“No matter what, you just can’t stop. Bop ’til you drop.” – The Ramones
At the end of January The Big Bop and its trio of venues – Kathedral, The Reverb and Holy Joe’s – will vacate their massive host building at 651 Queen West.
Planned is a multi-million dollar overhaul and eventually, a high-end condo furniture show room, which will seal the fate of perhaps the last holdover from yesterday’s Queen West, the only intersection to survive the gentrification in every direction.
To some the change is a welcome one: the removal of a crumbling, purple eyesore that more often than not is pasted with crusty photocopied posters and surrounded by underage metal and hardcore fans.
There’s also no question the heritage building will get some much-needed attention under its new ownership.
For others though, the closure marks a huge loss: one of the city’s most unpretentious venues which fostered young musicians and fans when few others would.
The Big Bop wasn’t Toronto’s first mega club, but it wasn’t far off.
Certainly in the mid-1980s, with what we now know as The Entertainment District a couple of years from igniting in the warehouses of Richmond and Adelaide, The Big Bop stood in a class by itself, regularly drawing more than one thousand people to the massive, multi-level space on the southeast corner of Queen and Bathurst.
“For a couple of years it was the only game in town,” laughs Big Bop manager Dominic Chiaromonte, thinking back to the days when he was merely a face at the party with no plans to own or operate the building.
But that’s what happened for the better part of a decade after the allure of the burgeoning club district rendered The Big Bop obsolete and forced its temporary closure.
Chiaromonte and partners stepped in around 1996 (they sold to the current owner in 2005), repositioning the space as a series of live music venues bent on competing with Toronto establishments like The Horseshoe Tavern.
That didn’t go so well.
“The Horseshoe had it all,” Chiaromonte admits, referencing a time when the Toronto music scene didn’t produce enough quality acts or pull for out-of-towners to support more than a few stages.
But oh, the folly of youth.
“What we did find was a lot of these young bands, and I’m talking 13, 14, 15, wanting to play and going, ‘Oh, but we can bring a lot of our friends!’” Chiaromonte explains.
“It started growing and growing and growing to the fact that three, four years down the road every day was all ages.”
So it was GTA kids that not only saved, but helped build The Big Bop into another sort of establishment on that grimy corner for the close to 20 years that followed.
“It didn’t matter who walked through that door, we gave everybody a chance to play.”
And many used the platform to keep playing.
Chiaromonte cites members of notable Ontario acts like Billy Talent and Alexisonfire who played as teens and went on to find stardom.
Of course those are the minority. The average Big Bop patron, like the average Big Bop performer, at least in the post club era, was an outcast of sorts.
Part of that’s why the corner of Queen and Bathurst, constantly populated by lineups of underage kids in tattered clothes, was an undesirable reality for some.
For others it was a home.
The all ages shows that kept the venue going for more than a decade despite ever stiffening competition built a scene that stayed mostly true to its original mandate and gave opportunities to those who would never have a chance to play the likes of Lee’s Palace.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t be choosy,” Chiaromonte recalls.
But some of the city’s youngest most marginalized music fans ultimately chose The Big Bop.
“So many kids, in the past two months have come up to me to shake my hand and thank me for giving them a life, let’s say the past 10 years they’ve been coming here. That it’s been such a huge part of their life, I didn’t realize,” Chiaromonte admits.
“If the owner of the building was smart, he’d put a plaque right on top and still call it The Big Bop Building.”
After all, nobody’s saying goodbye to the building. This isn’t about the building. That was there long before a club of any kind and obviously, will be there long after.
What this is about is The Big Bop – a club that ushered in two generations of Toronto music and made sure they had a place to grow.
And for better or worse, that much is no more.
This weekend marks final shows at all of the building’s venues.
Those include Paul Di’anno of Iron Maiden at The Reverb Jan. 28, The Matadors, Terrorchargers and The Heatskores that same night at The Kathedral and fittingly, Ion Dissonance, an all ages show set for the afternoon of Saturday Jan. 30, before private parties that will bleed into Sunday when the doors will be locked for good.
- Post Script: Dominic Chiaromonte is taking his all ages act to Kipling and Dundas where he’ll open a new venue, The Rock Pile, this spring. If you would like to keep up-to-date with the venue email: firstname.lastname@example.org and include ‘Mailing List’ in the subject line.
Me on The Big Bop stage, 1998
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