Get mad, play rock ‘n’ roll: how my bands queered up Toronto’s clubs

An excerpt from Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer, a new collection of essays from Coach House Books


The below is an excerpt from Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer, a collection of essays available May 15, 2017 on Coach House Books.

I was beside myself with excitement about the first Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, in 1977. To me it held out the thrilling promise of an uprising of female rockers. But when I arrived, my dreams were dashed. The music over three days – folksingers moaning about oppression or crooning about sisterhood – mostly sucked.

While bitching mightily throughout the weekend and at one point borrowing a guitar to sing Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ a Toronto feminist tapped me on the shoulder: ‘Why don’t you just stop whinging and start a women’s band?’

In the late 1970s, feminism was a fact, and there was a burgeoning scene of artists recording women-centred music (thank you, Olivia Records in America, who gave us Cris Williamson, Teresa Trull, and Meg Christian). But there had been no groundswell of women storming the stage with their amps and axes. 

I had been thinking about doing just that since I was a teenager in the 1960s. I had some musical talent, I loved rock ’n’ roll, and I really wanted to play it. Thing is, it was only the guys who were playing guitar and forming bands. Everyone of my gender was consigned to groupie status. It made me angry and ridiculously jealous – not of the sex, but of the power of the music. Feminism wasn’t a word anyone was throwing around at that time, but I had the distinct sense that if women could play that brand of searing, fierce music, the world would change. Anyway, almost all the songs those boys were playing had only four chords. I mean, I could do that.

So when I returned to Toronto from Michigan, I wrangled musicians who played at the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (loot) Three of Cups coffee house, including sax player Linda Robitaille and acoustic guitarist and singer Donna Marchand, and we started to rehearse cover tunes.

We performed a few times as an acoustic combo and then reoriented with new musicians, including newbie electric guitarist Susan Sturman, who, like me, belonged to the Broadside magazine collective. But we couldn’t find a drummer until Linda Jain said she’d simply learn how. She wasn’t the only novice. To be clear, none of us was very good, except Robitaille. Amidst all those caveats, Mama Quilla II – named in honour of keyboardist and Music Room owner Sara Dunlop, who had a band called Mama Quilla in the early seventies – was born.

I  believed that rock ’n’ roll could be a vehicle for female empowerment, even though I had few role models to prove my point. Neither Heart nor Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders yet existed. Except for a few very obscure American feminist bands we weren’t aware of at the time, we were, more or Emergence | 145 SusanG.Cole GetMad–Play Rock’n’Roll less, on our own. But I knew I was right that rock ’n’ roll didn’t have to be a boys’ club, and that electric guitars didn’t have to be played as if a man were stroking his penis.

Our first gig as the expanded Mama Quilla II was at a loot dance three months after the Michigan festival. With Ruth Dworin, of groundbreaking sound crew Womynly Way, handling the tech, we played a few tunes without percussion to an appreciative crowd. Then Linda sat down at the drums and we played a rewritten version of Jackson Brown’s ‘The Load-Out,’ celebrating our experience at that Michigan festival. When Linda’s snare finally kicked in, the place went bananas. I’d neverseen hundreds of women so ecstatic when we segued into ‘Sherry (Won’t You Come Out Tonight),’ well, don’t ask.

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Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer comes out May 15, 2017 on Coach House Books.

We weren’t the only women’s music going in town in the late seventies. Among the few trying to make some female inroads, pianist/writer Boo Watson played solo gigs, sometimes with Lorraine Segato, who already showed signs of the charismatic performer she’d become. And a trio called Hamburger Patty – Gwen Swick, Cathie McKay, and Sherry Shute – were playing clubs around the city.

That group was an essential part of this history. Performing mostly original material, their harmonies were dynamite and they had the nerve – and the chops – to play in legendary venues like the Horseshoe. (Swick still sings in Quartette with Sylvia Tyson, Cindy Church, and Caitlin Hanford.) Sherry, in particular, was a marvel, blond hair flying, grinning at the crowd as she got that guitar wailing in those intricate solos. An original, she never really got her due. 

The first iteration of Mama Quilla II developed more fully when Cathie McKay joined the band to play bass, while Maxine Walsh and BJ Danylchuk added a conga percussion section. But I couldn’t resist Sherry Shute, and when Cathie suggested we start a band of our own with Sherry, we and stellar keyboardist Evelyne Datl formed No Frills.

Segato then joined Mama Quilla II and helped turn the band into a viable outfit that released an excellent ep – the ironic cover featuring an old-school Tupperware party.

In the meantime, No Frills workshopped new material at Pat Murphy’s dyke bar, the Fly By Night, at George and Jarvis. I had played a solo set there weekly for about a year, and Murphy was a huge supporter of women’s music.

A drummer? Again, not so easy. We were so desperate that at one point we went through the entire list of female drummers active in the musicians’ union. There were quite a few, but almost none had a drum kit they played snares and brushes, accompanying singers in cocktail bars. Lovely women, but not what we were looking for.

Eventually, we gave up looking, but I don’t want to give the impression that we settled for our male drummers, first Gord Skinner and then Ben Cleveland. Both were respectful, appreciative of the band’s talent, and, I don’t mind admitting, occasionally carried my heavy Yamaha electric grand piano.

In retrospect – and especially in the wake of the Riot Grrl movement – I realize that No Frills was a flat-out great band. We performed original songs and a few covers, like the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me,’ long before grunge guys Pearl Jam ever thought of it. All the while, we waited for the miracle of a record deal that never came. I often imagine what it would have been like to have a band like No Frills now, when artists have more channels for sharing their art. 

These days, a band plays a one-off set on a slate that usually contains at least two other bands. Back then, you played three sets every night for six days a week, Monday through Saturday. But still, it was difficult to make a living playing Toronto. Often, we made only a percentage of the bar, and our audience, mostly female, tended not to drink with the same gusto as other club crowds.

Nor were there that many clubs to play in T.O. We performed at the Horseshoe (including the night John Lennon was murdered), Grossman’s, the Isabella, and the El Mocambo a few times a year that was about it. But there was no question we transformed those grotty, male-centred joints. You could even say that for those weeks, we were queering the clubs.

Eventually, we had no choice but to play out of town, occasionally in a small Montreal club called the Rainbow, and in Ottawa. Audiences were friendly in the larger cities, but smaller towns were godawful. If women had ever played there at all, they performed as lead singers, expected to be scantily clad and heavily made up. We were neither. Hostile crowds screamed for us to take off our clothes. We eventually stopped touring smaller-town venues.

Back home, the scene had improved immensely as the eighties began. Queen West was bursting with new bars, bands, and political energy, and queer visual artists were making their own kind of noise. No Frills crossed over into both the queer and indie scenes: Blue Rodeo keyboardist Bobby Wiseman routinely lent me his piano – I don’t think we could have managed without him.

Strangely, No Frills was not an overtly political band, not like Mama Quilla II under Segato’s leadership and, later, the Parachute Club. We didn’t play politically explicit or rage-driven material. We wrote mostly tunes about relationships various band members were sleeping with each other, had slept with each other, or were about to sleep with each other. Even our most politically pointed tune, ‘Kickback,’ seemed to be less about resisting authority than encouragement for abuse survivors to stand up in the world.

Still, I had been an activist for years, and all our members were politically committed, leading activist orgs to engage us at their events, and we always said yes. We performed for Lesbians Against the Right and at Rock Against Racism, proving again the power of rock ’n’ roll to galvanize community.

But my favourite political appearance was at the first ‘official’ Pride celebration after the bathhouse raids in 1981. As furious queer activists completed their march past 52 Division and arrived at Grange Park, they were greeted by No Frills playing ‘Kickback.’

It didn’t matter what the song’s original inspiration was. The music had deep meaning in that moment as gays and lesbians stomped their feet and pumped their fists to the music of women rocking out.

Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer ($25.95) comes out May 15, 2017 on Coach House Books.

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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