Ephemeral Creation:
Music and Art in Chicago, 1978 - 1982                                 Part 6.

by Ken Mierzwa

Jello Biafra - photo by Ken Mierzwa
Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedy's
photographed in O'Banion's basement, September 18, 1981

Photo by Ken Mierzwa,
copyright © 2003-2006

Late Summer into Early Fall, 1981

The succession of out-of-town bands continued. On August 1 we heard Romeo Void, one hit wonders out of San Francisco. Then on August 8 I photographed Killing Joke at Tut's. I never did learn a whole lot about them other than their British origin. The songs, and the cover art, were overtly political, scenes of battle carnage, faces painted black on stage. The music was essentially a wall of sound, not bad to a point but repetitious after a while.

In September New York's Bush Tetras came through again. They played Chicago frequently, and by now I was getting to know them. Bands fronted by women were still relatively uncommon, and in this case there were three women, all with an urban edge. They created interesting funky songs like "too many creeps."

On September 17, San Francisco's infamous Dead Kennedy's played C.O.D., a just remodeled basement club on the far north side corner of Devon and Sheridan. It was a huge club by post-punk standards, big enough to hold perhaps a thousand people, with a large stage. Bigger name acts were required to fill the space, and the managers - their names escape me now, but they were very approachable and generally great guys - were aggressive promoters. Bobby Skafish, probably the best known local alt-music DJ (at WXRT) at that time, hung out at C.O.D. With Misfit's, a smaller and older club only a block away, the Rogers Park/Edgewater neighborhoods temporarily became a hot spot for the music scene.

C.O.D. packed them in for the Dead Kennedy's. I didn't even try to get near the front, it would have been madness in the huge crowd. Instead I stayed near the back bar with a long lens and stood on chairs to shoot over the mass of heads.

The following night I was making the rounds of a couple of clubs when someone told me that the Dead Kennedy's were doing an unannounced show at O'Banion's. If word had gotten out they would have been lined up for blocks, O'Banion's just wasn't a very large space; but apparently hardly anyone heard in time. This time I had a very close up view.

O'Banion's was a tough venue for band photos, just too dark. Since I already had some pretty good shots from the night before, I concentrated on more personal candids later. After the bar was closed, at about 5:00 am, we did an interview with the band in the tiny basement. I took a bunch of handheld photos by the light of a single bare 60-watt ceiling bulb, quarter second exposures in the poor light. A few of the shots were sharp enough to use. The graffitti covered walls and stark light created an appropriate mood.

The photos went a lot better than the interview. Jello Biafra had an opinion on just about everything. I disagreed with him on almost every issue, and thought he was a pompous, whiney ass. Sorry, I was just not impressed.

On September 25 the Bush Tetras were back, this time at Misfit's as the opening act for Alex Chilton of Boxtop's fame. Better known as a songwriter than as a performer, Chilton had been around for ages, a long and difficult musical career. Although he later cleaned up his act, the trademark bottle of whiskey was still in hand that night.

After the show, Craig went to the backstage door and inquired about an interview. I was standing right there when Chilton came to the door, bottle still in hand, looked at Craig, casually said "I don't talk to the press," and disappeared. To the best of my knowledge, he was one of the very few who refused an interview. I respect him for it.

My notes are a little fuzzy for October; but in rapid succession I photographed Orchestral Manuevers in the Dark, from the north of England; then Snakefinger, another innovative British act; then Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, in from Australia; and then James Chance.

Today, when kids see my photos of Nick Cave or Bauhaus, right away they start asking about goth... but no one had coined the term yet in 1981. These bands were just part of a larger, relatively ambiguous category influenced by existentialism, surrealism, other art schools of thought, sometimes psychedelia, sometimes by eastern philosophy. The music could be hauntingly beautiful, but it generally was not cheerful. In England an earlier version was sometimes called the movement with no name. The boundaries were not clear yet.

On October 26, Modern English played C.O.D. Although they still get a fair amount of airplay today, the crowd really wasn't that large, and it was easy to get good close photos. Singer Robbie Grey hung out on the stage and talked to us afterwards; a few of my friends already knew him, I'm not sure how. Robbie was one of the least pretentious people I met in my several years of involvement in the music scene. Just a regular guy, he acted as if he were playing a local pub instead of a major club halfway around the world.

In the waning days of the month, Autumn Records held a record release party for several bands, including Effigies and Da, and then Verlaine played one of the small clubs... I think it was Cubby Bear, a watering hole across the street from Wrigley Field populated by baseball fans by day, and music fans on selected nights. Post-punk under photos of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo... it was surreal.
One of the more memorable nights at Cubby Bear was the time when Naked Raygun (one of my favorite hard-core bands) came out for an encore wearing only their instruments, strobe lights flashing in an otherwise completely darkened room. One more song, and they were gone.

The Wrigley Field area around Clark and Addison was another satellite cluster of music clubs, which I've not mentioned much so far. Cubby Bear was right on the corner. A few blocks north up Clark Street was a pair of venues, a large first and second floor music club called Stages, and later Metro; and in the basement a succession of smaller clubs. In 1980 it was Waves, where I first heard Da play; by late '81 it was Cool Runnings, a dub reggae club. I used to go there every now and then for a change of pace, and often was one of only two or three whites in the room. The Jamaican DJs spun great music. Later the space became Smart Bar, with more emphasis on obscure films and an arty crowd, with some music. No matter what the name, you had to know where to look to find it; through a door, down stairs, along a concrete hallway, through another door, down another set of stairs.

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Kenneth S. Mierzwa shadowplay2@mac.com

February 5, 2003 - Updated: March 27, 2006

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