by Nathalie Atkinson, National Post (Toronto edition), August 9, 2002
From the street, the Tap Bar & Grill is nondescript, an average watering hole, signalled only by a bright green sign. Despite its prime Annex location at Bloor and Howland, the inside is a throwback to rural Canada.
Every small town from Cochrane, Ont. to Nelson, B.C. has a joint like it: faded mismatched furniture, icy-cold beer best enjoyed over nachos, no cover, no dancing, everyone's friendly. The decor is a kitsch affair. But the Tap has one element those small-town locals don't: a celebrity DJ.
Every Saturday night, over the din of garrulous patrons indulging in the usual bar pursuits of NTN trivia, air-hockey table gymnastics and televised sports, rock star Moe Berg hangs out behind the bar and selects nostalgia-driven tunes for the crowd.
Called Guilty Pleasures, his track choices are the musical equivalent of comfort food for the guitar-rock deprived. "I don't think you would hear my playlist anywhere else in Toronto," he claims. "You might hear part of it at one club and part of it at two others, but not all on the same night."
Most nightspots offer a gentle mixture of recent music that no one hates. Not so with Berg's playlist. "I try to make it like a high school basement party and I'm the guy who takes over the stereo," he says. "I think sometimes people want to hear songs as opposed to music. I love that look of either glee or dispair when I spin Jessie's Girl by Rick Springfield." Berg wants to find "songs" that grab people by the heart, soul and ankle, forcing them to rock out on the floor - or at least look up from their pint.
It's the work of one person reaching out to individuals in the crowd, without worrying too much about the shy girl in the corner who doesn't like Van Halen, because the next song could be Fleetwood Mac.
Tap manager Julie McNall says that since Guilty Pleasures began - and they have since added specialty music nights like Funk and New Wave with other celeb DJs - business has doubled.
Many of the newer patrons, in fact - like the student boho set - are too young even to remember the classics, but like everything else circa 1988 (shoulder pads, Ray-Bans, high-gloss lips, Jon Bon Jovi and "greed is good"), guitar rock, the old and the new, is enjoying something of a renaissance.
Berg's formula is simple: He plays good pop music. When asked for his Top 10, he can rhyme off a few dozen surefire crowd-pleasers. "Every night I play at least two KISS songs, at least two of the Mark Kleiner Power Trio CD, National Anthem, Talladega, the Strokes, Galore, Brothers Johnson and the Hives."
Other songs that always get a great response are Sweet Ones by Sarah Slean ("that should be in the Top 10, actually"), It's Tricky by RUN-DMC and anything by Robin Black or Iron Maiden ("You don't realize how many closet Maiden fans there are until you throw Run to the Hills on at about midnight.")
"My favourite part of the night is last call, when I play my wind-down stuff. Beach Boys and Modest Mouse, Me and Mrs. Jones by Billy Paul, maybe Sara by Fleetwood Mac or Autumn Sweater by Yo La Tengo."
But there are limits to Berg's benevolence and good taste, even by request. "Although I try to be as accommodating as possible, Cocaine [by Eric Clapton] is a line I will not cross. You will never hear Cocaine on my watch. I'd like to say you will never hear Foreigner, but once, this young girl came into the bar and asked for some Sebadoh. All I had was a track on a compilation of acoustic performances. So I put it on, and the girl walks over and says, 'This is the best song!' It was them covering Cold as Ice by Foreigner. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the best song was a cover of the most putrid classic rock band in history!"
To call Berg a rock star isn't a misnomer. The unassuming fortysomething guy in the oversized white shirt and John Cusack-era skinny black tie was the frontman for The Pursuit of Happiness (with runaway hits like I'm An Adult Now and She's So Young in 1986), whose first two albums were produced by the legendary Todd Rundgren, and toured with those '80's icons Duran Duran and Eurythmics.
And if authentic, aggressive pop rock riffs are enjoying a revival, so is Berg. In addition to a book of short stories (The Green Room) published last year, writing gigs with various publications and working on a novel and another series of short stories, he is gearing up for several music projects. His next short story will be in Grunt & Groan, an anthology about sex in the workplace, due out this fall. His wife, Laura, who married a rock star but had never heard The Pursuit of Happiness play live, orchestrated a wildly successful reunion gig at the Horseshoe Tavern in June, so who knows if more will follow?
Unadvertised except for a poster on the in-house bulletin board, Guilty Pleasures has until now been a secret - like when Boy George made a surprise appearance behind the turntable at Fluid lounge, or sample king Moby played Temple Bar a few months ago. But word is spreading as the concept catches on: One recent Saturday night, two chic patrons nursing Keiths on a threadbare velveteen loveseat stopped mid-conversation to exclaim, "Wow! Styx! Cool!" and pause from the discussion at hand to rave about Berg and wax nostalgic.
© 2002 CanWest Global Communications Corp.