Chicago’s rock palace: How Metro survived 20 years and why it endures

By Mark Guarino

For baseball fans, Wrigley Field is one of the few remaining shrines to the game, a place where myth and history are in constant play with the present.   

One block down the street is another Chicago sanctuary, except inside this one, it’s dark, loud and sweaty. Metro may not have the neatly trimmed ivy on its walls, but to music fans, details like that don’t matter. Metro is really only a stage, a wide rectangle-shaped room, a balcony and lights. But for a band that played its first show there, a suburban kid who heard his first roar of punk rock there, even the married couple who first met on its floor — the club is a kind of home after 20 years. And what happens there in the moment and locks into memory long after the last encore is played is as hallowed as a ballpark’s vintage scoreboard.    

“It’s one of the last great rock clubs in the country,” said Chris Payne, host of Q101’s Sunday night local music show “Local 101.” “For a band, you’ve made in Chicago if you’ve played Metro.”   

Since the summer, the club is celebrating its 20th year with special shows by marquee headliners (Wire, Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters, Mission of Burma, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult) who’ve returned to play special shows to celebrate their Metro roots. But even if every night this year accommodated reunion shows, that still wouldn’t be enough. Since its first show in July, 1982, Metro introduced Chicago audiences to emerging bands in cutting edge genres like industrial rock, punk, electronic dance, as well as underground pop and rock. And that translates to thousands of bands that have stepped on its stage.   

Unlike most business owners, Metro’s Joe Shanahan came from the world of visual art, a sensibility he says made him strive from the beginning to make Metro a place where new music from the furthest edge had the opportunity to be showcased. The club persists in seeking out “this unknown, mysterious byproduct of four or five guys or gals getting into a room and making noise and helping them answer the question, ‘how do they take that to the public?’” “I’ve always considered Metro as a laboratory,” he said.   

Hey-Ho, let’s go   

Shanahan grew up in the Southwest Side of Chicago, but in the mid-‘70s, he was a bartender, a record collector and an art student at Southern Illinois University. It was on a road trip to Champaign to see the Ramones when he got hit over the head by his calling. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe how cool it was, how ferocious it was,” he said. “I wanted that excitement in my life every day.”   

He promptly dropped out of school and moved to New York, then the center of punk’s first wave. There, Shanahan pursued painting and photography, rubbing shoulders with emerging street artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and commuting back and forth to Chicago where he took occasional classes at Columbia College. In New York, he witnessed a hotbed of activity. Musicians and artists were fusing their talents together — not just because bands like Talking Heads were composed of former visual artists — but because New York clubs like Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s and Mudd Club were encouraging artists and musicians to feed off of each other to create something new in union.   

Realizing that friends he knew in Chicago were hungry for the same vibe, Shanahan returned home and started hosting what he called “floating dance parties,” where paintings and photographs would be displayed to the beat of mobile DJs and often, live music.    

It was a “hot time” in Chicago for combining performance and art, remembers Peter Thompson, Shanahan’s former photography teacher at Columbia College and who is still teaching there today. Thompson was brought to Columbia in 1977 to head the Generative System Workshop, a new program that was designed to accompany students “who didn’t necessarily feel comfortable in the traditional student mode and had an urgency for self-expression.” Multi-expression was exploding in Chicago “in a way that hadn’t happened since the ‘30s.” “There was a sense that a total experience was being offered everywhere,” he said.   

Shanahan’s parties started in various loft spaces in the Fulton Market neighborhood, but after run-ins with the police, he went looking for a legitimate space. He ended up renting the fourth floor of a building at 3730 N. Clark St. that was originally built as a Swedish community center. The first floor was then home to the folk club Stages.    

Metro’s building is also one of the few remaining historic centerpieces in an area where gentrified new construction has put dents in the landscape. It was built in 1927, just 13 years after Wrigley Field went up one block away. Located far from the grimy centers of industry to the South, the neighborhood was originally designed as a suburban utopia, filled with two-flats, homes, tree-lined streets and most importantly, indoor plumbing and electricity. It was annexed into the city in 1889.   

Shanahan opened the dance club Smart Bar in June, 1982 but one month later booked his first band downstairs on the Stages stage. It was R.E.M., then mostly unknown to Chicago audiences. Shanahan met the band in New York and promised to book them if they ever wanted to play Chicago. From there, he began booking weekends at Stages and gradually took over, moving Smart Bar to the basement space, where it continues to operate from today. A few years later, he bought the building.    

His timing was perfect. In the early ‘80s, a musical revolution was underway. Punk had splintered in several directions and the first independent rock labels, fanzines, mom and pop record stores and college radio emerged to push the new music whose do-it-yourself credo separated itself from the corporate-driven rock of the MTV era. Cabaret Metro (“Cabaret” was dropped ten years ago) soon became the Chicago home for underground bands like the Replacements, Minutemen, Husker Du, X, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Sonic Youth as well as Chicago bands Naked Raygun and Big Black. Metro also was ground zero for the hardcore techno rock bands like Ministry, KMFDM, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Front 242 and RevCo that first appeared on the local Wax Trax! label. Shanahan reached overseas to bring to Chicago the British dance pop of New Order, Depeche Mode, O.M.D.   

“Early on we were so driven by personal tastes and seeking out the left of center and what’s not on the radar,” he said. “The people who worked at the club loved music and had the same idea as I did that there needs to a place for this sort of thing.”    

Cherub rockers   

By the time the club celebrated its tenth anniversary, the underground had become the mainstream. Northwest grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were heavy in the spotlight, but at the same time, Chicago was being seen by the industry as a fertile incubator for new, progressive music. Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, Material Issue — and the band most famously connected to Metro, the Smashing Pumpkins — all raised the club’s stature.   

“That was when Metro became ‘the birthplace of the Pumpkins’,” Shanahan said. “It put things into a bit of a perspective that we’ve enjoyed but it also began to make us feel like ‘let’s keep moving forward.’ They raised the bar for me a little bit. I had to work a little more, scrounge around the demos a little more.”   

Shanahan became band’s de facto advisor in its early days, after simply seeing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan play guitar. “Here was a guy that could play guitar like I’d never seen. He doesn’t want to be Eddie Van Halen, he doesn’t want to be Brian May, he’s figuring out how to be Billy Corgan.” He campaigned for the band, handing Corgan’s demo out to label scouts on both coasts. “I still have the rejection letters,” he said. “There were a few people who did get it. The demos were very good, but once people saw the band perform, then they realized they were really a unit.”    

When the Pumpkins became the club’s “trajectory into the national picture,” the club’s stature became clear: it was considered a benchmark of success for young, unknown suburban bands in all directions. Starting in the mid-‘90s, a next generation of bands like The Smoking Popes, Local H, Figdish, Dovetail Joint and others got major label deals, a trend that continued into this decade with Mest, Lucy Boys Confusion and Disturbed.    

“One of our goals was to play Metro and (we thought) if we ever could get to a point where we sold out the Metro, that would be the pinnacle of the success of our group and anything after that was just gravy,” said Josh Caterer, former singer and songwriter with the Smoking Popes, who grew up in Lake in the Hills.    

The Popes ended up selling out Metro several times, outgrowing it even to play national tours with a two-album run on Capital. Shanahan became their manager, a first for him and a boon for the band. He and Metro talent buyer Sean McDonough also helped advise Duvall, Caterer’s current post-Popes band, in its early stages. “There was a certain amount of clout that went along with having Joe Shanahan as your manager,” Caterer remembers. “He’s always been benevolent towards people and helping them.”   

Payne, who also promotes local bands on his radio show, said Metro’s active role in developing bands is unique. “Clubs these days probably don’t take a personal interest in bands,” he said. “Most clubs are concerned with bands bringing in a crowd that’ll drink a beer. That’s thankfully not the case at Metro.”   

“Artists want to return there,” said David T. Viecelli, president of the Billions Corporation, a worldwide booking agency based in Chicago and that handles artists like Nick Cave, Cibo Matto and Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. “Certain venues tend to make artists feel like grist for the mill, they’re really treated rudely. Metro always has been really good about making people feel welcome. They understand where the band comes from. They do staff well. Generally speaking, you don’t run into idiot bouncers who misbehave or people who treat other people like cattle. They do things right.”  

Rock community   

Metro survived many intrusions into the Chicago club scene over the past few years, including the arrival of the House of Blues franchise downtown and the lurking presence of Clear Channel Entertainment, the corporate giant that steadily bought locally-owned clubs in markets around the country.   

Shanahan says he’s not worried. “(Clear Channel) rolled up the high end of the market. They’re not investing in the future, they’re investing in the now. I invest in the future. I invest in Neko Case. I invest in Billy Corgan or Sleeping At Last or the J. Davis Trio. I’ll never work with Rod Stewart,” he said. “For me, when all this consolidation started happening, especially when corporate America noticed the music business, I don’t know if they went about it the right way. It’s driven ticket prices up, which makes my thing so much more valuable. In a way they’ve done me a favor. My ten or $15 ticket seems so right to spend on music.”   

Chicago’s music community happens to be experiencing a boom time. There are more record labels and bands than ever before, clubs are prospering, there’s better studios. But whether it’s the chicken or it’s the egg, there’s also an audience that’s particularly savvy, informed and enthusiastic. “(Musicians) move to Chicago now as opposed to moving to New York or L.A. or Athens or Seattle or Austin as they used to,” he said.   

Although Metro isn’t considered direct competition for the Hideout, (Metro capacity is 1,100, the Hideout about 200), Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten said Shanahan’s club helps nurture Chicago’s club scene as a whole. When Billy Corgan said he wanted to blow off some steam and work on new songs at a low-key venue, Shanahan directed him to the Hideout where Corgan and his new band Zwan hosted open mics for a nine Mondays in a row this fall.    

“We gotta have a guy who made it 20 years so the little guys can say ‘okay, I can do this’,” Tuten said, adding that Metro’s all ages shows benefits the smaller clubs because they expose suburban teenagers to the city’s live music scene and keeps that audience base solid. “You start out with the bigger clubs and you hear that there’s another place like Schuba’s, there’s another place called the Abbey, there’s another place called the Hideout. (Joe’s) kind of like a cool uncle. He’s not patronizing, he’s not jaded.”   

These days, Shanahan starts his day around 9 a.m. at the club where he says he listens to new music every two hours. The club now has a staff of 70 and he manages the overall operation as well as signing off on every deal. He also is married, the father of two children who live five minutes away.   

Metro still maintains an open door policy, meaning bands can still get on its stage on the basis of a strong demo. No agent, record deal or industry buzz is needed.   

“It’s a pretty simple idea,” Shanahan said. “And that hasn’t changed since I opened the doors.”

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