10 Unforgettable Defunct Toronto Music Venues
As each year passes, one new live music venue opens up and another closes its doors forever. It’s seldom these venues don’t live on in our minds and hearts. Be it a life-changing show, meeting a special person, or performance nostalgia, some of these rooms are loaded with energy and intrigue. This isn’t about the big name acts that came through; it’s about the magic of the space. Here are 10 unforgettable defunct Toronto venues that helped shape the city’s music scene.
10. MASONIC TEMPLE
Before MTV stepped in, this hard-to-miss building was once home to countless live shows for over 40 years. Beginning as the Rockpile in the 1960’s it eventually became known as the Concert Hall where large acts like David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and the Pixies along with local talent performed (in fact it hosted Zeppelin’s first Toronto date ever). It’s hard to ignore the inevitable spooky-cool aura that these lodges hold. Mix that with the shamanic qualities of rock music and you can start to conjure up some real juju.
Consider that the word “television” can be abbreviated with just the letter ‘T’. Did you ever notice how “Masonic Temple” has the same initials as “Music Television”? Making it MT(V). All hail Molech!
9. MRS. KNIGHT’S DISCOTHEQUE
Seeming like something straight out of a John Waters movie, this Isabella Street gay disco and punk rock haven is a needle in the 80’s counterculture haystack. While fellow discos like Voodoo and Club David’s have been well documented, you don’t see as much love for Mrs. Knight’s. “Straight people who were part of the downtown scene always preferred the gay discos because the sound systems were so advanced and impressive,” says Toronto musician Tony Malone of the Dishes and Drastic Measures. “All these discos were special at that time because they were heavily decorated and each had a character – some like the little dance floor in a bar on a gigantic scale – but some were mazes of different levels, weird lighting – and you were always surrounded by pumping sound.” Much of Toronto’s current goth, fashionista, queer and electro-pop dance scenes owe themselves to the vision and risks taken by trailblazers like Mrs. Knight’s.
8. CLUB ROCKIT (or THE ROCKIT)
Hearing these two words together is enough to bring chills down most musician’s spines who were starting bands in the early 2000’s. A favourite spot for the vampiric Supernova promotion company who sucked the blood…erm..money…out of young musicians pockets. I was surprised to see it pop up in the Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World movie and books despite the director calling it “ugly, cramped and terrible.” It wasn’t a surprise that it shut down in 2005. For many who never pursued music past their high school days in the early 2000’s, this venue may just be the ONLY memory of performing live music. Though most may look back with contempt, it’s hard to escape the creeping nostalgia of playing for your friends at 7:30pm who you spent all month trying to sell tickets to.
7. TORONTO UNDERGROUND CINEMA
This started as an old Kung Fu and Asian theatre back in the 1970’s. Literally underground, this subterranean cave of a theatre seats about 400. As you walk down the spiralling red velvet carpeted staircase you can feel mundane reality start to lift and the tingle of wonderment set in. In January 2011, concert promoter Randal Harris was the first person to dream up the idea of putting on live music events in the space after it reopened its doors as an eclectic independent film spot, turning it into a full fledged multi-dimensional performance space for local artists. Hometown alternative acts like Fucked Up and Tokyo Police Club followed shortly after, throwing their own unique shows in this 35mm velvet pit. Unfortunately, due to duplicitous financial issues, they shut their doors soon after in 2012. I’m proud to have worked with Randal on that particular first show and performed that night with my band at the time. The night was full of interpretive dancers, psychedelic projections, great music and $3.99 popcorn.
6. CRASH N’ BURN
In May 1977, the Crash N’ Burn opened, hailed as the first punk club in Toronto. At the time, sections of this building were occupied by CEAC (Centre for Experimental Art and Communication) as an avant-garde artists collective. The legal capacity of drinkers was around 40, yet there would often be 200 crammed people in at a show. It was run by Toronto pop punks The Diodes who curated their own gigs and ran the club. This model is one the markers of the beginning of artists running their own spaces, taking control of their own shows artistically and behind the scenes. Truly D.I.Y. and something that’s considered a standard in today’s independent music culture.
5. LARRY’S HIDEAWAY
There have been a lot of loveable dives in this city, but no such venue seems to radiate as many positive and memorable moments as Larry’s Hideaway. Dark corners for drugs, crevasses for sexual activity, and located in the basement of the infamous Prince Carlton Hotel: “The sound was unbeatable. Ornette Coleman and the Sun Ra Arkestra both loved playing there. They loved the sound,” says Toronto promoter Gary Topp. “On the other hand, it was the biggest shit hole in the city,” he adds. Perhaps the most profound thing Larry’s gave the city was the environment for local punk, metal and other avant-garde acts at the time to cultivate and perform their original music, as well as providing people a place to discover this new music. Topp celebrated a birthday there once with a great big cake but “sadly, an army of cockroaches beat us to it. They were the hotel’s best tenants.”
Check out this hilarious and heartwarming outpouring of love for Larry’s from TO’s metal scene in the 80’s.
4. THE NEW YORKER
Movie theater turned performance space, the New Yorker was most likely the only place you could go to see The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, or John Waters and Kenneth Anger’s films on screen. But wait, that’s not a music venue – or is it? Concert promotion duo The Garys, made up of Topp and Gary Cormier, built a stage in the theatre themselves and started bringing in international acts, notably hosting The Ramones’ first Toronto visit as its debut musical event. Most of it’s interior was lost over time and it’s since been closed. The facade was incorporated into the new Panasonic Theatre which was built on the site of this grand old institution.
3. MAPLE LEAF GARDENS
Hey, who said they all had to be small rooms? Or even have great sound? I remember meeting a woman in a gas station and she mused for 15 minutes to me about her favourite concert ever: seeing The Beatles at Maple Leaf Gardens (who played there three times before quitting touring). Her parents grounded her and forbade her from going to the concert. Not to be deterred, she successfully snuck out and got back home after having the time of her life. The next morning the Toronto Star had printed a picture of her and her friends’ rapturous screaming faces on the FRONT COVER, a photo that had been taken at the show for the Star’s cover story. Needless to say, her parents were not impressed when they opened the morning paper. It’s pretty much impossible for anyone born before 1992 to not have some sense of nostalgia about this place – even if you have never been. Oh, and just in case I didn’t believe her, the woman pulled out her $5 ticket stub.
2. THE EDGE
Short lived and packed with vibrancy, The Edge contained a fast explosion of great music, energy and freedom. A club house of sorts to the punk, new wave and artier things that were being cooked up in TO during its years of operation (1979-1981). Extremely progressive for a live venue at the time, The Edge focused on a healthy mix of all genres of music along with poetry and film. William S. Burroughs even did a performance here, reading excerpts of his books to a completely silent audience. Sounds like the antithesis of explosive energy? Well, Burroughs’ writing was influencing a whole new wave of artists and musicians during that time, which even Burroughs himself didn’t realize.
1. THE BIG BOP
One hat trick of a venue. A triple threat of perilous excitement. The beloved home of 3 venues under one roof. The purple bricked eyesore of Queen and Bathurst. One of the strangest ideas for a live music venue gone horribly right.
The first venue located on the main floor was named the Kathedral: a punk and metal play pen that seemed more like a weird Laser Tag spot rather than a rock venue. Checkerboard floors, sound booth in a metal cage and black lights made up the din. What made it uncanny was the total unpretentiousness towards younger acts. With open arms they’d accept 13, 14 and 15 year old bands, according to Dominic Chiaromonte who ran the place. Who also said, “It didn’t matter who walked through that door, we gave everybody a chance to play.” This attracted a wonderful new energy and the Kathedral shortly started holding all ages events every night of the week.
That’s pretty young to be thrown into such an intense environment you might think, but I don’t doubt for a second that it built an unparalleled amount of character and tolerance into every single young musician who took that leap at 13 well into their mature years.
Right beside the entrance for the Kathedral was the door and staircase that lead to it’s 2nd venue, the Reverb. This room was considerably better kept and had a much better PA which attracted bigger international acts. The Misfits would famously play here many years for the Halloween bash the Reverb commonly threw. It was the room that usually held the 19+ events while the downstairs mostly stuck to all ages. Cute. (not exclusively though)
Last but certainly not least, Holy Joe’s. Found by going up a dark staircase at the back of the Reverb. This bite-sized room held a bizarre mix of intimate singer/songwriter showcases alongside thrashy punk or avant-garde noise ‘performances’. Furnished with a dozen sofas, living room style lamps and starry cartoony wallpaper gave a strange childlike intimacy to the already “Nana’s house” quality of the room. It even had its own little bar! Looking back, it’s kind of unbelievable that these 3 venues could be packed with their own special nights running simultaneously.
So there you have it. The Big Bop. Somewhat of a meeting point for the tattered and metallic outcasts and brash teenage upstart musicians. Intimidating to some, bothersome to most, home to the rest.
DEFUNCT VENUES WITH HONORABLE MENTION:
EL MOCAMBO – This didn’t make the list because the Elmo has been bought and sold so many times throughout the years it may very well come back. Real estate agent Neil Warshafsky said “I’d love to keep it as a music venue, but I think there’s other options for it as well.”
SPADINA HOTEL (or THE CABANA ROOM) – Funky little spot with a stage only about a foot off the ground. The room made it’s name bringing in the first wave of New York’s experimental and art-rock acts and then with Toronto’s own scene taking notice and filling up the historic hotel with the city’s cutting edge.
What are your Toronto defunct venues that weren’t listed? Tell us your story! With TO’s history being so rich, stay tuned for a part 2.