The Sex Pistols rewired lots of young minds in 1976, when they began their scorched-earth climb to infamy in London–and within little more than a year, their music had also changed the life of a 24-year-old in Chicago named Terry Fox. On a Sunday night in August 1977, Fox and a couple friends were walking north on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park when someone opened the front door of a squat A-frame nearby and a burst of noise rushed out. “It sounded like TNT going off, there was flashing neon lights–and then the door closed,” Fox says. Though he was surrounded by music at the time–he had a warehouse job with the M.S. Distributing Company in Morton Grove–he’d never heard anything like that sound.
“I opened the door, and Kenny Ellis–who was the doorman–was standing there,” Fox says. “I said, ‘What is this place?’ And he goes, ‘La Mere Vipere–it’s the mother of the snake.’ And I go, ‘What kind of music is this?’ He said, ‘Punk rock, man. It’s cool.'” And though it might seem too on the nose to be true, Fox swears the song that brought him into La Mere was the Sex Pistols’ debut single, “Anarchy in the U.K.”
In August 1977, the Sex Pistols had already been signed and then dropped by a couple major labels in the UK, but they were yet to close their deal with Warner Brothers, which that November would release the U.S. version of their first and only proper album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. EMI had issued “Anarchy in the U.K.” in the UK in November 1976, but the label dissolved their contract with the band less than two months later. The circumstances made it hard to hear the Pistols in the States, never mind Chicago. Difficult, but not impossible: you could hear them at La Mere Vipere, Chicago’s first punk disco.
Located at 2132 N. Halsted, La Mere Vipere had only just gone punk when Fox stumbled across it. Its first punk night, “Anarchy at La Mere,” was on May 8, 1977. The night quickly became a weekly happening, and La Mere began to attract a hodgepodge of newcomers eager to dance to the Pistols, the Ramones, and Blondie. At the end of June, La Mere threw a three-night party called “Punk-o-Rama,” completing its transition. Central to the success of the club’s new identity was its old identity: La Mere Vipere had opened in Februrary 1976 as a gay bar. Because it was already a welcoming space for people cut off from the mainstream, it made a natural home for a fringe subculture with queer roots.
La Mere would only last as a punk disco for a little more than 11 months–it closed after a mysterious fire in April 1978. But its brief run has reverberated for decades, in Chicago and beyond. It nurtured a local scene whose influence is still being felt: among the regulars were punk pioneer Jim Skafish and confrontational pranksters Tutu & the Pirates (one of a few plausible candidates for Chicago’s first punk band), and several members of the glammy, R&B-inflected B.B. Spin worked at the bar. On a trip here from New York, Steve Maas was so smitten by a chance visit to La Mere that he was inspired to create something similar back home, cofounding the famous Mudd Club in October 1978.
La Mere didn’t host live music often. At first the punk scene coalesced around records and DJs, not shows–at the time, clubs booked mostly cover bands, and hardly any local punk bands existed yet anyway. It was a place where people who loved the emerging punk counterculture could hear the music and dance to it. The club was so important to the emerging punk community that it was name-checked by Chicago’s first punk fanzine, the La Mere Gabba Gabba Gazette.
After the fire closed La Mere, two other bars filled its niche: O’Banion’s in River North and Oz in Rogers Park, which later moved to River North and then Lakeview. By 1979 they’d both started hosting emerging local punk bands, who often had nowhere else to play. Many of those bands contributed to a live 1981 compilation album recorded at Oz’s third and final location, called Busted at Oz–a landmark document of the Chicago punk scene, it features some of the first recordings by the likes of Naked Raygun, Silver Abuse, and the Effigies. Though neither O’Banion’s nor Oz would survive past 1982, they were critical to helping punk flourish in Chicago–and like La Mere, they started and to some degree continued to operate as gay bars.
In their recent book, Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, music critic and Reader contributor Sasha Geffen provides detailed insight into the ways queer and gender-nonconforming artists shaped pop music–including punk and its antecedent, glam rock. Geffen’s book made me curious about the intersection of gay bars and the punk scene in Chicago. Punks and queer people were both marginalized, but for very different reasons. How and why did this intersection happen in the first place? And how did queer culture influence the character of Chicago punk?
“I have always pointed out the fact that punk really grew in Chicago out of queer culture,” says Oz owner Dem Hopkins, who booked the bar’s bands and briefly managed the Effigies. In his eyes, there’s no question that at the beginning, punk and queer culture went hand in hand. “They’re inextricably linked,” he says. “If you’re gonna look at queer bar culture in the 70s, there’s two paths: one is to disco, and one is to punk rock.”
By the time La Mere Vipere owners Noah “Noe” Boudreau and Tom Wroblewski birthed the city’s first punk disco, they had been running a gay bar at 2628 N. Halsted called the Snake Pit for years. “It was a really sleazy little dive bar that basically was decorated for every holiday. They never took the stuff down–they kept adding to it constantly,” says Snake Pit regular Mike “Sparkle” Rivers, who’d moved to Chicago from Detroit in the early 70s with his partner, John “Taco” Morales. Rivers particularly liked the Snake Pit’s eclectic jukebox, whose selections included Barry White, David Bowie, and Roxy Music–Boudreau and Wroblewski even let people bring in their own records to play on it.
The Snake Pit drew an irreverent crowd of gay and straight people, including many artists and actors. It stood in contrast to Dugan’s Bistro, a hot River North gay disco that had opened in 1973. The Snake Pit and its owners didn’t aspire to the glamour of the Bistro or other mainstream queer spaces; musically and otherwise, they aimed for something stranger and sleazier, and they were open to straight artists who shared this attitude. The bar’s subversion of an already subversive counterculture appealed to Rivers, and he started bartending there a couple nights a week.
“The Snake Pit was just such a weird bar,” Rivers says. “Back then, gay people were very conservative, ’cause a lot of them had to live in the closet–but when they were gay, they were like, really gay. A primary part of my life was never that I was gay, ’cause I never cared that I was gay.”
Rivers also held down a job at Sounds Good Records on Broadway near Belmont, which stocked lots of disco 12-inches and glam-rock albums for the neighborhood’s gay clientele, including a healthy selection of imports. By 1976, Rivers had become an assistant manager at the shop, and as punk began to break out in the UK, Sounds Good started selling the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and other punk releases from both sides of the pond. Rivers saw punk as an extension of the glam he loved, and within a couple years Sounds Good had become a destination for fans of the Village People as well as fans of Richard Hell & the Voidoids. “It was kind of like a culture clash, but the two cultures were both based on minority culture,” he says. “That’s why I think the punk scene was so accepting of the whole gay side of it.”
The shop’s gay disco fans didn’t seem to mind punk. “It bothered some of the straight people, because sometimes we’d be playing it–it was just a different vibe,” says John Molini, another Sounds Good manager. “You’re not gonna be blasting ‘God Save the Queen’ on a crowded Saturday. I don’t think the Carly Simon crowd is gonna like that.”
Punk remained a fringe concern locally in 1977. By that spring, Boudreau and Wroblewski were already struggling to stay in the black at La Mere Vipere. They’d opened it as a disco with the same nonconformist attitude as the Snake Pit, with a bar on the second floor, neon palm trees and flamingos on the walls, and barstools decked out in leopard print. The dance floor, walled in by exposed brick, took up most of the ground floor, and the DJs’ sets included the Isley Brothers, Donna Summer, and Love Unlimited. But La Mere just wasn’t a big draw. “Because it was Tom and Noe’s bar, a lot of the big gay crowd didn’t go there,” Rivers says. “Because it wasn’t ‘cool.’ It wasn’t a ‘real’ gay bar.”
Rivers was bartending at La Mere when he pitched Boudreau and Wroblewski the idea of hosting a punk night. They decided to take a gamble on a Sunday night–Mother’s Day, to be exact–since gay bars didn’t draw a lot of foot traffic on Sundays anyway. Molini and fellow Sounds Good employee Rick Faust helped Rivers plan what became Anarchy at La Mere. They took out an ad in the Reader and spread word through the shop. They charged a $1 cover, which Molini collected at the door, and Rivers and Faust helped DJ.
La Mere’s first punk night didn’t cause much commotion in Chicago’s mainstream gay community, to the extent that anyone noticed it at all. The club was already a punk hot spot by the time Ralph Paul addressed its makeover in his lifestyle column for the October 1977 issue of Gay Chicago News/Journal, and his brief note sounds more bemused and curious than offended: “Swinging from a try at being a gay disco the La Mere Vipere has become the headline Punk Rock Palace for the Windy City. Punks I’ve been told have no sexual preference but it is attracting many curious about the new wave.”
Future Oz proprietor Dem Hopkins also appears in that month’s Gay Chicago News/Journal. He’d led an all-night vigil outside Tribune Tower after the Tribune refused to run an ad for Lend-a-Man (later renamed Benchmark), a gay employment agency he co-owned. The August issue of GC News/Journal had already reported on Lend-a-Man’s trouble placing ads in mainstream papers; in October it published a letter from Hopkins’s business partner, Dick Nielsen, updating readers with news that the Tribune had backed down and agreed to run a slightly altered ad.
Hopkins would run afoul of at least part of the mainstream gay community in mid-1978, after he turned the Greenleaf, the gay bar he owned, into Oz. “There were people in the queer community–especially established queer media–who felt like it was some kind of betrayal, not going along with the disco craze,” Hopkins says. “Also, they didn’t like the fact that there were more and more straights in the club. I thought that was a great thing, but at the time, the queer bars were very segregated. They really weren’t looking to have straight people in their bars.”
Though some queer Chicagoans didn’t like the idea of punks taking over gay bars, others didn’t consider the likes of Oz and La Mere proper gay bars in the first place. That schism in the community–along with bar owners’ need to find patrons wherever they could–allowed Chicago punk to thrive.
Word that a gay bar was hosting a punk night reached Mary Alice Ramel-Hoeksema through a coworker at the downtown location of Rolling Stones Records. “I was fascinated by the underground scene that was going on in New York and London–the punk stuff–and the minute we had an opportunity to do something in Chicago, I jumped at it,” she says. Ramel-Hoeksema went to Anarchy at La Mere, where she met the woman who’d become her best friend in the scene, Jeanne Genie. Within a few weeks, they had befriended Boudreau, and together they launched a fanzine: the La Mere Gabba Gabba Gazette. Ramel-Hoeksema was the editor in chief, Genie was assistant editor, and Boudreau wrote the gossip column.
Ramel-Hoeksema had been a scenester for a while before she arrived at La Mere–she’d even become friends with Roger Powell, the synth player in Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia–but she didn’t look the part. She thought of herself as plain, and she didn’t try to fit in–she never even bothered to try on a black leather jacket. At La Mere, it didn’t matter.
“One of the things I always remember is when Jeanne looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, look around, we’re the kids nobody wanted to be friends with in high school–we’re the misfits,'” Ramel-Hoeksema says. “I don’t know that I would have described myself that way, but in that setting that was very true. I was there because I wasn’t fitting into any other scene that I could think of. When I was there, it was like there were no judgments–just fun, just music.”
Monica Lynch, who became a bartender at La Mere after it went punk, credits the club’s success as a punk disco to its beginnings as a countercultural gay bar. “I think it really helped set the tone of inclusiveness,” she says. “It was queer kids that wouldn’t necessarily fit in within the aesthetic of gay discos, and their lady friends. And people who were reading about the emerging punk scene and didn’t necessarily have a scene of their own.”
Lynch had previously worked at the Bistro as the club’s first female go-go dancer. While she slung drinks at La Mere, she also worked as an in-house model for designer Billy Falcon. For the second night of La Mere’s Punk-o-Rama extravaganza in June 1977, she cohosted a punk fashion show with her friend Steve “Spin” Miglio. The scene hadn’t yet developed a “look,” so the models dressed however they pleased; Miglio wore a parachute fitted to his body like a hooded cassock, with scraps of raw meat sewn to the front. “This is Chicago, so it was a little bit tamer, visually, but there were a lot of kids there that were just doing their thing,” Lynch says. “There wasn’t another place for Skafish to do his thing.”
Jim Skafish had already achieved an impressive degree of local infamy by the time La Mere hosted its first Anarchy night. His music thrived on confrontation–his anti-gay-bashing song “Knuckle Sandwich,” for instance, adopted the perspective of a belligerent homophobe. When his band, also called Skafish, opened for Sha Na Na at the Arie Crown Theater on February 4, 1977, they provoked boos and a hail of projectiles from the audience. “I stripped down to an old lady’s old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit with a matching babushka, applying lipstick to my face, and the audience completely erupted,” Skafish says. “They were right on the verge of rushing the stage–the Chicago police stopped the show.” In a haughtily dismissive Billboard review, Alan Penchansky almost admitted that he didn’t get it, but instead mostly fixated on Skafish’s “transsexual narcissism” and aggressively odd gender presentation.
When La Mere went punk a few months later, Skafish heard about it from his fans, and he started visiting early in the club’s brief run. “It was paradise,” he says. “I would refer to it like the summer of love, punk style–it’s exactly what it was like. You could be gay, straight, transgender, you don’t want to be classified, you might be having a sex change, you might dress in drag, guys dance on the dance floor with guys, girls dance with girls, guys use the girls’ bathroom, girls use the guys’ bathroom–that’s the way it went, OK?”
La Mere also offered Skafish a place to express himself without fear of violent harassment. “For somebody like me, who was being bullied every day and being attacked onstage, offstage having guns pulled on me, people attacking me all the time,” he says, “this is a place I felt safe.”
Skafish was one of only a handful of musicians to perform live at La Mere–also on that short list are Tutu & the Pirates and B.B. Spin, whose members included Molini, Miglio, and Lynch (who referred to her role as “lead hairdo”). DJs reigned supreme at La Mere, though the nature of the music made their jobs unusually taxing. “It wasn’t like you put on seven-minute disco songs,” Rivers says. “You had two- and three-minute punk songs; you had to do a slam mix into the next song. You’d only DJ for an hour at a time, and then somebody else would take over.”
Punk songs generally didn’t have specific moves or dances that went with them–pogoing, shimmying, and all sorts of uncoordinated flailing and jumping around were all welcome at La Mere Vipere. One thing dancers did need, though, was stamina. “It was like, ‘How long can you dance? Can you dance for 30, 40 minutes to punk-rock records at the speed of 130 beats or 140 beats per minute?'” says Metro owner Joe Shanahan. “You were happy when a reggae record came on–you could slow down a little bit.”
Shanahan was enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale when he discovered La Mere. On the weekends, he’d organize visits to Chicago by groups of like-minded students–he’d pool everyone’s money and they’d pile into a station wagon, which he called the “Carbondale art music limousine service.” Their trips usually included stops at La Mere at night. Shanahan noticed the prominence of the DJ booth, which sat in an elevated box on the west wall of La Mere’s lower level. “I always thought a lot of places didn’t really take the DJ booth very seriously,” he says. “But gay culture and gay clubs always said, ‘The DJ is a very important fixture.’ That comes straight out of the Warehouse and the Paradise Garage.”
In his role as scene figurehead, Boudreau not only wrote for the Gabba Gabba Gazette and tended bar, he also DJed. “He would not only play straight punk, but he would mix it in with soul, rockabilly, and all sorts of stuff,” says La Mere doorman Ken Ellis, who calls his old boss “the founding father of the Chicago punk-bar scene.” And Ellis knew a good mix when he heard one: prior to discovering La Mere, he’d spent his nights disco dancing at gay clubs, which were hospitable to young Black men (even straight ones). “All the straight disco bars back then–the mid-70s–were kind of racist,” he says. “If you really wanted to party, you had to go to the gay bars.”
Ellis and his friends first stopped into La Mere while club hopping on a night out. “Everything changed from that point on,” he says. “I thought, ‘God, this is the best place on earth–the mixture of people, the music that was playing, the energy. It was like nothing you had ever seen before.’ I just threw away all my suits after that. I ripped up some T-shirts, and next thing you know I’m there almost as much as possible.” The night Groucho Marx died, Ellis and a couple friends walked into La Mere dressed as the Marx Brothers, which tickled Boudreau; Ellis began working as the doorman shortly afterward.
When La Mere closed each night at 2 AM, regulars usually didn’t want to go right home–often the party would continue at other gay bars. “We would go to Cheeks, Paradise, Dugan’s Bistro,” Fox says. “We would go to all these gay bars and just keep dancing to disco, it didn’t matter to us–you went with the gay people from the bar to where they would go.”
Sometimes the regulars hosted afterparties in their homes instead–Fox threw a few in his tiny apartment, which was in a complex on Lincoln that a friend of his owned. (Fox helped so many folks he knew from La Mere move in there that he nicknamed it the “punk-rock dorm.”) One of his parties happened after Ramel-Hoeksema walked into La Mere late one night with Elvis Costello & the Attractions. “I put about 50 people in a one-bedroom with a galley kitchen–we were there for like four hours,” Fox says. “Elvis Costello basically sat on the couch and didn’t talk to anybody the whole night.”
When Ramel-Hoeksema wrote for the La Mere Gabba Gabba Gazette, she didn’t have much trouble landing interviews with key figures in punk. She had a harder time protecting the scene she cared so much about. She says that within six months of La Mere’s first Anarchy night, the club and its original core of punk regulars couldn’t meaningfully claim ownership of the scene anymore–it had grown to the point that it was attracting what she calls “tourists.” She dropped “La Mere” from the title of the zine for its fifth issue in November 1977. “It didn’t take that long for La Mere, I feel, to become invaded by the people who didn’t like us in high school,” she says.
This trend was doubtless accelerated by the exposure La Mere got from June’s Punk-o-Rama extravaganza. On July 11, 1977, Time magazine ran a trend piece on the international rise of punk; it included photos of La Mere revelers, including the famous Bearded Lady from the Bistro and Miglio in his meat suit, next to a shot of Johnny Rotten. The story didn’t mention La Mere Vipere by name, but four days later the Tribune published an article about the club.
As outsiders flocked to La Mere, Ramel-Hoeksema and Boudreau argued about the club’s direction. “I wanted this place to stay this pure kind of private space,” Ramel-Hoeksema says. “He used to say, ‘No, we can’t keep people out–we can’t be the judge of who comes in.’ It just started losing its sparkle after a while.”
Some of Boudreau’s choices rubbed Rivers the wrong way too. La Mere had become a sort of home base for the work of Michael Cegur, a bizarre performance artist who called himself Beluga. Boudreau saw Beluga as La Mere’s answer to the Bistro’s Bearded Lady, but Rivers didn’t care for the act, which involved lots of costume changes and odd monologues. When Rivers dropped by La Mere on a night off and saw Beluga, something snapped. “I lifted my leg and tried to pee on Beluga, so I got fired,” he says. “Or I quit. I don’t remember.”
As La Mere grew in popularity in early 1978, other regulars left too. When Ramel-Hoeksema threw a drink at a strange woman who’d been pushing her, Boudreau banned her from the bar. Lynch moved to New York in April. That same month, La Mere burned.
In his Chicago scene report for Bomp! magazine’s 20th issue, Cary Baker wrote about the fire, noting that the official cause was an electrical malfunction. He added, “There is little doubt amon [sic] the regulars that its death came by arson.”
La Mere regulars didn’t know where else to go to hear punk, but a DJ named Nancy Rapchak had an idea. Before she’d started going to La Mere, she’d already made a habit of spending her free evenings at gay bars–she knew she wouldn’t be harassed by straight men at the Bistro. Rapchak had taken a liking to a divey gay bar called O’Banion’s, a few blocks north of the Bistro at 661 N. Clark. Its dance floor abutted the bar, and the premises were in disrepair. One of the owners, Russell Clancy, would play Linda Ronstadt’s “Desperado” in the bar when he was sad. The state of his business was such that he played it frequently.
Nancy suggested Clancy host a punk night at O’Banion’s, and enlisted Ellis and another La Mere doorman, Bob Bell, to help make her case. On a Saturday night in June 1978, Clancy gave it a shot; Rivers and a tag team of La Mere veterans spun records. Rapchak couldn’t make it–she’d been juggling DJ gigs at lesbian bar Marilyn’s and gay bar Sunday’s. “Russell was such a great guy that he kept a spot open for me,” she says.
Fox says that 700 people passed through O’Banion’s that first night. By early 1979, O’Banion’s had gone all-in on punk, though its dwindling gay clientele held on during daytime hours–the punks only came out at night. Fox quit his job at Sounds Good to manage O’Banion’s after he showed up to DJ on Saint Patrick’s Day 1979 to find the bar in disorder and no one on hand to work the night shift–he cleaned the place up, called bartenders to come in, and worked the floor. At the time, Fox fronted the band Clox, and managing gave him the flexibility to play gigs.
Ellis worked the door at the newly punk O’Banion’s. “In the early days it was real fun, but a lot of the spillover people could get nasty,” he says. “I had some drag queen threaten to slice my throat open ’cause I wouldn’t let him in–he didn’t want to pay the buck-fifty, two-buck cover charge.”
Bill Meehan and his bandmates in Silver Abuse came up with their own way to weasel out of paying full price. “We’d dress ourselves up with aluminum foil, chain ourselves together at the ankle, and then demand to get into O’Banion’s for one cover charge because we were a single entity,” Meehan says.
O’Banion’s soon brought in a big suburban crowd eager to experience punk for the first time. “A lot of the punks hated the suburbanites, because they were poseurs,” Rivers says. “But they came, they liked the music, they had fun, and most of them were pretty cute.”
Rivers took a liking to a young suburbanite he nicknamed “the Surf”–his blonde hair made Rivers think of a surfer. “I’ll never forget–one night, he came up to me and said, ‘Sparkle, I just told these guys off because they said that I was a poseur and I didn’t belong here, that I was a suburbanite,'” Rivers says. “‘I said, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Surf! I’m friends with Sparkle! So don’t tell me I don’t belong here!”‘ It was funny, it kind of did change a lot of those suburban attitudes.”
Ken Mierzwa was a student at Northeastern Illinois University when he discovered O’Banion’s in summer 1978. Growing up in the suburbs, Mierzwa hadn’t had much contact with anyone he knew was gay. O’Banion’s changed that. “Yes, there are people there who obviously are gay,” Mierzwa says. “That wasn’t how we thought of them. They were just intelligent people that were fun to talk to–bias never had a chance to get started, at least in the crowd that I moved with in those places, because it was not why we were there. Orientation was just irrelevant.”
In the mid-1970s, Dem Hopkins paid around $10,000 to buy a Rogers Park gay bar called the Greenleaf, where he was already bartending. Hopkins also co-owned queer hiring agency Lend-a-Man, but because his business partner, Dick Nielsen, oversaw day-to-day operations, Hopkins could focus on the Greenleaf. That’s not to say he always did, though–in the early days of 1978, he found another obsession. “I completely neglected the bar,” he says. “Fortunately, I had a great staff, but I was living at La Mere.”
Hopkins packed the Greenleaf’s jukebox with glam and added Ramones and Sex Pistols records as he found them. “Our customers were overall pretty cool about it,” he says. “Of course, we upset some–there was a divide in the community, because the majority of the bars and the majority of the queer community were in love with disco. It was my bar–I wasn’t gonna go that route. It seemed like a perversion of everything about rock ‘n’ roll that I loved.”
Hopkins ruffled more feathers when he ditched the Greenleaf’s name for Oz, shortly after La Mere burned down. “I took a lot of criticism, a lot of heat, from places like Gay Chicago Magazine,” he says. “I was getting some feedback that I was a traitor to the queer community.” Most of the original gay clientele didn’t abandon the bar, but Oz also attracted straight punks from the far north side who might not have ventured all the way down to River North for O’Banion’s. Hopkins wanted it to be known as a place where anyone could hear punk, and he liked to tell newcomers to leave their hang-ups at the door.
Before it became Oz, the Greenleaf was the target of homophobic harassment frequently enough that Hopkins had to hire security. That stopped being an issue shortly after the bar became Oz–the punks were happy to fight back. “The fag bashers weren’t quite sure what was going on there–they thought they were going to attack, and they got their asses kicked,” Hopkins says. “People that had been nervous before, there was this sudden feeling of being emboldened.”
As Hopkins tells it, Chicago police were largely indifferent when the Greenleaf was the target of abuse, but once the bar went punk, they took an unwelcome interest in it. During the Iran-Contra hostage crisis, Oz promoted a themed party with a satirical window display at the Wax Trax! record store in Lincoln Park–it included a banner that read “Free America, kill the hostages.”
“It was maybe in poor taste, but we were not serious about killing the hostages,” Hopkins says. “The police didn’t see it that way, and had threatened to arrest me if the party went on. We had papier-mache hostages and people had squirt guns. The cops busted us.”
It wouldn’t be the last time the cops made trouble for Hopkins and Oz.
O’Banion’s began regularly hosting live music in 1979. “We didn’t have a stage. People would come in and play on the floor,” Rapchak says. “Eventually, we put a little platform in.” Local bands such as Poison Squirrel, Immune System, and Clox were among the first to play.
Clancy had hired a man named Everett Rogers as O’Banion’s general manager–Fox worked under him, and tried to keep the bar from falling apart. Clancy wasn’t putting money into repairs, and Fox would spend entire weekends fixing up the dance floor. “It was OK, and then it was bearable, and then it became unbearable,” he says.
One afternoon in early 1980, Fox was in the bar’s basement trying to fix a leaky pipe, and it burst. “I saw rats and cockroaches scurrying and I just said, ‘That’s enough, I can’t do this anymore.'” He shut off the water, called Rogers to quit, and locked up. Fox went to work at Lakeview rock club Tuts at its new location on Belmont.
At its Rogers Park location, Oz booked Canadian hardcore icons D.O.A. for their first Chicago show–which Hopkins believes was one of the city’s first hardcore shows ever–in 1979. The bar could only hold about 120 people, which wasn’t nearly enough. “There used to be an old walk-in cooler–we had torn the cooler out, and they could barely get on what we called the stage,” says Hopkins. “It was mobbed. People out in front listening.”
By early 1980, Oz had relocated to 112-14 W. Hubbard, replacing a River North gay bar called the Ranch; the move nearly tripled its capacity, and it ramped up its show schedule. Oz sat amid a throng of gay bars, and its new neighbors weren’t all welcoming. “We were a total island there,” Hopkins says. “Those queer bars down there were very unhappy–they wanted me shut down. I tell people it’s because I think we wore leather better than their kids.”
This incarnation of Oz is where Hopkins began showcasing many of the local punk bands that ended up on Busted at Oz–among them Naked Raygun, Strike Under, and Silver Abuse. Effigies guitarist Earl “Oil” Letiecq, who moved to Chicago in 1980, bonded with his new bandmates at Oz. “The very first time I ever went to Oz, I’m walking up to the front door on the sidewalk, and who comes walking out but Tom and Regina–they were two huge, huge drag queens,” Letiecq says. “Being from a small town in upstate New York, I wasn’t really exposed to much of that.” Chicago punk opened his eyes.
Oz moved to its third and final location, at 3714-1/2 N. Broadway in Lakeview, before the end of 1980. This Oz had no sign out front, but it did just fine on word of mouth. The bar could hold around 250 people, and a New Year’s Eve show with Naked Raygun, Strike Under, and the Effigies drew a bigger crowd than could fit inside. The place was run-down, but that was part of the charm. “It wasn’t exactly the Pump Room, but it was ours, thanks to Dem,” Meehan says. “It was a place we could go, that we could play, that we could do whatever you wanted.” Hopkins also kept Oz’s staff majority queer.
Hopkins didn’t initially have trouble with the police at the Broadway location, but he’s pretty sure they just weren’t yet aware he was there. “It was a struggle to get the liquor license, but I ran it for about three months before I got the liquor license, and we were actually doing OK,” he says. “I got the liquor license, they busted us the next day, because then they knew exactly who we were.”
Hopkins says he ended up in jail at least 20 times while running Oz. “There were times on Broadway, they’d hold me for 23 hours, release me–I only lived about five blocks from the station–and before I’d get home they’d arrest me again,” he says. He says he heard it from a cop on “pretty good authority” that Mayor Jane Byrne had taken advice from California police to sniff out any hardcore punk bars and shut them down.
In their short lives, O’Banion’s and Oz hosted some of the most important early U.S. punk bands. O’Banion’s booked Minor Threat, Husker Du, and Dead Kennedys. When Husker Du played Oz in late March 1981, they met Greg Ginn of Black Flag, who suggested they contact Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. The following year the New Alliance label, which Watt had founded with Minutemen guitarist D. Boon and a mutual friend, released Husker Du’s debut, Land Speed Record.
The live recordings on Busted at Oz were made a couple weeks before that Husker Du show. Naked Raygun, the Effigies, Silver Abuse, the Subverts, and Da performed at Oz over three nights (two bands played each night) to create a kind of snapshot of the local punk scene. “I could see that Oz would be coming to an end very soon, because of the police–I couldn’t miss that,” Hopkins says. “At the same time, I knew that we had something very special going on with these bands. Never did I imagine that people would still be talking about them all this time later.”
Within three months, Oz was closed.
Rapchak had taken over as manager of O’Banion’s by the time it closed in early 1982; beloved bartender Roseann Kuberski helped her run the place. “Everyone looked at me really strange after I became the manager,” Rapchak says.
The demise of O’Banion’s was accelerated when Fox, its former manager, helped open Old Town punk bar Exit in 1981 (its initial location was at 1653 N. Wells, and it still operates at 1315 W. North). Exit was close enough to O’Banion’s to draw away a lot of its customers, and it wasn’t falling apart. Letiecq remembers that the Effigies were asked to play a fundraiser to help keep O’Banion’s open. “We said, ‘No, we’re not going to play, because it’s still going to close,'” he says.
“They wrote a song to me about O’Banion’s, how I was trying to keep it alive,” Rapchak says. In a live recording from a 1983 set at Paycheck’s Lounge in Hamtramck, Michigan, you can hear Effigies front man John Kezdy introduce that song, titled “Rather See None.” “This one’s about certain Chicago bars,” he says, “and the people that try to save them.”
In 1996, Ukrainian Village bar Club Foot began hosting annual O’Banion’s reunions. Rapchak had moved to New York City after O’Banion’s closed, but came back for a reunion and ran into Kezdy. “He told me that he didn’t think I would ever get the credit that I deserved,” she says. “I thought that was the nicest thing anyone could say to me.”
The shuttering of O’Banion’s wasn’t the blow it might have been, because at that point the punk scene had spread beyond just a few bars. Hardcore had begun its rise, and some of the original players from La Mere had moved on from punk. Ramel-Hoeksema had published the final Gabba Gabba Gazette in 1979, in part because mainstream publications had started picking up on punk. Other local zines followed in the Gabba Gabba Gazette‘s wake, including Coolest Retard, to which Mierzwa contributed. “There really was no need for it,” Ramel-Hoeksema says. “I guess I never thought about it, but we served a need.”
Some of the La Mere crew moved on to Neo, which opened in July 1979 as a new-wave bar and hired Boudreau to manage. Ellis worked there too, and Rivers sometimes DJed, though he was getting burned out. “I would get in trouble, ’cause I would play things that some people didn’t like,” Rivers says. He remembers deliberately annoying dancers with “Ska Wars,” a 12-inch ska cover of the Star Wars theme. “I had too much of a sense of humor,” he says.
Fox, who’d hired Letiecq to tend bar at Exit, moved on after a few years to Metro and Smart Bar, which Shanahan had opened in 1982. “Between La Mere and the Warehouse–that’s the incubator for Smart Bar,” Shanahan says.
After the fire at La Mere, Rapchak broke into the burned-out building and took some keepsakes, including a few melted bottles. But she eventually disposed of most of them. “I was like, ‘Why do I have these?’ They were like an altar to La Mere,” she says. She’s still got one of the bar’s leopard-print barstools, though it’s split down the middle. “I’ve had it forever,” she says. “I’ve moved it with me for years.”
In 1980, Skafish’s band issued its self-titled debut through I.R.S. Records, a division of A&M. He wasn’t the only La Mere alumnus to break into the majors: In 1981, Lynch became one of the first employees at New York hip-hop label Tommy Boy, which partnered with Warner Brothers in 1985. (She eventually worked her way up to president, managing the likes of Queen Latifah and De La Soul.) Though Skafish didn’t abandon the Chicago punk scene when La Mere Vipere burned–his band went on to play O’Banion’s and Exit–he never stopped missing that club’s special magic. “I don’t think that there was ever gonna be any re-creating what happened at La Mere in terms of its club level,” he says. “The scene changed, the vibe changed.”
As hardcore overtook punk in the 80s, it brought a crowd with a much higher tolerance for atavistic displays of tough-guy machismo. By the middle of the decade, violence, homophobia, and misogyny had overrun the scene. It became harder and harder to find signs of the anything-goes queer culture that had made La Mere such a great incubator for Chicago punk.
“When that ended, it wasn’t gonna be re-created–that crowd, the misfit crowd, the gay crowd, the transgender crowd, the ‘we don’t know who we are’ crowd, migrated into those other clubs, but that energy became dissipated as the years went on,” Skafish says. “At a certain point, as punk evolved in Chicago, it wasn’t celebrating the kind of things that were being celebrated in the beginning.” v