Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s
University of Toronto Press, 2011
394 pages, Paperback and ebook $29.95, Cloth $70.00
Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s is an adventure back in time to Yorkville at what many would consider the pinnacle of its cultural history. Fifty years ago, the Yorkville Coffee Mill opened, among the first of many to become a hub for youth exploring counterculture through music and mysticism. Henderson’s book, which stemmed from his doctoral dissertation at Queen’s University, is rich with oral histories and underground press coverage of the day.
Personal experience drew me to Henderson’s work. I grew up in London (Ontario) in the 1990s. My father worked in Toronto for a time and stayed in an apartment on Bay Street near Bloor. Visiting on weekends, my mother and I would wander the “Mink Mile”. By then, Yorkville was a hub of elite consumerism, with couture boutiques and flagship stories. It was cultured, rather than counterculture.
Making the Scene tells the stories of the Toronto neighbourhood of Yorkville and the hip culture that pervaded the district in the 1960s. Henderson argues that, for roughly a decade, Yorkville served as the site in Canada for youth seeking an alternative to the dominant Canadian culture. He asserts that being part of a counterculture – defined as a subculture with values and practices that deviate from mainstream culture – involves the performance of identity. “A hippie,” he notes in the introduction, “does not, never can, exist wholly outside his or her cultural process” (5). In short, counterculture is a negotiation of identity, with cultural hegemony in play.
The book is organized chronologically in sections. Within each section is two chapters, one providing a political and cultural history of the period and the other assessing how the cultural identities in Yorkville were performed at the time. The book’s chronological organization makes Henderson’s argument easy to follow. However, there exists a strong historiography on counterculture-as-performance. Henderson does not especially take advantage of this material, and unfortunately relies on his readers to be familiar with the literature. For example, the performativity of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a threshold. Henderson even states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was … metaphorically cut off,” and that Toronto was a divided cityscape, with Yorkville a zone of local “foreignness” (17)– both a cultural attraction and a destination. As a historian caught up in the meaning of place, this excited me until I realized that Henderson was not going to explore from where these people were being attracted, and how Yorkville was situated in the context of a rapidly expanding Toronto. In particular, it struck me that there were opportunities for the use of historical maps to tell these types of stories and to better illustrate the growth of the Yorkville coffee houses, followed by their retreat.
While Henderson situates Yorkville very well within its chronological context, the book seemed geographically isolated. The relationship between countercultures, identity, and place has been widely explored, so why not make better use of New York’s Greenwich Village or San Fransisco’s Haight-Ashbury to show what made Yorkville unique? Here, again, I think that the general reader may be disappointed that Henderson expects a high level of familiarity with the themes. Early in the work, I found myself asking questions about other countercultures in other cities and about the history of the 1960s counterculture phenomenon more broadly.
Similarly, the act of performing an identity that Henderson claims is part of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a boundary. Henderson states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was metaphorically cut off” (268). I interpreted this to mean either that it was fully autonomous or that it had to be filled with people coming from elsewhere—by those who needed to cross the threshold from the dominant culture to the counterculture. Bloor Street between Yonge Street and Avenue Road remains, to this day, a cultural border best crossed under the right economic or social circumstances. I had hoped that Henderson would explore this idea further. Where were the people coming from? How was Yorkville situated in and affected by its geographic context of a rapidly changing and growing Toronto? Most of the images in the book are taken from underground press. There is one map, at the beginning, which shows the streets of Yorkville and their coffeehouses. Indeed, Henderson refers to Yorkville as “tied to a map of meaning which treated it as a circumscribed island of difference within the wider cityscape” (268), but we aren’t shown what exists around the island.
Henderson relies on dialogue from the film The Big Lebowski (1998) to describe the legacy of hip Yorkville:
‘Your revolution is over,’ counsels the conservative figure, as the bemused [Jeff] Bridges turns away. ‘My condolences. The bums lost. My advice is do what your parents did: get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me?’ But he doesn’t. Do we? (273)
The end of a rebellion is nothing new. The 19th century French statesman Francois Guizot has been attributed with the following: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” What makes Yorkville and the 1960s counterculture unique, according to Henderson’s conclusion, is that it influenced the mainstream culture that we see today. That may be the case. He also suggests that the struggle for physical space was ultimately insignificant. This statement ignores the post-1970 gentrification of Yorkville that occurred, in part, because of the displacement of youth from this space.
It felt at times like Henderson was writing for those who were there, or who wished they could have been there. There were moments throughout when I felt like I had to have been there to understand why the event or place being described was important. The writing, much of which is done in first-person narration, is at times valourising in its tone. The book’s strength lies in its archival research and oral histories, and from reading it came some interesting debates about the nature of culture and place in the city of Toronto. I would recommend it for readers interested in the history of the Yorkville neighbourhood, Canadian culture in the 1960s, or youth culture in Canada. I will no doubt return to it for projects that reference these subjects. It would be a good supplemental work for those interested in counterculture, the history of Toronto, oral history, and underground media.
Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program. She’s currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.
Mapping Our Music: The 1960s
The venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that have created the sound of our city and shaped its music history.
The 1960s was the decade in which Toronto’s music scene took shape. With twin focal points in Yorkville and along the Yonge Street strip, the city produced highly regarded folk, rock, and R&B-influenced sounds. Though many of the venues from the decade are long gone, acts that developed their reputations in them, such as the Band and Gordon Lightfoot, became known around the globe.
1 Village Corner (174 Avenue Road, north of Davenport)
Another early folk venue, one where music duo Ian & Sylvia launched their career. As a member of the duo the Two Tones, Gordon Lightfoot recorded his first album here in January 1962.
2 Rockpile (northwest corner of Yonge and Davenport)
For a time in the late 1960s, the main space of the Masonic Temple (now home to MTV Canada) was a Fillmore-style concert hall. It is usually associated with Led Zeppelin, who played there twice in 1969. Before their August 18 gig, manager Peter Grant noticed the extensive lineup outside and threatened to cancel the show if the band didn’t get more money. The burly former bouncer got his way, but the amount handed over played a role in the venue’s closing soon after.
3 Penny Farthing (112 Yorkville Avenue)
Far more respectable than its next door neighbour, this spot specialized in blues and jazz. Veteran bluesman Lonnie Johnson played for several weeks in 1965, resulting in an album with one the venue’s regular acts, Stompin’ at the Penny with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers, featuring Lonnie Johnson. Johnson enjoyed playing in Toronto and spent the last five years of his life in the city.
4 Riverboat (134 Yorkville Avenue)
Opened in October 1964 and run by Bernie Fielder for 14 years, the Riverboat was usually considered the top venue in Yorkville thanks to a steady stream of high-level blues and folk acts. Sometimes timing worked in the Riverboat’s favour: in order to book bluesmen Sorry Terry and Brownie McGhee, Fielder was pressured by their agent to also slot in a rising folk duo named Simon & Garfunkel. By the time the pair was to perform in early 1966, their songs were rising up the charts. The duo wanted out of their commitment, but a compromise was reached, and Torontonians had what proved to be a rare opportunity to catch the pair in an intimate setting.
5 Mynah Bird (114 Yorkville Avenue, at Hazelton)
Named in honour of owner Colin Kerr’s pet, who could be found at this coffeehouse’s entrance, the Mynah Bird loved drawing attention to itself. For a period, it trotted out the latest innovations in topless entertainment, including Wyche, “the world’s first topless folksinger” (though her long hair covered her bosoms). Kerr also managed a rock group named after the venue, fronted by Rick James—after they separated from Kerr, Neil Young was among the musicians who passed through the group’s ranks.
6 Varsity Stadium (Bloor Street and Bedford Road)
Two major music festivals were held here in 1969. The bill for June’s Toronto Pop Festival ranged from southern soulsters (Carla Thomas) to Quebeçois chansonniers (Robert Charlebois). Local favourite Ronnie Hawkins managed to get a teenager named Jeanne Beker to jump onto the stage. September’s Toronto Rock and Roll Revival went down in history for being the live debut of the Plastic Ono Band featuring John Lennon and the Alice Cooper “chicken incident.”
7 Bohemian Embassy (7 St. Nicholas Street)
Situated at various places around the city over its history, and not to be confused with the condo bearing the same name, the venue founded by Don Cullen called the Yonge-Wellesley area home from 1960 to 1966. One of the city’s first major coffeehouses, it offered up a mix of folk, jazz, comedy, and literary readings—among those whose careers were boosted by appearances at the Bohemian Embassy were Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Tyson.
8 RCA Studios (225 Mutual Street)
Once home to CHUM radio, 225 Mutual Street became one of the city’s busiest recording studios. Operated by RCA during the 1960s and 1970s, then McClear Place, the studios saw acts ranging from Rosemary Clooney to Rush use its facilities over half a century of sound recording. The building was demolished in 2010.
9 Club Blue Note (372A Yonge Street)
A key venue for developing the mix of rock and R&B that came to be known as the “Toronto Sound.” As George Olliver, who sang with the house band The Five Rogues (later Mandala) told the National Post last year, “so many of the hit artists who used to work at the Maple Leaf Gardens came here after hours—people like Stevie Wonder, The Righteous Brothers.”
10 Hawk’s Nest (above Le Coq D’Or, 333 Yonge Street)
Having proven a popular attraction at Le Coq D’Or, Ronnie Hawkins made a deal with its owners: in exchange for free use of the building’s third floor (which ended up housing an office, gym, and after hours parties), he would run an all-ages club on the second floor. The Hawk’s Nest proved a blessing for music fans too young to go into the other venues along the Yonge Street strip.
11 Friar’s Tavern (283 Yonge Street)
Now the Hard Rock Café, the Friar’s Tavern was another stop for bands gigging along the Yonge Street strip. A plaque inside commemorates the morning of September 15, 1965, when Bob Dylan caught a performance by Levon and the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ former backing band. For the next two nights, Dylan and the group that became the Band rehearsed at the Friar’s before going out on Dylan’s first electrified tour.
12 Colonial Tavern (203 Yonge Street)
Situated between two historic banks across from the present-day Eaton Centre, the Colonial Tavern attracted a steady stream of blues, jazz and rock acts during its existence. A parkette currently graces the site.
13 Electric Circus (99 Queen Street East)
Opened in December 1968, the Electric Circus was intended by its backers to bring a New York–style trendy nightclub to Toronto. Partner Jerry Brandt told the Globe and Mail that “we think a person should be free to do what he wants. He can dance, he can watch, he can disappear for a while into an environment room…We have set up the facilities for you to have an experience. It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” After its run as a club/music venue, the site was used as the original studio for Citytv, who later resurrected the name for its dance show.
14 King Edward Hotel (37 King Street East)
Between their afternoon and evening performances at Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1966, the Beatles attended a press conference at the venerable King Eddy. John Lennon refused to apologize for his recent statements that the band was more popular than Jesus. They also admitted that the scariest fans they encountered so far on what proved to be their final tour were found in Cleveland.
15 O’Keefe Centre (Yonge and Front)
This all-purpose concert hall, now known as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, was one of the most versatile venues of the decade in terms of performers. The pre-Broadway tryout of the musical Camelot, starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, opened the O’Keefe in October 1960. Acts that trod its stage during the 1960s ranged from grand opera to the Grateful Dead.
Additional material from Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997) and the December 21, 1968 edition of the Globe and Mail.