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Feature Mon Dec 21 2009

Recasting the Lounge Ax

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.

Tbe Biograph.jpg
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.jpg
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."

The Fans

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.

Challenges

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.JPG
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.

Lincoln_Hall.jpg
Lincoln Hall

Rebirth

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

 

Twiest / December 21, 2009 10:51 AM

My sole Lounge Ax memory was my first (and last) visit, right before it closed in 2000. I walked in and Jeff Tweedy was holding a newborn baby while sitting against the wall. The hell?

Mike Halston / December 21, 2009 11:58 AM

Great article and well researched. Love the line about Sue & & Julia missing their 35 cents per hour jobs! They were "moms" to a lot of bands out there, local and touring.

In sort of realted news, Pravda is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a show at Abbey Pub Jan 22 '10 featuring the Slugs, Service and Boom Hank - all were Lounge Ax mainstays.

Richard Giraldi / December 21, 2009 12:09 PM

Great read. I like Lincoln Hall, but it sounds like Lounge Ax was a bit more down and dirty - my kind of club. LH is a bit too sleek..though the sound is great.

Sheba / December 21, 2009 12:22 PM

I miss the Lounge Ax! Before I was 21 I used to sneak in before the door guy started, and sit at the bar drinking and hanging out with the bartenders. I saw EVERYONE there! There's no place like it.

tankboy / December 21, 2009 12:51 PM

Um, you are WAY off. Lincoln Hall holds just over 500 people ... 167 sounds more like Lounge Ax capacity!

Rockgirl / December 21, 2009 1:10 PM

"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. Bands also played a benefit show at the Congress Theatre. While Miller and Adams searched around for a different location, they never found one."

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MONEY? The opening of Lincoln Hall, the Hideout and Empty Bottle after Lounge Ax closed begs the question of why Lounge Ax never relocated despite the owners having created a "benefit fund" for that purpose.

The lack of transparency from Lounge Ax about the relocation fund does a disservice to the bands and fans who donated their money and time.

Are the reporters in this city so enamoured of the Lounge Ax mythology that they simply accept the owners' lame explanation and don't ask them more probing questions about what happened to the relocation fund?

Sheila Burt / December 21, 2009 1:35 PM

Tankboy - you are right, thanks. I called Lincoln Hall and they indeed fit about 500 people inside its music venue. My mind must have been still on Lounge Ax time.

Rockgirl - I'll send Miller and Adams a follow-up email about your question, but keep in mind after the cd and benefit concert (in 1995 and 1996), the club did stay open for four more years, which might not have happened without the benefit fund.

Sheila Burt / December 21, 2009 4:07 PM

I e-mailed Miller and Adams to discuss with them further the reasons for the Lounge Ax's closing. I updated this part of the article accordingly to add more detail. Also, in response to Rockgirl's comment, Miller had this to say:

Julia and I had nothing to do at all with the creation of the "benefit fund." It was a record put out by Touch and Go. All of the bands on it were asked by Touch and Go. This was a project done by other people in an attempt to help Lounge Ax, because they wanted to. And it did help Lounge Ax. It was very touching and moving and meant a lot to us...I don't think we've done a disservice to anyone, nor have we ever tried to offer any lame explanation about anything to any reporters, enamored or otherwise.

jennifer / December 21, 2009 4:19 PM

@rockgirl

Empty Bottle and Hideout were open well before Lounge Ax closed.

Also, from what I remember reading around the time, the money from the sale of the benefit cd ultimately went to cover many of the court costs, etc. involved with the fight against the complaining neighbors. I believe that the Reader did a pretty lengthy story about this around the time Lounge Ax was closing.

Jerny / December 22, 2009 8:16 AM

Sue and Julia are two of the most wonderful people I know.

the year or so I spent as a doorman at Lounge Ax
remains one of the best work experiences I've ever
had - the entire staff was just like one big family.

Dan has shotgun!

steve albini / December 22, 2009 2:21 PM

@Rockgirl
Hi Bruce! Stay classy.

Dianne Andrews / December 22, 2009 4:38 PM

I missed a lot of shows at Lounge Ax because I had babies at home. Not only were Julia and Sue "moms" to their bands, they were actual "moms" to my kids. Their influence has shaped my daughter's love of music and some of her earliest memories are in that bar. She's almost old enough now, to be there legally! Wish it was still open.

Mark Greenberg / December 22, 2009 10:08 PM

The fund DID help Lounge Ax stay off the folks trying to close the club. It DID help the legal fight and helped to give us all a few more years of great shows.

I challenge "Rockgirl' to ask any and all of the bands she assumes have been slighted if they have any regrets or concerns.

The assertion that there was a lack or transparency or any 'lame excuses' on anyone's part is totally unfounded and an insult to those who helped put it together and gave their time and energy and talents.. "Rockgirl", if you have any real concerns beyond your default haters stance, ask those directly involved.... Corey at Touch and Go, the bands that are on the CD and who played the benefits.... instead of shouting false accusations from your safe anonymous laptop.

Mark Dunker / February 7, 2013 7:27 PM

The official seating chart was recently posted on a forum and shows 306 as the actual occupancy capacity of "Lounge Ax" leave off the the.

Chris Patarazzi / February 8, 2013 2:19 AM

I practically lived there from 1989 till it closed. Saw numerous "best shows of the year" there. ...sigh........

reader / February 10, 2013 2:01 PM

Since the days of Lounge Ax, it has become increasingly more common for fundraisers to be thrown on behalf of private commercial enterprises. While the people who contribute to them are well-intentioned, I do think people should give some thought as to whether charity (as opposed to patronage) is best directed to a for-profit business. I try to ask myself whether it is likely that other businesses will take over that function in a similar manner (booking bands, distributing records, etc.) and whether the struggles of the business are external or related to less than wise business decisions. For example, I declined contributing to a recent fundraiser for a business where it appeared that the woes stemmed from a decision to forego adequate insurance.

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By Elliot Mandel

If you see only one psychologically bizarre, and fantastically creepy opera this month, make it Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle at Thalia Hall.

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