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The dive bar and music venue is celebrating three decades of rock n' roll – and junk on the walls
Darryl Fine envisioned the Bovine Sex Club as “rock and roll Cheers” when it opened in 1991.
CHIXDIGGIT! at Bovine Sex Club (542 Queen West). November 4-6. Doors 9 pm. $20. showclix.com
Until the pandemic, the Bovine Sex Club had only been closed for about 14 days total. Other than a couple of “instructional” suspensions for overcrowding in the early years and a one-day renovation in which they moved the entire bar out into the street and then moved it to the other side of the room, they’ve been serving drinks and putting on shows on Queen West for three non-stop decades.
“We’ve been here 365 days a week for 30 years,” says owner Darryl Fine. “From the mid-90s on, we’ve been doing shows five nights a week, 250 shows a year, a thousand bands a year.”
It’s doubtful Fine would have predicted that when the Bovine opened in 1991. He started it with seasoned club vets Chris Sheppard and Wesley Thuro, and the vision was something like “rock and roll Cheers.” It was more of a “scene” scene than a live music scene in those days, and they had some big star-studded blowouts.
Now it’s a well-established live rock venue – a part of its identity that has been largely missing throughout the pandemic. But it’s slowly coming back, and Fine will celebrate the bar’s 30th anniversary weekend from November 4-6 with three nights of Calgary pop-punk heroes Chixdiggit!, a band that is also marking a 30th anniversary.
“If not for the pandemic, we probably would have had 25 anniversary weekends and flown all our favourite bands down to play,” says Fine. “But it’s great we get to do these shows before the anniversary is over. It’s going to be really fun.”
You can still feel the arty vibe of the bar. There’s that instantly recognizable junk sculpture out front, jutting metal out onto Queen West even as the street gentrifies around it. Inspired somewhat by New York City’s now-defunct Scrap Bar, the owners had Dave Grieveson and Great Bob Scott create the exterior, and they liked it so much they had them do the interior too.
They spent two months driving around collecting junk, then incorporating it into the design. Look around and you’ll find the hood of a 1976 Plymouth Valiant, creepy dancing babies, old sports pennants and Star Wars collectibles all seamlessly integrated into the dark-and-sexy dive bar vibe. It’s an instantly familiar feeling as soon as you enter, one that hasn’t changed much since 1991.
As Queen West and Bathurst gentrifies, the Bovine’s iconic exterior remains the same.
Spot the bar taps.
Well, some stuff has changed. Fine says regulars will sometimes swap things out when he’s not looking, though he recommends against it because of the delicate structural balance.
“I’ve been to someone’s house party and seen my own hockey trophy there,” he laughs. “I looked back at the wall and found pictures of friends’ kids.”
Fine calls his original partners Sheppard and Thuro the “lightning rods” that drove the opening of the bar, and after they moved on in the first decade he started transitioning the Bovine into a music venue. It’s a favourite spot for rockabilly, punk, glam and metal bands and also a cozy spot for bigger acts to play secret shows or underplays. Billy Talent, Against Me!, Porno for Pyros, Sum 41, Thee Oh Sees and Queens of the Stone Age have played or thrown parties there over the years, even when their reach well outsized the 150-person capacity.
Celebrities have stopped by during TIFF, and it’s always hopping for Pride Week – the Bovine often has queer-friendly programming and burlesque throughout the year. All sorts of movie and TV shoots have happened at the Bovine, from Orphan Black to Suck (which brought Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins and Jessica Pare to the bar) to Netflix’s recent Sex/Life.
Seeing a show there can feel a bit like stepping into a time machine back to the tougher, hipper, artier early-90s Queen West – a very different Queen West than the 2020s version. That’s intentional. All the sound equipment, boards and speakers – some of them vintage original designs of Thuro (who now runs a corporate audio and video company) – are analogue. They’ll replace parts when they need to, but the sound has never modernized.
“It sounds like 1991 in here,” Fine says. “It sounds beer-soaked and wet.”
He means it in a good way, comparing it to the early CBGB’s (as he hazily remembers it). The Bovine’s other rock dive bar inspirations or peers once included spots like Berlin’s Wild at Heart, London’s Crobar, Exit in Chicago and the Double Down Saloon in Vegas. Many have closed over the years, some during the pandemic.
It’s mostly impossible to have this kind of bar without also running as a live venue, Fine says. But it’s become a tough business, even before the great live music drought.
Nowadays, the live music industry is vertically integrated, he explains. A behemoth company like Live Nation books and promotes shows while also owning venues, selling tickets and marketing. Even the smaller companies are now following suit, but not the Bovine. Still, they find themselves competing with the big players in ways they rarely had to until recently.
Fine launched various side hustles to keep the business running over the years. Shanghai Cowgirl was the diner counterpart to the Bovine next door before closing about seven years ago (now it’s the Warehouse Group’s bar the Dime, which he is a small partner in). A decade ago, they opened a tiki bar on the roof. It’s not quite the same rock vibe as the main room or the back room with its pinball tables and DJ booth, but it gives people multiple places to hang out.
“We would have had to move somewhere cheaper a decade ago if we didn’t find some crazy idea for the Bovine to survive,” says Fine. “That crazy idea was the tiki bar, and here we are.”
He says they’ve been on about a 10-year schedule of opening something new, which would make now the right time. But instead he’s focused on reestablishing the Bovine and bouncing back after the pandemic.
“The anniversary is over at the end of December, but we’re already booked until March,” Fine says.
Hopefully that means there’s a few more decades left.