Saturday night saw the last concert at Lounge Ax, a sooty firetrap that was, by far, Chicago’s best and most famous rock club. For 12 years it hosted just about every indie act of consequence, bands like Tortoise, Pavement, Guided By Voices, Yo La Tengo, Wilco and any number of local three-chord wonders who played, pasted their stickers to the bathroom wall and were never heard again.
Over the last two weeks, Lounge Ax scheduled a series of shows that crammed the club every night, culminating with a reunion of the defunct lounge band the Coctails on Saturday. I attended several nights, and each was rife with what regulars call Lounge Ax moments. A guy passed out from heat exhaustion and had to be dragged outside by his friends. The roof over the stage developed a leak. Fans waited for hours in lines that stretched into the alley half a block away.
Still, most of the people who got in were in a mood to reminisce. One young woman remembered how she’d conned her way into a label party at age 17 by pretending to be a magician’s assistant. Someone else recalled how he’d thrown up on his wife’s shoes during a Nashville Pussy show. Then there was the tattoo artist from Madison who’d never been to Lounge Ax until closing night. Meanwhile, a small throng waiting outside in the cold was coveting his spot. “I just thought I’d come down and check it out,” he said.
Rock fans loved Lounge Ax, but to an outsider, it’s hard to explain precisely why. The sight lines were terrible, there was no air and it was nearly impossible to find a place to sit. A lot of local musicians hung out there, which sometimes made it seem annoyingly clubby. As a friend of mine put it, “Whenever I come here, it’s like I’m at someone else’s office party.”
When it came to actually seeing a show, however, the club permitted no privilege. Last Tuesday night’s bill featured the Tucson Americana outfit Calexico. As they began their set, Julia Adams, the club’s co-owner with Sue Miller, sat on a stool in the back of the bar and surveyed the great lake of bobbing heads in front of her. “This is like my favorite band in the whole world,” she said, “but there’s no way I’m going up there. It’s too crowded.”
Lounge Ax’s closing is a familiar Chicago story these days. Neighborhood bars, once the mainstay of the city’s social life, have been shuttered by the hundreds in the last five years, victims of a booming real-estate market and a particularly draconian Liquor Commission.
Beginning in 1996, when a new condo-owning neighbor began complaining about noise, Lounge Ax struggled with the city’s bureaucracy. It never fully recovered from legal fees, incessant ticketing and Kafkaesque days in court. Other clubs in hipper neighborhoods began to draw the top bookings, and Lounge Ax began its twilight.
When a 26-year-old mortgage banker bought the building in December and told the club it had six weeks to live, everyone was shocked, but no one was really surprised. Chicago, like so many American cities, is quickly gentrifying, and a club like Lounge Ax doesn’t always fit into the urban scheme.
Lounge Ax went out with an excellent party, nearly without sentiment. Occasionally, a kind of muted sorrow oozed up through the floor. Last Sunday night, before breaking into an inevitable round of Johnny Cash covers, local punk hero Jon Langford, head of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, paused and put his head in his hands. “Oh, no,” he said with a thin coat of irony. “They’re closing the Lounge Ax. Now where are we going to go?”