Care Failure; the spirit of Queen West, Toronto

For those familiar with the Queen West scene in Toronto Ontario, we use words like goth, punk, bohemian, hardcore, metal, gangsta, and the hood. Although Queen West is all of those things it is also Merchants, Artists, Crafters, Hipsters, Punks, and every other walk of life living relatively cohesively together in relative harmony. This relative harmony gives Queen West its true spirit, the unknown, perhaps illusionary danger lurking around a dark corner, or a scene of Urban discourse waiting to play out. Really, it’s people being allowed to be people, however, they identify as. This spirit relates Queen West to Greenwich Village in New York, yet it really is so much more.

It is this spirit that exemplifies the personality traits of one Care Failure—known as the lead singer of the Toronto Indie-punk band Die Mannequin, as well as a musician/guitarist, songwriter, and actor. As the news has reported in the last couple of days, Care Failure, born Caroline Kawa has sadly left this mortal coil at the young age of 36. Early reports show she was battling infections which ultimately took her life, but I leave these facts to the news sources. I would like to take this opportunity to pay a small tribute to an artist that helped an entire city maintain its punk, alternative, and surreptitiously visceral personality while showcasing the amazing power one woman can harness to stick-it to the establishment. The norm of the music, cultural, and artistic scenes controlled by bureaucrats while maintaining integrity, and strength.

As a band touring relentlessly around the Toronto area for the better part of 10 years from 2005 to 2015, Die Mannequin has also seen success on the international stage, touring with the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Sum 41, Marilyn Manson, Danko Jones, and many others. These are hard facts. What is missing from the narrative is the presence Care Failure had on the stage. The control she exhibited over her crowds of seething punk rockers. A perfect example of this is the haunting, ominous tones she carried out over the soundscape as she bellowed into a megaphone during the chorus sections of Die Mannequins, (perhaps) biggest hit; Bad Medicine. It is also the attitude she portrayed as authentic, troubled, and haunted as she performed other hits and not-so-popular songs with the same enthusiasm and appreciation for her art. Care Failure became a larger-than-life character for the stage.

Care Failure exhibited pain and mental anguish. When Care sang, she sang with demons, as if she could exorcise herself with each performance. This put her on the same level of performative art as Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor, and others in the genre, yet she was largely underappreciated in the same conversation. Care Failure was without Care. She was the epitome of the raw visceral female animal that had the same desires, pain, and suffering as her male counterparts, yet she was completely unapologetic at the same time. In an interview in 2008, Care stated; “Having a vagina just means I have to rock out twice as hard, right?”  

Care’s break-out hit Do It Or Die gave Die Mannequin a solid first single for Toronto radio. With the release of their debut full-length LP, Unicorn Steak in 2008, Die Mannequin signed a distribution deal with Warner Music, having left EMI. From the ashes of this Die Mannequin formed their own record label; How To Kill Music. This effectively made Care Failure an entrepreneur as well as an entertainer. 

2009 saw the release of Fino + Bleed, the follow-up full-length LP featuring the smash break-out hits Bad Medicine, and Dead Honey. Hitting heavy rotation on alternative radio in Toronto and all over Canada, these two tracks became the staple sound for Die Mannequin. Fino + Bleed had other catchy, radio-friendly jams like Where The Poppies Grow, Surfer, Start It Up, and Guns Not Bombs. But in that true Queen West attitude, Care Failure also included the satirical and controversial track Miss Americvnt which saw more popularity than probably expected. This tongue-in-cheek stab at popular culture in America maintained the punk sensibilities that gave Care her grounded personality; “If it’s not me, Then it’s you, And you thank no one, Miss Americunt, You, Violence had no son, Miss Americunt” A perfect contrast and counterbalance to the success Die Mannequin will be seeing with this album release. 

It is during this period, I recall seeing Die Mannequin perform all over Toronto. From the Sound Academy to the Opera House. No venue was left clean after Care Failure took the stage. Crowds would lose their collective minds. She has the presence to drive us crazy, with her ripped clothes, army-surplus attire, and make-up put on much too thick, and messy. Her hair was a frazzled mess, and her guitar that hasn’t been cleaned in years. Yet when she hit the mic, and let out her alto register vocals, she pierced through the crowd and sent a clear message that this was her home to control. She had all the moves, the interactions with the crowds, and the control of her material that each song was truly a part of her soul, and every lyric was carefully penned to allow this soul a chance to breathe. We were mesmerized, as well as completely jacked up and ready to party. And party we did.

In 2010, Care Failure took another big step starring in Bruce McDonald’s feature film Hard Core Logo 2. The film itself was not much of a success and received generally terrible reviews and reception. However, the role in itself was a perfect fit for Care Failure. A film in which Care Failure plays herself, and claims to be haunted/possessed by the spirit of Joe Dick (played by fellow Canuck Hugh Dillon of the Headstones), the main character from the first Hard Core Logo. In this film, which like it, or leave it, we see Care letting many barriers down in her persona, we see a real human with tangible emotions, unlike the performer we get on stage. At the point of this writing, I am unable to cite my source, but my memory of the reception of this film included some very powerful remarks from Bruce McDonald on the performance of Care Failure, and how she tapped into this character as if she really was possessed, making his faux-documentary an almost true to life tale. With this knowledge going into the film, Hard Core Logo 2 needs to be revisited and appreciated for an indie release with more soul and credibility than it originally received. 

2014, saw a new album; Neon Zero, which to many of the die-hard fans out there went rather under-appreciated as well. It was a solid album with catchy and memorable tracks like; Sucker Punch and Welcome To The Badlands, but this ultimately saw the end of Die Mannequin in the same way we saw them touring so extensively on the previous album. 

Care Failure would stay a fixture on the Queen West circuit. DJ’ing at bars, hosting Jams and Rock nights, and staying true to her fans. She was approachable, honest, and very likable. Her obituary printed in the Toronto Star states “She consistently sought to see the best of the human spirit in all she came across. May we continue to see the best in each other in her memory. May her spirit now soar free of pain”. Even under the Care Failure persona on stage, fans got this part of Caroline Kawa as well, always. 

Care Failure is the product of Queen Street, the product of Downtown Toronto. Care Failure stayed true to her roots, her home, and her fans, even after Die Mannequin stopped touring extensively. She remained a role model for girls fighting for relevance in the male-dominated punk scene. She remained an inspiration that we can be loved when we are truly being ourselves, and we are all included in this party. As all the well-wishers from the music industry chime in with their social media posts, it’s the fans that will be the ones truly affected by this passing. Whether we are Gansta, Hipster, Artist, or Merchant, Queen West is a badge of honor, and a lifestyle we celebrate as humans, together. Unfortunately, a small piece of that Queen West spirit left us all too soon.


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