Then and Now: Toronto Nightlife History

By Denise Benson

BY David DacksPublished Jul 22, 2015

Mixing: this is what drives club culture. No concept appears more often in Then and Now: Toronto Nightlife History, Denise Benson's vital history of Toronto clubs. Chronicling 30 years of intersections between people, music and night-time places, this 500-plus-page journey is simply a landmark book and a key resource for Canadian music history; it broadens this country's discourse about music on so many levels.
Over the course of 48 chapters — rather, articles, most of which were published in now-defunct Toronto weekly magazine The Grid — former Exclaim! scribe Benson explores the rise and fall of individual venues, which cumulatively become a history of a vast and varied late-night music audience.
Unlike most music books, the important subjects of this music scene aren't bands, classic albums and chart positions, but club owners, DJs, promoters and support staff from bar to door. At the heart of the book are the descriptions of audiences who reflect a constant churn of social and cultural mores. Then and Now presents a fundamentally optimistic view of Toronto's multicultural, multiracial clubbing crowd, with disco divas, punks, drag queens, hip-hop heads and ravers all rubbing shoulders (and more) with one another.
Benson's DJ sensibility is evident at every turn, which is another refreshing perspective in a music history book. She's clearly enthusiastic about a wide range of danceable beats, from disco to rock to drum & bass, and values like-minded DJs. She strikes the right tone in describing her own significant experiences as a DJ in ways that underscore larger themes about the eclectic venues at which she played. Her attention to describing the crucial details of sightlines, decor and sound systems are the concerns of a seasoned pro.
Most interesting are the big records she talks about. These aren't Juno-winners, but stone cold peak-of-the-night anthems that had profound local resonance: certainly a great way to enjoy this book would be with YouTube as an audio travelogue through Toronto's past.
An important concern is the emergence and significance of Toronto's gay and lesbian community. Starting with Club David's, this book describes spirited spaces in resistance to the homophobic, conservative pushback looming just beyond their doors. Over time, queer-friendly attitudes and venues influenced a wide spectrum of Toronto's nightlife, especially as the city's sizable community diversified and spread west along Queen St. Benson ensures that queerness is not just an aspect of club culture but a primary subject, a key driver of the story.
This is book isn't perfect. Though I'm tickled to read stories that stir memories of my own club-going history, the acknowledgements of bouncers and bartenders may get a little tedious for the average reader after a while. This is a downside to the episodic, anthology structure of the book, wherein recurring figures may be introduced multiple times with the same contextual statement. But this is understandable. More important is that the book puts a priority on naming and acknowledging individuals, so as not to erase the personal histories of marginalized people. Moreover, the anthology structure is helpful too: any History of Canadian Popular Culture course at a high school or university level would do well to select chapters from this book for a reading list. Case studies of how places like the Paradise Garage influenced the Twilight Zone, the Caribbean- and African-inspired Bamboo or gay male dance emporium Boots are essential to gaining a wider understanding of Toronto.
Canada undervalues Toronto as a regional entity, so used are we to seeing it only in terms of centrality: of finance, of the Canadian music industry, of English Canadian culture and as the most populous city in Canada. Then and Now decouples Toronto from the rest of Canada, and positions it as a star in a much larger dance music universe. It adds important new context to international histories of dance music, which largely stick to European and American stories. If there is any substance to the "world class city" status the city's politicians have always desperately sought, the unique, inimitable combination of social elements described in this book make the strongest argument in favour.
(Three O'Clock Press)

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