What do The Cockroaches, Lou Reed, The Ramones, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Mingus, Jimmi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bob Marley all have in common – aside from the fact that they are captivating performers and musical geniuses? They have all graced the stage of a legendary Toronto concert venue.
The El Mocambo, notorious for trying to save itself, for stimulating the careers of countless musicians, for bringing joy to the lives of music fanatics, and at times, for pumping badly needed oxygen into the lungs of a suffocating live music scene, is set to close its doors on November 6, 2014.
Clubs rise and fall but this venue has shown resiliency for almost two centuries. It is seminal to Toronto’s music community and has survived as a music venue since 1850 by leaning on traditional jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll and bracing against a tide of 70s disco and at one time even embracing it via Debbie Harry’s band Blondie. “The El Mo,” as it’s affectionately known, was and is today an enclave for rock in its various transmutations and variations – folk, punk, hardcore, metal, glam, new wave, electronic, alternative, garage – and has been known for presenting hip hop, reggae, orchestral, pop and internationally renowned artists who happen to be at the core of jazz.
After they move to bigger stages, it’s not commonplace to see popular acts like David Bowie, Elvis Costello or Steven Van Zandt in the close proximity of a 285-seat room; close enough to get sweated on.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions record Live at the El Mocambo on March 7, 1978 (www.elviscostello.com), the last show of their second North American Tour; broadcast live on CHUM-FM.
The bar is, in a sense, a sanctuary for musicians to get away from the music machinery, the grand scale tours in larger-than-life size coliseums, stadiums, domes and arenas, to recoup, to get back to their roots. Joan Jett played the El Mo in 1982 after the Runaways split up. Van Zandt took a break from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and ended up on stage at 464 Spadina Avenue, to the delight of music lovers, and it was no different for the Rolling Stones.
What’s ideal about the El Mo, says Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, is that “you can hear everybody…you can relate to the people very easily” in such an intimate, low-capacity venue.
That show in 1977 was their first club or small-scale gig in 14 years; prior to that, they played London’s Marquee Club in 1963. The Stones played two surprise shows at the El Mocambo to a shocked audience, except for people like Margaret Trudeau, then-wife of the installed Prime Minister of Canada, who showed up with Jagger and guitarist Ron Wood for both shows. She was hanging with the band during that period.
It turned out to be an historic night for many reasons. The concert resulted in the recording of Love You Live for the Stones and another for Montreal rockers April Wine, their opening act.
Captured in posterity on Side 3 of the Love You Live double album are “four or five numbers from our set, and blues songs, and some songs that hadn’t been recorded before in the studio,” says Stones guitarist Keith Richards in a CBC archival audio recording.
A few days before the show, Richards was arrested for cocaine and heroin possession with intent to traffic. Listen to the Goldrush audio, which includes a conversation with Jagger and Richards, “the earliest of punks,” about the El Mo gig.
About those two nights, Richards says the “unintended, extra attraction…added to the sort of franticness of the atmosphere”. He could have been talking about Trudeau being in the audience and the ensuing romantic rumours as well as about the drug bust.
Despite Richards’ arrest, the Rolling Stones continued their love affair with Toronto. And, every once in a while we hear a rumour of a band playing an unscheduled show like they did at the Phoenix in 2005 (Richards interview 2012, NYC) and we automatically think back to the show of mythic proportions, the Rolling Stones at the El Mocambo in 1977.
The album cover is a graffiti-ized version of a “painting by Andy Warhol with some pencil mark additions by Mick, which Mr. Warhol was none too pleased with,” says the official Rolling Stones site.
One of four songs from the double album recorded live at the El Mo, here are the Rolling Stones doing a rhythm and blues influenced number called Around and Around (Chuck Berry).
This El Mo performance of Hand of Fate (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) didn’t make it to the album but here it is.
You Gotta Move (Fred McDowell/Rev. Gary Davis) is some heavy Delta Blues from the Stones Love You Live. This version was recorded at Les Abattoirs, Paris. The other songs were recorded at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto and LA in ’75 and Paris and London in ’76.
The Spadina Avenue building that the El Mo calls home was said to be a safe haven for slaves in its early days, staying true to the word mocambo, Portuguese for hideout (orig. Ambundu, a Bantu-speaking people of Angola). In an issue of Soundscapes, Andrew Scott noted that mocambo is also Spanish for roadhouse; the upstairs was decorated in a fitting theme, labeled the Spanish Gardens and the coconut/palm tree sign was erected when the El Mo opened in 1946 (Scott, Soundscapes, vol 6, 2003; other sources say the sign went up in 1947). The club has been supportive of charities like War Child and Amnesty International, a place to let loose for University of Toronto, Ryerson, George Brown and Ontario College of Art and Design students and a catapult to the careers of artists just starting out.
“The club gained a reputation for being inauthentic and commercial locally.”
After the Stones played there the venue became internationally known but there was increased resentment toward booking policies. It was a kind of backlash. The club gained a reputation for being inauthentic and commercial locally. In the Soundscapes article, Scott quotes Globe and Mail writer Paul McGrath who noted in 1978, “it seems the appearance of the Rolling Stones there last March was a turning point, and the bar consciously hooked into mainstream music and now works with the record companies and public relations firms to find out who’s breaking and if the bar can afford to hire them.”
By the 1980s, the world had gone anti-establishment. Musicians associated corporate profit with greed and distrust and wanted to be free of it in order to focus on the music. Some, like Ian Blurton, singer-guitarist of Change of Heart, didn’t play the club just to make a point and Steve Leckie of punk band the Viletones “reported a phony bomb threat” in reaction to the club’s policy of only booking bands signed to a label (Scott, Soundscapes, vol 6, 2003).
Increasingly, they competed against venues like the Beverley Tavern on Queen Street West where Groovy Religion guitarist William New featured Elvis Mondays, where bands of all levels of talent and experience could play. The event was highly successful and eventually moved to the El Mo under the influence of its promoter Dan Burke. The fans followed.
But, despite its embodiment of the history of music, its influence on the culture and its prominence in the City of Toronto, it’s not the first time that the venue has decided to call it quits. In 2001, past the height of the independent music scene, the club struggled to stay afloat and exchanged hands. The last time it was set to close was less than two years ago when Sam Rosso and Marco Petrucci took it over and saved it from extinction in 2012.
“John on the left and Yoko on the right”
The partners were intent on bringing the bar back to its former glory, as it was in its heyday in the ‘70s. They are hoping to at least save the beautifully tacky, yet iconic, sign that has become a landmark.
The recent renovation in 2012 has the space sporting oversized Moroccan lampshades hanging from the ceiling, exposed, dusty, yellow brick walls on the main floor, and a rooftop deck. The iconic green palm tree sign with neon letters spelling out the tavern’s name, which first went up in 1947, still hangs comfortably above the entrance. Its restoration alone cost a hefty $20,000. The wall at the bottom of the basement stairs has two makeshift hand-written signs made out of ripped pieces of cardboard that say John on the left and Yoko on the right, issuing instructions on which door to enter and a less than flattering shout out to the Beatles’ Lennon and his widow, artist Yoko Ono. In case you didn’t get it, the word John is slang for washroom.
From my recent visit to the bar, I can attest to the battle of the bands competition stemming from sound leakage between the second and main floors when stages are occupied at the same time. Jason Dodge acknowledged the musicians on the upper floor during his show at the band’s CD release party on Sept 26 for Always.
The exposed brick walls are not to blame for the traveling sound, as it was coming through the ceiling; however, they are to blame for the layer of sediment on the benches along the wall, which could have been a result of the renovation or an oversight. I suspect that they forgot about the hole in the basement also know as the bathrooms during that last major renovation; it’s dank, dark and sketchy, just like it was in 1977.
Maybe it’s about time to turn a new page on this piece of music history but we all know that no mater what comes after this; whether it be restoration, relocation, or destruction, or if the club changes ownership – the El Mo will forever remain a pillar and an education in the dynamic culture that is live music.
Bands on the roster to play the El Mo before the Nov 6 quit date, including Instant Star Juno award winning actress and singer-songwriter Alexz Johnston (So Weird, Final Destination 3) and US hip hop artist Mark Battles, Founder and CEO of the Fly America record label were suddenly removed from the bill around Oct 11.
Check back for an interview with The Neil Youg’uns. They play the El Mo on Oct 16.
Oh yeah – you’ve never heard of the Cockroaches? Well, that was a pseudonym used by the Rolling Stones when they played their unforgettable two-night gig at the El Mo on March 4 and 5, 1977.