By all accounts, Drew Burns never got misty-eyed or nostalgic about the Commodore Ballroom from the time he stopped running it in 1996 to his death on September 27. His refusal to revisit past glories was fitting. The place hasn’t been the same since he left.
If that sounds like a knock against the most revered concert venue in the city today, it shouldn’t. From the Black Keys to the White Stripes, Lady Sovereign to Lady Gaga, the refurbished grande dame has hosted countless classic shows since reopening in 1999. There’s a reason why Billboard has called the Commodore—which is now operated by Live Nation—one of the 10 most influential live-music rooms in North America.
For a big reason the room remains so beloved today, start with the man who ran it from 1968 to 1996. Drew Burns was the Commodore as much as the Commodore was Drew Burns. That explains the huge outpouring of affection after the news of his sudden death at home broke. The consensus has been overwhelming: Burns was, inarguably, one of the good ones.
Born in Winnipeg, he set the tone for the rise of the Commodore.
Built just before the Great Depression, the art-deco room on Granville Street didn’t become Vancouver’s most fabled venue overnight. When Burns took over the lease in the late ’60s, it was a rundown relic, a place your great-great-grandparents danced to big-band jazz when they couldn’t get into the rooftop room at the Hotel Vancouver. Top-tier talent—Johnny Cash, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner—ended up at the considerably more glitzy Cave.
Burns slowly turned the ship around, with the likes of Tom Petty and KISS making early Vancouver appearances in the ’70s. When punk exploded at the end of the decade, there was a seismic shift in the music industry. Suddenly, you had a new generation of young renegades on the road: the Police, the Ramones, the Clash, and U2, all of whom played the Commodore stage. If you were there for those shows, you know who to thank for a booking policy that was famously liberal.
The Commodore under Burns somehow felt different from every other place in town, the room having a strange, timeworn charm. The bouncers and door staff were a mishmash of bikerlike badasses, but they could be as genuinely decent as the person who employed them.
My first attempt to get past the Commodore doormen didn’t go well: Burnaby North didn’t offer Grade 11 ID Forging, which resulted in both me and an underage friend getting shut down the second we pulled out our sloppily altered driver’s licences. But we learned early that good things happened at the Commodore. If, for example, you stood at the bottom of the stairs looking balefully at the Satan’s Helpers member manning the guest list, he’d let you in, but only if you promised not to drink. Subsequent visits went more smoothly, with the same guy at the door never forgetting to say, “Would you guys please get some decent fake ID?”
To get a beer if you were over-age, you stood in a line until a chain-smoking beehived woman handed you a drink ticket for your $4. You then took that ticket over to another part of a bar that seemed to carry only O’Keefe Extra Old Stock on the beer front. For reasons that were endlessly puzzling, every table with six or more people at it seemed to have a giant bottle of Black Tower wine sitting front and centre.
But holy shit, the shows. Burns was famous for opening the room up to any and all genres, from the hardcore punk of the Dead Kennedys and D.O.A. to the mentally unhinged psychobilly of the Cramps to the uncompromising gangsta rap of Ice Cube. The Red Hot Chili Peppers staged multiple stands in the room, R.E.M. and Nirvana touched down before they blew up.
And through it all, Burns never forgot the city that the Commodore served. Fledgling local acts were spotlighted in dirt-cheap showcases. When the likes of Art Bergmann, Sons of Freedom, 54•40, and the Scramblers graduated to the Commodore stage, it was a signal they’d officially arrived.
All of this made Burns one of the most influential figures in Vancouver music. He never gave any indication that any of this went to his head. When you called the Commodore, he was often the one who answered. He was the one who put you on the guest list when he could, and when he offered a kindly “Sorry, can’t do it tonight, son,” you weren’t disappointed, because you knew it meant he genuinely couldn’t.
His greatest gift was making the Commodore feel like your club, rather than his club. Drew Burns never dwelled on the Commodore after leaving. He didn’t have to—he’d already left his indelible mark. As one of the good ones.