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The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History by David McPherson

Book cover

As a life-long Torontonian and former club goer in my youth, I was happy to learn that a book about oneof my favourite venues, the Horseshoe Tavern, was finally being published. The Horseshoe is one of Toronto’s most important musical treasures gracing the city’s culture since 1947. And while I share David McPherson’s excitement around the famous club and its revolutionary music programming, I cannot say the same about his book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History(Dundurn Press). His writing is inconsistent, graced with too many clichés; section breaks using (* * *) and wise guy remarks that undermine his extensive research so much that his book hasn’t the impact it should.

McPherson’s conversational style is well intended. He’s a fan of the club and his respect for the place is sincere, but his niceness often undermines his storytelling. I’ve never understood why self-conscious writers feel they have to endear themselves to the reader in order to place their argument into context. “Come with me now dear reader, on this journey…” Considering all the research and first-person interviews McPherson has used to tell the story, it makes no sense for him to pare down the 80-year history of the Horseshoe into fewer than 200 pages. Why not savor the experience rather than race through it as quickly as possible? One should be proud of one’s efforts, not embarrassed by them. After all, until another book is written about the Horseshoe, this book will be considered the authoritative one.

Perhaps McPherson didn’t know how to put all of his research material to work in support of his argument. Either that or he didn’t know what the focus of his book was from the get-go. Consequently, the The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern is an editorial mix of first hand memories from musicians, family members, music critics, entertainment producers and fans, who marked their time by the Horseshoe’s concert calendar. That said McPherson does get a few things right in the first chapter.

The downtown club, which was established by Jack Starr in 1947, not only provided up and coming bands the opportunity to play in front of a “home crowd”, it was the leading club in the Queen Street West bohemia of the seventies and eighties that has survived until this day. While McPherson identifies the artistic reasons behind that longevity, he fails to develop the case for a strong business plan that has stood the test of time. After all, eighty years is a long time for a club in Canada that hasn’t fallen to some corporate behemoth in order to stay afloat or petered out after succumbing to the ever-changing taste of the public. McPherson reports the facts, but fails to make any substantive conclusions as to why the Horseshoe has been able to stay in business for eight decades, other than “passion.”

McPherson’s book does well to capture the gist of the cultural changes Toronto has endured over its history and the role the venue has played in reflecting those changes in taste, but he lets the personal anecdotes run amok. While I loved hearing about Stompin Tom Connors series of gigs at the Horseshoe, I could have done without the long descriptions of the secret show by The Rolling Stones in 1997. As a result, the narrative staggers along becoming a series of personal memories disguised as informed history. That said, the better chapters include stories from the Two Garys: Gary Topp and Gary Cormier, who took over the programming for a short time by booking Punk bands. Of equal importance is the story of Sneezy Waters’s performance in the musical, Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave. The Horseshoe was the perfect venue for this critically acclaimed work.

I can’t fault McPherson on his resources and the first-hand accounts gleaned from his many interviews. It’s good to hear from Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy recall how important it was for his band to get a gig at Horseshoe in 1985, which meant so much to their fledgling career. It was also important to learn from aforementioned Gary Topp, who, with business partner Gary Cormier, came to define the Toronto alternative music scene in my years as an active club goer during the early eighties. The Garys booked an eclectic array of Punk, Jazz and Blues artists during their eight months at the club and McPherson gives their short contribution plenty of historic weight. I would have liked more stories from those years.

The history of the Horseshoe tavern is centered on what it was at the beginning, in 1947, a Maritime social center for incoming workers from Canada’s East Coast, to what it is today, one of this country’s premiere stages for new music. It’s a venue with a loyal management team and long-serving staff, who’s dedication to the business would inspire anyone, yet McPherson seems unable to give those people their full weight in the story, in my opinion. His over-use of the phrase “fast forward” or “flash forward” to move the story along becomes annoying in the later pages. This literary impatience seems overwrought at times begging the question: why “flash forward to…” anything?

McPherson’s use of scene or story breaks, signified by three asterisks, also ruins the flow of his narrative. (This may have been the editor’s choice) He overuses the word “unforgettable” in his passages, and needlessly uses famous quotations at the start of every chapter to launch his argument. At one point he has a major grammatical moment of some confusion on page 134. In relating the story of Steve Stanley’s experience, when he loaned Peter Buck’s The Baseball Project, his guitars, McPherson sets it up as follows, “…one of his [Stanley] most unforgettable nights at the Horseshoe happened on a Sunday around 2009.” I’m not sure why that sentence made the editor’s cut. If it was “unforgettable” why didn’t Stanley remember the exact date? On the other hand, why didn’t McPherson save his guest and look it up? (I looked it up on the band’s website, it was September 13, 2009.) The text is peppered with awkward sentences like that one.

The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History (Dundurn Press) seeks to cover the history of one of Toronto’s legacy venues in depth. It gathers the right voices and on-the-scene witnesses together in one story, but lacks the polish of a truly engaging book worthy of its subject. Originally published on Critics at Large.

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