Since 1947, except for a few blips and lean years best forgotten, The Horseshoe Tavern has stood guard just around the corner from Queen and Spadina for over 70 years. Where other North American landmarks such as New York’s CBGB and The Bottom Line now only exist with a plaque and music memories in people’s minds, The Horseshoe somehow survives. The more the landscape changes around No. 370 Queen Street West the more the tavern remains the same. From the sidewalk, the façade is nondescript; it’s no architectural marvel. Inside, the dirty old lady is cramped, cozy and rough around the edges. For music lovers though, the building, more affectionately known as The Shoe, is a shrine. It’s a place of firsts. One of the first places in Toronto where you could order liquor One of the first places to hear live music, and, one of the first bars to have a TV set. For the long-time staff that has called the bar home — for some almost three decades — the timeless tavern means family. For many, bonds that became marriages — musical and otherwise — were first formed here. Their memories, along with the list of bands that have played The Shoe, are what make the venue so legendary. While some may call it a dive, it’s a beautiful dive.
Take a journey with me now. Dive into this icon’s past. Begin with a stroll into The Shoe’s front bar. Stop and peruse the posters, framed autographed pictures, newspaper clippings and scrawled set lists that line the walls across from the pool table, where most nights you’ll find the regulars, who have no interested in the live music coming from the back bar, playing a game of stripes and solids. These artifacts only tell some of the stories from the past 25 years. Unfortunately, many of the memorabilia from the first half-century of the tavern’s existence were either lost or destroyed during the early 1980s. Only a few fragments from the early days remain such as the huge movie poster advertising the 1963 musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie, plastered to the ceiling and peeling away, but like the venue itself, still hanging on, from the roof near the stage in the back bar. Fortunately, thanks to newspaper reports and memories of those still alive to retell their time here, there was much research to draw upon for this labour of love project.
The Horseshoe is a beacon for music lovers; a pilgrimage place for those who love and understand its significance as part of Toronto’s rich musical history. One word sums up why it has remained: passion. Almost all the owners shared this passion: for the music and for the patrons. As original owner Jack Starr once told Toronto Star writer John Goddard: “It was family. I don’t mean we had kids there. I mean everyone seemed to know everyone.” More importantly, from the moment Starr booked music in his home away from home in the downtown core, he cared for — and showed congeniality towards — the musicians he booked. They, too, were like family. There are stories of Starr packing picnic lunches for Loretta Lynn and her band as they boarded their tour bus. Another famed story you’ll read about later in more detail is how Starr’s offer to give Stompin’ Tom Connors a raise made the late great Canadian country outlaw cry.
Over the years, thanks to The Shoe, and its owners, hundreds of Canadian bands have had their start here and/or been helped to take that needed step to the next level in their careers. The list is endless: from Dick Nolan and other rising Canadian country stars in the 1960s to Stompin’ Tom Connors in the 1970s, to Blue Rodeo in the 1980s, and Nickelback, Rheostatics, Skydiggers, Lowest of the Low, and The Watchmen in the 1990s. As most Canadian musicians attest, you’d “arrived” if you played The Horseshoe Tavern. Starr began this bequeath to the Canadian music industry in the 1950s; today, current majority owner and music aficionado Jeff Cohen, along with his partner Craig Laskey, continue this gift to the next generation of rising Canadian stars.
This same passion is what led me to write this book. For me, music is the elixir of life. A jolt of live music is always the best medicine when I’m feeling low. The thousands of ticket stubs I’ve saved over the years — and the lack of funds in my bank account — attest to my love of attending concerts. I came to The Horseshoe Tavern later than most. Like all the musicians I interviewed for this project, I felt its soul, its historical significance, and its pull from the first time I walked through those doors. A spirit lives there. The musicians feel it. So do the regulars. Even first-timers catch a whiff of these ghosts.
I watched my first show [The Old 97s] in this cavernous, low-ceilinged room more than twenty years ago. Immediately I was hooked. Later, I recall seeing a young Serena Ryder summon the ghost of Etta James — who also once graced that storied stage — with an a cappella version of “At Last” that left the room stunned. I once drank Jack Daniel’s from the bottle with The Drive-By Truckers in their dressing room and did tequila shots on the checker-board dance-floor with singer Jesse Malin following his set, on a night the place was packed, fuelled by rumours The Boss was going to join the ex D Generation singer. People often say about The Shoe: “if only these walls could talk.” Yes, the stories they would tell. Crazy shit happened inside the dimly lit, blue-collar tavern, over the years. I will share a few of those tall tales in these pages, but what this story is really about is a place, a Toronto institution seven decades young that has adopted a personality and mythology all its own. It’s part of the social fabric and the history of the city. While much of the Queen Street West strip surrounding The Shoe has changed and undergone gentrification, transformed from a desolate street surrounded by factories to a yuppie hangout of high-end fashion stores, The Horseshoe and its raison d’être has remained relatively intact.
Through first-person interviews with musicians who have played the venue to extensive secondary source research, I’ve dug deep to unearth what has led to the bar’s longevity and to discover what makes The Shoe so legendary.
Come with me now, constant reader, (to steal a phrase from one of my writing mentors, Stephen King) on this journey. Find out why this dame has survived when so many others, like The Beverley Tavern, The Ultrasound, The Bamboo Club, and The Silver Dollar, have come and gone.
Even though The Horseshoe Tavern was always isolated musically and socially from its surroundings, I’ll tell you why this venue remains a cultural icon in the Canadian music landscape. This project combined my love of music with my love of history. I hope I’ve succeeded in bottling this passion and distilling it for your enjoyment. Here’s to another seventy years of The Horseshoe Tavern. I hope one day my grandkids will walk through those fabled doors at 370 Queen Street West as I once did to hear the latest band on the rise, share a moment in time with fellow music lovers, and discover the ghosts and the soul of the place that are forever etched into the tavern’s walls.