Behind the Bar with Toronto’s Most Rock ‘n’ Roll Bartender
Photo by Johnny CY Lam.

Behind the Bar with Toronto’s Most Rock ‘n’ Roll Bartender

We caught up with the man, the myth, the legend, Teddy Fury to talk about how music, booze, and little people intersect, and sometimes collide, at the Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto’s premier rock venue .
May 31, 2016, 6:00pm

Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.

Willie Nelson, Etta James, Talking Heads, Stompin' Tom Connors, and the MC-5 may not have a lot in common on the surface. But one thing that they all share, other than shaping popular music, is that they have played at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern.

They, and hundreds of other bands big and small, have kept butts wiggling on the Horseshoe's signature (and celebrated) checkerboard dance floor, ever since it became a music venue in the 1950s.

And for the last 30 years, the man keeping glasses full for this hodgepodge of drinkers has been Teddy Fury. When he's not slinging drinks and spinning a yarn behind the bar at the Horseshoe, Teddy, a musician himself, is sitting on the drum throne with his band The Royal Crowns, the self-proclaimed "kings of Canadian rockabilly."

We caught up with the man, the myth, the legend, Teddy Fury to talk about how music, booze, and little people intersect, and sometimes collide, at Toronto's premier rock venue.

MUNCHIES: Hey, Teddy Fury, if that is you real name… Teddy Fury: It's not my real name. My real name is Edward Franklin. It was the late 70s, I was playing in this band and we were practicing on Yonge street, above this tuxedo store right across the street from a giant gay bar. And my bandmate called himself Johnny Citroën—after the car—and, as he said that, the first car that drove by was a Toronto police car, which in those days, was a Plymouth Fury. So I said, "If you're Johnny Citroën, I'm Teddy Fury!" It's ended up being a pretty good rock n' roll handle.

You were in a bunch of rock bands before you ended up at the Horseshoe Tavern. How did you end up becoming a bartender? I had never been a bartender before, and when I got the job I was a so-called professional rock n' roll musician. I was kind of burned out, and the owners at the time were like, "Why don't we get Teddy to work here?" They saw me on the other side of the bar and I was pretty good at that! So I just parlayed that to the other side.

What do you think the owners of the Horseshoe saw in you? Sometimes people will see something in you that you just had no clue about. I think it's the fact that I'll talk to anybody and I know how to tell a good story, you know?

A young Teddy Fury.

So telling a good story is a key part of being a bartender? For sure. I think when you work in an old-school bar like this, you're kind of walking into a living room, and you have to know how to tell a story.

Speaking of storytelling, what's the craziest thing you've ever seen in here? This is one of the classic Horseshoe stories; it's the night that we caught the two midgets fucking on the pool table, which was awesome.

Holy shit! That sounds like the punchline to a joke that someone would tell in a bar. Please elaborate. It was about ten or 15 years ago and we had Fly Jimmy Swift in here and some other MDMA band—it was a real stoner crowd. It was like 45 degrees Celsius in here, like something out of Tennessee fuckin' Williams—everybody was sweaty and horny. That same weekend, there was a little people convention in Toronto. So, all of a sudden, at around midnight, we look, and it's like some crazy outtake from the Wizard of Oz, where about 50 little people come in and they were all fucked up on MDMA, or whatever, too. It was just shenanigans galore. All of a sudden, right near the end of the night, we start hearing all this screaming, and this little hippy couple is up on the table and he's shagging her [_Teddy gets up and runs to the pool table to reenact the scene_]. Love was all around, man. Every bar his its great stories, and when people here that one… you just can't make it up!

I used to be. I'm a teetotaler now, but I used to pack it away big.

Are you a heavy drinker?

Did it get a little out of hand? Oh, huge. It was the 80s and you're pouring and sniffing and shagging. But I couldn't really keep it up. Around that time, I got married and knew I was going to have a kid. You know when you're out somewhere and you see some hungover parent and they can't handle the kid? I just thought, "I never want to be that guy!" But I also never intended to stop forever.

Do you miss it at all? Oh yeah. I still have the odd dream about getting tanked and it's awesome. I still get cravings, like after driving in really bad traffic, I could use a shot of tequila. It's like smoking pot, it's just an equalizer, but then you just want more and more. Actually, that reminds me of my favourite bar joke; "Why didn't Hitler drink tequila? Because it made him mean." [_laughs_] Tequila can make you a lover or a fighter or everybody's friend—you get that little fuzzy glow. But I've got really good will power.

What's an ideal customer at the Horseshoe Tavern? On a busy night, the ideal customer is somebody who knows what they want and has their money ready—also kooks and characters.Those die-hard Charles Bukowski rounder guys are gone now. I don't know where they are.

What makes a good bartender, then? I think it's someone with personality, who's sympathetic. You're kind of policing the room, too. You have to kind of have this radar and start looking around and see if anyone's going to be a nightmare.

My buddy Gern in Montreal calls it "eyes up." He says that a good bartender has to be friendly but always keeping an eye on what's going on in the room. Totally. Sometimes you get people who've cleared like two security guys at the door, paid the cover, get by another security guy, and then they just become like the Wild Man of Borneo. Case in point, we had a guy once who looked very Biblical. He had great, flowing hair and he was wearing, like, these cheesecloth robes. Aeschylus, our bus boy at the time, spots this guy carrying a piece a breadstick bread with human shit on it and the guy is eating it! And he kind of looked like Jesus, if he had made it to 65. It was just like, "Are you fucking kidding me?" It became the Horseshoe pooschetta story. But he's here every Wednesday—he brings us lunch! [_laughs_]

How has Toronto changed over the last 30 years? There are a lot more storefront bars with music. Thirty years ago, there weren't a lot of bars where you could see live music, but people seem to want live music again. It's one of those ebb and flows.

In terms of drinks, what are the big sellers here? We sell a lot of stouts and Molsons. Mostly beers.

Do you make a lot of cocktails, Teddy? The running joke here is if people ask what's in a mai tai or a mojito, we usually say, "Rye and Coke." We're a little behind the times. We don't have any gluten-free or left-handed beer.

Earlier, you described the Horseshoe Tavern as a "proper rock 'n' roll shithole," what does that mean? A proper rock 'n' roll shithole has great sight lines, a low ceiling, mismatched paint, a good PA system, the smell of beer, and no urine, otherwise it's a rock 'n' roll pisshole. A rock 'n' roll shithole is like when you're young and you sneak into a bar, and it just kind of grabs you—there's no bullshit. The vibe is the music.

Is there any music moment that stands out? John Entwistle of The Who came in here for drinks once on a Monday night in February about 15 years ago. There were maybe about 15 people in the whole place. Anyways, by the end of the night we ended up all playing air guitar and he was telling them that their air guitar had to be as high as when he played. He was correcting people on their air guitar!

What did he drink? He ended up drinking a bottle and a half of Rémy or Courvoisier.

Do you have a rule for dealing with more famous clients or bands that play here? We just try to leave them alone. One time, Norm from Cheers came in here with some other famous guy, and I got them mixed up. But yeah, if you're hanging around here drinking, you can bug them, but if you're behind the bar you have to be professional. The only person who I kind of lost it with was Keith Richards.

What was that like? It was the best. He's like the Santa Claus of rock 'n' roll. I just went, "Fuck it, I've got to say something to him!" But, like, what do you say? I told him he was a huge inspiration, then he takes my hand. It was definitely a musician handshake—the kind that doesn't break your hand—but his hand felt like a paper bag full of strings. And then he just mumbled all of this stuff that I couldn't understand, and bursts out in this big, bellicose laughter. I met him but I have no clue what he said to me! But then they played for an hour and a half here and it was amazing.

Any ear damage from working at this place for so long? Oh yeah. My hearing's fucked. It's really bad. I tend to look more into people's mouths when I talk to them. But I can't think of a better way to go down, to be quite honest.

Would you say that being a bartender is your calling? I definitely think so. When I got this job I thought I had won the lottery.

Not really. I'll do this as long as I can, as long as they'll have me. Even on the worst night of the year, even if I don't make a dollar in tips, I still walk out with more money than I walked in with, but inevitably you also have some story that is funny or bizarre. If you work in an office, or some dead-end job, once a month you come home, and it's like, "Honey, we got the wrong box of pencils at work today!"

Any plans to retire?

So what keeps you at the Horseshoe Tavern, then? I think what keeps me here is "here"—it's the Horseshoe. Even when I started working here, a million years ago, it was just a perfect fit. It's so non-corporate here, and we're all about family and kooks and characters. When I was a kid, my family moved 16 times before I was ten. But the Horseshoe is a bit of a home for wayward reprobates, which I was. This became my family and my home. I've been here longer than any other place in my life. It's a rock 'n' roll shit hole, but it's better than that cubicle and getting that wrong box of pencils.

Thanks for talking with me, Teddy. You got it.