Opinion | Book documents ‘little underground bar’ that served as Kitchener punk hub

She knew it would be a hard sell, but when Coral Andrews pitched her idea for a book documenting the rise and fall of a fondly remembered Kitchener nightclub to a Toronto publisher, the pushback was immediate.

“I was told ‘Who gives a sh-t about a punk bar that’s 30 years old in Kitchener!’” says the local journalist/broadcaster, who doesn’t mince words.

“But I swear to God, it’s way more than that. Once this thing comes out, people will know!”

I love the fact that Andrews — who has the same passion for music that film director James Cameron has for blue-skinned aliens — cares this much about a project geared to a tiny, intensely loyal audience that, given the opportunity, would heft her on its shoulders and carry her triumphantly down King Street.

She believes in her cause. She isn’t deterred by skeptics. She won’t take no for an answer.

And that “Get lost!” from stuffed shirts in The Six was all the motivation she needed to apply for a regional arts grant to self-publish “The Back Door,” — a 265-page book with a launch date of Jan. 27 — about a dynamic hole-in-the-wall built around a tiny steel stage with constantly vandalized washrooms that overflowed toward the mic stand.

“It was an amazing little space that had so many different characters,” says Andrews, noting the tiny basement club located under the Metro Restaurant was designed for 60 people but often held twice that.

“The couple that ran it brought in bands from Queen Street West like Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, Change of Heart and A Neon Rome that really put The Back Door on the map. The Dice, Forgotten Rebels and Dave Rave and the Shakers played there. Famous people came in upstairs for schnitzel, everybody from Brenda Lee to Long John Baldry to Helix.”

It was a time, a place — like so many things, never to be repeated.

“I was a waitress and DJ down there,” says Andrews, a self-described “music-head” who worked at the club, on and off, for 16 years with the collegial nickname “Squeaky Subversive.”

“For me it was performance art and music — I would dress up as the music of the people I was playing. It was very much like Studio 54. The guys looked like the Stray Cats or Duran Duran. The girls bought their stuff at thrift shops.

“All the elements were in place — I can’t see a scene like this happening again.”

It’s the classic Baby Boomer reminiscence: times were simpler then, people more honest, sentiments purer and rock ’n’ roll, of course, was king.

“It was for people who wanted to express themselves through the music,” she says, noting punks back then were a marginalized group.

“They’d be walking down the street and some redneck would go ‘Hey man, you got red running shoes. I’m gonna beat the crap out of you!’ There were guys waiting in the parking lot for punks to come out the back door to beat them up.”

Inside the club was a different story: “Down there everybody was accepted. Nobody was turned away.”

Its punk period, which Andrews considers its artistic heyday, ran from 1978 to ’86, from Elvis Costello to The Cure.

The entrance to The Back Door.

The entrance to The Back Door.Chris Seto, Waterloo Region Record

But in its 20 years of existence, The Back Door also enjoyed stints as a disco, comedy bar, jazz lounge, biker bar, all-ages hangout and video lounge, before closing down for good in 1995 over a licensing issue to become the nondescript storage room it is today.

“It was kind of a chameleon, this little underground bar that kept changing all the time,” says the first-time author, who pieced together the club’s elaborate timeline with dogged tenacity.

“When I first started writing the book, I had no idea where it would take me. It was quite a trip.”

She spent three years researching, rereading old journals and tracking down patrons with memories as pointed as the safety pins that once adorned punk-rock cheeks.

She knows the book won’t make her rich, that its impassioned, steadfast, ultimately niche audience makes it an unlikely contender for Canadian bestseller lists.

That isn’t the point.

“I think I’m driven,” says the “creatively scattered” culture warrior, who attributes a horrific, life-changing car accident at 15 with her unrepentant, go-for-it attitude.

“I always want to have something going on. Most of the people who were down at The Back Door were kind of like that.”

They have Back Door reunions in the summer, she notes, where aging denizens of this bygone era discuss mounting health issues against a pounding backdrop of Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Talking Heads and The Damned.

“Rock ’n’ roll,” laughs the plain-speaking 67-year-old. “That’s what keeps us young.”

Long celebrated as a prolific promoter of local arts — for which she received a 2012 Waterloo Region Arts Award — Andrews’ efforts at cultural canonization have not gone unappreciated by those who knew her when.

“She’s crazy,” quips Rick Klaver, an old pal and Back Door regular. “But ‘good’ crazy.

“For me, The Back Door was a great rec room for misfits, art students, music geeks and troublemakers, and Coral was integral to that dump.”

It wasn’t a “scene,” he says. “It was the only place in town to hear a ton of great new music, dance and connect with other people you never met before who were aware of a shift in music and excited about the new.”

Andrews, he says, “booked some amazing bands that would never have found a stage in town at that time. It was a hell of a lot of fun.”

It’s not, however, just about nostalgia and mindless yearning for a nonexistent golden age.

“It would be easy to think her passion may be about living in the past,” notes Klaver. “But all you have to do is listen to some of the young bands today, influenced by bands from that time.

“As always happens, very few things in culture come out of nowhere. Coral is one of those people who wants to keep the light on, y’know?”

As I talk to those who knew her when, it becomes clear that, in many respects, Andrews was The Back Door.

“A thousand years ago I was a young horribly pretentious poet on the periphery of a bunch of real writers, all of whom orbited around Coral like stars locked around planets,” recalls David Worsley, co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo.

“Every teenager badly needs an older influence who knows from cool, and Coral — along with Encore Records and a handful of bookstores around town — were it.

“She promoted and made essential The Back Door, which was the only place I ever wanted to be in my first few years of high school.

“She was someone who was just effortlessly cool. It made a young kid want to grow up fast and right.”

‘The Back Door’ book launch

Friday, Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m.

Registry Theatre, 122 Frederick St., Kitchener.

For tickets go to www.coralandrews.ca/the-back-door.html