The idea of exploring Chicago’s rock history from the 1980s and 1990s by taking a Chicago rock tour intrigued me. Just as I knew little of Chicago’s role in the evolution of jazz, I probably knew even less about the city’s place in rock history. And I soon learned that I knew even less about rock music in general.
I grew up in the 80s. I played with my Cabbage Patch Kids, Strawberry Shortcake dolls and My Little Ponies. I watched the Princess Bride and Brat Pack movies. I wore my hair in a ponytail on the side of my head with a scrunchie, rolled up my jeans and rocked my plastic charm necklace and jelly bracelets.
But I never got into 80s rock. My mom was into country, so my first concerts were Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys at the Minnesota State Fair. My first 45s (remember those?) were Eye of the Tiger and Abracadabra and my first album was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I actually turned the channel when
Hairbanger’s Ball Headbanger’s Ball came on MTV while I was babysitting (Hairbanger’s Ball is a cover band in Chicago!). I didn’t start listening to a lot of 80s hair bands until long after the 80s had ended.
This should explain why a lot of what I heard on my recent Chicago Rocks 1980-2002 Tour with Chicago Music Tours went way over my head.
We met outside the Kerryman on North Clark on a Saturday afternoon. Not just any Saturday afternoon, though – it was March 16, also known as the unofficial St Patrick’s Day celebration in Chicago. So while the tour would normally kick off inside the Kerryman, we were relegated to meet in the van as the lines were too long to get into the bar. But we did learn that the space that is now the Kerryman was once O’Bannions, a haven for punk music in the seventies and eighties where bands such as the Replacements, Husker Du and the Dead Kennedys once played. More interesting to me, the bar was named after a gangster who was killed by Al Capone’s henchmen in a flower shop over on LaSalle Street.
From the Kerryman, we headed north to Lincoln Park to visit Neo, the oldest operating nightclub in Chicago. Opened in 1979, members of the band Ministry often DJed there and David Bowie and Patty Smith often visited when they were in town. Considering Neo stays open until 4 a.m. and likely doesn’t even get busy until well after midnight, seeing it empty in the middle of the day was a little anticlimactic. But the murals on the walls were cool.
Our next stop was outside of 2438 N. Lincoln Avenue, once home to Lounge Ax, a popular bar for up and coming bands from 1987 to 2000, including the likes of Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins. It eventually became the Gramercy, which I remember visiting a few times in my late 20s. However, as our guide rattled off the history of how Lounge Ax closed because some yuppie guy came in and shut it down, all I could think about was that I was certain the space contained another bar before the Gramercy, but I couldn’t remember the name.
As we slowly drove from place to place (traffic was horrible due to St. Patrick’s Day), the van was rocking with a variety of songs I had never heard of by bands I can’t recall. Except for one song by the Smashing Pumpkins. I knew that one.
And in between songs, our guide rattled off facts and anecdotes about this band and that band, most of which meant little to me because I never followed the bands in the first place. It wasn’t until we hit Schuba’s on Southport, where Dave Mathews, the Violent Femmes and Big Head Todd & the Monsters all played, that anything started sounding familiar to me. My ears perked up a little more when we stopped outside of an empty building at 959 W. Belmont that used to be Avalon Nightclub – home to the first Smashing Pumpkins show in Chicago, as well as hip hop acts like Arrested Development, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
I assumed the tour was wrapping up as we pulled up to Metro, one of the best known rock clubs in Chicago today. It would have been the perfect wrap up to the tour. But no, we pushed on, driving by a few different old music studios before stopping outside a home at 3448 N. Greenview – once Billy Corgan’s home when he lived in Chicago.
The rest of the tour was a blur as we made our way to Wicker Park and the Rainbo Club, our final stop. By then, I have to admit, I was a bit burned out. While the tour probably would have been fascinating to someone who followed the national rock and punk scenes in the eighties, too much of it just didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t walk away from it feeling like I had a better understanding of the music scene in the 80s and 90s or of Chicago during that era. More importantly, I didn’t head home wanting to learn more.
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