A Look Back at the Horseshoe Tavern

From 1947-present, The Horseshoe Tavern continues to be an outlet for cutting edge music in Toronto

There was something weird going on at The Horseshoe.

In the late 70s, Miss Eddie the Egg Lady was elderly, physically tiny, and was a bit of a nutter. “The Grandmother of Punk”, she called herself. A comedy favorite in the films of the popular director John Waters, she was loved by the young and the trendy. On the other hand, Toronto band The Viletones were a punk band with violent tendencies. Lead singer Steven Leckie had cut himself onstage with beer bottles, and the band was not above starting fights at gigs. But there they were, on stage together at the Horseshoe Tavern, with the Viletones playing back up to Miss Eddie—they’d written 11 songs together for the occasion.

This was the doing of Gary Topp.

(The Last Pogo, 1978, via thelastpogo.com)

In ‘78, two Toronto music promoters named Gary (Topp and Cromier) became co-owners of The Horseshoe, and they fed their addiction to cutting edge music. They remodeled the place, put in lights and redid the stage, and brought in amazing acts. Etta James, the Talking heads, the Police.

He’d brought Eddie and the Viletones together as a passion project and had the kind of reputation and clout to pull it off. The night was a success.

But despite being edgy, the Garys did not always fill seats, and many of these cutting edge bands played to a nearly empty house. In December that year, the much loved Garys were told to leave the Horseshoe, but they didn’t leave quietly. They signed off by holding an infamous event they called The Last Punk Concert in Toronto or, The Last Pogo. Crowds flocked to it, the police were called and rioting ensued, but you can watch the movie to learn more about that.

The Horseshoe Tavern has one hell of a history. There are millions of anecdotes (Dan Akroyed worked security the night the Rolling Stones played in ’97, Neko Case recorded a track in the echo-y back stairwell, etc. & etc.)

The building at 370 Queen Street West was constructed as a blacksmith’s shop, but in 1947 the man who would become its longtime owner, Jack Starr, bought it and turned it into a tavern. It specialized in roast beef and featured live music and in 1948 it was the first ever bar in Canada to have a TV. Starr promoted local music and country music and hosted Stomp’n Tom Conners and Willie Nelson before they blew up. It was a good place to be. Then Starr retired and the Garys walked in.

(The National, 2006, via thehorseshoetavern.com)

The Garys were incredibly cool and edgy, but they hadn’t made much money on the place, which left a question that every venue has to answer: How can you be cool without going bankrupt?

It’s not easy.

But fast-forward to the 80s, new owners Kenny Sprackman and X-Ray had a tentative proposition that altered Toronto’s music landscape: they would keep the money earned at the bar, and the musicians would take money from the door. This scheme is almost everywhere now, but in the 80s it was radical. Local musicians were typically paid flat scale union fees, and that had positives (it was easier to be a working musician and rely on steady income) and negatives (younger, poorer acts with unconventional sounds had a harder time finding places to be heard.) In one fell swoop, The Horseshoe had found a way to appeal to new, young, local artists, and also take in a steady profit. A performer’s income would depend on the popularity they could drum up for their show.

(The Dead Weather, 2013, via thehorseshoetavern.com)

As a result, the bar further furthered its reputation for new and exciting Canadian alternative music.

That reputation was cemented in the 90s with the help of Dave “Bookie” Bookman.

“I liked going to shows and seeing new bands, and I thought to myself, what if all my favorite bands came to me?” Bookie, then a DJ at 102.1FM (and now here at Indie88), had been hanging around the Horseshoe long enough to get to know the new owners and a hell of a lot of other people in Toronto’s music scene. Along with friends, he proposed Nu Music Nite, a free all-ages event that would be on Tuesdays and start at 9PM. Its appeal to performers was the promise of a likeminded, appreciative audience when they were between shows in the city. A success, the Horseshoe became another reason for Toronto to be a worthwhile stop for bands on tour at the start of their careers, and many artists have been signed while performing during the weekly showcase.

“And if no one likes the band up there, no problem. They won’t be there for long, four bands a night, a half hour each, it’s perfect.”

(Bookie cutting the cake at The Horseshoe’s 60th birthday, via horseshoetavern.com)

The ongoing event has become a bellwether for upcoming talent. On the 9th anniversary of Nu Music Nite, Billy Talent, The Constantines, Moneen and Raising the Fawn all played, and went on to take over the Canadian Music scene.

The Horseshoe has managed to pull off a hat-trick and be current and historical at the same time. As Bookie says, “The place is full of ghosts, but they’re nice ghosts, they’re friendly ghosts.”

(Main image via horseshoetavern.com)