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Feature Mon Dec 21 2009
For the third article in an occasional series on long lost music venues in Chicago, Transmission takes a look at the Lounge Ax, a gritty bar and music venue in Lincoln Park that attracted some of the most popular underground bands in the late 1980s and until it closed in 2000. See our previous look at Off The Alley here and our look at Medusa's here.
In 1987, Chicagoans Jennifer Fisher and Julia Adams opened the Lounge Ax, a tiny club in Lincoln Park at 2438 N. Lincoln Ave. An unassuming, bare-bones entertainment venue, the club was located across the street from the famed Biograph Theatre, where John Dillinger met his fate 53 years earlier. When the Lounge Ax first opened its doors, Fisher and Adams had simple, yet noble ambitions: book live music that they liked, mainly indie rock, and some comedy shows.
The Biograph Theatre
Twenty-two years later -- and 10 years after it closed its doors forever -- the Lounge Ax has solidified its place in Chicago history. Seven-hundred eight members reminisce about the "late, great Chicago club that booked the greatest bands in the world," on the Facebook group "I Miss the Lounge Ax;" the club plays a key role in the 2000 film High Fidelity; and the Chicago History Museum is currently asking for any objects or pictures from the club in order to document its history.
While the Lounge Ax didn't do anything completely revolutionary, it did nearly everything exceptionally well -- booking some of the best upcoming indie bands and becoming known as the club that treated all musicians with respect, even if you were just starting out.
The Lounge Ax Rises
Two years after Fisher and Adams opened the club, Susan Rae Miller (now Susan Rae Miller Tweedy) joined in partnership. Miller had honed her booking skills at The Cubby Bear and The West End, and fans who heard that she was now helping run the Lounge Ax took note and moved with her. Fisher left the Lounge Ax shortly after to go back to school, so Miller took over booking while Adams focused on day-to-day operations. Both women spent most evenings at the club, and their partnership is key to the Lounge Ax's rise. While the club wasn't anything fancy, it began to attract some of the most popular bands at the time, including Urge Overkill, the Old 97's and Steve Albini's band Shellac.
"It was always just sort of common sense to us to treat bands well," Adams recalls in an e-mail interview. "We always made them feel at home and let them know their set time, etc. and gave them beer tickets. It always amazed us that they were so grateful for just being greeted when they came into the club. We treated them like friends, so of course they became our friends."
Miller agrees, emphasizing that treating bands well was one of the foremost things on their minds.
"I don't think there were any other female-owned and run clubs out there. I guess we were more nurturing than most," she recalls in an e-mail interview. "We loved our bands, our club, our employees...it all felt like a family and we welcomed the bands in. Very often the bands would stay at my house and sometimes they would stay at the apartment upstairs of Lounge Ax. The bar was a dump, we had no shower, the worst dressing rooms, small stage, etc. but we got great bands and treated them nicely. We would hear horror stories from lots of bands about being treated like shit on the road. The mind boggles."
By the early 1990s, the Lounge Ax had established itself as one of the premiere indie clubs in Chicago, luring the likes of Yo La Tengo, Liz Phair, Eleventh Dream Day, Tortoise and The Jesus Lizard to the stage. When asked about some of their favorite memories, both Miller and Adams say they could talk for hours about the club, and it's a place they both miss dearly.
Miller's son, now 13, nearly grew up in the club. "I know it sounds weird, but I'm sad my kids don't have a bar to hang out in," she says. "It was a great environment for him. He would see the bands sound check every day and run around and have a blast."
And while Miller calculates that she and Adams only made about 35 cent per hour based on the number of hours they logged in, she says the late nights -- often with the bands long after the club closed --are something she won't forget.
"We used to leave a new outgoing message every night," Miller recalls. "We would often have the bands who played that night do the message. There are so many funny, insane, drunken, brilliant messages and I being a crazy archivist, recorded each one onto another tape to save. I still have them and they are hilarious."
Photo by Marty Perez courtesy of John Goodtime Smith via Facebook
Miller and Adams say they also miss seeing their employees, some of whom now work at the Hideout, regular locals who supported the club, and some of her favorite bands like Yo La Tengo, Calexico, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, the Handsome Family, Spoon and Bonnie Prince Billy. "The time period that Lounge Ax was open was just a great time for indie music," Adams says. "So many good bands were around."
Max Crawford, 47, was one of the musicians and fans of the Lounge Ax "who practically lived there." Crawford played the Lounge Ax "many, many, many times" with his band Poi Dog Pondering. He played his first show in the fall of 1989, three years before he moved to Chicago.
"What made the club unique was the owners, Sue and Julia," he says in an e-mail interview. "They had a great way of making you feel welcome, and treating you as a human being, instead of as just another band on the touring treadmill. Sue was very maternal, often letting bands who couldn't afford hotels stay in her own home."
He remembers one memorable show in the dead of winter when he recognized that Miller and Adams were two very dedicated club owners who took their work seriously.
"We had a overly-long sound check, and technical difficulties kept the crowd in line outside in the freezing cold," Crawford remembers. "Sue suggested we should go out and play acoustic for the crowd in line while they worked on the PA. She went and got a bunch of hot coffee and donuts for the line while we played. Keep in mind, we were coming on tour from Texas, so our coats were woefully inefficient against the cold. But it was really fun, and people still come up to me and remind me about that show...I'd just like to reiterate what a special place it was. It really is the reason I moved here, and deserves to be remembered often."
In the early '90s, Julie DiJohn, now a 37-year-old actress in Chicago, trekked from her home in Wicker Park to the Lounge Ax once every week or two weeks. She admired Miller's booking at the Cubby Bear and followed Miller when she started working at the Lounge Ax.
She remembers Falstaff opening for the Smoking Popes as a memorable show. "Picture a packed house full of Popes fans and three not very attractive men hit the stage warbling, acapella, out of tune (as their opening number) 'Sweet Demon Flesh' over and over," she recalls in an e-mail. "The kids sure were confused. I found it wonderful as Falstaff were a fave."
Other important shows for her include Juliana Hatfield playing solo, Fred Armisen playing a comedy video that helped launched his career, El Vez ("played to the MOST PACKED HOUSE EVER. Middle of summer! So hot! I was up close standing next to Ken Goodman from the New Duncan Imperials/Pravda Records and we were both like 'the nearest fire exit is behind the stage' -- hilarious!"), and Bad Manners played with The Skatalites.
DiJohn is featured as an extra in High Fidelity in a crowded bar scene with Lawrence Peters from the Lawrence Peters Outfit. The scene was filmed after the club closed, and DiJohn remembers the day as a very hot beginning of June. One of the director's assistants advised that the bathrooms, which were notoriously gross and malfunctioning, were to be used in emergency only.
Around the same time DiJohn followed Miller to the Lounge Ax, Todd Leiter-Weintraub, now a 39-year-old copywriter who lives in Western Springs, started hanging out at the Lounge Ax once or twice a month. He describes Lincoln Park then as a "busy, busy place...there was no parking and it was overrun with yuppies."
But that didn't deter him from going to the club, especially when he turned 21 in 1991. Leiter-Weintraub also experienced the club from a viewpoint not all fans got to see: he graced the stage with his band. Unlike most clubs in Chicago, he says Miller and Adams treated every musician with great respect.
"Even an unknown like me -- a nobody -- they treated [me] just the same [way] they treated the touring musicians and the underground legends that played the club," he says. "And I think that was the key: When these people came to play the club and were still trying to make a name for themselves. Sue and Julia built the relationships with folks like an unknown Uncle Tupelo or Super Furry Animals that, when they came back to town and could have played larger venues... they remembered how they were treated by the LAX and played there instead. It was a small venue where you could get closer to your favorite bands than you could anywhere else."
Leiter-Weintraub lists Stereolab and Tortoise around 1995 as one of the defining shows at the Lounge Ax. He remembers that the bands were scheduled to play both an early and a late show on one night, with each band alternating as the headliner. Before the show, he and a friend ate dinner at Clarke's Diner across the street.
"Neither one of us had heard [of] Tortoise at that point, and we were discussing what we thought they would be like. I think I made a comment, something to the effect of, 'I just hope that they don't suck!' As soon as those words crossed my lips, the guys at the table next to us stood up, picked up guitar cases, and walked across the street and into the club. A couple of hours later, we were watching them up on stage... Tortoise! They did not suck."
Some of his other favorite shows include Neutral Milk Hotel, Super Furry Animals, Built to Spill, and "anytime Jonathan Richman came."
For more about the Lounge Ax from an insider's perspective, Sean Parnell penned this lovely tribute to the club as part of the Chicago Bar Project.
Though an unfortunate reality, the words "indie rock club" aren't always synonymous with the words "successful business," no matter how much the club may mean to its patrons. This is especially true in a neighborhood like Lincoln Park, where rent and parking is at a premium. The Lounge Ax unfortunately learned this the hard way.
"We had lots of challenges," Miller admits. "The neighborhood was always wrong for us. Almost all of the other bars in the area were fratty, drunken, sporty joints. People who came to Lounge Ax came to see music and hang out with like-minded people, but we never fit into the neighborhood very well. We famously had some crabby, irritating neighbors who knew how to and wanted to make our lives miserable with formal complaints with the liquor commission. It was also a very expensive neighborhood and it was hard to make money."
Former location of the Lounge Ax
Adams agrees, adding that simply keeping the club open was a struggle. "We never made a lot of money as we tried to give bands as much as possible," she says. "Our rent was always going up and so were city fees and we were constantly making repairs to the a/c, heat, etc."
As if the challenges of making enough money to survive weren't enough, in January 1995, a neighborhood resident filed a noise complaint, and soon after, the club began battling the city over some citations form the city's liquor commission. The fines took a toll, and Adams and Miller were struggling to keep open.
In May, four months after the official complaint, bands gathered to create a benefit CD featuring unreleased tracks from The Jesus Lizard, Shellac, Red Red Meat and Yo La Tengo. The CD was produced by Touch and Go Records. In the summer of 1996, bands also played a benefit show at the Congress Theatre. Miller notes that the benefit money was for "'relocation and defense,' as we were constantly being ticketed and having to go to court for not having the PPA [public place of amusement] license the city had suddenly decided we needed. We couldn't get this license as we were zoned against it. We used the majority of the money for defense....lawyers, fines, citations, legal fees, etc. There is a small amount of money leftover from that fund that Julia and I have never touched, and remains in an account held by Touch and Go."
In response to the Lounge Ax's struggle with city licensing restrictions, Bill Wyman of the Chicago Reader discussed the issue in an interview with 47th Ward Ald. Eugene Schulter. According to the interview, most music-bar venues previously operated with a music and dance license. But in 1994, the city began requiring that all venues open mainly for entertainment purposes and with a 125-person occupancy obtain a PPA. So small clubs like the Lounge Ax were required to get the same licenses obtained by venues the size of the United Center. In addition, Wyman noted in his article that Miller and Adams were left in a "catch-22 situation" because they were told that zoning restrictions prohibited them from obtaining a PPA license.
The Final Show
While Miller and Adams started searching for a different location, they never found one that worked for them in time. After years of these battles, The Lounge Ax closed suddenly in January 2000 when the owner sold the building. Miller and Adams, who where renting the space, were forced to close for good in a matter of weeks. "We were led to believe that we could continue operating as normal and then the new owner came in and told us we had to leave," Miller remembers. "He said that he wanted to open up his own bar and gave us no more than one month to remain open. I had to cancel a ton of shows as the bar was booked months in advance...I really believe that if the building had not been sold, we would either still be at 2438 N. Lincoln, or we would have found a new space while we were still in business, and would be operating there."
Before the club locked its doors forever, Miller and Adams organized a two-week closing festival featuring several club favorites, including Eleventh Dream Day, The Coctails and Wilco.
In a poignant tribute about the final days of the club, Tribune rock critic Greg Kot began his article with this sentiment:
Eras have to end. Lovers break up. Sometimes the scrambled eggs get served cold. In these character-forming moments, we find out who we are. At the midway point of Lounge Ax's two-week-long farewell to Lincoln Avenue, the attitude of all involved as the lights slowly dim is to be admired. No pity parties have broken out, and the mood on Sunday with Wilco and friends on stage was loose, a touch punch-drunk, celebratory.
While Adams and Miller are only occasionally involved in booking music shows (Adams for her husband's music company, Carrot Top Distribution; Miller for her son's band), in 2009, the Lounge Ax had a rebirth of sorts. Just doors down from the original club, the co-owners of Schubas opened Lincoln Hall, a sleek venue fitting about 500 people inside the music venue at 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., the former location of the 3 Penny movie house. Lincoln Hall held its official grand opening event on October 25 with a performance from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.
Both Miller and Adams haven't been to Lincoln Hall yet, but both say it's comforting knowing that there's a club open footsteps by the old haunts of the Lounge Ax.
"We drove by [one] night and it looks FANCY!!," Adams says. "Of course I mean that in a good way. I hear it is really comfortable and has an amazing sound system. I look forward to going there soon."
Lounge Ax Playlist
(submitted by Julie DiJohn)
The Coctails -The Snorers Wife
Falstaff - The C*nts
Juliana Hatfield- Outsider
The Skatalites - Guns of Navarone
Bad Manners - Lip Up Fatty
New Duncan Imperials - Velour
The Slugs - The Price of Fame
Golden Smog - Pecan Pie