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David McPherson

David McPherson - The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern

The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern
Dundurn - 2017

Michael Panontin
The Tragically Hip's late great frontman Gord Downie immortalized the Horseshoe Tavern in their 1999 song 'Bobcaygeon' when he sang, "That night in Toronto / with its checkerboard floors". Not that it really needed any more accolades. In its seventy years of existence on Toronto's Queen West strip, the crusty old club has seen a virtual hall of fame-worth of stars grace those black and white tiles, from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Stompin' Tom Connors in its early days, when Toronto was known as Nashville North, to the Police, Blue Rodeo, the Hip (numerous times) and, of course, the Rolling Stones in its later incarnation as a showcase for more contemporary sounds.

The building itself is nothing much to look at - Noisey once called it "one of the most boring and nondescript-looking venues in the city" - and the casual visitor to Toronto would be forgiven for walking right past it. A peek inside is not much better. The modest-looking bar that runs the length of the front room looks more like a relic from the city's stodgy Anglo-Saxon past than a ground-breaking mecca of modern music. The back room, where the real history takes place, is a cramped, ear-busting sweatbox.

But the fact that the 'Shoe is still around at all is in itself something worth celebrating - no small feat in a city with a wrecking ball on every corner. Toronto has had numerous venues worthy of the epithet 'legendary', like the many that lined Yonge Street during its heyday in the 1960s - Friar's, Club Blue Note or the Le Coq d'Or immediately come to mind - or even more current landmarks like Lee's Palace, the Cameron House or the El Mocambo. But the former are long gone and the latter may soon be if the city's rapacious condo industry gets its way. Nothing can really touch the three-quarter century of supremacy that the Horseshoe has held over the Toronto's roots-rock scene.

The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern is David McPherson's first book. The inveterate music fan, whose first show at the club was an Old 97s gig back in the 1990s, walks us through the various periods in the club's storied existence. Those looking for the sort of criminal element that populated Bruce McDonald's excellent TV series Yonge Street - Toronto Rock and Roll Stories or John Johnson and Joel Selvin's Peppermint Twist will be disappointed, but that is mostly because, as bartender Bob Maynard admits, "it just never gets ugly". Which just allows McPherson more chance to focus on the real players: the musicians, the owners and booking agents, and of course the fans.

Those who think they know the place will be particularly fascinated to read of its country music heyday, which lasted from 1947 to 1978. By the time a young Stompin' Tom Connors arrived on the scene, pestering owner Jack Starr for a chance to take to its famous stage, the Horseshoe was already a well-known stop on the North American circuit. Connors pretty much owned the place by 1969, setting a record that year of twenty-five straight nights that still holds to this day.

Other highlights include the meltdown at the Last Pogo shows in 1978, when a plain clothes cop on the second night unwisely prevented Teenage Head from finishing their set and thus gave nearly 800 liquored-up punk rock fans a real reason to destroy. Or the Police playing to a few dozen souls on their first trip across the pond (and then giving the promoters back the $200 contract fee as an apology for the low turnout). And of course the Rolling Stones' secret show on September 4th, 1997, a massive affair that saw a sloshed John Goodman slinging beers behind the bar, an equally enthusiastic Dan Akroyd working the door and a few thousand unlucky punters lined up outside all the way down to the Black Bull bar (a good 350 metres!).

At just 186 pages, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern never really gets the chance to delve too deeply into any of the stories. And McPherson's prose, though terse, readable and eminently enjoyable, could have benefited from a little more editing, particularly his clumsy habit of telegraphing the following chapter. Still, it is a worthwhile addition to the Canuck bookshelf and hopefully a catalyst for other mythical clubs - the Retinal Circus, Barrymore's or Les Foufounes Electriques, perhaps? - to get their stories told.


     David McPherson

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