Are you a future number one?
You probably didn’t catch that one. But in Chicago in the late 90s, Kill Hannah was the local band to see. But all of their shows were 18 & over. We’d buy the tickets & still have to sneak in. For a year, until Chris wrote them & we started getting passes as a thank you from the band to their loyal fans. They weren’t a great band, but they were pretty cool people & when all of your friends are audiophiles, they were the band to see.
Music meant a lot to us all back then & to be honest, it still means a lot. As I’ve said before, it was a time when we looked at record stores as houses of the holy. Yeah, you caught that one didn’t you?
But now I want to talk about bars. I don’t go to bars out here in the suburbs. Partially because I’m broke & the job I just landed is a year-long internship that pays nothing at all to manage emergencies and plan for epidemics. But the real reason is the music. Bar culture is bar culture & I don’t fault people for going to bars & drinking to enjoy that culture, but honestly, if the bar doesn’t have a venue I don’t go to it.
That’s my own policy. If I am going to pay more for a drink than I would at a friend’s house, I want to pay a cover & see hear live music while I’m there. I don’t want to sit at a bar & bull shit & play pool. I want live music to drink to. The music doesn’t even have to be good, it just has to be live. Fuck DJs, I want a band.
Chicago spoils people in that manner. I used to plan my weekends around who was playing where. There is no shortage of live music in cities, but there is a cultural vacuum of live shows in the suburbs. In the suburbs you belly up to a bar & watch TV or listen to the DJ, if you are lucky, & that DJ is an Alumni Club DJ & plays shit techno or thinks he’s working at Coyote Ugly. Either way, I pass
With no public transportation, with no CTA, & with cops that exist to ticket you & NOT to protect you that shit is not worth the DUI. My parents think that this attitude is smart, but its really just pretentious. If bars out here came with venues I’d frequent them. I don’t mind paying a cover if it comes with live music. I refuse to pay a cover just to go inside & drink.
A lot of the bars out here, the bars that are considered “good,” have weekend covers & no bands. Weird.
This whole pretentious attitude started…well, when I was sixteen at a bar called O’Brian’s. No fake ID required. I had one, but it said that I was Gene Hackman & I only used it to prove to people that I did not look like Brendan Frasier. But that is a-whole-nother & completely different story.
From noon to seven O’Brian’s was a restaurant and from seven to one it was a venue bar. If you got there before seven & sat down & ordered food, Angie, your waitress would turn a blind eye to the fact that you were a minor. And the bouncer would wave you back in if you ever left, he understood what you were doing & liked the fact that you paid the cover despite your arrival.
We ALWAYS paid the cover. It seemed like the right thing to do. After all, we weren’t there to drink. Well, we did drink, we drank ALOT, but we came there on Thursday nights to see Dave, not to drink. We could do that anywhere, but O’Brian’s was the only place we could see Dave play.
If the place were still open–it was a slow victim of the ban on smoking–I’d tell you to get there early & enjoy the portabella pizza burger. No meat, just one fuck-off big portabella mushroom with all the trimmings. To die for.
Our first visit there we were frightened teens wondering if we would get busted. By the time we were seventeen we were regular customers that no one bothered to card us. It was the place that, well, everyone went. We made friends Everyone knew our names, & Dave knew our favorite songs.
We drank there until we were twenty-seven & Dave left to play in the Jersey Boys. After he left & the smoking ban meant you couldn’t smoke a joint in the bar, there was no point in going. We were there for Dave, not for the booze & that bar defined what we all came to consider to be a “real” bar.
Dave just played bar songs. You probably already know the line up. But he played them well. He played them very well.
“Did we miss Southern Cross?” It was a common question for any regular that walked in late. If you came in with a tie the bouncer would take it from you & throw it away.
The people we met there are still friends.
There was PJ. PJ was an idiot, but he is, to this day, the absolute best person I have ever met. He was blond & a beef cake, with the body of a Greek God & a wardrobe that consisted ONLY of white t-shirts & blue jeans.
He introduced himself to me. He saw me singing along with “Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen. Dave hated Springsteen, but played “Thunder Road” just for PJ. As far as PJ was concerned, music started & stopped with Bruce Springsteen.
“I saw you singing along to Springsteen, man,” he said as he walked over to me & he looked pissed so I almost shit myself. Than he hugged me. “It means you are a good person, you know what’s right & what’s wrong. I’m PJ.”
It turned out that PJ was an incredibly loyal & protective of his friends. The bar had a bouncer, but PJ would watch his friends like a hawk & protect them to his death if need be. He has had to do it before & sometimes, when shit started, the regulars would hold PJ back as the bouncer ejected the belligerent drunk. NO ONE fucks with PJ’s friends. No one. PJ drinks now, but then he wouldn’t even have a beer.
His politics came hand-in-hand with Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen cares about poor people so PJ volunteers to do charity work for the poor & sick. Springsteen is anti-war so PJ is anti-war. Springsteen is a socialist so PJ is a socialist. Springsteen cares about the environment so PJ sold the family car–without telling his wife–and brought bicycles instead. PJ buys everything with his debit & credit cards but carries cash for the homeless because that’s what he thinks Springsteen would do. It is no bull shit, he’s really like that. He might have the IQ of Forrest Gump but he makes up for it with heart.
So when PJ walked into the bar, the very next song Dave would play would be “Thunder Road.”
Wally’s song was “Black Bird” more the Crosby, Stills, & Nash version than the Beatles version. Wally was an ex-Marine. Wally was OK & the type of person that would target a friend & work his ass off to get them laid. Wally will get you laid.
My song was “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. Bryan’s was “Space Oddity,” by David Bowie.
Dave would talk to the regulars & find out what songs they liked & work them into his shows.
Dave was awesome. He’d have joint rolling contests on stage. He’d ask people for a hit. He’d pull the regulars on stage & buy them the five-dollar bud barrels & make them drink in a sick contest for a free Jagerbomb.
After a few years, Dave had a line up based completely on the regular customers & “Southern Cross” was the big bar song. He’d learn songs for his regulars & the only thing he ever refused to play was Freebird.
Black Bird–Crosby, Stills, & Nash
For What it’s Worth–Buffalo Springfield
Southern Cross–Crosby Stills & Nash
Alright Guy–Todd Snider
Turn the Page–Bob Seager
Because I Got High–Afro Man
Space Oddity–David Bowie
Alice’s Restaurant–Arlo Guthrie
Piano Man–Billy Joel
This Land is your Land, This Land is my Land–Woody Guthrie
The Weight–The Band
Like A Rolling Stone–Bob Dylan
Redemption Song–Bob Marley
Sweet Jane–Cowboy Junkies version
Marrakesh Express–Crosby Stills & Nash
Coming into Los Angeles–Arlo Guthrie
Uneasy Rider–Charlie Daniels
Devil Went to Jamaica–David Coe
Hot Pussy–David Coe
Closer to Home–Grand Funk Rail Road
Truckin’–The Grateful Dead
Casey Jones–The Grateful Dead
Friend of the Devil–The Grateful Dead
Locomotive Breath–Jethro Tull
Ape Man–The Kinks
Ramble On–Led Zeppelin
Hey Hey What Can I do–Led Zeppelin
Baby Got Back–Sir Mix A-Lot
Smoke Two Joints–The Toyes
There were more, there were many more. Dave played straight from nine at night to one in the morning, but those are the songs that he played specifically for the regular customers.
When America declared war with Iraq he took the show outside and marched up & down the street playing protest songs to the cars stuck in traffic. After that his show became increasingly more political, he’d still play the songs for his regulars, but he worked in just about every protest song he could learn to play.
One night, the politics of his show prompted a redneck to pour a beer on him from the balcony above the stage. I got a black eye trying to hold PJ back & then a free pint because he felt guilty. Dave handled it by playing “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” by Bruce Cockburn.
O’Brian’s became a stronghold of sanity in a world gone insane. Chicago, for a few years after 9-11 became the Chicago of ’68 & you went there on Thursday nights to escape all the pro-war bull shit that seeped through every crack of America. The bar stopped being about the music & started to be a refuge from the insanity, a place of peace & music.
The people that we got to know when we were marching in the streets came to the bar the following Thursday to sigh & relax. For a few years it was the single place you could be anti-war & not be accused of being a traitor. Even in college, at the time, if you mentioned that you didn’t like Bush around the wrong people, some pagan redneck would report you to the police. But at O’Brian’s on Thursday nights you were safe.
The bar transformed from a venue to safety. It became a place where people could go out in public between 2001 & 2004 & just feel safe. For years at a time America went insane & Chicago was no different. Now we have the NSA, but then people would call the police on you for being anti-Bush, they would report you to the FBI, they would follow & harass you if you suggested that Iraq fucked with America never. During those years, the place was packed.
But then, slowly, people got tired of the war. Slowly you could be a liberal in public again & the people started to return to the places closer to home. And the smoking ban hit Chicago & that was the death sentence for O’Brian’s. If you couldn’t smoke in the bar, you couldn’t smoke weed in the bar. Dave left to play in Jersey Boys & then briefly joined a punk band.
The bar gradually closed. But the people still follow Dave. Occasionally we’ll hear that he’s playing at this or that bar. The number of regular’s are never as strong, but when Dave is playing I can promise you that you’ll run into a few of his old cult followers. You can hear that he’s having a show in a bar in Milwaukee & there will be one or two of us there.
It’s years later now, but that bar was what it needed to be at that point of time in the world & when I look back at it, there are nothing but fond memories. Friends that I only talk to on Facebook but occasionally run into on the streets or at one of Dave’s shows. The three dollar cover brought you a series of great covers & piece of mind in a time stress & uncertainty.
And then there are the stories. Most of them are the regular bar stories that you just don’t relate to people that weren’t there. But then, there are also the protest stories, the meeting space where you sat down with people & worked out how to get the permits & where to go. The stories of women that Wally forced on you & are best kept to yourself even though he would pry you for details the following week.
Now it’s just a closed down building full of memories & even on the worst nights, the memories still come with a smile. But its still the bar that you weigh other bars against. When you walked into O’Brian’s you were going home & now, no matter where you go to drink or how often you go there, it doesn’t make the grade & you never feel as welcome & safe as you did there. PJ isn’t watching over you with a glass of water to make sure that everyone is safe & having a good time. Wally isn’t working to get his friends laid, the owner isn’t turning a blind eye to the people smoking pot in the dark booths in the corner & Dave isn’t there playing the classic rock bar staples that everyone since the 1960s has grown up on.