The notorious Sunday morning party will continue at a new home on King West.
The recent closing of the Silver Dollar Room was seen as a major blow to Toronto’s efforts to be a “music city,” even if the City managed to get the developer to agree to include some kind of music venue at site. But while the impending demolition of the Silver Dollar Room has been met with resistance and heartfelt testimonials to its importance, little has been said of its basement sister club, the Comfort Zone, which closes forever at the end of this month.
Over the Comfort Zone’s lifespan, it hosted a wide array of events, including jam bands, hip-hop artists, heavy metal acts, and drum’n’ bass events. However, it was most well known as the only place you could go at 10 a.m. on any given Sunday morning and find a packed club going off, condensation dripping from the ceiling from the body heat of a few hundred dancers.
For more than 20 years, the Comfort Zone has been the after-party for the after-hours scene. It’s a role that in Toronto has won it little appreciation from the establishment. Even those who live and breathe dance music often sneer at the Zone’s reputation for debauchery and hedonism. Unlike the Silver Dollar, no city politicians are arguing for historical designations to protect it. Instead, local authorities have often demonized it and argued that it should be shut down.
That antipathy famously culminated in a massive 2008 police raid, in which patrons were left lying on the floor in restraints, resulting in 33 of them being charged with a variety of offences. But despite the undercover sting leading up to the raid, Operation White Rabbit didn’t succeed in connecting management to anything illegal, and the club continued to run. Repeated police visits in the months after the raid didn’t manage to discourage partiers from returning, and the club eventually launched a lawsuit against the City of Toronto and then-Councillor Adam Vaughan, alleging harassment and property damage.
“The lawsuit is still pending, although I believe it’s almost resolved,” says longtime manager Terry Yarmus. “Even though we had that raid, and they bothered us for several years after that, we actually have a good relationship with the police right now, and that hasn’t changed for many years.”
As much as the current mayor likes to talk about the importance of the music industry and frets about disappearing live music venues, dance clubs have not enjoyed the same amount of attention. Legendary 1980s underground after-hours club the Twilight Zone recently had a laneway named after it, but it took decades for Toronto to realize how culturally important that venue was.
Compare that to how Berlin cherishes their techno temple Berghain. It’s also known for unrestrained hedonism and parties that last 24 hours or more, but instead of being derided, Berghain was recently recognized by German courts to be a cultural venue (rather than an entertainment facility), and now pays the same tax rate as operas and art galleries. Toronto scenesters laud Berghain’s famous no-camera policy, but few of them note that the Comfort Zone has operated under the same rules for even longer.
The Comfort Zone opened on New Year’s Eve, 1996, making it the longest running underground dance club in Toronto’s history. Even before it was the Zone, the space had already made a significant impact for it’s previous incarnation as Buzz. The team behind Buzz had a strong run in the basement of the Waverly Hotel. However, they decided to move the party to a former country and western bar at King and Strachan, after finding that parts of their sound system had started disappearing from the club during the weekdays when it was closed.
Their new King West location became Industry, and is now widely recognized as one of the most important dance clubs in Toronto’s history.
The early years of the Comfort Zone weren’t just about the Sunday morning dance marathons, though. It was just as much a live venue, and was known for booking everything from jam bands to reggae throughout the week. It didn’t shift completely towards DJ culture until the early 00s, when the room gave up its liquor license.
“Our license was suspended, and during that time, the owner decided he didn’t want it back, and we never had one after that,” Yamus explains. “When that happened, there was no need to do live bands anymore, because we couldn’t make any money from selling just water and Red Bull. So we got rid of that completely, and stuck to the electronic music thing.”
It’s unheard of for a club to survive in Toronto after losing its liquor license, much less voluntarily give it up. In the years since, the Zone occasionally used temporary permits to serve alcohol for live music shows booked by the Silver Dollar’s Dan Burke, or for festivals like NXNE, but they quickly discovered that their DJ parties didn’t need booze to attract patrons. Instead of dying off, the Zone just kept plugging away, even as the larger mainstream clubs devoted to house music and techno closed down.
“There was just nothing like it. Playing there at 8 a.m. on a New Year’s Day was just absolutely magical. I’ve played all over the world, and there’s still nothing that compares to some of those sets,” says DJ Sydney Blu, a regular weekly resident there from approximately 2002 to 2008. “I went back there recently for the first time in nine years. I walked through the doors into the main room and it was exactly the same as it used to be. It was just pounding, everyone was going nuts, but it was a whole new generation now.”
Over the years, the promoters and resident DJs changed, and new generations of partiers replaced the original devotees. Nevertheless, the core identity and vibe of the Zone maintained, against all odds.
“It’s not quite as ridiculous and over-the-top as it used to be in the old days, but that’s just the changing times,” says DJ Deko-ze, who started playing there regularly since 1998. “The crowds have changed a bit, and there’s a younger audience now, but what I really appreciate about the Zone is that it’s kind of a weird timeless capsule, where you can have the gay community, the Asian community, the university kids, the thugs, a whole bunch of ravers, and everyone in between. They’re all going off, dancing in unison, having a good time, and there’s not any judgment, as opposed to pretty much any other place in Toronto.”
Even those that love the place would agree that it’s a dive and always has been, but that’s missing the point. There are only a handful of dance clubs in Toronto’s history that have consistently attracted such a broad range of patrons, including a significant gay presence.
“It opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” says Deko-ze. “I do my after-Pride events there on the Monday after Pride, and I’ve had a lot of people say to me over the years that they’ve never hung out with gay people before, and never considered going to Pride, but because they’re exposed to that crowd, they’ve come to realize that we’re all really the same for the most part. It’s taken away that fear, and been really important in moving us forward.”
It was always known for the wide mix of cultures and class that congregated there. Bankers blowing off steam could be found chatting to thugs, peacefully dancing next to drag queens in platform boots.
“The walks of life that come in there are incredibly diverse,” says Blu. “I probably got half of my gay following from playing there, which is a big deal to me.”
“Also, there are a lot of people who go there that come from a tough life, and that’s the one place they get to go where they are completely accepted. It’s the one day they can go and forget about all their problems, because some of them don’t come from the best places. That, to me, was ultimately really rewarding. The fact that it meant that much to those people made it feel like you were doing something right. The only violence I ever recall was when the cops came in.”
According to conventional thinking, this mixture of demographics and the extended hours should have resulted in tension, and yet the Comfort Zone was never cursed with the violence that’s often associated with the club district. The only shooting that ever occurred in the space happened during the Buzz era, while the Zone itself has never been known for fights and conflicts.
The last dance is coming up soon on May 28, but that won’t mean the party is ending. Management have found a new space at 327 King West, and will be relocating there as of June 2. It won’t be the same, of course; for one thing, the new space has a liquor license, which opens up the possibility of events taking place during more conventional hours. The location may change other aspects of the vibe as well, by putting it on the radar of the mainstream club crowd and bottle service scene that dominates the entertainment district these days.
There are undoubtedly some city politicians and police officers who will be thankful that the Zone is finally closing down, but it’s also quite possible that in 20 years the unique significance of the place will result in a historical plaque at the location where it once stood, just as Toronto has belatedly learned to recognize how important and special the Twilight Zone was.
For now, Toronto continues to see rock music as a more legitimate genre to support and try to protect, despite its dwindling popularity. Eventually though, the generation that preferred to dance all night in grimy warehouses to drum machine beats will be the ones in charge, and the history of places like the Comfort Zone will be rewritten from that perspective, just as the seedy Yonge street rock ‘n’ roll scene of the 60s eventually became seen as culturally important and valid.