That Time Jay Reatard Ripped Down a Disco Ball and More: A Select History of Chicago's Empty Bottle
Read an excerpt of 'The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music / Friendly / Dancing,' a new book celebrating the beloved Chicago venue, featuring thoughts from Tim Kinsella and more.
The Empty Bottle bar / Photo by Clayton Hauck, courtesy of John Dugan
Editor's Note: The Empty Bottle is one of Chicago's most beloved venues: It's a favorite of touring bands due to its reputation for treating performers well; it's the kind of unassuming neighborhood hang where people go regardless of who's playing; and it's been an anchor of Chicago's music scene for more than two decades. It quickly became a hub in the 90s when Chicago indie rock was exploding, and it continues to enjoy a reputation as one of the best-booked rooms in the city, embracing a spirit of experimentation to unite a wide range of genres. Sitting on a quiet corner of Western Avenue in the city's Ukrainian Village, with an Old Style sign hanging over the door, it could easily be just another Chicago dive, were it not for the suggestion on the banner of what lies within: Music Friendly Dancing.
A new book edited by Chicago writer John Dugan takes a look at the venue's history through interviews with people who worked, visited, and performed there since its inception as a slightly different venue down the street in 1992 (the current location dates back to October, 1993). The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music / Friendly / Dancing, due out June 7 via publisher Curbside Splendor, collects memories from figures that include everyone from owner Bruce Finkelman to big-name indie musicians like Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips and Damian Kulash of OK Go. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats wrote the introduction, which sheds some light on his own early career as well. There's a story about a joke on Nirvana gone awry, at least one anecdote about Ira Glass, and multiple mentions of a live (and later dead) squid making an appearance onstage. There are tons of great pictures from every era. It's a must-read for anyone interested in the history of a key Chicago venue or really indie music in general. Dugan and his publisher were kind enough to share a few excerpts of the book with us below:
Death and Black Francis, 2009 / Photo by Robert Loerzel, courtesy of John Dugan
John Dugan | Editor’s Note
In 2000, I moved to Chicago and chose an apartment on Thomas Street, only two short blocks away. I wasn’t the only one who had (not so) unconsciously chosen Ukrainian Village for its proximity to the Bottle and Rainbo, places known as crucial outposts for folks living the rock life, even today. My new downstairs neighbor was an art punk recently relocated from Seattle who traveled with a fully functional robot drum machine he’d built. There was nothing unusual about this; the neighborhood was crawling with young folks with plans to avail themselves of the Bottle’s broken-in stage and music-savvy regulars.
By this time, the Empty Bottle was the center of Chicago. In the various bands I played with, the Empty Bottle was always our venue of choice once we had our set together. We’d try other venues (Schubas and The Hideout are both cozy, expertly-booked rooms), some grittier, some in more upwardly-mobile neighborhoods, some best forgotten.
Vampire Weekend / Photo by Clayton Hauck, courtesy of John Dugan
I landed a day job penning music and nightlife blurbs for an online city guide during the last days of the first wave dotcoms. The gig required me to visit rock joints, clubs, and bars of all kinds at night. I’d often find myself waiting in line at an obnoxious new dance club, wishing I were tucked in at the Bottle instead listening to… well, anything else.
One night was revelatory—Guided By Voices supported by a new young band, The Strokes, which was, at the time, wildly hyped by UK music magazines but basically unknown in Chicago. GBV turned in an epic, well-lubricated set, while The Strokes lit up the room with no time or notes wasted. They were the greatest thing I’d seen in years.
I’ve seen a few clunkers at the Bottle as well. I can’t forget seeing one usually exquisite pop duo fall apart one night. It might have been drugs. One proggy Japanese act I stayed out late for could only jam listlessly on one note. I have no regrets.
? and the Mysterians, 1997 / Photo by Marty Perez, courtesy of John Dugan
Kiki Yablon | Empty Bottle publicist 1993-1995, The Dishes
Save for the required recorder in grade school, I had never learned a musical instrument. But suddenly every guy I met seemed to play guitar, and I figured if they all could, so could I. My friend’s 19-year-old cousin, the drummer for my favorite band at the time, showed me how to play the signature riff from one of their songs, and after practicing that every day for about a month, something clicked. Pretty quickly after that, I started my own band with Bottle bartender Sarah Staskauskas and patron Kari McGlinnen. We plunked around, unplugged, in the kitchen of Kari’s loft for a few months, and at some point persuaded Leroy Bach, who played other instruments in “real” bands, to play drums.
The band would evolve, thorugh one more bass player and seven more drummers, into the Dishes, who at this point you probably haven’t heard of, but we ended up playing a couple hundred shows around the country over the course of a decade, a good number of them at the Empty Bottle. It’s still probably the thing I’m most proud of having done.
When the Bottle moved into its current home, I pitched in on the unskilled labor, gleefully knocking down the old men’s room with a crowbar and painting perfectly good bricks dark purple and black. I may or may not have had some influence in the decision to make the stage an awkward triangle that doesn’t directly face most of the audience. If I did: sorry.
Winks, 2004 / Photo by C Anderson, courtesy of John Dugan
Bruce Lamont and Jered Gummere | On Jay Reatard grabbing the disco ball
Bruce Lamont: Jay Reatard’s whole thing was that he always wanted to jump off the stage and grab the fucking disco ball. And I think he tried a couple of shows before.
Jered Gummere: At the New Year’s Show he tried, and Bob the doorguy grabbed him and yanked him down on the floor and was like “Not this time, Jay!”
Lamont: It was the Jay Reatard set at the Blackout in 2004 when he ripped down the disco ball. He stage dove, and he took out the disco ball. Rob Lowe [door guy, bartender, production guy, Lichens] was so pissed off. The next day, I worked with him, and he was like “I can’t believe that happened.”
Gummere: At the Blackout, Jay did this jump with his tongue out because that thing was far, and he got it. He was staying at my house that weekend, and we were looking at it, and I asked, “Did you get charged for that?” And he was like, “yeah, Bruce charged me like 150 bucks for this thing.” And then we’re looking at it, and I said, “Dude, Jay, look at where the glass is missing. It’s a fucking globe; it’s not even a real disco ball.” Someboday had like glued glass on it. You just paid $150 for some kid’s art project. It was also the weekend when Timmy Vulgar had the squid on his head. It had just inked, which Rob Lowe was not happy about. He didn’t like antics like that.
Radar Eyes, 2014 / Photo by Dan Jarvis, courtesy of John Dugan
Tim Kinsella | Joan of Arc, Make Believe
Is it really the always-present-tense spatial manifestation of The Ukrainian Village Hipster’s Golden Age Myth? Can a culture exist without a version of a Golden Age Myth? Would Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung know why “Indie Rock Etc.” should be any different? The first five years I ever went there a lot, never knowing anyone, I always thought does everyone here know each other except for me? And do the bands all know and expect that the entire audience might all know each other? The last ten years I’ve been going there I’ve been grumpy? It’s late and I gotta be up early, it’s loud, all the bands sound too much like some specific old band or not enough like the old bands, don’t they know?
Ten years, every time my profound realization is always the same: Do I even know a single person working here anymore?
Didn’t I once know every single person that worked here?
Didn’t I once come to shows here and know every single person in the room?
There is nowhere else on earth I am more comfortable seeing a show. Not that it’s some ideal dream space, but it’s home. You don’t have to notice it and you love feeling at home and taking that for granted. But like visiting home, it just makes you feel old. Everyone else knows each other and looks young and it makes you feel old. Everyone else seems to have things easy, knowing how to hang out together, have fun.
No one else needs to be up early?
The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music / Friendly / Dancing is out June 7 via Curbside Splendor. Pre-order it here.