A few articles over the past year about how the Spadina Hotel has been torn down to build million dollar condos, which started me reminiscing about living in Toronto in the 70’s, so I thought I’d take a few minutes and share another story from my younger years. The story starts at the Spadina Hotel on King Street West and it ends at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street West.
This particular memory is about meeting a couple of guys who played music at the Spadina Hotel which was at the corner of King and Spadina in Toronto. One played the piano and the other played the drums, and at 16, they seemed ancient to me. I mentioned that I played guitar, so they asked me to sing for them and we arranged for me to meet at the hotel, in the upstairs lounge. I was pretty excited, so I went to the Salvation Army and I bought a beautiful dark green satin, off the shoulder, formal gown, with light green inserts at the sides. It looked fantastic on me and I wore it into Spadina Hotel, armed with my guitar and a little bit of confidence.
We basically played rather sedate country music, songs like “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, and I added a couple of folk-type songs, like “Changes” by Phil Ochs, and “Sit Down Young Stranger” by Gordon Lightfoot and “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens. The bartender used to serve me Singapore Slings and Cherry Brandy. I played there for almost two months, every Friday and Saturday night, and I was able to walk home with a few dollars in my pocket, a little less hungry.
Until the day the hotel manager asked me for some identification because someone dared to suggest I might be underage. Ah, the audacity!!! Of course, I had no ID to support me being old enough to be in a licensed establishment (because I wasn’t), and thus ended my brief career as a lounge singer.
The age of majority (i.e. legal drinking age) at that time in Ontario was 18. It had recently been lowered from 21, but when you’re on your own trying to support yourself and stay alive, what difference does a few years make, right?
Up the street at the corner of Queen and Spadina was another bar called the Horseshoe Tavern which used to be a blacksmith’s shop. It was the birthplace of many country music stars in Canada and over time I got to watch performers like Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Willie Nelson and Stompin’ Tom Connors. It was an incredibly dark and smoky place and nobody asked me for identification.
I would stand outside on the street corner (get your mind out of the gutter) and beg for money. A few cents here and there and I could afford a sandwich at a restaurant on the other side of Spadina, and then come back and have a draft beer (I think it was 25 cents) and I would nurse that glass all night and listen to the music. One evening, a guy approached me outside and wanted me to “perform” for the money (again – get your mind out of the gutter) and I did a quick comedy routine pretending that the lamp post was a person and had a funny conversation (albeit one sided). At least I think it was funny because people walking by gave me money and I started to realize I was onto something.
I took the routine inside the Horseshoe Tavern a few times as well, naming the third stair down to the washrooms and loudly declaring “Don’t step on Harold” to people who walked downstairs. A lot of people laughed but only a couple gave me any change, so I decided it wasn’t worth my while. The fact that I forced myself out of my scared, introverted self was a testament to how desperate I was for money. Hunger is a great motivator.
I celebrated my 18th birthday at the Horseshoe Tavern with some people I had become friendly with. Imagine the bartender’s surprise when he found out I was now 18 and he had been serving me for just over a year. He even bought me a drink to celebrate!
The following year the age of majority was raised to 19.
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