He brought Toronto The Last Pogo concert at the Horseshoe Tavern, the Police Picnic festival and popcorn at The Original 99 Cent Roxy theatre. And while film-and-music impresario Gary Topp has been featured in a handful or more books on the history of the city’s music scene, he’s never had a title devoted to him alone.
Enter Topp: Promoter Gary Topp Brought us the World, a graphic novel from David Collier that explores the grittier parts of Toronto’s pop-cultural landscape in the 1970s and 80s, with focus on the life and times of Topp, one half (with Gary Cormier) of the music promotion duo The Garys.
The Garys gave the city its edge, literally (with The Edge, a hub for punk, poetry and alt-rock in the late 1970s) and figuratively. Cartoonist Collier, who once worked with The Garys as a roadie, gives us an artful look back at Toronto’s music heritage and one of the people who helped shape it.
As a youth at the turn of the 1960s, Topp spent summers at Camp Tamarack, in Bracebridge, Ont. One of the camp administrators was Ted Cole, of the family of Coles bookstores. A folk-music enthusiast in the Pete Seeger tradition, Cole would go on to found Camp Walden, a beloved cottage country escape for kids.
Bob Dylan reportedly played his first professional gig in New York in 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City, where he opened up for John Lee Hooker. Topp, 16, attended the show: “Dylan looked only a few years older than me, Jewish-cute, with a voice rawer than I’d ever heard.”
The first arena concert Topp attended was The Rolling Stones debut in Toronto, at Maple Leaf Gardens on April 25, 1965. Months earlier, Topp had sent a letter to CHUM 1050 demanding they reconsider their ban on Stones music. Station programmer Allan Slaight wrote back, resolute in his dim view of the band: “I do not recall another phase in the music business in which the stars boasted that they did not like to bathe!”
During the 1970s, Topp with Jeff Silverman ran The Original 99 Cent Roxy, a groundbreaking repertory cinema with midnight screenings at a self-advertised admission price. Eccentric musician Nash the Slash (who lived in an apartment above the lobby) and Rough Trade gave their first-ever concerts at the Roxy.
In 1976, Topp booked the Ramones into The New Yorker (now CAA Theatre) for three shows over two nights, marking the arrival of punk rock in Toronto.
The first time The Garys booked the Police at the Horseshoe Tavern, only 60 or so people showed up over two nights. Three years later, on Aug. 23, 1981, The Garys organized Police Picnic, an all-day festival headlined by the “Roxanne” band that drew more than 25,000 people to the outskirts of Oakville, Ont. The first of the three Police Picnics was considered a new-wave Woodstock, with Iggy Pop, The Specials, and The Go-Go’s also on the bill.
From 1979 to ’81, The Garys operated The Edge, a hip spot for punk and bleeding-edge sounds that played host to touring acts The B-52′s, John Cale, Squeeze and Sun Ra, as well as local bands the Rheostatics and Martha and the Muffins. The rickety wooden house in the shadow of Maple Leaf Gardens played a vital role in the development of the city’s taste for alternative music.
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