London

Ben Portis: How 10,000 records of a late Canadian music lover will live on

The extensive record collection of Ben Portis, the London-born art curator who died last month in a car accident, has returned to the Forest City and will be sold at a record show in October.

Vinyl records were owned by a stalwart in London's art and music scene

London born art curator and critic Ben Portis died July 20 in a car accident north of Toronto. (Canadian Art Foundation)

It was tragic news that rippled quickly through the arts community in southern Ontario, particularly in London.

Ben Portis, 56, died July 20 in a traffic accident on Highway 400 north of Toronto. 

Originally from London, Portis was a well-known art curator who worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie. He was also a well-respected art critic with a reputation for championing new and emerging artists. 

"Ben loved art and was a great friend of artists," wrote curator Jessica Bradley. "He dedicated himself to the art he loved, not to trend or fashion."

His final years were spent living in Toronto but his mark on the London arts and music scene is indelible. 

One of his passions was music and his immense record collection — about 10,000 vinyl records — have now returned to London to be sold at the London Record Show in October. 

Michael Todd, owner of Speed City Records on Springbank Drive, came to know Ben Portis as a regular customer and collector of vinyl records. At the request of the family, Todd will sell off portions of Portis's immense collection, which is estimated to number some 10,000 vinyl records. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Legacy lives on

After his death, the music lover's family contacted Peter Strack, owner of Old East Vinyl Hub, to buy the records. Needing help to deal with such an immense collection, Strack contacted Michael Todd, owner of Speed City Records on Springbank Avenue.

Todd knew Portis well. He was a regular customer at his store. The two formed an acquaintance talking about art and music as Ben rooted through the bins. 

"He was always interesting, always a delight to see," recalled Todd. "He always had a different perspective on music and the things he was interested in. He could find pretty interesting records in box that seemed like it had nothing in it.

"He was navigating his own tastes. He wasn't going by what he read in a book, he wasn't going by Rolling Stone top 500. He was checking things out, listening to it, and making up his own mind and deciding whether it was important."

Organized by Ben Portis, the first No Music Festival was held in London in 1998 and ran for five years. The festival made a big impression on Michael Todd, a record dealer who owns Speed City Records. 'Artists from all over came to sleepy London, Ontario and it was absolutely incredible,' he said. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Todd is happy the collection is back in London. His task now: sort the entire collection over "many late nights" to see what's there. He did flip through one small part of the collection: a box of 45 RPM singles. It's a mix of punk, post-punk and new wave from the 1970s and 80s. 

"Going through someone's record collection ... is a window into someone's life. You can actually see different periods of someone's life. I find I get an understanding of where their tastes were headed. I find it fascinating," he said.

One fascinating aspect of the curator was his role in establishing an unusual music festival that drew to London fans from across North America. 

By the late 1990s the reputation of London's Nihilist Spasm Band was well established. The group plays a kind of atonal, free-form, improvised music that many would place in the "noise" genre, as much as you can call it a genre. The Spasm Band's ranks were filled by amateur musicians and artists, among them acclaimed London painter Greg Curnoe. 

Armed with a mix of homemade and modified instruments, the band members fed off each other, "writing" the music while it was being played. To some, it was a cacophony without purpose.

Others, like Ben Portis, saw the artistry in the noise. He also seemed to appreciate the band's efforts to push aside the boundaries that frame almost every other form of music. 

London music festivals 

With the Nihilist Spasm Band as its anchor, Portis organized London's No Music Festival in 1998. Five other No Music Festivals followed. Each drew artists from across North America. Thurston Moore of the seminal band Sonic Youth, visited London and became a fan. 

Art Pratten, a member of the band, said the curator's work on the festival helped "solidify" London's place in the noise scene. His love of the music was matched by diplomacy skills, which were needed to pull together a ramshackle collection of artists -- their very work an effort to repel all forms of order. He helped made it work. And it was a success. 

"People from all over were calling saying 'When's the next one?' People came on their own hook to play from California and Iowa," said Pratten. "The No Music Festival became a touchstone."

Art Pratten's home is adorned with posters of the Nihilist Spasm Band. He credits Ben Portis with putting on the first No Music Festival in London, which brought together noise music enthusiasts and helped solidify it as a legitimate art form. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Todd, the music store owner, attended many of those No Music festivals.

"Artists from all over came to sleepy London Ontario and it was absolutely incredible," he said. "I never expected it to happen. People really appreciate it and remember it."

Still together after 53 years, Pratten and the Nihilist Spasm Band continue to bring their brand of noise/music to fans around the world. This year, the band — most members now well into their senior years — will play in Winnipeg and Berlin. 

Remembering Portis 

The curator's friends and family will gather to remember Portis in London on Sept. 16.

A memorial in Toronto is planned for November.

As for his 10,000 records, they will be sold at the London Record Show on Sunday, Oct. 29 at Centennial Hall from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Todd said anyone with questions about the collection is welcome to drop by his store at 294 Springbank Ave. He's only had time to sort through a fraction of the records, but said the collection spanned jazz, blues and country. 

Alan Matheson, a lifelong friend of Portis, said he's glad to see the collection return to London.  

"I hope, as does his family, that the records he had will be enjoyed, played and loved as they get re-distributed through the weird record collector's world out there. His enthusiasm and unfettered love of music will be missed, and as friend I will remember him fondly."

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.