In the Forward to Denise Benson's history of 48 influential Toronto clubs, Stuart Berman writes: "no matter if your dancing days were defined by bell bottoms or dog collars, glow sticks or glue sniffs, you played some part in this story." I probably rolled my eyes the first time I read that line, a variation on the tried and true musical trope "we couldn't have done it without the support of you fans". Berman's line could have been written by the book's publicist and slapped on the back cover. But as I made my way through the book, and nostalgia kicked in hard -- even for the clubs I'd never attended -- it all started making sense.
"Then & Now" isn't a comprehensive history of Toronto club culture. However, you can infer the evolution of the city's night life by studying the map of club locations in the book's final pages, tracking the epicentre of underground nightlife as it flowed between neighbourhoods within the city. The book doesn't read like a history either, there's no narrative to connect the chapters -- each one profiling a single club -- or any attempt to track musical trends over the years. The writing does get repetitive after a while (everyone was accepted, there was a real sense of community, it was "more than just a club", etc.), and the profiles are overloaded with names and places that makes for heavy reading at times. It's not a book for everyone, and you might not get much out of it if you didn't grow up in Toronto and didn't go to at least a handful of these clubs.
But enough about what this book is not. "Then & Now" is an indispensable source of information about the Toronto club scene. If Benson hadn't done all of this research, and had access to so many of the principals owing to her long standing presence in the Toronto music scene, where else could you possibly find all this information? She's done every Toronto music fan a service by cataloging this information for posterity, archiving rare photos, interviewing everyone from the DJ's to the bartenders to the security staff to the clubgoers themselves. She writes with an attention to detail that could have only been filtered through the lens of someone who was there. In one example, she notes how every speck of lint on your clothes would shine under the fluorescent lights at the Limelight. For many, this reads as a passing comments about the club's interior, but for any past regular (e.g. me), this type of detail will take you back immediately.
Benson doesn't need to philosophize and provide historical context, that's not what the book is about. It's part clubbing scrapbook, part story behind the story of the clubs you knew, loved, danced at, and then forgot about. Your memories will provide the context, and her job is to help you recall them.
However, if I were to look for a turning point in the Toronto club scene, using the book as a representative sample, everything pivots around Industry nightclub. As we see, in the 80's, cool clubbing meant 80's alternative staples (Depeche Mode, New Order, Human League, goths, punks, Cure fans, etc.) and proto house, electro, and techno. A lot of the 90's clubs were run by 80's veterans and catered to the natural descendants (e.g me) of those 80's scenes. But Industry was something different entirely. As the city cracked down on outdoor raves, the parties moved indoors. The club denizens didn't grow up with CFNY (which was purely a rock station by the mid-90's anyway), and weren't looking to dance to underground hits they might have heard on the radio. Stories about bartenders getting grandfathered into DJ roles dry up, and expert mixers spinning purely electronic genres completely take over.