United by Hedonism: A Mix for Will Munro

That one stray word in the title of Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro is integral. Sarah Liss’ book about the nightlife-changing activist, artist, and party-thrower, who died of brain cancer three years ago at the medieval age of 35, does use an oral-history structure, but she emphasizes the collective aspects of that form, just like her subject did. Whether stitching magical artifacts out of used briefs or seducing prim, atomized Toronto into polymorphous perversity with dance nights like Vazaleen, Munro used ephemeral objects and moments to lasting effect. His events bound together, to quote Liss’ subtitle, “club kids, art fags, hardcore boys, drag queens, rock ‘n’ roll queers, needlework obsessives, limp-wristed nellies, stone butches, new wave freaks, unabashed perverts, proud prudes and beautiful dreamers.”

The crucial insight of Munro’s DJing was that punk and disco could be scandalous kissing cousins instead of enemies, united by subversive hedonism. Vazaleen sets might segue from “Bad Reputation” or “Orgasm Addict” into “I Feel Love.” He understood, as party boy Theodor Adorno once aphorized, that love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar. And that a community isn’t confined to immediate friends or lovers; his work kept reinterpreting queer iconography, digging up the cultural history of vanished demimondes. At Vazaleen, Munro booked young locals on the same crooked wavelength—Peaches, Kids on TV, the Hidden Cameras—alongside inspirational figures such as Nina Hagen or Vaginal Davis. I always think of his long, anonymous volunteering at the LGBT Youthline, something he did so that queer kids might enter a more welcoming world than the one he’d found. Even if, like me, you never knew Will very well, he made you feel encouraged. That just radiated off him, and for a time it diffused, perhaps spread by glitter contamination, throughout the city. So trying to be comprehensive about Army of Lovers seems pointless: I made this little mix instead.

Limp Wrist, “I Love Hardcore Boys / I Love Boys Hardcore” (2001)

Limp Wrist - I Love Hardcore Boys / I Love Boys Hardcore

William Grant Munro was born in Australia and raised partly in Pointe-Claire, but in the most important ways he’s from Mississauga. Named after a Hidden Cameras song describing the general unpromising social situation there (that band’s Joel Gibb went to the same high school), the first section of Liss’ book often draws on interviews with his lovingly distressed family. If he did something like pinching jocks’ asses in the hallway, his older brother Dave, a large tattooed punk, would protect him (at least once, the opposite happened). Munro’s earliest sexual explorations reminded me of this Limp Wrist jam: after gravitating into Toronto’s hardcore scene, he would offer other skater guys free ink in exchange for naked photos. That friendly fetishism informed his thesis project at what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design, banners and architecture composed of recycled briefs. The right-wing pundit Michael Coren, failing to comprehend that “boys’ underwear” is polysemic, exhorted his followers to storm the pedophilic gallery show. Nobody did.

Sylvester, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” (1978)

sylvester - you make me feel (mighty real)


The earliest Vazaleen parties—before it moved from to Lee’s Palace to the El Mocambo, before Unilever’s corporate lawyers demanded that name change, before sprouting more tightly focused nights like Peroxide and No T.O.—sound outlandish and unrestrained even today, wonderfully so. One representative anecdote, from Kids on TV’s John Caffery: “Andrew Harwood was in the garbage-bag drag—literally, wearing a garbage bag—and this weird makeup, and he started having sex with a watermelon onstage.” Now and then the impresario of it all would arrive in a rented chicken costume. The comedian/performer/artist Lex Vaughn, who appreciated the “twisted vaudevillian sense” of the games on offer (most famously, bobbing for butt plugs), told Liss it was “like a gay Muppet Show meets Let’s Make a Deal.” But the account I found most poignant comes from Lorraine Hewitt, former Vazaleen go-go dancer: “Because of body-image stuff, because of being one of the only black girls in the drama program at my high school and feeling tokenized by the roles I would get … In so many ways, finding punk, finding a sex-positive, progressive group of people, finding the queer scene, finding Vazaleen, helped me to see myself as a desirable person, which had always been denied to me before.”

Imperial Teen, “Our Time” (2002)

Imperial Teen - Our Time

All the girls are dressed in leather and the boys are wearing feathers…

X-Ray Spex, “I Live Off You” (1978)

X-Ray Spex - I Live Off You

Several interviewees in Army of Lovers, including Owen Pallett, stress just how much work all this partying entailed. A half-deaf DJ and straight-edge vegan overseeing regular bacchanals, not to mention the bar he eventually co-owned and ran, Munro and his collaborators still took meticulous care with everything, screenprinting Michael Comeau postersby hand even if they might get ripped down before the event happened. Months before entering hospice care, as tumors flexed like malign fingers through his brain, he somehow managed to organize one last art show, Inside the Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy, inducting Tom of Finland figures into ancient Egyptology. Liss quotes the artist’s statement: “Spurred by his ongoing battle with terminal illness, he has submerged himself in the underworld of temples and glory holes, death and transformation, Kenneth Anger, Georges Bataille, Susan Sontag and King Tut.”

Peaches, “Fuck the Pain Away” (2000)

Peaches - Fuck the Pain Away

It’s fitting that a regular at Vazaleen, with its enshrined go-go dancers, would record one of the most effective strip-club numbers ever. When Kevin Hegge blasted it at Munro’s Gladstone Hotel memorial party, he tells Liss, “the dance floor got totally perverted just like back in the day and it was really beautiful in the way that only Vazaleen could have been. Fags and dykes and everyone else just totally losing and totally fucking the pain away—even straight people! Moments later, we gathered up hundreds of the black balloons that were collected in the ceiling of the space and the whole crowd emptied out into the streets to release them.”

George Michael, “Freedom ‘90” (1990)

George Michael - Freedom! ‘90

The last time I ever saw Will Munro, at what I believe was also his last DJ gig, this was the final track I heard him play. It was Vazoween ‘09. George Michael began obliquely lamenting the commercial demands of the music industry, I looked up at the matte-black booth, and there was Will, also wearing black, looking a bit like Linda Evangelista in the music video. Army of Lovers makes it clear that night was brutal for him—after getting home, he ended up having a seizure—but I would prefer to remember him suspended above a dancefloor, otherworldly and beautiful. I love “Freedom ‘90” in part for its tone of embattled elation: it’s a song about being frustrated with one’s frozen persona that is also a song, if only in hindsight, of sexual liberation. All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true / All we have to see is that I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me. Will Munro belongs to so many people, and some of them don’t even know it yet.

For more on Sarah Liss, read Shelf Esteem featuring her totally fake, staged bookshelves, and listen to episode 7 of The Arcade to hear her talk more about Will Munro.

 

 

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