Joe Shanahan founded sister venues Metro and Smart Bar in 1982, inspired by the adventurous punk and no wave he’d seen in the late 70s at New York venues such as the Mudd Club and CBGB. Shanahan was in his 20s at the time, but the Wrigleyville building his venues occupied had been built in 1927—it began its life as a Swedish community center, and when Shanahan arrived on the scene it housed Stages Music Hall. (In its final year, Stages booked the likes of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons and Gang of Four.) Cabaret Metro, as it was called in its early days, soon became a pinnacle to which local underground bands aspired, and Smart Bar pushed the dance-music envelope from the start.
Smart Bar reopened in June 2021 after a long COVID-19 shutdown, and Metro followed in July with a series of Lollapalooza aftershows. Metallica played a surprise concert at Metro in September of that year, the band’s only appearance there since a 1983 stop on their first major tour. Both venues have been celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2022 with various special events, including a September Metro show by Smashing Pumpkins—one of many bands whose careers Shanahan helped shape that’s since grown way too big for an 1,100-capacity hall. In July the whole building hosted a two-day birthday party with the likes of the Blessed Madonna, Derrick Carter, and Ariel Zetina.
After Metro and Smart Bar grew into fixtures on the local scene, Shanahan became co-owner of the original Double Door, which opened in the heart of Wicker Park in 1994, when the neighborhood was happening. That club closed in 2017, but Shanahan still had his hands more than full—in 2012 he’d acquired the Gman Tavern, just north of the 3730 N. Clark building that houses Metro. In 2017 he helped launch the Chicago Independent Venue League, whose membership includes more than 60 performing-arts spaces. Initially it focused on arguing for the economic and cultural value of local independent clubs, because the city was proposing lavish giveaways to multinational concert giant Live Nation as part of the Lincoln Yards megadevelopment. In 2020, though, CIVL quickly pivoted to advocating for government relief for venues during mandatory pandemic closures.
I was lucky enough to schedule an in-person audience with Shanahan to talk about Metro and Smart Bar’s history. He’s one of the most influential people in the history of the Chicago music scene, and few have as many tales to tell. Some things no gracious host repeats about his guests, of course, but he told me about the shows that have been most important to him, some of his venues’ wildest concerts, and even the quiet moments where the the audience collectively decided that rapturous, transcendent attention was more appropriate than clapping and hollering. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As told to Steve Krakow
The first band I booked [at Metro] was R.E.M. [on July 25, 1982]. I’d seen them at the Danceteria in New York City and basically passed my card to the guy who was driving the van. Then we got the call that they were looking for a show. They were one of those bands that I was just like, “Oh, everyone should be paying attention to this.” But the club was half full.
The air conditioning went out for New Order [on June 30, 1983]. It was like 105 degrees. Equipment melted, computers began to fail, and songs needed to be reconfigured. It was still the most riveted crowd—people got in their real estate. It was one of those shows that was just as crowded as I’ve ever seen the club. It was hard to turn people away, because everybody wanted in. It was at full capacity. People were asking me, “I’ll just stand in the hallway. To listen.” And we did. We let some people just stand in the hall. Jim Nash, the owner of Wax Trax!, said to me the next day, “I think I lost five pounds last night. Because I sweated so much.”
Anyone that was at Metallica [on August 12, 1983] knew that this was going to be one of the biggest bands in the world. Everyone came out of that just mind blown, it was so visceral. There was like a warm haze through the room, but it wasn’t warm out.
When James Brown played Metro [on September 9, 1984], a friend had a film camera, and he came backstage and we were hanging out, and he was taking pictures. At one point he took a photo of James, and out of nowhere James was like, “Give me that film.” He took the film out of the camera, took it out of the canister, and burned it in an ashtray. I was like, OK, that’s some voodoo shit—you don’t mess with James Brown. And this was a day that was super playful.
He was still the hardest-working man in show business. And his band admired him for his work ethic. It was old-school with him. He wouldn’t let me feed the band until after the show, which I thought was very peculiar.
I believe the translation of Einstürzende Neubauten is “collapsing [new] buildings,” and collapsing was kind of what the show [on June 13, 1986] was like. I remember that there were power tools involved, and large oil drums, and really loud crashing—like throwing an anvil in a dustbin and rattling it around. [Front man] Blixa [Bargeld] had already come through with Nick Cave, so he kind of knew the room a bit. As far as fire hazards, I think they played it pretty safe. I do remember sparks in the air, from either the saw or the power tools. I had gone to see a show of theirs in New York City at the Palladium, where they actually did light these pans of gasoline on fire. The entire building had to be evacuated. They took it easy in Chicago.
Iggy Pop [on July 12, 1988] was exciting because he tried to lift the side fills [onstage monitor speakers] and throw them into the audience. For a skinny fucker, he picked those things off the floor! They were strapped together, so I think they were just too heavy. Eventually he was like, “OK.”
Iggy had gotten sober. I came backstage just to check on him. I called him James as well, Mr. Osterberg, which he got a kick out of. I said, “Do you need anything? Do you want some champagne, you know, something?” And he said, “No, I’ve been God’s garbage can long enough.” So he may have thought I was asking if he needed drugs, but I never did that. That wasn’t my game anyway.
When Pearl Jam played at Metro [on July 21, 1991], Eddie Vedder climbed the lighting truss. I’m watching this guy, and he’s kind of hanging with one arm. I’m more concerned about, is the lighting truss going to be able to hold up? I knew that he was agile enough! U2 were in the balcony there—they had come to see Pearl Jam, because they were considering them for their European tour. They got the tour.
My Bloody Valentine [on February 14 and 15, 1992] was so loud that people were begging the bartenders for napkins so they could put them in their ears. It was one of the loudest shows I’ve ever heard. I mean, I think the dB meter was up to about 120 on that one. But you weren’t telling Kevin Shields to turn it down. They just kept going.[On May 15, 1994], Liz Phair is at the zenith of the Chicago scene. Everybody wants to be at this show. The phone never stopped ringing to get Liz Phair tickets. For me—because she’d performed at Metro before and I’d seen her at Lounge Ax—it’s when she got comfortable being onstage. She was in her skin. Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, and Freakwater—all women. Was it groundbreaking? Was it important? Ninety-four. Clinton. Rock for Choice. All women, playing Metro, selling it out. The spotlight is on Chicago, because [Liz] has brought it here. The world is looking at Metro and looking at Chicago as the epicenter of a new rock scene. Liz was experiencing a little bit of stage fright, though, so we had to give her a nice glass of scotch.
I’ve never heard the room as quiet as when Jeff Buckley played [on May 13, 1995]. I actually went to the bartenders—this is when we had the old cash registers that would go ding-ding-ding—and I told them all, work from the drawer, but do not push the bell. Because this is gonna happen. And it happened, and it was religious, it was spiritual. It really was something very special—and it is out there, actually, it’s been recorded. It became a documentary piece for the record company.
For Metro’s 15th anniversary, we had Bob Dylan [on December 13 and 14, 1997]. It was really exciting. I knew how important it was, and I wanted to make sure that everybody was on their complete A game. We had come up with a way to foil the scalpers—because we knew it was going to be a big scalper show. So we sold each ticket individually, and one of the things we did with the line was we would just talk to people. We were giving them doughnuts and coffee, because the line went all the way around Metro onto Racine all the way to Addison. It ended up being two shows, so we had 2,200 tickets to sell, and there were probably 4,000 people in line. Some of the scalpers were putting young kids in line, and they were giving them hot dogs from the stand across the street. So we would approach a group and say, “So, what’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?” And all these Dylan fans are looking at these guys, who are like, “Uh, Sgt. Pepper’s, man.” We were trying to just make sure the Dylan fans got the tickets.
We ended up really filling the room. People were coming from New York and LA. [Dylan] had the smallest hands I have ever shook. They’re beautiful hands.
We had the Flaming Lips [on December 31, 2000]. The Lips used so much confetti and so much Silly String that literally it was up over your ankles in the club. It took us a month to get everything out, and I still think, 20 years later, there’s some in there somewhere. Wayne [Coyne] used these tiny little dots, and it was everywhere. It was like snowing, for like an hour. When [the news crew] went to the talking head, the fans were putting Silly String in the guy’s face for like five minutes. He was just covered, like it was a hairdo.[On January 26, 2008], Girl Talk literally led everybody out of the club into the street. You did like a lap on Clark and then back into the club. I love the fact that there was this sort of playful leadership, but not coercing—just saying, “Hey, let’s go! We’re going outside with this one!” It was in the moment, and people were having fun with it and making that happen.
Peaches, after selling out Metro [on May 22, 2009], went down to Smart Bar. She got on top of the DJ rig and was popping bottles of champagne. She was shaking it—she thought she was at the Grand Prix. There were a couple of them going and spraying everywhere. You can’t get champagne on turntables or CDJs, but she was going for it. It didn’t matter to her. She was having a blast. I remember losing control of the booth, because it was just like—she just said, “This is what I’m doing.”
Derrick Carter is synonymous with Smart Bar as far as some of the biggest party nights, the biggest fun, hands-in-the-air kind of moments. Marea [Stamper], the Blessed Madonna, as well. Honey Dijon. These DJs have lived and breathed this city and are part of something that is as big as Metro and Smart Bar, as far as the dance community and dance culture. You always know it’s a good night in Smart Bar when you go down there and you find clothes—people just left clothes. I mean, like, shirts and underwear—somebody had a really good time![On August 6, 2011], Dave Grohl left the stage [with Foo Fighters] and walked the balcony—the edge of the balcony. He had a radio pack. His security guy was terrified, and I was personally terrified, standing with their manager, John Silva. We’re just looking, going, “Oh . . . oh, wait a second.” There’s this really famous photograph [from that night] where Dave is over this table, just playing to the people at the table. And one of those people happened to be my wife. I mean, suppose if he would have fallen, people would’ve caught him—there’s enough people underneath. But I just don’t know if I want Dave Grohl falling. Someone’s gonna get hurt. It’s gonna leave a mark, as they say.
The Chance the Rapper show [on July 31, 2016] was wild. I remember he came and grabbed several hundred tickets, then went to the south side and passed them out on a street corner. Michelle and Barack’s daughter came to the show. We had the drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs through the club all day. This is a first for me! Then [Malia Obama] shows up, and she’s with these secret service guys. For some reason, they all thought it’d be cool if they wore Hawaiian shirts—they’d just blend in with the crowd, right? Well, just the opposite. Everyone was like, oh, that’s the secret service—these six-foot-four muscle-bound guys with earpieces, standing around the president’s daughter.[When I took over the building], it was in such bad shape. I mean, there were some rooms—there’d be, like, a flood. All of a sudden there’d be water pouring out of a wall. So we’d break the wall open, and you’d see that someone had just taken duct tape around a pipe, and that’s the way they’d fixed things. And then they sealed it back up and crossed their fingers.
We actually had a joke about the water goddess—that there was a river underneath Metro that on certain days, it would rise, and it would fill the Smart Bar and you’d be dancing in, like, an inch or two of water. Hence, the beginning of why sawdust would go down on the floor.[Smart Bar] was on the fourth floor originally, the most untouched space in the building. That was the home of early Victory Gardens [Theater]. At one time, I believe the New Criminals were a theater group that was up there. And that was John Cusack and Jeremy Piven. They used to do Sam Shepard plays on the weekends. That was kind of part of our early Smart Bar—we’re morphing out of, you know, just the dance club. And Metro was just beginning.
I lived in the building for about a year. We had two cats that would keep the rats away. No one had taken care of it—it wasn’t being loved as it is now. And I slept with a gun underneath my pillow. I don’t even think they called it Wrigleyville yet. The one thing about the building was that there was always somebody in it. So I’d take the money to the bank with the security team, then go back and go to bed. We never left the building unattended. Because of the heat, the air conditioning, the plumbing, the electrical—you just didn’t want to leave it! Something could go wrong, and then you’d have a show that day. You’ve got Depeche Mode coming in or New Order coming in or R.E.M. coming in, in the early days. And we were really concerned to make sure that things were always being taken care of.
We began to love that building because it was loving us and liked what we were doing in there. The spirit itself was telling us, and we kept giving it love.