Chicago’s oldest nightclub is as unlikely as its location. Deep in the heart of Lincoln Park, is the dark and naughty Neo, a stark contrast to the main character in the Matrix Trilogy whose name was inspired by the club. From its alley entrance to its Lower Wacker Drive decor to its loyal alterna-following, Neo has more character than most other Chicago nightclubs put together, even some of the other holdings of the owner, and Neo is also one of the best late-night options in the ‘hood.
Neo is located down a brick-lined passage on the east side of Clark Street, just south of Fullerton Parkway and wedged between boutique shops. An intentionally rusted black Neo sign, with the “o” almost in the shape of a heart, hangs about 15 feet up from the ground on building housing the club in the rear, and is only visible coming from the north making it somewhat hard to spot, so keep your eyes open and you’ll find it. You may have to sidestep some of Chicago’s most recent new phenomena: rickshaws that lie in wait to whisk you away after you’ve had your fill of the dark. The alley terminates at a black-painted wall with a white arrow painted on it, just above a metal sculpture of the lower half of a body sans torso and head, directing you to the entrance. Bouncers located in front of a small outdoor stand to the left of the door will check your ID and take your $5 cover (levied only Thursday through Saturday).
Step inside and the coatcheck lies to your right and a few steps on your left lead up to an elevated area with a bar made from 6,000 pounds of concrete and topped with 2,000 pounds of terrazzo marble. Here you’ll find a surprisingly good selection of brews, including Chimay, and water is only provided if you buy a drink for the cheapskates and ecstasy abusers. This is a great spot to take in the action on the long dance floor that appears even larger with mirrors along the south wall, below cement archways. These architectural features combined with the bar’s cement slabs and thick columns are meant to evoke the feeling of my favorite underground highway, Lower Wacker Drive, with the mirrors symbolizing the Chicago River. Billy Goat Sianis would surely be proud were he alive today. This interior design was created in 1988 by Jordan Mozer, replacing various looks involving abstract artwork, art deco lighting and a shark tank. Mozer has also worked on Scoozi and such blasts from the past as Sabrina, Cairo 720, Arnie’s Cafe, and Outtakes.
A DJ booth is located in the southwest corner of the room, somewhat above a loungey area with a smattering of tiny cocktail tables, and an elevated stage is found at the east end of the room. The restrooms are located just beyond the bar and to the left of the stage.
The trio of Larry Acciari, Eric Larson and Suzanne Shelton opened Neo on July 25, 1979, replacing a tired disco called “Hoots.” Back then, most nightclubs played disco and those into punk only had O’Banion’s, but River North was too dangerous with patrons gutting mugged or knifed, and La Mere Vipere burned down in 1978. Neo originally specialized in punk, whose popularity quickly yielded to New Wave. Suzanne Shelton (one of Hoots’ resident DJs) then came up with the post-punk gothic nightclub concept with her sister Julie that you’ll find today. Neo started packing ’em in from Day One with a crowd of over 500 people thanks to Shelton’s passing out Neo fliers to the crowd after the Blondie concert held around the corner at Park West. Neo became so popular that it also drew the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, David Byrne, and U2 when in town. Big Time Productions bought the club in October 1982, who you may know for opening the internationally syndicated nightclub Crobar and which has designed nightspots like Exit, Frank’s and the now-defunct Tequila Roadhouse.
“Neo outlived the Orbit Room, NRG, Ka-boom!. It survived the AIDS epidemic, which devastated a large percentage of its early clientele, those early punks who decorated the risers and hung off the bar looking disdainfully at the locals who came to see them, who came to be cool in their presence.”
– excerpt from Achy Obejas’ (somewhat premature) Chicago Tribune article “Despite all the concrete, Neo Isn’t Lasting Forever” (December 11, 1998)
As popular as ever, a diverse set of patrons today—who don’t care what they look like when they dance—wear any color as long as it’s black, with extra credit for leather, odd facial hair, extra zippers, and unusual dance floor expression, though “normal” types also have a blast without worry. Like the Ministry song, every day is Halloween at Neo. While the beloved Gothic “Nocturna” Tuesdays and “Primitive” Thursdays are gone, other nights highlight metal, alternative, electronica, industrial, EBM and then there’s the real crowd-pleaser, Atomic: featuring 80s & New Wave on Thursday nights. Neo has a late-night liquor license and is open until 4:00am (5:00am Saturdays). When you leave, the ownership encourages you to leave quietly and refrain from littering. No one likes a litterbug, especially Woodsy Owl, known to frequent Neo when in town.
Neo on the Thursday before Halloween (2008)
“Last time I was there I saw an entire troupe of people dressed as the dudes from Mortal Kombat. They were dance fighting or something with a chick dressed as Tomb Raider. This is pretty much par for the course.”
– Bailey H. on Yelp (September 30, 2008)
Though we here at the Chicago Bar Project are more into taverns than nightclubs, Neo is a very cool nightspot that somehow manages to avoid the usual uber-pretension of every other nightclub in town but still attracts an avant garde cast of characters, several of whom have come every week since it opened. In recognition of this, Neo inspired Keanu Reeves’ character in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix film trilogy. Not bad for a nightclub that’s almost 30 years old. For more information, check out the Neo website. Until next time, just follow the white rabbit…