Music fans in Toronto can easily club and hall hop on any given night and see a lineup of incredible homegrown and internationally known bands, from tiny rooms to a major arena. That wasn’t the case even 50 years ago, when “rock bands (were) playing in tiny coffeehouses in Yorkville,” says Jonny Dovercourt, author of the new book “Any Night of the Week,” on the evolving music scene in Toronto from the 1950s through the early 2000s.
“I’ve been immersed in the local Toronto music scene since I was a tenn in the early ‘90s, as a musician, writer and show organizer. I grew up here and was always more drawn to music if it was made locally,” he says. “That sense of a personal connection plus the feeling of rooting for hometown heroes was always attractive to me. And because local bands always seemed like the underdog compared to out-of-towners, I felt like I could actually make a difference by participating in the local music community.”
Dovercourt started writing for the student newspaper at the University of Toronto and then for Eye Weekly before co-founding the Wavelength collective in 2000, which was purpose-built for highlighting the local music world in Toronto though both a weekly concert series and a monthly publication.
The book, coming out in March, was inspired in no small part by other recent contributions to the Canadian music bookshelf, including Liz Worth’s “Treat Me Like Dirt” and Nick Smash’s “Alone and Gone,” along with Denise Benson’s nightlife roundup and histories of the ‘60s in Yorkville from Nicholas Jennings and Stuart Henderson.
“What I wanted to do with my book was to ‘connect the dots’ and combine all these sources with my own first-hand experiences and memories from the ‘90s to assemble a comprehensible (if not comprehensive) narrative of underground music in Toronto,” he explains.
Compared with today, there were fewer music venues in the GTA (which, of course, wasn’t called that) in the 1950s and 1960s, but there were clusters of venues in neighborhoods like Yorkville Village and along Yonge Street in Toronto. In Jennings’ book, he estimates there were “40 venues booking live music in about six square blocks, at the height of Yorkville circa ‘66/ ‘67. Toronto was primed for this explosion, having a big population of Baby Boomer youth who were looking for excitement and countercultural experiences, and in Yorkville you had one of the first European-style bohemian cafe hangout zones in the city, which attracted beatniks and then hippies,” Dovercourt says. “But the music industry was still nascent and didn’t have the power to make stars out of homegrown talent yet, and domestic radio wouldn’t support Canadian music — at least not until it made it big elsewhere first, which necessitated the CanCon regulations coming out in ‘71.”
That mindset, in some cases, remains true today, Dovercourt says. “Torontonians and Canadian musicians still have to work extra hard to get taken seriously, and in some occasions still have to get approval internationally before getting heralded at home.”
Another aspect of Canadian music that helped nurture the Toronto music world but needed some extra time to really thrive: The city’s multicultural inhabitants.
In the 1980s, recognition of the Caribbean population and their culture started to take off, leading to an increase appreciation for reggae becoming more popular across the city. “Venues like the BamBoo on Queen West and community radio stations like CKLN 88.1 FM (both of which started out in 1983) [began] to support more diverse genres of music” as the decade went on, Dovercourt says. “Canada’s first hip-hop radio show was on CKLN — Ron Nelson’s Fantastic Voyage — and the Caribbean cultural influence has also been significantly strong on homegrown hip-hop artists, such as Michie Mee and Kardinal Offishall.”
But as he notes in the introduction to his book, Toronto is still at a crossroads: The city lost some of its legendary venues in the past few years, some of which won’t reopen as places to see great live music. At the same time, the city is host to a growing number of internationally acclaimed artists, from The Weeknd and Drake to Broken Social Scene, Feist, Alessia Cara and Tanya Tagaq. Toronto is trying to embrace and create an identity as a music city while losing places where these musicians can perform.
“Today’s endangered music venues are at risk of joining a long list of extinct species. And today’s hometown heroes, who deserve every shred of success that has come their way, could not have gotten there without the trails blazed by the likes of Kensington Market, Martha and the Muffins, Michie Mee, and Do Make Say Think,” he writes. “Every band and venue has a lifespan, and some rest in peace for good reason. But other promising groups and spaces died tragically young. Their memory must be kept alive in order to safeguard the future.”
In collecting his research, Dovercourt says he was surprised to find “just how interwoven the network of musicians and artists is, going all the way back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. It would be amazing to map out the web of interconnections!”
He has his favourite haunts — “My personal favourite is grunge-era basement bar 1150 Queen Street West (circa 1991-93), which is actually still around as the Drake Underground — though like all the best rock club, I found it more comfortable before they cleaned it up” — and the ones he wishes he could’ve experienced first-hand.
When asked for an ideal lineup and location for any group of musicians, current or lost to history, his answer is a broad one, as would be the case for any music lover with keys to a time machine.
“Assuming time travel is possible, I’d want to see every single band profiled (in the book), in chronological order, over a three-night festival lineup at the Concert Hall, aka the Masonic Temple, at Yonge and Davenport.”
This is Dovercourt’s second book, joining “GreenTOpia: Towards A Sustainable Toronto,” published in 2007. “Any Night of the Week” comes out March 24.