Gay artist and activist Will Munro's life ended too soon. A new book tells his story through the eyes of those who knew him.
Like many people who attended Vazaleen parties, Sarah Liss has a little trouble recalling her first time. “I have this vague, blurry recollection of some friends of mine taking me to Vazaleen when I was 19 or 20 and being very nervous, feeling like it was this weird Xanadu I was walking into.”
The brainchild of local gay artist Will Munro, who died of brain cancer in 2010, the wild monthly rock-and-roll nights started at the El Mocambo in 1999, before moving to Lee’s Palace in 2001, where they continued until 2006. “I remember kind of getting the sense that this guy was in charge of everything,” Liss says of Munro that night. “He reminded me in that moment of an Italian greyhound or a whippet. He was wearing this grey wool hat. I just remember him kind of being the centre of things and having this grace about him. But I didn’t really talk to him or anything.”
Her new book, Army of Lovers, chronicles Munro’s life through the memories of his acquaintances, friends, lovers, and family members. To help celebrate its release and perhaps conjure a sense of nostalgia, a Vaza-Launch party at Lee’s Palace on Wednesday will feature performances by acts no strangers to the Vazaleen stage: Peaches and Light Fires.
It was when Liss began working as a music editor at NOW Magazine that she began to hear frequently from Munro. He was gracious enough to provide her with his services when he learned of her unfamiliarity with some of the iconic queer performers, like Jayne County, that he was starting to book for his events. “They were these history classes I would get once a month on my own queer heritage,” she says. “The complementary part of that is that he was also a fantastic promoter. He knew that if he sold me on the story, that I would do a quick little profile on whatever performer was performing in NOW and then promote that month’s Vazaleen. But it totally worked.”
When Munro later took the reins as co-owner of The Beaver, Liss became well acquainted with the outdoor seating area there. “I was on the patio of the Beaver pretty much five or six nights a week. And Will would be there, and we would all hang out. Every so often, something crazy and magical would happen,” she says. On a rainy Monday night, Munro took a small group to his apartment upstairs and ended up giving Liss a signed copy of Cherie Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel. Even so, Liss stops short of saying they were close friends.
This is why, when Coach House Books approached her about writing a book for its Exploded Views series, she realized quickly that the kaleidoscopic approach was the best way to proceed. “He accomplished so much and was so many things to so many people. I knew that I wanted their voices to be what carried the story,” she says. Before setting out to contact anyone, Liss wrote an essay in the Grid (where she now works as an editor) that would become the preface for the book. It also served another purpose. “I think I did it in part because I wanted to have something out there before I started to contact people to talk to them about telling their stories. I felt like it was only fair to put myself out there a bit before asking people to do the same.”
Soon afterwards, she heard from Will’s brother, Dave. “His message was, ‘It was often so hard for Will. Will often felt like people didn’t necessarily grasp what he was trying to do.’ And he felt like my piece kind of captured that.” With the important blessing of Will’s family secured, she took to the usual digital channels. “I went through Facebook,” she says. “Alex McClelland, who was Will’s first real boyfriend and his best friend throughout his life, also after reading the piece was totally on board. He was instrumental in helping me figure out who to talk to.” Some, like renowned performer Vaginal Davis, were harder to reach than others.
“I contacted her through this 500-year-old website and then her personal assistant, who’s a student, got in touch with me and was like, ‘Ms. Davis does not speak on the phone. She does not use e-mail. She is not technologically savvy. She does not Skype. She has like an old Commodore 64, basically. If you want, you can send me your questions, and if she has some time while she’s lecturing at a German university, perhaps she’ll get back to you.’ And then amazingly, she did.”
Perhaps best known for an exhibition of designer underwear that launched his art career, thanks in no small part to publicity generated by criticism from Sun columnist Michael Coren, Munro created artwork that anyone could appreciate. “He drew on the iconography of many, many, many different niche cultures, whether you’re talking about punk rock or leather daddies or even Klaus Nomi, who’s kind of a genre unto himself,” Liss says. “But he brought all of these things together in a language that was really accessible.” Vazaleen was no exception.
“I remember it being much more racially and culturally diverse than a lot of events I’ve been to before or since,” Liss says. “I think it was really important for him to be inclusive and, on a selfish level, be able to have all of his friends there. But also, I think it was a value he held that dated back to his roots in punk-rock anarchist culture and activism.”
Ever since Munro succumbed to cancer at the age of 35, some have felt as though there’s a hole in the city, but Liss senses the spirit of Munro even in some of the outrageous drag outfits she sees at events around town. “I know when Will was very ill, he made this insane drag getup out of McDonald’s paraphernalia,” she says. “Anytime a queen dresses up in something like that, I feel like there’s a little bit of Will that is alive in this city.” Queer-friendly venues like Buddies in Bad Times and videofag also seem to carry on Munro’s work.
“It’s one thing to acknowledge the ways in which he broke down walls and created a new kind of queer culture in this city,” Liss says. “But it’s also really important to look at how far we have to go.”