Long live rock


May 18, 2003



Running a rock club is one of the riskiest and most draining businesses in the world of entertainment. As a result, most venues measure their life-span in years, if not months. The exceptions that chart their history in decades can be counted on one hand.

There's C.B.G.B., the dive bar on New York's Bowery that gave birth to punk rock, and the Whisky-A-Go-Go, which has been a landmark on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles since the psychedelic '60s. There's First Avenue, the former Minneapolis bus depot immortalized by Prince in "Purple Rain." And of course there is Metro in Chicago.

When Metro hosts an invite-only party on Wednesday celebrating its second decade as Chicago's premier rock club, it will mark the highlight of a year of self-congratulatory hype that has included a series of celebratory concerts (to be commemorated later this year on a charity CD) and a lot of nostalgia on the part of staffers past and present. But it's hard to begrudge the club its hard-earned reminiscing--especially when patrons are just as eager to join in.

Rare indeed is the Chicago music fan who can't rattle off a long list of memorable moments spent at 3730 N. Clark.

The most casual concertgoer knows that when people talk about Metro, they're really talking about Joe Shanahan, the 46-year-old South Side native who's been the owner and talent buyer at the club since 1982, and who has infused the 1,100-capacity venue with his exuberant personality.

"What makes Metro different from the Park West or the Vic or the Riviera theaters?" Shanahan said. "Well, me --there's not a guy in those places doing what I do in my building with the passion and with the staff--they're the people who really make it work, and I can't say enough about them."

A dedicated music fan, Shanahan returned to Chicago in the early '80s after a period spent soaking up the club scene in New York. He began promoting shows here in his loft apartment, branched out to sponsoring events at local clubs, and joined with his original partner Joe Prino to seize an opportunity when the owners of a troubled jazz and folk venue called Stages Music Hall decided to sell out.

Stages occupied a regal old building less than a block north of Wrigley Field. Originally built as a Swedish Community Center in 1927, it featured a spacious basement (which Shanahan eventually remade as the dance club Smart Bar); a large second-story space distinguished by its great sound, sizable stage, elegant proscenium and surrounding balcony, and a much smaller fourth-floor theater space (the Top Note, occasionally home to more intimate shows, and for a while the Smashing Pumpkins' rehearsal space).

For years after it opened in 1982, the club was called Cabaret Metro, the remnant of a new marquee erected by a long-since-forgotten theater company. The show that the troupe promoted in the space was a flop, but the "Cabaret" stayed on as part of the name until the club's 10th anniversary, when Shanahan dropped it to become simply Metro. (Prino departed around the same time.)

Equal parts genial host, charming storyteller and wily politician (in another life he could have run for alderman), Shanahan is also a hard-driving entrepreneur. In addition to Metro, he is the co-owner of the Wicker Park nightclub Double Door, the Lincoln Square restaurant Daily Bar and Grill, and a music promotions and management company.

Like any uncompromising businessman, Shanahan has his detractors. Vocal critics have included irascible punk-rockers Ben Weasel and Steve Albini (whose bands refused to play Metro over a variety of major and minor gripes) and rival promoter Michael Yerke (who competed with Metro at Cubby Bear before moving on to the House of Blues). But the voices of dissent are far outnumbered by the many artists who speak lovingly of the club and the man behind it.

Over the years the venue has hosted performances by thousands of bands, and it has been the location for dozens of music videos and live albums. For aspiring artists in Chicago, across the country and around the world, headlining at Metro remains a rite of passage, and it is often the high point of their careers.

The father of two children, Michael, 5, and Tara, 7, Shanahan says one of his proudest accomplishments is that he now meets parents who bring their kids to Metro (it's one of the few venues in Chicago lucky enough to be able to host all-ages events) and they tell him that they remember seeing their own first concerts there.

To commemorate Metro's anniversary, I sat down with Shanahan at a restaurant not far from the venue and asked him to take me through his top 20 moments from the club's first 20 years. His choices tell the story not only of Metro, but of the last two decades of cutting-edge music--and we could easily have gone on for 200 more.

1. R.E.M., 1982: "This was certainly one of the most memorable ones, because it was not only the first show, a financial learning experience and an aesthetically rewarding experience, but I really felt like I did something important, and I had a really good time," Shanahan said. "Another promoter was going to do it, but he pulled out, and [R.E.M.'s manager] Jefferson Holt remembered that I had met them backstage in New York and been talking about this new club in Chicago. This was around the time of the first EP, 'Chronic Town,' when they were still touring in the van. It was a heck of a way to start."

2. New Order, 1983: "That was an incredible experience. Joy Division never made it to America because [vocalist] Ian Curtis killed himself on the eve of the tour. When New Order came, it was one of the hottest days in the city of Chicago's history. 'Blue Monday' had been a huge club hit--it was like the change of music going from guitar-based punk to synthesizer-based New Wave or post-punk--but at that show, the power went down onstage because it was so hot in the club. Before it came back on they did a sort of 'New Order unplugged,' and it was the closest thing to Joy Division playing 'Blue Monday,' because they had to play it with just guitar and drums and none of the electronic gear."

3. James Brown, 1984

4. George Clinton, 1986

5. Iggy Pop, 1989

"That was really my power trio, the three artists that said it all for me, and the three who I most wanted to book when I opened my club. There's only one other person I haven't had play the club who was high on my wish list when I opened the doors, and that's Keith Richards. Maybe someday."

6. Ministry, 1984: "The first Ministry show I did was a big deal. [Singer] Al [Jourgensen] and I cut a deal: We sat down, figured out a ticket price, figured out a marketing plan, created an enormous buzz and sold it out. He made money, I made money, and from that came other nights with [Ministry offshoots such as] the Revolting Cocks, all the Wax Trax Records stuff, and Front 242--all of the industrial music which took off from Chicago."

7. The Ramones, 1986: "Having Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee [Ramone] in the room was a big deal for me, because that band sort of got me into everything. I followed them around when I lived in New York, and when they did their first Midwest tour, me and my girlfriend rented a car and went to every show. The Ramones had that kind of effect on me. And today when I see bands like the Smoking Popes and the Alkaline Trio playing for kids at Metro, I can't help thinking that it's the same for them."

8. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1986: "Early on, when they played here, it was kind of a house party. They would go down to Smart Bar after the show and jump into the photo booth with every girl who'd get in there and pull up her shirt. They literally spent hundreds of dollars in rolls of quarters, sitting in there all night. They were hilarious, and they were great guys to be around. I never saw any of that weird drug stuff--that must have happened afterward, in the hotel. They'd just come downstairs and have a bunch of beers and party and have fun."

9. Depeche Mode, 1987: "They were these little glammy boys tweaking their synthesizers, but the music was really just super-fresh at the time. They became a big radio band later on, but at the time they were like this underground thing, and it was something new and exciting."

10. Wire, 1987: "They were one of the cornerstone bands of my personal taste. I could have brought in Slaughter, Winger and all those hair bands of the '80s and made a fortune, but I was really concerned about having a harder edge to things. That's why Metallica played here, and King Diamond and Slayer. I was definitely more toward that side of it--the uncompromising stuff, in whatever genre."

11. The Indigo Girls, 1988: "They had sent me a demo, and I wrote them back and told them I really liked it. I always felt that if someone sent me a letter and a tape, it was only fair for me to send something back, so I would send back a little review. They were supposed to perform for me, and the week that they got signed [to Epic Records], they had to cancel the show to fly to New York. So Amy [Ray] called me and said, 'We'll never forget you, and we'll come back and play for you, we promise, because you were the first one there for us.' And now they play for me whenever they're in town--they can play the Tweeter Center or the Chicago Theatre, and they'll still come here and play Metro, too."

12. The Happy Mondays, 1989: "Metro always had a connection with that Manchester scene because Peter Hook [from New Order] would go home and talk up the club, and bands would say, 'If Hooky likes it, it's all right by us!' It was another super-great rock 'n' roll moment when the Happy Mondays opened for the Pixies. They were playing Wembly [Stadium] over in England, and here they were at Metro. Factory Records had flown in a camera crew, and the show ended up in a video."

13. Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1989: "That was another big night for us. Here I am loving New Order, loving Depeche Mode, loving Ministry, and then we have the opportunity to work with Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was making great rock music and was just this great guitar player and singer-songwriter. It really transcended it all."

14. Nirvana, 1991: "Nirvana played at Metro three times, and each time they got better. When I think about Nirvana, I just think about the sound of that guitar and the voice together--it was just so right-on, so cool. There were a lot of bands at the time that mixed that sort of metal riffing with an alternative/punk sort of bend, but they hit it just right. The third show, the 'Nevermind' show, that was the one. Nirvana didn't want any security. Right near the end of the show, they started letting people up onstage, and more and more people were climbing up, until right at the end, the drum set was being pulled out into the crowd. The whole thing disintegrated until basically the whole crowd was part of the show--and best of all, no one got hurt."

15. Pearl Jam, 1992: "When Pearl Jam played the week that '10' came out, that was a huge moment for us. They had played on our eighth anniversary and opened up for Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks, then they came back and played on the tip of that record. U2 came that night and watched Pearl Jam perform, because they were thinking about taking Pearl Jam on the road in Europe. That was also the night that U2 got its first glimpse of the [Smashing] Pumpkins, because Billy [Corgan] came out in a dress and did a little walk-on with Pearl Jam."

16. The Smashing Pumpkins, 1993: "The three 'Siamese Dream' shows were kind of the lift-off, the rocket that everyone was trying to hold on to. [Corgan] has given me more excitement than any one band, because of this close relationship that I've had with him, and because as he was being put on the map, Metro was being put on the map. That was the night I was standing in that room going, 'Oh, my god, I had no idea they were this good.' I knew they were good--I knew they were great!--but that night it was like, 'Oh, wow!' and everyone who was there knew it, too. I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it."

17. Liz Phair, 1994: "Liz Phair did two nights here on New Year's Eve. She said, 'I will never be able to sell out Metro.' I said, 'I will guarantee you that you can do two shows. I know my business! I'll give you the money right now.' And she did two shows, and she sold out both shows. That was one of the big ones."

18. Bob Dylan, 1997: "That kind of shook the foundations--that I was able to meet this icon of a generation and that he had positive words about my club. It was the 15th anniversary show, and that was something that Nick Miller from Jam [Productions] and I worked on very hard to make it happen. I served hot chocolate to the people on line, I got rid of the scalpers myself--I took a personal pride in that show like very few shows, although I care about all of my shows. But I thought this would probably never happen again, and it would be a once in a lifetime thing, and it was an incredible two nights of music."

19. Prince, 2000: "He loves my club, he really does. He likes our room. I think he's been here four or five times through the years, but this last time with Macy Gray and Common--it was kind of a wack-a-doodle night, no one was quite sure if he was going to play, but he finally did, and he did this Santana thing that was really great--better than Santana! At moments like that, I'm no longer the club owner, I'm the kid who's forked over his 20 bucks and is so excited."

20. The Smashing Pumpkins, 2000: "Before [Corgan] went on, he showed me the set list and said, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'Well, you are going to set the record for the longest show ever!' It was like four hours, and everyone was pretty wrung-out by the end of the night. When he called me out [onstage at the end], that was something special. I look forward to seeing the film someday. None of us have looked at it; I think he's got it in his house somewhere. It was sad, and there was a lot of emotion built up. We were letting go and moving on."


When I moved to Chicago in June 1990 to become the Sun-Times’ pop music critic, I didn’t know a soul in town. I went to an apartment search firm and gave them one simple instruction: Find me a place within walking distance of Metro.


I had first visited Chicago and Metro three years earlier, when I was the drummer in a band called the Ex-Lion Tamers that opened the first American tour by the legendary English art-punks Wire. The tour played 22 shows across the country and in Canada, selling out renowned rooms such as the Ritz in New York, the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles.


As an unknown opener (and a cover band to boot), the Ex-Lion Tamers had a flimsy contract guaranteeing a mere $100 per show, plus a pizza for the four of us to split in the dressing room before performing. As the reluctant road manager, I had to argue vociferously with several club owners to collect our $100. Metro was the only club where the proprietor, Joe Shanahan, paid us more than the guarantee ($250!), as well as treating us to an actual meal at a fine Italian restaurant.


When I returned to the paper in 1997 after a two-year departure, the first show I reviewed was at Metro, and once again, I told the apartment searchers my one geographical demand. Having visited almost every major rock club in America, Metro remains one of my favorite places to see a show, thanks to the sound, the sight lines and most of all its welcoming vibe.


I relate this to offer some insight into why so many musicians think so fondly of the place. (I’ll also note that there have been plenty of times when Shanahan probably wished I choked on my spaghetti in 1987—say, whenever I panned a band that he had just booked for a big guarantee.) But the biggest reason to celebrate Metro’s anniversary is of course the music.


Having heard Shanahan’s list of his 20 favorite concerts from the last 20 years, I couldn’t help but compile my own.


1. Wire and the Ex-Lion Tamers, 1987

Though it’s hard to be objective about this one.


2. The Jesus Lizard, 1992

One of those electrifying shows where singer David Yow spent perhaps five minutes onstage and the rest surfing on the outstretched arms of his fan.


3. Urge Overkill, 1993

The record release party for “Saturation,” which remains one of the best albums of the alternative era. Unfortunately, it was all downhill for Urge from here.


4. The Smashing Pumpkins, 1993

Here’s a show that Shanahan and I both recall, though for different reasons: Angered by one sentence I’d written in a long Sunday Showcase feature about the band, Billy Corgan launched into a spirited diatribe subsequently captured on several bootlegs, memorializing me for posterity as “that fat f---ing critic from the Sun-Times!”


5. Prince, 1993

Prime Prince in a funky after-hours jam that was a hundred times better than his actual performance at the Chicago Theatre earlier that night.


6. Moby, Aphex Twin and Orbital, 1993

Three of the most important acts in electronic music share the stage on one bill.


7. Arrested Development, 1994

An unforgettable evening of Afrocentric positivity.


8. The Flaming Lips, 1994

A free show that the band performed as a thank-you to Chicago fans who helped make “She Don’t Use Jelly” a national hit on alternative-rock radio.


9. Material Issue, 1994

The late Jim Ellison never sang with more passion or conviction.


10. Hole and Veruca Salt, 1994

It was a riot, girls.


11. Stereolab, 1994

Ninety minutes of blissed-out, trance-inducing drone.


12. Tom Jones, 1995

One of two nights up close and personal with a living legend.


13. Bob Dylan, 1997

Even better than Tom Jones.


14. Spiritualized, 1997

Transcendent psychedelia that temporarily transformed Metro into the dark side of the moon.


15. Naked Raygun, 1997

I had seen Chicago’s postpunk heroes when they toured and played Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J. They were even better when they reunited a decade later to play the club they always called home.


16. The Smoking Popes, 1997

After the Pumpkins, the Popes were the band that Shanahan worked with most closely, and they deserved to be stars on the same level.


17. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 1998

One of the most intense evenings of live music I’ve ever experienced.


18. Cheap Trick, 1998

Rockford’s finest played four shows during which they performed their first four albums in their entirety. The best was the night they did “At Budokan.”


19. Common, 1998

Another hometown hero caught in a moment of triumph, playing live with a big band for one of the first times.


20. The Flaming Lips, 2002

The latest in Metro’s long line of memorable New Year’s Eve shows, and the beginning of another in what Chicago music lovers hope will be many, many more years.