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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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