Lounge Ax

Few things have made as much news or elicited a stronger response in the Chicago bar scene than the closing of the legendary rock club Lounge Ax. After succumbing to the complaints of intolerant and jaundiced neighbors, combined with the corruption of His Majesty’s Alcohol Licensing Cabal and the offhand dismissal of a new landlord, Lounge Ax shuttered its doors following a show by the Coctails (sp) and Dianogah on January 15, 2000. Making matters worse, the sterile bar-club hybrid known as Gramercy (now Soiree Bar Bistro) opened up a year-and-a-half later in the space, replacing one of the best spots to hear alternative rock music in the city with an establishment as completely devoid of personality as its patrons. While Chicago has since seen the addition of many other top-notch alternative rock venues, Lounge Ax continues to be one of the bars most sorely missed by those who can appreciate its impact on the city.

“Vibe-wise there wasn’t a better club in the city; Lounge Ax treated bands like gold. You think about the bands they brought in, before they got really popular–I remember seeing Jon Spencer and Thee Hypnotics there, Tortoise when they were still known as Mosquito–but also just how much fun it was to hang out by the back bar after hours with Sue and Julia.”

– Scott Giampino, spokesman for Touch & Go Records

Since its incarnation in 1987, Lounge Ax stood across from the infamous Biograph Theater where John Dillinger was shot. The bar could be found with its humble backlit black and white Lounge Ax sign, hanging over a red-painted, wooden facade with its series of four Keith Haring-like cartoon figures of man and beast above it. Inside the doorway sat a bouncer that would take your ticket or charge you a cover that typically ranged between $5 and $10. For bigger shows, lines would stretch down Lincoln Avenue with a crowd full of more piercings and tattoos than the Ukrainian Village. The interior of Lounge Ax was one long continuous space with a wooden bar that ran along the southern wall in front and a crazy little stage in the back, located under a leaky ceiling and just beyond a seating area filled with walls painted purple, a smattering of tables, chairs and a couch without legs. In addition to the Christmas lights and Elvis paraphernalia, the ceiling at Lounge Ax provided an interesting visual effect with its composition of what looked like black-painted asbestos poking through a framework that would normally hold a drop ceiling. All of which gave the lounge Ax a sort-of divey “Bohemian chic” feel. The surprisingly clean bathrooms (not originally so) could be accessed halfway down the northern wall, down a rickety set of wooden stairs.

Due to the poor sightlines overall, even with terraced steps against the north and south walls, the back was the place to pull up to watch the band even though it would get rather warm with the lights, sweaty bodies around you and lack of ventilation. Such entertainment at Lounge Ax included such groups as Wilco, whose front-man Jeff Tweedy married Lounge Ax co-owner Sue Miller in 1995, along with other classic alternative ensembles like Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Replacements, Robyn Hitchcock, Poi Dog Pondering, Sea & Cake, Golden Smog, Red Red Meat, Mekons, Pavement, Guided By Voices, Yo La Tango, Drovers, The Jesus Lizard, Naked Raygun, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Skull Orchard, Shellac, Man or Astroman?, Sebadoh, June of ’44, The Coctails, Archers of Loaf, Bad Livers, Superchunk, Old 97’s, Seam, Material Issue, and the New Duncan Imperials. Several of these bands played farewell shows over the last two weeks that Lounge Ax was opened, with some like the Coctails having reunited in order to do so. A documentary called Lounge Axed was filmed during the bar’s last hurrah but has yet to be edited, produced and released according to the now-defunct Lounge Axed website. Chicagoan Liz Phair could also be heard at Lounge Ax, including a memorable homecoming set following her success with Exile in Guyville and Whitechocolatespaceegg. During the show, Phair pulled up a girl fan from the front row and together they sang a rather stirring version of “Flower,” in perfect harmony. If you have not heard this song, check it out – it will blow your mind. In later years, the at-times hardcore alternative sound at Lounge Ax gave way to a more of an “alt-country” sound, with Bloodshot Records attracting a slew of out-of-town bands to play there as well as the Hideout, Abbey Pub and Schuba’s.

Prior to the Beat Kitchen, Lounge Ax was the regular haunt for the musical-comedian extraordinaire, Pat McCurdy, on Monday nights. It was on one of these nights that I was asked by a British friend of mine to entertain his mate visiting from the UK as he had to work late. After trading stories concerning the conquests of exotic women (it was a rather short conversation), Pat McCurdy took the stage. An interesting thing about Pat’s show is that, if you bribe him with a shot of Goldschlager, he’ll take your musical request. Since my companion that night happened to be a Brit, I decided that McCurdy’s song, “Thankless Bastard” would be fitting – particularly with the following lyrics:

There was in English guy with two last names
in the cubicle next to me.
He was a snotty English guy
with a tweed overcoat
and an air of superiority.

I said, “We bailed out your ass
in World War II.
If not for us you can bet that you
would not be raising your whiny voice,
you’d be goose-steppin’, baby,
and sprechen Sie Deutsch!”

He was a thankless bastard,
yes he was.
He was a thankless bastard,
just because.

Pat, being the thankful bastard that he is, took the shot of Goldschlager I had sent up and sang the song. Unfortunately, at this very moment, the English guy in question was making a visit to the loo. In desperation, I bribed the waitress to take up another Goldschlager shot along with a note humbly requesting that he play the first verse to “Thankless Bastard” again for my British friend who missed it the first time. After having the shot and a laugh, he indeed played the first verse again, which caused my Limey companion to get up from his barstool and, standing 6′ 5″, throw up his arms and yell out, “Thank you!” The crowd loved it.

Much has been said about what led up to the closing of Lounge Ax. While I can’t say that I’ve got the inside scoop, the next best thing I can offer is a summary. Apparently, it all began in 1996 when one of the city’s fine young urban professionals bought a condo behind Lounge Ax. What followed were several noise complaints by said, un-Fred Rogers-like neighbor. In response, the owners of Lounge Ax built a second insulated wall in the back of the club and insulated the ceiling. Lounge Ax was then threatened with closure by the city’s liquor commissioner, claiming that the bar’s “Music and Dance” license was no longer applicable even though that’s what they were operating with since they opened, and that they would need to acquire a “Public Place of Amusement” – a license that was created two years after Lounge Ax opened. Fortunately, the joint was not closed (ala now-defunct HotHouse) but when the Lounge Ax owners decided to fight, they received numerous license violation tickets from the cops. A compilation by Touch & Go records was then created to help defray legal costs, entitled “The Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation Compact Disc,” and both Spin and Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune did stories on the bar in support. Even with the fines and periodic closings, the bar got the axe for other reasons when the building was purchased by a 26-year-old mortgage banker by the name of Brian Reynolds, along with a group of investors. Once the building changed ownership, the owners of Lounge Ax were given six weeks to vacate, requiring them to be out by mid-January of the Year 2000. The main reason for this was that the building was claimed to be in an advanced stage of disrepair with a bowed ceiling and partial removal of a load-bearing wall. This gave Reynolds the perfect excuse to rehab the space into “an establishment that’s very involved with the Lincoln Park community, with a sophisticated atmosphere, quality products, emphasis on service.” Whether the Gramercy is that or not is up to you. After canceling numerous shows and pleading with the public to help them move out on such short notice, the last piece of furniture was moved out and Lounge Ax became a memory just as Thurston’s did a few years later.

“This is how our culture dies. This is how it ends. In a few years, only a few thousand people will remember it was there. It will be a failed yuppie bar, or a restaurant, or whatever. Tonight, it’s just us under flat black boards. Spray-paint, grit and leaking water. Empty air and amplifier hum. It’s as close as we’re going to be; it may be as far as we’re going to get. Fingertip length at the start of the millennium.”

– excerpt from “This Is the End; or, the Quiet Death of Culture,” written by by Jon Calderas (1/9/2000)

Sadly, such tales are most of what remains of Lounge Ax after 12 years of helping to establish Chicago itself as one of the best in the country for new alternative rock music. For several years afterwards, the Lounge Ax website served as both as a memorial to the creation of owners Julia Adams and Susan Miller (whom became, “the doyennes of the local rock scene” according to Richard Saul Wurman in Access Chicago), a message board for former Lounge Ax patron gatherings and as a reflection on the totalitarianism of the City of Chicago, but has now gone the way of the club. While Lounge Ax has slipped away into the night, much like its predecessors O’Banion’s, Club C.O.D. and Czar Bar, there are several other venues in business today that offer a variety and quality of music that rivals that of Lounge Ax, including Mutiny, Metro, Double Door, Empty Bottle, Hideout, Elbo Room, Beat Kitchen, Fireside Bowl, Underground Lounge, Phyllis’ Musical Inn, Weeds Tavern, Subterranean, Silvie’s Lounge, and Lilly’s. There has been talk of Lounge Ax reopening, much like the efforts of Club 950, but nothing has happened in the three-and-a-half years since it closed. Even if it reopened somewhere else, it would be very difficult to recreate the original as times have changed and the city is a different place. In the meantime, see you at the Hideout.

“Hi Sean, I just stumbled on to your ‘Lounge Ax in Memoriam’ web page, and I just had to say thank you. It is quite a wonderful thing to be so fondly remembered. What I miss most about Lounge Ax is all the great people that I got to hang out with on a nightly basis.”

– Julia Adams, former Lounge Ax owner (November 28, 2003)