Sometimes it takes fifty years for popular culture to catch up, huh?
In the record store this afternoon, I was pleased to see the new Jackie Shane record sitting alongside St. Vincent, Lana del Rey, and Wolf Parade on the HOT NEW ALBUMS shelf. There’s Miss Jackie, resplendent in a hot blue belted number, casually leaning back with her cigarette and looking down at all the Millennial shoppers like, “Are you sure you’re ready? Because I’ve been waiting five damn decades.”
Like, holy fuck, you guys. Toronto is a city that is notoriously forgetful about its own history, let alone anything even remotely queer. Efforts have been made to celebrate and remember The Body Politic, the bathhouse raids, and the community organizing that occurred in and around the AIDS crisis, but that is because all of those events were about mobilizing a community to action. They were watershed moments involving activists who were committed to very public acts designed to shift public perceptions of homosexuality. They were akin to our Stonewall, and so deserved to be remembered and celebrated.
But Miss Jackie represented something just beyond that. First and foremost, she was a black trans woman. Although things are getting better in this regard, the historical register has tended to focus on the white gay male experience. And it makes sense, to be perfectly honest. History books are written by the victors, or at least the members of a society with a certain amount of privilege, and that hasn’t been women, trans people, or people of colour. Add the politics of the closet to the mix, as well as AIDS wiping out an entire generation, and you can see how she fell through the cracks.
But also? Toronto isn’t a city that celebrates recreation. Most bigger cities tend to self-mythologize and play up the fables of their nightlife. Literary giants like Hemingway or stars like Chaplin drinking the night away in Paris bars, or famous rockstars taking to the stage in New York or London dives. A nightlife is an important part of a city’s character, and in this regard Toronto tends to come up short.
Blame the city’s draconian liquor laws, or its continued resistance to opening night clubs, or maybe the fact that it grew up in the shadow of its much more interesting French Canadian sister. Bars don’t last long here, and are often the first things to go when a neighbourhood gentrifies. And they don’t leave much of a history behind. Stars like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Neil Young cut their teeth at cafes and bars on Yorkville Avenue, and almost nothing remains of that legacy. Some of the greatest jazz and blues musicians of all time (including Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis) played the Yonge Street strip, and that bit of history is just getting remembered. And Miss Jackie was a big part of the thriving blues scene of the sixties, with raucous nights at the infamous Sapphire Tavern — recorded for posterity on her amazing live album.
(The best current superstar Drake can do in this town is open a bunch trendy foodie joints. Somewhere to share overpriced tapas before getting back to the condo to watch Netflix, I guess.)
If you’re interested in learning more about Jackie Shane, there is a ton of information available right now. The resurgence of interest in her career started with Elaine Banks’ excellent 2010 CBC piece about her, followed by a great short by filmmakers Lauren Hortie and Sonya Reynolds. But this year was the real flood, with the album, a book, a piece in the Globe & Mail, a piece in The New York Times, a piece on NPR, and a piece in NOW Magazine.
Jackie is having her moment. Finally.