The evolution of Goth culture in Toronto is very much the evolution of Queen West music, fashion, retail and nightlife. Liisa Ladouceur talks to scene mainstays from the early ‘80s to the present about Toronto’s eternally beating heart of darkness.
Nuts and Bolts. Silver Crown. Twilight Zone. Night Gallery. The Empire. Club Noir. Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar. I whisper this like a litany and some of the city’s denizens will nod. The children of the night. I was one. Am one.
I am sure of this because I remember exactly where I acquired my first skull-buckle boots, at Groovy on Queen St. W. It was upstairs then, next to the Black Market. I wore them out dancing to The Sisters of Mercy at any club that would let my underage, PVC-clad ass in. Groovy now specializes in sneakers. I recently bought some Converse there (all black, including the soles) and mentioned to the sales clerk I’d been shopping there for more than 20 years. She told me she was 20. This does not make me feel old—goth is immortal.
Remnants of Toronto’s goth history still lurk on Yonge and Queen streets (and beyond), like ghosts amid the never-ending new shops and nightclubs that push up, catering exclusively to the next generation of Batcavers (even if they’re too young to know where that term came from). We are a city where one can attend a reunion party for a club that shut down decades ago one night and discover a young DJ spinning deep cuts from new European imports in a café the next. It’s shinier now, the scene. But if the night is particularly foggy and your company somewhat deviant you can imagine it as it once was, as you make your way past the trendy boutiques hocking hipster goth apparel in search of true darkness (tip: it’s in Parkdale now, and The Junction), pretending everyday is Halloween….
Part I: The 1980s—Domino Club, Twilight Zone and the Yonge Street Batcavers
Mark Crossley (Guitarist, National Velvet): My first love was punk-rock music and I would go to punk shows at the Horseshoe and Crash ‘n’ Burn. By the early ’80s, I was in sort of a Goth-punk band called United State and we would play at Goth-like boozecans around the city. And then I remember Ivan Palmer started to push things forward. He was the progenitor of the Goth scene in Toronto.
Ivan Palmer (DJ, Domino Club; co-owner of Night Gallery): I arrived here in December, 1982 from Montreal. Toronto was just waking up to partying and Domino’s was the only thing that existed for punk dancing. To be honest with you, I was offended by the music. In Montreal, if you were a punk, you lived that lifestyle 24/7. Here, you had people dressing punk and dancing to Grandmaster Flash! What an insult to the scene! I thought I could be a DJ myself. My mom lent me $3,000. I bought some records, a leather jacket and a turntable.
Philip Brown (DJ, Domino Club and Nuts and Bolts; Percussionist, Varoshi Fame): At the Domino there were a number of DJs—myself, Siobhan O’Flynn, Chris Twomey included—who were really into exposing people to brand-new things. Ivan, I think, was the very early guy to understand that you could create your own image inside of that, so he started to cultivate this understanding that there was this “Bauhaus kid” inside every goth. Not only did he play more and more of that music at the Domino, but he started to host private parties that had a Goth theme. He became the uncle in the Goth music scene, where he was not only exposing people to new things but he was really building on what he knew they already loved, and giving them a lot of it, in one space.
Ivan Palmer: I just called them Batcave parties. It became a pretty big thing and I started doing four or five nights at week at Domino, then at different clubs: Oz. The Silver Crown. The Catwalk was pretty good for a while.
James MacFarlane (Owner, Dark Domain clothing): I remember Ivan’s apartment. All his windows were blacked-out with garbage bags. A friend of a friend was dating him, so that’s how I discovered the Domino, around 1984. I was underage, of course, but I produced some relatively realistic fake ID, because I had a computer and printer. Or we’d go really early before the doorman showed up and lurk in the dark corners until the doors opened. We were just a bunch of freaks. One thing that pulled us together was being against popular culture, be it music, fashion or design in general. It was very anti-brand.
Daniel Riley (Vocalist, The Furies): My first real hangout was The Twilight Zone, a notorious club that played a critical role in what was becoming the post-punk alternative scene in Toronto. There was great music making its introduction at the time with DJs like Mike X spinning the latest and the unheard-of. We were the first club kids of the city and would stay up all night to dance, socialize or just trip out. This was a time when skull boots, leather jackets, ripped nylons, Final Net hairspray and permanent marker for lipstick were the order of the day. Most of my friends, and enemies, went there every week like religion.
Philip Brown: This was back when Toronto’s downtown core was still dirty. And that was fun. There was a lot of open tension though. Up near Bloor you had Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven and Gasworks and long-hair ’70s rocker dudes taking the piss out of these kids in spiked hair and make-up on the south side. In that tension, you had a brother- and sisterhood created. People started to meet in groups, sometimes out of safety, then go en masse down Yonge Street to Voodoo, or the Domino, or Nuts and Bolts. It was a really energetic, electric thing to be doing Friday at midnight.
Mark Crossley: It was really an underground scene then. You had to be around all the time, to actually live downtown. Not like the tourists who came in on the weekend and dress up. We would go to the nights where they played The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy, our favourite bands back then. When those UK bands started to play in Toronto, [National Velvet] opened for them. But the first time I really knew the Goth scene was forming in Toronto was after we got signed to Capitol Records, around 1988. We did this video for “Flesh Under Skin” and when that aired on MuchMusic we saw tons of Goth people showing up at our shows. They became the dominant force in our crowd.
Next page: Part II: The 1990s—the darkening of Queen West