Will Munro. Photo by John Caffery.
The night before I heard Will Munro had passed on to that great rock’n’roll fag bar in the sky, I was sitting in Trinity Bellwoods Park smoking a joint with my good friend and his, Kevin Hegge, the cute young man who used to work at Rotate This to tell you what cool music to buy.
Earlier in the evening, Kevin and I had gone to see legendary Lydia Lunch at the Royal, whose eloquent spoken-word diatribe against this increasingly fascist world was still ringing in our ears. Long story short, a young cop emerged from a cherry top to inform us snidely that it was against the law for us to be there at 2:30 a.m., and that because there was a random empty beer bottle under our bench, he had the right to search our backpacks. The fact that he failed to find my secret cache of illicit substances, from poppers on up, was the only upside to this sobering encounter, which made me realize, finally, that we are pretty much on the verge of, if not already, living in a police state. (FYI, Toronto Bylaw Section 608-9 B states: “Unless authorized by permit, no person shall use, enter or gather in a park between the hours of 12:01 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.” In other words, walking through any public park in Toronto after midnight is illegal and subject to a considerable fine.)
I bring up this incident now because it represents exactly the kind of Toronto—and world—that Will Munro always fought against.
Although Will himself didn’t smoke or drink or do drugs—he was always a straight-edge queen, and a vegan to boot—he never passed judgment on anyone who did, and in fact he was all about celebrating various sorts of nonconformist, rebellious, and anti-authoritarian behaviour. The loss of Will hits so many of us so hard because he was a warrior in that regard, someone who was offended by the very idea of being boring and conventional. In his own words, he always said he wanted to see “a lot of freak flags flying in Toronto.” And his, I say with the utmost admiration, was one of the freakiest.
Will was always an art fag par excellence, even in his OCAD days causing consternation with his choice of medium (found underwear, largely) and his defiant, open queerness. For many years, he volunteered at an LGBT youth crisis hotline, providing an empathetic ear for kids who found it difficult to cope in a homophobic world. Empathy, in fact, was one of the essential parts of Will’s character. He was a great listener, and he always made you feel good about yourself. He also rarely had a bad thing to say about anybody. These are exceedingly rare qualities.
Let there be no mistake, though: Sheena was a punk rocker. Will had a very distinct punk sensibility, both in musical taste and attitude, and he enjoyed walking on the wild side. He had a fondness for the macabre and the grotesque, occasionally dressing up in drag as a zombie hag from hell. His infamous guerilla birthday parties, wherein dozens of his friends and comrades would descend in costume on a particular subway car and party while literally hanging from the overhead handrails by their knees, creating general panic and a public nuisance, were just his style. No mindless vandalism, no hostility: just a fun reminder that it’s okay to act out in public, to break the rules, to challenge the status quo. It’s hard to imagine getting away with something like that in Toronto now. More’s the pity.
Will was a real Renaissance man—a successful artist (collaborating with a host of Toronto’s most creative characters, including Luis Jacob and Jeremy Laing), but also a respected DJ, promoter, activist, and restaurateur. He truly hit his stride with Vazaleen, a club night that allowed him to combine all his favourite obsessions: punk and no-wave rock’n’roll music, queers, dykes, trannies, pornography, performance art, go-go dancers, wild costumes, public indecency, strap-on dildos, what have you. He was the only promoter in town who consistently brought in the international royalty of queer and underground performers, everyone from Stink Mitt to Limp Wrist to Vaginal Crème Davis to Cherie Curie to Jayne County to Carol Pope to the Toilet Boys to Kembra Pfahler. (I took a particularly memorable road trip to Niagara Falls with Kembra and Will the day after she performed at Vazaleen, a memory I will always cherish.) He also provided an early platform for now more widely known musical forces such as Peaches, The Hidden Cameras, and The Gossip. Vazaleen, which started at the El Mocambo before moving to Lee’s Palace, was the first real homo club of note outside the gay ghetto, opening up queer culture to a broader audience of like-minded misfits of all genders and sexual persuasions. In Will’s own words: “When I started doing Vazaleen I was like finally there is a space where you can do fucking anything and no one is going to turn their nose up at you.” In a nutshell, that was Will’s credo.
Will insisted on being inclusive, but he also never betrayed his old school gay roots. Of all his club nights, one of my favourites was Moustache, which he held upstairs at Remingtons, Toronto’s only gay male strip bar. It was so much fun to see people of all sexes and ages participating in the amateur strip competition alongside the professional male strippers and the regular clientele. Only Will could pull off that kind of bizarre cultural fusion.
After Vazaleen, Will doggedly pursued his promise of creating life outside the ghetto by turning the Beaver Café (with Lyn McNeil) into the first real hothouse of queer activity on the west side. It was only after several successful years there that he discovered he had a brain tumour. It was a particularly aggressive from of cancer (one more often found in children), and it’s a testament to his heart and determination, his unwaveringly positive attitude about everything, and his sheer love of life that he valiantly fought the disease for two years. I think we all believed that if anyone could beat it, against all conceivable odds, Will could.
The last time I had a chance to speak at length with Will was at his art opening at the Paul Petro gallery a couple of months ago. (I’ve reviewed the show in the latest issue of C Magazine.) The cancer had already come back with a vengeance and he was a bit fragile, but what struck me was that he maintained the same commitment to his art, the same positive energy, the same consistency of attitude, and the same generosity of spirit that he’d always had. It was beyond humbling.
From all reports, Will was surrounded by an extremely loyal, loving, and supportive group of family and friends, including his boyfriend Peter, until the end. I know that many people are profoundly and painfully feeling the loss of this gentle, elegant soul, including yours truly. Toronto is already a much, much dimmer and less bearable place without him.
Bruce LaBruce is an underground filmmaker, writer, and photographer based out of Toronto. He has contributed words and photos to publications such as The National Post, Toronto Life, Vice, and the UK Guardian (among many others), and once held a regular column at both Eye Weekly and Exclaim!. He was also co-publisher of the popular queer zine J.D., and has released two books, The Reluctant Pornographer, his memoirs; and Ride, Queer, Ride.