[ http://www.geocities.com/gordoncc134/soundproofgarys.html ]
published in SoundProof Magazine (Spring 2006)
From the imaginary ashes of a scene that didn’t exist, a Topp and a Cormier were Toronto’s most important concert promotion team, having left a sea of blown eardrums and brilliant music in their wake.
For most of the 1970s, Toronto was a veritable black hole as far as live music was concerned. Plus-sized venues such as Maple Leaf Gardens and Massey Hall were still wigging out to the latest prog-infused pulse or soft rock serenade, but any street-level promise that the 1960s had birthed was fading at an exponential rate. Fabled Yorkville haunts like the Riverboat had sank, Neil and Joni and (ahem) Steppenwolf had bailed, and a chasm the size of Peel Region loomed over the city’s concert goers, looking for anything resembling real.
It was into this void that a pair of like-minded martyrs gamely stepped. Gary Topp and Gary Cormier (collectively known as, yes, “the Garys”) had both dabbled in the music industry previously. The pair was introduced by a mutual friend and almost immediately, these young men sensed it was their undying duty to right the wrongs of the era.
“At that time, nobody gave a shit about the kind of bands we were promoting,” says Topp with the honesty of a man who speaks from conviction and, more importantly, has stood up to the industry several times over. Topp is still plugging away in 2006, promoting shows at Lula Lounge and other ports of call, but he hasn’t still forgotten the narrow minds he encountered early on. “Record company people would come to our shows and walk out. Hell, we had Peter Gabriel walk out of a Ramones gig, saying it was complete garbage, while I was telling everyone I knew that they were the Who of the 1970s. And at the Horseshoe, Capitol Records came once and told us they’d never give us any bands because we didn’t have carpet on the floor. That’s what we were up against.”
Gary Cormier was the other half of this equation, and he, likewise, was frustrated by the derision shown by 1970s Toronto. Cormier spent his formative years in Montreal but was well versed in 1960s Yorkville. His parents lived just east of Toronto in the sleepy alcove of Whitby, and he used his frequent weekend visits to exhume what he could from the scene. Needless to say, Cormier was not seeing much of anything when he and Topp were first introduced. “I always liked bands that had something original to say, but pretty much any bar band you’d see perform in the early 1970s had a repertoire of 100 per cent cover material. [Until I met Gary Topp], I had become very disillusioned about the whole music business and washed my hands of it a number of times. But then I’d walk into a room and encounter somebody like Carole Pope, and it would start all over again.”
Indeed, it was Pope and her primary sympathizer, Kevan Staples, that gave notice early on that there just might be a groundswell lying somewhere within the ennui. The duo was the bedrock of Rough Trade, one of the most uncompromising Canadian acts to ever make so much of a dent in the mainstream. Even before he had met up with Cormier, Topp had booked Rough Trade to play their debut gig at the Original 99-cent Roxy, a repertory theatre and occasional concert venue he operated at Danforth and Greenwood in the city’s east end.
“No one can doubt that both Gary Topp, the dapper intellectual, and Gary Cormier, the savagely sexy, had great influence on the music scene of Toronto,” says Staples of the pair. “Each on their own did much to contribute to my own success, so I can attest to their passion for the music and their dedication to the singers and musicians who performed the magic on stage. Gary Topp himself was brave enough to ask a green-behind-the-ears band called Rough Trade if they would be interested in performing one night at the Roxy Theatre. Despite the incredibly bad sound and the nervousness of the band, it was the first step of what was to become a 12-year odyssey of fun for myself and Carole, and one we will never forget.”
Topp saw the Roxy as something of a successor to Rochdale College, the infamous “experimental student co-op” that became a haven for hard drugs, frontal nudity and other debauchery during 1960s Toronto. By catering to societal flotsam and jetsam, the Roxy itself soon became a breeding ground for liberal expression and all the rest of it, and accordingly, many early players in the city’s punk movement were regular patrons. Along the way, Topp was able to screen a boatload of cult classics including Reefer Madness, Pink Flamingos and the Toronto debut of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Topp eventually shifted westward to the New Yorker Theatre on Yonge Street, where the Panasonic Theatre now resides. Although he intended on continuing his cinematic tilt, it was at the New Yorker that Topp ultimately decided to put the films on hold and concentrate instead on promoting live music. “Around 1975 or so, I was showing this movie about the punk scene in New York called Blank Generation by Amos Poe,” he recalls. “Poe had basically taken all his 8mm home movies of the Ramones, the Talking Heads and the New York Dolls, and made a film of it. The movies were starting to dry up for me a bit and I’m sitting there at the back of the theatre, smoking a joint, thinking that I should be bringing these bands to Toronto instead of showing them on-screen.”
It was around this time that Topp first met up with Cormier, who was taking a break from the music business and doing some carpentry work in lieu. Hearing about Cormier’s proficiency with a hammer, Topp soon brought Cormier to the New Yorker to work on the theatre’s new snack bar and, through no fault of their own, the pair found they had a lot more in common than nails and Nathan’s hot dogs—an admiration of California boogie barons Little Feat was a key common ground early on. “Right away, it was pretty clear that both Gary and I shared the same kind of vision,” says Cormier of his initial meeting with his future partner. “It wasn’t necessarily that either of us knew a whole lot about the music business, but we did have a unique ability to identify talent.” The partnership was confirmed by a phone call on the very day they met.
The first official Garys-promoted show at the New Yorker was the Ramones in September 1976. And keeping true to the venue’s namesake, the Garys soon had imported a slew of Yankee prime to the theatre, including the Talking Heads, John Cale, Wayne County and the Cramps. The venue also played host to one of Tom Waits’ first headlining shows in Toronto.
By 1978, the Garys had moved on to the Horseshoe Tavern but their booking duties with the club lasted less than a year, cumulating with the infamous Last Pogo schmozz in December of that same year (that tale alone has enough meat for a feature of its own). Still, those eight months helped re-establish the Horseshoe as one of Canada’s premiere concert venues and left a string of improvements that can be seen to this day. “We were billing it as Toronto’s first concert club, and that meant a lot of changes needed to be made,” says Topp of the renovations he and Cormier enacted during their brief stay. “We put in a good PA and good lights, moved the stage to its current position (it used to sit where the bar is now). The Horseshoe was a lot bigger in those days than it is now—the area in front of the stage extended into what’s now a magazine store next door.” So large was the venue at the time that Topp estimates that well over 1,000 punks packed the room for an early local appearance by the Stranglers; and, of course, there’s a well-told story of the debut Toronto appearance by a washed-out UK three-piece called the Police (despite the folklore now surrounding the gig, there were less than 100 patrons combined for the band’s two-night stand).
After a not-so-amicable split with Horseshoe management, the Garys shifted their focus to the Edge, a crumbling folky dive at the corner of Church and Gerrard. The building was named after Edgerton Ryerson, the founder of Ryerson University, and was actually the original schoolhouse of the institution. A small capacity wonder with a legacy of its own, the Edge had… a lot of character, so much so that ex-Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico proclaimed the building haunted during her Garys-booked gig in late winter 1979. Apparitions or otherwise, the Garys managed to pack the Edge with exciting new acts like Gang of Four, the B-52’s and XTC, plus veteran eccentrics such as Jonathan Richman and Fred Frith.
In less than five years, the Garys had established themselves as the most important and most fearless promoters of new music in Toronto (and likely all of Canada), but the stress and strain of the midnight hour was beginning to take its toll. “By 1980, I had worked every night of the week since 1972,” says Topp. “At this point the Edge had closed, and Gary and I began booking bigger shows at a variety of venues around the city. It started to get out of hand for us—we’d have to book five shows by acts we loathed to get the one band we loved. The agents were getting greedy and the fun was gone in a real hurry. Right around the time that Nirvana hit, I’d had enough. I walked away from it and did other things for many years.”
By the time the Garys officially ended their partnership in the mid-1980s, they were ready for a change. Topp worked in television and radio for many years before being lured back into the promotion games with the debut Toronto appearance of the Dixie Chicks at Massey Hall in 1998. He currently focuses a lot of his promotional efforts at the Lula Lounge in Toronto’s west end, recently hosting such old friends as John Cale and the Sun Ra Arkestra, not to mention a wide range of international acts. As for Cormier, he has at different times managed the Phoenix Concert Theatre, handled bookings for both the Guvernment and Kool Haus, taught at the Trebas Institute, programmed the Toronto International Jazz Festival and gotten binary with more than 300 webcasts for Prime Ticket. And if that’s not enough, Cormier is helming an ambitious renovation of the Music Hall on Danforth Avenue.
In addition to providing a platform for hundreds of international touring acts, the Garys also turned the beds from which the original punk rock and new wave scenes in Toronto soon sprouted. Without their willingness to put their own reputations and coppers on the line, we might never have gotten to hear not only Rough Trade but other Canadian pioneers such as Teenage Head, the Mods and Nash the Slash. “It was obvious from the beginning that these two guys were doing this for the love of interesting music—making money came a distant second place for the Garys,” says Mark Kane from Martha & the Muffins, yet another act the Garys bravely supported early on. “For us and countless other artists, the musical soundscape of Toronto would have been much less dynamic without their significant contribution.”
But what of the Garys circa 2005? Topp may still be booking a wide range of adventurous artists but freely admits that he no longer has the patience or interest in keeping tabs on Queen Street or any modern rock for that matter. “Following the music scene isn’t something I really do now—stuff just finds me like a plumber finds new fittings or whatever. I’ve always just booked shows I like and seen what happened, always taken chances. My insides are like leather now. I can take anything now.”
But if nothing else, the Garys will always have that partnership, that connection, whether it’s at the surface or buried beneath years of memories. And Cormier boldly predicts that we might not yet have heard the last of the duo as a singular. “Gary and I still hang out and share meals together and talk on the phone regularly. And I don’t know where or when it’ll happen but I know there will be a time when we’ll be working together again—that much I know.”