Lights Out At The El Mocambo
As one of the first musicians to work the upstairs room, I have mixed feelings about the demise of the venerated night-spot The El Mocambo .
I first played the ‘Elmo’ in 1971 under my own name with a seven-piece fusion jazz/funk aggregate. I’d just released my first side with Capitol Records, "Goodbye Superdad." Who the hell knows what I was thinking with that title. I actually had people come up to me inquiring if it was a soundtrack recording for a Disney movie. The band played a hard-edge funk/jazz style with screaming guitar and bruising B-3 at the forefront. Our paycheck for the week was $2,400, a considerable sum in those early days. As the months passed and the prominence of the club escalated, the upstairs became an international showcase. We eventually slipped downstairs for the next four years–and steady work. The pay never matched the featured performance slot, fluctuating between $1200-1400 a week. Instead of performing for the usual industry and media types we played for college students, friends and neighborhood regulars. There was nothing humbling about that; in fact it was the perfect situation for introducing new bands, players and material.
Over the next couple years I abandoned fusion and introduced reggae music to the club. As usual, the patrons were receptive to change although some of the staff remained uncertain, to the point of bordering on racism.
Two personalities dominated the venue; Reggie Bovaird, the amiable bouncer/doorman/manager and Pat Joyce the crusty yet caring bartender. A third, Keith McCullough bridged the gaps between the more eccentric personalities, bringing a sense of normality.
One situation the El Mocambo had in common with other age-restricted Toronto venues was the depth of its unrepentantly hostile bouncers. A body-toss down the stairs wasn’t out of character for some of the beef brains that stood watch over the club. More than a few of these thick-necks faced the courts on assault charges. It was Reggie who kept things under control and in perspective.
Reggie had come over from the Nickelodeon. Everybody knew and respected him – his love and devotion not only for the music but also the musicians. Whether it was Dylan or Zappa, Reggie held court and kept the social thing upbeat and integrated. Pat on the other hand divvied out rare compliments, usually coming only late evening after a full house and fat till.
What really made the El Mocambo such an attraction was the diversity of artists who filled the upstairs. Lord, if I only had a camera then! Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Guy, Asleep At The Wheel, Roomful of Blues, Ramsey Lewis, The New York Dolls, Howlin’ Wolf, Downchild Blues Band; jazz, blues, bluegrass, country-you name it. In fact, I even worked the joint to an ecstatic house with comic Robert Klein. Speaking of comics, how about National Lampoon with Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner doing her best Patty Hearst?
By 1976, I left Toronto for pastures south. When I returned in late 1979, the Elmo had been christened a national shrine. An appearance by the Rolling Stones elevated the reputation of the club to that of a sacred institution.
The music policy had also changed. Jazz and blues were out. Power rock was in while aspiring punks hid in the crevices. Other than a few bright reggae moments and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s memorable appearance in 1983, the place began to smell corporate.
It wasn’t until I was part of China ( Kearney, King & McBride), a band born on the bottom floor of the club in 1980, that I learned an obscene lesson in booking policy. To play upstairs, bands were now required to pay a fee. CBS doled out $600 for our performance, to be deducted from future recording royalties. When word spread amongst the band members it was met with resentment and anger. We eventually played to a full house but walked away penniless from the gig. The Elmo cleaned up.
The following year I played a couple more weeks down stairs with my ska/reggae unit but the luster had all but faded. The pay in 1982? $1,200! Sound system rental, $750. Some things never change.
As the years advanced the names of bands became less significant. I’d pass the marquee and ask myself who the hell Zoo Flem, Butt Monkey, Violent Spoon, The Nauseous Snake, Toilet Boys, Duck Butter and the Pancakes and the likes were. Gone were tall names like Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Little Feat, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Tom Waits.
While sifting through a box of old cassettes I came across tapes of Kearney, King, McBride and LeBarge recorded downstairs in 1980 and transferred them to Sound Forge then over to CD. The energy and sounds in the room brought back wonderful memories of sweat- and smoke-filled evenings. There were few pickers locally who could match the guitar wizardry of Danny McBride and Bernie Lebarge back then or the cracking rhythms of Paul Delong and Gene Falbo.
One day in 1998, I thought for a moment about sticking my head in the grimy bar for one last sniff at infamy, remembering five wild fun-filled New Year’s Eve’s rocking the basement crowds. I made the usual right turn into the musty stench and recognized that the room in much the same condition it had always been. What struck me was how far I had come. I could no longer suffer the gruesome dour of stale beer or the sight of the soiled walls. There was little nostalgia here. It made me realize that to a musician, a gig is a gig. Few places ever truly capture the imagination. The Elmo came closest in Toronto solely because of the great musicians who’d preceded the latter day juvenile, inarticulate drones who rendered the institution laughable. Dance on!
980 words December 2, 2001