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volume 6
december 2003

The El Mocambo Tavern and the Toronto music scene

 





  A historical exegesis
by Andrew Scott
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  Despite its illusory quality, Allan Moore argues, pop audiences feel the need to ascribe authenticity to particular artists. The same can be said of the public spaces that prove so important in the history of pop music. Just like artists, they may win or lose their credits of that strange, volatile currency that regulates their fates: authenticity. Looking deeper into this matter, Andrew Scott here analyzes the final chapter of Toronto's rock temple, the famous El Mocambo.
 
1 The final chapter of the El Mocambo. On November 4, 2001, Toronto's El Mocambo Tavern closed its doors on over a quarter century of rock and roll history. While much has been written about the nightclub's financial hardships and ultimate demise, few scholars have discussed the nightclub's role in helping shape the Toronto music scene. [1] Arguably, the El Mocambo's twofold role as early host to such artists as Elvis Costello, the Police and U2, and later as performance venue for emerging local rock groups, helped constitute a Toronto music scene for nearly three decades.

In this article, I offer a historical exegesis of the El Mocambo. My conclusions are culled from secondary source research and interview with members of the Toronto rock music scene. [2] Informed by Will Straw's argument that "alliances between communities are the crucial political processes within popular music," I examine the El Mo's role in helping shape a shared musical experience between Toronto rock musician and fan (Straw, 1991: 370). In this article, I focus on the years 1996-2001, the final chapter of the El Mocambo. My historical narrative not only affords the listener context, but a portal through which to view the challenges that faced manager Dan Burke when he assumed promotional responsibilities in 1996. Primary, was Burke's challenge to re-establish the club's "authenticity." Although Allan Moore (2000) notes distinctions between "authentic" — therefore real — and "commercial" — unreal or less real? — are increasingly illusory, authenticity perception was of paramount importance to Burke, nuancing his band-hiring policies and informing much of the surrounding discourse on the El Mo's ultimate closure.

2 Dan Burke at the Tequila Lounge (2001)

Dan Burke. Burke is a Ryerson University journalism graduate, former assistant editor of MacLean's Magazine and past executive producer for the acclaimed CBC documentary show The Fifth Estate. His entrée into nightclub management follows a harrowing tale of cocaine addiction and homelessness. After addiction recovery, Burke re-invented himself as a club promoter; first with The Shanghai Lounge, and later, the El Mocambo. Burke's involvement with the El Mo began in 1996. That year, Lamin Dibba and Ken Eng purchased the Toronto nightclub for $80,000.00 from Enzo Petrungaro, his sister Mirella, and a silent Hong Kong owner, represented by property manager Peter Lau. The nine thousand foot space had been on the real-estate market since 1997, with an asking price of $1.38 million (Anderson, 2001).

Originally, Dibba and Eng were unsure what to do with the space. The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) had targeted Spadina Road, from approximately College south to Queen, for "re-development and urban intensification" (Anderson, 2001). According to an August 2001 OMB press release: "a case for intensification not only exists, but cries out for recognition," for the area known locally as Chinatown (quoted in Anderson, 2001). Shortly after purchase, Burke began working for Dibba and Eng's After Dark Productions, a catchall production company that offered event planning, cultivated musical talent, and functioned as booking agency for Toronto alternative rock groups (Rayner, 2001b).

  Although Burke was never part owner, and accordingly had no financial equity in the business, he levied more power and possessed greater cultural currency than either Dibba or Eng. From 1996 until its demise in 2001, Burke was the visionary for, and gatekeeper of, the El Mocambo. Burke discovered the El Mocambo's rich legacy was not without its trappings. The club was legendary for hosting U2, the Police, Grover Washington Jr., Charles Mingus, and perhaps most famously for Canadians, the 1977 Rolling Stones — featuring a special appearance by then First Lady Margaret Trudeau — but by 1996 the club's industry reputation and street credibility had diminished considerably. According to Burke: "The El Mo was perceived as an obsolete apparatus on the rock'n'roll assembly line" (quoted in Rayner, 2001a: D11). Barbi Caspelvi, former lead singer of the Spy underscores Burke's point, "I remember when nobody was coming here, and everyone made fun of the El Mo" (quoted in Rayner, 2001c: E3).
3 A lack of authenticity. Paramount to the El Mo's identity difficulties was a perceived lack of authenticity. Without the ephemeral, yet valuable, cultural capital that accompanies authenticity perception, the El Mo had trouble attracting a scene, and in strictly economic terms, remaining financially solvent. As Steve Jones (1993: 77) notes, authenticity is established not only musically, but also through the artifice of "text and image." Arguably, the El Mo's music, text — surrounding community discourse and band posters — and image needed to work synergistically in order to reify the club's relevance to the local Toronto rock scene, and, pragmatically, keep it from going under.

In order to understand why the El Mo was viewed as inauthentic by 1996, one should appreciate the club's position from 1972 until 1989. In 1972, Mike Baird, a plastics salesman, and Tom Kristenbrun, a chartered accountant, purchased the club from Penny Schuy and her husband Peter O' Rourke for an undisclosed amount. Schuy and O'Rourke had been reluctantly operating the El Mocambo, known locally as "Schuy's Tavern," for one year, since the passing of Peggy's father and previous owner Adam Schuy. By all accounts, Adam Schuy, who owned the club since 1960, had little interest in popular culture or the rapidly changing musical styles that epitomized much of the 1960s. The club's 285-seat second floor, or Starlight Room, employed quasi-Spanish style decor, and hosted continental ballroom dancing and international variety acts. The 170-seat ground floor offered cheap bear and striptease shows.

  Baird and Kristenbrun hoped to turn the club into a student watering hole; capitalizing on the El Mo's close proximity to the University of Toronto and George Brown College. They wanted to tear down the famous neon sign and change the club's name. Members of the El Mo staff and students at the local Ontario College of Art protested. The name, and sign, stayed. To Baird's and Kristenbrun's defense, the sign — a twenty-six foot neon eyesore featuring coconuts and an oversized palm tree — was perhaps not representative of the college watering hole aesthetic they aimed to cultivate. Erected in 1946, the sign, name, and Spanish theme of the club were the result of John and Frieda Lang's research.
  The Lang's purchased the property as two street addresses: 462 and 464 Spadina Road in 1940, and opened a restaurant. Alcohol consumption was not allowed as stipulated by a Toronto by-law. However, in 1946 the Ontario Liquor Licensing Board granted licenses to restaurants willing to operate American style-drinking establishments. The board hoped to attract tourism dollars and capitalize on a post-World War II festive mood. The El Mocambo was among the first Toronto businesses offered a liquor license. Although willing to help, the Lang's had no point of reference for an "American-style" drinking establishment. As a result, the Langs went on a board-sponsored tour of New York and Chicago nightclubs, visiting a number of bars that employed a Spanish influence. Returning to Toronto, the couple transformed 464 Spadina into "The El Mocambo Tavern," a quasi-Spanish style nightclub, whose name is Spanish for "roadhouse." Business prospered. In 1950, the Langs opened the second floor, or "Spanish Garden," for ballroom dancing.
4 A legendary past. When people speak of the legendary El Mocambo club, they are most likely referring to its tenure under Baird and Kristenbrun. Under their ownership, the new El Mocambo opened September 11th 1972. Foot 'n' Cold Water, a popular Toronto group whose hits include "(Make Me Do) Anything You Want," and "Isn't Love Unkind (In My Life)," performed opening night. Making a profit is important to any nightclub owner, of course, and Baird's decision to book blues and rock acts was informed by three key observations. First, Toronto was starved for blues; second, a favorable exchange rate meant he could afford top American talent; and third — perhaps most importantly — blues audiences drank. Baird's idea worked. The El Mocambo soon hosted as many as eighty-two acts per year, selling upwards of 190,000 litres of beer. Throughout the 1970s, the El Mocambo's identity was defined as much by what it was not, as what it was. Simply put, the club remained a bastion of blues and rock'n'roll throughout a decade of disco, punk, and new wave. Reacting to the El Mo's booking policy, Steve "Nazi Dog" Leckie — leader of the Toronto punk group The Viletones — reported a phony bomb threat to the club in 1978. Leckie's ill-conceived effort failed to affect hiring decisions, however.

Arguably, it was the El Mocambo's reputation as unpretentious rock'n'roll establishment that attracted the Rolling Stones to perform there in March 1977, the band's first club date in fourteen years. Although one of the world's most successful groups, the Stones sought a small club in which to record a live album. The group wanted intimacy, audience interaction and the working class ethos they encountered when starting out. According to singer Mick Jagger, the El Mo in 1977 was "very similar to the Marquee in 1963," referring to the famed London nightclub where the Stones performed among their first gigs beginning in July 1962 (Jagger and Richards, 1978). Burke underscores this point, "when the Stones came in, they selected the El Mocambo because it epitomized a certain kind of venue from a certain era — the kind of venue they started out in" (quoted in Rayner, 2001a: D11). On March 4, 1977, the Rolling Stones gave the first of two unadvertised performances on the club's second floor stage. April Wine opened the both evenings.

  The Stones played to an over capacity crowd, earned $400.00, the going El Mo rate, and released "Love You Live," capturing their 1977 Toronto appearance. The El Mocambo, however, changed after the Stones appearance. Despite Baird's arguments to the contrary, the El Mo was increasingly perceived as an industry club, a venue where record companies showcased new talent. Burke's observation, that the El Mocambo lost its authenticity when it became Toronto's industry room, is predated by Globe and Mail writer Paul McGrath who noted in 1978, "it seems the appearance of the Rolling Stones there last March was a turning point, and the bar consciously hooked into mainstream music and now works with the record companies and public relations firms to find out who's breaking and if the bar can afford to hire them."
5 Identity problems. Burke's point, that good music cannot be indexed to corporate or profiting entities, further suggests that authentic rock must be both anti-commercial and purely expressive. According to Ian Blurton, guitarist/singer for Change of Heart: "We [Change of Heart] didn't play the El Mo out of principal. There was a period of time when we boycotted the club." [3] Blurton's refusal to perform at the El Mo had ramifications. As Barclay, Jack, and Schneider (2001: 172) assert, Blurton's "musical ambition had become so synonymous with the Canadian indie rock revolution that ... most young musicians saw him as a god." Allowing record industry to influence booking policy polarized the El Mocambo from music production on the local level. The club was seen as exclusionary and paid a price for its earlier hegemony. [4]

 By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the El Mocambo's identity problems expanded. With the rise of Canadian independent or "indie" music, the "do-it-yourself" (DIY) attitude that perhaps best describes such bands as Change of Heart, the Rheostatistics and most successfully the Barenaked Ladies, many Toronto bands found a space to constitute their "indie" scene in William New's "Elvis Mondays" (Renzetti, 1994). New, a guitarist and founding member of Groovy Religion began Elvis Monday in 1988 at the Beverley Tavern. New offered musicians a performance opportunity irrespective of fan base, style, and in many cases, ability. The only common denominator was that bands were "indie," loosely defined as having no obvious attachments to commercial radio or a major record label. Change of Heart, Ron Sexsmith, Blind Melon, and the Cowboy Junkies all gained early exposure on an Elvis Monday. [5]

  An examination of the evening's name is perhaps revealing. Although Elizabeth Renzetti (1994) asserts that initially it was a postmodern ironic attraction that drew New to the "bloated, drug-addled Kind of the Vegas years rather than the trim healthy hunk of the 1950s," I suggest that another interpretation is to view Elvis Monday as bricolage, a second order signifier. [6] Arguably, New has created a construct that borrows significance from dominant culture, and subverts it. The name now serves his needs as opposition to hegemony. Simply put, New takes Elvis Presley, perhaps the greatest signifier of music industry dominance — after all 50 million fans can't be wrong — and impoverishes or distances it from the original connotations until Elvis now promotes a night of independent/alternative music. [7]
6 Valuing independece. According to New, the night took on a life of its own, "people began coming to the night, not because of the music, but because of the indieness of the groups," suggests New. [8] Groups with no connection other than an equivalent distance from commercialism, shared both stage and fan base. I attended numerous Elvis Monday's while researching this paper. I was surprised that such disparate groups as White Cowbell — a Southern rock band that parodies Lynyrd Skynrd, The Allman Brothers and Colonel Sanders — and the introspective and highly serious Blurtonia could successfully share a stage and garner equivalent applause.

I realized I was looking at, or more specifically, listening for, the wrong criteria. The point was not for bands to sound alike. Rather, groups were championed for their ability to underscore, reify and make more meaningful, values of independence. At Elvis Monday's musical aesthetics clearly nuance communal values. The sloppiness, lack of musical training and shoddy performance practices evidenced by many Elvis Monday bands were arguably valued for their opposition to hegemony, their "DIY" attitude and assertion of independence. Musical and social values are homologically linked. Similar to Dick Hebdige's finding on the British punk movement, the relationship between experience, expression, and signification is constant (Hebdige, 1979: 126).

  While the independent Toronto music scene flourished throughout the 1990s, the El Mo was increasingly viewed as a relic. Continuing to associate with record industry, the El Mo became the showcase room for David Bendeth, a former fusion guitarist turned RCA Records A&R man. Bendeth's propensity to offer bands generous financial advances and highly restrictive contracts, earned him the Toronto moniker "David Band-Death." [9] His ties to the El Mo further polarized the club from the local music community. By 1998, Burke had re-established the El Mo's authenticity. That year, Elvis Monday's moved to the El Mo, William New began booking the downstairs stage and musicians who formerly boycotted the club became frequent performers.
  According to Caspelvi, "Dan Burke came in here and made it work ... This place was totally a craphole before Dan turned it around" (quoted in Rayner, 2001c: E3). Caspelvi's dismissive comments towards the pre-Burke El Mo could hardly refer to the club's decor: the rickety wooden staircase, uneven second floor and soaked-in beer smell was present before, during, and after, Burke's tenure. Instead, I suggest, Caspelvi is referring to re-established authenticity.
7 A high point of the evening. Burke's disdain of commercialism was good for street credibility, but bad for business. In 2001, Abbas Jahangiri and Fundamental Perspectives, an anonymous group of nineteen investors, purchased the property and El Mo name for $928, 000.00 (Anderson, 2001). Jahangiri, who runs three dance studios under the National Dance of Canada moniker, hopes to convert the space into a dance studio, spiritual-outreach centre and women's shelter (Palmer, 2001). Protests, arrests — specifically Burke's — and considerable media and political attention, led by Toronto city councilor Olivia Chow, marked the El Mo's final days.

 Significantly, fans afforded equal currency to the El Mo's legendary history and its re-emergence as a cutting edge live club when mourning its demise. "It's the only goddamn club and promoter in the city that knows anything about music," states Peaches (a.k.a. Merrill Nisker) who got her start at the El Mo (quoted in Rayner, 2001a: D11). Burke is not without detractors. Many in the Toronto scene suggest that it was Burke who ultimately forced the El Mo's closure by dismissing Jahangiri's initial suggestion to feature live music on the first floor. When confronted as to why he turned down the conciliatory offer, Burke defiantly proclaimed the El Mo's upstairs as its "torso, the historical shoulders ... where most of [the] illustrious history occurred." [10]

  Burke currently runs El Mocambo Productions using the Tequila Lounge as its home. The night I interviewed Burke he was working the door for a Stooges tribute night. Reminiscent of Elvis Monday's and the final years of the El Mo there were eleven bands on the bill. Each performed between one and three songs. The interview was a bust. Burke was frequently interrupted by patrons wanting to pay the six dollar cover, my tape recorder picked up little over the band volume and I spent more time working the door than interviewing Burke as he went to solve a series of impending disasters, smoke cigarettes and drink Jagermeister. A high point of the evening occurred when Burke ran on stage to perform an impromptu two-song set. Burke's musical performance was frenetic and untrained. However, it offered Burke the opportunity to demonstrate his personal authenticity to a full house.
   
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  Notes
1. For local Toronto journalism regarding the closure of the El Mocambo see: Wilson, 2001; Anderson, 2001; Rayner, 2001a; 2001b; and 2001c. Return to text
2. Much of the information here is taken from Burke, Dan (2002), "Re: El Mocambo." Personal Interview. April 28, 2002. Return to text
3. Blurton, Ian (2002), "Re: El Mocambo." Personal Interview. April 28, 2002. Return to text
4. For more information on the El Mocambo as a venue for corporate rock see: McGrath, 1978. Return to text
5. For more information on Elvis Monday see Barclay et al, 2001: 176-78; 180-81. Return to text
6. See: Renzetti, 1994. Return to text
7. Cfr. Presley, Elvis (1997), 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, Vol. 2, RCA. Return to text
8. New, William (2002), "Re: El Mocambo." Personal interview. March 18, 2002. Return to text
9. Morrison, Dave (2002), "Re: El Mocambo." Personal Interview. July 12, 2002. Return to text
10. Burke, Dan (2002), "Re: El Mocambo." Personal Interview. April 28, 2002. Return to text
   
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  References
 
  • Anderson, Scott (2001), "El Mo no more." In: NOW Magazine, 11-17 October, 24.
  • Barclay, Michael, Jason Schneider and Ian Andrew Dylan Jack (2001), Have not been the same. The Canrock Renaissance, 1985-1995. Toronto: ECW Press.
  • Hebdige, Dick (1979), Subculture. The meaning of style. London: Methuen.
  • Jagger, Mick and Keith Richards (1978), "Live at the El Mo!" CBC Radio Interview, broadcast on March 4, available at CBC Archives.
  • Jones, Steve (1993), "Popular music studies and critical legal studies." In: Stanford Humanities Review, 2, 77.
  • McGrath, Paul (1978), "El Mocambo goes serious: fans lose out." In: The Globe and Mail, 26 June.
  • Moore, Allan (2000), "Constructing authenticity in rock." In: Performance Arts International, 1, Winter.
  • Palmer, Karen (2001), "Rock refuges under attack." In: The Toronto Star, 1 October, E2.
  • Rayner, Ben (2001a), "Remember the El Mo." In: The Toronto Star, 14 October, D1 and D11.
  • Rayner, Ben (2001b), "Last stand at the El Mo." In: The Toronto Star, 4 November, D3.
  • Rayner, Ben (2001c), "El Mocambo rocks into history." In: The Toronto Star, 5 November, E2-3.
  • Renzetti, Elizabeth (1994), "The Elvis Monday launching pad." In: The Globe and Mail, 16 December, C7.
  • Straw, Will (1991), "Systems of articulation, logics of change. Communities and scenes in popular music." In: Cultural Studies, 3/3.
  • Wilson, Carl (2001), "Landmark club may fade away." In: The Globe and Mail, 4 October, R4.
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