There's no question that Toronto's rock scene would be significantly different if not for the work of infamous promoter Dan Burke.
Once a respected journalist, Burke's issues with substance abuse led him away from that path until he ended up booking rock shows around town. First at the long-defunct Club Shanghai, then at the El Mocambo, and now at the Silver Dollar and Velvet Underground, Burke was often the only guy who'd give a band their first local gig. Sometimes they went on to much bigger things (like the White Stripes), and other times they might never be heard from again after being heckled off stage. Depending on Burke's lifestyle at the time, you might get paid well for the gig, or he might still owe you money. Or maybe he offered to pay you in jeans that fell off the back of a truck (we know that happened at least once).
These days Burke is looking and acting healthier than ever, although he still seems driven far more by true passion for rock 'n' roll than by any kind of sensible commercial concerns. That's great for the acts that might normally fall through the cracks, but maybe not so good for Burke's retirement plan. And by operating on such a shoestring, there's a relatively low ceiling on how long he can maintain a professional relationship with acts before they graduate to promoters who have a better grasp of what "professional" actually means.
Even his biggest defenders would never attempt to whitewash the fact that he's burned a shitload of bridges in his time, nor would they say that his enemies have no justification for their anger. But even his detractors can't help but respect him. Burke is one of the last of rock's true believers, and when he tells someone like me that I need to check out some new band he's discovered, I pay attention. There simply aren't many other promoters around who can claim that. We believe him, because he still believes.
Those of us who've known him since he landed at Club Shanghai know that there's a feature film's worth of war stories, tragedy, comedy, and magic to be told about Burke's life. That's all the more clear after watching the short independent documentary The Last Music Man, which aired as part of CBC's Canadian Reflections series, and which you can also stream online. It feels more like an extended trailer for a longer piece, but is still satisfying in it's own way. Despite its brevity, the details about Burke might surprise musicians and fans who've only seen him at his worst, while also affirming for the rest of us why we still believe in him.