bottles of Labatt 50, or simply fumbling through the cushions of your couch for change. If your landlord turfed you to the curb, no problem: you could just move your five t-shirts, homemade bong, and four vinyl records two doors down the street. Nickel bags of weed were available to those of us who couldn’t afford the steep price of dime bags, and a haze of fine Afghani black hash hung thick and perfumed the air.

High Friends in Low Places
Alan Lord

Guernica Editions
352 pp

If you think I’m looking back at Montreal’s hedonistic years with rose-coloured lenses, I assure you I am not: I was there. When I peeled back the cover to Alan Lord’s memoir of Montreal’s shady, beautiful, and broke past, High Friends in Low Places, I remained skeptical. After skimming the pages for mention of Habitant pea soup (check), as this was the staple diet along with Foufounes Électriques draft for any Montreal artiste of the day, I knew Lord indeed had the credentials to tell the story – anal warts and all. In fact, much like his heroes (and friends) of the day Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, and Kathy Acker, Lord logged his reports of art terrorism, musical muckraking, and hedonistic hustling directly within the eye of the storm.

Of course any memoir worth its salt is going to have a healthy amount of name-dropping, and some of the “High Friends” who Lord eventually rubs shoulders with are literary and artistic notables who would bring about the underground scene as we know it today. Thankfully, Lord also spills some light on other local mavericks who rode on the bottom of the marquee and who inspire just as much awe in him. It’s the discovery of local poets such as Mario Campo and art provocateur Monty Cantsin that really puts an indelible mark on the author.

Just like a DJ set culled from Foufounes, the Montreal cultural hub of the time, this is a fast and bumpy ride whose driver does not take his foot off the gas pedal. Lord’s dedication to artistic expression, be it music, art, performance art, or architecture, is unwavering throughout this page-turner, as characters weave in and out of the tapestry of the book.

Lord also proves himself an expert wordsmith, and wastes little time on constructing a story arc. He simply asks you to hold on tight while he reaches for the marrow in your spine. His tale is brimming with poverty, partying, and unabashed artistic expression, but the reader also feels the tides change as the push and pull of real life comes a-calling, and eventually grabs him out of the underground art scene by the scruff of his threadbare thrift store shirt and plops him down in the lumbar chair of an architecture firm.

While hustling at last call at Foufounes or sticking his nose in bags where it shouldn’t be, Lord’s passion to create against all odds is laser-focused throughout the 300 pages of hard-fought victories and crushing defeats that make this book such a great read.

High Friends in Low Places rides like a roller coaster of thrills, spills, and, uh, pills, but don’t get too caught up in the sordid details, as you will really miss out. This really is a coming-of-age story, in which the creative spirit refuses to be snuffed out and is put in a place where it can continue to grow.

Lord paints a picture of a different time and a different place: a Montreal that really thrived in the shadows without reward, and, for an all-too-brief time, showed what it was like to truly be alive.mRb

Johnson Cummins is a musician and freelance music journalist in Montreal. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Montreal Mirror, and Bass Fishing Today. He can be found taking up residence on local Montreal stages with bands such as The Meatballs, The Lazers, and The Puppeteer’s Castle. He enjoys movie nights with his two dogs and masturbation.


1 Comment

  1. Tracy Howe

    It’s a brilliant book and Alan didn’t miss anything. It brought a lot back to me. A must read.


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