By Jordan Heath-Rawlings
Dan Burke steps onto the El Mocambo stage, grabs the microphone, lights a smoke, strikes a pose and works the crowd.
“You show me a list of decent human qualities…and I guarantee you the music industry lacks all of them,” he says, over the din of about 50 people gathered in the ground-floor bar of the dingy Spadina Avenue club. The audience laughs and claps in agreement.
They are the El Mocambo’s faithful. Many of them are independent musicians who credit Burke, the booking agent at the club, for bucking trends and giving them a chance when nobody else would.
The El Mocambo was recently sold to dance school owner Jahangiri, who wants to turn it into a studio. The crowd has gathered to rally support for the place where many of them played their first real shows in Toronto.
Tonight, Burke looks the part of a booking agent. He’s wandering around straightening posters, ensuring that the bar is stocked and chatting with musicians. A cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth. He’s wearing a black jacket and faded jeans. Burke looks like he’s lived the rock and roll lifestyle. He also looks a bit stressed out.
Robin Black, frontman of glam rock band Robin Black and the Intergalactic Rock Stars, says 43-year-old Burke has also stressed out After Dark, the company that leased the Elmo for the past five years.
“Dan’s always booking crazy bands, doing crazy things,” says Black. “But the shows are always good, so it usually works out.”
Burke says he wants to keep the best job he’s ever had. Before he started booking gigs at the Elmo in 1998, he spent 15 years as an investigative journalist for the Montreal Gazette, Saturday Night magazine, and The Fifth Estate uncovering scandals in the RCMP and the Mulroney government.
The jump from investigative reporting to rock booking seems like a strange one, but it was a logical choice for Burke.
“There’s not a huge difference,” he says. “Journalism is telling stories. Every one of the bands that I book has a story of their own. My job is to get them onstage and make sure they can tell their story to the audience.”
Burke started out telling stories for The Eyeopener in the late Seventies while studying journalism at Ryerson.
His contributions ranged from feature stories on the hardships of cab driving to the demolition of the Warwick Hotel, to a column on the back page called “etc,” where he got to rant and rave.
Burke left Ryerson without a degree in 1980 to work in his native Montreal. Given the direction his career tool from there, he doesn’t regret skipping out on his degree.
“I didn’t complete the program,” he says. “But it completed me.”
Burke is a controversial speaker. It’s not hard to picture him captivating people’s attention while reporting on political scandals and shady characters. He always says the first thing that comes to his mind, which doesn’t always go over well.
At an Oct. 10 meeting of the Save the Elmo committee, Burke stood on stage ans asked City Councillor Olivia Chow: “Where the fuck is Lastman anyway?”
Chow looked startled as Burke passed her the microphone. She attempted to mumble a response, but Burke cut in: “I’m gonna have to get belligerent with his ass pretty soon.”
Black admires Burke’s belligerence. His booking strategy is similar to the way he talks – he likes to take risks. Elmo crowds have seen New York’s glam rockers The Toilet Boys, German noise band Ec8or, Japanese guitar grinders Guitar Wolf and the all-female punk rockers, The Donnas.
Under Burke, the El Mocambo has become a mecca for independent rock and roll in Toronto. Although the club’s place in rock history was built on classic rock acts playing huge shows – The Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Elvis Costello and a young U2 all graced the second floor stage – Burke says he prefers the challenge of booking acts that don’t come with a fixed fanbase.
“I could book someone like Iggy Pop in here,” he says, “and I’d draw between 2,500 and 3,500 [people]. I’d be making money, but at that point it’s just economics. Where’s the adventure? People already know the story. The sense of adventure booking at this [independent] level of the business is incredible.”
On Oct. 18, Burke booked raunchy techno rapper Peaches for her homecoming show. A year ago, she moved from Toronto to Berlin and became a success star in the German underground music scene. Her return to Toronto drew a packed house.
“A year and a half ago, I booked her on a Sunday and maybe 50 people came out. At the end of the night I was reaching into my pocket to pay her,” he says. “But I didn’t care because I thought it was a great show.”
Once the Elmo shuts its doors at the beginning of November, Burke will move his shows a few doors north on Spadina Ave. to the Comfort Zone and Silver Dollar until he finds a permanent venue.
“You’re never gonna be able to replace the atmosphere of the Elmo,” says Burke. “But wherever we take the neon palm, that will be the next generation.”