Mendelson Joe, Canadian Singer-Songwriter, Visual Artist and Activist, Dies at 78

He was a fixture of Toronto's arts community for over four decades

Photo: Michael D'Amico

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Feb 8, 2023

Mendelson Joe — the Canadian singer-songwriter, visual artist, and activist who was a fixture of Toronto's arts community for over four decades — has died. News of the artist's passing was shared on Twitter by friend, poet and musician Robert Priest, who confirmed via Joe's partner and gallerist Karen Robinson that he chose a medically assisted death following a battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 78.

"My dear friend Mendelson Joe left the building yesterday morning as planned. I will continue to be in touch with him through his magnificent paintings and one-of-a-kind recordings," Priest wrote. "Sincere condolences to his partner Karen Robinson... She sent me an email that said this. 'Joe had a peaceful ending yesterday just as planned. He was fittingly surrounded by a bevy of warm and compassionate women. And now Joe is released from the worsening imprisonment of his body by Parkinson's... Thank goodness for the version of MAID (Track 2) that allows the person themselves to determine their own threshold for insufferable reduced quality of life."

Born Birrell Josef Mendelson in Maple, ON, in 1944, Joe taught himself to play guitar at age 11, and at 19, began performing as Joe Mendelson in the mid-'60s. Later that decade, he would team with guitarist Mike McKenna to form blues rock outfit McKenna Mendelson Mainline. Rounded out by bassist Mike Harrison and drummer Tony Nolasco, the four-piece would make their debut with 1969's Stink, released via Liberty Records/United Artists.

Stink would be followed by studio LPs McKenna Mendelson Blues (1969), Canada Our Home & Native Land (1971) and 1972 live set The Mainline Bump'n'Grind Revue — Live at the Victory Theatre, captured at the long-shuttered downtown Toronto venue. 1972 would be Mendelson's last year with the group, leaving to pursue a solo career with the release of debut Mr Middle of the Road that year. Briefly joining in his place was a pre-fame Rick James — already well-acquainted with the city and its music scene from his time playing alongside Neil Young in the Mynah Birds.

Joe would begin releasing music as Mendelson Joe with 1979's Not Homogenized, which earned a young Daniel Lanois an early engineering credit upon its release via the Stompin' Tom Connors-founded label Boot Records. Into the 1980s, Joe would record with Canadian players including guitarist Colin Linden, violinist Ben Mink, the Shuffle Demons, Prairie Oyster drummer Bruce Moffett and more. His 1988 album Born to Cuddle, released via Anthem Records, saw a music video for "Dance With Joe" — a lighthearted, steady-stomping blues in which the artist sings of "[eating] pizza and [dancing] to Tchaikovsky" — receive airplay on MuchMusic.

"I've made 30 albums over my career, and I've written at least 50 good songs," Joe told The Globe and Mail in 2021, after sharing of his music career, "My last album was 2012′s Art Is the Healer, and no one covered it or reviewed it. My music career, as far as I am concerned, is over, based on the fact that I am irrelevant."

A biography on Joe's personal website tells of how he began painting in 1975 upon rescuing "some derelict paints from the garbage," trying the visual form "just to see what it was like." His work would go on to be housed by the Canada Council Art Bank, the Portrait Gallery of Canada and in "numerous private and corporate collections worldwide."

Outside of his focus on portraiture, Joe painted landscapes and other scenes — some of which appear on the covers of his solo albums. Perhaps foreshadowing one of his best-known portraits, the cover of 1981's Let's Party features himself at a gathering in which every other person in the scene has a rear end for a head.

The year 2000 saw Joe leave the city of Toronto, moving to cabin in Ontario's Almaguin Highlands, west of Algonquin Park. In 2006, Joe was featured in a segment of the Rick Mercer Report, in which the comedian visits the artist's home to view his work and have his own portrait painted. As you'll find below, Joe exhibits his well-known portrait of Brian Mulroney (featuring a prominent buttocks in place of his face), a suitably dead-eyed, devil-horned likeness of Stephen Harper, and a portrait of Jean Chrétien plainly dubbed "Piece of Shit in a Suit."

"I have a problem with liars. People who betray public trust, to me... belong in jail," Joe tells Mercer at one point, later adding of his political portraiture, "I'm not in the business of flattery. I'm not a gush guy. I try to tell the truth."

Before painting Mercer's portrait, Joe dismisses the show's camera crew, explaining, "Here's the other corollary rule... no one's in the building except the two of us when I paint, so have a nice day — it means, 'see you guys in about two and a half hours,' please."

Asked about the title of his aforementioned 2012 album, Joe told The Globe, "When you see art or hear art, it lifts up the receiving party. And when I make art or make music, I get huge fulfilment. When I do it well, the payoff is the quality and the imagination I see or hear before me. It inspires me, and the inspiration is the healing part. When I go to an art gallery, I'm uplifted. When I listen to a record by Gwen Swick or Selina Martin, I just go nuts. It's all about tickling your sense of life. Some people may listen to the rock groups KISS or Rush. I don't listen to them, but the point is that it's in the eye or the ear of the beholder, whether you're making this stuff or you're receiving its delivery system."

Find tributes to Joe from Toronto's artistic community below.

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