'Hit me hard, hit me harder, you can hit me harder than that," Kevin Quain implores. "I've got more lives than a bagful of cats."
It's a miserable, rain-soaked Sunday night on Queen Street West, and Mr. Quain is pleading for pain from his usual perch: a tiny stage in the front room of the legendary Cameron House.
His voice suggests he's not only chugged a fifth of bourbon, but eaten the bottle afterward. Yet for all the darkness and danger that lurk in his songs, there is no safer place for Mr. Quain than right here.
"We're here every damn Sunday night of your life," he tells his usual ample audience. "We're here to help you make sense of your lives."
For the better part of seven years, Mr. Quain, backed by a band called the Mad Bastards, has commanded this stage each week, oozing moody melodies all his own.
When he's not here, the 40-year-old, self-taught multi-instrumentalist can be found in his spartan apartment above the Cameron, or playing with other bands at nearby venues, or at Theatre Passe Muraille a few blocks away, performing songs in a musical he penned himself.
Mr. Quain's ubiquity in the neighbourhood, not to mention his gift for alchemy with an array of musical genres, has earned him a loyal core of fans. This night, they alternate between rapt attention and roaring applause for the songs and the self-deprecating wit he weaves between them.
Loud as their cheers are, they are ripples on a decidedly small pond occupied by one large and growing fish: Mr. Quain.
"He's very smart, very witty, very fast, and topical, often," says Cameron co-owner Paul Sannella, who has seen his share of talent from behind the curving bar for the past 22 years. "He's one of the best."
But good as he is for business, "I'd like to get him out of here," Mr. Sannella says, suggesting the Cameron should be no more than a brief stop for Mr. Quain, perhaps after a Massey Hall gig in the midst of a world tour.
It's a refrain that has become as familiar as applause to Mr. Quain, a relative latecomer to the Queen Street scene who quit a comfortably paid office job to focus on his music in 1996.
"Finally, I just got to a point where I said, 'Damn, if I don't start doing this now, I'm never going to do it,' " he says earlier in the day, fresh from the first of two Sunday performances of his musical, Tequila Vampire Matinee.
"So I just chucked it all," he says in a voice far softer than the one he sings with. "It was very scary, but it was intensely liberating."
He paid his debts, gave up his expensive apartment, ditched his stuff and moved into the Cameron, where he passes around a beer jug to collect his pay, since there is no cover charge.
He earns enough to eat -- and drink -- but not much else.
"I live like a monk," he says. "A drunk monk."
His obvious appeal to local fans leads many to wonder why he doesn't take his show on the road in search of bigger audiences, bigger paydays.
"People say, 'Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that? You want to play the Cameron House for the rest of your life?' " he says. "I say, 'Sure.' "
For one thing, his days belong to him. For another, he's never dogged by doubts about the value of his work -- his fans let him know whenever he passes around that empty beer pitcher, and it usually comes back full.
Mr. Quain rejects the cult of fame -- "It is interesting that in this business, more than a lot of businesses, they will define you based on how famous you are" -- as strongly as he disputes the idea that he is hiding in the calm waters of a small pond.
"It's not that safe and it's not that comfortable," he says. "Playing in bars is rough on your lower back, and it can be rough on your liver and put bags under your eyes."
Pushing ahead creatively also carries risks, like the scathing review his musical earned on the weekend. Yet the review in a Toronto newspaper, in its own odd way, seemed to mesh with the brutality, dark humour and show-biz ironies explored in the play -- and with the unconventional life of Kevin Quain.
"What I do is never going to be loved and understood by millions of people," he says.
"To present something live in front of people is to continually hang your ass out in the wind. Sometimes you get smashed, but it's also fun."
Tequila Vampire Matinee runs until Dec. 7 at Theatre Passe Muraille.