Mr. Montreal: If Richard Burnett doesn't attend your event, it might be said that it never happened
'Burnett is to Montreal what the lighthouse is to Peggy's Cove: part of the landscape and always shining'
If you live in Montreal and you go out at night, you know Richard "Bugs" Burnett. Perhaps that's an understatement. If you live in Montreal and go outside, you know Burnett. Existentially speaking, if Richard Burnett does not attend your event, it might be said that your event never happened.
For 25 years now, the columnist, radio chat show fixture and television personality has written about Montreal's culture scene with a diligence and tireless energy that would turn a journalist half his age into a teary fetal-position-curled wreck. Burnett never stops. Career highlights include his syndicated column "Three Dollar Bill," which ran for 15 years and remains Canada's only LGBTQ-centred weekly; long running gigs with The Gazette, CJAD radio and Fugues; an editorship at Montreal's much-missed alt-weekly HOUR; a Life Network hosting job; plus interviewing both Cher and Justin Trudeau (that's not a phrase you read every day).
I once asked Burnett what his record was for most events attended in 24 hours, and, after some thought, he stopped counting at 11 — only because he couldn't remember the exact venues, not the shows. Covering everything from theatre to book launches, art exhibitions to pop concerts, supper club jazz shows to stand-up comedians, Burnett is to Montreal what the lighthouse is to Peggy's Cove: part of the landscape and always shining.
My approach to opera, as well as [other] theatre and music, is to throw in some sass and glamour, some behind-the-scenes honesty, keep it fun and real.- Richard "Bugs" Burnett
Reflecting on his quarter-century milestone in the culture racket, Burnett reminds me how much the social landscape has changed since he started "Three Dollar Bill."
"When I started 'Three Dollar Bill' in July 1996, it was still pretty much the Jurassic era when it came to LGBTQ civil rights in Montreal," he says. "My hometown's Stonewall was the violent Sex Garage police raid in July 1990, and HIV antiretroviral therapy only began in 1996."
"HOUR launched my column in July 1996, with considerable drama," he continues, "and people, even gay people, thought I'd run out of column ideas quickly, but I never did. And as the column expanded across the country, the readership became so large — over a million at its peak — that I could get interviews with pretty much anybody. I also covered stories that the mainstream media at the time wouldn't touch, and I wrote about topics the LGBTQ community shied away from — like racism and transphobia in the queer community."
Over the years, Burnett got tons of letters and emails from kids across the country and to this day folks still come up to him to say how much they loved "TDB" growing up.
"I never get tired of it because it reminds me of how different gay life was back then and how much we have all changed for the better," he says.
Cultural shifts come in all sizes and shapes, Burnett notes, and while he has always written about the arts and popular culture in equal measure, the current supremacy of pop culture — aided by shrinking newsrooms and traditional arts coverage — has allowed him to become a new kind of specialist.
I believe cross-generational friendships and conversations can help support and sustain the arts, help bridge the digital divide and remind us all how essential art is in our daily lives. A world without art is not a world worth living in.- Richard "Bugs" Burnett
"I actually used to write more about so-called 'pop culture,' but as the years wore on, I realized few people could write about opera well. So it became one of my beats. My approach to opera, as well as [other] theatre and music, is to throw in some sass and glamour, some behind-the-scenes honesty, keep it fun and real."
But even with his particular spin on what we used to call "the Arts" (note the capital A), Burnett laments the decline in overall arts coverage — a decline he has watched play out before his eyes.
"Arts companies in Montreal are having trouble reaching older audiences as traditional media coverage is disappearing. That's why I believe cross-generational friendships and conversations can help support and sustain the arts, help bridge the digital divide and remind us all how essential art is in our daily lives. A world without art is not a world worth living in."
Burnett says that what he loves most about his job is the writing itself. "When I'm so into what I'm doing, I can't write fast enough. I love to write. And I love interviewing people, finding out what makes them tick. Had I not become a journalist, I would have become an archaeologist. I also love living downtown. I love being in a big city. It makes me feel alive."
At this point, I have to beg Burnett for one of his many celebrity stories. He's met "practically everybody", he tells me, and then shares this bit of gold:
"My all-time favourite was Joan Rivers, whom I interviewed many times over the years. She always gave me good quotes. In the 2010 documentary film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Ms. Rivers says on-camera, 'No man has ever told me I'm beautiful.' So I called Ms. Rivers — who was at some studio in New York getting her hair blow-dried, no less — and I told her, 'I like what you've done with your plastic surgery and I think you're beautiful!' Ms. Rivers laughed, and then cracked, 'Well, thank you, but you're too late!'"