Sometime over the weekend, Chris Levoir, known to many as the lead singer and guitarist of local garage rockers The Mark Inside, died. The cause of his death is not yet known. The news shocked and saddened many of us in Toronto's music community who counted themselves among his fans, his friends, or both.
Rock journalism mythologizes its dead, and in doing so often loses the person as a human being in the process. Knowing Chris, my first instinct is to avoid these clichés. But rock 'n' roll was his life, and he was one hell of an impressive singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer. After spending years watching him and his bandmates make packed back rooms at Sneaky Dee's, the Horseshoe, and the El Mocambo go absolutely crazy, some myth-making is inevitable, and I would argue, well-earned.
I knew Chris for almost a decade, but I was always star-struck around him. I was a fan who became a friend. His songs provided the everyday soundtrack for a good portion of my formative years, and a few TMI shows are among the best live performances I've ever seen. No matter how well we knew each other, there was always a bit of hero worship that would not die.
I first met Chris in fall 2003 when I was working as the house DJ for booker Keith Hamilton's weekly music series, Pitter Patter Nights, then tucked in The Poor Alex's seedy upstairs cabaret space. Even though Keith had been introducing me to a steady stream of mostly above-average talent, The Mark Inside (Whitby transplants with a lot of buzz) immediately stood out. Their garage- and indie rock-inspired songs immediately struck me as loud, catchy and artfully constructed (in that order). But it was the intense, almost palpable energy of their live show that was unlike anything I'd experienced. It was hypnotizing and intoxicating. By the end of that first show I saw Chris was in the crowd surrounded by circles of sweaty, boozy, flailing bodies. I remember everyone in that room (including me and all the club's staff) being captivated by their stage presence. It's cliché to say I was converted by a single show, but that's really what happened.
I bought a copy of their debut LP Static/Crash on the spot, and was impressed by Chris in two other ways. Chris's lyrics were razor-sharp, and they reflected egalitarian politics, a clever craftiness and a critical awareness that I deeply admired. The second thing was the album's beautiful artwork - a collection of white four-point stars of different sizes and orientations scattered across a navy blue background - which I learned he had designed. For years, that artwork, in the form of a show poster, hung in my bedroom. (At one point I remember hearing someone had even got a tattoo of it). This was how devoted people were to The Mark Inside - they were a band that genuinely moved you, and you loved them for it.
In the community Keith built around Pitter Patter Nights, I became friends with Chris. I'd see him at shows and down on Queen West, where he worked at Steve's Music Store with an old roommate of mine. I remember being part elated and part mortified when he showed up to one of my first band's early gigs. But after the show he made sure to track me down, shake my hand and offer some kind words (which meant a lot coming from him!). Later on, my band opened for TMI, and they decorated their amps and the whole stage area with stuffed animals and random toys - just for fun. After their set's melee subsided, I fished a partially destroyed clay garden gnome out of the rubble, and took it home as a memento - I still have it!
In my role as a music journalist, I did what I could to promote this band I loved and believed in, writing about them whenever I could justify it to my editors. Of their packed 2007 NXNE show at the Drake Underground, I wrote in The Varsity, "Following a funky Gang of Four-inspired song, singer Chris Levoir did his usual tour through the audience, guitar in hand, eyes glazed over, screaming at the top of his lungs, where he was accosted by a swarm of amateur and pro photographers." In another review from 2005 it was, "These guys play every show like their lives depend on people walking away impressed."
For me, the weirdest thing about The Mark Inside was their precarious relationship with success. For years it felt like just a matter of time before they found a national or international audience. But what seemed like an impressive feat - signing to Maple Music in 2005 - turned into a frustrating roadblock as their follow-up record was delayed for years, causing the band to split from Maple and forge a new partnership with Mercury Prize-winning UK producer Jim Abbiss.
In fall 2008, Abbiss paid for the band to spend a month in the UK so he could record their sophomore record at his converted 1700s chapel studio. Then he sent the band on tour with The Hold Steady. With that record - titled Nothing To Admit - in the can, Abbiss signed them to his personal MetalBox imprint, and began looking for a major label to distribute the record. In the meantime, back in Toronto, Chris began working behind the soundboard at Wrongbar, and later, the Great Hall, mixing live bands.
A few summers back, Chris was part of a group that would gather every week at the apartment I shared with a friend at Bloor and Ossington to get drunk watching guilty-pleasure TV shows like LOST and 24. He befriended my cat, Oz. After one particular week's instalment, he shared the good news - in his humble and understated way - that the band had signed a distribution deal with SONY Music to finally release Nothing To Admit. It was 2011, and the band had waited six long years for this.
Even with major-label support, they spent way too long in limbo. There never seemed to be that concerted or coherent push to the next level. The trappings of success they received along the way seemed too piecemeal given their talent and ability: a gig opening for Velvet Revolver, an appearance on CBC drama At The Hotel, a stint chronicling band life for the National Post, a beautiful music video shot in Memphis. Beyond these accomplishments, it was clear Chris wanted to do so much more.
In the last year and a half, the band parted ways with SONY, and Chris took over all aspects of the band's management, booking and promotion. The band recorded a third full-length, titled Dark Hearts Can Radiate White Light, at his loft space. It was mixed by Azari and III's Alphonse Alixander Lanza III, and is slated for self-release on July 4. The band just shot a new music video with David Waldman - a longtime supporter of theirs. Chris shared Dark Hearts with me back in Feburary (it's great!), and talked about wanting to make a video for each song, with an overarching plot they'd already figured out. Even with all the industry lumps, Chris remained hopeful, creative and prolific.
After I learned of Chris's death, I sat down and listened to the last interview I did with him for NOW: forty minutes recorded back on November 2, 2011 at the Brass Taps at College and Dovercourt. He was battling a bad cold so we both ordered hot toddies. We talked about the impending release of Nothing To Admit, the band's trip to Memphis to shoot the Shots From A Broken Bottle video, and his steadfast resolve in the face of a mixed bag of success and setbacks.
The news from this weekend is dark and tragic - Toronto has lost one of its great rock musicians. But Chris's creative legacy is the glimmer of light that remains. Chris is gone, but his work with his bandmates Gus, Geoff, Geordie, and Reade - songs, videos, artwork, writing, photographs, memories - are still here. Whenever I hit play and crank up the volume on songs like Carousel, Questions or Shark Attack, he'll still be with me.