Bygone Beverley

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Those looking to relive their wild youth one last time at the breeding ground of Toronto’s alternative scene will have to party elsewhere. The Beverley Tavern, the dingy west-side hangout that kick-started Queen Street, is quietly closing for good on Saturday, December 27. The hangout, owned and run by the Kolin family since 1967, has been on the market for four years and is now being sold to a company that hasn’t a clue what the next step will be for the former art-punk haven.

On any weekend night from 1976 to the early 80s, the Bev’s second floor hosted the likes of the Dishes, the Cads, Johnny and the G-Rays, the Country Lads, the Biffs and Cardboard Brains.

The most famous of the bunch, Martha and the Muffins, went from the stage of a fluorescent-lit room that stank of stale cigarettes and beer to performing their international hit single Echo Beach on Britain’s Top Of The Pops TV show in less than 18 months. This at a time when the Horseshoe was still Stompin’ Tom’s stomping grounds and the Rivoli, Bamboo and Cameron had yet to launch, never mind MuchMusic.

“The Beverley should be turned into a museum or at least be given a plaque to commemorate its significance as a major music, art and culture site,” says Mark Gane, then and now Muffin partner. “Though (it was) a really small scene and completely below the radar of the Canadian music industry, the Bev paved the way for what would become mainstream 15 to 20 years later.”

Back in the day, the clubs along Yonge Street – Le Coq d’Or, the Gasworks, the Colonial and their ilk – were Toronto’s best gigs and only booked top 40 cover bands or local metal-heads like Rush.

If you wrote your own songs, sported unusual hair and didn’t belong to the musicians’ union, you didn’t play. The Beverley changed all that. They didn’t even have to book bands musicians just came and volunteered. And though there had been hipster haunts in the past – the Pilot in the 50s, Grossman’s in the 60s – the Bev was the first time Toronto’s music and art world collided.

“Anything to do with the birth of punk culture in Toronto and its consequent virulent spread across Canada started upstairs at the Beverley,” remembers former Diodes manager Ralph Alfonso, now art director for Nettwerk Records. “It’s where we drank and schemed, poring over copies of English music magazines while showing off our latest shirts bought at Goodwill. New York had Max’s Kansas City – we had the Beverley.”

And it only happened because of the location. The Bev was the closest bar to the Ontario College of Art, which provided an instant audience open to new ideas. Soon, every artist was joining a band and every band was dabbling in the arts – film, primitive video and graphic design on posters.

The Beverley was the kind of DIY place where a kid with an electric hockey stick could get up onstage with a slide projector, sing a couple of self-penned numbers and be applauded. Well, maybe not applauded, but at least not beaten up. But the action wasn’t only onstage – the audience was part of the show as well.

Future art stars General Idea would swill 95-cent quarts of Black Label beer with a yet-to-be-diva Carole Pope while imminent playwright Tomson Highway gossiped with nascent cineaste Clement Virgo and ingenue fashion designer Leighton Barrett. Next to them the Body Politic crew planned revolution, and over in the corner next to the battered jukebox a young William Gibson – then an anonymous OCA student – would be inspired to name the villain in his first sci-fi novel after a Viletones song.

“Everybody desperately wanted to play the Beverley,” recalls Andrew Cash, then a guitar wrangler with L’Etranger and currently a Cash Brother. “It spoke to a different time in Toronto, before Queen Street turned into what it is now. People have forgotten that most bands back then weren’t interested in mass commercial success. We did it because we believed in it.”

“It’s where I first sang in public,” recalls Glenn Schellenberg, former Dish, Everglade and TBA keyboard whiz, now a U of T psychology professor, “a gay punk version of Lulu’s To Sir With Love.”

The first wave of bands inspired a second – Cowboy Junkies, Rent Boys Inc., Fifth Column, Dave Howard Singers, Breeding Ground – but by the early 80s the scene’s focus had shifted to the Cabana Room and the Cameron. When Citytv moved in across the street, the Beverley pulled the plug on live music and turned the joint into a sports bar, looking to cash in on the street’s gentrification. The old joint was now worth a pile.

“It was a good club despite the owners,” says William New, the Groovy Religion singer/songwriter who began hosting Elvis Mondays at the Beverley in 82 and recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the alterna-vaudeville revue at the El Mocambo. “They weren’t the hippest people. I remember asking for a slice of lemon for my drink once and being told, ‘All the fruits are upstairs. ‘”

Beverley honcho Lawrence Kolin says he’s not sure what plans the new buyers have for the Beverley. “It could be a Krispy Kreme for all I know.”

Restaurateur Thai Hua, whose numbered company bought the building, says he’s currently looking for a tenant. “I’m surprised that it’s a famous place,” he says. “I thought it was just a bar.”

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