Queen by night


I write a lot about Yonge St, the place where absolutely every subculture in Toronto has managed to find some sort of a toe-hold, and yet also quite regularly feels alienated. ;o)

Lite Bite – by any other name (top photo)

But if you say Queen St in Toronto, especially Queen St W. – you are sorting for downtown urban hipster coolness. In a way, you’re also talking romantically about the eighties, the last decade when musicians and artists could still easily afford to live there in rather sublime concentration.

Despite heartbreaking gentrification (so many former amazing bookstores!), the artsy cachet of the place remains a huge part of it’s draw and ever increasing price tag – thankfully, many stalwart businesses have ‘made the pivot’ to find customers among the thousands of new condo residents who have been installed along long underused Richmond, in particular.

Strange timing being what it is – I actually watched, a few years ago, as a wrecking ball took down one of my favourite 80s clubs (the Twilight Zone), to make way for one of these new towers – nifty architecture at least (and one can’t say that nearly as often as one should be able to).

The 80s Queen St. music scene has made it through impressively well (so far and touch-wood) the Rivoli, Horseshoe and the Cameron House all endure and continue to host live music. Better still, Steve’s music still holds it’s anchor spot across from the Riv and Shoe.

You had me at ukulele

Yes, I worked for ‘the competition’ for more than a decade, but I was a Queen St. 80s teenager, a great many years before that. Steve’s was mind-blowing back then – it was a thrilling time for musical technology, and brand new advances were being made in recording and synthesis, constantly. (Even my guitarist pals were all going crazy for MIDI equipment). Home studio gear, alternative labels – everything was developing fast.

Not only was the great Active Surplus thriving then, so was the even larger Active components, with early clone computer kits and cheap raw parts for building your own practically anything. Half the people I knew were scratch building their own tech on an ongoing basis, and exchanging best recipes with excitement (at last, the low-cost low-noise op amp, huzzah!)

I was crazy for synthesizers and recording both – but also something of a waif – everything was heartbreakingly expensive. Which made meeting Pier Rubesa, who worked there, doubly fortunate for me. Even back then, he was a genuine and kind-hearted evangelist for enthusiasm, and he responded to my wonder and interest with invitations to visit his studio, and some really lovely demonstrations and insights about the way early eighties music was being made. (Studer 24 2″ and a PPG synth-rig – still one of the sweetest racks I ever saw!)

He also sold me my first synthesizer, a monosynth which taught me a lot about electronics, just before I went to college to study the subject (It really helps when you know what the math sounds like), and which I still adore to this day (also upon which I recorded my first love song for Catherine, using a discarded office steno machine and a top-loader cassette deck, to bounce tracks).  Thanks again, mon amis!

Yes, rather

Steve’s has been hugely renovated and much expanded – but curiously, the whole music business is also very different, having hit and surpassed several thresholds that were then still lofty goals. In the eighties, Ray Kurzweil’s formidable brain was deeply engaged on the project of mastering ‘sampling’ and ultimately, orchestral emulation. So many discreet technical and artistic challenges along the way.

Emulated fine instruments are now such a well-established technology that you can literally buy a brand new grand piano – as software – and have it downloaded to the same old keyboard your fingers are already accustomed to! (Less romantic, perhaps, but it still beats the heck out of risking a hernia, trying to manhandle a Fender Rhodes up a narrow fire-escape to the third floor, just to ‘add a voice’).  ;o)

Also, while synthesizers continue to do ever more amazing things (getting especially fun in interface, of late, which is always exciting, because it opens up potential for new music), we now also look back with great fondness, where before, everything was always about the future.

This vintage beauty has pride of place right in the front window of the glamorous and well lit new keyboard department. I love the old cassette deck built into it, dates it like very few other things could (and I still have the right belts, to fix it!).

Of course, as the son of a professional church organ player I will forever regret not learning to read and play at a proper high level myself – and yet never so regretful that I can’t always enjoy such musical treats as can be won and shared by a keen ear and open heart.  ;o)

Peter Pan persisteth (place was packed)

This is the restaurant where Catherine and I first met, as a couple of glowering new wave monster-kids.

I was living just a half a block away at the time, but almost never ate there. She lived way out in Etobicoke, but she and her sisters and friends (one of whom was temping as a receptionist, at the office where I was flunky-ing) were regulars, and got out to more Queen St clubs concerts and restaurants than I, by a multiple!

Back then (early 80s) Peter Pan patrons were especially lucky – usually eating the food of young Susur Lee, who became an internationally known celebrity chef and teacher, many years later.

I was terrified when they started renovating this building a few years ago – and overjoyed when it reappeared unchanged, except for more level walls (once again full of art – yay!), and a long-term stable structure.

Great spot for a romantic dinner, to this day. Plus, on the way home, we walk by the subway station pillar that we hid behind, for our first kiss (so we wouldn’t be glared-at by the ticket collector).  ;o)

Charlton and excellent nuts

Way back in the seventies when even downtown Queen W was still skid row – and filled with antique shops, junk emporia and antiquarian bookstores, this building hosted Charlton numismatics, where I got some of the very best coins in my childhood (prestidigitation directed) collection.

Even back then, it was obvious that the place was ideally suited for a super-villain headquarters, and indeed, thanks to the relentless energy of Moses Znaimer and a huge number of hard working journalists and on-air personalities, it was transformed in that precise sort of surreal direction, when tiny Channel Seventy-Nine moved from Queen E to this new Queen W. home, and became City TV Channel Fifty-Seven (a nimble, but very energetic upstart, and a genuine early broadcast innovator, in several formats which have great international importance today).

The deal which saw the vastly more deep-pocketed CTV network move into this choice headquarters, (which had grown too expensive for the empire which first built it) still feels somewhat mysterious. Despite new digs right at Yonge Dundas Square, City TV has lost much of it’s power and lustre since, but for all that, it remains the very best Toronto incubator for new reporters (check out their current roster – truly superior legwork and gumption!)

This street-level studio, once used for Much Music (and adjacent to their concert stage, for live festivals), is now hosting the very popular “The Social”, which features some intelligent discussion, some revealing topical weirdness, and some attitudes that make you scream and bang your head on the walls! (That is to say, significantly above average daytime TV fare).

I have been drawn into several segments, when flipping by, and indeed the format of having a representative of each of several personality types, so that everything can be approached from several angles, is appealing almost like sports. You listen with increasing frustration to one, hoping desperately that the very next at-bat will deliver an out-of-the-park refutation!

I have to say though – out of all the many shots their cameras deliver during the course of a show – not one of them ever depicts this threatening mess, suspended just above their heads. All it would take is one loose nut!

Points for nerve for every one of them – even when they’re all utterly wrong!

Cafe Crepe

Finally, this is not a venerable eighties Queen W. business, but I rather hope it endures long enough to become an established part of the scene. Quite lovely. Signage, lighting and ambiance.

Queen is a very busy street – pedestrians and cars were whizzing-by all night, and I got more than one odd look for lingering so long on a corner, hoping to get another clear chance at something that looked promising.

In this case, I was so sure it was going to make a cool shot, I hung around for ten minutes or so, and got another six versions. First try was the one though.

Reminds me of jamming, so often the finest material of the night emerges in the first ten minutes, when you haven’t even really had time to warm up (but everyone somehow showed up with a surplus of go-energy) or the last ten minutes, when you’re all exhausted and really ought to go home, but you’re just happy enough to say, “You know what? Let’s have just one more little taste, right?”

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