NOW MAGAZINE - Everything Toronto
DECEMBER 6 - 12, 2007 | VOL. 27 NO. 14

From cool country to punk Rock Chaos

How a Queen West blacksmith shop became Toronto’s music mecca

The Horseshoe comes by its “legendary” status honestly.

Originally a blacksmith shop in the 1860s, the prime chunk of real estate at 368-370 Queen West became a tavern 60 years ago after local entrepreneur Jack Starr took advantage of a change in Ontario's liquor licensing laws.

By the mid-50s, the prime rib wasn't paying the bills, so Starr replaced the kitchen with a stage in the rear (where the bar now stands) and started booking local country bands and lesser known touring acts – typically younger artists on their way up or veteran acts on their way down.

With the rise of rock 'n' roll, the popularity of country and western waned. But rather than give up on country, Starr shrewdly installed transplanted Newfoundlander Dick Nolan and his Blue Valley Boys as the Horseshoe's house band in the early 60s. Thanks to Nolan's music business savvy and far-reaching connections, marquee acts like Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, Dave Dudley, Mac Wiseman, the Carter Family and Red Sovine were soon coming through.

The fortunes of country music began to change again in 1962, signalled by Ray Charles's groundbreaking crossover smash album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, which topped the charts for over three months. And when the resurgence of interest in all things twangy hit Hogtown, the Horseshoe became a hipster hot spot where visiting country royalty would inevitably turn up.

As Nolan's biographer, Wayne Tucker, relates, "Buck Owens was a big star by then and his fees were high, so he didn't play the Horseshoe. But one night, Buck dropped into the 'Shoe just to hear the music. He was trying to keep a low profile, so he asked Dick Nolan, who was the emcee, to keep his presence a secret. Dick knew Buck had a temper, but he ignored his request and made an announcement that Buck Owens was in the audience. Then he added, 'Would you like to hear him sing?' So an angry Buck Owens had no choice but to get onstage and do a number for free!"

It wasn't just sequin-suited Nashville stars who played the 'Shoe. Hungry young singer/songwriters from all over the country came to launch their careers at the storied showcase venue. One of the first to recognize the raw potential in a future Canadian music legend was Nolan's drinking buddy, Willie Nelson.

"Dick said that he was chatting with Willie Nelson over a beer one night when a then-unknown performer was onstage," Tucker says. "Dick noticed that Willie seemed distracted and kept looking up at the singer. Willie said, 'Dick, that guy's got something going for him. He's gonna turn out to be somebody. '"

Turns out the guy onstage was Stompin' Tom Connors, who went on to set attendance records at the 'Shoe that still stand.

During the folk era, it wasn't uncommon to see Bruce Cockburn, Ian and Sylvia and various members of the Band at the Horseshoe. As the 70s arrived, the Horseshoe began to seem more like an anachronism. By 1976, Starr realized it was time to step aside and let the next generation take over.

Gary Topp and Gary Cormier, aka the Garys, had just finished a successful run at the New Yorker on Yonge Street with a daring, unconventional booking strategy that wasn't governed by musical style, fashion or record sales. The New Yorker might have Tom Waits one night, Ali Akbar Khan the next and then Wayne County followed by Taj Mahal and Cecil Taylor. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason, but somehow it worked.

"Our policy was simple," explains Topp. "We only booked acts that we'd pay to see ourselves."

In 1978, most people outside of the UK, including the Garys, had never heard of the Police. Why they would take a chance on an unknown pop-reggae group from England without even hearing their music reveals a lot about the Garys' decision-making process.

"I got a call from Cormier one day," recalls Topp. "He said, 'I got an offer from Ian Copeland for this band called the Police. Have you heard anything about them?' I said, 'No, who are they?' So he asked Ian and called me back saying, 'It's a trio with a singer named Sting, the drummer is Stewart Copeland from Curved Air, and Andy Summers is the guitarist.' So I say, 'Hang on, is that the Andy Summers who used to play with Kevin Coyne?' Well, I really like Kevin Coyne, so I said, 'Let's book them.' That was it."

Unfortunately, only about 30 people paid the $3 cover to see the Police each night despite however many hundreds of people now claim to have been there. The truth is that poor turnouts were not uncommon for the Garys' Horseshoe gigs, and it was ultimately a money-losing venture. They were just a little too far ahead of the curve.

"It's true that there weren't many people at those Police shows, but everybody who came absolutely loved them. You could just tell that these guys were going places. They were completely unique."

Given the amazing cutting-edge punk bands they introduced to Toronto – Suicide, the Viletones, Richard Hell and the Ramones along with future stadium acts like Talking Heads and the Police, – the cultural impact of the Garys' Horseshoe stint was significant and far-reaching.

"The intensity of those Suicide shows was incredible. And Pere Ubu totally blew my mind. I knew their album, but watching David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine communicate with each other onstage, with Ravenstine using his synthesizer to shadow Thomas's moves, was unbelievable," says Topp. "That was one of the most exciting performances I ever saw at the 'Shoe. And obviously, the Last Pogo was a memorable night, too."

The Garys went out with a bang with The Last Pogo concert on December 1, 1978. Toronto's punk underground surfaced for one final bash headlined by Teenage Head and immortalized on film by then-student filmmaker Colin Brunton, who is currently working on a sequel planned for release December 1, 2008, to mark the 30th anniversary of the notorious event.

"There was always this strange tension at our Horseshoe shows," explains Cormier. "It felt as though things might explode at any second, but they never did. I can't remember any violent incidents in the club. Even at The Last Pogo show, everything was going great until the cops showed up."

"After Teenage Head played one song," recalls Topp, "I got on the mixing board microphone and said, 'The police are calling this an unruly crowd, and we have to stop the show,' and I proceeded to put on the Sex Pistols' Anarchy In The UK. The whole place just erupted. It sounded like a thousand lumberjacks simultaneously sawing their way through an old-growth forest as people went crazy bashing everything they could get their hands on.

"The next day we went in to survey the damage. There used to be a kitchen to the left of the stage, and it was filled from floor to ceiling with pieces of tables and chairs. What can I say? It was a great night."

 Back to:  Dick Nolan Country