[26 March 2014]
Even growing up in the distant, rural edges of Canada I’d heard of Will Munro, described in the sub-title of a new biographical account as “the artist, impresario and civic hero who brought together Toronto’s 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”.
This description is modest: a Canadian queer icon, Munro gave Canada, for a brief moment, its own place on the global stage of queer pop culture.
But I never knew Munro, who died of brain cancer in 2010 at the tragically young age of 35. And so when I picked up a copy of Sarah Liss’ newly released account of his life—the abbreviated title is Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro—I almost put it back. Given that the book is comprised mostly of personal interviews with the many people who knew him, it seemed as though I was somehow peering in, voyeur-like, to the private life of someone I didn’t know. But I’m glad I did peer in: it’s an engaging and fascinating read that I devoured in two sittings.
The sustaining power of Army of Lovers, even for those who never knew Munro, is that it tells three stories in one.
The first is a coming-of-age story of queer youth in ‘90s Toronto. It’s a story many kids can relate to: growing up in troubled households and communities, striving for excellence at the mundane rituals of suburban life, and eventually casting badge-filled Boy Scout sashes aside for sticker-studded skateboards and punk rock. Coming out as queer took a little longer, but the story, told from the perspective of Will’s many friends as well as the family he came out to, is a moving and resonant one.
Munro was not just any suburban queer kid who moved to the big city. Once in the big city, he proceeded to make a name for himself that shone past his far-too-early death and will undoubtedly remain a hallmark of Canadian pop culture for years to come. Army of Lovers chronicles the creativity and energy he poured into producing art exhibits, DJ nights, parties and other events, as well as broader community-building work (like the queer youth support-line he worked with). The accounts are told from the perspective of his personal friends as well as several of the well-known musicians and artists who were brought into his powerful orbit. Vaginal Davis, Beth Ditto (Gossip), Joel Gibb (Hidden Cameras), Bruce LaBruce, Peaches, and others all weigh in on the influence he exerted on themselves and the broader scenes of which he was part.
Do the times shape the person, or does the person shape the times in which they live? A bit of both, perhaps. The impact of Munro’s work was inextricably a product of the era in which he found himself, and the pop culture space that era produced. The complex and intense nature of that space, with all its spontaneity and inconsistency, is the second story the book tells. Coming of age in the ‘90s, as gay culture split into an array of exclusive subcultures, Munro struggled to create a style of art and community that transcended these nascent divides.
“I wasn’t able to relate to the things I saw in mainstream gay culture,” says one of the interviewees. “It was all so corporate and institutional, based on all the things that rock ’n’ roll rejects.”
“At first I could not get over how un-Toronto Vaseline was,” recalls another, about Will’s best-known DJ night. “It was super friendly, cruisey and fabulously mixed. There were dykes, fags, straights, trannies, bi’s, drag kings and queens, genderfucked folks and people of colour from almost every community in the city who all came together to party and flirt and dress up… It was Will’s personal energy that made this wonderful melange of people possible.”
But Munro was not just a DJ. The book describes his art exhibits, often focused around underwear and challenging even the boundaries of ‘queer respectability’. The controversy they produced contributed in no small way to propelling his early reputation as an artist capable of challenging even the most cynical and self-assured of eras. His famous flashmob birthday parties that took over entire subway trains (and organized prior to the advent of internet-based social media), his work designing and pasting elaborately silk-screened or ingeniously crafted event ads all over the city, his profound ability to challenge convention and laws alike; the story this book relates is one of that intangible quality which creates a scene: a moment in time whose legend inspires subsequent movements like aftershocks of an earthquake.
The third story is a more sombre one: it’s a story of young people dealing with the death of an ideal, albeit in this case an ideal embodied in the physical form of Munro. His diagnosis with brain cancer—he was still DJ’ing and postering town from his bicycle when he collapsed and was diagnosed with a seven-centimetre tumor in his brain—was as unexpected and shocking as the rest of his life. After a two-year battle he died; and the story of his struggle, death and the impact it had on the city he did so much to shape is recounted in the final third of the book.
The format Army of Lovers—entirely interviews, with a brief introduction to each section written by Liss—lends itself ideally to the style of community-centric storytelling which its content reflects. Liss manages to put an incredibly diverse cast of characters in dialogue with each other: the effect she creates is one of friends sitting around a room together, sharing in a discussion about the impact of Munro and his life. She selects and weaves together comments in such a way as to craft a chronological narrative of Will’s life that also paints a lively image of the city: its art and culture and nightlife.
It’s not easy to take the disparate accounts of dozens of people and weave them together so as to paint a multidimensional portrait of a single person and his era, but Liss succeeds at the task most ably. A prolific writer who has worked with the CBC and The Grid magazine, her framing of the material and her curating of the commentaries from Munro’s friends construct a work that is moving in its intensity and breathtaking in its immediacy.
It’s also informative in its depiction of ‘90s and early ‘00s queer Toronto, offering evocative descriptions of the bars, shops, nights and neighborhoods of the era. But above all it is inspiring in its portrayal of the impact a single creative artist, driven by vision and an integrity to the spirit of artistic DIY community, can have on a world which for many artists and creative producers must today seem an alienating and impenetrable landscape. The story of Munro’s life inspires the reader to rise to the standard he unselfconsciously created; to have faith in the power of artistic vision to change the world, and to reach out in a fearless and loving embrace to the community which surrounds us.