The news on “the longest street” is that the Hard Rock Café at Dundas Square (279 Yonge Street) is closing at the end of May 2017. This is not that much of a heart-wrenching handwringer for those of us who barely cared in the first place when it opened in 1978.
When the original Hard Rock Café first made its neon, near radioactive presence known, it was considered to be part of the relentless commercialization of Yonge Street that stripped it of its charming yet ratty pre Shoeshine Boy Murder character. This American invasion was regarded as a tacky tourist trap meant to attract the masses shopping at the brand new Eaton Center, who were oblivious to the importance of the club’s previous incarnation as The Friar’s Club (1963-1973).
But even though the imminent transformation of the garish “new Hard Rock” café into a Shopper’s Drug Mart flagship store is just another day in our rapidly developing local landscape, its exit is still part of the downfall of civilization in general, as is the case when any type of local museum, no matter how strangely curated, disappears from our midst.
The real history of the current Hard Rock Café begins with the history of Friar’s, which is important as it was the incubator of The Band. The Band, which consisted of hard-core Canadians Rick Dano, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and a single soft-core American named Levon Helm, had one thing in common. They were all members of Ronnie Hawkins’s backing band at one point or another. Bob Dylan, acting on a hot tip, discovered The Band at the Friar’s Club, which of course was also immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s cinematic masterpiece, The Last Waltz, which was a documentary about their final performance in 1978.
The Friar’s Tavern also brought many Jazz and Rock legends to Toronto, including Oscar Peterson, Haley and the Comets, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan. When the American-owned Hard Rock Café took over the space, it was an invasion, changing it from a live venue that at one point even featured the Friars-A-Go-Go (girls dancing in cages) into a mausoleum, compete with memorial plaques and circular red satin booths that made the place look a little like the set of a David Lynch film. Slowly it succumbed to bubblegum under the tables and graffiti on the washroom walls before it was renovated in 2001, which jettisoned the look into the late eighties. The tobacco-colored Tomb of Music that it is today still boasts the chairs with bore holes in them and the bar with the garden lattice (probably installed to give the place that Olive-Garden-In-A Mall kind of ambience.)
The eerily growing Wall of Power that towers above the bar still features such artifacts as Joni Mitchell’s guitar, Bob Dylan’s harmonica and Mike Levine’s Toronto Maple Leafs shirt submerged in keepsake boxes made of white particleboard and glass. At Toronto’s premiere destination for a beer and a high-sodium greasy meal, musical enthusiasts could also enjoy the carefully curated sights of a the Go-Gos’ pink surfboard, Elton John’s Stars and Stripes top hat and Justin Bieber’s skateboard. Like the accruements of the pharaohs, these precious, glittering artifacts of the Rock Gods are probably destined for the Hard Rock Café’s storage lockers in Florida.
Back in the eighties, I was more of a Silver Rail, COPA and Nuts and Bolts girl myself. Mostly I went to the Hard Rock Café to smoke a Vantage cigarette and enjoy a CC and ginger before heading off to catch a flick at the Cineplex Odeon Theater at the Eaton Center. Being a bit of a Dark Waver at that point, the Hard Rock Café, with its battered tables etched with hearts and swear words, was a bit of an architectural expedition to ruminate about the meaning of the Hard Rock Café mottoes on the building’s façade, which turned me even paler with paranoia, the more I thought about it. The owners must belong to some kind of cult!” I kept thinking. Or even the Freemasons!
Sipping on my rye and ginger at the Hard Rock Café also gave me the chance to enjoy such guilty pleasures that were omnipresently playing on the speakers such as “Behind Blue Eyes” or “Rambling’ Man”. The clientele was a mix of mullet-heads, girls with long straight hair and intense gazes who looked like they were auditioning to be Charlie Manson’s girlfriends and persons who seemed like wrinkled old garden gnomes come-to-life. The good thing was that everyone was a chain smoker and you could pollute the indoors and stare into space all you wanted. I loved the simplicity of the place, even though you were more likely to hear Wham, Madonna or Britney Spears on the sound system rather than some good ole’ Ronnie Hawkins and sadly, there was not a note of Depeche Mode or Ultravox to be heard ever in this holy place of blood, sweat and burgers.
However, back to the idea that I once had that the Hard Rock Café was run by some kind of krazy kult. I spent a lot of time ruminating on the meaning of the mantra on the north-facing façade, “All is One” and of the “Love All Serve All” on the west façade. My first thought is that it sounded a little “George Harrisonish”. I also thought that the “Love All Serve All” motto did not exactly account for the very slow service that was part of the overall Hard Rock Café experience in the eighties. A little Googling reveals that these phrases were the branding brain child of British Hard Rock Café co-founder Isaac Tigrett, who inherited the words from spiritual guru Sai Baba (head of the Children of Light cult) during a soul-searching trip to India in 1974. He first saw the words scrawled in the canteen of a hospital in Singapore and when cured he then promised to have these words emblazoned in Times New Roman Caps on the front of the Hard Rock Cafés, all over the world. So I was right: I was drinking CC and ginger in a temple belonging to some kind of cult.
As for the giant red guitar that thrusts like a glorious appendage upwards at the Toronto venue and every other Hard Rock Café in the world, it is emblematic of the Red Fender Lead guitar donated to the London Hard Rock Café by Eric Clapton in 1979. Just for the record, (no pun intended), other musicians known for playing a shiny red Devil’s Axe of one sort or another include George Harrison (who played a tomato red Gibson SG Standard), Charlie Daniels, Carlos Santana, Alvin Lee, Jack Whyte, Courtney Love and finally, Kurt Cobain who played a Mustang Left-Handed Electric Guitar in Fiesta Red.
Ultimately the only difference between the Hard Rock Café and the new Shopper’s Drug Mart is that instead of buying drugs in the alley behind the place, you will now be able to get them inside by prescription. It is going from Sex, Drugs and Rock n’Roll to No Sex, Prescription Drugs and Rock n’ Roll Easy Listening. However, ultimately the removal of the Hard Rock Café, is part of the ongoing lobotomizing of our Yonge Street identity, just as the removal of the flashing circular Sam The Record Man sign a few years ago represented the cruel excision of our local music history’s beating heart.