End of an Era for Live Music In Toronto?
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End of an Era for Live Music In Toronto?

Deepening concern for the city's vanishing music venues.

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Rheostatics on stage at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern on Queen West. Photo by CB Allard via rheostatics.ca

Let me put this in perspective: In 1981, you could drive 80 kilometres per hour along Queen Street between Spadina and University, past butcher shop pigs heads and underwear jobbers and old book stores (and a new book store, too, Edwards, whose wide kiosk we used for busking—once, on Halloween, dressed as polar bears). The Horseshoe Tavern was decrepit and funky in the way that that goop at the end of your toe is funky; the Rivoli was weird and strange and secret; the Cameron seemed like it might collapse into itself whenever Toby Swan turned on his amp; the Bev was a beer den with cockroaches in bow ties; and the Bamboo was where you did—or didn’t—snort coke (I didn’t, because coke was a scary downtown drug, and besides, one of the few times I visited after hours, there were mattresses scattered on the third floor. What were the mattresses used for and why?). 

Toronto music, while dynamic and wildly interesting, and populated with as many freaks as any music scene anywhere, was once very small. You’d buzz for weeks and weeks after managing to get 150 people into a club to see your band (the first time Rheostatics sold out the Rivoli, we wore tuxedoes, because it was such a huge event). Toronto has come a long way since these hash brown achievements, but where it’s at now has created a few recent concerns. Is the Toronto music scene dying from the inside? Are the fat getting fatter? Are clubs closing because there aren’t enough Shoppers Drug Marts at the bottom of cardboard condos?

The club scourge is awful, because every time a club closes—any club: a Greek social club; a shitty dance club; your mom’s bridge club—it means that people are no longer being together, let alone being together making music.

Toronto can’t be a so-called “Music City”—a shopworn term that lingers in my throat like a just-swallowed horse pill—without having places to make music. I’m not especially attached to clubs like the Silver Dollar—which isn’t to say I’m not not attached to it—but every time you put people on a street corner below a neon sign smoking and hustling, that street corner has life, is made safer, is better, is more living and alive. With its eventual redevelopment, I fear for what the intersection of College and Spadina will become, especially if the El Mocambo continues to be whatever the fuck it isn’t: derelict and brooding, empty. 

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The iconic El Mocambo neon palm tree sign before it was removed in 2014. The sign, which was constructed in 1946, is said to be getting a makeover and will return. Photo by Lori Whelan via Torontoist’s Flickr Pool.

Toronto is getting good at making music in places not outfitted, necessarily, for music, whether it’s the Geary auto-body events or Galleria’s Long Winter or rooftop films and bands in the summer, and this is what makes recent club closures tough, because, ideally, you’d want both. You’d want the Scissor Sisters performing in a park in the afternoon, and then John Cale in a club later in the evening, which is what happened the last time I was in Prague. You’d want a polka band in a beer hall (check) and a banjo player on a street corner (double-check) and a choir practising inside a church with its doors flung open (triple-check). Occasionally, you can find all of these things in our city. We need them to happen more, more, more. More music is always better.

There are poobahs in charge of this sort of thing at the city level and a current directive to make Toronto into a (gulp) “Music City.” This is all fine and good, I suppose, although I’ve never personally interacted with anyone on these committees despite having been a working musician here for 40 years.

Still, no amount of postcards handed out at conventions with “TORONTO: MUSIC CITY” painted across them in some sort of Drake-ian script can make this city a “Music City.” Rather, it’s the little things: music being made in neighbourhoods like, say, Little Italy, where the Monarch Tavern has always been challenged by volume-level complaints, even though, on VE Day, hundreds in that same neighbourhood gathered to make wild whooping and braying and cawing sounds until the wee hours (I know this because my Italian grandfather was one of the whoopers). The same applies to Castro’s, the great east-end pub, which shutters early so that it won’t disturb its neighbours.

And then there’s the bars and restos that, for some absurd reason, can’t build patios because of ridiculous fee hikes, because of a stupid old Presbyterian mentality that, ostensibly, protects us from ourselves.

Park permits are tricky matters, too. Rheostatics had hoped to stage our “Music Inspired by the Group of Seven” concert outdoors in Grange Park (pre-reno), but we were told that “angering” the Friends of Grange Park neighbourhood committee wasn’t worth the trouble. I’m sure I’ll “anger” someone for saying this—probably someone from Grange Park—but sometimes you have to piss off the occasional neighbour to become a better “Music City.”

Clubs are probably closing for lots of reasons—lucrative city real estate, a winnowing live music audience, lack of parking—but far more clubs aren’t opening because of the red tape that everyone must bust through as if they’re Mo Farah at the finish line. If we want to be Lisbon with the sounds of fado rising in the air, or Austin with its shitkickers pouring out of clubs, or Rome with operatic voices climbing over courtyards—a city has to allow for music to be made wherever music needs to be made.

If all goes well, we won’t even be called “Music City.” Instead, we’ll be known by a better word.


Dave Bidini is a member of Rheostatics.