The Horseshoe Tavern is a long, narrow club located on Queen Street West, a few doors east of Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto. On the wide sidewalk in front of the music venue is is a small patio enclosed by a black iron fence, where the drinkers from inside can stand in the winter cold or the summer heat and smoke their cigarettes.
Inside is the front room, a bright, blond-wood space with a long bar on the left. The wall on the right is coated with a collage of newspaper clippings, set lists, and a generous photographic record of the bands that have graced the famous stage located deeper in the Horseshoe's dark recesses.
Past a pool table and the bathrooms, past a displayed Triumph motorcycle and up a few steps, is the back room-- the venue itself. The light of the front room gives way to a low-ceilinged black cavern with another bar on the left, seating and a sound booth on the right, all leading up to a smallish dance floor and the stage which has been stomped on by an endless progression of music royalty.
Country stars like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Pride, Loretta Lyn and Stompin' Tom Connors played The Horseshoe in the early days. Punk and new wave acts like The Police, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and The MC-5 visited later. A who's who of Canadian rock, including The Tragically Hip, The Rheostatics, Bryan Adams, Nickelback, Billy Talent, The Constantines and Arcade Fire have passed through. Monster acts like The Rolling Stones have arrived to play secret sets, while a constant stream of emerging acts like Niko Case, Franz Ferdinand, The Decemberists, Death Cab For Cutie, and The Shins have graced the stage.
If you play Canada, eventually you will play The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.
Bar prices are typically steep for a downtown Toronto bar (a bottle of Labatt 50 is a five-and-a-quarter hit, plus tip) but to the club's credit, live music from emerging artists is cheap. Monday night has three bands, free. Tuesday night has four bands, also free. I try to make it most Mondays. I don't miss a Tuesday.
Tuesday is new music night at The Horseshoe. Four bands, usually local or regional acts, show up and play. They don't get any money, but they get to play in a famous room in front of a good crowd, usually numbering a hundred or more people. It's a place for bands to gain experience and exposure, and a place for music fans to see what's being played by the newest of the new. It doesn't matter who's playing. You show up and see. Every Tuesday night is a mish-mash of bands playing rock, punk, country, pop, glam, or whatever else. You show up and take what The Horseshoe gives you.
Every Tuesday night I get home from work, eat, shower up, and pre-drink a few tall cans of cheap lager. Then I pick out an appropriate black t-shirt, grab my notebook and go. It's not a long walk from my studio apartment. The first band is usually on by a quarter after nine, and every week I'm there by nine o'clock sharp.
I go alone. When I'm at a gig I'm taking notes, changing spots so I can isolate and focus on particular players on stage, or chasing down band members to ask questions, make contacts, exchange info... you get the idea. Since retiring from actually playing music (more on that later), I've been trying to get a career in music journalism off the ground. So while I'm there to enjoy the bands, I'm also working. It's hard to keep track of friends when you're operating like that.
Another reason I don't bring friends to gigs is that I have no friends. More or less, anyway. More on that later, too.
I'm sorry for the clumsy way I'm starting this thing-- I'm not used to this kind of long-form expository writing, where I'm trying to explain who I am and what I do. I don't usually write anything longer than an album or concert review, or type up an interview. I'm not saying I can't write; after all, I managed to finish my degree at the U of T (English and History), and hell, I'm even using a semicolon correctly in this very sentence.
All I mean is that I'm not used to writing about MYSELF. But I want to write this because I have a story to tell, and this story begins one particular Tuesday night in November at The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.
Like I said, on Tuesday nights I just go, without caring what bands are booked to play. They're typically bands no one has heard of anyway. If I watch them and like them, I seek them out, talk to them, collect information, and I'll write about them for a website, either my own or someone else's. I usually write up at least one band a week, sometimes two.
Since I never bother check who is playing ahead of time, there was no way for me to know that I was going to see a band named Seam/Fault/Flaw on that Tuesday night. The name wouldn't have meant anything to me anyway, except to reinforce that there is no limit to the awfulness of the names people are willing to give their own bands (and this coming from the former guitarist of the band Panegyric, which thankfully no longer exists).
If researching bands before seeing them was my thing, I might have visited the website of Seam/Fault/Flaw and seen that the band featured a member named Carrie Anne Dodd playing guitar. That would probably mean nothing to you, but that name and the picture next to it would have twisted me up into a small spastic ball, and instead of going to The Horseshoe I probably would have spent the night screwed up on my bed experiencing a dark rainbow of unwanted feelings.
But because I never do research before going to The Horseshoe, I got to experience all these gut-twisting feelings after walking through the narrow front room, past the pool table, past the Triumph motorcycle, and into that dark back room. Because there I saw none other than Carrie Anne Dodd, standing on the stage tightening a microphone stand.
I stopped in mid-step. Weird ripples ran up the backs of my legs and icy tingles went up my back. Tendrils of cold fear and panic wrapped around the back of my head. My heart oozed up into my throat and my stomach dropped down into my lower bowel, leaving an organ-free gap in my core.
She looked good. Disturbingly good. Better? Yes, she looked better than before. She was wearing a blue-green plaid top and faded blue jeans that hugged her curves. Her hair, which she usually dyed a fiery red, had more of a purple-red vermillion tinge to it, with the bangs cut straight across her forehead, with the rest hanging down over her shoulders in thick-braided pigtails.
The changes were minor, really. New glasses. More lipstick than she used to wear, but that may just have been because she was up on stage. But it wasn't some minor style changes that gave me the kick in the gut. It was the sudden feeling of walking into an ambush, as though The Horseshoe was supposed to be friendly territory-- my territory-- but upon walking in, the first thing I saw was the enemy queen, claiming the whole land for herself.
I retreated. What the hell could I do? One second I was a freelance music journalist hipster kid with a slight beer buzz, venturing out to find the hot new bands on the local scene, and in the next second I was transformed into a geeky wannabe kid, lurking friendlessly around bar posing as a music writer-- a loser who was wasting a fantastically expensive degree working a retail day-job while jerking off over fantasies of blogger fame at night.
So I retreated? You're damn right I retreated.
I went back out the front door and let the cold November air slap some sense into me. There were a few smokers standing there. I wanted to squat down and put my head between my legs, but that would have made an awkward scene. I felt a few pairs of eyes on me as I stood there, probably looking like a lost alien, uncomfortable in his fake human skin.
On some level I expected something like this was going to happen. Of course I was bound to bump into Carrie Anne eventually. She still lived in Toronto. I'd been back for four months. Even though I'd deliberately avoided the few pubs and cafes where I thought she might still go, it was a statistical inevitability that we would meet.
But what the hell was she doing on stage at The Horseshoe anyway? There'd been guitars and a drum kit up there. Was she in a band now? Carrie Anne wasn't a musician. As far as I knew she couldn't sing either, or at least that was what she'd always claimed. As well, she'd shown very little tolerance for my own rock band lifestyle during university...
But maybe I haven't painted a clear picture for you who Carrie Anne is, or how our mutual pasts are intertwined. You've probably already guessed the key facts: yes, we were together, and then we split, and when she broke my heart she took half the pieces with her.
The bitch. The fact that she is smart, fun and beautiful makes her all the more monstrous for casting me aside.
I guess I was staring into space. One of the smokers glanced over his shoulder at me, then turned and asked with a smirk if I was okay.
"Yeah, I'm cool," I said in a croak, forcing a smile. "Sorry about this, but do you think I could get one of those?" I gestured to his cigarette.
"Sure." He dug the pack out of his coat pocket and handed me a cigarette, then lit me up. The two girls he'd been talking to watched mutely.
I took the drag and let the chemicals soak into my blood through my lungs, giving me a quick kick of nausea. The sick, poisoned feeling from the cigarette displaced the heartsick feeling. I exhaled and gave an involuntary shudder. The guy grinned.
"It's been a while," I said weakly.
"Needed one, eh?"
I shrugged. "Yeah. Chicks, you know?"
He laughed. "Oh, I know." He checked his watch. "The band's gonna go on. You be okay?"
I nodded and forced myself to take another drag.
The guy dropped his own smoke and crushed it with the toe of his shoe, and he and the girls went inside. A few snowflakes drifted down around me. It was true. Carrie Anne was about to go on stage, and I could either go in and watch her, or I could slink away into the night like some weirdo loser coward. I wanted to disappear and drink, a lot.
"Fuck it," I said. I took a last disgusting drag, dropped the mostly whole cigarette onto the pavement and stamped it out, and went back inside The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.
|I Sing When You Shut Up is the fourth novel Nolan Whyte has written for Ultimate-Guitar.|