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John Doyle: Television

Yonge Street rocks, fer shure. Here's proof Add to ...

Here in Toronna, we know the rest of the country dislikes us. In fact, much of the country hates us with a kind of livid loathing. And we don't care. One reason is that, unlike other places, we have Yonge Street.

Oh, Yonge Street. Toronna's main drag. Fer shure. Longest street in the world, as anyone here will tell you without knowing the facts of this assertion with any certainty. Yonge Street - storied in song and verse. Yonge St. - centre of the centre of the universe.

It's just the way it is. Well, anyway, it used to be. Even I can get nostalgic about Yonge Street. The Gasworks. Kids in cars going up and down, up and down on weekend nights, checking out the hotties on the sidewalk. Guys chatting up giggling young ladies. Young ladies in cars hollering at some guys strutting down the street. From somewhere, inevitably, the sound of a guy yelling, "Aaaaaaaaargoooos!" The crowds from the game at Maple Leaf Gardens spilling south down Yonge on Saturday night to the bars, restaurants and strip clubs, past the neon brightness of Sam the Record Man. The staff from Eaton's crowding into The Silver Rail - best bar in Canada for decades - and some slickers heading downstairs there for a slap-up steak dinner.

Who can forget one of the great SCTV skits ever - the parody of Goin' Down The Road that had Garth and Gord (a surgeon and a lawyer) drive to Toronna from the Maritimes "in search of lawyering and doctoring jobs." Arriving here with a couple of gals, they go straight to Yonge Street. When the action slows down, they keep exhorting each other to go to Yonge Street. Who wouldn't?

And then there's the great K-OS ditty called Crabbuckit - "Walkin' down Yonge Street on a Friday/Can't follow them, gotta do it my way." A song that captures the sensation of the street and the snatches of music and lyrics from Canadian songs heard from car radios on the street. (There's a wonderful girl-harmony version of Crabbuckit by The Good Lovelies on their new CD.) Yonge Street is downtown a - little seedy, a little glamorous and a lot of fun.

Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories (Bravo!, 10 p.m. tonight through Wednesday) is a wonderful, intoxicating series that documents the street's place in Canadian music history from the 1950s to the 1970s. It is gloriously packed with stories, vignettes, photographs and footage of wild times and rock'n'roll madness in the back rooms and on the stages of bars and nightclubs on the street.

The documentary series, directed by Bruce McDonald ( Highway 61, Hard Core Logo) was made as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Juno Awards, and it is a delight from start to finish. In this neck of the woods, we don't honour history much and tend to erase the past with blithe indifference, but the series is a sterling reminder that cities and their seedy underbelly matter enormously in the culture of a country and beyond.

In tonight's opening program, we get a reminder that Toronto in the 1950s was seriously uptight and both literally and figuratively distant from the popular culture shifts that were unfolding in the United States. There's a great, illuminating story about how word got around among some kids that on a hill near Ossington Avenue and Davenport Road, at night, your radio could get the signals from rhythm and blues stations in faraway American cities. So people congregated there, thrilled by the music.

Many people are interviewed in the series, but a dominant voice is that of Robbie Robertson, who has tons of stories. While he has plenty to say about the enormous impact of Ronnie Hawkins on music in Toronto, he is also at pains to demolish a myth. That myth he describes as, "Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm pulled up outside a Yonge Street bar, opened up the trunk and let rock'n'roll loose on Toronto." Robertson talks about hanging around, as a teenager, outside Yonge Street bars just to hear the music leaked out from the stage inside.

Ronnie Hawkins himself is here, as eccentric as ever, declaring: "I never seen a street like it anywhere in the world. Yonge Street was the promised land, boys." What he means is that the sheer number of venues, some scuzzy and some slick, offered a lot of American musicians a place to play to crowds hungry for their music. We hear a lot about The Edison Hotel at Yonge and Gould and the even more famous Le Coq d'Or Tavern next door.

In the other segments, airing tomorrow and Wednesday, we hear about the growth of the Yorkville folk scene and the vast gulf between that and the rocking, much less wholesome Yonge St. demimonde. Mind you, we also learn how Yorkville raised the ire of the local authorities. The sight of hordes of kids hanging out there caused one local, whose voice we hear ask in bewilderment, "Why aren't they in bed? Why aren't they doing things the rest of society is doing?"

Eventually the series moves into the 1970s and the voices and music we hear change. But the stories are always memorable. The background to efforts to bring John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band to Varsity Stadium in 1969 is truly remarkable, involving both the Eaton family and a local biker gang.

All of it amounts to a fine, utterly captivating insight into the most colourful, intriguing part of the history of this great city. Toronna rocks. Yonge Street rocks. Fer shure.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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