Punk rock is dead to me, for myriad reasons that belong in another essay. But let’s just say that there’s nothing more excruciating than listening to aging punks wax nostalgic about the old days—except hippies doing the same thing.
So why, then, did I fall in love with Liz Worth’s Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981?
Because reading about the birth of punk rock in New York City or London is one thing. Reading about it happening in the cultural backwater that was Toronto and Hamilton in the ’70s is another.
When the book opens, Yorkville was dead, successfully stamped out by a combination of City Hall ordinances and gentrification. Second City and Rough Trade and the gay scene kept a counterculture alive, but it was near impossible to play original music in clubs. A group of students at the Ontario College of Art set out to change this, and soon form a fractious union with street punks.
The Crash’n’Burn club is constructed by an art collective and the Diodes and, for one summer in 1977, it serves as both a musical catalyst and a short-lived performance art experiment. Arguably, bands like the Viletones and The Curse were more important for what they represented than for their musical output; Hamilton’s Teenage Head were simply a new take on classic rock’n’roll showmanship with a connection to the street rather than stadium dreams. And, representing a typically Canadian crabuckit mentality, the Diodes become everyone’s favourite whipping boys for daring to write actual pop songs and sign to a major label.
As a cultural history of Toronto, Treat Me Like Dirt is riveting. The city is portrayed as a ghost town in the opening chapters. By the end of the book it’s a different kind of ghost town: the hollowed-out eyes of heroin users have replaced the vibrancy and wide-open possibility that populated the scene just a few short years before.
More importantly, the characters are fascinating. You couldn’t create a character like Steven “Nazi Dog” Leckie of the Viletones, a manipulative poser and schemer whose juvenile taste for shock achieves both everything and nothing; he’s as responsible for the scene’s audacious gains as he is for its self-sabotage. The women in The Curse and the B-Girls are daring and outspoken in ways that wouldn’t be seen again until the riot grrrls—and even then makes those third-wavers seem tame. The Ugly is led by a mentally unstable career criminal who’s constantly dodging the police and fires guns in his rehearsal hall.
And then there are all the minor characters, many of them freaks and geeks of the weirdest kind—of one Hamilton nutcase, it is observed: “He used to carry bacon around in his wallet. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Hearing them all speak now, with (some) wisdom and greater life experience, we hear them reflect both rhapsodically and with regret. (Favourite quote, from Lucasta Ross of the B-Girls: “That is youth, and youth is stupid, generally.”) But mostly, we hear deserved pride. Paul Robinson of the Diodes argues that this time period permanently changed Toronto, and it’s hard not to argue with him.
I have very minor quibbles: as an oral history compiled by someone who was born after the time period she’s writing about, Worth often lets many people repeat the same information, at times ad nauseum, and more judicious editing would help considerably. The fanzine-like two-columns-per-page layout is very readable—except for the fact that there’s next to no white space in the inner margins, so you have to seriously crack the spine to even read the text. [UPDATE: publisher Ralph Alfonso has informed me that's not true of all the copies, only a few in the first run]
Of course, this all sent me scrambling to find my filed copies of the ’90s CD reissues of the key acts here, as well old Diodes vinyl. Very little of it holds up to these jaded non-punk ears. (Exceptions: The Ugly, the B-Girls, and obviously key songs by Viletones, Teenage Head, Diodes, and the amazing art single “Raw” by The Curse. Oh, and the Poles' "CN Tower.") But none of that matters compared to the compelling narrative Worth spins in this essential book.
I remember watching 24-Hour Party People—which brilliantly portrayed the mundane beginnings of the Manchester music scene—and, in a fit of bitter colonial rage (to which I’m prone), I lamented that no one ever romanticizes Canadian music that way. This book changes all that. And I hope someone is optioning the film rights as we speak.
This is the first of two parts of my conversation with Liz Worth.
February 9, 2010
Locale: Moonbean Café, Kensington Market
Is it possible to underestimate how boring Toronto was in 1976?
You couldn’t even buy black jeans, as you point out. And everything changed around the time you’re writing about, with this scene, with the art scene, with the Toronto Film Festival, with CITY-TV all helping to loosen the sphincter of this tight-ass town. What did you know of that time period?
I wish I had a better sense of things. My parents are older; they’re born in 1936. They’ve lived through many decades, but were never tuned into popular culture. They had parties and had fun, but were never a part of any music scene. If I ever asked them details about what things were like at certain times, they’d just say, ‘whatever,’ they didn’t care. But I do remember when I was growing up when Sunday shopping came in and what a huge deal that was for Toronto. People were so mad and divided; some people thought the world was coming to an end if stores were open on Sunday—and that really wasn’t that long ago.
Scarcity was such a source of inspiration for so many people in this book. There might have been one other person in your high school who knew about the Stooges, and the mythology of the Velvet Underground hadn’t entirely taken hold yet. It took work to find other people in a 100-km radius who were into the same stuff you were.
And that passion then extended to everything else they do, and the stakes seemed so high—all of this a remarkable contrast to the ubiquity of everything today. How do you compare these people’s stories to the way you grew up?
Boredom drives a lot of creativity. I thought about that a lot: the influence of the Internet on youth movements and subcultures. It’s an interesting question because you need to be bored. When unemployment rates are really high, that’s when things like punk rock start.
I was 13 in 1995. Kurt Cobain had just died, grunge was still going strong, MuchMusic still played videos—and you had to watch it for hours to see something you really wanted. And you might use a tape recorder to tape things off of TV or the radio. If you heard something you liked, you’d write the band name down and try and find it later, and maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t. It was hard to find stuff that was cool, and my friends and I would spend a lot of time in record stores looking for things, or waiting for things to come out on a Tuesday if it was something we really wanted. Those things made music special.
And was yours the last generation to feel that?
I think so. We’re the last generation to grow up having to find things without the Internet, and then knowing what it’s like with the Internet, having both worlds. We were coming of age at that really important time when technology hadn’t infiltrated everyone’s home yet. I feel like then, you looked for signifiers: T-shirts people were wearing that indicated someone might be like you, even if those things are so vain and superficial. Now everyone has started to look the same. And there are pros and cons to both those things. Now it’s so easy to find things and get your music out there that people are overwhelmed and almost on the verge of burning out.
Does that then create a new boredom?
Yeah—but in a very bad way, where people don’t care anymore and don’t want to find any new music. It’s also interesting that we’ve come out of this decade of nostalgia, with so many bands reuniting and you see 12-year-olds in Ramones T-shirts, and everyone’s listening to stuff from 15, 20, 30 years ago. Which is fine…
That’s not unusual to this decade, though. That’s been happening since the ’70s, with its ’50s revival.
But it’s weird because we didn’t have anything big and new come up that wiped away everything else and made the kids not care about what happened 30 years ago. It’s strange that everyone is still so stuck in the past, even if it’s not their past. Maybe people don’t even realize that they’re looking for that special feeling of scarcity where they can have their own thing. Because now nothing is anyone’s own thing anymore. It’s just all out there.
When you talk about waiting to hear or see something that speaks to you on MuchMusic, or, in my case, staying up all night to listen to Brave New Waves, you would be exposed to so much other stuff in the process. Whereas now if you like screamo, you go to a screamo message board and find what you want, and everything is so niched.
And in your book there’s a lot of talk about how there is a clear counterculture. You’re either straight, or you’re “this”—and “this” can encompass so much, in art, in film, in music. You talk about the New Yorker theatre and the Roxy, where the music in between films is as much a part of the experience as the films. Now it’s entirely possible to be into underground film without any knowledge of underground music and vice versa—and both those terms are kind of meaningless anyway.
That was something that came up a lot in terms of gay culture. When Club David’s opened up, which was a gay club, at the time it was a very underground thing. David’s was this place where the punks were freaks and the gay community were freaks; no one wanted either of them, so they hung out—even though on the surface they hated each other. But they have to hang out somewhere so they shared their space.
The book doesn’t pull and punches about the thuggery of Toronto punk culture, or the divide between the intellectual side and the defiantly anti-intellectual side.
There’s always been a loogan aspect of punk that gets glossed over in a lot of Greil Marcus-y, academic discussion of punk: an over-glorification of the working-class element without mentioning the flip side of that, which can be quite redneck. And it’s only after the first wave that the second wave becomes more doctrinaire and lefty about what this is all supposed to mean, like the Dischord Records ideology. Whereas in your time frame, there’s a clear conflict between those two camps, who co-exist out of necessity, and how they play off each other.
I’m amazed at how much animosity exists in these people’s quotes, 35 years later, between the art crowd and the street crowd, for lack of better terms. Were people still holding a grudge?
Some people were, which really surprised me. For some of them, they still feel those rivalries and resentments toward certain band members who parted ways on not the nicest of terms. People hold on to things. Not all of them; some people are quite neutral, but others would spout off.
Everybody was 18-25 at the time, and it all seems very high school.
It is. This is obviously a very important time for a lot of these people, and these events took place at a time when everything was important. It was an age when you’re having a lot of your first experiences, so it’s going to resonate a lot more than something that happens to you when you’re 40. But also, we all leave high school and get jobs and then find out that high school never ends—it follows you wherever you go. So maybe it’s not surprising that people hold onto certain things.
It depends too, on what they went on to do. As one friend of mine commented about this book, it’s such a small time frame that it’s almost a gig-by-gig account. Every small event has huge impact.
I also went into a lot of details with people. I had nothing else to compare it to. I wanted to capture as much as I possibly could in one document. Because Toronto was always moving from venue to venue…
And only one venue at a time, it seems.
And so every show at a new venue marked a new era for the scene. Whereas in New York, if everything happened at either Max’s or CBGB’s, you don’t have to pay attention to when first gigs happened, why it happened there. Whereas in Toronto it really jumped around.
And it jumped around geographically, too. Some clubs were in the east end, some in the west end, one of them in what is now the “entertainment district,” one of them at Bloor and Avenue Rd., which now seems like the unlikeliest neighbourhood for any music club, never mind a punk one. And after the fallout from this time period, Queen St. really solidifies as a hub and very few people stray from there in the ’80s and ’90s.
The violence is one of the more incredulous parts of the book. It seems almost cartoonish and ridiculous, but it’s very real and integral. It makes you wonder, what was so pent up in the culture? Were regular rock’n’roll gigs this rowdy, or was there something else that made people want to come downtown and combust? Which you don’t see today.
I know, it doesn’t happen. And it would be scary if it did.
Only one person in the book has a gun. Today there are far more guns, and a lot of youth violence and death by gun. Not music-scene related, per se. But what would this scene be like if they had guns?
I would like to think that a lot of these people would be more sensible than that and wouldn’t go that route, but I don’t know.
Or is it more of a Fight Club thing, more visceral flesh-on-flesh?
(long pause) It’s weird. There are people in my extended family who get in fights with each other. It’s just a thing. They go to a bar, they get really drunk, they get into a fight. And it’s fine. It’s just a different thing. This was a different time, a different generation. There was this attitude: “Whatever, it’s just a fight.” Another thing that people address is that the violence at first was a joke, for fun, and it was fighting just to fight and innocent—as innocent as it can be. What happened was that once it infiltrated the media, a lot of people who didn’t really get it started coming down and they wanted to get into fights. It was more of a jock mentality
Is that the Blake Street Boys element [a group of street toughs who hung around the punk scene and eventually all went to jail for murder]?
That’s different. This was outsiders coming in and thinking it was cool to rough people up. The Blake Street element was something that Steven Leckie of the Viletones brought in. That was his own entourage, which had nothing to do with the media.
It was a neighbourhood thing too, wasn’t it?
Yeah, east end. And the other thing we talked about earlier is: where do all the outsiders go? They have to hang out together. And so the Blake Street boys found an easy home with punk, and they have Steven Leckie welcoming them in.
He’s almost like a Fagin character to them. Leckie seems shocked that after other people watch him abuse himself on stage, that they might want to abuse him. There are the bikers who tell him “we can help you with that,” and there’s the woman who stabs his foot on stage in New York. And suddenly this persona he’s constructed cracks a bit, which betrays an odd naivete: if you’re going to act like that, of course you’re going to attract that element and that reaction. What was your read on that?
There is a point when Steven talks about being stabbed in the foot. He says that girl was trying to marry herself to what he was doing.
Well, that’s a romantic way of looking at it.
It’s very much a Steven Leckie way of looking at things. Of course people are going to react to what you’re doing. We see that through all kinds of singers: the suicides that followed Kurt Cobain’s. There’s something about music, especially when people are younger, with music they feel is really powerful, that has an element of danger and people want to follow that danger. With something like punk, that becomes a lifestyle for people. It’s not like other kinds of music.
Are you talking 35 years ago or today?
Today to some extent, but 35 years ago for sure. People decided this is where I’m going, this is my tribe. It’s not surprising that people would react that way. They’re probably people who look at Steven Leckie and think, “Tonight, Steven is my leader.” As weird as that sounds.
Do you think he’s a dick?
(laughs) Steven… I don’t know. Steven is one of my favourite interviews. I talked to him a lot; there was a period when we talked every day. That’s weird with a project like that; you develop a relationship with people over a period of two years. It’s not like writing an article where you talk to someone once and then never see them again. There’s something about Steven that came up a lot, which is that even though he can be a pain in the ass, everyone still loves him (laughs). He’s so charismatic and there’s something about him; he’s very smart and an interesting person. You can’t be mad at him.
After reading everything that everyone has to say about him, including his old bandmates, I looked at the CD he put out in the ’90s, and there’s Sam Ferrara and Tony Vincent and Steve Koch on it. When he puts the call out, those guys still come.
It says a lot.
In histories about British punk or American punk—less so American—the shock value of Nazi imagery is glossed over, especially in academic approaches, because it doesn’t jive with what they want their intellectual approach to punk to be.
It’s completely unavoidable, however, when you have a singer called Nazi Dog. You don’t shy away from that at all. You know what his modus operandi is; you know what he’s trying to create. It’s loathsome, yet understandable in context; Siouxie Sioux and Sid Vicious flaunted Nazi imagery. And it’s interesting to hear people rationalize it now: “We didn’t really know/understand”; “it was the most shocking thing you could do at the time.” There’s a very frank assessment of it.
Even his own repentance is fascinating, when he talks about beginning to understand his girlfriend’s German parents—though god knows why it took him so long to add it all up, because they started going out when they were what, 16?
What did you learn about that, and what, if any, were your hesitations in addressing it?
I had no hesitations. To me, the Nazi stuff has always been a part of first-wave punk. I don’t care about being politically correct or offending people. You don’t want to intentionally offend someone by being malicious, but I feel like we live in such a sensitive time now, when people don’t want to talk about anything. And just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean that it’s not real, that it’s not part of the story. I feel like it doesn’t help anyone to not talk about stuff. What’s the point? You can’t not talk about Nazi symbolism in punk when you have a singer named Nazi Dog.
My interest was in collecting the story as best as I could, and I didn’t want to edit things out. This is a book about the ’70s, before people worried about being political correct, so you have to operate in that context. I didn’t want to do this through the filter of the millennium; I wanted to do it the way it would have been done 30 years ago.
Tomorrow: part two, in which we discuss Toronto, Hamilton, cultural insecurity, the would'ves-could'ves, and the therapeutic nature of oral histories