Topline: In bed with Carole Pope and Dusty Springfield

Calling the diva squad to dispel the fog

Hi, dear reader. This is executive editor Gordon Bowness, taking over the Xtra Weekly newsletter command centre this week. As the eldest member of the Xtra crew, I’m excited to rev up the mimeograph machine. So let’s get started. 

“Topline” is an opportunity to share some of our thoughts as we make and react to the news of the week. Mind you, it’s just a taste test. Sign up to get the full newsletter—in vibrant purple ink—delivered to your inbox every Friday.

What’s the buzz🐝?

I cringe even now. 

Exactly 40 years ago this spring, I was arguing with my Grade 11 classmates in Winnipeg, convinced that the smoky-voiced lead singer of Rough Trade, a Canadian band then hitting the top of the charts on the radio with its single “High School Confidential,” couldn’t be a woman because they were lusting over a sexy “combination Anita Ekberg and Mamie Van Doren” and singing, “It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way.” 

Women can’t cream their jeans!

How clueless could I be? Well, growing up 1,400 miles from downtown Toronto where Rough Trade and its lesbian lead singer Carole Pope were central figures in a burgeoning queer art and activist scene, it turns out: Very. (It’s the same scene, along Queen Street, that spawned The Body Politic—the influential gay and lesbian newspaper and parent publication to Xtra, founded 50 years ago this year.) 

Rough Trade’s avowedly sexual and political pop struck a chord with listeners around the world; Pope’s unmistakable voice was a clarion call for more raunch and honesty, for wider shoulder pads and a queerer future. 

What were we thinking🥬?

Pope has been in my thoughts these days because I’ve been obsessing over her one-time lover, Dusty Springfield. The British soul singer, who came out as bi back in 1970 (two years before Bowie), is my go-to listening as of late when I need something powerful and heartfelt enough to break through late-pandemic numbness and fatigue, something to give my insides a shake. I dare anyone not to be moved by Dusty in Memphis, her landmark 1969 album, considered one of the all-time best in pop music. The 2001 posthumous collection of early ’70s recording sessions Dusty Springfield: Beautiful Soul is also in constant rotation. The power and vulnerability of Dusty’s singing, the way emotion always threatens—but never derails—her unmistakable voice, is sweet agony.


Such authenticity is astonishing in a chameleon-like artist like Springfield. Over her lifetime she sang everything from proto-prog-rock folk to Motown to blues to Broadway. Her hits range from Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” to The Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (A surprisingly thorough retrospective of Springfield’s career is provided by the documentary Definitely Dusty, with comic interview bits by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French.)

In Pope’s eminently readable 2000 memoir Anti Diva, one chapter details her and Springfield’s tempestuous 18-month affair in 1981/82. Springfield’s substance use disorders plagued the relationship, but there was also much love and passion. Pope is a wonderful writer. In 2003, Xtra ran additional recollections by Pope of her relationship with Springfield. As someone tasked to help shift Xtra from what was once a hyper-local newspaper to an online magazine with international reach and scope, I wrestle sometimes with which Toronto-based stories have appeal outside of Canada. That’s why I love the idea of Pope and Springfield shacked up in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood. It doesn’t get more glamorous, though it’s a distinctly Canadian glamour—kind of shabby with deranged fans, too much booze and our two divas cast as crazed cat ladies. (Springfield, who died in 1999 at the age of 59, left a significant portion of her fortune to her cat.)

Forgive an aside (I am a 56-year-old light brown mixed-race gay working for nearly 30 years in queer media—I’ve got asides!): I’ve met Pope a couple of times, the last being when we put her on the Pride cover of Xtra in 2005 following the release of her solo album, Transcend. (At the time, Rough Trade was also planning a reunion show.) She’s a generous, down-to-earth person. For the cover, shot by Paula Wilson, I wanted to put Pope in bed with a bunch of other women, and musicians from the Toronto band Scandalnavia were only too happy to oblige. I love that shot.

As I was writing this week’s “Topline,” a song raging at that late-pandemic numbness came out of the blue, fronted by none other than Pope herself: A collaboration with electro-synth band Church of Trees called “World’s a Bitch.” 

After 40 years, I feel I’m as confused as ever by our crazy world, and Pope’s voice is as exhilarating as ever. 

In other Xtra news

👉Clueless in high school, still. The world’s largest publicly-funded Catholic school board may never recognize Pride. Xtra’s Erica Lenti sounds off.

👉Life hurts. We’re in the middle of a combined mental health and substance use disorder crisis, and it’s important to talk openly about those struggles. Toronto singer Danny Dymond discusses his latest single, which looks at his troubled relationship with alcohol and drugs.

👉Another icon takes a bow. The inimitable Cloris Leachman, in her last role, worked with Toronto drag queens on the new film Jump, Darling.

👉Want more headlines? Subscribe to Xtra Weekly.


Yes he was….

Correction: March 21, 2021 12:49 pmAn earlier version of this story misspelled the name of actress Anita Ekberg.

The contributor photo for Gordon Bowness

Gordon Bowness (he/him) is the executive editor of Xtra. With a 30-year career covering the LGBTQ2S+ community, Gordon is also the founding editor of Go Big magazine and In Toronto (now In Magazine). He is an English speaker and lives in Toronto.

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