So far, this little series of stories has focused on my brief, but for me, memorable encounters with musicians. This piece is about my encounters with the grand “old lady” of Canadian music…the legendary Horseshoe Tavern on Queen West in Toronto.
I unexpectedly fell in love with Toronto when our young family moved there in the mid eighties from an acreage in Saskatchewan. It was hippie to hipster in forty-eight hours and I was surprised how I took to it. It was serendipitously also a time when Canadian music was in a bit of a roots revival, as well, there was baseball fever and I was ready for all of it …
We can all name some of the great artists of Canadian music but I might suggest that some of us might struggle with naming some of the great “joints” of Canadian music. These rough little places are the incubators where Canadian musicians find and tune up their gifts. They are also homes for thousands of fans that love live music, a pint and an evening in a bar with no television screens.
Of course I am a homer when it comes to cool venues and I love the Ironwood, the Blues Can and the Gravity Café here in my adopted city. I also bonded with Bud’s on Broadway in Saskatoon, close to hometown turf and I recall fondly nights in the Railway Club and the Yale in Vancouver where we spent a decade. All very fine spaces and still operating …
But how many of them are as old as I am? (1947) And how many have seen the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon and Loretta Lynn on their stage? This magic, was of course, in the nineteen fifties. And did any have the opportunity to host the likes of Stompin’ Tom for twenty-five nights in a row in the sixties? These sorts of historical accolades are only footnotes in the larger story and history of the “Shoe.” For a deeper dive into that musical and street history (it was a blacksmith shop before 1947) check out their website and buy the fine book The Legendary Horseshoe by David McPherson.
So the adventure began with a move that took us to a loft in the Big League from the ten acres in the Bush League. There was some culture shock but I was surprised to discover my own little urban rat ready to come out of the closet and enjoy big city life. The music scene on Queen West was, in the mid eighties, in a renaissance and in our tenure there, I would see the likes of Blue Rodeo, the Cowboy Junkies, Tom Russell and the Tragically Hip and I saw them all in the Horseshoe Tavern which was located a couple of blocks down Queen. It was my neighbourhood bar just like the Ironwood and Blues Can today in Calgary.
I remember the night I first saw the Hip and it must have been a very early performance because I recall there being less than 20 people in the room…but these few people were well and truly converts.
It was an amazing time to live in Toronto and especially on Queen West. We lived in an artist co-op (Beaver Hall) on Queen and McCaul in a space not well suited for a family of five but we had a fine playground outside in the community. That neighbourhood included the Art Gallery of Ontario, Pages bookstore, Much Music, the jazz centered Rex Hotel (across the back alley) and the ‘Shoe down the street.
I remember the first time I saw the rockabilly Razorbacks busking on Queen. They jammed the sidewalk up so tight there was no passing and no one wanted to go anywhere anyway. I spent an evening a few years later in the Horseshoe, having a beer with Tony Kenney the lead singer telling me stories around the dizzy spin of busking on the street to sharing the Horseshoe stage with Steven Tyler.
That was some nigh …
I recall my evening stroll that night down Queen to the ‘Shoe. I never really used to check who was playing because I knew it would be good and I loved the surprise. It was that type of scene. This time the surprise was a little more than usual. There was this pouty-lipped guy rocking the stage with the Razorbacks and at first I thought Jagger was back in town. Just as much fun though because it was Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. He was having a great time but the smile on Tony’s face was indelible. Jailhouse Joe on the upright bass had moves that night that will never be duplicated.
My favourite nights seemed to come after a ballgame. I would grab a five-dollar Safeway seat and ride my bike to Exhibition Stadium where I fell in love with George Bell, Ernie Whitt, Kelly Gruber and Tony Fernandez. I would come home from my chapel visit and head straight to the corner of Spadina and Queen where a lovely Jamaican women would have a tasty hot dog and root beer waiting just for me. Then I would head inside the Horseshoe to perhaps hear the like of the Skydiggers or Paul James.
The crowd inside was often as interesting as the act on stage. Margo Timmins came and sat on a stool next to me one night and across the way Sylvia Fricker and Tom Russell were camped out … I forgot who was on stage. It was a crowd that included the worker and the celeb but no one bothered you for being either.
The place was run in those years by a couple of real characters, Kenny Sprackman and X-Ray MacRae. I never really met Kenny but got to know X-Ray pretty well after one memorable night. It was that particular night that I recounted in my Colin James story where I was to interview Colin in the basement of the Horseshoe. X-Ray took me downstairs to a quiet area while Colin rocked the joint upstairs. We were siting on an old ratty couch shooting the bull about the history of the place. At one point he asked me if I got any particular “vibe” off the couch.
“None whatsoever,” I suggested.
Well, he starts in on one more story. “You know, this place was a big country bar in the early fifties,” he says.
He goes on to tell a story about Hank Williams, who would disappear every so often on a bender. The search parties knew he was on a northern tour, so they fanned out and found himself … passed out on this old couch, in Toronto, in the Horseshoe Tavern.
I felt a vibe …
To this day, I really don’t know the full veracity of this tale or whether it is just a fine part of X-Ray’s myth building. Does not matter, I figure. If Hank were anywhere in or near Canada, he would sure as hell be drawn to the comfort of the “Shoe.
One of my favourite pastimes in the Horseshoe was hanging out at the pool table. It was I imagine, the most popular pool table in the city and I bet it still is.
One table thousands served.
I love pool and was pretty good but this table intimidated me at first. I would sign the waiting list and would wait patiently to get my ass kicked. More often than not, it got kicked by a woman. In fact, it was a hoot to watch the young macho guys coming down from the suburbs, getting drawn against some quiet, mature female. You could see the look in their eyes suggesting they wanted some real competition and their ass kicking was inevitable and fun to watch.
I was a lucky man. Living in Toronto in the eighties often made me wish that I had been there in the sixties with the Yorkville scene. It was Neil, Joni and Ronnie Hawkins times. I also knew, though, that I was lucky to be in Toronto when the second wave of Canadian music would hit.
The hit and the hits were mainly delivered on the corner of Spadina and Queen … old lady indeed.