Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern:
“The Birthplace of Canadian Rock”
“The Birthplace of Canadian Rock”
I hesitate to use the words ground zero because of the connotations it has now, but it was our true north. It was the place that was our home. It was the place where we felt like when we got on that stage, this is where we were meant to do what we do.
The place just has the kind of gravitas to stand up to everything. There are so many things that happened in the dressing rooms downstairs and different places … it has a real mythology to it.
It’s a really important space in our city and in the country. The Horseshoe’s existence today doesn’t just serve to remind us of a past musical tradition that Toronto was a part of, but it’s a reminder that there are more important things than just the bottom line: culture, shared experiences through live music in a venue that isn’t negotiated through the lens of the corporate world, which so much of our culture is today — that’s vital to our culture and to our country.
It’s like the Marie Celeste, it just floats along. I’ve often said that there is some kind of rock ‘n’ roll fairy dust that somebody has sprinkled in here at one time. 99.9 percent of the time, an hour and a half before I head to work, when I am shaving and showering and cooking dinner, I just can’t wait to get in there. Think of that 1980s movie with Mickey Rourke, Pope of Greenwich Village, where he is a waiter and they show him getting ready and he had Frank Sinatra playing, it’s kind of like that. I think everybody feels that way.
If I ever needed a favour, I know I can call them up. It doesn’t matter how big their festivals get and their promotions go, the heart of a music lover beats wildly in those four walls! The Horseshoe reminds me of a beat up old lady. It has lived a hard life. The wall’s always whispered to you when you were there that something had happened in those four walls.
The Horseshoe is just a building … just a conduit for the people who run it; they are stewarding that attitude via the history. They know it’s a responsibility they have. The property is worth so much money. Someone may come along eventually and say, ‘we are going to open an oyster bar, but keep the spirit of Horseshoe alive,’ but that will never happen. This is an important place; we need to keep it nourished.
My mind just reels thinking about all the great memories I’ve had at The Horseshoe over the years. Original owner Jack Starr was so nice … such a sweet guy. He loved us. We did this matinee and people were blown away by it, and he said to us after that, ‘you have to play here.’ From then on we were in like Flynn and we were the darlings of that club; it was our joint for a couple of years.
It was a testing ground. There definitely was a sense in our day, and now, too, that you were being tested to how good you were when you played there. At the Cameron House, people were right in your face, could you handle that? At The Horseshoe, it was could you draw a crowd and how did that crowd react. Did they talk or did they pay attention? If people in the back by the bar are talking throughout your set, well that’s not a successful gig. That litmus test still exists.
It’s really the music that drives the place more than anything else. That said, it’s the same for anything that is successful, it starts first at the owner and management level. It’s true for successful small businesses and for successful sports teams … if there is something great going on at top it usually filters all the way to the bottom. It’s a legendary Horseshoe Tavern for a reason. It’s the type of place something pretty fun is happening every night. Probably no other club in Toronto you can say that about.
The front bar is one of the best places in the world you can get a drink, get settled and talk to people … you are already in a place and getting your bearings. Just like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. I don’t think you can find a better location for a bar in Toronto than at the corner of Queen and Spadina. It’s hard to imagine what the city looked like 50 years ago, but if you stand on that corner and look around and let yourself daydream a little bit, you can imagine there was something on every corner and people coming and going in every direction and there, right in the middle of it all, was this barn here, where you could come, hang your hat, and where everybody knew your name.
The Horseshoe is in that group of bars and clubs that marks the ascendance of a band. It’s always cool to get a gig at The Horseshoe.
To me, The Horseshoe is so special, partly because of the way it is built. The fact there is such a low ceiling, you can be up front and have such an intimate experience and also be at the back and be part of this conversation going on … one living, breathing masse that isn’t paying attention at all.
I started nicknaming The Horseshoe, ‘the crossroads of Canada’ because when we performed on The Horseshoe Tavern stage, we would have this audience right in front of us, the way the lights are configured there you can see the first five rows of people clearly and I would always ask individuals in the audience where they were from. Replies came back: I’m from Montreal; I’m from Whitehorse; I’m from Halifax; I’m from North Battleford, etc. It always amazed me that we would be in this room painted black with dirty checkerboard floors and here were all these people gathering with big smiles on their faces from all over Canada; it just felt like a profoundly Canadian experience that was a long way off from the Mounties and Parliament Hill and typical images of Canadiana. This was our Canadian moment and it was at The Horseshoe Tavern.