Get on the Bus!


“Ain’t no streetcar, ain’t no subway car, it’s the Spadina bus!”

It occurred to me the other day that when I made my first City Music post last month, I never bothered to define what I hoped to achieve with the series. So here goes: “City music” is pop music with a distinct sense of place. While the literary and cinematic landscapes of our cities have been well-charted — think of the Montreal of Mordecai Richler and Michel Tremblay, or the New York of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee — the musical landscapes remain, for the most part, terra incognita. So think of me as a navigator (half-blind, perhaps, but with a good sense of direction) who will seek out and record the places found in music.

With that in mind, I present to you two songs, one from Toronto, the other from Calgary, one from 1986, the other from 2002. Both are about bus lines: Toronto’s fabled Spadina bus and Calgary’s less-hyped but no less interesting number 2 bus.

Streetcars ran up and down Spadina Avenue for the better part of the twentieth century, but the current streetcar line — which runs in its own right-of-way — dates back only to 1997. Although activists defeated Toronto’s 1960s-era streetcar abandonment policy, they were too late to save the original Spadina streetcar, which was scrapped in 1966. Over the next thirty years, it was a bus — number 77 — that served this broad, busy, multicultural street. (A much, much more detailed history can be found on the Transit Toronto site.)

When the Shuffle Demons came out with their song “Spadina Bus” in 1986, there was no sign that the streetcar would ever return. “Well I start to cuss on the Wellesley bus, and you can’t go far on the College car / The Yonge Street train is such a pain, and the LRT, well, that’s not for me / I don’t give a damn about the Bathurst tram, but I’ll make a big fuss about the Spadina bus!” they rapped. They were intent on celebrating, in the most unabashedly silly way possible, one of the liveliest transit lines in Toronto. I never got a chance to ride the Spadina bus, but I imagine it was similar to Spadina Avenue itself: a kaleidoscopic circus of people from around the world. The heart of Toronto’s largest urban Chinatown, Spadina sidles up to the Kensington Market, a web of narrow streets and shops that has been a haven for immigrants as long as it has existed.

“Spadina Bus” is, by itself, a bit kitschy. The lyrics verge on the inane (there’s a part about an empty pocket and a groin that will make you, well, groan) and I probably wouldn’t be writing about it if it weren’t for the song’s music video. Denied permission by the Toronto Transit Commission to film on a bus, the Shuffle Demons decided to shoot the video guerilla-style on the crowded sidewalks of Spadina. The result is glorious: five outlandishly dressed guys jump around and rap with gusto as amused passersby pass by. The whole thing ends in a spontaneous, communal dance party on the sidewalk in front of a Bank of Commerce. It’s quite possibly one of the most endearing glimpses of Toronto ever put to tape.


Calgary’s number 2 bus in the 1960s

“Mount Pleasant” doesn’t have a video, as far as I can tell, but that’s okay — it’s a song I would be more likely to listen to on my iPod, if I had an iPod. Released in 2002 by the hip hop duo Dragon Fli Empire, “Mount Pleasant” is about Calgary’s number 2 bus, which transects the inner city on its way from west end Killarney to north end Mount Pleasant. It is a fun, good-natured song, but not a daft one. “Up and down the number 2 / Killarney 17th Avenue / It’s Mount Pleasant / It’s Mount Pleasant, y’all / It’s Mount Pleasant,” raps DFE emcee Teekay in the chorus, before going on to muse about the precarious mix of public transit riders (“Skin brown, sometimes nobody sits beside me”) and the disinterest so many city dwellers have in their surroundings (“Clouds streak across the sky / While busy people bustle by / Too busy to appreciate the beauty of the landscape”).

Calgary has undergone a remarkable cultural coming-of-age over the past four or five years, with a new civic self-awareness to accompany its explosive economic growth, and “Mount Pleasant” is part of that transformation. Until recently, few songs, novels or films attempted to explore Calgary’s identity, culture or urban landscape. Dragon Fli Empire is doing its own bit to change that. “I can’t even count the amount of people that have come up to me and told me how much they love the song,” Teekay told CBC Radio 3. “Calgarians often say it’s great for them to hear the local references.”

The music video for “Spadina Bus” can be seen here. “Mount Pleasant” can be downloaded here.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday December 24 2006at 02:12 am , filed under Canada, Music, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “Get on the Bus!”

  • Sam Jensen says:

    The scene with the old folks dancing to the sound of the saxaphone was really something. You should open it up for other users to post songs about their cities too. It could become a sort of musical library of urbanity.

    What ever happened to the forum? It’s been up and down so much that I kinda gave up on it. It seems like it’s up again but there aren’t really very many posts. You might consider opening up the rest of the site as a forum- you’ve got lots of threads here that could start interesting discussion.

  • Rob Italiano says:

    They should have always kept Spadina’s route as a streetcar line. How silly of them to replace one of the busiest routes in the city with buses back in 1948 and let those perfectly good, active tracks and wires along the street go to waste! I’m glad the T.T.C. came back to their senses finally in 1997 when they replaced the bus route with the LRT line. Shuffle Demons, even though you no longer exist either, “the Scarborough LRT may not be for you and me, but the Spadina LRT, let it now be!!

  • Great post! About that spadina song, what does LRT and TTC stand for?

    / Mac

  • Hi Marcus,

    LRT stands for Light Rail Transit, a kind of new-generation streetcar.

    TTC stands for Toronto Transit Commission, which runs the city’s buses, streetcars and subways.